69°Partly Cloudy

by Peter Rousselot — June 22, 2017 at 1:00 pm 0

Peter RousselotPeter’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’ current strategic plan is up for revision. One of the goals of the current plan is “Development of the Whole Child.”

Part of APS’ current approach to this goal is what APS calls “personalized learning.” The one-to-one device program is an integral part:

In the APS 2011-17 Strategic Plan, the community set a goal to ensure that every student from grade 2 through 12 has a personal digital learning device to support instruction. The Strategic Plan states that APS should create vital and engaging, technology-rich learning environments, provide an infrastructure for learning and utilize state-of-the-art technology that creates engaging, relevant and personalized learning experiences for all learners regardless of background, language or disabilities.

In developing its new strategic plan, the Arlington County School Board should:

  • involve the Arlington community in a truly-interactive, transparent conversation about all the critical issues
  • offer compelling proof that all proposed instructional uses of personal digital learning devices provide evidence-based instructional benefits and consistent instruction to all students

By contrast, over the past three years, the use of these devices has been characterized by poor communications, inconsistent instruction, and lack of evidence-based benefits.

This column focuses on two controversial, critical issues.

One-to-One Program Devices Should Not Be an Integral Tool Used For Personalized Learning

APS definitely should continue to create “engaging, relevant and personalized learning experiences for all learners regardless of background, language or disabilities.” However, in its new strategic plan — in any grades in which APS ultimately decides to continue the one-to-one program, APS should make it clear that the program is not an integral part of personalized learning. For some children, e.g., those whose parents cannot afford a personal digital learning device, APS should provide one.

A June 2017 comprehensive and convincing history of the development of personalized learning in education provides a withering critique of the risks of making personal digital learning devices an integral 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.

APS’ current linkage between personal digital learning devices and personalized learning should be severed and replaced with an alternative approach. The one-to-one program is actually a form of depersonalized learning.

The One-to-One Program Should Be Ended — At Least in the Elementary Years

APS definitely should continue to provide a “vital and engaging, technology-rich learning environment for every APS student.” However, at least in the elementary years, the one-to-one program should be ended.

Too many elementary school parents believe that Development of the Whole Child in elementary school is fundamentally incompatible with the one-to-one program. These parents are seeking less screen time, and more face-to-face teacher-student interaction, athletic activity, and socialization.

Moreover, scientific and health studies published since the current strategic plan was adopted demonstrate that there is too great a risk from the cumulative exposure to these devices that results when the 1:1 program in elementary school is combined with home use. APS’ current position that school screen time shouldn’t count because it is for educational purposes defies common sense.

Conclusion

In its new Strategic Plan, the School Board should reemphasize the role of Arlington’s great teachers and deemphasize the role of Silicon Valley.

by Peter Rousselot — June 15, 2017 at 1:45 pm 0

Peter RousselotPeter’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 his column last week, Mark Kelly asked whether fundamental reforms to Metro are “myopic GOP grumbling or necessary?”

Discussion

Mark is right that fundamental reforms to Metro are necessary.

Bipartisan support for a regional solution

Because Metro serves three independent jurisdictions (D.C., Maryland, Virginia), Metro had to be created by an interstate compact among those three jurisdictions. Under federal law, all interstate compacts also must be approved by the federal government.

The current interstate compact governing Metro establishes how it will be governed and financed. All amendments to the current Metro interstate compact similarly require agreement among those three jurisdictions and the federal government.

If anyone reading this thinks that Metro’s current problems can be solved using Metro’s current governing structure and financing, there is no point reading any further.

If you’re still with me, the reason I agree with Mark about the need for a bipartisan solution to Metro’s woes is that the Maryland and D.C. legislatures are currently controlled by Democrats, while the Virginia and federal legislatures are currently controlled by Republicans.

We cannot afford to wait to fix Metro in hopes (if you are a Dem) that the Democrats will take over the legislatures in Virginia and the federal government, or in hopes (if you are in the GOP) that the GOP will take over the legislatures in D.C. and Maryland. And I haven’t even mentioned the chief executives!

Since a partisan solution to Metro’s critical problems is impractical, we must arrive at a bipartisan solution to those problems — whether we like it or not.

More importantly, no matter which political party happens to control the legislatures at any given time in these four jurisdictions, millions of voters of the other party will still live there. Metro is vital to all of us regardless of our political affiliations.

Fundamental reforms

There are a variety of fundamental reform plans for Metro that already have been offered. For example, each of the following three fundamental reform plans would require Metro interstate compact amendments:

In addition to these plans, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) has asked former Republican Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to lead a panel to develop a plan expected to be published this fall. It is virtually certain that whatever plan the LaHood panel develops also will require amendments to Metro’s interstate compact.

New, dedicated revenue stream

Most other metropolitan transit systems in America have a dedicated revenue stream to supplement the contributions of local governments. Our Metro system doesn’t have one:

“Instead, Metro relies on a patchwork of annual subsidies from local governments. In effect, Metro competes yearly against myriad other public spending priorities, its operating budget consistently facing some level of appropriations risk.”

Conclusion

Without a dedicated revenue stream (e.g., a regional sales tax), Arlington County and other local governments cannot afford to keep Metro afloat much longer.

Metro will eventually collapse without a dedicated revenue stream.

The only way for Metro to get a dedicated revenue stream is through interstate compact amendments.

