Arlington, VA

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

Historic numbers of Virginians voted in the 2020 Presidential election. Virginia Democratic legislators have introduced important new voting rights legislation which deserves to be enacted. The 2021 Virginia Legislative Session is expected to adjourn about February 28.

Virginia Voting Rights Act

The Virginia Voting Rights Act is a centerpiece of these 2021 Democratic voting reform initiatives:

[I]t is designed to prevent last-minute poll closures and other election changes that could disproportionately affect voters of color. … Backers say it’s partly a response to a 2013 Supreme Court decision that effectively stripped the federal government’s close oversight over elections across the South, including Virginia.

The House of Delegates version of this legislation is HB-1890.

HB-1890 prohibits:

  • any standard, practice, or procedure related to voting from being imposed or applied in a manner that results in the denial or abridgment of the right of any United States citizen to vote based on his race or color or membership in a language minority group.
  • at-large methods of election from being imposed or applied in a locality in a manner that impairs the ability of a protected class, defined in the bill, to elect candidates or influence the outcome of an election, by diluting or abridging the rights of voters who are members of a protected class.

Certain unlawful actions, including knowingly communicating false information to voters, that are currently subject to criminal penalties will create civil causes of action under the bill.

The bill also authorizes the Virginia Attorney General to commence civil actions when there is reasonable cause to believe that a violation of an election law has occurred, and the rights of any voter or group of voters have been affected by the violation. Civil penalties are payable into a Voter Education and Outreach Fund established by the bill.

The sponsor of HB-1890, Delegate Cia Price (D-Newport News), noted:

[T]here are still attacks on voting rights today that can result in voter suppression, discrimination and intimidation. …We need to be clear that this is not welcome.

Price also said she has compiled examples of voter suppression ranging from moving polling places off public transit lines, or from a community center to a sheriff’s office. Read More

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

March 2020: the COVID-19 pandemic forces APS to shut down in-person instruction. APS is caught with many students, many digital devices, but no real plan to continue meaningful learning virtually. Teachers are left to create virtual lessons, delivering inconsistent curriculum and outcomes.

All this happens despite APS’s insistence — pre-COVID-19 — that APS already had adopted “Personalized Learning.” APS claimed that its version of personalized learning (heavily dependent on digital devices) ensured “instruction, curriculum and outcomes are connected to our learners’ unique talents, skills and interests and [use] technology to provide flexibility and choice for our learners.”

The pandemic exposed a very different reality: Failing grades — despite really hard-working teachers and staff. Critically missing: in-person interactions among teachers and students. Overall: declining test scores and inconsistent supports for students most in need.

May 2020: APS superintendent Francisco Durán inherits this chaotic and challenging situation. Since then, much of our community’s focus appropriately has been on when, where, and under what safety protocols APS should re-open for in-person instruction.

But for years before Dr. Durán arrived, and continuing today — whether our students are trying to learn in or out of a school building — APS has dropped the instructional ball. Dr. Durán and the current School Board now own it and must fix it.

APS must refocus on instruction, especially remediation for learning losses suffered by at-risk groups, and adopting evidence-based resources, particularly for reading, writing and math.

ATSS

Instructional challenges have been exacerbated during the pandemic version of virtual learning, with no solid countywide remediation plan in place. The Arlington Tiered System of Support (ATSS) was a pre-COVID-19 program created to provide time each day to help with interventions in areas like reading, writing, and math: “Research does show that in order for an intervention to be effective targeted instruction should range from 20-40 minutes 4-5 days a week.” But this program has gone radio silent since March 2020. Why isn’t APS prioritizing the continuation of this program and creating small groups to remediate the learning deficits of those children who need ATSS services (regardless of school)?

Literacy

As ARLnow.com has reported, at the elementary and middle and high school levels, more students are struggling to make passing grades this year: ” Black and Hispanic students, English-language learning students, and students with disabilities are experiencing the deepest drops.”

Over half of rising 6th graders are reading below grade level. Black and Hispanic students, English-language learning students, and students with disabilities are seeing literacy declines, with inconsistent or no interventions to address pre- and current pandemic-related academic concerns.

Dr. Durán’s February 4, 2021 presentation (Slides 22-31) displayed this Fall’s DIBELS reading scores for grades 3-5, underscoring the urgency for intensive reading interventions for at-risk students.

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

Arlington is flying blind regarding the costs of future critical capital expenses, including seats to accommodate APS enrollment growth and the increase in the ratio of Arlington’s population to permeable green space available for parks and storm water absorption.

