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by Peter Rousselot May 24, 2018 at 2:45 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.

In a column last month, I recommended that everyone ought to keep an open mind regarding the instructional focus of an APS high school at the Career Center.

The premise of that column was that fiscal and physical constraints might combine to make it infeasible to locate a high school at the Career Center with all the onsite amenities that Wakefield, W-L and Yorktown have.

Developments over the past month make it clear what the costs and tradeoffs would be to replicate at the Career Center site all the onsite amenities available at the other three existing comprehensive high schools. In a May 7 APS CIP Work Session, it was shown that a “Full Build Out” for a high school at the Career Center site would cost $247.60 million in 2019 dollars.

This high cost, more than double what APS has ever spent on a school, would also mean that there would be far too little room available in our bonding capacity for other APS seat needs and other County priorities. A full Career Center build out could result in over 1,000 fewer seats for elementary and middle schools. Those students would need to be accommodated indefinitely in relocatable classrooms.

Montgomery County offers an attractive alternative

Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) offers high school choice within the Northeast and Downcounty Consortia, two clusters of roughly five high schools each, that offer unique programs. Each cluster also has provided students with specialized and attractive programs typically not found in traditional neighborhood high schools.

The lottery system used for admissions helps the district ensure that school enrollment among the high schools remains balanced, and that no school is over or undersubscribed. Rising ninth grade students rank the high schools in the consortia based on interest, and are guaranteed a spot at the school geographically closest to their place of residence only if they choose that school.

Academy and application-only programs include communication arts, the science, math and computer science magnet, International Baccalaureate and visual and performing arts, to name a few.

One high school campus in the Consortia houses both a comprehensive high school with various specialized programs (Wheaton) and a career/technology school (Edison). Wheaton partners with academic institutions like the University of Maryland, utilizes the latest design software technology and includes professional internships.

Edison, not unlike the current instructional focus at our Career Center, offers career and technology education programs and is open to upperclassmen at all MCPS schools.

For Arlington’s Career Center site, the current instructional focus could be enhanced to create a STEAM high school that fully integrates with the Career Center. As other districts have demonstrated, the demand for such a technologically enhanced career and college prep program would quickly grow.

Arlington, with its denser housing patterns, smaller geography, better public transportation and the participation of all its high schools, is in a better position to implement this or a similar model at a lower transportation cost than Montgomery County.

As in Montgomery, Arlington should consider participation in the Free and Reduced Meals (FARM) program as one of many factors that guide the student assignment process. This will enable Arlington to provide greater possibilities for socio-economic integration at the high school level than exist today.

Conclusion

Arlington should adopt the Montgomery County model.

by Peter Rousselot May 17, 2018 at 2:45 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.

Arlington’s Jennie Dean Park is named after Jennie Serepta Dean:

“A former slave, Dean … was a skilled fund-raiser, securing money from African American and white donors in Virginia and in northern cities to support her plan to open a school that would teach skilled trades to young African Americans.”

As part of the Four Mile Run Valley planning process, the County Board has been asked to choose this month between two alternative concept design options for Jennie Dean Park.

Options 1 (PDF pp. 13-14) and 2 (PDF pp. 15-16) are portrayed in a County staff report.

If the Board must decide between these two options this month, the Board should choose Option 2.

Principles for decision

The most reliable evidence of Arlington residents’ county-wide preferences for parks and recreation improvements is captured in the cross-tabs of the statistically-valid ETC survey. Every age group, as well as every geographic group, even households with children, had the same top two choices for improving our park and recreation system:

    1. Preserve trees and natural areas
    2. Acquire new parkland for passive — as opposed to active — uses

Option 2 more accurately reflects Arlington residents’ preferences

As explained in a recent letter to the editor, the Nauck Civic Association, via its President Portia Clark, unanimously supports Option 2 because:

“[T]he front of Jennie Dean Park, the portion fronting the neighborhood at Four Mile Run Drive [FMRD], will be left open for casual use. We want this area to be a gateway for the community to enter the Park. We want it to be green. We want it to be landscaped. We want it to have flowers and trees and open space.”

Option 2 would ensure that both sports fields are more distant and face away from homes in Nauck. Jennie Dean Park is entirely (100 percent) located within the boundaries of the Nauck Civic Association.

Option 1 less accurately reflects Arlington residents’ preferences

The Shirlington & Douglas Park Civic Associations support Option 1. In an online petition these two civic associations argue that choosing Option 1 “will say a lot about whether [Arlington] is a progressive community interested in planning for the future of families in Arlington.” But, neither Option 1 nor Option 2 is more “progressive” or “family-friendly” than the other option.

Some organized sports groups also believe that Option 1 is preferable because Arlington ultimately may not be able to acquire the current WETA site to incorporate into Jennie Dean Park. But, interestingly, the only option that removes playing space is Option 1. Option 2 retains all of the amenities currently there with notable upgrades in Phase 1.

Finally, the impact of new high Kelvin LED lights on the Nauck neighborhood has been glossed over. The proposed smaller lighted youth softball field 75 feet from 4MRD would become the dominant feature of the park facing Nauck after sundown under Option 1. This option would still result in unacceptable light pollution affecting park users, including Nauck residents.

