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by Peter Rousselot — April 23, 2015 at 12:15 pm 1,263 0

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Peter RousselotThe School Board recently voted 3 to 2 to push forward with its controversial 1:1 initiative — the plan to give every student their own laptop or tablet for educational purposes.

What should the Board do now to address the many justified criticisms leveled at its 1:1 initiative?

DISCUSSION

The School Board should direct Superintendent Patrick Murphy to hold a series of public meetings, beginning in mid-May, among concerned parents, teachers, APS administrators, and the general public, to discuss collaboratively the most critical issues that have been raised.

APS needs uniform developmentally appropriate guidelines in areas such as:

Teacher training/professional development

One of the most serious criticisms of the 1:1 initiative is its complete lack of vision or goals to train teachers on how best to integrate the devices into curricular offerings. To address this deficiency, the public meetings should discuss in detail APS’ plans to:

  • set clear and measurable goals;
  • give devices to schools in the summer, not in the fall;
  • have quality apps that are equitably available on devices at all schools and aligned with curricular goals;
  • use a curriculum that contains expectations for the devices to be used to attain a goal, with assessments that follow this pattern: using the iPad/Macbook and “X” software, students will …;
  • require professional development that would help teachers use “X” software to achieve that desired outcome;
  • sustain professional development so that teachers could go back to review and re-learn (could be online);
  • evaluate appropriately teacher and student usage.

Individual total daily screen time on all devices/safety

Particularly at the elementary level, parents are very concerned about the total number of hours per day (at school, at home and on transportation) that their children will be in front of a screen. This issue needs a collaborative solution. System-wide rules are needed for something as simple as “don’t use the camera to harass or embarrass your fellow students.” Filters should be placed on iPads to block inappropriate content.

Transparency in budgeting

Teachers are NOT issued MacBook Airs or iPads. This seriously interferes with their ability to develop detailed, evidence based curricular plans, but there is no provision in the APS budget to provide these devices to teachers. Nor is there any meaningful, long-term annualized budget estimate of total hardware and software costs. Accurate total costs are essential to enable the community to weigh the costs of the 1:1 initiative against the benefits.

CONCLUSION

APS badly flunked the transparency test in the roll-out of this initiative. Technology and devices are critical. APS must prepare our children to use them. But, the current 1:1 initiative isn’t the only way.

APS should candidly acknowledge that this initiative has flunked and needs to be re-booted.

Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

by Peter Rousselot — April 16, 2015 at 2:30 pm 945 0

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Peter Rousselot

What are the major lessons we should take away from:

Arlington County needs a new arts policy

Arlington’s current arts policy was adopted on December 8, 1990.  In a column I wrote two years ago about Signature’s $250,000 first bailout, I called on Arlington to update its arts policy. Last December, at the time of Signature’s $5 million second bailout, the Manager promised that Arlington would update its arts policy. It hasn’t happened. Why must we lurch from bailout crisis to bailout crisis without a new policy?

The new arts policy should reflect current fiscal realities

Arlington’s current arts policy was adopted a quarter century ago. It may have served us well for a long time. Parts of the policy may be just as valid today as when those parts were adopted. But, it is now long past time for a new policy because Arlington is facing new issues such as the capacity crisis in our public schools.

Current fiscal realities dictate that core services should receive priority

I strongly favor continued public support for the arts with our tax dollars. But, the arts are not a core government service in the same way as schools, roads, sewers, and public safety. Because the arts are not core government services like those, the County Board should fund a higher percentage share of the “wish lists” for schools, roads, sewers, and public safety than the share the Board funds for the arts.

Funding the arts based upon “economic development” should be reconsidered

It’s a very slippery slope to justify the costs of funding an arts project based on the project’s alleged contribution to economic development. The county has entered into some of its most ill-advised deals, like those with the Artisphere and Signature, by trying to justify those deals as important to the economic development of Rosslyn and Shirlington, respectively.

It would be better and more forthright to provide public taxpayer funding based strictly on artistic merit, relying on the recommendations of a qualified citizens’ advisory group. Even when artistic merit is the sole criterion, Arlington should only enter into agreements that cap Arlington’s financial exposure.

Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

by Peter Rousselot — April 9, 2015 at 11:45 am 565 0

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Peter RousselotIn a recent Progressive Voice column, the author observed:

“If we want to move forward with new school construction, family-friendly parks, a properly staffed police department, and a safety net for those less fortunate, we must continue to encourage the presence of a strong and civic-minded business community.”

