McDonnell Wins Appeal

Photo credit: New York Times

Photo credit: New York Times

In a unanimous ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court has overturned Bob McDonnell’s bribery conviction. The former Governor had been found guilty in 2014 of accepting more than $165,000 in gifts and loans from Richmond businessman Jonnie Williams in exchange for using his office to promote a dietary supplement.

Prosecutors had charged that McDonnell had committed at least five “official acts” on behalf of Williams, including hosting and attending events at the Governor’s Mansion and arranging meetings for Williams with state employees. He was convicted in a Richmond jury trial, and the conviction was upheld in appeals court.

As Justice John Roberts said in his opinion, the case revolves around the proper interpretation of the phrase “official act.”

We reject the Government’s reading … and adopt a more bounded interpretation of “official act.” Under that interpretation, setting up a meeting, calling another public official, or hosting an event does not, standing alone, qualify as an “official act.”

“There is no doubt that this case is distasteful; it may be worse than that,” wrote Roberts. “But our concern is not with tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes and ball gowns. it is instead with the broader legal implications of the government’s boundless interpretation of the federal bribery statute. A more limited interpretation of the term ‘official act’ leaves ample room for prosecuting corruption, while comporting with the text of the statute and the precedent of this court.”

I’m no legal scholar, but Roberts’ thinking is precisely why I found McDonnell’s conviction so incomprehensible in the first place. The governor opened doors for Williams, but he never strong-armed anyone or intervened in any way to get Williams the state funds he craved.

The trial revealed unseemly behavior and poor judgment by McDonnell that, in my mind, disqualified him from public office — and the Supreme Court ruling does not change that. But McDonnell’s deeds did not rise to the level of a criminal offense. I’m glad to see McDonnell cleared of criminal charges. He has spent two years in purgatory. At last the man can go about rebuilding his life.

— JAB

Virginia’s New Road Funding Process — Less Political but Still Opaque

Project scorecard for

Project scorecard for improvements to intersection at Patterson Ave. and Parham Road.

by James A. Bacon

In a rare bipartisan achievement, Virginia is doing something that no other state in the union is doing: basing its transportation investments on an objective scoring system.

Earlier this month, the Commonwealth Transportation Board (CTB) approved $1.7 billion to be spent on 163 projects selected through the System for the Management and Allocation of Resources for Transportation, or SMART SCALE. The process rates projects for their impact on safety, congestion reduction, accessibility, land use, economic development and the environment.

“SMART SCALE revolutionizes the way Virginia delivers transportation,” wrote Transportation Secretary Aubrey Layne in a Richmond Times-Dispatch op-ed Sunday. “Future administrations can’t develop wish lists on a whim. Projects must be scored and vetted through the data-driven system.”

The bottom-up process starts with a consistent set of standards by which localities select projects for scoring. All nominated projects are screened and scored and funding recommendations made on the basis of the scores. The scenarios are presented to the localities and the public for a round of input. Then the CTB has the final say.

The legislation setting up the new system originated with General Assembly Republicans and was embraced by Governor Terry McAuliffe. The reform is remarkable in that the governor and powerful legislators relinquished much of their power to reward friends and punish enemies through the doling out of transportation dollars and turning it over to a process-driven system.

“No longer are we allowing politics and wish lists determine what gets built. This process is critical to moving people, jobs, and commerce, all of which is essential to building the new Virginia economy,” said McAuliffe in a press release touting the CTB vote.

“With SMART SCALE, we are promoting greater accountability, safeguarding against waste and ending the politicization that has been rampant in our transportation process for so long,” said House Speaker William J. Howell in the same press release.

Bacon’s bottom line: So, I can visit the SMART SCALE website and find a list of 287 projects along with a breakdown of their scores. There, I can see that a project about a mile from my house — $5 million to make improvements to the intersection of Patterson Avenue and Parham Road, a miserable, stinking, soul-scorching abomination of a crossroads if there ever was one — ranked 92 statewide among all projects. And I can view the scores assigned to a variety of metrics, as seen here:

scoring_weights2

That’s all well and good, but none of this is intuitive. I don’t have the faintest idea what these scores mean. Are higher scores better than lower scores? I can imagine that a major benefit of the project would be improving “travel time reliability,” as reflected in its 24.6 score. But why would “travel time delay” be so meager at 0.6? Isn’t that closely related to travel time reliability? Is the same scale being applied to each criteria? Is the scale 0 to 1, 1 to 100, or something else entirely? The explanation on how to read a scorecard doesn’t help much.

And how about the data underlying this statistics? How many car crashes and injuries occur at this intersection? How many hours of delay occur, and how is that number measured? How does one calculate the increase in access to jobs? And how does one evaluate the impact of the project on land use?

The information available to me as a member of the public doesn’t allow me to evaluate much of anything. Further, I can’t imagine being a CTB board member and finding the data any more helpful — unless they are given special training in interpreting the numbers or have VDOT staff at their beck and call to answer their questions.

While SMART SCALE undoubtedly represents an improvement over what preceded it, the state might as well be publishing its scores in hieroglyphics. Transparency is not served when the the scoring system is so indecipherable as to be unintelligible as to defeat all efforts at understanding.

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.