Slum Maintenance at Essex Village

Crime scene at Essex Village.

Crime scene at Essex Village. (Photo credit: WTVR)

Who needs tenement slums when we’ve got public housing projects? The supposed “market failure” of the private sector to provide the poor and working class with decent shelter provided the justification for the federal government to get into housing business in the 1930s. We all know the result. Uncle Sam turned out to be the worst slumlord of all. In desperation, the government tried outsourcing to the private sector. How’s that working out?

I’ve highlighted the disastrous Kippax Place in Hopewell in previous posts. Now, courtesy of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, we learn that Essex Village in Henrico County has similar problems. Here’s how Debbie Truong leads off the story:

Inside one apartment building in Henrico County’s largest federally subsidized housing complex, the bathroom ceiling leaked, the stove thermostat was faulty and the windows wouldn’t stay open.

Across Essex Village, stairs were in disrepair, and there were mice and leaking water heaters. In November, raw sewage bubbled to the surface of manhole covers and, in December, drains backed up in four ground-level apartments.

Since April 14, 140 cases of building code violations were either reported or discovered by the county as part of an enhanced effort to turn around what officials say has languished into the county’s most poorly maintained housing complex.

Henrico County officials have vowed to get the housing complex back up to an acceptable standard. It will continue to pursue inspections aggressively and it will pilot a “family stabilization” project that will bring health, financial literacy, social services and other resources to the 1,600-resident complex, reports Truong.

Gregory Perlman

GHC Housing Partners, which owns the 496-unit complex, said it has addressed the building code violations, which were “fairly minor” in any case. Also, CEO Gregory Perlman noted that Henrico had failed to support a proposal last year seeking federal tax credits that would have helped pay for renovations.

Who is this Perlman person? In 2012 he claimed to have invented a “new approach to affordable housing.” This comes from a GHC press release:

“We focus on our residents and provide them with the opportunity to better their lives through self-improvement programs as well as support from the non-profit Perlman Foundation.”

… GHC Housing Partners specializes in acquiring and managing primarily Section 8 housing and providing social services and amenities that go far beyond HUD requirements. Vegetable gardens, dog parks, job counseling, college scholarships and summer camps are only part of this transformation of affordable housing. GHC Housing Partners is focused on initiatives and programs that improve lives and provide bootstrap opportunities for residents to achieve a higher standard of living.

Wrapping public services around public housing is the hot concept in the non-profit world. But how has the idea fared in the real world? The building code violations speak for themselves. The T-D also quotes a Rev. Joe Ellison who previously ran a day care at Essex and served as a pastor in the community. He left in 2005 “crestfallen over the living conditions.”

He said he approached management at Essex two  years ago, hoping to establish a program that involved mentoring and job creation. After a lukewarm response, he instead turned his sights to Fairfield Court in Richmond.

GHC warrants a closer look, far closer than I can provide in this quick blog post. The company is part of a housing-industrial complex that has grown up around public housing and, some have told me, exists as much to provide a comfortable living for a vast ecosystem of for-profits, non-profits, consultants and government administrators as for the poor themselves.

On its website, the Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based GHV claims to be the ” industry’s leading affordable housing owner and developer.” Since 1993, the company has acquired 20,000 housing units across 24 states in $1.25 billion worth of projects.

I infer that the company is for-profit, as the website makes no mention of a non-profit status. The parent company, GHC Housing Partners, is affiliated with GHC Investment Holdings, which acquires, owns and manages affordable housing; GHC Development, which develops properties using tax-exempt bonds and low-income housing tax credits; PK Management, a property management arm whose mission includes providing “quality service to its residents;” and a charitable arm, the All Ways Up Foundation.

In 2014, according to its IRS 990 form, the All Ways Up Foundation provided $128,777 in grants to organizations and $123,935 to individuals — sums that work out to an average of $12 per housing unit across the GHC system — and hosted an educational summit.

PK Management, which manages 18,000 units, purports to employ 41 social service coordinators to oversee resident welfare, focusing on delivering expanded services to its residents. It also offers “educational and professional opportunities designed to break the cycle of generational poverty.” (It’s not clear from the website if PK Management serves Essex Village, nor who pays for these services.)

The federal government turned to outsourcing after it became clear that it was doing a terrible job of running public housing projects itself. Perhaps it is time to ask if the non-profits and for-profits are doing any better. Anecdotal evidence is piling up that they are not, although Essex and Kippax may not be representative of performance at other housing projects. My suspicion is that private players master the latest buzz words and throw out a lot of flash-and-dazzle to impress the bureaucrats and win big contracts but that there’s not much follow through.

