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by Peter Rousselot — May 26, 2016 at 12:15 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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 May 9, APS Superintendent Patrick Murphy presented his preliminary recommendations regarding how APS’ Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) could reduce APS’ 4,600 total seat deficit in 2025. Murphy’s preliminary recommendations reduced only 53% of that deficit.

On May 17, the School Board (SB) reviewed and discussed Murphy’s recommendations. Dissatisfied with Murphy’s priorities, the SB adopted its own series of “key points,” including:

  • Increasing enrollment in the Arlington Tech Program at the Arlington Career Center.
  • Other options that place a higher priority on reducing the projected 2,775 HS seat deficit in 2025.
  • Possibilities for using the Reed building and site to develop a new elementary school to help reduce the projected 1,387 ES seat deficit in 2025.
  • Future additions at several North Arlington elementary schools further to relieve elementary overcrowding.

On May 24, in a joint work session with the County Board, the SB made significant further proposed changes to its CIP. These had not been posted on the County’s website when this column was submitted.

As a top instructional priority, APS should commit to a fourth comprehensive high school

The SB was correct to place a higher priority on solutions for the HS seat deficit, and the SB’s May 24 presentation claims to eliminate that deficit by 2025. However, the SB has not yet committed to making a fourth comprehensive HS part of the solution. It should.

In an earlier column, I outlined the case for a fourth comprehensive HS, including the extensive academic research documenting why 3,000 seat comprehensive high schools are a bad idea. Arlington cannot and should not rely solely on other initiatives like Arlington Tech, online learning, university partnerships, double shifting, or extending the school day.

On its own, and working collaboratively with the County, APS must significantly reduce the per-square-foot cost of new facilities construction

Under the CIP scenario presented on May 24, there are still significant elementary and middle school seat deficits in 2025, and those assume that actual enrollment does not exceed projected enrollment.

APS needs to adopt new approaches to reducing per-square foot costs:

  • In consultation with disinterested outside experts, APS and the County should conduct a stem-to-stern review of all aspects of APS’ procurement, bidding, design, and construction practices. If Arlington continues to pay for APS’ current version of new facilities customization, overcrowding will grow and instructional quality will erode.
  • Other school systems are embracing new modular school technologies. APS staff insists modular isn’t a good option in most Arlington circumstances. Do disinterested outside experts agree with APS?

In exchange for APS’ agreement to significantly reduce the per-square-foot cost of new facilities construction, the County should provide APS with land and a higher % share of bonding capacity

If APS commits to a new era of more frugal construction through standardization, the County — within the constraints of its “10% rule” on debt service — should give:

  • APS county land (but not current parkland), and
  • a higher % share of total Arlington bonding capacity.

To finance this commitment, the County should defer some proposed County investments until later in the CIP planning period.

Conclusion

Adopting a more frugal approach to procurement, bidding, design and construction, in exchange for county land and greater bonding capacity, will get us much closer to eliminating our current capacity crisis at a price we can afford.

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

by Peter Rousselot — May 12, 2016 at 1:00 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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. 

Last month, Arlington County unveiled its latest proposal for an Aquatics Center at Long Bridge Park. The County has dropped a few of the more excessive features from its last public proposal, but only after a firestorm of justified public opposition. The County also has acknowledged that the facility should be “community” focused, highlighting the relative lack of aquatics resources in South Arlington.

The latest Aquatics Center concept presents multiple unanswered questions needing resolution, e.g. who are the most likely users, has the clear demand for aquatics resources been equitably addressed? Fortunately, the County Board need not rush to judgment in the short period until the July adoption of the next CIP. Instead, the Board simply should incorporate into that CIP an appropriate dollar cap on what Arlington should spend on the revised Aquatics Center, permitting several more months of community discussion followed by a fall decision.

Discussion

A fundamental disconnect remains between the latest Aquatics Center base proposal and the aquatic resources Arlington most needs: community pools

Arlington primarily has followed a model of distributed park and recreation resources, endeavoring equitably to locate such resources within reasonable access of the surrounding neighborhoods. The “community” for the proposed Aquatics Center should be southeast Arlington–with the exception of the 50-meter pool. If a 50-meter pool is indeed needed in Arlington, that pool should be located at this site because we probably don’t have space elsewhere.

Consistent with a southeast Arlington focus, the Aquatics Center should be down-sized by deleting certain elements from the latest base proposal

Assuming that the 50-meter pool is retained, then the 25-meter “leisure” pool at Long Bridge should be dropped because the dollars saved can better be spent for another 25-meter pool in a different South Arlington location.

(Update on 5/13/16 — “A 25-meter pool is not part of the new facility plan as recommended by both the Long Bridge Park Advisory Committee and the County Manager,” says Arlington Dept. of Parks and Recreation spokeswoman Susan Kalish. Responds Rousselot: “The 10,000 square foot second pool being proposed by the County is indeed not precisely described as a ’25 meter pool,’ but instead is described as ‘A multi-purpose pool’ or a ‘Combined Teaching and Family Pool,’ etc. However, the 10,000 square foot size assigned by the County to this second pool was the basis for my rough estimate of $5.7 million potentially saved by the deletion of this second pool at Long Bridge.”)

