Each November, hundreds of county elected officials gather in Bath County for the Virginia Association of Counties’ (VACO) annual conference. The two-day meeting gives county Supervisors an opportunity to hear from each other about common issues of concern, as well as meet with state officials in preparation for the upcoming General Assembly session. Breakout sessions included such diverse subjects as the “Cool Counties” initiative spearheaded by Fairfax County, communicating with your General Assembly member (a standing-room only session that I was privileged to moderate), stormwater and dam safety regulations, and broadbanding in rural areas. Another popular session featured Delegates Brian Moran (D-46) and Terry Kilgore (R-1) discussing the outcome of last week’s elections and each political party’s future in Richmond.
This year’s conference also was graced by the presence of Virginia Governor Tim Kaine and his wife, First Lady Anne Holton. Although gubernatorial candidates and governors-elect have come to the VACO conference on occasion in the past, it is rare for a sitting Governor to attend, so Governor Kaine’s presence gave special import to the role of local elected officials. At Monday’s general session, the Governor reflected on the importance of the Jamestown celebration this year, and on the visit of Queen Elizabeth to the historic site in May. In 1957, he said, when the Queen came to observe the 350th anniversary of Jamestown, Virginia was a very different place. The number of school-age children who actually attended school was the lowest in the nation, education was not a priority, women and minorities were not admitted to many Virginia colleges, and the state’s economy was backward too.
In 2007, K-12 education in Virginia ranks as one of the best in the nation, SAT scores are strong, and the state ranks in the top 5 percent for Advanced Placement courses in high school. Per capita spending on education ranks ninth in the nation, not 36th as it was in 1957, and Virginia’s higher education system is rated higher than the national average. In fact, Virginia is the only southern state in those rankings. Our challenges, Governor Kaine pointed out, are that high per capita income and high educational achievements in some parts of the state can mask areas that are not doing so well. He reminded the audience that he is an optimist, and by state and local officials working together, those challenges can be met and overcome.
Looking ahead, Governor Kaine identified two important Virginia assets for the next 25 years: brain power and global connections. The strong and improving system of public education means that students want to come to Virginia, can do well in Virginia, and we need to ensure that the job opportunities are available to make them stay in Virginia. Virginia also boasts a modern airport — Dulles — with hundreds of international flights to all parts of the globe, and the second largest port — Hampton Roads — on the East Coast after New York. Unlike New York’s port facilities, which are built on bedrock and cannot be expanded, Governor Kaine said, the Hampton Roads port is built on sand and can be dredged to provide more facilities for shipping. This generation may well be Virginia’s Golden Age, the Governor pointed out, where ideas are converted to real life opportunities. We weren’t there 50, or 20, or even 15 years ago, he said, but we must take the opportunity now to move Virginia forward. The assembled attendees agreed by giving the Governor a standing ovation.