Republicans won’t agree to a dedicated revenue stream unless Democrats agree to fundamental reforms of Metro governance and spending practices.

So, Arlington County needs to back a bipartisan deal to save Metro. 

by Peter Rousselot — June 8, 2017 at 1:00 pm 0

Peter Rousselot

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 Superintendent Patrick Murphy has recommended a short-term plan to add 1,300 new high school seats by 2022. Under Murphy’s “hybrid proposal,” 600 seats would be added at the Ed Center and 700 seats would be added at the Career Center.

Good news: need for long-term planning acknowledged

Murphy has publicly acknowledged that:

  • Arlington County forecasts continued total population and school enrollment growth for many years beyond the cut-off date (2026) in the current Capital Improvement Plan
  • Arlington’s total population aged 0-14 will exceed 40,000 by 2030
  • APS needs to develop its own long-term new school construction plans well beyond 2026:

In his report to School Board members, Murphy said the school system will need an additional 2,200-seat high school, plus up to two middle schools and up to four elementary schools, if enrollment continues to push toward and beyond 30,000 students.

So long as these population and enrollment forecasts continue to represent the County’s and APS’ best estimates, they should be employed systematically to make long-term planning decisions for all land use and public infrastructure investment (e.g., schools, parks, roads).

It is neither prudent, realistic nor fair to fail to plan for this growth because some people think or hope that it might not occur.

Murphy also made welcome remarks at the May 18 School Board meeting (between 1:37:30 and 1:40:25) that he is “hearing from the community some concern about the CIP”, and that for future new school construction projects “there will be three flavors of budgets: Low, Medium and High.”

This good news needs to be verified by careful scrutiny of the future “three flavors of budgets” to be sure that all three estimates are genuine and reflect new initiatives to bring per seat costs down substantially from current levels.

Bad news: long-term planning needs a jump start

Parent reactions on social media reflect justifiable disappointment at the lack of long-term planning. A substantial number of parents share this sentiment:

It is the lack of a meaningful long-term strategic plan that is troubling. If we go the smaller choice school route, what does that look like? What programs are we building out? What is the timing? We can’t keep doing this whack a mole approach to planning with the influx of students that we know is coming into the system over the next few years — the equivalent of a new elementary school every year.

Several parents are particularly critical of the disappointing Alphonse and Gaston routine between the County and APS relating to transportation challenges at Kenmore. In response to the excuse that such planning naturally ceased once the option of an elementary school at the Kenmore site was dropped, one parent convincingly counters:

  • The problem will get significantly worse as large, underutilized parcels become more fully maximized for whichever uses (speaking of 32 acres at Kenmore and approximately 17 acres at the Urgent Care site)
  • The County can’t wait for APS decisions in part because APS can’t move to use Kenmore without some promise of County assistance both with VDOT around Route 50 and with Fairfax County

Conclusion

The County and School Boards must demonstrate that they are:

  • collaborating seamlessly and transparently
  • listening to public concerns and adjusting accordingly
  • developing fiscally-sustainable, long term plans to build the new schools we need when we need them

by Peter Rousselot — June 1, 2017 at 1:00 pm 0

Peter Rousselot

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 November 28, 2016, the county received a proposal from a private developer, Arcland Property Company. Under the proposal, Arcland would exchange land it owns on Shirlington Road for part of the N. Quincy Street site (known as the Buck property) located across the street from Washington-Lee High School.

The county has an option to purchase the Buck property. That option must be exercised by November 20. If the County Board approved the Arcland land swap, that swap necessarily would take place after November 20. As a condition of Arcland’s proposal, Arcland wants the right to use a portion of the Buck property to build and operate a private self-storage facility.

Discussion

Arcland’s proposal should be promptly rejected so that the Joint Facilities Advisory Commission and the county can focus on identifying a more appropriate solution for locating ART buses.

In the six months since the Arcland proposal was first unveiled, JFAC has been holding more and more community meetings in different parts of the county, and has been alerting wider segments of the community to the details of the Arcland proposal.

Arcland has been advocating, and the county’s interest in the Arcland proposal reflects, the county’s need to find a long-term solution to ART bus storage.

Although space to store ART buses is a high public priority for the county, adopting the Arcland proposal is the wrong solution because it will have too high a negative impact on the value of the current configuration of the Buck property.

For example, adopting the Arcland proposal would:

  • mean the permanent loss of 38 percent of the property’s acreage
  • severely limit short and long-term flexibility in county use of the property, e.g. for school athletic fields
  • limit the potential to expand adjacent park space
  • preclude the long-term potential to deck over I-66

The location, size and flexibility of the Buck property is too unique and too valuable in a fully developed county like Arlington to pay the price of the Arcland proposal.

Moreover, whereas space for storing ART buses does not necessarily need to be located within Arlington County (e.g., it could be in Fairfax County), the types of urgent county uses that can be located on the Buck site, like school swing space, parks and recreation space, office space for critical county or Arlington Public Schools services, should be located within the county’s geographic borders.

Conclusion

The county should promptly reject the Arcland proposal.

The JFAC and the county should immediately conduct cost-benefit analyses of alternative scenarios for acquiring land for ART bus storage without the significant negative impacts of the Arcland proposal.