Conclusion

Although no data about the costs of either option have been presented to the County Board, there appears to be a belief that if Arlington doesn’t spend or commit the money by the end of this fiscal year it will be gone forever. That seems an odd assumption, but if it is correct, then the Board should choose Option 2.

by Peter Rousselot May 10, 2018 at 2:45 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.

As our County Board Chair, Katie Cristol, said in an eloquent personal statement last month (after Arlington approved its Fiscal 2019 operating budget), the current rate of growth in our expenditures for the many things we value is no longer sustainable.

Our Chair elaborated:

“We can’t grow per-pupil annual increases in the transfer to Schools when the number of pupils are growing at the rates we’ve seen. We can’t increase the general fund contributions to Affordable Housing Investment [AHIF] fast enough to support every compelling affordable housing project, when projects a decade ago required $5 or $6 million in gap financing and current projects need $20 million.”

To enable our community to participate effectively in the hard budget decisions that lie immediately ahead, Arlington needs new approaches to quantify both the short-term and the long-term fiscal impacts of the population growth Arlington expects.

Short-term fiscal impacts

We need project-specific, prospective fiscal impact statements for each discretionary development project. New, large multi-unit residential projects do not pay for themselves. They produce more new costs than new revenues.

A recent “cost of community services” peer-reviewed survey of 125 jurisdictions nationwide found that the mean ratio was $1.18 of incremental costs incurred compared to every $1.00 of incremental revenues generated.

Project-specific, prospective fiscal impact statements were among the key recommendations of the 2015 Community Facilities Study Group (CSFG), chaired by former County Board member John Milliken. Such statements are important because they will inject vital, new, objective input into the County’s planning and budgeting.

Kinds of project-specific impact analyses

Most of our Northern Virginia neighbors already are using these tools. Examples include Stafford County, Loudoun County, Fauquier County and the City of Falls Church.

The noted regional economist, Dr. Stephen Fuller, prepared an analysis for Stafford County, and confirmed that residential development does not pay for itself. His analysis also informed an Urban Development Area presentation.

These kinds of analyses are ones that Arlington County staff could and should do internally. Advanced software is available that can be tailored to Arlington’s circumstances.

Arlington’s first steps toward fiscal impact analyses

At its April 21 meeting, under the leadership of John Vihstadt, the County Board took some first steps in the direction of fiscal impact analyses.

As part of its budget guidance, the Board directed the County Manager to develop for Board review by the end of this calendar year a plan for preparing and making public periodic, retroactive cost-benefit analyses of new residential and commercial developments on an aggregate rather than a project-specific basis.

But, greater progress is being blocked once again by the Arlington County attorney’s resistance to the CFSG recommendation for prospective, project-specific fiscal impact analyses. He is unwilling to publish his detailed legal reasoning for review by independent legal experts.

Longer-term fiscal impacts

The County and APS should collaborate to develop financial projections out to 2035 for both capital and operating budget spending, utilizing at least three assumptions: most likely case, optimistic case(s), pessimistic case(s).

The results of these projections, together with the major assumptions underlying them, should be published and shared for discussion with the community.

Conclusion

The County Board needs to deploy new approaches to the fiscal impacts of development. This will enable Arlington residents to weigh in knowledgeably on how much we should spend on each thing we value.

by Peter Rousselot May 3, 2018 at 2:45 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.

When a developer requests a zoning change to increase allowable density, Arlington County has a set of rules under which the County can approve of such a request contingent on the developer’s willingness to agree to one or more conditions.

The County maintains a list of these “community benefits” conditions, noting in part that they are intended to:

  • “Ameliorate a project’s impacts on surrounding property, as well as any additional height and/or density or other bonuses that may be approved or modifications to Zoning Ordinance standards proposed by a developer, or”
  • “Are in exchange for bonuses and other benefits approved as part of the project.”

The County’s current community benefits conditions have failed to adequately address some developmental impacts

Rapidly increasing student enrollment rates and increasingly crowded parks are two important impacts of many discretionary development projects, particularly those involving new large multi-unit residential buildings. But, the County has:

  • failed entirely to request cash or in-kind schools’ contribution conditions
  • asked only occasionally for contribution conditions relating to park land and open space

Other Virginia jurisdictions routinely quantify impacts on schools and parks, and those jurisdictions impose conditions to ameliorate such impacts in appropriate circumstances.

Impact on schools of incremental enrollment

In Falls Church, voluntary school capital contributions have been a staple of past agreements with developers of mixed-use projects.

The Fairfax fiscal impact model has explicitly considered school impacts since 2003.

Fairfax determines a per-student generation factor by housing type, and estimates how many students are anticipated from the particular mix of housing units in each proposed development. Fairfax then computes a per-student cost for each project, which when multiplied times the number of students anticipated from the project, yields the total incremental enrollment cost that forms the basis for negotiations with the developer.

Important updates to the Fairfax model (effective July 1, 2016) are discussed below.

Impact on schools and parks of incremental usage

Under the updated Fairfax development impact model, benefits for incremental school or park usage negotiated with a developer do not have to be limited to creation or refurbishment of a school or park within the boundaries of the site of the proposed project — so long as those benefits are reasonable in amount and address impacts that are specifically attributable to the residential use component of the project.

