The House that Bacon Built

Photo credit: Virginian-Pilot

Photo credit: Virginian-Pilot

The Gwaltney mansion in Smithfield, built by pork and bacon magnate P.D. Gwaltney Jr., is up for auction after staying within the family for 115 years. The building has been on sale on and off for several years. Latest asking price: $940,000. The Virginian-Pilot has the story here.

Truant Teachers — a Systemic Failure?

Bad Teacher. At least Cameron Diaz showed up for school!

Bad Teacher. At least Cameron Diaz showed up for school!

by James A. Bacon

Everyone knows that truancy is a problem in Virginia’s public schools. If students don’t make it to class, they don’t learn, they drop out, and many go on to live miserable, impoverished lives. We’ve all heard the story.

What happens when teachers don’t show up at school? The problem is more prevalent than I’d imagined.

John Butcher, writing at Cranky’s Blog, has a knack for digging up arcane educational data, and it turns out that the U.S. Department of Education’s “Civil Rights Data Collection” tracks the number of teachers absent from work for more than ten days for reasons not related to professional development.

There is extraordinary variability by school district, Butcher finds. Here in Virginia, of the 656 teachers in Franklin County public schools, not a single teacher was absent more than ten days in 2014. By contrast, 68 of 98 teachers (69%) in Lancaster County public schools missed school. In a majority of districts, the percentage of truant teachers ran between 20% and 40%.

This strikes me as a phenomenon that needs exploring.

First, it is worth inquiring whether there is a link between high teacher truancy and low educational achievement. All other things being equal, a substitute teacher parachuting into a classroom cannot be as effective as a teacher who knows the students, knows what has been taught already, and knows what needs to be taught.

Second, it is also worth inquiring whether there is a link between teacher truancy and the number of substitute teachers that schools must maintain on staff. In other words, does the problem force schools to spend more money on payroll than they would otherwise? If so, how much are absentee teachers costing the schools?

Third, the extreme variability in teacher truancy suggests that some school systems are more effective at managing the problem than others. If half your school system’s teachers are absent more than 10 days, it sounds like you’ve got a major management issue. Could addressing the truant teacher problem be a lever for school administrators to improve student achievement and save money?

Finally, before going off the deep end and declaring that we have a system failure on our hands, it would be helpful to better understand the nature of the numbers. What exactly do “absences” include, and why is the baseline set at ten days? I assume that teachers are allowed a number of “personal” days off to deal with personal and family emergencies — perhaps that’s why USDOE tracks only teachers who have been absent more than 10 times.

However, unless there is something about these statistics that doesn’t meet the eye, it looks like literally thousands of Virginia teachers are playing hooky. I cannot see how such behavior can be countenanced. Why isn’t this a scandal?

Update: Butcher’s follow-up analysis shows even more variability between individual schools within the City of Richmond than between school districts. Overall, Richmond schools have the ninth highest teacher truancy rate of all school districts in Virginia. At John Marshall High School only 16% of teachers were no-shows more than ten days. But at Lucille M. Brown Middle School, the rate was 94% of teachers!

Butcher then asked a critical question: Is there any correlation between teacher truancy and student performance? Based on the sample of Richmond schools, the answer appears to be not. However, he notes that the school system spent $4.1 million on substitute teachers in 2014. If the city could cut the use of substitutes by half, it could give its other teachers a 2% raise.

Map of the Day: Hopewell Turns Minority-Majority

Map credit: Wall Street Journal

Map credit: Wall Street Journal

Note the presence of the city of Hopewell, Va., on this map. According to the Wall Street Journal, Hopewell was one of seven counties where racial minorities came to comprise a majority in 2015. Of the nation’s 3,142 counties, 12% are minority-majorities now.

— JAB

Uber-ization: a Painless Path to Density

Peter Faris, CEO of Szabo Faris LLC Transportation Solutions, stands in front of one of his vehicles while holding a smart phone with an app that orders up his sedan service  February 14, 2013 in Washington, DC. Faris, an independent driver who works with Uber, a technology firm which has created a mobile app which allows consumers to use their device to request a nearby taxi or limousine. Uber is among a number of apps which are being deployed in cities in the United States and worldwide.     AFP Photo/Paul J. Richards        (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

(Photo credit Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images)

by James A. Bacon

Almost every square foot of Fairfax County that can be developed has been developed. If the county is to grow, there’s no place to grow but up. The county board of supervisors bowed to that inevitability yesterday, voting unanimously to change zoning rules that will allow greater density in 22 areas of the county, including Reston, Seven Corners and the Richmond Highway corridor.