Such scenarios might include, for example:

  • acquiring all or portions of the Arcland property through negotiations or exercising the power of eminent domain
  • acquiring property outside of Arlington, e.g., land along Route 50 and/or Columbia Pike for a joint Arlington/Fairfax below ground bus facility/above ground playing fields or other sports facility
  • locating ART bus parking below one or more of the Long Bridge Park soccer fields

Rejecting the Arcland proposal is the appropriate thing to do even if it were to turn out that the out of pocket cost for obtaining access to alternative, incremental land for ART bus storage were to exceed the out of pocket cost of accepting the Arcland proposal.

by Peter Rousselot — May 25, 2017 at 1:00 pm 0

Peter Rousselot

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 its May 23 meeting, the County Board authorized the issuance of $185.3 million in new bonds for various spending, added to $552.4 million in outstanding bonds issued since 2008. There are an additional $281.8 million in bonds already authorized, but not yet issued. Plus, there are $49 million in bonds that have been issued, but not yet spent.

Discussion

Does the County Board’s latest action leave Arlington with too much total debt?

For many years, the standard answer from county government has been and continues to be “no.” The reason given has been and continues to be that Arlington is one of the relatively few municipalities in America that has maintained the highest possible credit rating (AAA/AAA).

Whereas this is certainly one legitimate way to evaluate Arlington’s status, there are other legitimate ways — some of which raise cause for concern. A more extensive county government explanation of our current and projected future debt levels, followed by a full public discussion, is in order.

Arlington can maintain its current credit rating — despite having roughly $1 billion in total debt (including revenue bonds and other debts) compared to roughly $1.2 billion in total annual revenue (83 percent leverage) — because the bond/credit rating agencies have confidence in Arlington’s ability to continue raising property taxes to generate sufficient revenue to service (repay) its mounting debt load.

An authoritative municipal finance source  lists 10 financial ratios (e.g., per capita debt, total debt to fair market value, and total debt to average individual personal income) that should be analyzed and discussed publicly in determining the relative risks of a municipality’s debt load.

In a 2014 opinion column, the Sun-Gazette examined Arlington’s debt level in terms of these ratios, concluding:

Think the Arlington government’s debt has gone up significantly over the past decade? You have a 75-percent chance of being right. There are (at least) four ways to measure the county government’s bonded debt. Three of them show a significant increase, while the fourth shows almost no jump at all.

A 2014 study in The Connection Newspapers concluded that “Arlington County has one of the highest per capita debt loads in Northern Virginia”:

The Government Finance Officers Association recommends that government “issuers undertake an analysis of their debt capacity prior to issuing bonds” because a “comprehensive and routine analysis of debt capacity provides assurance that the amount of debt issued by a government is affordable and cost-effective.” In so doing, government officials can keep debt at affordable levels.

Further, assessing debt capacity on an ongoing basis is essential for effective debt management and ensuring that debt-planning activities are integrated into the capital improvement process. This assessment, in short, ensures that “an appropriate balance is struck between a jurisdiction’s capital needs and its ability to pay for them.”

Conclusion

By continuing to focus on maintaining our AAA/AAA credit rating as the determinant for deciding whether to incur more debt, we are making a mistake. Attaching too much weight to this factor ignores other county debt. It also assumes that borrowing the maximum amount allowed by the ratings agencies is wise, and that Arlington’s tax base has a virtually unlimited capacity to absorb ongoing tax-rate and assessment increases without suffering ill effects.

by Peter Rousselot — May 18, 2017 at 2:15 pm 0

Peter Rousselot

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 Arlington grows and urbanizes rapidly, conflicts are increasing among different users of our parks.

Arlington should give higher priority to open, un-programmed and natural parkland

The county government continues to demonstrate that it is not giving fair, transparent and due weight to the wishes of those who desire access to multi-use, un-programmed, open or natural spaces.

Instead, the percentage of open green space in existing parks is declining, while:

  • dedicated, programmed space is increasing despite usage data not being publicly available for a transparent analysis
  • uses of existing programmed space are intensifying through paving, turf, lighting, fencing, expansion, pay-per-use only and access restrictions
  • not enough parkland is being acquired to accommodate residents’ needs

Some examples of prioritizing organized recreational use over other needs include:

  • refusal even to consider community proposals to convert existing softball fields to un-programmed space at Virginia Highlands Park
  • initial proposal to fence off entirely the diamond at Bluemont Park
  • more dedicated playground space at Nelly Custis Park
  • proposals to install new lights at Discovery Elementary School/Williamsburg Middle School
  • a request to buy more land for open green space in Alcova Heights denied because the proposed acquisition in part was too small “which limits recreational opportunities”

These decisions are at odds with the results of the county’s 2015 Parks and Recreation Needs Assessment Survey. That survey established that natural areas and wildlife habitats — as well as hiking trails — were two of the three most important outdoor facilities that Arlington residents want.

Best practices elsewhere do give higher priority to open green space

The best city park planning is based on the principle of the most uses for most of the community. Travel and Leisure magazine listed the World’s Most Beautiful City Parks where “for city dwellers and tourists alike, an urban park becomes a shared backyard.”

In New York City, many playgrounds and basketball courts are designed into urban space, e.g. on rooftops or located between buildings, and not into natural parkland.

New York is enormously more populated and denser than Arlington, but the principles of giving sufficient priority to natural, un-programmed spaces can and should be similar. Current efforts in Arlington appear to be designed to provide enough paved sports courts, playgrounds, and playing fields to accommodate every league, paying user and sports type – all occupying a larger percentage of our limited public parks.

