Arlington, VA

Peter’s Take is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

The University of Virginia (UVA) and the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) have used their status and political power to prevent the Virginia General Assembly from taking action to enable the use of by far the most effective reading readiness screening test (RAN).

Instead, Virginia’s children are being tested using a much less effective test (PALS) from which UVA-associated individuals and organizations derive financial benefits.  The Virginia General Assembly will be investigating those financial benefits this year.

The VDOE – UVA literacy screening partnership

Since 1997, Virginia has been using the state-endorsed Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening test (PALS), created by UVA, to identify students experiencing or at-risk for reading difficulties. UVA and the VDOE worked in tandem to support and sponsor PALS.

PALS’ questionable effectiveness for identifying dyslexia and other reading disabilities

According to the International Dyslexia Association, “perhaps as many as 15-20% of the population as a whole–have some of the symptoms of dyslexia, including slow or inaccurate reading, poor spelling, poor writing, or mixing up similar words.”

Despite Virginia’s screening and intervention processes having been in place since 1997, children continue to be identified after 3rd grade as being dyslexic, when remediation is more intensive and costly to be effective. How many of these students could/should have received more effective K-3 reading interventions based on a timely identification, perhaps obviating their need for special education or remain unidentified and struggling in the general education system?

In the meantime, another test, RAN, (5-10 minute administration time) is “one of the strongest predictors of later reading ability” (p. 431).

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Peter’s Take is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Despite over five years of multiple contacts with County government, residents in the Arlington Forest and Bluemont neighborhoods are justifiably frustrated by the County’s lack of progress in protecting pedestrians crossing Carlin Springs Road.

The County has failed these neighborhoods in two respects. First, it has failed to take the decisive actions needed to protect pedestrians at several dangerous intersections. Second, it has failed to give sufficient weight to the views and knowledge of neighborhood associations and residents who offered highly relevant on-the-ground observations, surveys, and data.

For years, residents have been collecting their own survey data and examples of children and families being struck or nearly struck by vehicles.

Neighbors see a number of ingredients that contribute to dangerous risks for pedestrians including:

  • Increasing traffic from commercial and residential development in Ballston.
  • Lack of traffic signals that alert and stop traffic to allow safe crossing, paired with poor sightlines.
  • A history of lack of enforcement of the rules of the road

Carlin Springs Road background

In 2016, the Arlington Forest Citizens Association (AFCA) President spoke to the County Board about pedestrian safety concerns from Ballston to Route 50. At that time, former Board member John Vihstadt was assigned as the Board liaison to AFCA.

In 2016 and 2017, AFCA sent letters detailing accounts of children and families nearly getting struck by oncoming traffic. For example, Lara Doyle witnessed a pedestrian near-miss incident she described as a Kenmore Middle School student dodging cars — like the video game Frogger — while attempting to cross the road as yellow pedestrian lights were flashing. The Arlington Forest and Bluemont Civic Associations have formed pedestrian safety committees and have 40+ pages of emails, meeting notes, and formal letters documenting their direct engagement activity with the County.

In the summer of 2018, ARLnow reported on an accident in which a neighbor was struck by a vehicle while commuting to Metro. Neighbors at the time voiced public concerns:

“Yet [Lora] Strine says the area lacks clearly marked crosswalks or traffic calming measures to slow drivers, particularly on such a wide road, and she can’t understand why it’s taken the county so long to address the issue. ‘This accident is not really an accident,” Strine told ARLnow. “It’s really been years in the making.”

Eric Larsen, the accident victim, advocated before the County Board in a statement urging the County to protect pedestrians.

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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

Despite mounting evidence that Arlington County government’s past designs for stream “restorations” are fundamentally flawed, the County persists in moving forward with these flawed designs at Donaldson Run Tributary B (“Trib B”), Gulf Branch and elsewhere.

Background

In columns last year, I outlined concerns about the County’s stream restoration designs generally and at Donaldson Run. More recently, I highlighted the County government’s failures to prioritize mature tree preservation on County-or-APS-owned property, e.g., at Ashlawn Elementary.

