Lohr To Tackle Issue Of School Clubs

Delegate-Elect Takes Up Weatherholtz’s Idea

The Daily News Record
December 2, 2005
By Jeff Mellott

Delegate-elect Matt Lohr of Broadway is busy making the rounds.

Barely taking any time off after his hard-fought battle for the seat, Lohr has been meeting with groups and individuals as he plans his first legislative agenda.

While the deadline is not until Dec. 10, Lohr has developed the outlines of bills he will introduce, including one to give school boards the discretion to block clubs that they think promote sexual activity by unmarried minor students.

It is the same legislation that Del. Glenn Weatherholtz, R-Harrisonburg, introduced last year. The bill sailed through the House of Delegates but was killed in a Senate committee.

Lohr said the bill was a good idea then, and he will introduce it again. Lohr won the 26th House of Delegates seat that Weatherholtz was first elected to in 1995. Weatherholtz will retire in January, when Lohr will be sworn in as delegate representing the district.

“Our public schools are not the place [for] clubs based on sexual orientation, whether gay or straight,” Lohr said.

Weatherholtz had introduced the bill after a protest about the establishment of a Gay and Straight Alliance club at Harrisonburg High School. Supporters of the club have said it serves as a support group for students. School officials said they had no choice but to grant access to the club, because it met the division’s requirements.

Weatherholtz’s bill stirred opposition from around the state, including from Equality Virginia, a statewide, nonpartisan network for gays, lesbians, bisexuals, transgendered and their supporters.

While unavailable for comment on Monday, Virginia Equality’s Executive Director Dyana Mason said earlier this year that Weatherholtz’s bill would aid discrimination.

ESL Concerns

The proposed legislation to govern clubs based on sexual orientation is one of several bills that Lohr intends to introduce.

Two of them are related to education and two of them are related to the state’s growing number of immigrants who do not speak English.

Lohr said he would seek legislation that would create a pool of money for school systems that want to help students who speak English as a second language.

He noted the increase in the number of students in these programs around the state, including Harrisonburg. In the city, the percentage of students in the ESL program has been steadily increasing in recent years. In its count for the state on Sept. 30, the percentage of students in ESL programs was 36 percent.

Related to that, Lohr is interested in incentives for police and other law enforcement officers to learn a second language. The bilingual officers would increase communication between English speakers and non-speakers, he said.

Redefining Dropouts

Lohr recently toured Harrisonburg City Schools with Superintendent Donald Ford. Ford raised concerns about the amount of staff time needed to meet state reporting requirements and to fund mandates that do not include enough money to implement them and make them successful.

Ford said he expressed concerns about how the growing number of ESL students may affect the division’s ability to meet federal requirements under No Child Left Behind.

The annual requirements include an assessment of the division’s dropout rate. Currently, students who enroll in the ESL program late in their high school career have a slim chance of learning enough of the language and completing the high school requirements for graduation, Ford says.

If they do not graduate on time, the state considers them to be dropouts.

Ford urged Lohr to encourage the state to alter its definition of dropouts, which the federal government relies on to assess the division’s adequate yearly progress.

“Our dropout rate is likely to increase,” Ford said. “It seems a little unfair that is the approach taken.”

ESL students have not yet affected the dropout rate enough to harm the division’s standing under the federal law, Ford said. But Ford is cautious about the future. “Our enrollment in ESL continues to increase and the number of students in those programs are not at a point where I do anticipate it’s going to have some impact,” he said.

Wide Spectrum

Education issues are only a sampling of the issues that Lohr expects to face as the new legislator representing Harrisonburg and a portion of Rockingham County.

“It runs the gamut of groups and causes and passions that people have. That’s good. That’s democracy in action,” he said.

“My goal,” he continued, “is to take ideas that people bring to me, and the ideas that I have, and take them forward.”

Published in the Daily Record News

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