In contrast, cities around the world place a high priority on their parks’ function as natural spaces interspersed and accessible throughout city landscapes: e.g., Atlanta’s BeltLine project and an excellent report from Singapore’s Urban Redevelopment Authority on sustainability and parks planning.

Conclusion

The POPS Update Advisory Group is currently working on an update to the Public Spaces Master Plan. The Parks and Recreation Commission should propose, and the POPS Group should be directed now, to develop principles giving due weight to open green space based on best practices elsewhere.

Pending adoption of such principles, the County Board should direct the Manager to report how to prevent open green space from being short-changed.

Continued shoehorning of single-use sports fields into our limited park space guarantees increasing conflict. Applying reasonable principles of equitable expectations of use, while simultaneously expanding our parkland to keep pace with population growth, are the correct solutions for a rapidly growing county.

by Peter Rousselot — April 27, 2017 at 1:15 pm 0

Peter Rousselot

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.

Last week, ARLnow.com reported that the Neighborhood Advisory Conservation Committee voted to suspend its spring funding round.

Discussion

NC’s financial crisis provides yet another occasion to reconsider the program. The safety of pedestrians and need for safe, walkable streets continues to grow more acute in our urbanizing neighborhoods.

As I have written previously, the NC program should be phased out entirely.

NC has problems in at least three key areas: equity, timeliness and cost.

Equity. NC’s principal inequities arise because tens of thousands of Arlington residents are denied timely and critical neighborhood infrastructure improvements and access to the NC Program’s roughly $12 million bi-annual budget because they are:

  • Living in areas lacking a properly functioning civic association.
  • Required to have a County-Board approved NC Plan documenting all potential projects.
  • Lacking consistent NC volunteer representatives to complete projects.

Timeliness. The NC program’s labor-intensive volunteer requirements, including monthly meeting attendance — often for years — to gain “funding points,” and outreach and notification efforts, mean a complete NC project “process” can take anywhere from five to 10 years. If an association’s volunteer NC rep fails to attend meetings, a project can lose its place in the funding line.

Project engineering, always in short supply, further delays project funding. A recent status report for funded NC projects shows only 4 completed projects, with 36 still in process.

Cost. As I mentioned previously, project delays and unnecessary add-ons like street lights (which Dominion will install at no charge) and components like curbs, gutters and sidewalks (which sometimes are unnecessary), make projects more expensive.

Conclusion

Many commenters on last week’s ARLnow.com article on NC offered horror stories about how improperly functioning civic associations cripple the NC program. But, Arlington cannot mandate that any — let alone every — civic association function properly. Nor can Arlington mandate that residents volunteer for any activity, including the NC. Thus, the NC program cannot be fixed.

The County should not allocate further bonding authority to the NC program. Instead, the County Board should direct staff to phase out the NC Program entirely over the next two years, and re-allocate current NC Program bond funding.

In 2007-2008, County staff began assembling Neighborhood Infrastructure Plans to identify missing critical infrastructure: curb, gutter and sidewalk, storm drains, etc. Revised and updated NIPs can provide the tools needed to prioritize critical infrastructure projects and rotate among neighborhoods to allow greater and fairer access to funding. We cannot leave this job to NC’s volunteer patchwork quilt.

A revised and updated Neighborhood Complete Streets Program is one alternative funding recipient for street-related infrastructure.

An alternative to the current NC process could include:

For sidewalks:

  • High priority areas, schools and urban Metro corridors could be addressed by engineers and County staff first.
  • For missing links, neighborhoods could propose sidewalks directly to staff for analysis and priority.

For park beautification:

A reformed department of parks and recreation could allocate small sums annually and equitably so that neighborhoods could spend on their parks as they decide. Neighborhoods could request to withdraw funds for small improvements like flowers or trees, accumulate for a small amenity, or bundle their allocated share to apply to one neighborhood park in need of the most attention.

Finally, it’s important that the County commit to a robust, thoroughly updated civic engagement process for all projects across all departments.

by Peter Rousselot — April 20, 2017 at 1:00 pm 0

Peter Rousselot

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 grudging admission by a representative of the county’s department of parks and recreation at a civic association meeting last week underscores that DPR still has a very long way to go to improve its civic engagement practices.

Background

In February 2016, the Aurora Highlands Civic Association developed a proposal to restore the west end of Virginia Highlands Park. The proposal was designed “to replace the exclusive softball fields on the west side with a different sort of community park.”

The 16-page AHCA proposal identified a problem and proposed a solution:

Problem: VHP is a popular and heavily used recreational facility that today is dominated by athletic space. The Pentagon City area, including Aurora Highlands, has insufficient park space to accommodate the broad constituency represented in our diverse and rapidly growing population.

Solution: To restore a balance to VHP by transforming the west side into a vibrant public park with creatively designed open green space that complements the existing recreational facilities on the east side.

The full proposal contains a detailed explanation why the softball fields should be eliminated.

Later that month, AHCA voted 35-0 to send a letter to the County Board requesting in part that the Board:

Direct DPR to begin a community-wide planning process to update the west side of VHP with the objective of achieving multi-use open green space that serves a broad cross section of Arlington County residents and a goal of updating the west side of VHP to include multi-use open green space within the next five years.