Parks include playgrounds and other recreational facilities. Such off-site benefits must provide a direct and material benefit to residents of the proposed project. Both on-site and off-site benefits for schools or parks can include cash.

Conclusion

Neither the Dillon Rule, nor any Virginia state law, nor any Arlington ordinance expressly prohibit Arlington County from requesting a reasonable cash or in-kind contribution from a developer as a condition to address these kinds of schools and parks impacts.

Nevertheless, the Arlington County attorney insists that Arlington is not legally authorized to condition discretionary development projects to address such impacts. However, our County Attorney is unwilling to provide a detailed public explanation so that independent legal experts can examine his reasoning.

Our County Attorney’s refusal to provide such an explanation is unreasonable. If his opinion is correct, Arlington could seek legal changes in Richmond to enable us to do what other Virginia jurisdictions already do. If his opinion is wrong, Arlington should adjust its rules to enable reasonable schools and parks conditions in appropriate discretionary development projects.

File photo

by Peter Rousselot April 26, 2018 at 2:45 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.

Arlington Public Schools (APS) currently plans to add more than 800 high school seats at the Career Center site between 2022-2024.

Late last year, APS and the County appointed a joint working group to consider alternative options for the future development of this site.

In parallel, APS is considering what the instructional focus of this high school should be and what it will cost to build it.

The charge provided to the Career Center Working Group affirms that both the County Board and the School Board are committed to “a process to analyze, evaluate, and plan how to optimize the site in the long term within the context of existing Arlington Public Schools (APS) high schools and the broader Arlington community.”

How to decide

The final decision regarding what kind of high school should be located at the Career Center site must be made with a full understanding of the long-term fiscal implications for the broader Arlington community of APS’ seat needs at every grade level (K-12).

Any decision to commit too many financial resources to any one kind of school at any one site will mean that there may not be adequate funding for future seat needs.

Neighborhood Comprehensive High School 

One of several possible high school instructional options at the Career Center site is a neighborhood comprehensive high school with multiple on-site amenities. There appears to be significant support for this option in the surrounding neighborhood. Other communities are beginning to weigh in with a mix of perspectives.

STEAM Option High School, with neighborhood enrollment preference

A STEAM option high school, with neighborhood enrollment preference, might be a better option at the Career Center site if the direct and opportunity costs of a neighborhood comprehensive high school with multiple on-site amenities — field space, aquatic center, performing arts facilities — prove too high.

Imagine a high school with a focus on project-based learning that could utilize the existing specialized Career Technical Education (CTE) facilities and enhance them with new state-of-the-art classrooms and academic programs.

An expanded program of studies could offer AP courses, fine arts electives and classes that span diverse subject areas, in addition to the existing Dual Enrollment classes for high school and college credit at Arlington Tech and the Career Center.

Arlington has a unique opportunity to build upon its strong and growing CTE programs which align very well with Virginia’s evolving “Profile of a Graduate.”

As a specialized option high school open to all students, with a broad base of course offerings, it could have a small attendance zone to encourage walkability and neighborhood support, much like a neighborhood high school.

It also could have a broad selection of sports and extracurriculars–either Virginia High School League sponsored sports or intramural sports and activities. Rooftop field space should be studied as part of the design for this unique, multistory, urban campus.

Ideally, students from the other Arlington high schools and programs could still take CTE classes at the Career Center. This STEAM high school could be a valuable resource for all Arlington families and a forward-looking civic landmark for the communities along Columbia Pike.

Conclusion

No final decision regarding the nature of the kind of high school to be located at the Career Center site should be made without a full, transparent, county-wide discussion regarding the direct and opportunity costs of each alternative compared to other alternatives.

by Peter Rousselot April 19, 2018 at 2:45 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.

Full Virginia Medicaid expansion is the top 2018 legislative priority.

I strongly support this priority to ensure that our most vulnerable citizens gain health coverage.

7,700 currently uninsured Arlington residents will have much healthier lives with full Medicaid expansion.

However, since Democrats lack a majority in both legislative branches, they must make a deal with Virginia Republicans to expand Medicaid.

Virginia House of Delegates

In the House of Delegates (HOD), the dam broke earlier this year during the regular legislative session when Del. Terry Kilgore (R-Scott), the Chairman of the HOD Commerce and Labor Committee, announced he would back expansion because, according to The Washington Post, “his struggling coal-country district would get the ‘hand up’ it desperately needs if more uninsured Virginians were made eligible for the federal-state health-care program.”

Kilgore’s announcement was key to gaining the support of a substantial number of additional HOD Republican legislators who have supported an HOD budget plan. From the Richmond-Times Dispatch:

“That would accept $3.2 billion in federal money to pay for 90 percent of the cost of expanding the program on Jan. 1, 2019 [to 300,000 Virginians], while relying on a new ‘provider assessment’ on hospital revenues to cover the state’s share of the cost of health coverage for currently uninsured Virginians whose care is uncompensated.”

However, these HOD Republicans joined Kilgore in tying their support to certain conditions and limitations:

“Kilgore said work requirements like those the Trump administration has allowed Kentucky to impose, coupled with a mandate that recipients contribute a ‘small co-pay,’ would make for “a conservative approach” to expansion.”