Perhaps the Times-Dispatch could do a little digging. What is the precise nature of GHC’s relationship with Essex Village? Does it own the property outright? Does it have a contract with the federal government? Does it provide wrap-around social services? Does the All Ways Up Foundation provide any grants? How much revenue does the project generate, and what is the cost structure? Most pertinently, how much money does GHC devote to maintenance and upkeep? Surely, this information would be available through the Freedom of Information Act.

Related questions: Who in the federal government, if anyone, is responsible for looking over GHC’s shoulder to make sure it is maintaining basic standards — and why has Henrico been forced to step in?

How to Destroy a Small Town: Build More Stroads

Suck the soul out of your community and destroy its vitality: Build more stroads.

Want to suck the soul out of your community and destroy its vitality? Build more stroads. Photo credit: Strong Towns.

I have a meeting tomorrow with Augie Wallmeyer, author of “The Extremes of Virginia,” a book that highlights the perilous social and economic condition of rural/small town Virginia. In anticipation of the conversation, I have been reflecting upon what it takes to stabilize rural counties whose economies have been devastated by the decline of coal, tobacco, furniture, textiles and apparel. With all the challenges they face, which Wallmeyer has described in copious detail, can these hard-hit communities reinvent themselves for the 21st century?

There are at least two parts to this question. One, which tends to get the most attention, is economic development: how to stimulate jobs and investment. A second, which gets overlooked here in Virginia, is how to maintain essential government services in a jurisdiction with an eroding population and fragile economy. The latter task is as essential as the former. If counties and small cities can’t maintain basic services, how can they hope to compete for people and jobs?

In the course of these ruminations, I encountered a recent blog post by Charles Marohn, founder of the Strong Towns movement: “America’s Next Transportation System: Doing More While Spending Less.” This short essay reminds me that every supervisor, council person, city or county manager, and planning director in a rural Virginia jurisdiction needs to read Strong Towns regularly — or be fired!

This particular piece discusses basic principles of transportation policy — principles that are routinely ignored throughout most of Virginia, and in rural Virginia most of all, where politicians and civic boosters regard new roads and highways mainly as tools for economic development. The entire post is worth reading, but I want to focus on some points most pertinent to rural planning.

Marohn distinguishes between roads and streets. “Roads are for getting to a place,” he writes. “Streets are for being in a place.”

Roads and highways are connectors; they provide high-speed links between productive places. They enable trade and commerce. Travel speed and throughput are relevant metrics. But we ruin our roads by gumming them up with development, intersections, curb cuts, stop lights and many other hindrances to unimpeded travel. For classic examples of how to ruin a road, look to U.S. 29 north of Charlottesville, the Broad Street and Midlothian Turnpike corridors in Richmond, Route 1 in Fredericksburg, and any transportation corridor in Northern Virginia. Smaller-scale but no less grotesque examples can be seen outside of almost every small city or town in Virginia. Communities have choked off their access to the world through their failure to understand the function of a road.

Streets are what you find at the end of the road. They provide local access — not just for cars but for pedestrians and bicycles. They do not create economic value by allowing faster speeds. Indeed, speed kills economic value on streets by making people feel less safe. The function of streets is to create places where people interact. Streets that work well are marked by short, gridded blocks, slower speeds, fewer stoplights, wider sidewalks, buildings abutting the sidewalk, and a vibrant street life.

“The productivity of a street is improved by slowing traffic, by giving priority to walking, biking and transit over automobiles and by intensifying the adjacent land use,” Marohn writes. As he elaborates in other blog posts, more intensive development (two-, three-, four-story buildings in small towns) generates more property tax revenue per acre for a comparable investment in infrastructure. This insight is absolutely critical for any town intent upon preserving and building its tax base.

Marohn coined the term “stroads” for street-road hybrids that combine the worst attributes of streets and roads —  “a transportation investment that attempts to simultaneously provide a high-speed connection while also attempting to build wealth.” Writes Marohn:

These outcomes are incompatible. Stroads are the highest cost, lowest returning of all transportation investments. They are also the most dangerous. We must stop building stroads and actively seek to convert existing stroads into either high-performance roads or wealth producing streets.

The path to economic salvation for rural Virginia lies (1) in building better transportation connections between towns and cities, and (2) in designing wealth-creating places where people want to live and work. Instead, most rural Virginia communities are still building stroads and destroying what vitality they have.

