All posts by David Lublin

That Day When Our County Exec Had to Explain Economics to the Council in a Veto Message

Yesterday, Montgomery County Executive issued the first veto of his administration. It was of a major tax giveaway bill to developers — the county would likely lose over $400 million in revenue according to Elrich — passed in the name of sparking additional housing development around Metro.

My favorite part of the veto message in where Elrich, a progressive often accused of being an impractical lefty by opponents, explained the economics of these sorts of tax subsidies:

Under Federal law, WMATA must seek the highest and best price for their land. Land that is exempted from all property taxes for 15 years is more valuable because the calculation of its value includes the costs to acquire and develop, including taxes, weighed against market rents. If two properties are side by side, one exempt from taxes and the other not, and they were producing the same value of unit, the land value of the exempt property would be greater because its cost of development would be less than the cost to develop the tax-paying property. This would, in turn, likely raise the parcel’s appraised value. The Bill could potentially be counterproductive by raising the value of WMATA’s land.

Put another way, by reducing the tax burden, all the county has done is make WMATA’s land more valuable and increased the amount that they can charge for it. They will capture that value in the sale price of the land with Montgomery County taxpayers, who already heavily subsidize WMATA, having footed the bill.

They say you can’t get something for nothing. But if you’re not careful, you can get nothing for something. Or, at P.T. Barnum put it, “there’s a sucker born every minute.”

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Florida Isn’t Maryland: I’m Okay with That

I’m in Florida for personal reasons. Let me tell you that it’s not just warmer, it’s different.

Welcome to Florida!

After leaving the airport, I stopped at a 7-11 to pick up a soda. A woman wearing a blue cap that said VOTE in big white letters was in line to pay and trying to convince the man behind her (wearing a mask over his mouth but not his nose) to vote early. She succeeded in making her purchase but failed in her political mission. After she walked out, the target of her earnest efforts sorta laughed and mumbled to the cashier something about Trump and voting on election day. Welcome to Florida!

Swing States Get All the Love

Commercials are from a different universe down here. It’s political ad after political ad. There seem to be two or three major Trump ads. In the one that leaves me cold, a guy pops up like a used car saleman and tells me Biden comes with scary lefty friends like Sanders and Omar. A more effective ad shows a Latino small business owner calmly explaining why Biden’s tax hikes will hurt.

Leadership Matters

The contrast in the rates of people wearing masks to protect public health between Florida and Maryland (at least the parts of both I’ve seen) is striking. Don’t get me wrong; most people in Florida wear masks. But the rates are different enough to drive home the importance of government in communicating a clear and consistent health message.

The result is that I feel much safer going indoors to businesses in Montgomery County because both customers and employees wear masks properly at very high rates. It was crucial that all of the key leaders at the state and county level united to make the rule and to model this behavior. Unlike Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Trump acolyte, Gov. Larry Hogan has publicly worn masks and held socially distanced press conferences.

In Florida, people frequently sport what I think of as the “half-Trump” (mask over mouth but not nose). Still others favor the mask as a chin strap. I guess it’s a fashion statement if you can call risky behavior a fashion statement (and no, they aren’t just taking a breath while socially distanced). A few just don’t wear it all indoors even where required.

Florida once again showed me how it provides author Carl Hiaasen with such rich material at a small “COVID-19 Supply Store.” I was pondering buying a Biden/Harris mask I saw in the window. I walked in and then promptly walked out when I saw two of three employees wearing their masks as chin straps. Practically all the store sells is masks. No folks, this isn’t satire. This is Florida.

Recently, Gov. DeSantis announced that indoor restaurants and bars can now operate at full capacity. Municipalities can have lower limits but all must allow at least 50% capacity. The White House recently demonstrated how large indoor gatherings can prove to be superspreader events.

The more secure the public feels, the more likely people are to engage in behaviors that fuel these events. Now that the Governor of Florida has paved the way for mass alcohol fueled gatherings in tightly packed spaces, the people of Florida have nothing to fear but the absence of healthy fear.

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Harris Won’t Condemn QAnon

U.S. Rep. Andy Harris (MD 1) was among the 18 representatives who didn’t support a resolution condemning QAnon, a dangerous whackadoodle pro-Trump conspiracy theory. As the Washington Post explains:

QAnon, which took root on anonymous message boards in 2017, holds that Trump is battling a cabal of deep-state saboteurs who worship Satan and traffic children for sex.