Virginia Senate

At least two Republican Senators now have conditionally endorsed expansion. From The Washington Post:

“One of them — Emmett W. Hanger Jr. (Augusta) — has supported certain forms of expansion for years, though he opposes the hospital tax [‘provider assessment’].”

Frank W. Wagner (R-Virginia Beach) last week authored a guest column in which he supported expansion under certain conditions. From the Post:

“Those include a tax credit for middle-income people who already have insurance but are struggling to pay soaring premiums and co-pays. He also wants to beef up the work requirement that the House wants imposed on Medicaid recipients.”

Expansion scenarios now

There are at least 5 possible Medicaid expansion scenarios:

  1. Expansion with a perk for lower-middle class. Wagner’s proposal.
  2. Expansion but no hospital tax. Hanger’s proposal.
  3. Expansion with work requirements.The HOD proposal.
  4. Full expansion, no work requirements. Northam’s proposal; unlikely to happen.
  5. No expansion at all. That’s what 19 Senate Republicans currently say they want; unlikely to happen.

Conclusion

As Governor Northam has advocated, Democrats’ long-term goal must continue to be full Medicaid expansion. But, overriding even that goal, Democrats must help people who are dying, or who are much sicker than they need to be because of untreated illnesses. For this reason, Democrats should make the best possible deal with Republicans.

Support for Medicaid expansion has been provided by leading business groups like the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce. This has led to major Republican support expressed by the chairs of the General Assembly’s Commerce and Labor committees. New Republican HOD Speaker Cox’s support also is noteworthy.

A final decision on Medicaid expansion probably is weeks away because:

  • hundreds of millions of spending on other budget needs are tied to Medicaid expansion
  • Senate Republican leaders want to see new revenue projections first

by Peter Rousselot April 12, 2018 at 2:45 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.

In two columns last fall, I asked: Does County government commit too much surplus revenue for spending?

Progress on unallocated closeout surplus

In his proposed FY 2019 budget, County Manager Mark Schwartz notes that he has whittled down the level of surplus funds available at closeout.

“[T]he amount of funds that are ‘discretionary’ for allocation at closeout have been reduced annually ($11.1 million in FY 2017, compared to $17.8 million in FY 2016 and $21.8 million in FY 2015). Of those closeout funds that have been made available, immediate spending has been limited to commitments already made by the Board or for emergency needs,” the budget wrote.

This is a positive step.

More budget reforms

However, of these closeout funds, the majority remaining after allocating the APS revenue-sharing portion is automatically allocated to “commitments already made by the Board.” Missing is a clear, written policy explaining how, when and why these other “commitments” were made.

The County Board essentially has allowed the manager to allocate/spend the remaining closeout funds without adequate opportunities for residents to weigh in on millions of dollars of spending.

The Civic Federation has asked that a fair and reasonable portion of surplus funds be plowed back into the coming-fiscal-year budget to reduce the need for a tax-rate increase. County officials, however, claim that best practices dictate that surplus funds be used only for “one-time” purposes since the county cannot rely on future surpluses to meet ongoing needs.

But there is no written, publicly available policy clearly defining what a “one-time” expenditure is, and this “one-time” money is often spent on recurring needs.

What experts say

At a County Board work session last spring, Public Financial Management, Inc. (PFM) described how other jurisdictions manage their fund balance accounts.

PFM noted that Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties have a 10 percent operating/contingency reserve, twice Arlington’s level.

PFM also observed that:

  • Arlington’s General Fund reserve policy levels are below the median level and among the lowest in the triple-A group (Arlington’s bond-rating peer group).
  • FY 2016 is the second consecutive year of decline in the General Fund balance ratio, and this could begin to concern Moody’s, if it becomes a trend.

More County Board oversight

Too often, committed and allocated funds are established in the fund balance with substantial cash accumulating over time, apparently with little or no monitoring of the reasonableness of the balances. New York State’s Local Government Management Guide on Reserve Funds warns against this.

“Reserve funds should not be merely a ‘parking lot’ for excess cash or fund balances,” the guide wrote. 

The County Board should answer questions like these:

  • Has the financial purpose served by each reserve fund been identified and published?
  • Has a written reserve fund policy been developed and published?
  • Has the Board reviewed all reserve funds currently established, and determined if the balances in each are reasonable?

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by Peter Rousselot April 5, 2018 at 2:45 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.

In last week’s column, I discussed a helpful new report on APS Future Facilities Needs prepared by the Advisory Council on School Facilities and Capital Programs.

The new report makes a compelling case that APS must pivot to a new way of thinking and decision making about capital projects. One commenter offered the following observation, “Yes of course but what is the ‘new way’? Some specifics would be nice.”

Today’s column offers some specifics.

Fiscal responsibility & long-range planning

Every future facilities decision should be made with fiscal responsibility and long-range planning as primary factors. The County and APS should collaborate to develop financial projections out to 2035 for both capital and operating budget spending, utilizing at least three assumptions: most likely case, optimistic case(s), pessimistic case(s).

The results of those projections, together with the major assumptions underlying them, should be published and shared for discussion with the community.

County & APS collaboration on site selection

The County needs to work with APS to find some sites for some new schools, starting with the next elementary in the new 2018 APS Capital Improvement Plan (CIP).