In December 2019, the County took the extraordinary step of issuing a press release characterizing criticisms of its stream restoration designs as “myths.” To the contrary, these County designs continue to be flawed.

County plan for Trib B stream restoration

The County’s latest stream restoration plan for Trib B would remove 86 large mature trees and plant 332 new trees (from 1-4 inches in diameter) which would have to withstand floods and deer destruction with unlikely high survival rates.

The County asserts many mature trees will simply fall over if restoration does not occur and sediment in the water flow must be arrested to protect the Potomac and Chesapeake. However, the sediment caught in step pools and low areas to moderate this flow will also contain pollutants that will stay in the local environment.

Why the County’s Trib B plan is flawed

The persistent flaws in the County’s stream restorations include:

  • The stream bed may be physically restored, but the stream still will be ecologically damaged. “You can’t ask a stream to do everything an entire watershed should do,” said Margaret A. Palmer, a University of Maryland scientist who’s researched stream restoration ecology.
  • Damage to the stream’s watershed cannot be rectified without taking a much more environmentally pro-active approach to the impacts of climate change, development, and loss of mature trees.
  • Because the era of the “100-year” flood has been left far behind due to climate change, and rectifying the watershed will take many years, the work–and great expense–of physically restoring the stream bed may be washed away in a very short time. Therefore, the next major flood after Trib B is “restored” could ravage the stream bed, require significant rebuilding, and do so without the natural water absorption protection of the major mature trees which the County currently plans to remove.

Planting even hundreds of new trees is no subsitute for the removal of the mature ones. The relative benefits of mature trees vs. small ones are staggeringly in favor of the mature trees as regards CO2 absorption, water absorption, property value and other metrics.

Regionally, in the absence of empirical evidence on the efficacy of stream restoration projects, the issue of tree removal in pursuit of Chesapeake Bay Conservancy credits and to “remediate” stream erosion has elicited widespread recent concern.

In dense urban environments like Arlington, experts caution against the types of stream restoration techniques advocated by the County.

What can be done at Trib B

Some things can and should be done now at Trib B in view of the ravages of recent floods and the County’s lack of any meaningful maintenance of the stream. Some sewer lines may be subject to damage and should be rerouted (e.g., San Diego) or protected. Water pipes should be protected (using any of a wide variety of methods such as stacked stone walls and repairing stormwater discharge pipes) that would not require the heavy equipment the County currently proposes for the “restoration.” And, a relatively few mature trees would have their roots so exposed that they might have to be removed before they fall. CIP funds should be made available for all the above work.

Conclusion

County government is poised to repeat past mistakes by replicating them at Donaldson Run Trib B costing $1.45M for stream work alone (not infrastructure repair). Refusing to address development and land-use problems by merely adjusting stream channels to manage greater volumes of runoff won’t work against climate-change-era floods. Aggressively maintaining Trib B to handle both moderate and truly major floods, possible rerouting of water pipes out of the stream bed, and focusing greater attention on conservation of our natural resources are the keys to a cost-effective Trib B approach.

Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC-a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.

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Peter’s Take is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Arlington County recently conducted a study asking residents to select and rate a series of values that should be the foundation for setting the County’s water utility rate structure.

The values: Simplicity, Affordability, Conservation, Economic Development, Cost Equity, and Financial Sustainability.

The first three values are straightforward.

Under “Simplicity,” every resident would be charged the same rate for water and sewer. Under “Affordability,” the first 12,000 gallons of water used each year would be priced at a lower rate while usage above that amount would be priced at a higher rate. Under “Conservation,” the structure would look much like the structure under “Affordability,” but there would be three pricing tiers instead of only two.

A case can be made for any of these three scenarios, although none encourages environmental stewardship by providing incentives for residents to use water to protect their trees, bushes, and gardens.