I agree. Recognizing the substantial regional economic headwinds that are beyond the control of county government, there are some concrete steps that our government can take to encourage the presence of a strong and civic-minded business community.

Arlington Economic Development

This past December, the county hired Victor Hoskins as the new Director of Arlington Economic Development (AED). He has an impressive résumé. He could bring a much-needed fresh perspective to enable Arlington to attract and retain businesses.

However, Mr. Hoskins has joined a county staff whose past practices and budget priorities raise a whole host of questions, including:

  • Does Arlington do any sort of exit interviews when it learns of businesses leaving Arlington? If so, what are the most common comments and lessons learned?
  • Starbucks is planning to open soon on Columbia Pike at Penrose Square. Chipotle also is close to signing a lease for a Pike location. What is AED planning to do to capitalize on these developments? What specific Columbia Pike business development initiatives does AED plan in FY 2016?
  • A recent Washington Post story highlighted Monday Properties’ empty Rosslyn office building at 1812 N. Moore Street. The story quoted a company spokesman as saying “he has not considered lowering the rents he’s asking.”  “Pricing has not been an issue,” he claimed. Say what? How can we ask county taxpayers to contribute millions more in public funding for AED’s economic development efforts when private developers are unwilling to respond to market forces by reducing their rents?

County Staff’s Business Unfriendly Retail Plan

Earlier this year, only the vigilance of a small number of citizen activists, combined with the strong opposition of the Arlington Civic Federation, prevented the adoption of a County-staff-proposed “Arlington County Retail Plan.”

The staff plan contained overly-prescriptive, business unfriendly provisions, including:

  • Allowing only a limited number of options for street-level retail (such as preferring restaurants while banning personal services) from prime locations;
  • Using detailed maps specifying a small set of retail uses supposedly appropriate for each indicated spot on the map, while offering no discernable demographic or economic analysis to support the designations.

Conclusion

The County Board must help AED director Hoskins by adopting new policies that

  • root out existing County staff practices and procedures that discourage business, and
  • encourage private developers and other businesses to participate fairly in addressing the challenges facing Arlington

Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

by Peter Rousselot — April 2, 2015 at 12:15 pm 356 0

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Peter RousselotLast week, Gov. Terry McAuliffe took on Richmond’s political culture in two major areas: ethics reform and partisan redistricting. Regardless of the final outcome, the bills passed on these subjects by the legislature reflect the wrong priorities. McAuliffe’s responses are right.

Ethics Reform

As I explained last month, the ethics reform bill passed by the Virginia legislature was chock full of loopholes, many inserted at the eleventh hour. Governor McAuliffe now has put the legislature on notice that he is going to exercise his constitutional authority to amend the bill.

The most important amendment will provide a cumulative annual cap of $100 on gifts to state and local employees and legislators (includes Richmond and Arlington). As McAuliffe explains:

I believe an aggregate limit of $100 annually is necessary for meaningful reform.

The General Assembly’s ethics bill proposes a $100 cap per gift, which means a legislator may accept free meals from the same lobbyist every day of the year.

Other McAuliffe amendments will:

  • prohibit any gift to legislators from individuals seeking a contract with state government;
  • narrow the “widely attended events” exemption; and
  • require that official travel paid for by third parties by reported even if those trips are exempted from the gift cap.

All of these amendments strengthen the bill.

Partisan Redistricting

In a more directly confrontational move, Governor McAuliffe vetoed six bills authorizing partisan redistricting. Each vetoed bill follows a time-honored Richmond tradition of making what are labeled “technical” changes to the boundaries between legislative districts. These technical changes usually involve swapping one or more predominantly Republican precincts in legislative district “A” for one or more predominantly Democratic precincts in legislative district “B.”

For example, among the bills McAuliffe vetoed is

One proposed by Sen. Bryce Reeves (R) that would have made his Spotsylvania district more Republican — and safer for him — as he faces a Democratic challenger this year. The measure would have traded precincts with a neighboring district represented by Sen. Creigh Deeds (D), giving Deeds a heavily Democratic precinct and taking for himself a Republican one.