The County should adopt a land acquisition program to acquire acreage for school sites many years before the new schools would need to open. The County & APS should appoint a new task force, comprised of qualified, independent real estate professionals, to assist APS in negotiating for school space in vacant office space.

County-wide focus on locating new seats

Every decision on where to locate new seats should be made with a full understanding of the impacts of that decision on all of Arlington — not just the impacts on the immediately-proximate neighborhood.

Every community needs to be prepared to deal with some more intensified use of current buildings and sites. Congestion will grow inside and outside our schools. Every community will need to shoulder part of the burden, although the details will look different in each case.

APS & County resident-engagement

We must cut down on the average time it takes (currently up to 5 years) to get a new school on line. We also must introduce cost considerations into every stage of our engagement processes.

We need reformed civic engagement processes in which the public can weigh in early enough concerning a manageable number of budget-driving alternative options. We cannot continue with processes in which residents or staff are enabled to add one feature after another, never being told what the costs of doing so are nor that APS can afford X or Y but not both.

New CIP must include plans for enrollment growth beyond 2028

Last week’s column discussed the compelling evidence for future enrollment growth well beyond 2028. We won’t have enough capital funds or land (or money for land) to build up to 8 more schools beyond 2028 and service the debt in our operating budget. We need different (non-building) solutions to accommodate such further growth.

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by Peter Rousselot March 29, 2018 at 2:45 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.

A helpful new Future Facilities Needs Report (“Future Facilities report”) from the APS Advisory Council on School Facilities and Capital Programs (“FAC”) makes a compelling case for new approaches to school facilities planning.

This new report was first presented to the School Board at its March 22 meeting.

Better seamless collaboration between APS and the Arlington County government is critical.

Longer-term school facilities planning, 2029-2035

As explained further in the new report, the best population and enrollment estimates available to APS and Arlington County demonstrate that APS will have significant needs for additional new seats and new schools beyond the conclusion of the planning horizon of APS’ new Capital Improvement Plan (CIP), i.e., from 2029-2035.

If APS student enrollment reaches any of these levels, these are the number of additional new schools that may be required (over and above current and planned capacity):

As of today, there are no plans regarding where these students will attend school.

We must engage now in longer-term planning to answer that question. The pressures of growing enrollment, budget restraints, limited land, space and bonding capacity mean it is no longer responsible to make these decisions in isolation from other decisions on where to locate county facilities.

APS Capital Improvement Plan, 2019-2028

The new CIP that APS now is preparing is intended to guide investments in new school facilities over the next ten years. Every decision APS makes on capital projects must examine both short-term needs and long-term implications. APS must address the needs for new seats in a way that provides the additional capacity on time and on budget.

On March 22, FAC Chair Stacy Snyder summarized the FAC’s views regarding the new CIP:

The projections, timing and seat needs we have identified are as follows:

  • 725 new elementary school seats in 2025 or 2026
  • A need for additional middle school capacity in 2022, 2023 or 2024
  • 500-600 high school seats in 2021 and an additional 700-800 in 2023, 2024 or 2025

We have not recently been in an environment in Arlington in which we haven’t been able to afford to build new schools exactly how we want them or to find a place for them. But, that is the situation in which we find ourselves today.

We should seize this opportunity to develop positive, new and innovative solutions so that before we reach a certain population size we are prepared, and have positive, cost conscious and forward thinking solutions in place.

Every decision must be made transparently in the context of understanding the impacts on APS’ overall seat needs, and how that decision fits within APS’ overall budget. It’s critical for APS to “show your work,” and make it clear to the community what APS’ financial and physical constraints are. Cost must be an important consideration at every stage.

Conclusion

APS must pivot to a new way of thinking and decision making about capital projects.

APS and the County Board must collaborate to develop a comprehensive and strategic long-range plan for land use and capital projects across the county.

Residents and taxpayers must participate in decisions that explicitly recognize the trade-offs and the impacts of APS’ proposals on the entire Arlington community.

by Peter Rousselot March 22, 2018 at 2:45 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.

APS began its one-to-one student device program five years ago. Since then, substantial new research has been released documenting the harmful effects of prolonged exposure to such devices, particularly in early childhood.

Device exposure is especially harmful in early childhood

By beginning the current one-to-one program in second grade rather than first grade, APS tacitly has acknowledged the risks of excessive exposure to these devices at too young an age. Young children are hard-wired to respond to facial cues and learn from watching other human beings, not digital screens. Young children are more susceptible to screen addiction.

APS should start to phase out the one-to-one program beginning with the second-grade class in 2018, followed by the third-grade class in school year 2019-2020. Further phase outs should be considered in subsequent years.

Device usage policies need revision

After five years, APS is still struggling to develop policies regarding how these devices should be used. APS cannot prove how these devices improve educational outcomes. Too much responsibility is allocated to children and not enough to APS staff.

Parents are provided no opportunity to opt out, even if their child is falling behind due to overuse or misuse of technology in the classroom. There must be more accountability. Additional limits should be placed on when and how much teachers can use technology.

Decouple one-to-one program from “personalized learning” in new strategic plan

APS is developing a new strategic plan.

In the current strategic plan at APS, one of the worthy goals is “Development of the Whole Child.” Part of APS’ current approach to this goal is what APS calls “personalized learning,” and the one-to-one device program plays a central role in that goal.