AHCA and Friends of Aurora Highlands Parks, which submitted a comparable redesign proposal, requested follow-up information earlier this year about the “scope, constraints, limitations, and any charges.” No DPR replies included any charge or limitation mentioning the softball fields.

Fourteen months after AHCA’s Proposal submission — on April 12, 2017 — DPR made a presentation to AHCA about elaborate (and apparently costly) plans DPR had to engage with the community about a VHP redesign. DPR representative Scott McPartlin repeatedly acknowledged that various community groups requested “civic lawns, green space, gardens, more trees…” He then asserted that was all very possible through the “transparent,” informative grand envisioning process he had just described.

After the presentation, Natasha Atkins, AHCA President, asked if the softball fields were then removable.

McPartlin’s response: “No. That is not our intention…The facilities are needed.”

Discussion

Regardless of the merits of DPR’s just-revealed conclusion that the softball fields could not be eliminated, DPR’s fourteen-month delay in responding to AHCA’s proposal to eliminate those fields, particularly with the off-hand acknowledgement finally extracted, is an inexcusable failure of civic engagement.

The centerpiece of AHCA’s 2016 proposal was the softball fields’ elimination and their transformation largely into open green space. AHCA reasonably expected a timely, open, and transparent public process in which:

  • AHCA could make its case,
  • Softball field proponents and any other interests could make their cases,
  • Sufficient data would be made available for informed discussion, and then
  • DPR would reach a transparent conclusion for or against retaining the softball fields with a reasoned explanation.

Conclusion

If DPR thought that the softball fields could not be eliminated, it should have responded to that effect within 30 to 60 days of receiving AHCA’s 2016 proposal. Otherwise, DPR should have launched a transparent public process specifically including the possible elimination of those fields.

by Peter Rousselot — April 13, 2017 at 1:00 pm 0

Peter Rousselot

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 week that one local resident has filed a request with Arlington’s Historic Affairs and Landmark Review Board to designate the site on which the Ed Center and Planetarium are located as a “historic district.”

Discussion

The HALRB, the School Board, the County Board and all candidates for seats on the School and County boards should oppose historic-district status for this site.

In her request to the HALRB for historic-district status, this one local resident argues that such a status is justified because “these structures are literally visual landmarks of our shared history.”

By this standard, every public building on publicly-owned property in Arlington should be preserved forever. That would be an abuse of the legitimate role for historic-district status in appropriate circumstances.

With the best available projections  showing that APS’ enrollment will grow from 26,000 today to 40,000 by 2032, this one resident’s suggestion to impose such a standard should be quickly repudiated.

These reactions of an APS parent on social media accurately reflect how this historic preservation proposal should be evaluated:

 This person’s wish (or even a number of people’s wish) to consider this building “historic” needs to take a much, much lower priority under the needs of our kids. Save the historical designations for buildings that really ARE significant, and leave our school system alone otherwise, please. Hamstringing our school system from using its own property for school uses sets a horrible precedent and is unacceptable, regardless of the effect it might have on this particular process, so regardless of whether you’re a fan of using the Ed Center for HS seat needs. …

Preserving the genuine historical significance of Stratford was one thing, and had some importance to all of Arlington’s history. I agreed that the events there were momentous and worthy of commemoration, even while I felt that the reaction disallowing any of the more sensible renovations, and forcing more expensive and less useful design, plus the extra time required for the whole process, amounted to overreaction. But THIS is too much.

Ed Center

Anyone who has attended meetings inside the Ed Center is aware of the age and limitations of this building. APS already has made plans to move its administrative staff out of this building and into office space at another site. Regardless of what any one person might think about the quality, beauty, utility, or continued functionality of this building, APS should not be burdened by having it designated as part of a historic district. APS should be able to use this site for another school use.

Planetarium

The same reasoning that applies to the Ed Center also applies to the Planetarium.

But, there is an added issue that is unique to the Planetarium. Only a few years ago, APS entered into an arrangement with a private organization, Friends of Arlington’s Planetarium. This organization contributed nearly $500,000 toward the $900,000 cost to replace outmoded Planetarium equipment.

My understanding is that this equipment could be moved to another site. APS should be free from historic-district restrictions to decide whether to:

  • continue to use the current Planetarium site for a Planetarium, or
  • for another school use,

taking into consideration the equities arising from APS’ arrangement with this Friends organization.

Conclusion

Historic-district status for the Ed Center/Planetarium site should be rejected.

by Peter Rousselot — April 6, 2017 at 1:30 pm 0

Peter Rousselot

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 March 27, Virginia’s Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe announced that he was renewing his call for Virginia to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act:

“The state is losing out on $6.6 million a day in federal money by not expanding Medicaid eligibility to roughly 400,000 low-income adults. McAuliffe has proposed a budget amendment that would give him power to expand Medicaid, saying the issue had gained new urgency after Trump’s defeat … in repealing the Affordable Care Act.”

The Virginia Republican legislative leadership quickly replied:

“They said they would reject McAuliffe’s proposed budget amendment when the General Assembly returns to Richmond in April.”

Discussion

Terry McAuliffe is right that Medicaid should be expanded. Virginia Republican legislative leaders should work with him to find a bipartisan solution.

Under the ACA, states can choose whether to expand Medicaid to cover people making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $16,640 for an individual. The federal government currently picks up almost all the cost, although that percentage is scheduled to decline to a 90 percent federal share by 2020. About half of the 31 states that have chosen the Medicaid expansion have Republican governors.