In vetoing the bills, Governor McAuliffe stated that each bill violated the Virginia constitutional requirement that legislative lines be re-drawn once every ten years to take into account new census results. Regardless of the merits of that constitutional argument, McAuliffe was right to veto the bills.

It’s a good way to highlight the negative effects of partisan redistricting in which incumbent legislators choose their voters rather than the other way around. Richmond incumbents from both political parties have a long-standing culture of which partisan redistricting forms an important part.

Conclusion

Governor McAuliffe deserves praise for challenging Richmond’s undemocratic political practices.

Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

by Peter Rousselot — March 26, 2015 at 2:15 pm 1,133 0

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Peter RousselotIn a recent column about the Arlington County Board’s TJ Elementary decision, I focused on three of the critical lessons learned for Arlington Public Schools:

  1. APS can’t choose the best option unless it knows what all the options are
  2. APS must be completely transparent in discussing all options
  3. Developers must be part of the solution

How do these lessons and other factors specifically impact the capacity crisis at Oakridge Elementary?

Oakridge parents have launched an online petition seeking capacity crisis relief from the School Board by September 2016. The parents’ petition points out that:

By the start of the 2015 school year, Oakridge Elementary School is projected to be the county’s largest elementary school with almost 800 students. It is projected to be at 117 percent capacity with seven incoming kindergarten classes. The anticipated rate of growth for Oakridge far exceeds every other elementary school in the county.

Because the capacity crisis at Oakridge is so severe, and because the County Board’s TJ decision has set back the general timeline for capacity crisis relief, the county should not wait until after the conclusion of the Community Facilities Study (CFS) before taking any action regarding Oakridge. Among the specific actions that the County Board ought to take before the conclusion of the CFS are these:

  • In consultation with the School Board, commit to granting some APS students access to appropriate county facilities on an interim basis until a final plan can be implemented for overcrowding at Oakridge. Based on a March 12 letter from Mary Hynes to James Lander, some movement in this direction might give Oakridge some relief by September 2015.
  • Insist that developers of projects that will generate new enrollment at Oakridge provide their fair share of financial support to alleviate overcrowding at Oakridge. Vornado has a long history of developing projects within the current boundaries of Oakridge Elementary. In a very real sense, Oakridge is Vornado’s neighborhood school. Vornado does and should have a vested interest in Oakridge’s success. (As I wrote in my earlier TJ decision column, if the county attorney believes Arlington currently lacks authority under state law to require Vornado to provide such financial assistance, the County Board now should direct the Attorney to publish his legal reasoning in detail.)
  • Commit in principle to increase APS’ share of the county-wide debt ceiling limit (the 10 percent rule) to speed up APS’ ability to build new schools, additions, or any renovations that are so substantial that they are appropriate for debt financing.

Conclusion

Both Boards must work together on this issue to ensure Oakridge remains a successful neighborhood school.

Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

by Peter Rousselot — March 19, 2015 at 1:00 pm 941 0

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Peter RousselotArlington needs a fresh start. It now has a great opportunity to make one.

Arlington’s current County Manager, Barbara Donnellan, is resigning effective June 30. Thereafter, current Deputy County Manager Mark Schwartz will serve as the interim county manager until the Arlington County Board chooses a permanent manager.

BACKGROUND

Arlington is the only locality in Virginia authorized to have a “County Manager Plan” form of government. No change in Arlington’s current form of government is feasible within the time horizon in which Arlington must select Donnellan’s permanent successor.

The duties of the Manager are “administrative and executive” in nature. The County Board, NOT the County Manager, sets public policy direction.

MAKING OUR CHOICE

Candidates for Arlington’s new manager will possess a wide variety of administrative and executive skills, personal qualities, and other attributes. The key principles that should guide our final choice are discussed below.

Use a transparent process to solicit Arlington citizen input

To help us make a fresh start, the County Board should establish a transparent process to solicit broad-based citizen input regarding the key skills, qualities and attributes that Arlington’s next manager ought to have.

The Board may think it’s good at doing this. Recent history, including last year’s “Public Land for Public Good” fiasco, proves the contrary. To solicit citizen input, the Board should look to the best practices of other localities. For example, the Board ought to consult the menu of Communication and Citizen Participation Techniques offered by the state of Washington.