In APS’ new strategic plan, the one-to-one program should no longer be an integral part of personalized learning. A June 2017 comprehensive history of the development of personalized learning provides a withering critique of the risks of making personal digital learning devices a central part of personalized learning. The article describes at least four other approaches to personalized learning that do not entail such heavy reliance on personal digital learning devices.

Other relevant sources also criticizing such heavy reliance are available here, here and here.

The one-to-one program actually is a form of depersonalized learning.

The current linkage between personal digital learning devices and personalized learning at APS schools should be severed. It should be replaced with an alternative approach centered on human interactions (not involving digital learning devices) between APS students and APS instructional staff.

Conclusion

To address appropriate concerns about the digital divide and the benefits that access to devices provide for many children with special needs, APS should convert the current one-to-one program in second and third grades into a new program that provides APS devices to students based upon the application of economic criteria like those in the free and reduced meals (FARM) program. This new program should be based on a shared-device model.

APS devices should include tracking and monitoring apps so that non-educational use and overall screen time (combining in-school and outside-school use) can be objectively measured by both APS and parents.

APS should be completely transparent about total costs and per-pupil costs associated with these devices, including insurance, maintenance and administrative costs. This information is critical to enable Arlington taxpayers to evaluate costs vs benefits.

by Peter Rousselot March 15, 2018 at 2:45 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.

At a February 20 work session, the County Board reviewed and discussed the latest draft of the Public Open Spaces Master Plan (POPS plan).

The Board properly decided to delay final adoption of the POPS plan until fall 2018. The latest draft is based on some serious methodological flaws and faulty data.

A revised draft is expected to be posted for public comment later this spring.

The final POPS plan should serve as a suitable guide to make investments in priorities that are analytically sound. This requires that the final plan be evidenced-based, internally consistent and responsive to the expressed priorities and needs of the entire community.

Draft POPS plan ignores the most important statistically-valid ETC survey findings

A major flaw in the current draft is its failure even to discuss the most reliable evidence of Arlington residents’ preferences for parks and recreation improvements. That evidence is captured in the cross-tabs of the statistically-valid ETC survey.

Each age group was asked to rank their priorities 1-8 for park and recreation system improvements. Every age group, as well as every geographic group, even households with children, came up with the same top two choices for improving our park and recreation system:

  1. Preserve trees and natural areas
  2. Acquire new parkland for passive–as opposed to active–uses

The final POPS plan needs to be designed around, and be responsive to, this vital information in the ETC survey.

Much increased clarity is needed concerning proposed Levels of Service for park uses

The current draft plan contains a chart which proposes future Levels of Service (LOS) for recreational and park activities. The draft also contains vague language about how the results were obtained, including “tak[ing] into account” some variables (pp. 241- 243). But, the draft does not explain how each variable was calculated, nor how each variable was weighted against each other variable. This is especially true for “resident priorities,” listed only as “high” “medium” and “low.”

The LOS comparisons between Arlington and what are alleged to be Arlington’s “peer cities” also are seriously flawed. The current LOS for sports fields in Arlington already is significantly (33-300%) better than those provided by all but one of the four peer cities identified. The only exception is St. Paul, Minn. which has triple the amount of parkland and twice the amount of overall land as Arlington.

The Friends of Aurora Highlands Parks group published two newsletters discussing other variables, parkland totals and field capacity. That discussion demonstrates that a disproportionate ratio of Arlington’s parkland is dedicated to fields compared to its peer city and national averages.

Conclusion

Attempts to set unrealistically high LOS goals for Arlington would be a profound mistake.

Such a mistake would be even more disturbing because the millions of dollars in costs/losses the community would be asked to absorb are unnecessary. Without sacrificing trees, natural areas or casual use open space to build excessive sports infrastructure, Arlington can continue to rival top-tier communities nationwide throughout the POPS planning horizon by:

  • increasing transparency in scheduling
  • optimizing utilization and monitoring it more closely
  • doing a better job of maintaining the sports fields we already have

The current draft POPS plan addresses none of these opportunities to be the best possible stewards of Arlington’s park and recreation system resources. The final POPS plan must do so.

by Peter Rousselot March 8, 2018 at 2:45 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.

With the release of the APS Superintendent’s FY 2019 proposed $636.7M budget, it’s prudent to examine more closely APS’ model for delivering instruction since educating students should be APS’ primary function.

Has the educational mantra, “From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side”, gone too far in our APS classrooms today?

Today’s APS classrooms

Currently, every student in grades 2-12 possesses their own APS-issued iPad or MacBook Air purchased with our tax dollars. With these devices in every hand, has the internet become the new de facto teacher and content expert? Are our teachers’ roles being transformed into:

  • Facilitators of accessing online content?
  • Administrators of online assessments?
  • Managers of student work production?

In this new digital-learning age, will our teachers hold center stage, or defer to a student–issued device? Will our students be guinea pigs in untested teaching initiatives? Who is ultimately accountable for each student’s achievement and well-being? Has continuous internet access for every student become too big a crutch in our classrooms, leaving behind students who want and need a live person as their primary educational resource?

In sum, is APS on a trajectory to use technology to enhance our teachers’ instructional delivery, or to replace it?

Are we getting what we pay for?