Using a rough dollar-per-square-foot cost based on County staff’s cost projections, dropping the 25-meter pool could save potentially $5.7 million. In addition, the 10,000 square feet proposed for fitness activities in the latest Aquatics Center base proposal should be reduced to no more than 5,000 square feet, a space much more consistent with the average of 3,000 square feet of fitness areas in most other County community centers. Such a reduction potentially could save an additional $2.9 million.

These two proposed changes could result in a total saving of $8.6 million, reducing the estimated total “low-end” project cost of the Aquatics Center base proposal from $42 million to $33.4 million.

The $8.6 million saved by downsizing the base proposal should be re-allocated as core financing for another community pool and enhanced fitness resources in another, more central South Arlington location

A new community pool and enhanced fitness resources could potentially be located at Gunston or Drew, each recently considered as a site for a new/revised elementary school center. Other South Arlington locations should be investigated.

Conclusion

Arlington should engage in several more months of community discussion, followed by a fall decision, about equitable distribution of fitness and aquatic needs. By reallocating scarce parks capital to a second community pool in south Arlington, we can achieve a “win-win”.  Proceeding this way will further more equitable access to our limited parks resources, encourage a more transparent and appropriate cost recovery model, and promote realistic community-focused access.

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

by Peter Rousselot — May 5, 2016 at 1:15 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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 April 27, the U.S. Supreme Court held an oral argument on former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell’s appeal of his federal criminal corruption conviction. Press reports on the oral argument suggest that the Supreme Court might end up overturning McDonnell’s conviction.

If the Supreme Court does rule in McDonnell’s favor, the average citizen should be justifiably outraged that what McDonnell did isn’t illegal. It reminds me of these lyrics.

Well there oughta be a law against what he’s done
Stole my heart and away he run
Didn’t leave me a thing but misery
And there oughta be a law against the way he’s hurtin’ me

What did Bob McDonnell do?

Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, accepted multiple expensive gifts from Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the boss of a dietary supplement manufacturer known as Star Scientific.

These gifts included several expensive vacations, a Rolex watch, a $20,000 shopping spree, $15,000 in catering expenses for a daughter’s wedding, joy rides in Williams’ Ferrari and tens of thousands of dollars in private loans. McDonnell promoted a Star Scientific product known as Anatabloc, hosted an event at the Governor’s mansion for the product, passed out samples, and encouraged research about the product by Virginia universities. In one case, McDonnell emailed Williams asking about a $50,000 loan, and six minutes later sent another email to his staff asking for an update on Anatabloc scientific research.

Discussion

In 2014, a federal jury convicted McDonnell and his wife on multiple counts of extortion under the Hobbs Act, a federal criminal statute prohibiting political corruption, and of “honest-services” fraud. The jury concluded that there was sufficient evidence of a connection between the actions the Governor took and the gifts and the other favors Williams provided.

The oral argument before the Supreme Court suggested that several Justices were skeptical that the jury should even have been allowed to reach these conclusions. As Dalia Lithwick, a veteran Supreme Court watcher, observed:

It will be an amazing thing if — in a year when voters across the spectrum are infuriated and sickened by the influence of money in politics — the Supreme Court decides that poor Bob McDonnell should be let off the hook because he only did what every politician does every day: Take a lot of money to open doors for a rich guy. But maybe the line between money and influence is too fuzzy and ubiquitous to even be said in words anymore. 

What about Virginia law?

At the time Bob McDonnell did what he did, there is a general legal consensus that no Virginia criminal statute would have prohibited his conduct. Moreover, at that time, there were no limits on the dollar amount of gifts that could be given by a donor to members of the executive branch or their families.

Conclusion

Only the stupidest gift giver or public official is likely to prepare a written record documenting that the donor of a Rolex watch is providing it to a public official in exchange for favorable government action by the public official. That should not be the only circumstance enabling a successful criminal prosecution:

Well there oughta be a law…
And there oughta be a law against the way he’s hurtin’ me.

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

by Peter Rousselot — April 28, 2016 at 12:15 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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 Friday, April 22, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe issued an executive order restoring the voting rights of approximately 200,000 Virginia ex-felons. Governor McAuliffe made the right decision.

Background

“Virginia is part of a national trend toward restoring voter rights to felons … Over the last two decades about 20 states have acted to ease their restrictions, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University,” reports the New York Times.

According to Myrna Pérez, director of the Voting Rights and Election Project at the Brennan Center, “what this will do is move Virginia, which was among the worst of the worst in terms of disenfranchising people, to a much more middle-of-the-road policy.”

Discussion: Why enfranchising ex-felons is the right thing to do

Conservative columnist David Brooks has been among the most eloquent voices supporting the restoration of voting rights for ex-felons. In a 2010 column, Brooks summarized the case in favor of their enfranchisement:

There is no good reason to deny former prisoners the vote. Once they are back in the community — paying taxes, working, raising families — they have the same concerns as other voters, and they should have the same say in who represents them. Disenfranchisement laws also work against efforts to help released prisoners turn their lives around. Denying the vote to ex-offenders, who have paid their debt, continues to brand them as criminals, setting them apart from the society they should be rejoining.

Last Friday, Brooks re-affirmed his position when asked specifically about Governor McAuliffe’s action in Virginia: “One of the weird things in our whole criminal justice system is, we have got people who are 50, and 60, well past what they call criminal menopause, and they’re perfectly upstanding citizens, and they’re not the person they were at 19, and yet we continue to punish them.”