The County Manager has warned correctly that our budget is under severe stress from COVID-19 impacts, and some of these impacts may be transformational.

The Manager has concluded that it is too difficult to engage in long-range fiscal planning in these dire circumstances. But during five pre-COVID-19 years, he resisted utilizing fiscal planning tools to measure development costs versus anticipated revenues.

The Manager recently revealed that County government is working to develop a model to measure fiscal impacts of development–but only by retroactively combining many different projects. It’s unclear whether this model will enable prospective measurement of the fiscal impacts of any single project or how useful it will be otherwise.

Merion Pike West project demonstrates the utility of advance single-project analysis

In November 2020, the County Board unanimously approved Phase 1 of the Merion Pike West site-plan development at 843 S. Greenbrier St.

The Board authorized the developer to build new apartment buildings containing 400 units. The new buildings will replace older buildings containing 90 market-rate-affordable units.

Local consultant Arlington Analytics prepared a fiscal analysis of this project, concluding:

  • This development will increase county spending $32-$37 million between 2022 and 2031.
  • The bulk of this new spending arises from the incremental cost of educating just over 100 additional APS students.
  • Incremental revenues, principally from real estate taxes, will increase by about $14.5 million over the same time period due to the higher assessed value of the property.
  • The County will need to tap revenues from other sources between $17 and $23 million through 2031 to cover the anticipated budget shortfall.

As part of the Board’s review of the project, this fiscal analysis was presented by Arlingtonians for Our Sustainable Future (ASF). Both staff and Board disregarded the conclusions, and did not present any comparable County government analysis because Arlington doesn’t engage in this type of planning.

Arlington needs to adopt new planning tools to ensure its sustainable future, and pump the brakes on gentrification.

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

Arlington County Board member Christian Dorsey was in the news last year after he accepted, and much later returned, a $10,000 campaign contribution from Metro’s largest labor union.

Dorsey’s original acceptance of this contribution violated Metro’s ethics rules, and led to Dorsey’s resignation from the Metro board.

Near year’s end, a federal bankruptcy trustee made a formal finding that “Dorsey overstated his debt obligations in ‘an act of overt misrepresentation.'” (Dorsey denies overt misrepresentation.)

Last year’s debate over Dorsey’s conduct did nothing to rectify severe weaknesses in Virginia’s and Arlington’s rules defining ethical behavior. Until these rules are strengthened, it’s inevitable that other situations like Dorsey’s will be repeated.

Unless the Dillon Rule is significantly relaxed, many of the major ethics improvements necessary must be enacted by Virginia. Nevertheless, there also is a lot more that Arlington County government should do now to demonstrate that ethical behavior is a high priority.

Virginia ethics reform

Virginia should broaden the scope, and more vigorously enforce, its conflict-of-interest law.

Virginia’s current Ethics Advisory Council lacks critical enforcement powers.

Virginia needs a new ethics body with:

  • resources to conduct investigations
  • power to assess substantial fines
  • authority to make referrals to the Virginia Attorney General and local Commonwealth’s Attorneys

Virginia should create a new, independent Ethics Review Commission with subpoena and enforcement powers like Massachusetts, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania.

The Massachusetts Ethics Commission can impose substantial civil penalties for violations of its conflict-of-interest laws.

Virginia campaign finance reform

Virginia is one of only 5 states with no campaign contribution limits. Virginia’s campaign finance laws were ranked 47th out of 50 in America, and received a grade of “F” from a state integrity investigation.  

We need to prioritize Virginia campaign finance reform. According to an NPR report:

Virginia’s campaign finance laws are far more permissive than most other states. They’re also lenient compared to the rules for running for U.S. Congress, where the Federal Election Commission limits individual contributions to $2,800 per candidate, per election. …Virginia requires only that candidates disclose the source of their funds.

Virginia should renew efforts to pass legislation similar to an unsuccessful bill introduced in the 2019 legislative session that would have prohibited “individuals and political action committees from making any single contribution, or any combination of contributions, that exceeds $10,000 to any one candidate for Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, or the General Assembly in any one election cycle… .”

But wouldn’t such new Virginia contribution limits violate the U. S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision? Maybe not. In 2019, the Supreme Court declined to review a federal appeals court ruling upholding Montana’s campaign contribution limits on the grounds that those limits were a reasonable way to prevent corruption while still allowing candidates to raise enough money.

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

On December 4, ARLnow documented APS’s conclusions that:

Black and Hispanic students [in K-2] dropped off the most [with respect to foundational literacy skills] during remote learning, while students with disabilities continue to perform far below neurotypical children and the overall student population.”