77.7% of the Superintendent’s proposed FY 2019 budget (at p. 5) is attributed to salaries and benefits costs.

At $80,082, APS ranks second highest in Average Teacher Salaries according to the 2018 Washington Area Boards of Education (WABE) Guide (at pp. 5-15).

The Superintendent’s latest budget document should be reorganized in the transparent way necessary to enable the community to understand the full costs of technology use at every grade level.

Community concerns

In my own review of the many concerns about these issues expressed on social media by APS parents, I was particularly struck by comments like these:

“My child’s high school science class last year was entirely taught on the computers. It was not a distance learning class–the teacher was sitting in the classroom the whole time as the students watched video lectures. When students asked questions, the teacher referred them back to their computers. It was the most alienating experience and my child struggled to get interested in the subject. I think we have gone too far at APS.”

“I just heard a mom today compare her kid’s APS high school class to online courses with their APS lap top – YIKES.”

Conclusion

Our community needs to discuss these broader unanswered questions, not simply the current needlessly-narrow discussion regarding APS’ so-called “Acceptable Use Policy” relating to student-issued devices. We should be discussing all the broader educational and financial issues regarding how APS is using technology to deliver instruction at every grade level.

Our community needs to examine relevant data, discuss and decide if we want and can afford too many students having a distance/virtual learning experience though their devices, while sitting in our costly APS buildings, and being supervised by the second-highest paid teachers in the region.

As we continue to add 4,646 more students to APS by 2027, the scenario of paying top dollar for salaries, state-of-the art technology, and buildings with space for every student isn’t fiscally sustainable.

Something has to give.

by Peter Rousselot March 1, 2018 at 2:45 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.

On February 22, Arlington County Manager Mark Schwartz presented his proposed FY 2019 Annual Operating Budget. It’s balanced at the current real estate tax rate.

Some aspects of the manager’s budget are commendable, particularly the short-term focus on core services, coupled with many sensible cuts, to close a $20.5 million budget gap.

Other aspects are troubling, exposing a lack of long-term financial planning relating to many of the same core services.

Commendable

The manager’s budget appropriately focuses on several core service areas, including:

  • increasing public safety personnel salaries and benefits to remain competitive in recruitment and retention
  • Metro
  • Arlington Public Schools (APS)

The manager notes his proposed budget “includes the first installment of a multi-year plan to gradually reduce the workweek for firefighters.”

The manager observes that his budget meets the Metro request “for a 3 percent increase in operating funding, while relying on a comprehensive solution (among Virginia, Maryland, and the District) to meet our capital obligations.”

His budget “meets the commitment to Arlington Public Schools articulated as part of the Revenue Sharing Principles (local taxes split with 53.4 percent to the County and 46.6 percent to APS) and provides an additional $13.4 million in ongoing funding compared to FY 2018.”

Troubling

Both the manager and the APS superintendent dance around the operating budget implications of APS’ projected enrollment growth. That’s troubling. This is an example–but only one example–of both the manager and the superintendent failing appropriately to engage the community regarding many important long-term financial issues at stake.

The manager states: “increasing taxes each year to meet school enrollment needs is not sustainable.” He’s right, but he fails to provide the community with a quantitative explanation why increasing taxes each year to meet school enrollment needs is not fiscally sustainable.

Moreover, he has not provided the community with a manageable number of alternative options that are fiscally sustainable. Finally, the manager should explain why continuously increasing APS’ current 46.6 percent share of local tax revenues is not sustainable.

Meanwhile, the superintendent says that because APS is on pace to grow to 30,000 students by 2021, “we’ve got to begin to think about a sustainable future.” He also fails to provide the community with a manageable number of alternative quantitative options that achieve a fiscally sustainable future.

The time merely “to begin to think” about these financial issues is over. The time to think about these financial issues extensively, involving the community at every stage of the process, is now!

An over-simplified example is illustrative. The superintendent’s proposed operating budget assumes per-pupil expenditures of $19,235. APS’ latest enrollment projections show enrollment growing from 28,020 in 2017 to 32,666 by 2027. If that projected enrollment growth of 4,646 students is multiplied by the assumed per-pupil expenditures, that would add $89,365,810 of expenditures into the operating budget by 2027 solely to support the increase in enrollment.

Conclusion

It is highly unlikely that County tax revenues will rise sufficiently by 2027 to cover an $89,365,810 increase in spending solely to support an increase in current APS enrollment. What are the major alternative options available to address such a projected budget gap, and which ones command the greatest community support?

The County Board and School Board should collaborate quickly to present the major alternative financial options to the community, inviting the community to say which options the community prefers.

by Peter Rousselot February 22, 2018 at 2:45 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.

Virginia Medicaid expansion is the top 2018 legislative priority for Virginia Democrats. Since Democrats lack a majority in both legislative branches, they must make a deal with Virginia Republicans to expand Medicaid.

Discussion

Prospects for such a deal have improved significantly in the House of Delegates (HOD). But, the Senate budget bill is disappointing.

Last Thursday, Delegate Terry Kilgore (R-Scott), chairman of the HOD Commerce and Labor Committee:

“said his struggling coal-country district would get the ‘hand up’ it desperately needs if more uninsured Virginians were made eligible for the federal-state health-care program.”