Time to Panic Over the Closing of Yorktown Units? In a Word… No

Yorktown Power Station.

Yorktown Power Station. Photo credit: Daily Press

The day, April 15, is fast approaching when Dominion Virginia Power will be compelled by federal regulations to shut down two coal-fired generating units at the Yorktown Power Station, exposing the Virginia Peninsula to the risk of blackouts.

When the Yorktown units are shuttered, the utility will have enough electric power to supply the half million-person region from the outside most of the time. But during periods of peak demand, usually during the summer, an accident knocking one of those lines out of commission will put the region only one more incident away from uncontrolled, cascading blackouts that could spread to Norfolk, Richmond and beyond. Rather than incur any chance of disaster, PJM Interconnection, the organization that controls the transmission grid for a 12-state region that includes Virginia, would “shed load” — in other words, cut off electric power to some residents and businesses on the Peninsula.

Dominion’s proposed backup, the Surry-Skiffes transmission line, remains in a state of regulatory limbo while the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers negotiates ways to mitigate the line’s impact on a near-pristine stretch of the James River near Jamestown. Even if the Corps gave Dominion a permit tomorrow, it will take 18 months — and two summers — before the line can be built.

If I were a Peninsula business or resident, I’d be wondering, is it time to panic yet? I put the questions to Dominion: How frequent will the blackouts be and how bad will they be?

The answer: The threat is real but small in any given year, and a blackout, if it occurs, is likely to be limited in scope and duration. However, while the Peninsula might skate through the next year or two without a blackout, the situation is intolerable over the long run, Dominion warns. The Peninsula is the region most exposed to blackouts in the Dominion system and possibly the most vulnerable in the entire PJM transmission grid.

“This is a serious situation,” says Steve Chafin, Dominion director of transmission planning and strategic initiatives. When three things come together — (1) temperatures are running high, (2) the Yorktown 3 unit isn’t running, and (3) an accident knocks out a transmission line or sub-station — PJM likely will have to shed load.

Assuming normal weather conditions, the Peninsula will experience between 50 and 80 “high risk” days, Chafin says. Peak consumption is likely to occur in the summer, when temperatures are highest, although a few days may occur in the winter when temperatures are extremely low.

Although the company is closing two coal-fired units, the Environmental Protection Agency will allow it to run Yorktown 3, a oil-fired unit, 8% of the time, or up to 29 days. Using Yorktown 3 as a backup will reduce the number of vulnerable days to between 20 to 50.

Transmission lines to the Peninsula have been knocked out by accidents, component malfunctions or other causes six times in the past 10 years — an average of once every 20 months. (There have been two incidents in the past 10 years in which two simultaneous outages occurred.)

To reduce the odds of such mishaps shutting down a transmission line, the utility has been increasing its patrols of electric lines, boosting sub-station inspections and running infrared scanner. “This is not a normal mode of operation,” says Chafin. “We don’t patrol our transmission lines this frequently.”

If a once-every-twenty-months line outage occurs during one of the 20 to 50 at-risk days of heavy consumption when Yorktown 3 isn’t running, the electric grid will be at risk of an uncontrolled, cascading blackout. PJM, working in coordination with Dominion, will decide whether or not to shed load.

Should it become necessary to cut electricity consumption, the goal will be to disrupt as few people as possible and spare critical infrastructure such as hospitals and water treatment plants. PJM and Dominion would continuously run contingency models to determine the best course of action.

“Our goal is to avoid the need for temporary service interruptions, but should it become necessary, we will do all we can to limit the number of customers and duration,” Chafin says. “In the end, these are temporary measures to protect the larger grid from widespread, uncontrolled outages.”

Should blackouts occur, they likely would not last all day or affect the entire Peninsula. The company would close no more circuits than needed to drop electricity consumption to within a safe range. Giving a hypothetical example, Chafin says, “We might do two or three blocks of circuits of a few thousand customers for an hour or two.”

Dominion also would ask Peninsula customers to voluntarily conserve electricity.  “The more the conservation, the shorter the duration and the fewer people affected,” he says.

With a little luck the Peninsula might escape unscathed, Chafin says. “We’re running drills to make sure we’re ready. We think we can get through the summer without any rotating blackouts.”

How Kumbaya Disciplinary Policies Hurt Black Students

Here we go again… The Richmond Times-Dispatch tells us this morning that a “pattern” in Chesterfield and Henrico counties of suspending black students with disabilities at a disproportionately high rates has triggered a response from the state. Chesterfield, Henrico and the City of Richmond are among seven Virginia school districts mandated to set aside federal money under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to address the problem.

