Norfolk GAINS means well, they really do, but like most young organizations, they’ve yet to figure out exactly how political leverage is achieved. Let me break it down for everyone in the simplest of terms.
Case in point is what happened with the public hearings for the method of electing our school board. Back in August, Norfolk City Attorney Bernard Pishko wrote a memo saying the Voting Rights Act required Norfolk’s School Board to be elected by ward. At that point in time, Mayor Fraim never intended to have kind of public hearings.
Que a well timed leak of that memo to yours truly by a certain member of council and everything started to change. I met with members of Norfolk GAINS, gave them the memo, and explained the legal errors it contained. Then I gave it to Vivian Paige, who posted about it on her blog and in her weekly column in the Pilot. Norfolk GAINS then put out a lengthy letter rebutting point by point what Pishko had said without directly saying they had possession of the memo.
Fraim saw this and realized two things: First, that Norfolk GAINS and others had access to the memo. Second, that Norfolk GAINS was willing to use that information to embarrass him and turn the question of how the school board would be elected into a potent political issue. The result? We had public hearings that Fraim had never planned on.
Unfortunately Norfolk GAINS did not take that same approach in regards to the upcoming final appointment of school board members. Instead, they asked that members whose terms are already expiring resign when their terms end, and suggested they ask to be re-appointed if they so choose. They claim this is somehow different than what will happen regardless, because functionally speaking, resigning on the date your term is already set to expire is the same as just letting the term expire. It’s symbolic accountability, nothing more.
Several months back, when Better Together Norfolk was formed to push a petition drive to have the school board elected at-large as opposed to by ward, I said that we should make an issue of the upcoming appointments and demand they be made by ward if that’s really what council felt was best. Currently at least 2 of the members whose terms are expiring live in the same ward. The idea was not adopted, but it should have been. Instead, we got the missive about a symbolic act that some view as a form of accountability.
Again, let me break accountability down in the simplest of terms.
When you really hold someone accountable, they should either feel proud of what they have done or embarrassed and ashamed. What Norfolk GAINS wants school board members to do accomplishes neither. They can do better with the resources they have and I sincerely hope they do. The stakes, nothing less than the future of Norfolk’s next generation, are too high to rest on symbolic actions. We need real results and real accountability.
If you have taken Economics 101, or even if you haven’t, you should be familiar with the concept of opportunity cost. According to the handy dandy Wikipedia, it is defined as follows:
“In microeconomic theory, the opportunity cost of a choice is the value of the best alternative forgone, in a situation in which a choice needs to be made between several mutually exclusive alternatives given limited resources.”
Light Rail expansion in Virginia Beach is a perfect case study because of the limited resources available for public transit and the mutually exclusive choices of spending over $300 million to expand light rail or putting, at the very least, the City of Virginia Beach’s share, roughly half that amount, into expanded bus service.
Let’s look at the numbers.
Light Rail expansion is estimated to move 1,100 people per day. Currently Norfolk’s light rail moves around 3,000 people daily. Let’s round that down to an estimated 4,000 people per day. The bus moves around 40,000 people per day, or about 10x more than light rail.
According to a recent article in the Pilot, HRT receives only $1.5 million from its member cities for capital investment. That’s about what light rail in Norfolk costs yearly to operate. That money is what pays for things like new buses and new bus shelters. That same article said that of the 290 buses HRT has, about 19% of them were out of service for more than 100 days last year and some were out for as many as 220 days.
Another article deals with bus shelters, which I covered in detail in a previous piece for AltDaily. Virginia Beach has 519 bus stops, only 19 of which currently have bus shelters. Funding has been included in the budget for 24 more, which will bring the total to 43, or just 8% of bus stops. Those 24 shelters and associated improvements will cost $670,000 to complete or just under half of HRT’s capital budget, though that’s not where the money is coming from.
So instead of putting money into improving the quality of life and mobility for the roughly 40,000 people who ride the bus daily, HRT wants to put nearly 200x as much as they spend on capital improvement for the bus system into a light rail extension that will move less than 1/30th the number of people as their buses. From an opportunity cost perspective, HRT is absolutely decreasing the mobility of Hampton Roads residents, not increasing them as they would have you believe. Light Rail expansion is bad for public transit, that’s a mathematical fact.
I’m happy that Norfolk was able to “fully fund” the schools, but these statements from Councilman Smigiel (pictured) and City Manager Marcus Jones have me worried.
“Jones said the division’s additional money came from a revision to its average daily membership.”
The more students enrolled, the more money the division gets from the state, Councilman Tommy Smigiel said.”
What kind of revision? Why did it happen? What was wrong with the initial number? Inquiring minds want to know because Norfolk has a horrible track record when it comes to being honest with the public and the government.
Remember the light rail construction fiasco when it was found HRT was keeping two sets of books?
Do Norfolk Public Schools have two sets of attendance records? One for the State for funding and a real one based on the actual numbers?
We may never know, but having examined the data NPS submits to the State Department of Education, I can tell you that numbers can be deceiving.
Take graduation rates, for example. Such a large number of kids never make it to the 12th grade. Back when I graduated from Maury in 2007, the average freshman class had around 800 students, while the average senior class had around 200. A higher percentage of graduates from a drastically lower number of students is nothing to be proud of, but to this day that’s still the situation we have.