Appoint an independent auditor reporting directly to the County Board

The Board should start planning now to appoint an independent auditor reporting directly to the County Board. Arlington citizens should be invited to suggest priority areas of inquiry for the new independent auditor. If properly managed, the results of the initial independent audits can help the Board in its choice of a new manager by highlighting areas most in need of improvement.

Conduct a nationwide search

The Board has announced that it plans to conduct a nationwide search for Donnellan’s permanent replacement. That is the right way to proceed. The new manager should not be a current Arlington County employee. This is another way to ensure a fresh look at the challenges facing Arlington.

If the best candidate to succeed Donnellan lives outside the D.C. metro area, that candidate should be required to move to Arlington as a condition of the job. If the best candidate lives within the D.C. metro area, that candidate should be strongly encouraged, but not required, to move to Arlington.

Defer final vote on new Manager until 2016

There are lots of things that should be done starting now to choose a permanent replacement for Donnellan. However, the final County Board vote to approve that choice should be deferred until after the two new Board members take office on January 1, 2016. This is another way to ensure the fresh start we need.

Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

by Peter Rousselot — March 12, 2015 at 12:00 pm 898 0

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Peter RousselotAs ARLnow.com reported last week, a group of parents has petitioned Arlington Public Schools to inaugurate a new French immersion elementary school. Their motives are good, but their timing is not.

It’s been 15 years since I chaired what is now known as the World Languages Advisory Committee to APS. As chair, I was one of many civic activists who pressed APS to introduce Foreign Language in Elementary School (FLES) programs.

At that time, APS had no FLES programs and was actively resisting their introduction. Through the persistent efforts of that committee, combined with effective advocacy by hundreds of parents, APS finally began to roll out FLES.

Introduction of FLES was slowed during the Great Recession. Largely due to the outstanding energy and efforts of a new parent advocacy group, FLES for All, the introduction of FLES has resumed. But, some elementary schools still lack it:

Only 17 out of 22 Arlington elementary schools have foreign language education — leaving over 2,000 students without foreign language instruction until 7th grade.  ATS, Arlington Science Focus, Taylor and Long Branch are remaining to receive FLES and a full week of instruction. (Hoffman-Boston has [a] full week of instruction but no FLES, Abingdon has early language instruction but not K-5 FLES)

APS superintendent Patrick Murphy has stated that unless APS receives sufficient additional FY 2016 funding from the county, APS will not be able to complete the FLES rollout because APS will have to defer the elimination of early release Wednesday (ERW) at the elementary schools that still lack FLES.

APS consistently has taken the position that there “isn’t room in the school day” for FLES programs at ERW elementary schools. Most Arlington citizens without children are surprised and angry to learn that school ends at 1:21 p.m. every Wednesday at those elementary schools that still retain ERW.

Given the tight budget constraints facing APS and the County, APS should assign priority to the completion of the rollout of FLES at the elementary schools that still lack FLES. This rollout should be completed before APS begins to offer more immersion programs. After the FLES rollout is complete, APS should design a transparent process to consider additional immersion programs. (There currently are two Spanish immersion elementary programs offered at Claremont and Key.)

As we move forward, APS needs to treat World Languages as a core subject, and incorporate more language opportunities throughout the week to ensure maximum benefits. APS should try to increase the number of different languages it currently offers.

It’s taken 15 years to introduce FLES in 17 Arlington elementary schools. The rollout of FLES is almost complete. Let’s finish the job.

Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

by Peter Rousselot — March 5, 2015 at 1:00 pm 0

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Peter RousselotLast month, I wrote a column explaining why Virginia needs effective ethics reform. The Virginia legislature has adjourned without enacting it.

Why is this so hard for them? It’s because too many Republican and Democratic legislators continue to thumb their noses at the need for reform.

Here’s a small sampling of the attitudes they bring to the task:

Contrary to Senator Saslaw, ordinary citizens do believe you can legislate ethics. Saslaw’s variation on the discredited refrain, “you can’t legislate morality”, misses the point. Here’s Princeton University’s Micah Watson in a piece titled “Why we can’t not legislate morality.”

One can no more avoid legislating morality than one can speak without syntax. One cannot sever morality from the law. Even partisans of the most spartan libertarian conception of the state would themselves employ state power to enforce their vision of the common good…The real question is not whether the political community will legislate morality; the question is which vision of morality will be enforced…

Many other states have passed much tougher ethics laws than Virginia. That further undermines what our legislators have just done.

