VIRGINIA

State Gets Grants for Charter Schools

The U.S. Department of Education has awarded Virginia $631,579 in grants to establish charter schools, which Gov. James S. Gilmore III (R) said "will bring new, innovative and creative educational opportunities for our children."

Last year, Virginia's request for $6.8 million in federal funding for charter schools was denied. This year, the state sought $1.3 million.

Virginia's charter school law was approved in 1998, but there are no such schools operating currently. State law requires local school boards to vote on whether to accept charter school proposals.

So far, only 13 of the state's 132 school divisions--none of them in Northern Virginia--have voted to accept charter school proposals.

Schools Avoid Use of Interstate 81

In the latest sign of concern about the safety of traveling on Interstate 81, the Roanoke County school district has rerouted nearly all school buses that previously used the highway, which has seen a series of fatal crashes as traffic has mounted in recent years.

Superintendent Deanna Gordon said she was hoping to avoid a "catastrophic accident involving a school bus" by instructing that buses follow alternative routes. No district bus has ever been involved in a crash on I-81, she said.

Fewer than a dozen buses had used the interstate, often for only short stretches. Under Gordon's order, two buses will continue to use the highway because alternative routes were considered too time-consuming because of traffic.

3 Arlington Schools Change Start Times

Three Arlington elementary schools must change their morning start times when school starts Sept. 7 because of a persistent school bus driver shortage, officials said yesterday.

Arlington Traditional School and Abingdon Elementary, scheduled to start at 8:10 a.m., will begin classes at 9:20 a.m. instead. Key Elementary School, scheduled to start at 8:50 a.m., also will open at 9:20 a.m.

Arlington officials said they are looking for drivers to fill 22 vacancies at a beginning wage of $10.72 an hour, climbing to $11.47 an hour after a successful probation period of no more than two months.

THE DISTRICT

Police Probe Fatal Firetruck Crash

D.C. police said yesterday that they are investigating whether District firefighters are responsible for an accident on Saturday that fatally injured a 22-year-old Richmond woman and injured five other people.

Latonya Williams died Tuesday at Washington Hospital Center, a hospital spokeswoman said.

The accident occurred about 9:10 a.m. Saturday when a firetruck heading south on Benning Road SE and using emergency flashers and siren collided with an eastbound car at H Street SE, said Sgt. Joe Gentile, a D.C. police spokesman.

Two other women and a 6-year-old girl plus two firefighters received hospital treatment. The firetruck was responding to a natural gas leak that was believed to be minor.

Battalion Chief Stephen M. Reid said there are contradictory accounts of whether the firetruck stopped for a red light at the intersection, as required. Reid said he also is investigating the incident.

The fire department has had 149 accidents this year, about the same as last year at this time, Reid said.

Officials Still Investigating Smelly Onions

Did a bag of onions contribute to the odors that sickened nine employees at a Senate cafeteria Aug. 16? Investigators are still looking into it, an official said yesterday.

Eight women were treated for nausea, and a ninth suffered head and neck injuries when she collapsed after workers in the north cafeteria of the Dirksen Senate Office Building complained about smells. Technicians from the D.C. fire department and the U.S. Capitol Police found no combustible gases, only a bag of onions with a strong odor.

"The preliminary opinion of our staff who are investigating is that it's unlikely to have been the onions alone, but that's not a definitive conclusion at the moment," said Herb Franklin, administrative assistant to the architect of the Capitol.

MARYLAND

Baltimore Considers Realigning Elections

The next mayor of Baltimore will be in office for five years rather than the traditional four if voters approve a proposed change to the City Charter.

A ballot question in November will ask voters to decide whether the city elections should be rescheduled to coincide with presidential elections. If approved, the amendment will save up to $4 million and shift the next mayoral election from 2003 to 2004, meaning a one-time five-year term for whoever is elected mayor.

The change would have consequences for the city's politics as well as its purse strings. "It means an extra year of either good government or bad government, depending on who is elected," said state Del. Howard P. Rawlings (D-Baltimore). "If the wrong person is elected, it just prolongs the agony."

Hot Summer, Cold Cash for Ocean City

This year's scorcher of a summer has been very good for business in Ocean City, the state's summer playground, where visitors are in a mood to spend money.

August numbers are not in, but 1.5 million visitors were estimated to be in town in July, compared with 1.2 million in July 1998, according to town officials.

Room tax receipts were $1.7 million for the first six months of 1999, up 6 percent from the previous year, according to town officials. Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. reported a 38 percent increase in reservations at the 1,250 condos and single-family rental properties between Memorial Day and Labor Day, compared with the corresponding time last year.

QUOTE OF THE DAY : "The heavy rain will run off, and a lot from [Tuesday's] storm just ran off into the bay. But tropical storms are one way to get what you need.... The downside is you could have major flooding, property damage and even the death of people." -- Melody Paschetag, a National Weather Service hydrologist, on the prospects for drought-ending rains. Page A2.