The historical context in which Virginia disenfranchised ex-felons

Virginia’s record as one of the “worst of the worst” in disenfranchising ex-felons is inextricably tied to its Confederate past. Virginia ex-felons are disproportionately black. As a 2015 article from the Weldon Cooper Center at the University of Virginia documents, Virginia’s record is long, sordid, and explicitly racist. In advising Governor McAuliffe about his April 22 executive order, researchers turned up a 1906 report:

that quoted Carter Glass, a Virginia state senator, as saying [disenfranchisement] would “eliminate the darkey as a political factor in this State in less than five years, so that in no single county of the Commonwealth will there be the least concern felt for the complete supremacy of the white race in the affairs of government.”

Legal Issues

A.E. Dick Howard, the legal scholar who is credited as the principal author of Virginia’s current constitution, advised Governor McAuliffe that he had the legal authority to act unilaterally via executive order. Action by the Virginia legislature was unnecessary. Other lawyers disagree, claiming that Governor McAuliffe’s executive order violates the Virginia constitution. Lawsuits and efforts at legislative repeal or amending Virginia’s constitution might happen.

Conclusion

For the last 150 years, first Democrats and now Republicans in the Virginia legislature have compiled a dismal record blocking the restoration of ex-felons’ voting rights. Based on Howard’s legal advice, Governor McAuliffe acted appropriately in by-passing the legislature.

by Peter Rousselot — April 21, 2016 at 3:00 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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.

It’s time for Arlington County to conduct a comprehensive re-examination of whether to continue to install new artificial turf fields and if so, when, where, why and what kind.

Background

At its April 16 meeting, the County Board unanimously approved a County staff recommendation to award a $674,000 contract to renovate the synthetic turf field at Greenbrier Park. The field is the home field for Yorktown H.S. It is used for a wide variety of sports and school events.

The current artificial turf field at Greenbrier Park uses a surface containing re-cycled crumb rubber. The new artificial turf field at Greenbrier Park will use an alternative infill, EPDM (Ethylene Propylene Diene Monomer). EPDM is a vulcanized rubber material that County staff believes resembles and plays like crumb rubber, but is not made from recycled materials.

Discussion

All Arlington’s re-cycled crumb rubber fields should be replaced

Arlington should be commended for deciding to replace the crumb-rubber-based artificial turf field at Greenbrier Park.

Arlington County currently has one indoor and 14 outdoor fields with synthetic turf. Thirteen of these 15 synthetic turf fields use styrene butadiene rubber (SBR). This is crumb rubber made from recycled tires. These fields are: Barcroft Park (two fields), Greenbrier Park, Gunston Park (two fields), Long Bridge Park (three fields), Rocky Run Park, Thomas Jefferson Community Center, Virginia Highlands Park, Wakefield High School and Washington-Lee High School.

The newest, most credible evidence suggests that all these Arlington fields containing re-cycled crumb rubber pose too great a health risk. They should be replaced. As recently documented in a Change.org petition:

Montgomery County, MD passed a unanimous Council vote to ban crumb rubber and implement the use of plant-based alternatives such as coconut fiber, cork and rice husk blend. Hartford, CT, Los Angeles Unified School District and the New York City Parks Departments already have banned the use of crumb rubber.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has not yet definitively banned synthetic turf fields that use re-cycled crumb rubber. But, Arlington need not wait for EPA’s final conclusions. Instead, Arlington should follow the lead of Montgomery County and other jurisdictions by committing to replace all of its artificial turf fields that currently use re-cycled crumb rubber when the useful lives of those fields end.

Arlington should comprehensively re-examine future installation of artificial turf

Arlington County staff currently believes that one of the key arguments in favor of artificial turf is that, although the upfront cost of installing artificial turf is far higher than installing natural turf, it is so much cheaper to maintain artificial turf that artificial turf is overwhelmingly more cost-effective. A Forbes magazine article casts serious doubt on this argument–certainly enough doubt to warrant re-examining it. As part of this re-examination, Arlington should consider a ban on future use of EPDM as has Hartford, CT.

Conclusion

The artificial turf industry lobby in this country is large, well-financed, and eager to maintain or increase the industry’s market share. The artificial turf industry lobby knows how to market its product to local municipalities. Given the potential health risks and dollars at stake, Arlington should appoint a special citizen-led task force to re-examine where Arlington should go from here on the artificial turf issue.

by Peter Rousselot — April 14, 2016 at 1:15 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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.

Jessica Tucker, the new Independent Auditor, is off to a promising start. She was hired in December 2015 and reports directly to the County Board.

An Audit Committee provides oversight and advice regarding Ms. Tucker’s work. The committee held its first public meeting with Ms. Tucker on March 29.

Discussion

Ms. Tucker helpfully identified six metrics as informing what should be audited: cost savings; improved service delivery; revenue enhancement; increased efficiency; transparency and accountability; and risk mitigation. At the meeting, the committee applied these metrics to 33 suggestions for possible audits, pp. 7-11.

