Wednesday, August 29, 2007

For She’s a Jolly Good County

Years, perhaps decades, ago, while I was sojourning in northern Virginia, the District of Columbia had a sex problem. Well, it wasn’t exactly a sex problem; it really was a problem with too many women selling sex a few short blocks from the White House. (I am not implying that being close to the White House created a good market for these women. I assume it was merely a coincidence.) Anyhow, the newspapers wrote a story about it and the Chief of Police decided that these working women could no longer be tolerated along 14th Street. So, on one glorious night, hundreds of police officers took time off from protecting the city from serious crime and dedicated their efforts to freeing the city from vice. Countless women of the night were arrested and carted off. The next day the police put all the offending women in trucks, drove them across the 14th Street Bridge and released them in Arlington. And for one brief shining moment the District of Columbia had no prostitution problem.

This story popped into my head this morning while I was reading the news on page one of the Times-Dispatch. It wasn’t the story about LandAmerica cutting eleven hundred jobs, which is pretty bad news. It wasn’t the story about speed bumps and traffic circles, which isn’t news at all. It was the headline that read “Hanover boasts lowest poverty rate for its size.” The story was contained in the first paragraph, one sentence long: “New census figures released yesterday listed Hanover County with the lowest poverty rate in the nation among counties of its population.”

At first I was giddy with joy. Our neighbor, only a few miles away, had apparently fixed its poverty problem. This was great news indeed, especially after last week’s depressing cover story in Style Weekly, which suggested that Richmond Public Schools can never succeed because of the city’s high concentration of poverty. Hey, if Hanover County has such a low poverty rate they must be doing something that we can copy in Richmond. So what is it they are doing?

I read the article again. There wasn’t any clear explanation for how Hanover had achieved this great feat. The director of the county’s Department of Social Services was surprised by the low poverty rate. She had expected it to be twice as high. But she did make it clear that this low poverty rate didn’t mean that her job was unneeded. There are “many other residents who can’t make their mortgage, car, and day-care payments without [our] assistance.”

Hey, that’s it! The director of Social Services has been making so many assistance payments to residents of Hanover County that they no longer qualify as poor. Now they are merely strapped for cash. Hanover’s solution is easy. Give money to poor people and they will no longer be poor. Why hadn’t we in Richmond thought of it? How simple! We can eliminate our poverty problem by simply giving out more money.

But, wait! The next paragraph suggests that maybe Hanover didn’t do the obvious. It says that development in Hanover County has concentrated on single-family housing, which attracts married families. As everybody knows poverty is lowest among married families and highest among households headed by single women. (And you thought that the marriage amendment was stupid!) The article quoted a demographer (if you know your classical languages, you may understand what such a person does) as suggesting that Hanover had a lower rate of poverty because it was “family concentrated.”

So now things are making more sense. Hanover has less poverty because it has become unfriendly to the poor. It simply provides them with no affordable housing. They can’t live in Hanover if there is no place for them to live.

But would Hanover County be so Machiavellian? Would it deliberately control its zoning and development processes to exclude affordable housing for the less-affluent? Would government officials act this way in the 21st Century?

Wait! Isn’t this the same Hanover County that has Robert Setliff as the Chair of its county Board of Supervisors? Isn’t Setliff the person who was quoted in last week’s Style as saying that the problems of Richmond’s public schools is “none of [Hanover County’s] business,” and sees no value in regional cooperation? Is it so far-fetched that the leaders of such a county would avoid the problems that come with poverty by making sure that poor people stay in Richmond where they belong? Are they any different than the D.C. police who dealt with prostitution by trying to make it Arlington’s problem?

So, the next time you’re driving north and see a “Welcome to Hanover County” sign be sure to read the fine print that says “unless you’re poor.” Then read the engraving on Hanover’s statue of liberty:

Send us your wealthy and your white,
Your middle class we urge from you to flee,
Your wretched refuse we don’t want,
Keep your homeless and your weak,
Across the Chickahominy they can’t cross.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Choosing the Next Prez: Part II

I was really hoping that this process of picking the best candidate in each party was going to be a dialogue or a trialogue or even a multilogue. However, none of you responded to my first “Choosing the Next Prez” post. So I guess this is going to be a lecture.

Of course, according to the media, both broadcast and print, this is a meaningless exercise. The media have already decided, based almost entirely on how much campaign money has been raised, that only three Democratic candidates—Senators Clinton and Obama, and former Senator Edwards—have any chance of winning their party’s nomination. Among Republicans, the media have decided that only two—former New York City mayor Guiliani and former Massachusetts governor Romney—can win the nomination. (Of course, the media may add an additional Republican if a certain actor who is a former Senator decides to run).

