Summit on Rural Prosperity speakers tout charter schools, regional partnerships

Published 10:21 am Friday, October 28, 2022

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Virginia Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears touted parental choice and charter schools as this year’s keynote speaker at the Governor’s Summit on Rural Prosperity, held in Smithfield on Oct. 12-13.

“From all that I’ve been hearing, our parents want to be able to choose the schools that their children will attend; it’s the new education fight,” Earle-Sears told a crowd gathered in The Smithfield Center from all across Virginia – some from as far west as Wise County on the Kentucky border.

The Virginia Rural Center, a joint venture of the General Assembly’s nonprofit Center for Rural Virginia and 18-member Rural Prosperity Commission, holds the summit annually. This is the first year Smithfield has hosted the event.

“My dad came to America with $1.75 in his pocket, put himself through school … and began his American dream,” Earle-Sears said. “He came at the height of the Civil Rights Movement. He came looking for opportunity and prosperity, and that’s what we’re talking about today.”

Gov. Glenn Youngkin himself did not attend the Smithfield event, but told a crowd in neighboring Southampton County in June that though agriculture remains Virginia’s No. 1 industry, the state is seeing fewer and fewer young Virginians go into the field.

Youngkin’s preferred solution – the creation of K-12 “lab schools” that would offer workforce-tailored curriculum in a variety of industries, including agriculture – is earmarked to receive $100 million in Virginia’s budget, though a bill to create such schools ended up stalling in this year’s General Assembly session.

“When you introduce competition in anything, it generally gets better,” Earle-Sears told the crowd at The Smithfield Center, noting there are only seven charter schools in Virginia compared to over 100 in Washington, D.C., and over 200 in North Carolina.

According to reporting by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Earle-Sears broke a tie Senate vote in June to approve Youngkin’s request to amend Virginia’s budget to triple the number of colleges and universities that can partner with local school systems. But Senate Democrats blocked Youngkin’s proposal to let state public education funds follow students who transfer from a local public school to a new lab school, arguing the move would defund public schools.

Later in the Smithfield summit, Del. Emily Brewer, R-Isle of Wight, moderated a panel on how agriculture and natural resources overlap with local economies. Panelists included Smithfield-Isle of Wight Tourism Director Judy Winslow, Smithfield Foods Chief Sustainability Officer Stewart Leeth, Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Matthew Lohr and acting Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources Travis Voyles.

“Agritourism is a huge piece of what we do here in Isle of Wight County,” Winslow said, noting that “80% of Isle of Wight County has been able to remain rural.”

Leeth used the opportunity to tout a natural gas project slated for Surry County.

Align RNG, a joint venture of Smithfield Foods and Dominion Energy, received approval in June from Surry County supervisors to construct a regional processing facility that would turn methane from hog manure into pipeline-quality natural gas. The Surry facility is intended to collect gas from 20 participating Smithfield Foods farms in Isle of Wight, Surry, Sussex and Southampton counties.

“For years, we’ve been looking at how to use manure … the world’s oldest fertilizer, in a way that’s more efficient,” Leeth said, noting the “biogas,” once processed, can be sold for roughly 12 times the price of natural gas generated via fossil fuels.

“As secretary of agriculture and forestry … we have the honor to really champion our No. 1 and No. 3 industries in the commonwealth: agriculture and forestry,” Lohr said.

“Really, it’s the localities and the businesses … that know the natural resources best,” Voyles added. “You know how to manage it because it’s your livelihood.”

Winslow urged other rural communities to “play the hands you’re dealt,” highlighting Isle of Wight’s partnership with Surry, Sussex and Southampton counties, and the city of Suffolk, to create the “Salty Southern Route” tourism initiative, which highlights the region’s salt-cured hams and peanuts.

“If you don’t think you’ve got an attraction, you do,” Winslow said.