One of those Republican governors is John Kasich of Ohio. Kasich has forcefully criticized Donald Trump’s failed efforts to gut the Medicaid expansion program:

That is a very, very bad idea, because we cannot turn our back on the most vulnerable. We can give them the coverage, reform the program, save some money, and make sure that we live in a country where people are going to say, ‘at least somebody’s looking out for me,'” he said. “It’s not a giveaway program — it’s one that addresses the basic needs of people in our country.

Michigan’s Republican Governor Rick Snyder agreed, touting “Michigan’s embrace of the Medicaid expansion, which has covered 642,000 people in the state.”

Virginia’s Republican legislative leaders can pick and choose from a whole host of Medicaid expansion options pioneered by Republican leaders in other states. Besides Ohio and Michigan, Virginia’s Republican leaders can look to other states like Arkansas or Pennsylvania.

So far, Virginia’s Republican leaders have offered a variety of excuses for not following the example set by Republican leaders in any of these other states. They have argued that Virginia cannot afford the 10 percent share of the costs that the federal government ultimately will not cover. But, Virginia’s hospitals have offered to cover the state’s share.

Virginia Republicans also have argued, and continue to argue, that the ACA is going to be repealed. Why risk expanding Medicaid under the ACA, and then have the coverage taken away? But Republicans like Kasich and Snyder have had the courage to fight successfully for their covered residents.

Finally, Virginia Republicans have argued that there is fraud and abuse in Virginia’s existing Medicaid program. While it is true that some fraud and abuse has been identified, there is a detailed roadmap for fixing the problems. There is no reason not to simultaneously implement the identified safeguards and expand Medicaid.

Conclusion

Regardless of what happens with Gov. McAuliffe’s latest budget amendment, Virginia Republican and Democratic leaders should work together to reach a bipartisan solution to expand Medicaid. It’s the right thing to do. The benefits substantially outweigh the costs.

by Peter Rousselot — March 30, 2017 at 1:00 pm 0

Peter Rousselot

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 March 9 column, I analyzed County Manager Mark Schwartz’s proposed 2-cent property tax rate increase to generate $14.8 million to close a gap in the FY 2018 operating budget.

According to the Manager, that gap is attributable to an “unanticipated” increased funding requirement from Metro and a supplemental funding request from Arlington Public Schools. The APS request exceeded the monies otherwise available to APS under the County-APS revenue sharing allocation formula.

As I noted in that column:

Without much-needed fundamental reforms, the long-term costs represented by APS and Metro will indeed put tremendous upward pressure on Arlingtons property tax rate in every year for the foreseeable future.

On March 15, at the direction of the County Board, the Manager proposed cuts to the County budget to offset 1 cent of the proposed 2-cent tax rate increase.

The Manager’s proposed cuts are just the latest illustration that unless fundamental reforms are implemented, we will be confronted year after year for the foreseeable future with:

  • increasing property tax rates (further decreasing the affordability of Arlington for new and existing residents), and/or
  • crowding out of core County services.

The fundamental reforms should include:

APS operating model

As indicated by the latest APS supplemental funding request, there is a justified basis for concern that APS will not be able to support its dramatically increasing enrollment under its existing operating model within APS’ fixed budget allocation. The solution cannot be either to continue routinely to increase APS’ share of the budget (because that would crowd out core County services) or to increase the tax rate (because that would make Arlington less and less affordable).

The School Board should launch a broad community process, including engaging residents outside the schools’ community, to review APS’ operating model to determine how to maintain school quality while permitting APS to continue operating within a reasonable budget share. For example, this new petition offers compelling reasons why every APS elementary student does not need a taxpayer-funded iPad.

APS Construction Costs

As I wrote in December, the County and School Boards should adopt appropriate revisions to the design standards, construction processes, and community review processes for constructing future new schools, with a specific percentage numerical target for per-seat cost-cutting. Both APS and County projects need off the shelf designs, increased competitive bidding, and benchmarks from multiple similar jurisdictions.

Increased County Board Engagement Regarding APS Fiscal Matters

The last several years have seen a welcome and dramatic increase in cooperation between the County and School Boards, including work sessions, the Joint Facilities Study and now the Joint Facilities Advisory Commission.   However, the fixed budget allocation between the County and APS should not continue to be an unqualified delegation of decision-making from the County to APS.

New initiatives should be undertaken to enable the County Board to increase its oversight and input into APS’ utilization of capital and operating monies provided by the County.

As I also wrote in December, the County Board should develop financial projections out to 2040 for both capital and operating budget spending, utilizing at least 3 assumptions: most likely case; optimistic case(s); pessimistic case(s). The Board should publish the results and the assumptions, invite community input and publicize what the community says.

Conclusion

Stop pretending we are confronting “unanticipated” circumstances. Start enacting fundamental reforms to anticipate our recurring circumstances.

by Peter Rousselot — March 23, 2017 at 1:00 pm 0

Peter Rousselot

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.

Last week, Donald Trump presented his first budget blueprint.

Regardless of its prospects, this blueprint is important because it offers the most detail to date regarding what the President wants to see happen. It exposes Trump’s values and priorities.

Trump’s budget is a moral failure

Although numerous other examples are discussed, one illustration of Trump’s budget’s moral failure is his proposal to cut funding upon which the Meals on Wheels program depends. CNN’s Jim Acosta asked Trump’s Budget Director, Mick Mulvaney, whether the budget was hard-hearted:

“No, I don’t think so,” Mulvaney replied. “I think it’s probably one of the most compassionate things we can do.”