The 33 audit suggestions reviewed by the Audit Committee included the following:

  • Effective and efficient use of park funds
  • Site plan conditions: amendment and enforcement; whether developers are providing the community benefits promised to the County
  • Jail Medical Services (follow-up review of a previous study conducted by the Criminal Justice Institute in 2006)
  • Procurement Process

On March 29, the Audit Committee agreed initially that Ms. Tucker should begin two audits in fiscal 2016. The committee plans to decide upon its final 2017 fiscal year audit plan at its next meeting (tentatively scheduled for July 11). This will allow time for the committee to consider other items on the list of 33 together with suggestions from members of the general public submitted via use of the online “Audit Suggestion Form.”

The first two audits selected on March 29 are those relating to site plan conditions and jail healthcare.

Site Plan Conditions

As noted in a March 4 memorandum submitted by the Planning Commission, site plan conditions reflect the community’s expectations for a particular project. At times, developers subsequently request changes, and not all such requests go back to the Planning Commission or the County Board for review. Some of the changes have greatly altered a project from what was approved originally. The purpose of this audit is to analyze these changes over the years–how many have there been, what types, who actually approved them, and did the changes alter the physical project or the community benefits negotiated compared to the plan the County Board approved?

Jail Healthcare

Despite a series of jail healthcare reforms recommended in the 2006 report, there have been a series of healthcare issues at the jail. For example, a man collapsed and died there in October 2015 . And, a deaf man alleged that the six weeks he spent there amounted to torture because of inadequate procedures to deal with deafness.

Other Matters

The Audit Committee considered asking the Independent Auditor to review the County’s procurement practices given cost overruns and delays with the new homeless services center and several parks projects. Because there has been major procurement staff turnover in the last twelve months, the committee decided that since reforms are already underway, such an audit should be deferred.

The Audit Committee also conducted a lively debate regarding the Independent Auditor’s requested addendum to the County Board’s audit charge regarding free and open access to books and records, facilities and personnel, p. 4. The committee ultimately approved this request in order to send an important signal for the future.

Conclusion

The work of the new Independent Auditor should improve Arlington’s fiscal health.

by Peter Rousselot — April 7, 2016 at 12:30 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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 new report by The 2030 Group recommends strategies that localities in our region should pursue to re-accelerate private-sector economic growth.

The report was prepared under the leadership of Dr. Steven Fuller, a distinguished, long-time — regional economist at the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University (GMU). Bob Buchanan, President of The 2030 Group, was a co-leader.

The report was sponsored by a wide range of academic, business, and governmental institutions, including GMU, American University, University of Maryland, Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce, Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, and the Urban Land Institute.

Background

The report documents that cutbacks in federal spending drastically have reduced regional economic growth since 2010. “This pattern of under-performance is likely to continue into the future as long as the region’s economy remains overly dependent for its growth on increases in federal spending.”

The report identifies seven advanced industrial clusters that “represent high value-added and high-growth potential businesses for which the Washington region is a competitive location.” To continue to diversify our economy, the report recommends that we should focus on these clusters: Advocacy; Information and Communications Technology; Science and Security Technology; Biological and Health Technology; Business and Financial; Media and Information; and Business and Leisure Travel.

Discussion

The report identifies four critical business requirements for growth in these clusters: Talent Development, Attraction and Retention; Quality of Life; Transportation Flexibility and Adaptability; and Access to Capital. It also identifies four constraints on business growth: Lack of Regional Branding; Lack of an Entrepreneurial Culture; Competition among Local Jurisdictions; and Public Costs and Disincentives.

Based on interviews with 33 of the region’s top business leaders and CEO’s, the report recommends six action items. The highlights of each action item are:

Talent Requirements: In order to advance the region’s competitive position, it’s essential to invest in the region’s public education capacity to ensure that its graduates have the necessary capabilities to pursue careers requiring advanced education and skills training.

Quality of Life: The region needs to develop regional solutions to its high housing costs and the resulting challenges of affordability. Housing affordability has multiple facets including publicly imposed costs that contribute no real value to the finished product.

Transportation: The ultimate solution is the authorization of a Tri-State (DC, MD, and VA) Transportation Authority (including highway, mass transit and water services) that has the authority to plan, finance, construct and operate the region’s transportation system.

Business Branding: The development of a business brand for the Washington area needs to be initiated by the private sector because the public sector is too fragmented and competitive to come to a consensus on a singular regional brand.

Regional Collaboration among Local Jurisdictions: Establishing a culture of collaboration among local jurisdictions, even within the same state, will be challenging but needs to start somewhere, as the cost of non-collaboration is high and the region’s economic future cannot afford non-collaboration.

Inefficiencies among Multiple Governments: Cost differentials exist within the region and result in business investment seeking locations in lower-cost jurisdictions. Unless these higher costs can be rationalized by the affected businesses, the higher-cost jurisdictions will be viewed negatively and avoided.

CONCLUSION

Arlington’s economic future is tied to the region’s economic future. We should pursue sensible strategies that recognize and reinforce our increasing interdependence.

by Peter Rousselot — March 31, 2016 at 11:45 am 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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.

Last week’s ARLnow.com story about a recent Arlington County survey has reignited a multi-year debate over the wisdom of building an Aquatics Center at Long Bridge Park.