The baseless worldview has been identified by the FBI as among the extremist views “very likely” to motivate violence. Its adherents, according to law enforcement, have been arrested in numerous incidents, including two murders, a kidnapping, vandalism of a church and a heavily armed standoff near the Hoover Dam.

Harris didn’t vote no, but instead chose to vote “present.” This makes him different but no less absolutely bonkers.

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Purple Line Drowns Maryland in Red Ink

Most Maryland pols are heavily invested in the Purple Line. Virtually all discussion by politicians has been on the imperative of finishing it while downplaying the financial cost. In “Hogan’s Purple Passion”, longtime columnist Barry Rascover has taken the opposite approach in his hard look at the epic financial mess that is now the Purple Line.

Though Purple Line supporters sold the P3 (public-private partnership) as insulating taxpayers from rising cost, Rascover explains that we’re now on the hook for the skyrocketing price.

By the time the east-west Purple Line from Montgomery County to Prince George’s County opens years after Hogan leaves office, the state’s total spending on the mass-transit line could exceed $2 billion. It may even top $3 billion.

If the state takes over construction duties of the Purple Line in the next month when the private consortium running the project could leave the job, there’s at least another $1 billion worth of work to finish. Plus, an added delay of six months — or longer. 

Given the line’s history of unexpected delays and under-estimated expenses, that $1 billion projection by the state for future costs could be way off.

This comes on top of the $1 billion in taxpayer dollars already expended by Hogan. 

And this doesn’t count the unpaid $800 million in contested cost overruns the contractor, and a judge, blame on the state.

Either we pay the consortium building the Purple Line what they want or we pay even more and suffer greater delays building it ourselves. Instead of protecting taxpayers, the P3 has turned them into hostages.

Rascover assesses who is to blame for this fiasco:

The state tried to lay the onus on the consortium. But a judge didn’t buy that bit of illogic. He ruled the state was responsible for out-of-control costs. He called it a “self-inflicted” wound.

In hindsight it’s clear [Secretary Pete] Rahn badly under-estimated the Purple Line‘s complexity and its costs. Lawsuits by unhappy residents along the route were inevitable — but Rahn plowed ahead anyway, never anticipating these almost certain legal delays of almost a year.

Rahn also didn’t anticipate lengthy fights over obtaining rights of way along the route, or expensive re-designs to separate the Purple Line from CSX tracks. Both were predictable.

The governor’s determination to privatize this project and get it completed while he is still in office overtook common sense. Now taxpayers will foot the bill for Hogan’s and Rahn’s terribly flawed miscalculations.

It’s even worse than Rascover outlines.

The Governor campaigned against the Purple Line and the gas tax passed under O’Malley to fund transportation improvements. He didn’t repeal the gas tax but instead used the monies raised to fund new road projects around the state.

Pressured by the Washington Post, which then endorsed him for reelection, Hogan changed his mind on the Purple Line. But instead of paying for much of the construction up front as originally planned by Democrats, he put it all on credit via privatization, so he could continue to pay for his road projects.

Excepting perhaps Anthony Brown, Democrats shouldn’t feel too smug. They pushed the P3 forward in their eagerness to move the project ahead and also went along with Hogan’s magically cheaper numbers that have now turned out to be wildly unrealistic.

The state’s ability to borrow to cover the monumental additional cost is consequently highly limited. Many sacred cows are going to be gored to finish the Purple Line.

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Transit Cuts are Just Starting: They’re Going to Get Much Deeper

The League of Conservation Voters (LCV) has authored an open sign-on letter (posted below) to Gov. Larry Hogan vehemently protesting major cuts in transit service and calling for more capital expenditures on transit.

The reality is that these cuts are just the start.

Due the economic devastation wrecked by the pandemic, revenues are down substantially. The federal government has shown no inclination thus far to help bail out the states, viewed as a “blue state” bailout by President Trump, so no money is coming from that source. The Maryland Constitution requires a balanced budget, requiring substantial cuts ahead. Gov. Hogan will not support a tax hike and there is little enthusiasm among Assembly Democrats either.

The drastically higher than expected costs for the Purple Line to the tune of over $750 million are about to suck even more funds away from other projects. The State has already indicated that the funds will come from other transit projects, like MARC. Even without the pandemic hit, the transit budget was set to take an enormous hit. The Washington Metro, unmentioned in the LCV letter, has already seen its funding cut.