“To cut programs that help the elderly and kids?” Acosta asked, incredulously.

“We’re trying to focus on both the recipients of the money and the folks who give us the money in the first place,” Mulvaney explained. “And I think it’s fairly compassionate to go to them and say, ‘Look, we’re not gonna ask you for your hard-earned money, anymore, single mother of two in Detroit … unless we can guarantee to you that that money is actually being used in a proper function.'”

WRONG. There’s not an ounce of compassion here. That single mom in Detroit, a New York billionaire in Trump’s cabinet and all other federal taxpayers should continue to share the responsibility to use their hard-earned money to help fund Meals on Wheels — and many other programs from which Trump’s budget would cut funding.

Asked what she would say to Trump, one Trump voter responded: “What if it was your mama?”

Trump’s budget hurts Virginia

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) has prepared a lengthy fact sheet listing Trump’s budget cuts that would hurt Virginia. A small fraction of those cuts are:

$2.6 billion cut to the Environmental Protection Agency could jeopardize:

  • The Chesapeake Bay Cleanup Program, which would be cut entirely under Trump’s budget. The program has reduced pollution, bolstered oyster and crab populations, and driven tourism and outdoor recreation.
  • The Clean Power Plan and climate change research, which is critical to combatting sea level rise in Hampton Roads and climate effects across Virginia.

$2.4 billion cut to the Department of Transportation could jeopardize:

  • Metro capital investment, which helps Metro reduce its maintenance backlog.

Proposed cuts in the Department of Homeland Security could jeopardize:

  • The budget proposes cutting FEMA preparedness grants for state and local entities by $667 million. In 2016, Virginia received more than $18 million in FEMA preparedness grants for counterterrorism efforts including local law enforcement equipment and training and transit security.
  • The TSA’s VIPR program, which conducts targeted operations at transportation hubs including Dulles International Airport, Reagan National Airport, and Virginia metro stations.

$100 Million cut to NASA could jeopardize:

  • STEM Education in Virginia. Trump’s budget would eliminate NASA’s Office of Education ($115 million), which has supported scholarships and educational opportunities for thousands of Virginia students, particularly minorities and women. (Moving Virginia backward toward the Hidden Figures SAD.)

Trump’s budget hurts Virginia Trump voters

Voters in Appalachian areas of Virginia would be particularly hurt by Trump’s proposal to completely defund the Appalachian Regional Commission.

Of the 420 counties served by ARC, 399 voted for Trump. You can review the ARC Virginia programs that would be defunded.

Conclusion

Trump’s budget is mean-spirited, harmful, and counterproductive. 

by Peter Rousselot — March 16, 2017 at 1:00 pm 0

Peter Rousselot

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 its January organizational meeting, the County Board approved a new policy governing its consent agenda.

At any County Board meeting, all consent agenda items — representing as much as 80 percent to 90 percent of the Board’s entire agenda — are passed as a group by a single Board vote and without any further review or public discussion.

In describing that change, the Arlington Sun-Gazette reported:

No longer will members of the public be able to remove any item from the County Board’s “consent agenda” for a full airing. While they will still be able to seek full discussion of items that are subject to Virginia’s public-hearing rules, in other cases members of the public will need to convince at least one board member to pull the item for discussion.

Under the current consent agenda policy, new items can be added (or changes to existing items made) and posted online less than 24 hours prior to a meeting’s start time — leaving the public and Board members with little opportunity to review new materials or changes and leaving citizens with insufficient time to ask a County Board member to pull any item now categorized as a “nonpublic” consent agenda item.

Significantly, consent agenda items may be added to the Board’s agenda in an incomplete form — for example, items may lack staff reports or essential supporting documents and information, may contain material omissions or errors of fact, or may not have met the Board’s guidelines for a full public process or review.

The County Board should reconsider its January decision

Until January 3, any member of the public could pull any County Board consent agenda item for any reason, thereby shifting that item to the regular agenda and providing an opportunity for public comment and Board discussion. To pull an item, a citizen needed only to be physically present on Saturday morning to submit a request prior to the Board’s vote on the consent agenda.

The Board changed the consent agenda policy to prevent what it considered abuse by a small number of citizen-activists. However, its new policy provides too few safeguards and too little transparency in limiting or eliminating all citizens’ ability to comment on certain items before a vote is taken.

The Board failed to seek public input or feedback before passing this significant procedural change. Had it done so, it would have been reminded of multiple historical examples documenting how important public policy matters initially placed on the consent agenda subsequently proved to merit a full Board hearing or deferral based on citizen-supplied comments or questions.

Conclusion

On March 7, the Arlington County Civic Federation unanimously passed a resolution asking the County Board to reconsider its new consent agenda policy. The ACCF resolution:

asks the Board to seek input and suggestions from the public and civic groups to create an alternative policy that allows the Board to conduct orderly meetings within a reasonable timeframe while also meeting the Board’s stated goals of improving government transparency and encouraging greater public participation in Arlington County government.