Under the new rules, the maximum Floor-to-Area ratio rises from 2.0 to 5.0 (with an exception carved out for downtown McLean of 3.0), according to the Washington Post. That is a truly urban level of density, consistent with mid-rise buildings of five to ten floors. The vision of county planners is that buildings will have ground-level retail and underground parking — essentially creating what urbanist Chrisopher Leinberger calls WalkUPs, or walkable urban places.

Not surprisingly, residents of nearby single-family subdivisions are concerned about the impact of new development upon the character of their neighborhoods, and especially upon traffic congestion. Cramming more people into the same space served by the same overloaded roads seems to be a formula for worse congestion on a scale that the county cannot build its way out of. In a county designed around auto-mobility, greater density promises nothing but headaches — if nothing else changes.

But things are changing.

The first thing that’s changing is how neighborhoods are organized and constructed. Under the old suburban sprawl paradigm, houses were built in cul de sac subdivisions, which were separated from malls and shopping centers, which were separated from offices, which were separated from schools, churches and government buildings. People had to drive their cars to get anywhere. They literally had no choice.

Under the smart-growth paradigm (or whatever you describe Fairfax County planners’ vision for growth), much of the parking will go underground, which will allow buildings to be much closer, and land uses will be mixed, all of which will enable people to take care of many daily needs by walking to their destination. Instead of using their cars to take ten trips on average, the people living in these densified areas will use them to take, say, only eight or nine trips. Although this feature will offset all of the localized impact of greater density, it will offset some of it.

The second thing that will change is that greater density improves the economics of mass transit. Buses are not a realistic transportation option for low-density suburbs. Admittedly, whether they become a viable option in mid-rise suburbs is an open question. That all depends upon how efficiently municipal bus systems operate, and how much local governments can afford to spend in ongoing subsidies. I’m not a big fan of money-losing bus systems, and I wouldn’t blame Fairfax residents if they weren’t either.

But greater density also improves the economics of private transportation services. Which brings us to the third thing that’s changing: the Uber-ification of transportation. By Uber-ification I mean the ability to order a ride from Point A to Point B with a smart phone at less cost (usually) than to hail a (usually unavailable) taxi. Uber has already begun offering ride-sharing options that allow two or more passengers to share the cost of a trip. Inevitably, dynamic ride-sharing will spread to vans and buses, opening up a range of transportation options at a variety of price points. The Uber revolution will not suit everyone, but it will suit a lot of people, and the ride sharing that precipitates from the new services will take thousands of cars off Fairfax County roads.

Fairfax planners and politicians may be stuck in a mass transit mindset — the conviction that buses, trolley and rail (with a little bit of bicycling thrown in) are the only options for moving large volumes of people in a dense urban environment. I don’t know the Fairfax political scene well enough to know if that’s the case or not. But I would invite citizens to channel their fears and frustrations in a positive direction. If density is coming, call upon Fairfax officials to Uberize — create a regulatory environment that makes it easy for ride-sharing companies to do business. If competition and innovation are allowed to flourish, density need not create congestion.

Can Atlanta’s East Lake Experiment Work in Virginia?

The Drew Charter School Junior and Senior Academy in Atlanta's East Lake community.

The Drew Charter School Junior and Senior Academy in Atlanta’s East Lake community.

by James A. Bacon

It is axiomatic among social scientists that concentrating poor people in public housing projects accentuates the social pathologies that make poverty self-perpetuating and unbearable. The oft-touted solution is to create more mixed-income neighborhoods that de-concentrate poverty. Presumably, the presence of working- and middle-class households people would moderate the anti-social behavior of the poor. There’s just one problem: While the poor perceive mixed-income neighborhoods as beneficial, the non-poor do not. Typically, the non-poor flee poor neighborhoods associated with crime, poor schools and disorderly behavior.

How, then, does one develop mixed-use neighborhoods? The answer, according to Carol R. Naughton, president of the not-for-profit Purpose Built Communities: The developer needs to partner with allies who can provide amenities — grocery stores, recreational amenities, and above all else good schools — that make a neighborhood attractive to the non-poor.

“Poverty and place are tied together,” said Naughton Tuesday when addressing the Richmond chapter of the Urban Land Institute. Neighborhoods of concentrated poverty are “swamps” that breed inter-generational poverty that children can’t escape from. Changing the “place” can change the dynamic of poverty.