The signatories to the open letter are notably a Baltimore heavy group. The absence of either Purple Line Now or the Action Committee for Transit, both staunch Purple Line supporters, from the letter signatories is perhaps telling. Both are normally easy gets for these sorts of letters but it tacitly recognizes the reality that the Purple Line will not be finished unless major cuts are made elsewhere.

Here is the LCV letter:

AN OPEN LETTER TO GOVERNOR LARRY HOGAN, MARYLAND TRANSPORTATION SECRETARY GREG SLATER, AND MARYLAND TRANSIT ADMINISTRATOR KEVIN QUINN:

Last week, the Maryland Department of Transportation and Maryland Transit Administration announced major cuts to the MTA system, including cutting bus service by 20%, reducing MARC, commuter local bus, and paratransit service, and cutting the MTA’s already strained six year capital budget for critical safety needs by $150 million. We, the undersigned, urge rejection of these cuts, which would be devastating to many Marylanders that live in low-income communities, communities of color, and people with disabilities.

Rather than take steps to relieve the strain of a veritable tsunami of challenges to Maryland’s most vulnerable communities, MTA’s plan would exacerbate residents’ difficulties and hobble the state’s recovery. TransitCenter found that 40% of transit commuters in Baltimore City and 35% of transit riders in the state work in essential job sectors, with hospital and health care workers being the largest share of riders. A large number of essential workers – nurses, grocery store workers, child care professionals, nursing care staff, and so many more – rely on public transit to get to their jobs. The proposed cuts would make it harder for these vital workers to get to their jobs, which would threaten their employment and exacerbate the devastation the pandemic has wrought to our economy. A shortage of these critical workers will also add strain to a healthcare system that is already spread too thin.

Maryland should be investing in more public transportation, not less. We should be increasing access to job centers from the communities most in need, not cutting it. We should be prioritizing cleaner transportation alternatives that reduce pollution and the health conditions that make marginalized communities especially vulnerable to the impacts of coronavirus and other respiratory illnesses like asthma. Vehicle emissions also create NOx that ultimately contributes roughly one-third of the nitrogen pollution to the region’s rivers, streams, and the Chesapeake Bay.

Among the problematic cuts to service, the proposed changes eliminate any route from Baltimore City (the jurisdiction with the highest reliance on public transportation) to Annapolis. Even in its current state, public transit to Annapolis is extremely limited, but at least it was available and provided mobility services. With the cuts, Annapolis would become inaccessible by public transportation, limiting the ability of many Marylanders to participate in our state’s Democracy. Public participation is always essential to a free and fair government, but never more so than in a crisis.

In reference to Maryland’s essential workers, the Maryland Transit Caucus has stated in their letter to the administration following the proposed cuts: We rely on them. They rely on MTA. We call on the administration to take immediate action. Funding from the Transportation Trust Fund should be allocated to public transit that benefits all Marylanders, rather than to highway expansion and construction projects that benefit only the wealthiest.

Signed,

  1. Maryland League of Conservation Voters
  2. Maryland Sierra Club
  3. Common Cause Maryland
  4. Clean Water Action
  5. Climate Law & Policy Project
  6. Safe Skies Maryland
  7. Maryland Legislative Coalition
  8. Maryland Consumer Rights Coalition
  9. Maryland Campaign for Human Rights
  10. Coalition for Smarter Growth
  11. Baltimore Transit Equity Coalition
  12. Transit Choices
  13. Central Maryland Transportation Alliance
  14. Maryland United for Peace and Justice
  15. Sunrise Movement Baltimore
  16. League of Women Voters Maryland
  17. Maryland Nonprofits
  18. Nuclear Information and Resource Service
  19. Labor Network for Sustainability
  20. Family League of Baltimore
  21. Bikemore
  22. Eastern Shore Land Conservancy
  23. Maryland Center on Economic Policy
  24. Job Opportunities Task Force
  25. NAACP Maryland State Conference
  26. Public Justice Center
  27. Our Revolution Maryland
  28. Indivisible Baltimore
  29. Indivisible Howard County
  30. Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility
  31. Echotopia, LLC
  32. Maryland Conservation Council
  33. Ji’Aire’s Workgroup
  34. Indivisible Towson
  35. ATU Local 1300
  36. Food and Water Watch Action
  37. Chesapeake Bay Foundation
  38. Disability Rights Maryland
  39. Consumer Advocates for Ride Services
  40. Progressive Maryland
  41. Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of Mary
  42. Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) – Baltimore
  43. WISE Maryland
  44. Maryland Climate Justice WIng
  45. Takoma Park Mobilization Environment Committee
  46. Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake
  47. Accessible Resources for Independence
  48. League for People with Disabilities
  49. Climate X-Change Maryland
  50. The Nature Conservancy – Maryland/DC Chapter
  51. Saltzberg Consulting
  52. Chesapeake Climate Action Network
  53. Sunrise Howard County
  54. Baltimore 350
  55. The Parent and Community Advisory Board, Baltimore City Public Schools
  56. Sunrise Rockville
  57. Marylanders for Patient Rights
  58. Bus Workgroup 14
  59. South Baltimore Community Land Trust
  60. Free Your Voice
  61. Represent Maryland
  62. Green Team at St. Vincent de Paul Church, Baltimore
  63. Baltimore People’s Climate Movement
  64. The Climate Reality Project: Baltimore Chapter
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The Voting Wars Come to Maryland