I agree. The Board should seek citizen feedback on its current consent agenda policy. Possible adjustments to this policy include limiting citizens to pulling only one item per speaker per meeting.

by Peter Rousselot — March 9, 2017 at 12:15 pm 0

Peter Rousselot

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 week that the County Board has approved the County Manager’s request to advertise a property tax rate for 2017 up to 2 cents higher than the current rate and potentially the highest tax rate since 2001:

County Manager Mark Schwartz said the hike would pay for what he described as the “extraordinary circumstances” facing the board in increasing costs for APS and Metro.

Failing to Carry Over Last Fall’s Close-Out Surplus

The Manager’s proposed FY 2018 budget is supposedly driven by “extraordinary circumstances” attributable to increased funding demands from APS and Metro. To close this “gap,” the Manager’s proposed budget incorporates a 2-cent property tax rate increase to generate $14.8 million.

The Manager fully highlighted these “extraordinary circumstances” last fall, but he and the County Board failed to act then to address that potential budget gap.

Metro is critical to Arlington and our entire region, and our critically-important schools are experiencing dramatic enrollment increases. Without much-needed fundamental reforms, the long-term costs represented by APS and Metro will indeed put tremendous upward pressure on Arlington’s property tax rate in every year for the foreseeable future.

However, any need to increase that rate in 2017 is entirely attributable to Arlington’s failure to follow recommendations that John Vihstadt, the Civic Federation, I and others made regarding last fall’s $17.8 million “close-out” surplus.

In a column last October, I proposed that the Board defer almost all of the proposed expenditures that the Manager recommended for that $17.8 million surplus, and hold in reserve virtually all those funds for first-priority use to bridge any budget gap for FY 2018. Instead, the Board approved spending almost all that surplus. That was a mistake that should not be repeated.

Necessary Changes at APS

As John Vihstadt noted at the County Board’s February 25 meeting to advertise a 2017 tax rate, APS’ exploding enrollment will require substantially increased funding over time, but APS should no longer be permitted to rely on a blank check from the County to provide funds for APS enrollment growth just because our schools are — and we want them to continue to be — top ranked.

Instead, the time has come for the County Board to condition increased funding on APS’ willingness to implement changes — particularly with respect to new school construction — to reduce substantially the per-student cost of new seats.

Current APS practices regarding per seat construction costs for new schools are neither necessary to sustain excellent schools nor fiscally sustainable unless other core County services are to be “crowded out” and/or we are to incur successive annual property tax rate increases that further degrade affordability for all Arlington residents.

Necessary Changes at Metro

Arlington should go on record now in support of fundamental reforms of Metro funding and governance at the interstate compact level, such as those recommended by the Federal City Council.

Conclusion

Before the FY 2018 budget review process ends this April, the County Board should:

  • direct the Manager to reserve almost all of any fall 2017 close-out surplus to lessen upward pressures on the 2018 tax rate,
  • condition any increased APS funding on APS implementation this year of reforms to lower per-seat construction costs substantially, and
  • express support for Metro reforms at the interstate compact level.

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

by Peter Rousselot — March 2, 2017 at 2:00 pm 0

Peter Rousselot

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 County is proposing to rely on private funds raised by a sports lobbying group to install an additional artificial turf field at Gunston Middle School.

Discussion

Arlington should not rely on private funding raised by a sports lobbying group to install artificial turf. Taking such funding is contrary to the overriding interest of Arlington citizens to receive from their local government an unbiased and transparent assessment of the health and safety risks of using artificial turf.

Just as it faces explosive growth of APS student enrollment, Arlington also faces exploding demand for sports use of field space. The allure of private dollars to help fund the installation of more artificial turf is strong.

Arlington should resist this temptation.

Health and safety risks of artificial turf

As I wrote last year, the newest, most credible evidence suggests that artificial turf fields utilizing crumb rubber are unsafe and unhealthy. The evidence is carefully summarized in an online petition currently signed by 325 supporters and available here.

For example:

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 blendHartford, CT, Los Angeles Unified School District and the New York City Parks Departments already have banned the use of crumb rubber.

See also this Mount Sinai children’s health study.

Don’t wait for Trump EPA study

The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in partnership with other federal agencies like the U. S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), is still studying the health risks of artificial turf fields that use re-cycled crumb rubber. Arlington has heavily relied on the lack of a definitive EPA conclusion to this long-ongoing study to justify Arlington’s continued use of artificial turf fields. Arlington’s reliance on the ABSENCE of such a conclusion is misplaced.

Sports lobbying groups like those upon whom Arlington is proposing to rely to help fund the Gunston project are also active at the federal level. At that level, these lobbyists are also seeking to promote artificial turf against claims of health risks:

The principal information the CPSC uses to assess the health effects of synthetic turf is supplied by industry lobbyists, according to internal records released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Emails and other records obtained by PEER in a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit detail how these lobbyists are allowed closed-door briefings and other direct contacts with key CPSC staff assigned to investigate their products.

Arlington need not and should not wait for the final conclusions of this joint federal government study–now led by the Trump administration. Instead, Arlington should follow the lead of Montgomery County and other local jurisdictions by committing now to replace all its artificial turf fields that currently use re-cycled crumb rubber when the useful lives of those fields end.

Other Gunston Considerations

Gunston already has the indoor “bubble” synthetic turf field plus an additional outdoor synthetic turf field.

Conclusion

The artificial turf industry lobby knows how to privately market its product to local municipalities. Given the children’s health and safety risks of artificial turf, Arlington should:

  • reject private money,
  • appoint a new citizen-led task force to re-examine where Arlington should go from here.
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