Alexandria Educational Conundrum
To the Editor:
Decades ago when Frank Perdue's poultry operation ran into a rough patch with its labor union, they joked "It takes a tough union buster to make a tender chicken." So Fairfax County might today quip, "It takes a discriminating school system to make a # 1 school." That certainly is Fairfax Country's modus operandi for TJ, in sharp contrast to Alexandria's assertive outreach to disadvantaged groups and minorities. One has top notch public schools, whereas the other has failing schools needing waivers of federal standards. Look at the flack Fairfax's TJ caught for making a good-faith effort to be more inclusive when too many of its students needed remedial help. TJ lost its top rank and fell to # 2. TC takes all comers, meanwhile, staring across the city-county line with envy, not even in the same league academically as TJ, but more inclusive.
At its root, this dichotomy is metaphysical: Is humanity perfectible or are some imperfections ineluctable? Can a dollar targeted at improving an underperforming, underprivileged group's performance produce as much academic advance as a dollar targeted elsewhere? Does a school system which tries to do both soon reach diminishing returns and diseconomies of scale? Are teachers talented enough to pull this off too rare relative to the need for such teachers? If taxpayers are pressed too hard for resources to try doing both, will they decide education is a parental — not public — responsibility?
How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? While your editorial — newsworthy and informative — never used these words, it essentially asked this question about the conundrum described.
Help This Village
To the Editor:
We all know that our children are our future. As a result, we wisely invest vast financial resources into efforts we hope will benefit them. But money does not replace the value of time. I write "our children" as a single, childless woman to underscore to others like me that the children of Alexandria belong to you, too. As the African proverb goes, "It takes a village to raise a child." Please actively engage in our village by mentoring a child.
Few people will argue that their individual success in life is not correlative to the presence of an adult, be it a parent, extended family member or community member who has encouraged and supported the best in them. While our community outpaces the state and the nation in terms of education and economic prosperity, that is a symptom of our past and our present. Unfortunately, indicators for our collective future are not keeping track (though there are improvements), if we look at school data. While education opportunities have increased over generations, the inverse occurrence has happened with success outcomes. Arguably, that is due to a void wherein adults are working more and making more, but available less to spend time with our future the way our parents and our communities took time with us. This makes the community its own worst enemy when trying to build a future.
I recall sitting on the Council dais one Saturday at a public hearing by a band of former school board chairs, regaled by the esteemed Ferdinand Day. The chairs challenged City Council to engage as much on the issue of our children as our future as vigorously as we have campaigned. These chairs called on the council and the community to change the face of education one child at a time by giving of our talents and of our time. More than a year later, I stand echoing that sentiment.
A Space Of Her Own, www.spaceofherown.org , is an exceptional program done in collaboration with the Art League that provides a unique opportunity to have a place in the life of an impressionable young woman by helping her change her personal space. The last orientation to attend to qualify as a mentor is Aug. 9 at The Art League Annex from 5:30 – 8:30 p.m. I received an email yesterday advising that as the last orientation nears, there is a substantial shortage of mentors to work with our wonderful girls. I plan to attend mentoring orientation on Aug. 9. Will I see you there? Please go online to register at http://soho-orientation.eventbrite.com/ today. If this opportunity does not suit you, in addition to the remarkable work done by so many faith and non-profit organizations, the City of Alexandria’s Mentoring Partnership has a host of programs, too. Please go to www.alexandriava.gov/mentoring to learn more. Remember, "it takes a village to raise a child." Please invest your time in the village.
Alicia R. Hughes
Open Government Needs Open Debate
To the Editor:
Last week, the Andrew Macdonald for Mayor campaign formally invited three-term Mayor Bill Euille to engage in two, one-on-one televised debates this fall. We are still waiting for a definitive answer.
We have six council positions, but only one mayor. The position of mayor stands apart from the other elected positions in our city. He or she sets the tone for our elected government and helps to implement a vision for the city that is shared by its citizens. As such, the citizens of Alexandria deserve the opportunity to hear both mayoral candidates debate their positions. The Macdonald campaign believes that good government begins with a well-informed electorate, and that these debates serve the public interest.
The question remains: Will the mayor step forward and publicly declare that he will debate Mr. Macdonald this fall? The answer to this question will say a lot about whether changing the local election from May to November was about politics or making city government more democratic.