Where Matters Stand Now

Maryland has been in quite a ferment over whether to mail out ballots to everyone as opposed to sending out mail-ballot applications to everyone. Gov. Larry Hogan (R) insisted on the latter and got his way. But Democrats vehemently want the former and mail-ballot applications have yet to hit mailboxes.

Originally, the Governor wanted all polling places to open too but has now bowed to the reality that there are not enough people to staff them and reluctantly allowed the State Board of Elections (SBOE) to combine them into many fewer. Let’s hope the remaining polling places have more voting kiosks than usual, so they can process more people than a standard polling place.

Early voting should continue relatively normally. I’d anticipate high demand not just due to interest in the election but also to concern about mail ballot delivery and voting on election day.

We will also have many more drop off boxes. According to the WaPo, Montgomery County plans to go from two or three to forty this year. Prince George’s plans on adding an additional thirty-six boxes. Sen. Cheryl Kagan, who has been very active on election issues, tells me we should have even more than anticipated. The more, the better.

How Are We Doing on that Shift to Mail Voting?

Not so good. The adjustment to much higher rates of mail voting has been far from glitch free. Some of our ballots for the all-mail primary got sent to South Carolina. Those of us who applied for mail ballots did not receive them initially even though people who had not requested them had.

In general, ballots arrived later than they should’ve with delays especially long in some areas of the state. It’s a good thing we opened up polling places, after a lawsuit, but the lines were too long and the state should have known they were required without being sued.

We don’t seem off to a roaring start for the general in which mail voting is heavily encouraged but not every voter will be sent a ballot. Again, the state has failed so far to send mail ballot applications. The Governor can blame the State Board of Elections but surely should have some responsibility for making sure that they can implement a plan before mandating it.

Will It Matter?

The switch from away from all-mail might depress turnout as voters won’t have the ballot sent directly to their home unless they request it. The State Board of Elections has very belatedly made the online application less intimidating. Speaker Adrienne Jones was quite right to highlight that issue.

At the same time, polling places will be open both for early voting and election day voting, so the overall impact of the switch is hard to assess. The chances for any impact on contests seems low because there just aren’t a lot of hot races.

Compared to many other states, we’re not voting for much in Maryland this year. No state legislative elections and few local elections. We don’t even have a U.S. Senate race. I can call the winners of Maryland’s ten presidential electors and eight congressional races now.

The few partisan local races don’t look very exciting. My knowledge of Baltimore City and Cecil County politics is relatively slim. But I do know that Democrats are usually a lock in Baltimore and Republicans the same in Cecil. I’m afraid I can’t speak to the contest for a seat on the Wicomico County Council.

I suppose the change in voting might have an impact if some of the nonpartisan school board and judicial races turn out very close. Judicial contests operate below the radar for most people. Several challengers, however, upset incumbents in the primary, so these contests are more heated than usual. Still, while I’m sure the cognoscenti are interested, Maryland’s judicial races lack the partisan juice of Wisconsin.

If the switch away from all-mail depresses turnout, the main concern might be that it somewhat lightens the weight of Maryland’s contribution to Joe Biden’s national vote margin. That’s of more interest than usual since Donald Trump seems intent on doing his tinpot dictator impression by casting doubt on any ballots that are not cast for him.