The 49-page ethics bill that the legislature passed at the eleventh hour of the session includes a whole host of loopholes, including:

  • The current ethics law sets a cumulative annual aggregate $250 cap on gifts by a lobbyist to any single legislator. But, unbelievably, the new ethics bill’s $100 cap is not cumulative. That means that a lobbyist can give an unlimited number of $99 contributions to a single legislator during the year, so long as each gift is given at a different point in time. Example: $99 per day for each of 365 days per year = $36,135 of legal gifts to any Virginia legislator (Call it the “buy your own Rolex” provision).
  • A lobbyist can pay the full cost to fly a legislator from any location in Virginia to Richmond — so long as the purpose of the trip is official business. The cost of the trip is not counted against the $100 cap.
  • The bill fails to establish an Ethics Commission with the power to issue subpoenas, assess fines for violations, and make referrals to the Attorney General or other prosecutors.

Conclusion

Those politicians who say they are proud of this latest ethics bill are deluding themselves and the public.

Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

by Peter Rousselot — February 26, 2015 at 3:00 pm 637 0

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Peter RousselotThe county manager and the Arlington Public Schools superintendent have released their proposed budgets. The County Board also advertised a proposed tax rate for calendar year 2015 that could be as much as 1.5 cents higher than the current rate.

Some of the major issues impacting the ability of citizens to participate effectively in public discussions about these budgets are the county’s funding level of APS and the real estate tax rate.

County Funding of APS

Under the “revenue sharing principles” adopted by both Boards in January:

The amount of the transfer to APS will initially be based upon the same percent of local tax revenue transferred to APS in the County’s last adopted budget. As budget deliberations continue, additional ongoing funding for critical needs identified by APS, including enrollment growth, will be a top funding priority.

Superintendent Patrick Murphy’s proposed budget identifies what the superintendent says are critical needs, which would cost $13.6 million more than the amount of shared revenue to which the county manager’s proposed budget commits. In addition, the superintendent’s budget identifies a set of specific APS budget cuts that are the ones the superintendent recommends if the County fails to provide APS with any additional revenue.

Citizens should participate in a constructive debate about whether the particular set of proposed cuts the Superintendent recommends are the best way in which to make up the identified $13.6 million shortfall. But, the Superintendent should be commended for proposing:

  • a specific set of cuts with dollars attached, and
  • a budget that reverses the growth trend in per-pupil expenditures

As I have written previously, the “percent of local tax revenue transferred to APS in the County’s last adopted budget” was too low. For that reason, combined with APS’s projected explosive enrollment growth, the county should provide the entire additional $13.6 million to APS.

The County Manager’s proposed budget fails to identify, specifically, the dollar savings that could be achieved by cutting particular programs or services.

The County Board should direct the county manager to identify for the Board’s and the public’s consideration at least one — and preferably more than one — set of cuts in county programs and services that could be made in order to make up the $13.6 million APS shortfall.

Real Estate Tax Rate

Property tax bills will rise in CY 2015 even if the County Board adopts the same property tax rate as last year’s.

The County Board should direct the County Manager to identify for the Board’s and the public’s consideration at least one — and preferably more than one — set of cuts in County programs and services that could be made if the Board votes to cut the real estate tax rate by 1.5 cents.

Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

by Peter Rousselot — February 19, 2015 at 2:00 pm 908 0

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Peter Rousselot

A new report concludes that Arlington County charges excessive fees to Arlington residents participating in certain sports classes and teams.

In direct contravention of long-standing Arlington County policies, the participation fees substantially exceed 100 percent of the direct participation costs. Currently, the excess revenues are being funneled back into the County’s general fund operating budget.

A firestorm engulfed the Arlington County government last year — when the County Board initially adopted and then rescinded a 50 percent fee increase for nonresident participants on gymnastics and aquatics/swimming teams. That led to the new disclosure that resident participants are being overcharged for certain sports classes and teams.

A work group, comprising citizens, commission members and county staff, prepared the latest report. The new report reflects careful study, and contains thoughtful reform recommendations.

The work group also appears to be listening to citizens’ concerns:

As part of its process, the work group collected public feedback on a set of draft recommendations through an Open Arlington survey. The work group will continue its research to develop a recommendation regarding alternatives to the County operating the team program… This research will include opportunities for public input …

There are only two logical explanations for these county policy violations: The current, excessive fees were set

  • inadvertently, because the County lacks sufficient auditing and financial controls to detect errors like these, or
  • deliberately, as a backdoor way to generate additional revenue that would offset budget shortfalls in other programs or areas.