Naughton came to the view that developers can make a difference when working with the Atlanta Housing Authority. Her aha moment came when meeting Tom Cousins, a mega-developer and philanthropist with grand designs for repairing East Lake Meadows, a community dominated by public housing projects where the crime rate was 18 times the national average and the employment (not unemployment) rate was 12%.

Working through the East Lake Foundation, Cousins targeted 175 acres in East Lake Meadows to build mixed-use housing. But his approach differed from that of other such projects in several regards.

First, East Lake found people to start a charter school. The Atlanta Board of Education was too broken to help, said Naughton, but the George legislature had just passed a charter school bill. Second, upon the advice of local residents, mixed-use housing was limited to people who worked. Third, the foundation developed key partnerships: with the YMCA to build a community facility, with Publix to build the first grocery store to serve the area in 40 years, and with two Atlanta banks to put branches in the neighborhood. Fourth, the foundation morphed into a “community quarterback” pushing a vision for community wellness and cradle-to-college education.

Each element of the plan was important but the charter school proved decisive, Naughton said. In its first year, the school was the worst-performing school in Atlanta. But it improved year after year, and 20 years later now stands as one of the top schools in the city. “Our kids can compete against anybody, against the wealthiest kids in the city,” she says. “We’re serving more low-income kids than any other school in the community.”

The result is transformational, she said. “Now East Lake is an education destination. People want to live there. It’s a great neighborhood for kids.” Middle-class families are moving into the neighborhood. Indeed, the lure of the charter schools is driving revitalization of neighborhoods beyond the original project.

Naughton is not a big fan of the department of Housing and Urban Development. “HUD confuses funding streams with programs,” she says. Programs take more than money. They require local leadership to put it to good use. She believes that the backing of an entity like the East Lake Foundation, with a high-powered and well-connected board, is a critical ingredient to success.

The East Lake redevelopment model has proven so successful that it is being replicated by the Bayou Foundation in New Orleans, and Naughton runs her own organization, Purpose Built Communities, to work with dozens of other initiatives around the country.

Bacon’s bottom line: Even allowing for the fact that Naughton is a cheerleader for the East Lake project, the concept sounds enviably successful — certainly successful enough that it’s worth a try in Virginia. Could the concept work here? The biggest obstacle likely would be the hostility of Virginia’s educational establishment to charter schools. On the other hand, here in the Richmond area at least, there are dozens of entities — Tricycle Gardens and its community farms, Bon Secours and its community hospital, and the vibrant Communities in Schools program — that would make natural partners.

I am amazed by the number of Richmonders who are actively engaged in trying to ameliorate the concentrated, inter-generational poverty in the city’s East End. There is much good will, and there are many great anecdotal stories, but I don’t see much traction in actually vanquishing poverty. Perhaps the missing elements are a purpose-driven real estate developer and community foundation dedicated to building a physical community and institutions to support it.

Questions about Bidding War for FBI HQ

Rendering of proposed new FBI headquarters

Rendering of proposed new FBI headquarters

There’s a bidding war between Virginia and Maryland to snag a planned, 2.1 million-square-foot Federal Bureau of Investigation headquarters campus. Maryland Governor Larry Hogan is in for $317 million in state and local funds, according to the Washington Business Journal. Governor Terry McAuliffe is in for $120 million. In both cases most of the money would be applied to make transportation improvements near the proposed sites.

The Virginia location would be in the Springfield area, and the funds would be used to mitigate the transportation impact of relocating thousands of employees from Washington, D.C., to Northern Virginia. There are many interesting angles to this story:

  • Would the $120 million McAuliffe proposes spending benefit mainly the FBI and its employees, or would the contemplated improvements benefit others in the Springfield area as well?
  • Where would the money come from, and what alternate uses are there for that money? What other projects would be deferred?
  • How would the move alter commuting patterns? Would a significant number of employees be “reverse commuting” from Washington, D.C., to Virginia? Will the relocation ease or stress Northern Virginia’s transportation problems?
  • What would be the economic benefits of bringing the FBI to Virginia? Presumably, as a federal facility, the headquarters would generate no real estate tax revenues. Would a Virginia location inspire many FBI employees to move to Virginia — and, given the lack of property tax revenue, would they represent a net gain to the state and local governments and their taxpayers?
  • Who owns the Springfield site for the new headquarters? How much would the property owner stand to benefit from this deal and resulting investment in transportation improvements?