In the 2014-2015 school year, Chesterfield was four times more likely to give a long-term suspension to an African-American student with disabilities than other students with disabilities. Despite several years of trying to reduce suspensions, Henrico was 6.7 times more likely.

In Chesterfield, an “equity coordinator” will aim to get at the “root causes” for the disparity. “It’s not that people are racist. That’s too easy,” said Julie McConnell, an attorney who runs the Children’s Defense Clinic at the University of Richmond. The bias, she said, is subtler. “If a child doesn’t act like your child, it’s harder for people to understand.”

The implication here is that the pattern of disciplinary action is discriminatory in effect, if not in motivation. Accordingly, offending jurisdictions like Henrico and Chesterfield are singled out for revamping their disciplinary policies. The new thrust, as described by T-D reporter Vanessa Remmers, is to discipline students “in a nonpunitive way, by focusing on repairing harm done and engaging everyone involved rather than excluding the misbehaving child.” Thus, schools become an agent of let’s-all-hold-hands-and-sing-kumbaya social welfare policy.

The article does not tell us how many children are being suspended, much less how many handicapped black children are being suspended, as justification for overhauling district-wide disciplinary programs. The article does not tell us whether the suspensions are commensurate with the number of number and severity offenses. The article does not tell us the number of victims, either students or faculty, of misbehaving students. The article does not tell us what impact poor school discipline has on the learning environment for other students, much less how black students might be adversely affected by disrupted classrooms.

In other words, the article frames the social problem as one of bias and discrimination against black children with disabilities without regard to the impact their behavior has on anyone else, such as black children who do not create trouble at school. Indeed, by ignoring the disproportionate impact of the supposed remedies upon the educational environment of four-fifths of African-American students, one could say that the undue focus on bad actors is itself a form of bias and discrimination.

Here is a quick look at some statistics that might present the issue in a different light. This data comes from the Center for Civil Rights Remedies:

In Virginia secondary schools in the 2011-2012 school year, males were disciplined at roughly twice the rate of females. By the logic of the Children’s Defense Clinic, the ACLU, the Obama administration and other advocates of “disparate impact” theory, the school system discriminates against males. This would seem incontestable. But no one raises this issue. No one seems remotely concerned.

Here’s the data for the suspension rate broken down by ethnic/racial/linguist groups for 2011-2012:

Here we learn that the disciplinary rate for African-Americans in secondary schools is three times that of whites — but that the disciplinary rate for whites is roughly the same as it is for Latinos and American Indians, higher than the rate for English learners, and more than four times the rate for Asians. Perhaps the most accurate way of presenting the data is to say that prevailing practices have a disparate impact on non-Asians!

Here is another way to frame this data: While 21% of African-American students were suspended in 2011-2012, 79% were not! These students did not create major disciplinary issues. But they had to suffer through the disruptions inflicted by their unruly peers. Again, social justice advocates never mention this.

Here’s another set of data, this from the 2014-2015 Virginia Department of Education “Discipline, Crime and Violence Annual Report.”

The incidents  highlighted at left are only the most severe. They do not include 22,388 incidents of defiance of authority/ insubordination, 17,450 incident of classroom or campus disruption, 15,894 disruptive demonstrations, 12,523 minor physical altercations or countless other offenses adding up to 145,413 in all. These numbers also do not include acts of indiscipline too routine to even bother reporting in a system where deviancy is continually defined down.

No one tracks the race/ethnicity/linguistic background of these victims.

Here are other data sets for which there is no data because no one collects it:

  • Number of classes disrupted.
  • Number of teaching hours disrupted.
  • Number of student learning hours disrupted.
  • Academic cost to students of lost learning hours.

Yes, school systems need to take into account the fact that many students come from extremely challenging home environments, and many may suffer from disabilities that make it difficult for them to plug into the normal school environment. We should feel compassion for these kids, and perhaps we should make special arrangements for them. Perhaps it’s time we question the commitment to mainstream them with other students. In the meantime, we should stop assuming that disparate impact equals discrimination, and we should stop contort school disciplinary policies to meet the needs of the few rather than the needs of the many.

Deciphering Higher Ed Statistics

Last week at a State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) board meeting, board member Heywood Fralin launched into an impromptu digression on a topic of great frustration to him: the claim that for every dollar the General Assembly has cut in state support to higher education, state colleges and universities have increased tuition by two dollars.