The last three values are far more problematic. Under “Cost Equity,” customers would be charged based on the cost of how they use water and wastewater services. It costs the utility more to deliver water to or collect wastewater from some neighborhoods than it does from others or, as the study indicated, “it may cost more on a per capita basis to pipe water to one family in a single family home than to one family living in a multifamily building.”

Would developers of large apartment complexes receive a price break? Would residents of wealthy North Arlington pay less because they live closest to the aqueduct that brings water to the County?

Our County Board has adopted a resolution defining equity as “all populations having access to community conditions and opportunities needed to reach their full potential and to experience optimal well-being.” But dividing residents based on housing hardly seems equitable. As one study participant noted, “once we start breaking people into different economic groups and discriminating against some, the end result will be confusion and enmity.”

Another participant observed that this approach could well result in higher rates for low income families further from the main water supply.

Under “Economic Development,” the utility rate structure would be the reverse of the utility rate structure under “Conservation.” Big water users (i.e., businesses) would pay a high price for the first million gallons of water; a lower price for the second million gallons; and an even lower price for all additional gallons.

According to latest available U.S. Census data, the professional, scientific, and technical services sector comprises almost 30% of private workplaces and employs more than one quarter of all who work in the Arlington private sector. This sector is not a large water user.

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Peter’s Take is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

Delegate Patrick Hope (D-47) has introduced a bill: HB 817 to guide digital device use in Virginia public schools.

Teachers have been concerned about these issues. Petitions have been generated by community members — one to discontinue 1:1, another seeking a low screen track.

In Maryland, a landmark bill was unanimously passed to create the nation’s 1st health and safety guidelines on school-issued devices, and the Baltimore superintendent was imprisoned for accepting money from the powerful EdTech industry lobby.

Such legislation should be enacted in Virginia because of the impact of digital devices:

Arlington experience

In Arlington, the School Health Advisory Board (SHAB) approved the formation of the Screen Use in Schools Subcommittee (SUS) to advise APS regarding policy implementation for APS-issued devices.

During its research, SHAB discovered that some APS staff were on the advisory board of CoSN (The Consortium of School Networks). Such membership raised serious concerns about undue influence and conflicts of interest regarding what’s best for academic outcomes and the health and well-being of APS students. CoSN membership boasts some of the biggest tech companies in the world, including Microsoft and Amazon Web Services.

While APS parents correctly focus on the total daily time their children spend looking at APS-issued device screens (school and home), CoSN advocates that school screen use is different. See Screens and Kids:

“Shift the conversation. The debate today should not be about “screen time” which made historical sense around the consumption of older, passive technologies, such as television) but “learning time.” When used appropriately technology increases student engagement, helps educators and students accelerate learning, expands opportunities beyond the classroom and enriches the educational environment.”

APS’s screen use policies and practices

APS’s view of screen use simply adopts CoSN’s position:

The phrase “screen time,” as used by academics, refers to using digital media for “entertainment purposes.” Using a digital device for learning is not considered “screen time.”

APS’s view defies common sense. SUS correctly has contested APS’s notion that school screen use should not count in the total daily digital diet of children, just as the food they consume at school counts in their daily caloric intake. SUS’s position finds strong support in an analysis from the National Education Policy Center.

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Peter’s Take is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

The American Public Media podcast by Emily Hanford, “At a Loss for Words: How a flawed idea is teaching millions of kids to be poor readers”, thankfully is shining a national spotlight on non-scientifically-based reading instruction. Ms. Hanford specifically criticizes Lucy Calkins’ Units of Study for Teaching Reading (Readers’ Workshop), the Fountas & Pinnell Leveled Literacy Intervention (LLI), and Marie Clay’s Reading Recovery, for perpetuating the vicious cycle that “prevent(s) kids from focusing on words in the way they need to become skilled readers.”

Arlington Public Schools (APS) uses all of these resources, and in some cases, with our most vulnerable students.