Kilgore also suggested other HOD Republicans are ready to join him:

“‘I’m not that far out on a limb. We have to step up, we can’t be the party of ‘no,”said Kilgore. He said at least 15 Republican House delegates will likely vote with him on the issue.”

Virginia Democratic Governor Ralph Northam welcomed Kilgore’s announcement:

Governor Northam thanks Delegate Kilgore for sharing his ideas about how to expand health coverage for Virginians who need it… He is encouraged by discussions with members of both parties on this important issue and believes we can reach an agreement that works for everyone.”

This past Sunday, the firewall against Medicaid expansion fell further in the HOD under a budget plan

“that would accept $3.2 billion in federal money to pay for 90 percent of the cost of expanding the program on Jan. 1, 2019 [to 300,000 Virginians], while relying on a new ‘provider assessment’ on hospital revenues to cover the state’s share of the cost of health coverage for currently uninsured Virginians whose care is uncompensated.”

It’s useful to review the conditions and limitations which some HOD Republicans now are advancing as the price of their support for Medicaid expansion:

“Kilgore said work requirements like those the Trump administration has allowed Kentucky to impose, coupled with a mandate that recipients contribute a ‘small co-pay,’ would make for ‘a conservative approach’ to expansion.”

Would most Democrats prefer no work requirements–even for “able-bodied adults”? Absolutely. But, if Democrats rigidly insist on what I agree is a much more humane approach, the most likely outcome is no Medicaid expansion at all.

Democrats will have to choose between an unattainable (in this legislature, this year) ideal, or a significant increase in the numbers of low income Virginians who get health insurance. We should put people’s needs first.

The HOD budget proposal on Medicaid expansion sets up a potential showdown with the Virginia Senate. It’s Finance Committee has said “it will not include full Medicaid expansion in the budget.”

This Finance Committee proposal would extend coverage to an additional 20,000 low-income people with mental illness, addiction or chronic disease–compared to the 300,000 who would be covered under the HOD budget plan. But, the Senate proposal lacks any financing mechanism.

Conclusion

Democrats’ long-term goal must continue to be full Medicaid expansion. But overriding that goal, we must help people who are dying, or who are much sicker than they need to be because of untreated illnesses.

Even with its significant flaws, the HOD budget bill represents the high-water mark for Medicaid expansion in this legislative session. Democrats should now focus on a legislative strategy to convince key Republican state senators to adopt the approach of HOD Republicans who support Medicaid expansion.

by Peter Rousselot February 15, 2018 at 2:45 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.

ARLnow.com reported last Thursday that Arlington County has posted for public comment a 54-page draft “Framework” document that is intended to guide future development of the Four Mile Run Valley (4MRV) area.

Public comments must be posted by tomorrow, Friday, February 16.

Current draft very confusing

The current draft Framework is confusing, redundant and contradictory, making it impossible for an ordinary Arlington resident to know what it means, or which proposed action items might be implemented.

This failure might be welcome if it were clear that the Framework couldn’t be relied upon as justification for proceeding with any of the poorly conceived suggestions that were floated earlier in the 4MRV planning process: for example, adding excessive density, disregarding the community’s preferences for Jennie Dean Park, or creating an arts district.

Unfortunately, the Framework’s substantive ambiguity lends itself to justifying almost any iteration of the often-competing goals and alternatives listed in the Framework, including those noted above.

Excessive density

Appropriately, the draft acknowledges the unsuitability of dense redevelopment for most of the 4MRV area, which lies in a floodway/floodplain. Yet, the Framework lacks any actual plans to reduce runoff by removing hardscape or buildings — instead, planning to add more.

Also discussed are the extensive measures that are needed to remediate decades of environmental damage to the two streams (Four Mile Run and Nauck Branch). However, the majority of the draft discusses how to carve up and develop all this land.

Compared to the earlier versions staff/consultants presented to the 4MRV Working Group, there seem to be fewer/smaller areas to add a lot more density/housing. And, the proposal to retain the existing industrial area for continued industrial use — for which we have great need — would be a plus, if confirmed.

For any particular parcel, however, an ordinary resident cannot determine, in most cases, which potential use the plan will apply to that parcel after the plan’s adoption — or how that use might differ from today’s use.

Prior to the County Board’s final plan adoption, it should direct County staff to provide the community with the numbers of new housing units staff expects will be added with and without this draft plan’s adoption. In addition to these useful metrics (to assess the plan’s likely impact), the public should also receive ratios of added density to added parkland acres within the plan’s boundaries.

Jennie Dean Park

Given the community’s desire that the “portion of the park fronting the neighborhood at Four Mile Run Drive be left open for casual use” and avoid locating fields or courts adjacent to Four Mile Run Drive, the County Board should direct staff to honor those preferences.

Arts district

As I wrote recently, the County Board should adopt a comprehensive, easily understood, 21st century arts policy determining when, where and how Arlington should subsidize the arts before entertaining proposals to create an arts district in the 4MRV area.

Conclusion

Given the current draft Framework’s nebulous state, more work needs to be done to clarify the plan. Residents have a right to know exactly what is and is not being proposed, and to give County Board members meaningful feedback. Only then will Board members be able to make an informed decision as to the likely costs, impacts and desirability of the Framework’s outcomes.

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