Neither explanation paints county government in a sympathetic light.

Assuming that these fee overcharges are inadvertent, a recent letter to the Sun-Gazette‘s editor makes the following observation:

All of this could have been prevented had an inspector general or internal auditor been present to conduct regular reviews of the finances of the Department of Parks and Recreation. The County Board owes it to residents to ensure that they are being charged fees in line with the policies it has established …

The growing demand for these youth sports programs illustrates that our public schools are not the only public facilities strained by Arlington’s rapid population growth. We have a youth sports capacity problem, too.

We must plan to accommodate more gymnasts and swimmers (among others). This provides yet another reason to deep-six the extravagant $80-plus million Aquatics Center, and redirect those funds to youth and other sports programs countywide.

CONCLUSION

Arlington County must take greater care not to violate its own policies by inflating user fees above what is needed to cover the costs in the program for which the fees are being charged.

Government exists to serve the people, not the other way around.

Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

by Peter Rousselot — February 12, 2015 at 12:15 pm 312 0

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Peter RousselotLast September, Gov. Terry McAuliffe relaunched an effort to enact effective ethics reform. He appointed a bipartisan commission charged with making recommendations.

As we enter the last weeks of the 2015 legislative session, some progress has been made. But, one key reform — the establishment of a truly independent ethics commission with teeth — appears to be dead. That’s a shame.

Virginia’s very weak ethics laws have led to a culture of corruption in Richmond — including the recent McDonnell and Puckett scandals. The corruption has tainted both Republicans and Democrats.

Some improvements — now in the legislative pipeline — would cap gifts to legislators and their immediate family members at $100 (rather than the current $250). These pending bills also would close the notorious loophole allowing unlimited “intangible gifts” like vacations and event tickets.

But, one of the critical recommendations that came from McAuliffe’s bipartisan commission was the recommendation to create a new, independent Ethics Review Commission with teeth, including subpoena and enforcement power. Setting up a permanent ethics commission with power to interpret and enforce ethics and anti-corruption laws is critical.

Virginia needs such a new commission with the:

  • resources to conduct investigations,
  • power to assess fines for violations, and
  • authority to make referrals to the attorney general or other prosecutors.

Regrettably, significant disagreement about the need for this type of strong ethics commission has led to the omission of such a provision from legislation adopted by both the Virginia Senate and the House of Delegates. They appear to have been swayed by statements like this one from Del. C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah):

“I think that’s a terrible idea, and I don’t think that either party wants to set up a framework where people can start and stop political vendettas through that process.”

In light of the persistent ethical problems in Richmond, the truly terrible idea is to omit this provision from the legislation.

A large majority of other states, including Massachusetts, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania have permanent ethics commissions. In Massachusetts, for example, the Ethics Commission can impose the following penalties:

  • a civil penalty of up to $10,000 for each violation of the conflict of interest law or the financial disclosure law, and
  • a maximum civil penalty of $25,000 for bribery.

By carefully studying the different ethics commission models established in these and other states, Virginia legislators ought to be able to find a model that combines effective enforcement power with safeguards against partisan abuse.

It’s a big mistake for legislators to leave Richmond this year without passing a comprehensive ethics reform package that includes a strong ethics commission.

Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

by Peter Rousselot — February 5, 2015 at 1:45 pm 1,677 0

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Peter RousselotThe County Board recently decided not to approve “for now” an APS plan to build a new elementary school at the Thomas Jefferson site.

Several critical lessons must guide our way forward to meet the APS goal of adding a minimum of 725 new elementary seats in South Arlington by 2018.

Three of those lessons are discussed below.

1. APS Can’t Choose The Best Option Unless It Knows What All The Options Are

The county and APS must share with each other — and with the public — an inventory of all site options that they know about. This inventory must include both County-owned sites and private sites (like vacant commercial office space).

2. APS Must Be Completely Transparent In Discussing All Options

After APS has all the information about potential options, APS must conduct an open and transparent process to share options with the community, explaining:

  • what APS’ preferred options are, and
  • why other options were not chosen.