— JAB

Sierra Club’s Coal Ash Gambit

Coal ash pond at the Chesapeake Energy Center

Coal ash pond at the Chesapeake Energy Center

by James A. Bacon

The Sierra Club has filed a lawsuit charging that coal ash stored at Dominion Virginia Power’s shuttered coal plant in Chesapeake is leaking arsenic into the Elizabeth River. The environmental organization wants the U.S. courts to compel Dominion to scrap plans for burying the coal ash in place at four power stations around the state and to truck the material to lined landfills instead.

Earlier today, attorneys for the environmental group began presenting their case in the Richmond courtroom of U.S. District Court Judge John A. Gibney, advancing the argument that unsafe levels of arsenic found in sediment samples originated from underground water that migrated through the coal ash pits.

“These discharges of arsenic will continue indefinitely with no end in sight,” said Deborah Murray, the attorney representing the Sierra Club. “The only way to stop the pollution is to remove the ash to a lined landfill.”

Dominion countered that the Sierra Club’s arguments are totally unproven. The organization cherry picked “snippets” from the voluminous testing data filed with Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), wore “blinders” to the mountain of evidence showing that water quality complies with the law, and offered a “tortured interpretation” of how the arsenic got from the coal ash to the surrounding waters, argued Dabney Carr for Dominion.

DEQ has consistently found Dominion to be in compliance over four decades, said Carr. “The goal of this suit is to overturn DEQ’s decision,” he added, addressing the judge. “The Sierra Club is asking you to substitute your judgment for the DEQ’s judgment.”

Dominion has been accumulating coal ash, the mineral residue from coal combustion, at the Chesapeake Energy Center for decades. Like other utilities, the company mixed it with water to keep the dust down and stored the material in lagoons. After years of study, the Environmental Protection Agency issued new standards last year for cleaning up coal ash. The first step is to de-water the ash, treat the water, and discharge it into rivers and streams. For the most part, Dominion has reached agreement with DEQ and environmental groups on how to do that.

The second step is to store the coal ash in a place where it will not continue to contaminate water supplies. Dominion proposes to consolidate the residue and cap it with an impermeable lining to prevent the infiltration of rain water. DEQ is studying those permits now.

Contending that a cap does nothing to stop the infiltration of groundwater, environmental groups have pushed Dominion to truck the material to lined landfills — a project that Dominion estimates would cost $3 billion. While some environmental groups focus their efforts on DEQ, the Sierra Club is going the federal route. The organization believes the lawsuit against Dominion is the first challenge of its kind to the Clean Water Act. If the group wins the case, it will set a precedent not only for all four of Dominion’s coal ash sites but for power companies across the country.

While the implications are national, the facts of the case are highly localized. And, as was clear from Murray’s presentation, Sierra Club’s case is circumstantial.

The Chesapeake facility sits upon land comprised of loose and sandy soils that allow water to travel through easily. The coal ash ranges from 15 to 30 feet thick, and the bottom of the pile varies in elevation from 16 feet above sea level to six feet below. A liner was placed between the disposal site and the ground but it is leaking, Murray said.

However, when asked by Judge Gibney how she knew the liner was leaking, she had no persuasive response.

The key evidence presented for the accumulation of arsenic came from a 2010 report commissioned by Dominion that analyzed sediment “cores” — cylindrical-shaped samples of creek and river bottom — to determine if there was “natural attenuation” of arsenic. (Natural attenuation is when nature takes care of the problem, in this case by binding the arsenic with iron to form a harmless substance.) Five of the samples at a depth of zero to three inches contained arsenic in excess of the permitted level of 36 micrograms per liter.

The Sierra Club cherry picked these data points from mountains of data collected from samples taken twice a year over decades, countered Carr. All tests of surface water, as opposed to sediment, have indicated arsenic levels at concentrations well below drinking water standards. Every water sample — 73 taken over the past thirteen years — were well below Virginia and EPA water quality standards for arsenic. Said Carr: “There is no evidence of arsenic in the surface waters.”

Where did the arsenic in the sediment come from if not from the nearby coal ash pits? Dozens of other industries release discharges in the Elizabeth River, said Carr, and some are known to release arsenic. The Sierra Club has offered no proof that the arsenic levels in found in the sediment differs from those elsewhere in the river. The group has conducted none of its own research and offers no additional evidence. It relied entirely upon data that DEQ used to find Dominion in compliance with the Clean Water Act — “the very same data and information DEQ has relied upon to conclude that Dominion is in compliance with its permit at CEC (the Chesapeake Energy Center).”