On the other hand, if more people vote in person out of concern over the mail, it will also lead to fewer invalidated votes. Unlike at polling places, mail-ballot voters who make a mistake, such as failing to sign the ballot oath, have no chance to correct their errors and the ballot gets tossed.

Problems with Both Mail and All-Mail Voting

We don’t have signature checks in Maryland to make sure that the person who voted and mailed the ballot was the voter. In fact, they are illegal under Maryland law. As a result, even if we shifted to all mail, we could not implement them in the manner of every state that normally does all-mail voting (and California) unless the General Assembly changed the law. Interestingly, this seems to have eluded both sides in the debate over the Governor’s election plan.

This hasn’t been much of an issue in the past as Maryland usually has a lot of early voters but comparatively few mail voters.

We have the signatures on file, so we could do signature checks if the General Assembly changed the law. Some argue against them as unnecessary because there are few problematic ballots in states with checks. But this type of fraud seems a lot less likely when people are checking up on it. Absentee ballot manipulation is exactly how Republicans attempted to steal a 2018 North Carolina congressional election. (In person fraud is different and extremely rare notwithstanding vehement Republican partisan demands for voter ID to solve a non-problem.)

If you have signature checks, you also must find a way to give voters a chance to cure (i.e. validate) any questionable ballots to avoid disfranchising voters. This isn’t always easy and needs improvement. But it’s vital because checking signatures is not an exact science and we want to protect against disfranchisement.

Precinct Reporting

In Maryland during the all-mail primary, the Board of Elections did not attribute ballots cast by mail back to the precinct. The ballots didn’t have codes on them that made that easy. Local county boards can still do if they’re willing. Many won’t because it’s a lot of work but I was pleased to learn that the Montgomery County Board of Elections is going to do it.

For the general, the SBOE tells me that the ballots will have precinct codes, but the proof is in the pudding. Precinct results are very nice to have not just for political researchers and junkies like me but because they are a critical tool in detecting fraud or other problems.

Two Bright Spots

During the primary, the State allowed jurisdictions to count mail-in ballots when they were received but not to release the vote totals until after the polls closed on election day. This allowed for faster reporting of initial results. The same is planned for the general election.

The Governor’s election plan to encourage mail voting by sending ballot applications but not mailing ballots is much more expensive and places real burdens on county boards to process applications. Originally, the Governor and SBOE wanted counties to foot one-half of the bill for the postage paid return envelope. Thanks to efforts by Sen. Kagan along with the Maryland Association of Counties (MACO) and Montgomery County, SBOE has now agreed to cover the substantial cost of this unfunded mandate.

Final Note: Stop Playing Trump’s Game

As Law Professor Richard Pildes explained, disagreement between Donald Trump and Democrats over mail and all-mail voting has no point. Excepting Nevada, the only states using all-mail voting are the same ones that always use it. Democrats would be better served by emphasizing that all the swing states are using absentee voting (the same as mail voting in Maryland), which Trump has declared okele-dokele. Use his own argument against him to fight very doubt he’s manufacturing. In other words, don’t have an argument to no purpose that benefits him instead of Democrats even if he’s wrong.

The post office, however, bears watching. I can’t regard the lack of mail service at my home yesterday as an encouraging sign. The claims that all is well are belied by Trump’s blunt statements that he doesn’t want funding for USPS because it would aid in mail voting, which he sees as bad for him. Dismantling sorting machines also seems unlikely to increase postal efficiency. It’s also a terrible issue for Republicans.

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Altered Map: Cases Per 100k by County

From the New York Times. The map has changed. Doesn’t look like opening up Ocean City was such a great idea. Montgomery and Frederick have moved down the list. Many rural and outer suburban places no longer much different from inner suburbs.

  • Baltimore City, 29.
  • Worcester, 24.
  • Baltimore County, 22.
  • Talbot, 22.
  • Prince George’s, 19.
  • Dorchester, 15.
  • Anne Arundel, 14.
  • Calvert, 13.
  • Charles, 13.
  • Howard, 13.
  • Caroline, 12.
  • Harford, 12.
  • St. Mary’s, 11.
  • Montgomery, 10.
  • Washington, 10.
  • Carroll, 9.5.
  • Kent, 9.4.
  • Queen Anne’s, 8.8.
  • Wicomico, 7.6.
  • Cecil, 6.9.
  • Frederick, 6.5.
  • Somerset, 5.0.
  • Garrett, 4.1.
  • Allegany, 4.0.