The writer serves as the debate coordinator for the Andrew Macdonald for Mayor campaign.
To the Editor:
Governor McDonnell’s decision to hold a special election for the 45th House of Delegates seat on Sept. 4 is rightly being criticized by many residents of the 45th in Fairfax, Alexandria, and Arlington. The focus of these criticisms, however, seems to focus on the fact that the special election will be held the day after Labor Day when many families will be stressfully preparing for the beginning of the school year. This is a fair criticism especially in light of the governor’s explanation that the early election will allow the new delegate "time to fully prepare for the 2013 legislative session." With this remark, the governor is saying to residents that one delegate’s time preparing to work is far more valuable than all of their time doing important work. But, the governor should be criticized for two other reasons that are just as important: the cost of a special election and the need for residents of the 45th District to have enough time to get to know their candidates.
On the cost criticism, the governor has spent his entire term talking tough on fiscal discipline. But, this decision was a straight-forward choice between politics, which sees the special election held on Sept. 4, and common sense, which would have seen it held concurrently with the Nov. 6 general election. This special election will cost residents of Fairfax, Alexandria, and Arlington around $50,000 when it didn’t have to cost them anything. The governor must know that actions, not words will define his tenure, and this action makes it clear that he places political gimmicks such as hoping for low voter turnout to advance his own broken brand above all else.
On the need for more time to get to know candidates, the governor’s decision gives Democrats until Aug. 4 to nominate a candidate for the special election. While the Democrats should be confident of winning this seat, the process to do so is unfair to those individuals who would like the opportunity to serve as the delegate. As a result of the seriously shortened timeline, the citizens will not have nearly enough time to do the important work of getting to know candidates and where they stand on the issues that matter. This does a disservice to the democratic process that relies on people making informed decisions about who should represent them at every level of government. The governor seems to be taking his advice from the political hacks on the cable news shows to win at all costs, but he must know that nobody wins when this approach is taken.
The governor may talk tough, but his actions in calling the special election for Sept. 4 show he doesn’t care about the busy schedules of those he represents or the added cost of holding yet another special election or the democratic process that relies on voters being informed about their candidates. In the end, this governor is just all talk.
What Next for GenOn?
To the Editor:
The time is drawing near when the fate of the 25-acre GenOn site on the Alexandria waterfront will have to be decided. It’s important to bear in mind that this property is three times as big as the area directly affected by the city’s disputed waterfront plan.
Now is the time for the city to begin an open, participatory process, involving all interested parties, to plan how this potentially magnificent parcel of land will be used. By declaring that GenOn is not part of the waterfront, contrary to physical reality, the city is suggesting that it will stick to its accustomed slice-and-dice, behind closed doors strategizing. Once the dispute over the rest of the waterfront is resolved, it is reasonable to expect an all-out effort to cram as much high density into this tract as possible, if such an effort isn’t already under way.
The fact that it may take years to clean up the GenOn site is all the more reason to begin an open discussion now, instead of once again making confidential commitments and then asking the citizens concerned to ratify them. Above all, planning for GenOn should be part of, not done in isolation from, the eventual waterfront plan.
The way the city handles such planning issues should be a major issue in the November elections for mayor and City Council. We know that Andrew Macdonald favors greater transparency. Mayor Euille’s position on this subject appears, not surprisingly, to favor current practice.
Every Vote Will Matter
To the Editor:
It is time for some new blood in Alexandria politics, and there is no better way to shake things up in Richmond and send a message, than by sending Karen Gautney to Richmond to represent Alexandria. I believe she will fight for us and stand strong for our progressive values.
Governor McDonnell was wrong to call this election in haste, thinking that candidates in two strong Democratic districts would draw more Democrats to the General Election in November. On Sept. 4 two more Democrats will be elected to the state legislature, and their first task will be to work on behalf of all the other Democratic candidates in the November election. But which Democrat will best serve us?
Karen Gautney was put at a great disadvantage with such a short time to campaign, being the candidate with less name recognition because she has never held elective office. I have worked with her on the Alexandria Democratic Committee and in the Durant Center Precinct and know that she will work hard in Richmond not only for marriage equality, and against the war on women being waged by our governor and attorney general, but she has a great background in law enforcement and non-profits as well. She is not a one-issue candidate.
