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Letter to the Editor: Tale of Two Controversies

To the Editor:

Recent angst about doubling Norfolk-Southern Railroad’s ethanol storage tanks and building a gigantic Jefferson-Houston School suggests folks’ textbook understanding of civics doesn’t jibe with how our city government really functions. So let me explain:

Neighbors blew a gasket about Norfolk-Southern Railroad’s ethanol storage tanks. The tanks have to meet federal standards such that an explosion would be confined to the worksite. They sit on a low point of land so burning ethanol (the same substance in folks’ medicine and liquor cabinets) would flow downward and be contained in the worksite. If complainers understood basic chemistry or physics, they would understand that ethanol is highly combustible but not highly explosive.

Now, were tanks containing ethanol at a brewery whose proprietor is featured at the Democrat convention, does anybody believe city hall would be describing them such in apocalyptic terms? Or were some developer proposing such tanks in exchange for handing out some “amenities” worked out with city hall in some cozy closed-door meeting, does anybody believe that city hall wouldn’t be telling nearby residents how foolish their concerns are, rather than taking those foolish concerns and legitimizing them with legal tactics?

Norfolk-Southern Railroad’s earliest predecessor was chartered in 1827 and ran the country's first regularly scheduled passenger train in 1830. Norfolk-Southern’s 20,000 route miles run from Ontario to Iowa to Louisiana. Unlike Alexandria’s city hall, Norfolk-Southern knows how to run its business. It is certainly self-respecting enough not to show up offering “amenities” the way developers do in exchange for political protection and favors.

Similarly, school officials have repeatedly insisted that their gigantic edifice doubling the Jefferson-Houston School’s capacity was a safety value to absorb over-enrollment citywide, viz, eminently “fungible.” Testing, bolstered by sociological factor analysis, are pretty good at predicting academic outcomes. So plausibly, the original scheme was to use the new Jefferson-Houston to select the most challenged students system-wide from overcrowded schools and selectively dump them into the brand-new building so that the other schools can continue succeeding academically: “O, your father works at the Columbian Embassy, of course, we have room for you in your neighborhood school … [you’re likely to succeed and raise the Standards of Learning score for your demographic and keep your neighborhood school successful].” “O, you just arrived yesterday, carried across the Rio Grande on your father’s back … we have this beautiful, new school for you … [just in case you struggle with Standards of Learning, well, it won’t matter much because the school’s already academically a total flop and that means you won’t pull down your neighborhood school’s scores].”

Along comes Richmond, which took away Jefferson-Houston’s accreditation and imposed this wretched school takeover law, which probably necessitates a change of plans. Now the theoretical student whose father works in the embassy gets to go to the beautiful, new school to pull up its scores and the one who arrived yesterday gets fit into his/her neighborhood school in hopes that things will work out, but even if they don’t, the school still has many years to outfox Richmond. For a long decade, we’ve heard how hard everyone is trying, sans success, to improve academics at Jefferson-Houston, so the powers that be are resigned to the bloc of Jefferson-Houston students there now and those drawn from the same bloc continuing not to succeed, but with careful selection the “overflow” students redirected from elsewhere will pull the overall Standards of Learning scores up enough to get the school out of hock with Richmond. School officials will rely on their lawsuit against the school takeover law to buy them enough time to pull this off by forcing the legislature through a constitutional amendment process.

Am I being too cynical … or not enough?

Dino Drudi

Alexandria