Despite the decision by the media, and despite the fact that I, along with millions of other voters, will never have any say in who our party nominates for president, I will go forward with this analysis.

You and I are hiring the next President of the United States. We have to review the resumes of all the prospective candidates to see who is most qualified. But before we do that we have to consider the job description for the president.

The president is the leader of our country. S/he is also the leader of the Free World (whatever that means). S/he is the Commander in Chief of the military of the United States. Further, the president is the chief executive officer of the Executive Branch of our government. S/he is also our country’s top diplomat. The president also appoints (with the consent of the Senate) all federal judges and the top leadership of all of the departments and agencies of the Executive Branch.

So what kind of experience should we look for in our next president? In what kind of a job would a person demonstrate the kind of talents he or she will need to do the job? The resumes of the candidates show they have filled such jobs as United States Senator, United States Representative, state governor, city mayor, federal cabinet secretary, attorney, college professor, actor, state legislator, state cabinet secretary, minister, business executive, author and military officer. Does any of this experience demonstrate that a particular candidate has the skills and talent to be President of the United States?

The three leading candidates among Democrats are incumbent or former United States Senators. Does being a senator (or representative or state legislator) prepare someone to be president? As we have described the job, almost all of the president’s functions are executive, managerial or diplomatic. Yet, the job of a legislator requires no executive or managerial skills. A legislator drafts legislation, builds coalitions to get that legislation enacted, sits on committees and debates either in committee or on the floor of the legislature. Although serving several years in the Senate or House of Representatives may allow a legislator to develop a great deal of expertise in one or more areas of public policy, it provides that legislator with no executive or managerial experience. Even committee chairs develop only a minimum of leadership skills.

But haven’t senators always been the leading candidates for president. Actually, since the Constitution was amended to provide for popular election of senators, rather than their appointment by state legislatures, only two United States Senators have been elected president. The first, Warren Harding, elected in 1920, will never be considered in the top 50% of presidential quality. He accomplished very little as president and his administration is mostly known for corruption. The second was John Kennedy, elected in 1960. Although Kennedy was a great orator and able to inspire great numbers of Americans, an assassin’s bullet prevents us from judging how good a president he may have been. Based on his less than three years in office, I can say that he was not effective in getting most of his legislative program enacted. He approved the Bay of Pigs invasion then decided to withdraw support when things started going badly. He started the escalation of American presence in Viet Nam. He successfully avoided nuclear war with the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis. I loved John F. Kennedy; he triggered my life-long fascination with politics. However, I don’t think that being a United States Senator adequately prepared him for being president.

Since Kennedy’s election in 1960, four United States Senators—Goldwater, McGovern, Dole and Kerry—have run for president. All of them have lost. If we look at the men elected for the first time as president since 1960, four have been incumbent or former state governors and two have been incumbent or former Vice Presidents. It seems clear to me that the American electorate favors candidates with executive experience.

So, if we look at all those resumes, which candidates have had executive or managerial experience?

Dennis Kucinich, Democrat………… Mayor, Cleveland, Ohio, 1977-79

Bill Richardson, Democrat……………Governor, New Mexico, 2003-present
Secretary, U.S. Department of Energy, 1998-2001

Rudy Giuliani, Republican…………….Mayor, City of New York, 1994-2001

Mike Huckabee, Republican………..Business executive, 1983-1996

Mitt Romney, Republican…………….Governor, Massachusetts, 2003-2007
Business executive, 1978-84

Sam Brownback……………………………Secretary, Kansas Dept. of Agr., 1986-93

None of the following candidates have listed any executive experience:

Joe Biden, Democrat
Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat
Chris Dodd, Democrat
John Edwards, Democrat
Mike Gravel, Democrat
Barack Obama, Democrat
Duncan Hunter, Republican
John McCain, Republican
Ron Paul, Republican
Tom Tancredo, Republican

If I were the H.R. director for any corporation looking for a Chief Executive Officer, I would have to reject the applications of Democrats Biden, Clinton, Dodd, Edwards, Gravel and Obama, and Republicans Hunter, McCain, Paul and Tancredo (and the actor if he gets into the race). None of them have the executive experience we are looking for.

(Of course, experience isn’t everything. One man, who was a lawyer and whose only public service was a term in the Illinois legislature and a term in the House of Representatives, was elected our sixteenth president. He did a pretty decent job I am told).

(Part III to follow soon).

