NEW YORK — Virginia will use $20 million from the Volkswagen emissions settlement to pay for a new initiative aimed at deploying electric school buses across the state.

Gov. Ralph Northam announced the funding plan during a Climate Week NYC event last week.

“School buses are the safest way to transport students to and from school, but as a pediatric doctor, I know the harmful effects of diesel-powered buses on our children’s health,” Northam said. “This initiative represents a significant investment in the electrification of our transportation system, in our efforts to address the climate crisis, and in an environment that allows Virginia children to learn, grow, and thrive.”

In a news release, the governor’s office said public school districts in the state can apply for funding distributed by the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality. The initiative, according to the news release, will prioritize electric school buses with a small reserve set aside for propane school buses.

Replacing 75 current diesel buses with all-electric buses is equivalent to removing 3,500 cars from the road or saving 1.6 million gallons of diesel, the governor’s office said. Currently, nearly all of the state’s bus fleet runs on diesel. Roughly 3,500 buses are more than 10 years old, and more than 500 use engines built before the first Environmental Protection Agency diesel standards.

Secretary of Education Atif Qarni said each electric school bus can save school systems roughly $2,000 a year in fuel and $4,400 a year in maintenance costs.

Under the plan announced by Northam, school districts can be reimbursed up to $265,000 for the purchase of an all-electric bus.

“Transportation pollution is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in Virginia,” said Secretary of Natural Resources Matthew J. Strickler. “Additionally, diesel exhaust poses significant health risks associated with both pulmonary and cardiovascular issues. Transitioning bus fleets from diesel to electric is a critically important step toward cleaner air, reducing carbon pollution, and helping Virginia meet our environmental goals.”

Virginia received $93.6 million from the Volkswagen settlement after the German car company admitted to cheating emissions tests in the U.S.

Northam last year announced that about $14 million of the settlement would go toward developing the state’s electric vehicle charging network and $14 million for the deployment of electric transit buses.

Report says K-12 spending in Va. still behind Great Recession levels

RICHMOND — A new report says state spending on K-12 education in Virginia is still behind what it was before the Great Recession.

The Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, a research organization based in Richmond that focuses on economics and policy, last week released its annual look at state funding per student. The report found that the state spends 8% less per student than it did in 2008-09 after adjusting for inflation. The 8% figure is a slight improvement from last year’s report, when the organization found state spending was down 9%.

School systems have become increasingly reliant on local governments for funding, the report said. The local share of education spending was 48.6% in 2008-09 and 51.5% in 2017-18, the report said. Enrollment, meanwhile, has increased by 55,470 students, according to The Commonwealth Institute.

“These numbers show once again that, despite 10 consecutive years of economic growth, state funding continues to significantly lag where we were a decade ago,” says Chris Duncombe, policy director at The Commonwealth Institute. “Some of the school divisions that have seen their state funding drop the most also have high child poverty rates, such as communities like Mecklenburg, Richmond and Hampton, where funding can make the biggest impact for improving student outcomes.”

Here’s a look at the school systems in the Richmond area:

  • Chesterfield County: state per student funding down 8% from $6,366 to $5,849.
  • Hanover County: down 10% from $5,853 to $5,243.
  • Henrico County: down 7% from $6,085 to $5,684.
  • Richmond: down 16% from $7,891 to $6,596.

Education leaders celebrate ‘Virginia is for Learners Day’

RICHMOND — Capitol Square got a dose of education last week.

State education leaders celebrated “Virginia is for Learners Day” on Wednesday during an event at the state Capitol. Gov. Ralph Northam officially proclaimed the day to trumpet an initiative that highlights the state’s education system and the recent changes to it.

“This proclamation declares our commitment to students, parents, communities and employers that all Virginians will have access to the academic experiences that cultivate the knowledge and skills necessary for success in life beyond high school,” Northam said.

Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane helped conduct the Varina High School Band. The former band teacher joined the Henrico County school’s band for a song on his trumpet.

“Virginia is for Learners Day celebrates the work that is happening in our schools to ensure that we are providing learning environments that align with the needs of our students,” said Secretary of Education Atif Qarni. “By proclaiming this day, we commit to keeping the progress going as we strive to connect every student with the real-world experiences that will allow them to excel in the 21st-century workforce.”

The Virginia is for Learners initiative launched in April.

“We are excited to officially recognize September 25 as Virginia is for Learners Day,” Lane said. “When we launched this initiative, the goal was to share the hope and optimism that we have for the future of our students by changing the future of learning in our schools. On this day, we are demonstrating our dedication to leading the way on advancing equitable academic outcomes for all students by modernizing and reforming our public education system to ensure that they are globally competitive.”

Va. Early Childhood Foundation elects two new board members

RICHMOND — The Virginia Early Childhood Foundation has two new board members, including a former state education secretary.

The foundation, a statewide public-private entity that supports early childhood development across the state, elected the new board members at its fall board meeting on Sept. 18.

Dietra Trent, who became the chief of staff at George Mason University last month, was secretary of education under former Gov. Terry McAuliffe. Todd Norris is the senior vice president of community health and system advancement with Ballad Health.

“We welcome Todd and Dietra to our talented team of statewide business and community leaders, all of whom are deeply committed to ensuring a strong start for every child in the Commonwealth. Their many years of experience in the health care and education sectors will provide unique insights to our work as we strive to shape and inform a vision for early childhood development and school readiness in Virginia,” said Ned W. Massee, board chairman of the Virginia Early Childhood Foundation.

Challenge urges high schools to register students to vote

RICHMOND — A statewide challenge aims to have high school students register to vote.

Gov. Ralph Northam last week announced the 2019-20 Governor’s High School Voter Registration Challenge through which high schools across the state will compete to register the highest percentage of their voting-age population. If a school reaches or exceeds 65% registration, it will get a congratulatory certificate from the governor.

“The strength of our democracy depends upon the participation of our diverse population, and encouraging young people to register and vote is a necessary part of ensuring that all voices are heard at the ballot box,” Northam said in a statement.

The challenge kicked off on National Voter Registration Day, Sept. 24, and will conclude the last week of April.

VCU professors get over $2.6M to study opioid use treatments

RICHMOND — Virginia Commonwealth University researchers last week were awarded more than $2.6 million to study opioid use disorder treatments.

The funding is through the National Institutes of Health Helping to End Addiction Long-term Initiative, or NIH HEAL Initiative, to improve treatment for opioid addiction.

Qingguo Xu, assistant professor of pharmaceutics in the School of Pharmacy, will lead a study on reformulating an existing opioid treatment medication as an alternative to methadone. That preclinical trial received $1.6 million.

Yan Zhang, a medicinal chemistry professor in the pharmacy school, will direct a study aimed at identifying a new opioid use disorder treatment with fewer side effects than existing treatments.

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— From staff reports

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