“Reports about tuition increases lack perspective,” said Fralin, a successful businessman and former head of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors. The two-for-one claim might reflect reality if you pick 1996 as a starting date, he said, but if you select 2001 as the starting date, you would see a one-for-one match between state cuts and tuition increases.

Fralin was correct in pointing out that it matters which start and end dates are used in making a statistical analysis. But was the year 2001 any more reflective of reality when analyzing the impact of state budget cuts on tuition than the year 1996?

The two-for-one claim likely originated in a presentation by fiscal analyst Tony Maggio at a House Appropriations Committee retreat in November 2016. At that event, Maggio shared the following chart:

Translator key: UG = undergraduate, GF = General Fund, FTE = Full-time equivalent, T&F = tuition & fees, I/S = In-State, O/S = Out-of-State. Maggio’s bottom line: “Essentially, in-state tuition grew $2 for every $1 loss in General Fund.”

By Maggio’s calculation, state support per in-state student (nobody is terribly concerned about out-of-state students) shrank by $1,634 inflation-adjusted dollars between 1996 and 2015. Over the same period, average inflation-adjusted tuition & fees increased by $3,186, almost twice as much.

Legislators picked up this factoid during the 2017 General Assembly session. During a press conference highlighting several bills designed to reign in runaway tuition increase, Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, declared, “For every dollar we cut, they raise tuition two dollars.” The claim was repeated in newspaper ads paid for by Partners 4 Affordable Education (a Bacon’s Rebellion sponsor). I’ve repeated the number myself on this blog.

A March editorial in the Virginian-Pilot, cited by Fralin, took exception to the two-to-one meme.

When an advocacy group recently placed newspaper ads and op-eds asserting that Virginia colleges raise tuition $2 for every $1 dollar of state funding cuts, it was the wrong thing to do. It was misleading to the point of being false.

Over the 15-year period since 2001, there has been roughly a 1:1 correlation between state funding cuts and tuition hikes.

How do you get a figure of $2 in tuition increases per $1? By including cuts made between 1996 and 2001.

It could have been far more useful to evaluate the 15 years between 2001-2015. That would include the last two recessions, along with corresponding budget cuts and tuition increases.

It is interesting to see the Virginian-Pilot accuse the newspaper ad of being “misleading to the point of being false” for picking a start date that fit its narrative while the editorial writer did precisely the same thing! The table below (also prepared by Tony Maggio) shows how a starting date of 2001, when state support was highest, would include the cuts in state support that followed and exclude the increases that preceded it, thus biasing the findings in a totally different direction.

This graph, prepared by House of Delegates staffer Tony Maggio, shows General Fund support per in-state undergraduate student at Virginia’s public four-year institutions using a starting date of 1996. The yellow highlight (which I added) shows the starting date proposed by a Virginian-Pilot editorial writer.

The Pilot editorial writer did raise one interesting point: Perhaps comparisons should take into account the fiscal impact of the business cycle. In the writer’s view, it was important to “include the last two recessions, along with corresponding budget cuts and tuition increases.” Continue reading

Chesapeake Coal Ash Ruling — Advantage Dominion

Judge John A. Gibney Jr.

My initial reaction to Judge John A. Gibney Jr.’s ruling in Virginia’s first coal ash-related federal court case was to call it a draw. As I blogged yesterday, both the Sierra Club and Dominion Virginia Power found aspects of the judge’s order that supported their positions. But as I sort through the implications for the ongoing debate over coal ash in Virginia, I’m thinking that Dominion was the real winner in the long run.

True enough, the Sierra Club and its attorneys with the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) did win one important tactical victory: Gibney found that arsenic-tainted groundwater passing through the coal ash ponds at Dominion’s former Chesapeake Energy Center (CEC), did, in fact, reach the Elizabeth River in violation of the Clean Water Act.

Here’s how Seth Heald, chair of the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter, framed that finding in a press release:

A federal court has found Dominion responsible for breaking the law and polluting the Elizabeth River. That is important for all Virginians who seek to hold the utility responsible for its mishandling of toxic coal ash. Now we must push Dominion to do the right thing and get this toxic ash out of the groundwater and away from the river, which is highly susceptible to disastrous flooding from sea-level rise and other climate-change effects.

But the judge also found that Dominion had been a “good corporate citizen,” had cooperated with Virginia’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) “every step of the way,” and “should not suffer penalties for doing things that it, and the Commonwealth, thought complied with state and federal law.”