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Richmond’s Invisibles

I am writing this from Emerald Isle, N.C. The weather is beautiful and the ocean is warm. We left Richmond this morning after sleeping at the Holiday Inn on North Boulevard. We had to stay there because our power was still out from Thursday night’s storms. Some day I will find out how it is that our house and the one directly across the alley are the only ones that lose power when the lightening strikes and the strong winds blow. So while most of my neighbors were enjoying a normal Thursday night and Friday, we had to throw out the spoiling food in our refrigerator and find a cool spot to spend Friday night.

Before we checked out of the hotel this morning, I had to drive back home to pick up a few things we had forgotten to pack for our beach trip. As I drove south on Boulevard there were scores of people, mostly women, running. As I passed the Greyhound depot, I noticed a person sleeping on the ground, his head leaning against a light pole. As I started up the bridge over the railroad tracks, there was another person, of undeterminable gender, also sleeping on the sidewalk. I was struck by the contrast between these two homeless people and the many runners going both north and south on Boulevard.

When I returned from my brief trip to south of the James, there were even more people running along Boulevard. I noticed, that as they neared the spots where the homeless people were located, they continued their run as if the two were not even there. I got the feeling that to the runners these two human beings were merely part of the scenery, not people.

It is sad that two of our fellow citizens have reached such a low point in their lives that they have to live out on the street. It is shameful that we can go on with our lives all around them without even noticing that they exist.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Fix Our Schools, Now

The 26 business leaders who wrote to the Mayor and City Council last week asserted that the condition of Richmond Public Schools is “an emergency situation that must be dealt with immediately and with bold action.” The Richmond 26 looked at three statistics in reaching their conclusion. They did not mention several things that provide a more accurate portrayal of the condition of RPS. As I indicated in a previous post, School Board Chair George Braxton has stated this with respect to this year’s RPS graduating class:

“Class of 2007 Statistics (As of June 30, 2007)
Continuing Education Plans
Four Year College - 48.7%
Two Year College - 24.5%
Military - 1.3%
Work Force - 19.6%
Apprenticeship - 1.8%
Voc./Technical Training - 3.8%
TOTAL 99.7%

Students in the Class of 2007 have been accepted into 127 colleges & universities. The states represented in the acceptances are Alabama, New York, Massachusetts, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Maryland, Pennsylvania, California, Georgia, Indiana, Tennessee, Texas, Ohio, Washington, D.C. and of course, Virginia. To date over 860 acceptances have been recorded.”

Moreover, Mr. Braxton’s State of the Schools address this past winter indicated that in the past five years RPS has gone from five accredited schools to forty five, an increase of 800%. Further, the number of schools that meet the federal “Annual Yearly Progress” requirements has gone from twelve to forty, an increase of over 300%.

The condition of Richmond Public Schools is, in my opinion, closer to Superintendent Jewell-Sherman’s “Moving from good to great,” than the “emergency” the Richmond 26 have alluded to. However, the City of Richmond needs a world-class school system, not a good one. And we need it now. Planning for improvements to arrive over the next five to ten years will have no benefit on the thousands of children entering or returning to school next month. Therefore, we need to deal with Richmond Public Schools as if there were an emergency.

In my last post, I explained why I didn’t think that switching from an elected to an appointed school board is the solution to Richmond Public School’s problems. Nor do I think that the Superintendent’s so-called 2015 plan will be sufficient or soon enough to be the answer. We need to take action now.

We need the following:

1- Attitude: Everybody in the City, starting with the mayor, members of the City Council, members of the School Board, the Superintendent of Schools, the Richmond Public Schools administration, school principals, teachers, custodians, cafeteria workers, and citizens must deal with the schools as if each action or decision they make affects the future of their own children or grandchildren. I don’t know how many members of the City Council, School Board or RPS administrators at headquarters or in the schools have children or grandchildren in the schools. However, if we are going to make the changes we need to make, everybody must abandon their personal agendas and concentrate only on what is best for our (not somebody else’s) children.

2- Demand Excellence: The Virginia 26 suggests that some of our children “begin their education destined to fail.” Other people, including members of the School Board, have stated that many children in RPS cannot handle a more rigorous curriculum. I say that we must abandon this attitude. We must set standards for all our students that push them to achieve the maximum of which they are capable. We must not be satisfied with SOL accreditation or passing federal yearly progress requirements. These are only based on students “passing.” We must demand, not that our students pass, but that they excel. At the beginning of every school year we must expect that every student in our school system will achieve A’s, not just C’s.

We must engage in best-practices studies to see what is working in other school systems. We must adopt those educational theories that have produced outstanding student achievement in other school systems.