Former School Board candidate Symone Walker correctly observed that “COVID-19 exacerbates a problem that has persisted for years, one she said is partially rooted in inconsistent methods of teaching literacy.”

In pre-COVID-19 columns, I highlighted why independent experts concluded that APS should:

The current upsurge in Arlington COVID-19 community spread may be great enough to require APS temporarily not to provide in-person instruction widely, but independent experts and APS’s own data establish that virtual learning causes serious harm to thousands of children, especially our community’s youngest and most vulnerable.

These are the critical steps that both APS and Arlington County government must join together to take NOW to address our community’s instructional crisis:

  • make virtual learning much better
  • adopt a plan to open schools safely ASAP in 2021 for students whose parents choose in-person learning

Make virtual learning much better, especially for the most vulnerable

APS must make virtual learning the very best it can be. But for many thousands of our community’s children, in-person learning will always be infinitely better.

Students with disabilities are being left behind by APS’s shelve-them-in-classrooms approach. These children currently go to school where only an aide monitors them logging on to an iPad. They need so much more in-classroom, in-person professional help. Why isn’t APS providing it?

APS needs to work with parents to adjust significantly the current virtual school day. Sitting online for a full school day is not developmentally appropriate for K-5. Children in this cohort need maybe 2 hours of instruction in math/reading/writing to stay on track. The rest of it should be optional. Many excellent suggestions by Sal Khan of Khan Academy are here.

Adopt a crash program to open APS schools safely ASAP in 2021

January 6, 2021 marks 300 days since the vast majority of APS students were in school.

APS and the Arlington County government must collaborate to plan NOW to open schools safely ASAP in 2021 for parents who choose in-person learning. That plan requires a specific reopening target date.

When to reopen schools is among the most important educational policy decisions currently facing the School Board. That board’s claim that this decision is purely an “operational” decision (entirely up to the Superintendent) is just plain wrong. Dr. Durán (and tacitly the School Board) continue to default always to the wrong message: schools will not reopen.

But the message that thousands of parents and residents want to hear is: we are working day and night to develop a plan to reopen schools safely. The School Board also needs to direct Dr. Durán to articulate more clearly APS’s air quality and lunch arrangement plans.

The County Board must step up

The County Board has a vital role to play in helping the School Board open schools safely. The County Board’s current claim that this decision is entirely up to APS also is a cop out. In our health emergency, the County Board must step up.

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

APS continues its record of flawed planning with the 2020 Elementary School Boundary Process. The latest recommendations typify years of ineffectual boundary planning.

In 2018, APS recognized it had a problem: a mis-match of the geographic locations in which its elementary students resided and the locations of schools.  Further, APS identified the planning corridors (Rosslyn-Ballston, Columbia Pike, and Route 1) as the locus of the future enrollment growth, but the next new facility — Reed — was not being constructed where seats were needed.  Therefore, APS began internal deliberations to adjust county-wide elementary school boundaries (for school year 2021-22).

The objectives included:

  • create Reed and Science Focus (ASFS) attendance zones
  • address overcapacity at schools
  • maximize building capacity
  • make efficient use of existing facilities and resources
  • adhere to walk zones and balance demographics when possible

Last February the School Board voted to move Key Immersion to ATS, ATS to McKinley, and McKinley to Reed. Although this was and remains very controversial, the net result moved Option programs closer to areas with excess seats and freed up neighborhood seats at the Key site. However, because APS decided to limit additional stress during the pandemic, it hastily decided to abandon a first principle of any boundary process–to balance enrollment.

APS objectively has defined “preferred maximum” numbers of students at each school using Virginia guidelines. But APS has ignored its own analysis and excluded schools like Abingdon. Abingdon is projected to reach 930 students in 2022-23 with a preferred maximum of only 742. Other schools like ASFS, with a preferred maximum of 637 students, are included, yet ASFS is projected to enroll 662 in 2022-23 with the strong potential that up to an additional 80 will enroll if they elect not to move with Key Immersion. Others like Dr. Charles Drew–adjacent to Abingdon–has approximately 400 preferred maximum unfilled seats. And schools like Ashlawn and Tuckahoe (in this boundary process) have 200+ combined preferred maximum seats available through 2022-23.