More importantly, Gibney applied what is, in effect, a cost-benefit test to any proposed remedy. While it is true that a tiny volume of leachate reaches the Elizabeth River, arsenic concentrations have been rendered harmless by dilution in the massive volume of river water. No threat to aquatic life and human health has been detectable so far. Unless evidence emerges that arsenic levels are reaching dangerous levels, he saw no justification to spend upwards of $600 million to excavate and remove the coal ash.

Gibney also found Dominion’s remedy of “monitored natural attenuation” — in effect, letting nature run its course — to be inadequate as well. He ordered Dominion to conduct more extensive monitoring of sediment, water and wildlife in and around the Chesapeake cite, and to report the results to the Sierra Club’s counsel and the DEQ. “In the event of a significant change in the amount of arsenic in the water or sediments,” Gibney wrote, “either party may move the Court for further relief.”

But Gibney’s cost-benefit test favors Dominion as the coal-ash controversy unfolds. Riverkeeper groups have opposed Dominion’s requests for solid-waste permits at its Bremo and Possum Point power stations. They argued, as the Sierra Club did in the CEC case, that evidence of contaminated groundwater migrating into nearby water bodies is grounds for removing the coal ash to lined landfills away from the water regardless of expense. But the application of Gibney’s logic to future cases would mean that demonstrating the leakage of small volumes of contamination into surface waters is not sufficient to seek a massively expensive remedy. The leakage must be on a scale to affect aquatic health and human safety.

Over a half century of burning coal at the Chesapeake power plant, Dominion accumulated 3.4 million tons of combustion residue and disposed of it in coal ponds. The ash contained high levels of arsenic — an estimated 150 tons. In 2014, samples of groundwater from ten wells around the ash landfill showed arsenic concentrations higher than 10 micrograms per liter, the groundwater protection standard set by DEQ. At one location, the judge noted, the arsenic concentration reached 1,287 micrograms per liter.

Gibney accepted the Sierra Club’s arguments that groundwater migrates from the coal ash to the surface waters of the Elizabeth River and its tributaries. In so doing, he rejected Dominion’s contentions that the groundwater was unconnected to the surrounding water bodies, and that arsenic traces found in the Elizabeth River originated from other industrial sources. Wrote the judge:

Dominion argues that because sediments move upstream and downstream with the tides, it is impossible to tell where the sediments used for the poor water samples originally came from. Although some tidal action may move sediments around, it defies logic to argue that an enormous amount of arsenic does not contribute to the arsenic in soil and water right next to it, especially given the evidence of groundwater movement from the mound outward.

While the evidence shows that Dominion does discharge some arsenic into nearby surface waters, Gibney reasoned, “it does not show how much.”

The Court cannot determine how much groundwater reaches the surface waters, or how much arsenic goes from the CEC to the surrounding waters. .. What the Court does know, however, is that the discharge poses no threat to health or the environment. All tests of the surface waters surrounding the CEC have been well below the water quality criteria for arsenic….. The CEC is surrounded by an enormous body of water, and even a large arsenic discharge would amount to a drop in the bucket.

Continue reading

Dominion, SELC Spin Coal Ash Ruling as Victory

Dominion Virginia Power and the Southern Environmental Law Center (SELC) are both declaring victory after a ruling by a federal judge regarding Dominion’s disposal of coal ash at its retired Chesapeake Energy Center.

U.S. District Court Judge John A. Gibney ruled today that the coal ash ponds are contaminating the Elizabeth River with arsenic and that the process of “natural attenuation,” or letting nature take its course, is a “completely ineffective solution,” says a press release issued by the SELC, which represented the plaintiff, the Sierra Club.

“The judge agreed with the Sierra Club’s experts, and rejected the testimony of Dominion experts who said arsenic does not reach the Elizabeth River,” said the statement.

But Dominion found much to celebrate in Gibney’s ruling as well. “The court has confirmed that there has been no threat to health or the environment resulting from the coal ash stored at its former Chesapeake Energy Center,” said a Dominion statement. “The court noted there has been ‘no evidence that shows any injury … has occurred to health or the environment.”

Furthermore, the ruling noted that Dominion had abided by all permits and “should not suffer penalties for doing things that it, and the Commonwealth, thought complied with state and federal law.” Accordingly, the court imposed no penalties on Dominion.

That’s the breaking news. I’ll try to have more tomorrow regarding the implications of the ruling for coal ash controversies at Dominion’s Bremo, Possums Point and Chesterfield power stations.