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MoCo Republicans Embrace Trump’s Views But Avoid the Name

Below is an email blast that I received from incoming MCRCC Chair Dennis Melby. I realize that email blasts tend to be shrill and designed to appeal to party militants but I was still struck by (1) how closely he embraces Trump’s views tightly even as (2) he refuses to say his name, an emerging trope among some Republicans who recognize that the President is just a dead political weight.

Even more striking is his caricature of the Black Lives Matter movement and its supporters, especially when juxtaposed with his vociferous defense of the police. There is no mention of George Floyd’s murder or of it being part of a long pattern of far too many Black people dying or suffering injuries in police custody. The police have an exceedingly tough job, made more difficult by weapons being so widespread in our society, but we must acknowledge and then figure out how to stop these killings of our neighbors and fellow citizens.

In contrast to Melby’s scaremongering language, the demonstrations in MoCo have been incredibly peaceful with broad based support. Indeed, the most noted case of violence was the man on the Capital Crescent Trail who assaulted the kids putting up pro-Black Lives Matter flyers. While I share his concern about crowds, demonstrations are outside and fortunately seem to have been related to relatively little transmission spread.

Moreover, it’s not like the man is a supporter of measures to contain COVID-19. Instead, he complains about every form of it. Everyone would love for kids to go back to school but it just isn’t safe now. For a start, there is simply no way to keep teachers apart from young kids or young kids from each other. Can you imagine a teacher trying to comfort a crying kid from six feet away? Older kids are hardly likely to use better judgement when leaders like this mock social distancing.

Here is the email:

Last week the Montgomery County Republican Central Committee elected me as Party Chairman for the remainder of the year, and I thank them for their support. We have such an important election in less than three months.

In the United States, in Maryland and in even in Montgomery county there’s a deepening feeling of frustration. Something’s just not right. No kids in school for the foreseeable future, work from home as much as you can, cut back on social activity for as long as it takes, but watch massive demonstrations and even violence as if it is acceptable.  It is not.

Although the police are our neighbors and family members there’s a small segment of the population on the far left bent on dismantling them and turning our defense against violence and threats over to social workers.  We need to continue the struggle for racial justice and against antisemitism, but under the guise of that struggle many people are fueling hatred and intolerance against “the others”, which can only lead to a lack of trust and understanding.

Just over the weekend the far left and many in the teachers unions have coordinated with the government to ban opening all in-person education in Montgomery county, public and private. Only a screen in front of a student is acceptable. This is not acceptable. We need an elected county government with common sense to check actions like this.

Yet we’re standing up. We say do everything you can to move on, safely and with sanity. Open the schools when you can, stop the violence and intimidation, support the cops who are vastly good, decent folks who want to do the right thing. While we all admit there’re wrong things in the world we know our American society strives to correct wrongs, to lift people up, and remain a place the world wants to come to.

So we stand with our first responders and laud them. We back the blue and hold their selfless works in admiration and respect. And we’re 100 percent sure that our great, perhaps the greatest medical establishment the world has ever seen will conquer this pestilence we’re faced with soon, not only for us, but for the world.

Believe me – both parties want to get back to boom times – one party to collect great taxes and the other party to provide great wealth. And yes, there are plenty of folks in between too! Even though the media portrays it differently we’re moving together as one united country, over the bumps in the road, fighting for family, community, freedom and justice.

Our November elections will reject the far-left extremists on the national level and move us closer to true representation on the local level. And the future will be bright, I know it.

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The Squeaky Wheel and Inequities Hiding in Plain Sight

Today, I am pleased to present a guest post from Laura Stewart:

This past week there was a disturbing story that WTOP News covered that detailed the overcrowded, inadequate conditions at South Lake Elementary School, which is a Title 1 higher poverty school.

