FRONT ROYAL – Warren County Public Schools Superintendent Greg Drescher and School Board member Donna McEathron, both of whom have ties to defendants in a $17 million lawsuit filed by the Front Royal-Warren County Economic Development Authority, did not attend a closed executive session held Wednesday prior to the board’s regularly scheduled meeting.

Board members Catherine Bower, Arnold Williams, Douglas Rosen and James Wells met with attorney John Cafferky, who works for the firm Blankingship & Keith, of Fairfax, during the meeting. Cafferky had no comment on what the closed meeting was about.

Blankingship & Keith is not the school system’s regular legal representative. The firm that usually represents the division, Sands Anderson, was not at the closed meeting.

The closed meeting came after a $17 million civil lawsuit filed by the EDA against its former executive director, the county sheriff and several other defendants. Sands Anderson is representing the EDA in that case.

A special grand jury has also been impaneled to investigate any misfeasance and malfeasance, including possible embezzlement or misappropriation of public funds, by the schools, town, county, Sheriff’s Office and the EDA.

The grand jury will also investigate any possible criminal activities by elected or appointed officials within each entity. Drescher is a former chairman of the EDA and board member. McEathron is the wife of Sheriff Daniel McEathron, who was named in the EDA lawsuit. Neither Drescher nor Donna McEatheron were named in the civil suit.

For the closed meeting, the School Board invoked Virginia Code, Section 2.2-3711 A8, which allows the board to consult with legal counsel employed or retained by a public body regarding specific legal matters requiring the provision of legal advice by such counsel. The closed meeting lasted 45 minutes.

Drescher was present when the closed session was called and left the room before the meeting began. Drescher and Donna McEathron did attend the regular school board meeting later that evening

During the School Board meeting following the closed session, Assistant Superintendent for Warren County Schools Melody Sheppard presented an update on attendance initiatives.

Chronic absenteeism is when a student misses 10 percent of the school year, or 18 or more days. Sheppard said that chronic absenteeism plays a part in the school accreditation process.

As a part of the school accreditation process, chronic absenteeism is divided into three levels. A rate of 15 percent of students and lower is considered acceptable and requiring no corrective action; 16 to 24 percent would require the Virginia Department of Education to implement a school improvement plan; 25 percent or higher would trigger a remedial action initiative from the Virginia Department of Education.

“Our school system has been working to reduce the number of students that are chronically absent, and we are making headway,” Sheppard said.

To combat the rising absentee numbers, the division has adopted several initiatives. The first, which was adopted during the 2017-2018 school year, was called Challenge 5. This program lets students and parents know that five absences each school year, starting in kindergarten, increases the chances of dropping out of school.

The second, which was adopted in the spring of 2017, was having teachers greet students. Sheppard said that this helps students feel welcome and sets the tone for the day.

The third, which was adopted during the 2018-2019 school year, was the attendance buddy/coach program. This program assigns a buddy for elementary school students or a coach for older students to mentor them and check in if they’re absent.

Sheppard said that of the nine schools in Warren County, only three schools – Skyline Middle School, Skyline High School and Warren County High School – were at the 16 to 24 percent rate of absenteeism during the 2018-2019 school year. Warren County schools have seen various decreases in chronic absenteeism since the 2017-2018 school year.

“Our schools are working really hard in improving their attendance,” she said.

– Contact Donald Lambert at dlambert@nvdaily.com