McAuliffe Orders WMATA Review

Governor McAuliffe has ordered a sweeping review of WMATA, the Washington area's train-wreck of a commuter rail system.

Governor McAuliffe has ordered a sweeping review of WMATA, the Washington area’s train-wreck of a commuter rail system.

Governor Terry McAuliffe has announced an independent review of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (MWATA), the troubled organization that runs rail and bus systems in the Washington metropolitan area. Hampered by massive maintenance backlogs, high labor costs, safety issues and declining ridership, the authority requires billions of dollars in capital funds and hundreds of millions a year in operating funds to reverse a devastating loss of traffic. There is no consensus on where the money will come from.

Ray LaHood, former U.S. Secretary of Transportation, will lead an “objective, top-down review” of WMATA, said a statement issued by the governor’s office today. Virginia will pay for the review but will not control it. WMATA is governed by an interstate compact between Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C.

WMATA’s rail and bus operations move more than one million people a day, making it essential to the Washington-area economy. “Unfortunately,” the statement said, “WMATA today has significant problems that hinder its ability to serve this region’s residents and businesses. It did not happen overnight. It is the result of decades worth of decisions.”

“Everything will be looked at, including operating, governance, and financial conditions,” the statement said. That includes board governance, labor policy, and long-term financial stability. The study will benchmark system costs and expenses, governance, funding levels, cost recovery, maintenance costs, and rail safety incidents. A final report is expected to be issued this November.

The latest fiasco. There was no explanation of what prompted McAuliffe’s decision to launch the review, but news of another management fiasco today illustrates how badly WMATA has broken down. Federal track inspectors have found that the new 7000-series rail cars, which are heavier than the older cars, may be damaging the tracks, reports the Washington D.C. Patch.

WMATA purchased 528 of the 7000-series rail cars in 2013. News reports revealed last year that the cars wouldn’t be used on Blue, Orange and Silver lines because they can’t navigate a steep curve on a stretch of tracks shared by the three lines. Then this year, it was reported that the trains were experiencing failures every 5,000 to 10,000 miles, way below the contract expectations of 20,800 miles.

The decision in 2013 to purchase rail cars that can’t navigate a critical curve, experience failures at three times the contracted rate, and also damage the rail lines is a management failure of spectacular proportions — and the responsibility doesn’t go back decades.

McAuliffe’s decision to act is welcome, even if it’s overdue. The Commonwealth of Virginia cannot continue to dump money into a dysfunctional organization without concrete assurances that the money won’t be wasted.

Update: I was curious about how the McAuliffe administration came to the decision to launch this review but had no insight to share when I made this post. Turns out that the 2017 budget bill called for it, ordering the Secretary of Transportation to “initiate an objective review of the operating, governance and financial conditions” at mWATA.

The review shall encompass the following: (1) the legal and organizational structure of WMATA,; (2) the composition and qualifications of the WMATA board of directors; (3) potential strategies to reduce the growth in labor costs; (4) options to improve the sustainability of employee retirement plans; (5) safety and reliability; and (6) efficiency of operations.

Probing the Limits of Tuition Hikes at VCU

VCU is going where no Virginia university has gone before: high tuition, needy student body, low financial aid.

VCU is going where no Virginia university has gone before: high tuition, needy student body, low financial aid.

Virginia Commonwealth University is pondering a tuition increase of between 3% and 5% — over and above a 2.8% increase for the current academic year — to compensate for an $8 million reduction in state appropriations and a 3% salary raise authorized by the General Assembly, reports the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Meanwhile, the university plans to hire a firm to recruit more international students to bolster revenue with lucrative out-of-state tuition payments. (The total cost of attendance for an out-of-state student is about $19,000 higher than for an in-state student).

If the VCU board of visitors OKs the tuition hike, Virginians will get to observe an interesting experiment in higher-ed economics — how high can a second-tier university push tuition before diminishing enrollment? Is there an upper bound to the cost of attendance at which point students say, “No more!”?

VCU has increased its tuition aggressively over the past decade. By the 2015-16 academic year, the Richmond university had the second highest in-state cost of attendance of any public, four-year institution in the state: $26,700. That was higher than the University of Virginia’s and second only to the College of William & Mary’s. Likewise, VCU’s out-of-state cost of attendance, at $48,500, was the third highest. (I draw these numbers from the SCHEV’s higher education database.)