For reasons I have outlined in multiple prior columns, that particular Aquatics Center — a facility that is likely to cost much more than $80 million to build and at least $4 million a year to operate — is a foolish waste of taxpayer dollars. This is especially true given the:

  • vastly changed economic circumstances since this project was first conceived, and
  • new competing demands over the next ten years.

Background

From January 2015 until today, the supporters of the original Aquatics Center design have pursued one failed attempt after another to find partners who would help pay for part of the cost of this palatial facility. First, they hoped that the D.C. metro area would get the Summer Olympics. D.C. lost out. Then, they tried to interest Alexandria in a partnership at Long Bridge. Instead, Alexandria is focusing on improving its own existing Chinquapin facility. Now, Arlington is rumored to be wooing local colleges and universities — with nothing yet to show for it.

While all these fruitless efforts were underway, Fairfax County has turned to a private development consortium to build Fairfax’s mega sports-fitness-wellness complex in Springfield.

Discussion

Arlington has spent 15 months focused on trying to salvage as much as possible of the original Aquatics Center design.

It’s time to stop trying to do that.

Far too much County staff time and resources already have been spent on this 15-month quest. Instead, the County Board should direct staff to use the valuable information obtained from the responses to portions of the new survey to produce a bottoms-up new design for a sensible community pool and fitness facility at Long Bridge Park — and potentially other South Arlington locations as well. The Board should provide staff with a budget ceiling for these new initiatives.

Looking for appropriate models for the features that might be included in a sensible community pool and fitness center at Long Bridge Park? Why not start by investigating this suggestion from one commenter to last week’s ARLnow.com story:

I think we need something similar to the Lee District Rec Center in Fairfax County. It has a nice, 50m pool, a big gym, exercise rooms, and weight lifting areas. Simple, but it provides a lot of services to the community. I remember seeing that Fairfax has built new rec centers for ~$24M. If we need more pools, build onto rec centers. Some rec centers (e.g. Barcroft) have room for a pool.

More details on the facilities available at the Lee District Rec Center are here.

Conclusion

Anyone can review the inventory of the facilities available at a location like the Lee District Rec Center, complain that those facilities lack features like Olympic diving platforms or a lazy river, and insist that those features must be added at Long Bridge Park because many people want those features. The County Board should provide staff with a construction budget ceiling substantially less than $80 million at Long Bridge Park. The Board should direct staff to provide as many features as possible so long as the final price is within that ceiling.

by ARLnow.com — March 24, 2016 at 2:00 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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.

Just prior to its adjournment earlier this month, the Virginia General Assembly passed a resolution honoring Arlington School Board Chair Emma Violand-Sánchez. Dr. Violand-Sánchez was first elected to the School Board in November 2008. She plans to retire at the end of this year after completing her second term on the Board.

Discussion

Dr. Violand-Sánchez was born in Bolivia, and has lived in Arlington since 1978. She received her B.S. and M.S. from Radford University and her doctorate in education from George Washington University.

Prior to her election to the School Board, Dr. Violand-Sánchez served for many years as an APS teacher and administrator. During that portion of her career, she developed and implemented a comprehensive English language program which has been used as a national model. She also established the first bilingual GED program in Virginia.

Dr. Violand-Sánchez retired from the APS faculty in July 2007. At the time of her retirement from the faculty, she was serving as the supervisor of the APS English for Speakers of Other Languages/High-Intensity Language Training (ESOL/HILT) program. For 11 years, she has worked as an adjunct professor of linguistics at Georgetown University.

She was instrumental in the founding of Escuela Bolivia, a student-achievement and leadership program focused on immigrant youth. That program now is known as Edu-Futuro. Through education, leadership development, and family engagement, Edu-Futuro empowers under-resourced Latino and other immigrant youth to become the next generation of professionals who can help to transform their communities.

Dr. Violand-Sánchez also is a founder and a current member of the Board of Directors of the Dream Project. The Dream Project provides scholarships, mentoring, and support to 100 promising immigrant youths, who come from 14 different countries, were educated in 22 Virginia high schools, and now attend 18 colleges and universities in seven states. In 2015, three of the first Dream Project scholars graduated, and 93% of scholarship recipients have been able to stay in college. I previously have written a column about this valuable project.

Dr. Violand-Sánchez is a member of the Board of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, Arlington Committee of 100, Donaldson Run Civic Association, American Association of University Women, Arlington Retired Teachers Association, National School Boards Association, Virginia School Boards Association, the National Association of Latino Elected Officials, and a former member of the Northern Virginia Community College Board.

She has published several papers on family involvement, multicultural education, language minority education, and learning styles. She has two children, James and Julia, who are also educators and graduates of the Arlington Public Schools. They attended Key, Taylor, Williamsburg, H-B Woodlawn and Yorktown.

Conclusion

The General Assembly was right to recognize the many highlights in Dr. Violand-Sánchez’s distinguished career.

by Peter Rousselot — March 17, 2016 at 12:45 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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.

Last week, the Virginia General Assembly filled a vacancy on the Virginia Supreme Court. The name of the candidate finally selected to fill this vacancy — Stephen McCullough — was first revealed to the public only one day before the legislature voted to confirm his appointment. That’s a bad process.