This transparent process cannot be limited solely to sites. The process also must include programs. For example, APS must disclose whether it intends to use a new facility as a neighborhood school or a choice school or a combination.

New, updated forecasts for enrollment growth — jointly prepared with the county — must be part of the conversation. The public must have confidence that all of our new school facilities will be located in the areas in which both the county and APS agree that the greatest school enrollment growth is likely to occur.

New, less elaborate and lower-cost design options for new school facilities everywhere in the county must be part of the conversation. The public needs assurances that all APS designs are as frugal as possible.

3. Developers Must Be Part Of the Solution

The county must get developers to pay for part of the cost of new school seats. Financing new learning facilities will require more than bond financing.

For starters, Arlington must emulate other jurisdictions, like Fairfax and Loudoun, that require a separate school impact analysis and developer contributions as a condition of approval of development projects.

If the County Attorney believes that Arlington lacks the authority to emulate Fairfax and Loudoun, then he must spell that out now so that we can ask our legislators to seek necessary changes in state law.

Of course, we cannot expect developers to pay for everything. But they must foot the bill for their fair share of the cost of the public infrastructure needed to serve the increasing population their new projects attract.

CONCLUSION

Arlington leaders must:

  • consider all available sites,
  • share publicly all proposed options,
  • make developers pay their fair share.

Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

by Peter Rousselot — January 29, 2015 at 1:00 pm 1,263 0

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Peter RousselotSeveral months ago, I wrote a column in which I concluded that Arlington Public Schools has failed to meet its burden to prove that it is ready to implement a plan to put a tablet in the hands of every student.

APS still has not met that burden.

For this plan to succeed, APS must demonstrate that it has credible YES answers to ALL of these questions:

  • Does APS have a long-term instructional vision for what this plan is intended to accomplish?
  • Does APS have a long-term budget to train staff to implement its long-term instructional vision?
  • Does APS have a long-term budget to replace the devices?
  • Given all the other priorities APS must weigh, has this 1:1 plan been assigned a high enough priority to receive the funding it requires to be successful?
  • Has APS obtained transparent feedback from all stakeholders with respect to its long-term instructional vision, its long-term budget to implement it, and the priority the 1:1 plan has been assigned?

In a helpful article, Alan November — an educational technology consultant — framed the challenge APS faces as follows:

[W]hile one-to-one computing might work as a marketing slogan…, it is a simplistic and short-sighted phrase… Adding a digital device to the classroom without a fundamental change in the culture of teaching and learning will not lead to significant improvement. …[I]t’s essential to craft a vision that giving every student a digital device must lead to achievements beyond what we can accomplish with paper. Otherwise, let’s just stick with the original one-to-one program: one No. 2 pencil per student.

Has APS addressed adequately the challenge Alan November posed?

This is what the APS website currently has to say:

Every school in the system is conducting a pilot which is focused on identifying instructional best practices which leverage personalization. These best practices will be woven into teacher professional development and the full project implementation over the upcoming years.

An accompanying paper on digital learning makes certain promises (pages 8-10) regarding these subjects. These include promises that a Digital Learning Steering Committee will develop a plan that will:

  • Provide instructional support
  • Provide and implement a short and long range professional development strategy
  • Provide guidance on technology and curriculum integration
  • Provide guidance to develop policy related to personalized digital learning

Conclusion

This plan needs to be:

  • created,
  • vetted and reviewed by all APS stakeholders,
  • transparently shared with the public, and receive strong public support.

Until all of the above steps are completed, we don’t know whether this plan will succeed.

Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

by Peter Rousselot — January 22, 2015 at 12:15 pm 1,629 0

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Peter RousselotNow — not “mid-2015″ — is the time to cut bait on the extravagant $80+ million vanity project known as the Arlington Aquatics Center.

According to Deputy County Manager Mark Schwartz, despite the loss of potential new funding associated with the 2024 Summer Olympics, “Arlington is ‘still committed’ to building the Long Bridge Aquatics and Fitness Center ‘without any new taxpayer funds.'”

To the contrary, Arlington should not spend one more dime of any new — or old — taxpayer funds to build this gold-plated project. This decision should be made now — during the County’s upcoming FY 2016 operating budget review process — not in “mid-2015″ as Schwartz suggests.