Two Virginia universities with stellar national reputations, the University of Virginia and the College of William & Mary, arguably have the latitude to boost their tuition & fees should they choose to do so. Perceived as near-Ivy League in quality, they likely could get away with charging near-Ivy League prices. Virginia Tech is not quite in the same league, but its undergraduate engineering school is one of the top rated in the country, so the institution probably has some pricing leeway, especially considering that its cost of attendance is lower than the state average.

Although VCU has a rising reputation among state universities, it has not reached the rarefied atmosphere where it can charge top dollar. Demand for a VCU education is more “elastic,” meaning that students are more sensitive to price increases. Here’s my question: Will higher prices at VCU push down enrollment by discouraging students from applying?

The chart below compares VCU to two peer institutions — big research universities located in large metropolitan areas — George Mason University and Old Dominion University — and adjusts the sticker price by the amount of financial aid provided.

“Financial aid per student” was derived by dividing total in-state financial aid by total in-state undergraduate enrollment. All numbers are for undergraduate students.

VCU is not a bargain: Its net cost of attendance per year is almost $2,500 higher than George Mason’s and about $11,000 higher than Old Dominion’s.

Now consider that VCU draws from a less affluent demographic base than, say, UVa or W&M. Sixty-eight percent of its students graduate with debt. Indeed, 29% of VCU students receive federal Pell grants reserved for lower-income students. Needless to say, these students are highly price sensitive.

How much in higher expenses can VCU’s less-affluent demographic absorb? At what point will enrollment numbers start declining? VCU’s board of visitors seems determined to probe the outer limit. Continue reading

When “Social Justice” Leads to Social Injustice

Under the Obama administration, social justice advocates have pushed through a revolution in school disciplinary policies in scores (maybe hundreds) of local school districts across the United States. Whenever minority students are suspended at a higher rate than white students, there is a presumption of prejudice. As former Education Secretary Arne Duncan put it, the disparity in rates of suspension “is not caused by differences in children, it’s caused by differences in training, professional development, and discipline policies. It is adult behavior that needs to change.”

In place of suspensions and other traditional disciplinary tools, the feds imposed a new approach called restorative justice. A student who misbehaves is encouraged to reflect on his actions, take responsibility and resolve to do better. Counseling and dialogue replaces suspensions and other sanctions. This is precisely the approach imposed upon Henrico County Public Schools, as I have blogged about frequently in the past.

How has this all worked out? Enough years have passed that it should be possible to measure the results. One conclusion is beyond dispute: The restorative-justice approach has driven down the number of student suspensions. But has discipline improved? Have educational outcomes improved? There is abundant anecdotal evidence around the country to suggest that more often than not, discipline has gotten worse. Classrooms are being disrupted. Teacher morale is sagging. And the learning experience of orderly students is suffering. But those are just anecdotes. Social justice advocates can cite anecdotes of their own to suggest that the programs are working.

Now comes a study by Max Eden, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute: “School Discipline Reform and Disorder.” Drawing upon extensive student and teacher surveys of school conditions, Eden examines the impact of two sets of “reforms” — one under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, in which suspensions were pruned back for low-level infractions, and a far more aggressive set of reforms under Mayor Bill de Blasio, which set up rigorous administrative hurdles to limit school suspensions and to train teachers to employ the “restorative justice approach.”

Survey questions addressed perceptions of school discipline. Students were asked: Do students get into physical fights? Do students treat each other with respect? Do students drink or use drugs at school? Is there gang activity? Teachers were asked: Are order and discipline maintained?

Eden’s conclusion: “Overall the pattern is consistent and unmistakable: school climate remained relatively steady under Bloomberg’s discipline reforms but has deteriorated rapidly under de Blasio’s.” The decline in discipline has led to an increase in disruptive behavior with significant spill-over effects. Those who suffer ill effects from the disorder in schools are most likely to be poor and minority students. In other words, writes Eden, “Discipline reforms may be doing great harm to students, especially the most vulnerable.”

Bacon’s bottom line: This comes as no surprise. I feared precisely this result when writing about the imposition of restorative justice disciplinary techniques in Henrico a couple of years ago. Given the evidence proffered by New York schools, we need to take a look at the impact in Henrico County, the case with which I am most familiar, and any other Virginia locality where similar measures have been enacted.

Virginians need to know: Is this social experiment having the same negative consequences here? Has school disorder gotten better or worse? Has academic achievement gotten better or worse? Are we, in the name of social justice, imposing untested theories that create even greater social injustices?

The data exists to answer these questions. There is no excuse for not knowing the answers.