APS reading SOL’s:

Although it’s debatable if the Virginia Reading Standards of Learning (SOL) is a valid and appropriate measurement of reading proficiency during any given year, the Reading SOL is what Virginia uses to measure reading proficiency over time. Here’s a comparison of APS’ proficiency rates on the Reading SOL from 2014 and 2019:

Overall, APS is trending in the wrong direction. Today more students are non-proficient readers than in 2014. The most significant declines have occurred in third grade — the pivotal year in which a student reads to learn versus learns to read. As noted by the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s report, “Early Warning! Why Reading by the End of Third Grade Matters”, a failure to read proficiently by third grade often puts a student on a success or failure trajectory. It’s imperative that APS laser focus on this downward trend in the K-2 grades.

What is APS doing about it?

Literacy Training: Many of Virginia’s university teacher preparatory programs fail to teach our teachers how a student learns to read and how to identify, instruct, remediate, and accommodate students with reading disabilities. Therefore, the burden falls on the K-12 schools to train teachers after they are hired. Last year, a small cohort of APS supervisors and specialists were trained in LETRS, to help teachers embed scientifically researched-based literacy instruction in the classrooms, regardless of what resources are used.

Early Identification: Since 1997, the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE) has provided districts with the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS) tool to identify students in K-3 who are at risk for reading failure. But PALS isn’t effectively identifying all of our at-risk students and isn’t identifying the root causes for why a student is struggling or may struggle when text becomes more complex. Although PALS takes considerable time to administer, it doesn’t provide the information required to meet students’ needs. Therefore, APS began piloting the Rapid Automatized Naming/Rapid Alternating Stimulus Test (RAN/RAS), to supplement PALS. As a result, APS now identifies additional students that may not have been identified using PALS.

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Peter’s Take is a biweekly opinion column. The views expressed are solely the author’s.

In an October column, I explained why the Arlington County Government’s (ACG’s) four-year delay in developing a long-range, site-specific public-facilities plan has hampered APS’s ability to identify the costs for the new school seats APS projects it will need over the next 10-15 years.

In that column, I noted that successful long-range, site-specific public facilities planning should follow these principles:

  • publication of several alternative financial scenarios and their direct costs, opportunity costs, and benefits
  • soliciting and honoring the community’s priorities among those scenarios
  • specific goals and timetables by which critical decisions must be made
  • accountability for meeting those goals and timetables

Preparing a long-range, site-specific public facilities plan is critical for Arlington’s sustainable future. Such a plan will have to balance APS’s needs for new seats against other major public facilities’ needs (e.g., for parks, fire stations, community centers, stormwater infrastructure) to accommodate Arlington’s continuing population growth and increasing density.

What ACG should do now

While we wait for the Joint Facilities Advisory Commission to propose a long-range public facilities plan, there are some steps that ACG should take now to improve significantly the quality of decision-making regarding APS’s upcoming Capital Improvement Plan (CIP).

Two months ago, APS released an updated Arlington Facilities and Student Accommodation Plan (“AFSAP Plan”), and posted this presentation outlining it. This presentation contains APS’s latest estimates of enrollment growth and the new seats our community will need over the planning period to accommodate the substantial enrollment growth forecast.

In this new, expanded AFSAP Plan, APS has taken some important steps to define more accurately APS’s capacity/capital needs and to plan to address those needs. Page 43 of the AFSAP presentation provides an outline of APS’s current CIP priorities. For example, the AFSAP Plan recommends for Middle School (MS) 500+ new seats in 2024-25 and for Elementary School (ES) 700+ new seats in 2024-25.

Why ACG should provide APS with financial parameters now

In the last CIP cycle, ACG did not provide APS with financial parameters for the CIP until Spring 2018–only a few short weeks before APS had to provide the County with its final CIP recommendations. In 2018, ACG’s many months of delay in providing those financial parameters to APS led to discord and much-too-short-decision-making timetables once many in the community realized that projects they initially believed possible turned out not to be affordable. APS and the community together could have arrived at better, more accurate decisions two years ago if ACG had provided APS with those financial parameters earlier than it did.