Background

Under Virginia law, the legislature — not the Governor — has the power directly to appoint judges when the legislature is in session. Last year, during a time when the legislature was not in session, Governor McAuliffe exercised his power to appoint a qualified judge, Jane Roush, to fill this vacancy. To be effective permanently, Governor McAuliffe’s interim appointment of Judge Roush required confirmation by the legislature once it returned to session. In the past, such interim appointments by Virginia governors routinely have been made and subsequently confirmed by the legislature.

However, in this case, the Republican leadership of the General Assembly claimed that they had not been adequately consulted and refused to confirm Judge Roush’s appointment. Last year, the Republican leadership quickly brought forward and recommended another qualified judge, Rossie Alston, as their preferred alternative appointment.

As this year’s legislative session began, Governor McAuliffe and the Republican legislative leadership continued to argue bitterly over whether Judge Roush or Judge Alston should be appointed. Since Republicans control both houses of the legislature, they bear full responsibility for managing the legislative calendar.

Discussion

Let’s just assume only for purposes of this discussion that the Republican leadership of both houses of the General Assembly are correct that Governor McAuliffe did not consult them adequately about Judge Roush’s initial interim appointment. Let’s assume further that the Republican legislative leadership entered the legislative session in January legitimately believing that Judge Alston was a better choice.

Early in this year’s legislative session, the Republican legislative leadership should have arranged up or down votes for both Judge Roush and Judge Alston. Had the Republican leadership done so, they would have discovered that neither of these candidates had the votes to be confirmed. Then, there would have been time to bring forward and adequately vet alternative candidates. Instead, the Republican legislative leadership allowed this issue to drag on and on and on.

On Tuesday of last week, with only days left before the legislature was due to adjourn, the Republicans suddenly announced that they wanted to nominate former Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli to fill this vacancy. Democrats erupted with a storm of protest, and just hours later, Cuccinelli withdrew his name from consideration. A few hours after that, Republicans suggested for the first time that they wanted Stephen McCullough appointed. McCullough was confirmed the next day.

Conclusion

As long as the Virginia legislature retains the power to appoint judges, there will be a substantial amount of partisanship in judicial selection. However, because judges are supposed impartially to decide the cases before them, both legislators themselves and the people of Virginia should have a fair and adequate opportunity to evaluate and comment upon any proposed judicial candidates. The Republican legislative leadership could have provided that opportunity in this case, but they let the people of Virginia down by failing to do so.

by Peter Rousselot — March 10, 2016 at 2:00 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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 69% increase in asthma cases among APS elementary students — first reported in 2014 — has led Arlingtonians for a Clean Environment (ACE) to launch a new survey regarding idling times for cars and school buses at APS schools.

Background

Among the “Key Findings” of a 2014 Community Report Card on the Status of Children, Youth, and Families were these:

The number of parent-reported chronic conditions in APS elementary students increased by 62% between 2009-10 and 2013-14, driven by a doubling in food allergies and a 69% increase in asthma.

On March 4, 2016, ACE launched a survey seeking information intended to shed light on the role that idling times for cars and school buses might be playing in this spike in asthma cases. The ACE survey notes:

Idling not only wastes fuel, it contributes to air pollution and the emission of toxins that cause cancer and other serious health effects, including asthma. According to the EPA, air quality monitoring at schools has shown elevated levels of benzene, formaldehyde, and other toxins in the time just after school pick up.

Discussion

ACE is right to be concerned about the role that the toxins emitted by idling vehicles might be playing in the reported alarming increases in asthma among APS elementary students. As the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality explains:

  • Children breathe 50 percent more air per pound than adults.
  • Asthma is the third leading cause of hospitalization among children under the age of 15.
  • Children’s asthma symptoms increase as a result of car exhaust.
  • Asthma is the most common chronic illness in children and the cause of most school absences.

Because a single vehicle dropping off and picking up kids at one school puts three pounds of pollution into the air per month, stopping unnecessary vehicle idling is one relatively easy way to contribute to improved air quality and respiratory health in our communities.

However, one bus delivering 30 children to school generates far less overall exhaust (and thus pollutants) than do 30 individual private vehicles all driving a single child to school. To reduce atmospheric pollution near schools and limit children’s exposure, the principal goal of an anti-idling program should be to reduce the number of private cars driving children to school. APS can promote this goal by shortening bus routes and by collaborating with the Arlington County government to make it safer for children to walk and bike to school.

Car exhaust is a principal ingredient in ground-level ozone (or smog). Smog occurs when sunlight and heat react with vehicle exhaust. The American Lung Association has awarded Arlington’s air quality an “F” due to excessive smog. Spikes in ground-level ozone correspond to spikes in emergency room visits by asthmatics because smog inflames airways and reduces lung function, making it the greatest threat to children’s developing lungs.

Conclusion

How can we help? Arlington’s students already know the answer: we must be more careful stewards of the land. Protecting mature trees, limiting building footprints, minimizing paved surfaces and increasing green space all reduce the amount of heat-trapping elements in our built environment. Lower temperatures can reduce our children’s exposure to asthma-triggering ground-level ozone.

by Peter Rousselot — March 3, 2016 at 3:05 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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 enacted into law, a bill that now has passed both houses of the Virginia legislature would enable Richmond politicians and bureaucrats to censor APS teachers’ decisions regarding what books to assign in APS classrooms.