I have been to South Lake ES before, and they have an amazing community who is passionate about improving their school. I have seen the community engage at every level of local government and I have sat next to them in Annapolis testifying for more construction funds. They did make it into the FY21-26 Capital Improvement Program (CIP), but had their project delayed due to scarcity of funds. The County Council was given the choice of keeping the Northwood HS project on time or keeping South Lake ES on schedule. Northwood HS is a school with higher rates of poverty and also has inadequate facilities. Hopefully, they will find a third way, and keep both important projects (and others) on time.  When Walt Whitman HS’s addition was announced two years ago and stayed on schedule, some people FELT like it was inequitable. Whitman is in District 1 where the average Free and Reduced Meals (FARMS) rate, a proxy for poverty, is less than a quarter of any other district. But is our county’s spending actually inequitable? Has the wealthier part of the county gotten more attention?

A few months ago, I saw some analysis that over the last decade, District 1 (which includes Bethesda, Potomac, and Poolesville) had indeed received an outsized portion of major building projects like additions or new schools. But I noticed that major renovation projects were missing from the list. So I decided to dig into the CIPs over 10 years, from FY2011-FY2020. I only counted major school projects that finished in those years, or had a shovel in the ground. Too many scheduled projects get delayed, just like they did this year.  Because the CIP uses one line item for all Major Capital Projects (major renovations and expansions,) I had to go to the state table in the CIP, where the county reports to the state what each project costs, and how much they are requesting from the state. All the data was available, but it was NOT easy to “see” unless you knew what to look for. So what did I find? Shockingly, District 1 had received twice the amount of money than three other districts over the 10 year period. But did they grow faster than the other parts of the county? The answer is no. Three other districts grew faster than District 1.

Dist.Total Dollars ($1000)% of Total DollarsMean FARMS2009-10
Pop
2018-19
Pop
Enroll-
ment
Growth
Percent
Growth
1$670,00932.27%7.93%2688331357447416.64%
2$319,48515.39%36.50%2981634005418924.25%
3$322,83115.55%32.79%2764833025537719.45%
4$488,61223.53%46.16%2983133426359512.05%
5$275,18413.25%48.68%2485529520466518.77%
(not including special schools)

If this data had been easier to “see” would we have stood for the inequities that continued for a whole decade? If we had open data in MCPS, would it have taken me several weekends to compile all of the data from the online CIP books? Others have tried to point out the issues surrounding our planning, but it is frustratingly “hidden in plain sight” in PDFs. This is one of the reasons why BOE instructed MCPS to hire a contractor, WXY, to look at how we plan our distribution of approximately 166,000 students.

Instead of planning in an equitable fashion, every year the Squeaky Wheel gets the most attention. Currently, South Lake is squeaking, because that is what they need to do to be heard. In fact, community groups like Action in Montgomery have amplified their concerns. Many who have economic or racial privilege also have more resources available to their school, including monetary and political capital. (See the latest OLO report.) I know many advocates that have direct lines of communication with decision makers. I have learned from these amazing advocates throughout the years, but I argue that dollars should be spent based on the state of the facilities, not whether you have a savvy advocacy campaign. I do believe MCPS is moving in the right direction, but they need to build trust by doing the following.

1. First, move to Open Data as soon as possible. Even releasing their next CIP and appendices in a machine readable data format, as well as their typical “book” format would go a long way in building good will in the community.

2. Look at every CIP through an equity lens. This does not mean ignoring facilities in well off districts. All kids need a healthy building in order to learn. Remember that the wealthiest districts received significantly more attention over the last decade and this cannot continue. During the COVID crises, shifting resources to improving HVAC where possible would be a great strategy, and I understand that MCPS is looking at just that.

3. Next, make sure the Key Facility Indicators are accurate. They should guide the system to improve the schools that need it the most.

3. Use the WXY report data to guide the efficient AND equitable use of MCPS facilities.

4. And lastly, our County and State Delegation needs to make sure that more Federal and State dollars go to our school facilities which have been underfunded for the last decade. The County Council also needs to pass a Growth Policy that ensures that our developers continue to fund the impact (only their impact, not more) that they have on our school population.
I want to make clear that I am writing this as an education advocate and not in any official capacity in which I serve.   I have volunteered for several organizations, and because of that, I have seen MANY schools and I do know that MANY schools needed updating years ago, in all 5 districts. I sincerely hope that those schools get the improvements that are needed, but not because they are in a particular district, or could pull off a media campaign, but because they are indeed the most in need

Laura Stewart serves as the MCCPTA Vice President of Advocacy, Women’s Democratic Club Education Advocacy Subcommittee Chair, incoming At Large Board Member for Committee for Montgomery and a Democratic Precinct chair in District 18.

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