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Peter’s Take is a biweekly 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.

Democratic victories in the November 5 Virginia legislative elections provide new opportunities to enact excellent legislation. These are a few of the laws that should be enacted relating to women’s rights, gun safety, and voting rights.

Women’s Rights

Virginia should pass the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Passage of the ERA is an important statement of our aspirations for equal rights for women.

There is a critical need to repeal various extreme provisions in current Virginia law and
regulatory policy that seriously and adversely affect women’s health and bodily autonomy.
These are among the highest priorities for repeal.

  • 24-hour waiting period

Current Virginia law requires a 24-hour waiting period between a request to terminate a pregnancy and that procedure. This provision should be repealed.

  • TRAP

As NARAL pro-choice Virginia explains  (TRAP) laws are burdensome, medically unnecessary regulations designed to shut down reproductive-health-care clinics and make it more difficult for women to access abortion.” These laws should be repealed.

  • vaginal ultrasound

Current Virginia law requires that women undergo an ultrasound before an abortion and be shown an image of the fetus. This law should be repealed.

Given the present uncertainty surrounding whether the U.S. Supreme Court will overrule its decision in Roe v. Wade, Virginia should enact a law guaranteeing a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy. That law should be as broad as or broader than the rights currently guaranteed by Roe.

Gun Safety

These are examples of common-sense gun safety legislation that should be enacted.

  • expanded local options to prohibit guns in public buildings

Virginia localities like Arlington have very limited powers to regulate the use of guns. An
analysis of the current law is here. Virginia law should be amended to give localities the option to limit the possession of guns in public buildings to only certain categories of owners (e.g., police officers).

  • universal background checks

Virginia law should be amended to require private sellers to conduct background checks
through a central law enforcement agency that has access to federal and state databases of
prohibited purchasers; to maintain records of all firearms transfers for a lengthy period, and to report all transfers to state and local law enforcement.

  • red flag law

A red flag law permits police or family members to petition a state court to order the
temporary removal of firearms from a person who may present a danger to themselves or
others. Even Donald Trump has endorsed red flag laws. Unlike 17 other states, Virginia doesn’t have a red flag law. Virginia law should be amended to include one.

  • One-a-month limits.

Virginia used to have a one-gun-a-month law. But Virginia repealed that law in 2012 at the request of the NRA. That law should be re-enacted.

Voting Rights

  • re-districting

Like many other states, Virginia currently has a partisan redistricting system. Even though Democrats will control all three branches of state government starting in 2020, we should resist the temptation to redraw district lines on a partisan basis.

With strong bi-partisan support, Virginia enacted a 2019 law that will lead to a less partisan redistricting system.

An overview of this proposed new Virginia redistricting system is here. The new system establishes an advisory redistricting commission to draw the district lines. The new system is not perfect, but it’s much better than the current system.

In 2019, Virginia legislative leaders assumed that the new system could only be adopted by amending Virginia’s Constitution. Such amendments require three steps: (1) pass a law in one legislative session; (2) pass the identical law in the next legislative session, and (3) voters approve that law in a referendum.

We have accomplished  number (1). Now we need to pass the Constitutional amendment again without changing so much as a comma, and convince voters to vote for it in November 2020.

  • other voting reforms

Virginia also should enact Election Day voter registration, no-excuse voting by mail, further expansion of early in-person voting, automatic restoration of voting rights for ex offenders, and ranked-choice voting.

Conclusion

Let’s take advantage of this great opportunity to create a better Commonwealth by enacting this new legislation relating to women’s rights, gun safety, and voting rights.

Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC-a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.

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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.

On October 16, ARLnow reported on the Department of Parks and Recreation’s (DPR’s) proposed project at Bluemont Park (601 N. Manchester Street).

In the article, the county explained more about the renovations, writing that:

“The goal of this Parks Maintenance Capital project is to replace the tennis court complex, lighting, restroom/storage, shelter, parking lot, site circulation, section of Four Mile Run Trail, site furnishing, drainage and landscaping in the Upper Bluemont area.”