Background

Under HB 516, the Virginia state Department of Education would be required to establish a uniform, statewide policy that would require every local public school district in Virginia to:

  1. Notify the parent of any student whose teacher reasonably expects to provide instructional material that includes sexually explicit content. Such notification shall (i) directly identify the specific instructional material and sexually explicit content contained in such material and (ii) set forth the parent’s options pursuant to subdivisions 2 and 3;
  2. Permit the parent of any student to review instructional material that includes sexually explicit content upon request; and
  3. Provide, as an alternative to instructional material and related academic activities that include sexually explicit content, nonexplicit instructional material and related academic activities to any student whose parent so requests.

As a recent Washington Post story explained, this proposed state legislation “all started with Laura Murphy, a Fairfax County woman who said she was horrified to discover that one of her sons, a high school senior, had been assigned to read Toni Morrison’s 1988 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel ‘Beloved.'”

Under HB 516, the state Board of Education would get to define for every local school district what does and does not constitute “sexually explicit content.”

Discussion

An English teacher posted this comment to the recent Washington Post story:

I assure you that if this insane plan becomes law that we English teachers will have to give a heads up about sex, graphic language, and violence for such works … as “The Canterbury Tales,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Hamlet,” “MacBeth,” “1984,” “Catcher in the Rye,” “Huck Finn,” “Night,” as well as a good percentage of the recommended readings for both AP Literature and Composition and IB courses. … [S]tudents can be given alternative readings and teachers have learned to do this without the students feeling singled out or traumatized! 

Another Post commenter convincingly warned:

This is not about “a parent being able to opt their child out of a reading assignment.” If this bill passes, I guarantee there is already a group ready to complain en-masse, and make a big enough stink that a given book will be rejected by a teacher or school system wanting to avoid the controversy. Thus, they will get to determine what is “appropriate” for everyone’s kids.

About half of Virginia’s local school districts already require teachers to give parents advanced warning of “potentially sensitive or controversial materials in the classroom.” APS itself has adopted guidelines in this area. Under current Virginia law, any other local school district can choose to do so as well.

Conclusion

HB 516 raises serious censorship issues under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. This bill is an ill-conceived and foolish effort by state legislators to set statewide standards regarding a set of issues that should be decided locally by APS and each other local school district in Virginia. Governor McAuliffe should veto this bill.

by Peter Rousselot — February 25, 2016 at 1:45 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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. 

Donald Trump is the clear favorite in Virginia’s March 1 Republican Presidential primary. His candidacy seriously undermines Republican prospects to carry Virginia in the fall.

Background

In a July column, I concluded:

The longer Trump stays in the race, the longer his views are publicized and associated with the Republican brand, the more damage he will do to Republican prospects–particularly in a purple state like Virginia.

Based on the results of the South Carolina primary and the Nevada caucuses, the damage inflicted by Trump’s candidacy on the Virginia Republican brand has grown substantially since July.

What South Carolina and Nevada say about Virginia

Trump won the South Carolina primary decisively, and the anti-Republican-establishment candidates (Trump, Cruz & Carson) won a combined 62% of the South Carolina vote. The Republican- establishment candidates (Rubio, Bush & Kasich) won only 38%.

The Nevada results were even more decisive. The anti-Republican-establishment candidates won 72%, leaving the Republican-establishment candidates with only 28%.

Therefore, the anti-Republican-establishment “lane” in Virginia will be plenty large enough to do lasting damage.

The right profile for a Republican to win a Virginia general election

  • Ideology

Mainstream, conservative establishment Republican Bob McDonnell easily won the 2009 gubernatorial election. Extreme, right-wing Republican Ken Cuccinelli lost the 2013 gubernatorial election. As shown in the table below, two other mainstream Republican conservatives almost won recent statewide elections:

 

Attorney General     2013 Mark Herring (D)  1,103,777 Mark Obenshain (R)    1,103,612
U.S. Senate               2014 Mark Warner (D) 1,073,667 Ed Gillespie (R)           1,055,940

 

  • Temperament

Virginia general election voters have a history of supporting candidates whom they perceive as sensible and pragmatic. Large numbers of voters found McDonnell, Obenshain and Gillespie to be sensible and pragmatic. Donald Trump simply does not have the personality profile of recent highly competitive Republican statewide candidates like McDonnell in 2009, Obenshain in 2013 or Gillespie in 2014. Instead, Trump looks a lot more like a recent brash, outspoken, statewide LOSER: Cuccinelli in 2013.

Here’s what Shaun Kenney, the respected former Executive Director of the Republican Party of Virginia, recently declared he would do if Donald Trump is the Republican presidential nominee:

I will work actively against him to ensure his defeat in the general election should he obtain the Republican nomination. In this, I am not alone. Millions of Americans will not pull the lever for Trump. Millions more are absolutely sickened by the jackbooted tactics of a militated few.

This is an uncommonly blunt declaration for a prominent party operative to make about his own party’s likely Presidential nominee. He wouldn’t have made it if it didn’t reflect what he is hearing privately from many other Virginia Republican leaders.

Conclusion

It looks very likely that Donald Trump will be the Republican Presidential nominee. But, even if the Republican establishment finds a way to deny Trump the nomination, Republicans are unlikely to carry Virginia for that alternative nominee. Why? There are already too many angry, energized Virginia Trump and Cruz supporters who either would stay home or force that alternative nominee too far to the right to carry Virginia.