The “minimal” boundary changes now proposed are unfair

Even for the small number of schools involved, APS’s latest proposal does not maximize flexibility nor does the proposal minimize impact on families as a foundation for the 2022 process. APS proposes moving several planning units from Ashlawn to ASFS even though future flexibility is needed there. At the same time APS proposes moving some students from McKinley to Ashlawn.  These moves should be delayed until 2022 to preserve flexibility.  Finally, APS leaves Tuckahoe well under-capacity. APS should use Tuckahoe’s excess seats to balance capacity from Ashlawn along the southwestern boundary of the County where future flexibility is less important.

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

Reopening APS schools safely no later than the first day of the spring semester, for our youngest students (K-5), should be a top priority for the Arlington County government.

APS must do more to make the air in classrooms safe so schools can open — and stay open. Arlington County needs to step up and provide APS with the necessary funding and technical assistance.

It’s particularly important to develop a detailed plan now to move our youngest learners (K-5) back into safe classrooms because there’s lots of evidence that they are the ones who suffer the most from an all-virtual environment.

During our health emergency, County government must exercise its existing local regulatory authority to impose Arlington-specific limits on indoor activities where the virus thrives, e.g., indoor gatherings, dining, bars, and gyms. If necessary, Arlington’s new ordinance should be more stringent and remain effective longer than Governor Northam’s November 16 statewide order.

Otherwise, it will not be safe for APS to provide in-person instruction.

Air is the Issue

For months, our County and school leaders have lacked sufficient urgency and focus to tackle the primary problem: the COVID-19 virus spreads through the air.

Experts in aerosol physics, chemistry, engineering, and public health have defined clear strategies to thwart airborne transmission. But in a recent 29-page APS report, air quality was mentioned but once. County officials are watching cases rise, but they must do more about it.

As the case count has risen, Arlington has risen into the “highest risk” schools’ category according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). If all elementary school students returned today, too many employees would soon be out sick or in quarantine. Safe, in-person operation is becoming impracticable.

APS should begin giving a biweekly “Indoor Air Quality (IAQ) report” to show a new focus on air quality. Classrooms need six air changes per hour of new, outside air coming in. APS has been working on HVAC improvements — including upgrading to MERV-13 filters to catch any virus floating in HVAC ducts. County funding is critical.

For additional ventilation, APS could place kids in rooms with windows. An open window can add more than 20 air changes! APS could use empty secondary schools (while older students are virtual), or even County recreation centers if needed. APS and the County should publish an inventory of spaces with windows.

The County should also help with extra safety equipment, which might cost as little as $500-$1,500 per classroom, for the limited number of K-5 students returning in early 2021 (if we act now).

All APS classrooms should be equipped with carbon dioxide (CO2) monitors, to give staff real-time information about air quality. Even with masks on, risks increase with time indoors. CO2 meters can alert when exhaled breath is building up.

Portable HEPA air cleaning units could filter virus particles from the air, two to five times hourly. Investments in such equipment would pay off beyond the pandemic — by improving indoor air quality, reducing other illnesses, and boosting student achievement.

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

On October 8, the New England Journal of Medicine published an unprecedented editorial entitled “Dying in a Leadership Vacuum.” Without mentioning Donald Trump’s name, the editorial presents a devastating indictment of Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

After using specific metrics to demonstrate why and how the national governments of many other countries have done a far superior job regarding COVID-19 than the U.S. government, the editorial notes:

“Governors do not have the tools that Washington controls. Instead of using those tools, the federal government has undermined them. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which was the world’s leading disease response organization, has been eviscerated and has suffered dramatic testing and policy failures. The National Institutes of Health have played a key role in vaccine development but have been excluded from much crucial government decision making. And the Food and Drug Administration has been shamefully politicized, appearing to respond to pressure from the administration rather than scientific evidence….”

The editorial concludes:

“[T]ruth is neither liberal nor conservative. When it comes to the response to the largest public health crisis of our time, our current political leaders have demonstrated that they are dangerously incompetent. We should not abet them and enable the deaths of thousands more Americans by allowing them to keep their jobs.”

Specific impacts on Arlington

Donald Trump’s leadership failures regarding the COVID-19 pandemic have harmed Arlington residents in the same kinds of ways that those failures have harmed residents of Riverside, California, or Austin, Texas, or Oshkosh, Wisconsin, or Brunswick, Maine. But Trump has caused additional harm here in Arlington over and above the harm he has inflicted everywhere else.

White House Coronavirus Task Force member Dr. Anthony Fauci, who “has been a voice of logic and stability since the pandemic began,” identified the September 26 Rose Garden ceremony for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett as a COVID-19 super spreader event:

“[P]eople were crowded together, were not wearing masks. So the data speak for themselves,” Fauci told CBS News Radio host Steven Portnoy….A significant number of attendees of the Rose Garden ceremony later tested positive for COVID-19, including Trump… .”