3- Teachers: We must hold all teachers accountable for their students’ achievements. We must have a performance appraisal system that measures how effectively our teachers teach. We must do a regular evaluation of each teacher’s students to see how many are truly excelling. We must not accept as an explanation that “I used the same lessons last year and it worked with those students.” Although ultimately it is the student that learns, we must expect our teachers to prepare lessons that will enable each of their students to perform at their maximum capacity.

We must retrain all our teachers in new teaching methods. There have been many improvements in teaching methodology in recent years and we must make these developments available to all our teachers. We should not settle merely for teachers to be recertified periodically. We must insist that they constantly improve. Since many of our students are at risk because of their background, we must make sure that all our teachers know how to help these children.

4- Budgeting: I was disappointed this year that the School Board did not prepare a budget from scratch. Instead it took last year’s budget and tweaked it a bit. As taxpayers, who already pay much more in real estate taxes than our neighbors in the counties, we must demand that all unnecessary spending be removed from Richmond Public School’s budget. To do this I suggest that we adopt some form of zero-based budgeting. Under this concept, each office or program in Richmond Public Schools would have to come forward periodically and justify its continued existence. At least once every two years each department head must prepare budget justifications explaining in detail how the funds it received last year were spent and how this benefited the students in our schools. At the same time they would have to justify continued funding for that program in the next budget year. Based on these justifications, we would expect the School Board to allocate funding in the budget only to those departments or programs that are working. We would also expect the School Board to reduce staffing in those areas which currently are overstaffed.

5- Accountability: We are entrusting many people with the safety and future of our children. We must hold these people strictly accountable for their performance. If members of the City Council are irresponsible in their oversight and funding of the schools, we as citizens should vote them out at the next election. If members of the School Board are not demanding excellence from students, teachers and administrators, or if they are not adequately controlling the school budget, we citizens should vote them out at the next election. If the Superintendent of Schools is not effectively and rapidly steering Richmond Public Schools toward greatness, we should insist that the School Board replace her. If teachers are not teaching their students, we should demand that their performance improve or that they be replaced. Every person who has authority to spend school funds must be held strictly accountable for the money they spend.

The children of Richmond deserve a world-class education. We taxpayers deserve great schools for the money we pay. We and our children can settle for no less. We must demand that our elected and appointed public servants fix Richmond Public Schools now!

Friday, August 10, 2007

Appointed School Board: Should We Go Back?

The highest nabobs of the Richmond area’s high nabobs have written to the mayor and council suggesting that we go back to an appointed school board. They call the state of Richmond Public Schools an “emergency” and say that only by eliminating our elected school board can the schools be saved. Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter Michael Martz described the letter from our best and brightest as having landed at City Hall “like a bomb.” As I might have expected, His Excellency hailed the letter (might he have been an unrevealed co-author?) Eliminating our elected school board would eliminate all those pesky members who have the audacity to think for themselves. City Council Prez Bill Pantele thought it was a good idea to revisit the issue of elected school boards. School Board Chair George Braxton said that the people must decide.

The letter, signed by 26 of the Richmond Metro Area business leaders, asserts that everything in the City of Richmond is great, with the exception of the public schools. It is the state of our public schools that is keeping Richmond from becoming a world-class place to work and live. The letter repeats the mayor’s assertion that Richmond’s schools are the most expensive and least effective of any in the Commonwealth. The Richmond 26 go on to list the problems of Richmond Public Schools: Richmond spends more per student than do other school districts and a smaller percentage of it goes to instruction; Richmond has the lowest graduation rate of any local school district except Petersburg; Richmond schools have a higher number of “serious incidences” of student behavior than the other jurisdictions.

So far, I have no problem with the letter. I too believe that Richmond can never be a great city unless it has a great school system. Although RPS has made significant progress in recent years, we still do not have the quality of schools that we need. Richmond Public Schools must be so good that residents of the surrounding counties move into the City to get a better education for their children.

Where I have problems with the Richmond 26 is their conclusion that all of the problems of Richmond Public Schools are the fault of the city having an elected school board. Our 26 elite conclude that the wonderful teachers of this city “will not succeed under the management and administration of the current Richmond School Board.” Richmond’s best and brightest provide no support for this assertion. They apparently think it self-evident that the elected school board is the cause of all of RPS’s problems.

In the Commonwealth, our local schools are run by school boards. Further, in every county and city in Virginia it is the city council or board of supervisors, not the school board, that has taxing authority. So, in every jurisdiction in Virginia there is a separation of the taxing authority from the authority to supervise the schools. In every jurisdiction, not only in Richmond, school boards propose budgets but have no control over raising revenue. In every jurisdiction, not only in Richmond, the local legislative body has authority to levy taxes for schools but has no direct control over operation of the schools.