The County has scheduled a meeting on Tuesday, October 29, 7-8:30 p.m., at Ashlawn Elementary School (5950 8th Road North) to enable the public to comment on DPR’s current plans for Bluemont Park upgrades.

Some DPR park upgrade proposals make sense and should be pursued.

As Boulevard Manor Civic Association President Chris Tighe noted in a comment to the ARLnow.com story:

“The [tennis] courts are indeed in bad shape due to large cracks, water damage, and unlevel playing surface. […] The gazebo structure is also in dire need of rehabilitation.”

DPR should be commended for planning and responding appropriately to maintenance concerns like these.

According to a County Bluemont survey, most respondents asked for upkeep, lighting and benches.

The survey drew around 350 responses when it asked for suggestions on what should be changed in the park. The majority of responses asked the County to:

  • Preserve and plant more trees
  • Resurface the tennis courts to fix cracks and improve drainage
  • Improve lighting, and add more light poles near the baseball diamond
  • Install more benches at the tennis courts and elsewhere
  • Better maintain the restrooms and water fountains by the picnic shelter

The current parking lot does not need to be replaced

Other proposed DPR “upgrades” are overkill and should be cancelled; the money saved should be redirected to higher priority, better uses.

Contrary to DPR’s current plans, the existing parking lot at Bluemont Park simply needs resurfacing, and it would be a waste of our tax dollars to replace it entirely.

As the image to the left illustrates, the parking lot is level and the existing pavement is in reasonably good shape.

Also, County policy has consistently reduced off-street parking requirements and emphasized shared parking arrangements.

The existing tennis-court footprint doesn’t need expansion

The needed tennis-court repairs should be made within the existing tennis-court footprint; the site is already built out, and the existing footprint should not be expanded.

The recently completed Public Spaces Master Plan documents a substantial surplus of tennis courts in Arlington. In our severely land-constrained County, it makes no sense to waste our scarce bond capacity and limited tax dollars to expand the tennis courts in flood-prone Bluemont Park.

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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.

If the County Manager follows recent practice, he soon will propose how to spend any budget surplus remaining after closing out Arlington’s budget for fiscal year (FY) 2019, which ended June 30.

What percentage of this “close-out surplus” will the Manager propose to spend immediately?

What’s been happening

Typically, 47% of surplus dollars are automatically allocated to APS under a revenue-sharing agreement. Most of the remaining surplus is often allocated to “commitments already made by the Board.” Missing is a clear, written statement explaining how, when and why such “commitments” were made. Also missing is a written, publicly available policy clearly defining a “one-time” expenditure, and why “one-time” surplus funds are frequently spent on recurring needs.

Recently, the County Manager has reduced the close-out-surplus amount somewhat from previous years — when annual close-out surpluses ran as large as $36 million. But neither the Manager nor the County Board has fully adopted a key reform proposal recommended by the Arlington County Civic Federation (Civ Fed):

In 2016, Civ Fed passed a resolution urging “the Arlington County Board to annually consider setting aside a fair and reasonable amount of any surplus for the reduction of real estate taxes.”

Because the Board has allowed the Manager to allocate, or spend, almost all surplus cash at closeout without waiting until the following Spring when needs or shortfalls in the coming fiscal year are known with greater certainty, decisions on how millions of dollars are spent remain largely beyond taxpayers’ scrutiny.

Beyond the “close-out surplus”

What the Manager and the public generally call the “close-out surplus” reflects only a small part of the County’s overall surplus cash on hand. Once allocated, surplus funds end up in what is called the County’s “Fund Balance,” similar to what we would think of as a savings account. With these huge cash surpluses accruing year after year (some of which remain allocated but unspent for long periods of time), the size of Arlington’s Fund Balance has grown very large.

For example, as of June 30, 2018, the County reported combined fund cash balances of $634.8 million.

Do you know if, when, where, and how Arlington plans to spend the current Fund Balance?

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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.