The estimated annual operating subsidy for the Aquatics Center, as currently designed, has skyrocketed from $450,000 in 2011 to almost $4 million today. Discussing the Aquatics Center’s fate in conjunction with the FY2016 operating budget review will help the public answer questions like these: Where should budget cuts likely be made? How much would the tax rate have to increase to cover this swimming palace’s projected $4 million annual cost?

The Aquatics Center also is relevant now because it is already costing us money even though the project’s construction is “on hold.” Some Aquatics Center funds already have been borrowed and are sitting unused. We are paying interest on this debt out of current Arlington County operating funds. Because the project remains on hold, this money cannot be reallocated to construct neighborhood community pools on the Long Bridge site or elsewhere. This money cannot be used to perform long-deferred maintenance at other parks or to purchase additional parkland.

Scrapping this project’s current design and redirecting the funds to other pressing community needs like new community pools would NOT violate Arlington voters’ will. Although voters twice approved large park bond issues (portions of which were intended to fund this project), those votes now have little persuasive value for two reasons:

  1. Voters weren’t allowed to vote on a bond issue for the Aquatics Center as a separate line item on the ballot (isolated from other park spending), and
  2. Voters who approved either or both of the two park bonds weren’t aware of the Aquatics Center’s $4 million estimated annual operating subsidy.

Given Arlington’s forecasted population growth, we are definitely going to need more community pools and recreational space. With just 8.1 park acres per 1,000 residents, Arlington has less park space than D.C., Boston, New York City and other high-density communities. It may make sense for one or more new community pools to be co-located with a middle school and/or community center.

Conclusion

All of the money currently on hold for the Aquatics Center should be redirected now to more pressing community needs.

Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

by Peter Rousselot — January 15, 2015 at 1:45 pm 401 0

Peter’s Take is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ARLnow.com.

Peter RousselotThe new Women’s Equality Coalition (WEC) launched last week. WEC is a promising initiative to improve Virginia women’s lives.

The founding members of WEC include ProgressVA, NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia, League of Women Voters of Virginia, the Virginia Chapter of the National Organization for Women, the Virginia Latina Advocacy Network, Women Matter, and the American Association of University Women of Virginia.

WEC believes that women and girls everywhere deserve an equal opportunity to participate fully in civic, economic, and political life irrespective of race, class, income, immigration status, disability, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or involvement with the criminal justice system.

WEC supports all Virginia women’s ability to:

  • Decide when and if to have a family and access the full range of health services necessary to support that decision without interference from government, organizations, or individuals;
  • Secure the education and resources necessary to support and better themselves and their families without sacrificing economic security;
  • Live, work, and attend school free from intimidation, abuse, discrimination, harassment, and violence;
  • Understand how the political process affects them personally and be empowered and motivated to participate and make their voices heard.

WEC initially will concentrate on three legislative areas: health and safety, economic opportunity, and democratic participation.

WEC’s 2015 Legislative Agenda

Health and Safety

  • Repeal mandatory ultrasound and waiting period prior to an abortion (SB733 Locke)
  • Close the coverage gap
  • Protect contraception access
  • Provide unemployment benefits for victims of domestic violence who are forced to leave their job (HB 1430 Herring)

Economic Opportunity

  • Establish universal paid sick days
  • Equal pay (SB772 McEachin)
  • Raise the minimum wage (SB681 Marsden)
  • Ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (SJ216 Ebbin and HJ495 Surovell)

Democratic Participation

  • Establish no-excuse in-person voting (SB677 Howell)
  • Nonpartisan redistricting

Support for WEC

Virginia

  • Public officials from across Virginia, including Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring have endorsed the WEC agenda and released statements of support.

Arlington

  • As noted above, Virginia legislators representing portions of Arlington (Sens. Adam Ebbin and Janet Howell) already have introduced bills supporting WEC’s legislative agenda. Other members of Arlington’s delegation (Sen. Barbara Favola and Dels. Patrick Hope and Alfonso Lopez) have issued statements of support.

I agree completely with Del. Hope that:

Virginia’s record of women’s equality is abysmal and we must do better. … [I want my daughters] to know a Virginia that shows no favoritism and gives everyone an equal opportunity to compete, be successful, and to make their own decisions.

WEC’s formation is a great step in the right direction for Virginia.

You can get more information and sign up as a WEC supporter at http://vawomensequalitycoalition.org/.

Peter Rousselot is a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia and former chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

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