Either way, Republicans in Virginia are trumped.

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

by Peter Rousselot — February 18, 2016 at 1:30 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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. 

While most members of the general public are not paying attention, Virginia legislators are trying to restore the old ways of doing business. Senate Bill 692 passed by the Virginia Senate on February 15 would water down even the overly-modest government ethics reforms enacted in 2015.

What Virginia did in 2015

Last year, begrudgingly, Virginia enacted modest government ethics reform legislation. The highlight of the law passed last year was placing a $100 annual limit on gifts to public officials from lobbyists and some others. Last year, current Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment (R-James City) was quoted as saying that the only reason that the legislation was considered in the first place was because “the media is on our backs.”

Undermining 2015’s reforms

Norment is leading the effort this year to water down last year’s work.

Among the new loopholes incorporated into SB 692:

  • A suggestion by Sen. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun) that would exempt “food and beverages” from the definition of gifts that must be disclosed and counted toward the $100 annual aggregate gift amount. Black told fellow senators that last year’s legislation had “unintended consequences” that have been “demeaning to us as legislators,” because of “the very notion that if somebody gives me a prime rib as opposed to a hamburger I’m going to change my vote.” Meals accounted for nearly half of the gifts lawmakers disclosed last year, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
  • A suggestion by Sen. Stephen D. Newman (R-Lynchburg) that would prohibit lobbyists from disclosing the name of any “legislative or executive official, or a member of his family” if any of those people pay their own way to attend an event that is subject to being reported because the event itself is paid for by a lobbyist.
  • The Joint Rules Committee could exempt any 501(c)(3) organization from the gift rules for gifts to any legislator. The same gift to a member of the executive branch or a local official would still be a gift.

Last year, the legislature enacted modest ethics reforms primarily due to relentless prodding from Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe. Unfortunately, this year, Governor McAuliffe’s own administration is caught up in a controversy over whether certain members of the administration, including Virginia Commerce Secretary Maurice Jones, failed to disclose gifts of Redskins skybox tickets valued at more than $100.

What Virginia should do in 2016

The House of Delegates should reject all of the proposed new loopholes embodied in SB 692. Governor McAuliffe should veto any legislation that embodies any of these loopholes.

In addition, Virginia should create a new, independent Ethics Review Commission with teeth, including subpoena and enforcement power. A large majority of other states, including Massachusetts, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania have permanent ethics commissions. In Massachusetts, for example, its Ethics Commission can impose the following penalties:

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

Our legislators should be able to find a model for Virginia that combines effective enforcement power with safeguards against partisan abuse.

by Peter Rousselot — February 11, 2016 at 1:00 pm 0

peter_rousselot_2014-12-27_for_facebookPeter’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.

Over the next few months, APS will develop a new version of its 10-year Capital Improvement Plan (CIP). The CIP identifies capital improvement projects, estimates their cost, and proposes how to finance them. The School Board will adopt this CIP as student enrollment continues to grow at all levels of instruction. If the latest projections are right, APS enrollment will reach levels last seen in the mid-1960’s.

The table below displays the latest projections for Arlington’s current three comprehensive high schools:

School chart

These data–which exclude high school students who will attend HB Woodlawn and other alternative programs–present a strong case for beginning to plan now for a fourth comprehensive high school to open by 2022.

Arlington should cap enrollment at somewhere between 2,000 to 2,500 at each of its comprehensive high schools

There is an extensive body of educational research concluding that ideal high school enrollment is in a range from 600 to 900 students. That ideal goal obviously is not practical for comprehensive high schools in Arlington. However, that same body of educational research also concludes that there is a significant adverse impact on learning in those high schools that enroll more than 2,100 students.

Finally, the research demonstrates that the significant adverse educational impacts at the high schools that enroll more than 2,100 students fall disproportionately on those students of low socio-economic or minority status.

Specialized program high schools, like Arlington Tech, are not adequate substitutes for a fourth comprehensive high school

Whether because it underestimated the degree of high school enrollment growth in the last CIP, or because it did not choose to confront the challenges of siting and constructing a fourth comprehensive high school then, APS is two years behind schedule in planning for a fourth comprehensive high school. Over the long term, Arlington Tech is not the answer to Arlington’s projected high school enrollment surge.

Other considerations in planning for a fourth comprehensive high school

It is essential for APS to conduct a thorough and transparent process to choose a site for a fourth comprehensive high school in this CIP cycle.

One possible option is to turn Kenmore into a high school, and to build a new middle school at the Carlin Springs hospital site. Despite clear traffic issues, this location for the fourth comprehensive high school would enable substantial enrollment reductions at both Wakefield and Washington-Lee.

Conclusion

Even after the new elementary school opens at the Thomas Jefferson site, and the new middle school opens at the Stratford site (following HB Woodlawn’s relocation to the Wilson School site), Arlington will need to add thousands more seats at all grade levels. In addition to a fourth comprehensive high school, this probably means adding at least two more elementary schools and another middle school over the next 10-12 years.

A comprehensive public high school education lies at the core of APS’ mission because APS should assign priority to providing that opportunity before providing narrower program options.

A fourth comprehensive Arlington high school should be up and running within 5-6 years.

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