On September 23, APS posted the latest version of its Arlington Facilities and Student Accommodation Plan (“AFSAP plan”). This 78-page plan is based on APS’ latest estimates of enrollment growth.

Highlights of the AFSAP plan include huge projected seat deficits at the elementary and middle school levels over the next Capital Improvement Plan time horizon. There are no specifics about exactly where many of these needed new seats will be located nor how they will be financed.

Elementary school seat deficit

The elementary school seat deficit is particularly troubling.

The 10-year projections establish a need for nearly 2,500 more permanent elementary school seats county wide in Fall 2028-29.

Initial social media commentary on the AFSAP plan criticized APS for not being more creative about design options:

“WHY IS KEY ELEMENTARY 2 STORIES? Seriously, though, we own property practically beside the Metro, in the shadow of 10+ story buildings. Build up! (And I’m a Key parent-the lot could host Key and a neighborhood school).”

APS certainly needs a design makeover: up not out; preservation of mature trees and green space right at design outset; provide only facilities critical to instruction. But the core problem the AFSAP plan exposes is the glacial pace of County and School Board members in producing a long-range plan locating new school seats at specific sites–four years (!) after the Community Facilities Study Group’s recommendations.

Amazon

Amazon’s new HQ injects an even greater sense of urgency into providing the missing plans.

In a late 2018 interview, then County Board Chair Katie Cristol tried to downplay Amazon’s impact on our schools:

“[T]he increasing tax base coming from [Amazon]…will more than supplement [the increase in student population attributable to new Amazon employees living here].”

But Cristol didn’t address whether these incremental revenues would be more than offset on net by increased costs attributable to new residents (both Amazon employees and others).

Moreover, APS won’t be the only public claimant for the incremental revenues we hope Amazon will generate. There will be enormous other public claims on those revenues. Arlington is dragging its feet by failing to produce a long-range public facilities financing plan that resolves these competing claims in a site-specific way.

Arlington has failed to develop an integrated, community-supported, long-range financing plan for all necessary new public facilities (including, but not limited to, schools)

Will we have the bond capacity to make all the transportation (including Metro), schools, parks, fire stations, affordable housing and other public investments that will be required? Will we have such bond capacity under several different, but all plausible, alternative economic scenarios? Note: as taxes increase to meet these added costs, those tax increases will inflate the costs of many other items, including “affordable” housing. Are there one-time alternatives to bond financing, e.g., the County’s huge surplus cash reserves

When asked to choose among needing more new school seats, new acres of park open space, and new units of affordable housing, we don’t know now how the community would prioritize those choices because the community hasn’t been asked.

Conclusion

The APS Advisory Council on School Facilities and Capital Programs (FAC) prepared an excellent 2018 report on future school facilities needs. But many of that report’s recommendations have not progressed due to the lack of an appropriate sense of urgency by the County and School Boards.

Successful long-range facilities planning must follow these principles:

  • publication of several alternative financial scenarios and their direct costs, opportunity costs, and benefits
  • soliciting and honoring the community’s priorities among those scenarios
  • specific goals and timetables by which critical decisions must be made
  • accountability for meeting those goals and timetables

Arlington lacks such a long-range plan today because it has failed to follow these principles.

A highly credentialed and knowledgeable APS activist provided me with this assessment of the new AFSAP plan:

“What’s not discussed here is that we need to create 3,347 additional seats over the last CIP. That roughly translates to another $250M (not including land acquisition costs) over the [last] CIP.”

When, where, and how soon will the missing plans be provided?

Peter Rousselot previously served as Chair of the Fiscal Affairs Advisory Commission (FAAC) to the Arlington County Board and as Co-Chair of the Advisory Council on Instruction (ACI) to the Arlington School Board. He is also a former Chair of the Arlington County Democratic Committee (ACDC) and a former member of the Central Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia (DPVA). He currently serves as a board member of the Together Virginia PAC-a political action committee dedicated to identifying, helping and advising Democratic candidates in rural Virginia.

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