This Rose Garden event led health departments from D.C. and nine other neighboring jurisdictions (including Arlington) to protest the lack of contact tracing and the increased risks to residents throughout the Washington region of contracting COVID-19.

The Coney Barrett event was not an isolated one in terms of specific Arlington health impacts. In August, Trump spoke to a crowd of several hundred at a Pentagon City hotel. “Reporters covering the event noted that many conference attendees did not seem to heed requests to physically distance and wear masks in the ballroom.”

Staffers at Trump’s Rosslyn HQ have been correctly criticized for not following CDC guidelines:

[S]taffers were not social distancing and no one was wearing masks, a likely violation of Virginia’s mask requirement for indoor public spaces … .”

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

The 2020 School Bond is worth $52.65 million. These bond funds will be used for the following projects:

Major infrastructure such as HVAC replacement which impacts air quality for schools: $15.4 million;

Building refreshes and kitchen renovations at ATS, Key and McKinley: $7.65 million;

Security entrances at Taylor, Gunston, Jefferson, Williamsburg, Wakefield: $5.30 million;

Planning and design to meet 10-year projected capacity needs at all school levels: $24.3 million*.

Arlington voters should vote YES, with the understanding that comprehensive long-term capital planning must be an urgent priority. More information on this bond is here.

Background

APS facilities are used more than 58,000 hours annually by the entire Arlington community, including: community membership in APS aquatics facilities; evening and weekend programs run by Arlington County Parks and Recreation; holiday and summer camps when schools are not in session; and a wide range of community fairs, arts events and other special meetings. All these uses are in addition to serving approximately 28,000 students in the pre-K through grade 12 programs.

When major work needs to be done ranging from replacing internal school systems or roofs, or if buildings require significant renovation, or additions or new buildings are to be built, these projects are referred to as Capital Improvement and Major Infrastructure Projects.

Why you should vote YES

This year, APS departed from the traditional 10-year Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) in order to align with the Arlington County FY 2021 CIP which is focused on the short-term due to the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This 2020 school bond sticks to sustainable decisions which address immediate needs without creating conflicts with imminent policy decisions under development in other departments. This school bond is focused on ensuring good financial stewardship by taking care of the facilities we have and carefully setting the stage for expected growth in the next 10 years.

I support a YES-vote. Read More

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

On September 15, The Arlington County Board approved a $3.8 million contract to design an ART operations and maintenance facility. Initially part of the Board’s non-public-comment consent agenda, this contract and its accompanying staff report had a lot to hide.

Background

The County purchased 2631 and 2635 Shirlington Road in 2018 for $24M with plans to use the space for a public facility. The 2018 Four Mile Run Valley (4MRV) Area Plan recommended the space optimize density (up to 120′) due to its strategic location adjacent to I-395.

Also, in 2018, the Board adopted a new community engagement strategy to integrate better public insights into community projects thus achieving better outcomes and controlling costs associated with late-in-plan changes.

The Green Valley Civic Association (GVCA) has repeatedly taken the County to task for its lack of community engagement, communication and resource allocation. During the 4MRV planning process, residents of this area offered comments like these to ARLnow.com: “[T]he county’s “engagement process was lousy from the beginning.” “[T]he county has indeed held plenty of meetings, it’s the quality of those meetings that [are a] concern.” In a June 2020 letter to the editor of the Sun-Gazette, GVCA leaders concluded: “It is no longer acceptable for the County to say “we’ll try to do better” or we’re “for equity.” [I]t’s past time to prove it.”

Community engagement

This new ART facility proposal designates public engagement at the county’s “involve” level, yet the county’s transportation department actions to date have fallen short on public engagement for this project. At the September 15 Board meeting, Chair Libby Garvey disparaged resident engagement thereby underscoring the county’s disdain for what the community brings to the planning process. Garvey apparently forgot that only two years ago she had proclaimed: “We need always to work to build trust that we are listening to our residents.”

Arlington County has been lauded in many surveys as having one of the most highly educated group of residents. Yet, this ART facility project demotes public input to just the “aesthetic elements.” Sadly, the county isn’t taking into consideration that community members may have better, and perhaps more strategic and innovative, ideas than the county about the use of scarce space.

The Board’s vote to hire an architect for $3.8M to prepare a concept plan with insufficient public consultation is likely to increase the costs of an already expensive project. The county now can reject any suggestions for improvements to the design due to the timing and cost to make changes.

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