In 1992 the General Assembly granted to the voters in Commonwealth school districts the right to opt for elected, rather than appointed, school boards. The citizens of the City of Richmond chose to elect their school board members. So did the citizens of most other jurisdictions in Virginia, including the seven school districts that the Richmond 26 has chosen to compare with Richmond. According to the letter these other jurisdictions have successful school systems. So, apparently, in other school districts the elected school board has worked fine. However, our 26 leaders have assigned the sole responsibility for the condition of Richmond Public Schools to the elected school board.

So, is it the school board that creates the three problems set forth in the letter? It is true that Richmond Public Schools spends more per student than other jurisdictions. I assume that it is also true that RPS spends a smaller percentage of its budget on instruction than do other jurisdictions. But, is this the fault of the elected school board? No. RPS has these budgetary realities because it has a much higher percentage of at-risk students than do other school districts in Virginia. Many Richmond students have special needs that require RPS to provide services, not directly related to instruction, that many other school jurisdictions do not have to provide. Any school board, whether elected or appointed, will have to budget for these services. Further, we need keep in mind that many of these services are mandated by the federal government and are paid for with federal funding.

If the graduation rate is defined as the percentage of students entering the ninth grade that graduate from high school four years later, Richmond has a lower graduation rate than do the other jurisdictions. Is this caused by our elected school board? No. School Board Chair Braxton has indicated that there are many reasons why Richmond students do not graduate in four years. Some must drop out to find jobs to help support their families; some opt to get a GED rather than continue in school; some take longer than four years to graduate; some are incarcerated during their high school years; some have to drop out or delay their graduation because they are pregnant. All of these causes for a student’s inability to graduate in four years are beyond the control of any school board.

What about violence in schools? Before comparing jurisdictions, we must be sure that each jurisdiction has the same definition of “serious incidents.” We also need to know whether each jurisdiction places the same emphasis on reporting these incidents. I can envision some schools where faculty and staff are not encouraged to report many of these incidents because it makes the school look bad. But even if the statistics from the various jurisdictions are comparable, can we assign the responsibility for school violence on the school board? Our children spend a greater proportion of their lives out of school than they do in school. Many come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and live in neighborhoods where an aggressive attitude is necessary for survival. As the letter recognizes, we must provide social services and public health services, in addition to a quality education to “significantly improve the lives of students who now begin their education destined to failure.”

Of course there is room for improvement, but the Richmond 26 have given no reason that an appointed school board is better equipped than our elected one to make the needed changes. By concentrating on eliminating our elected school board and replacing it with a school board of elites chosen by elites, the business leaders ignore a major cause for what they see as an “emergency” in Richmond Public Schools. From the time that Richmond elected its new mayor, the School Board has had to devote far too much of its time and energy defending itself from a hostile City Hall. It is very hard to do much to fix the problems with the schools if you constantly have to deal with withheld money, lawsuits, threats of eviction from city offices, and other hardships that the school board has had to deal with. Perhaps it is our elected mayor that should bear some of the responsibility for our schools not improving quickly enough.

In Richmond, we have the right to vote for President of the United States; we can vote for United States Senator and Representative; we elect the Governor of the Commonwealth; we vote for Virginia Senator and Delegate; we elect the members of our City Council; and, only three years ago we decided that we wanted to have an elected mayor. Now, the Richmond 26 wants to take away from us the right to elect the members of our school board. And, they want to do it not by the method set forth in law (petition and voting by Richmond residents) but by a request to the General Assembly that it amend Richmond’s charter. For some reason, these business leaders don’t think that we residents of Richmond are smart enough to elect school board representatives. They don’t even think we are smart enough to decide whether we should keep our elected school board. They just want to take that right away from us by legislative fiat. Residents of Richmond must reject their proposal.

I welcome the interest in Richmond Public Schools demonstrated by these 26 leaders. Considering that many of them have chosen not to live in the City of Richmond, are therefore not Richmond taxpayers, and probably don’t have any children or grandchildren attending Richmond Public Schools, or planning to attend in the future, I think they should be commended for their offer of assistance to the mayor and city council in fixing our schools. They say they are “eager and willing” to work in “a positive, productive, and candid partnership” with school leadership to “bring the Richmond Public Schools and the City of Richmond to the world-class level of which it is capable.” I hope that they and the organizations that they lead will enter into working partnerships with Richmond Public Schools. We residents are entitled to the best schools in the country.