One of her first priorities is to create "A budget that invests in education, infrastructure, and public safety while keeping Virginia a great state for business." That sounds like common sense. She supports "the full implementation of the Affordable Care Act." She would like to return Virginia to the "one handgun a month" law. Standing up to the gun lobby is a critical issue with the Virginia tragedy at VA Tech and the more recent tragedy in Aurora. She also feels Virginia should be a leader in sustainable energy, and she will work hard to support collective bargaining rights.
But I also believe she will be a leader in education, something that is her opponent’s signature issue. On her website it says: "We all have a vested interest in the performance of our public schools. Every child has the right to a quality education. We must do more to close the gap between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers, preparing all children for a successful future. I am committed to quality, safe education for every child. I will work hard to combat bullying and harassment in our schools, as I have done in our community. I will support programs that foster parental involvement in their child’s education. I believe strongly that we must support the Virginia Community College System, which has been setting enrollment records as more and more people of all ages look for ways to obtain quality, affordable higher education and skills-training. We must also support our public colleges and universities more robustly to slow the rise in tuition prices, and end the calls at many of our public institutions to reduce their number of in-state students. Lastly, I will fight Republican efforts to privatize education at the expense of our public schools."
These are strong positions for sure. Former Alexandria Delegate Bernie Cohen stood up against miscegenation (laws forbidding interracial marriage) and Marion Van Landingham stood up for the prison population across Virginia. I look forward to seeing what Karen will stand up for in Richmond, but I know she will stand up for our progressive values in Alexandria. I believe Karen Gautney deserves a chance to be our delegate in Richmond, and in this special election a small number of votes can make a big difference.
Misreading Rating Agencies?
To the Editor:
I was disappointed to read the July 25 letter to the editor from standing candidate Andrew Macdonald. Dr. Macdonald has apparently predicated his argument — that the mayor is directing a policy of the city concealing a perilously weak financial position — entirely on his guess that the credit reporting agencies covering the city "believe the city council can always raise property taxes to service this debt if our economy deteriorates."
Dr. Macdonald couldn’t be more wrong. In fact, Dr. Macdonald’s comments are situated so far from Alexandria ’s reality that his letter cries out for rebuttal.
The rating agencies do not (and did not) presume that any particular tax rate increase would be levied, or even could be levied. In public finance matters, the rating agencies look first at the city’s tax base, actual and anticipated revenues based on then-identifiable sources, actual and anticipated outlays, and extraordinary items such as material contingent liabilities. Rating agencies typically do not assume, or predicate their ratings, on inchoate or hypothetical tax hikes; if they did, they would be required to clearly disclose such anomalous assumptions.
As Dr. Macdonald should have learned during his weeks of service as vice mayor, the mayor — the subject of his letter — has no unilateral right or role in establishing the city’s taxable base, budget, or levy rate. The city’s public finance policies are governed by City Council, subject to state law and local ordinances, are overseen by the city’s Budget and Financial Advisory Commission, and are executed by city staff.
Dr. Macdonald characterized one of the economic outlook projections served up in one of the ratings as being "somewhat negative." It wasn’t. The rating (in this case, from Moody’s) reported forward-looking risk-factors (as it’s required to do), but Alexandria received the highest overall rating available. Several hundred localities received cautionary rating comments, reminding bondholders, counterparties, and even Dr. Macdonald himself that no city is fully immune from the overall economy, even a city located inside the Beltway and linked economically to the seat of government.
Dr. Macdonald may not have fully connected the investment-value dots. The infrastructure improvements for which he calls operate as capital improvement costs to the city. Publicly-owned infrastructure is typically not taxable, but must be bought, built and paid for using other tax revenues. As to the city’s priorities for public investment, the Moody’s report that Dr. Macdonald cites with alarm actually stated that Alexandria’s receipt of the highest available "rating reflects the city's strong and vibrant tax base, sound and stable financial condition, conservative budgeting and favorable debt profile," and a "conservatively managed budget with sound reserves." Dr. Macdonald omitted this key quote, which is unfortunate — it states, in so many words, exactly the opposite of Dr. Macdonald’s letter.
Mark C. Williams