Monday, July 28, 2008

This Is Embarrassing

The latest AYP results are out and the numbers for the Clarke County School District are absolutely abysmal. For 2007-2008, only 3 of the District’s 19 schools achieved AYP goals (the Classic City Performance Learning Center is not counted in the statistics because it has too few students). This means that a mere 15.8% of the District’s schools met AYP standards. Continuing a longstanding trend, it is at the elementary level that the news is the least bad, as 3 of 13 elementary schools met AYP; 0 of 4 middle schools and 0 of 2 high schools met AYP.

Compare the local results with those of our neighboring school districts:

Jackson County - 11 of 12 schools met AYP (91.7%)

Oconee County - 9 of 9 schools met AYP (100.0%)

Oglethorpe County - 4 of 4 schools met AYP (100.0%)

Madison County - 4 of 7 schools met AYP (57.1%)

Taken collectively, those other four school districts had 28 of 32 schools meet AYP (87.5%). Statewide, 1481 of 2153 schools met AYP (68.8%).

So what is the problem here?

The usual excuses will be trotted out – that the tests used to measure academic achievement are no good (and the related notion that NCLB measures the wrong things), and that the schools suffer from a lack of funding.

Regarding the former, there may well be problems with the CRCT. However, if the dismal showing of the Clarke County School District is a function of these shortcomings, why do not our neighboring school districts reflect the same results? The fact remains that they are succeeding where we are not, even if the tests are bad.

Regarding the latter, I have pointed out ad nauseam how our neighboring school districts have achieved superior results year after year while spending far less money per pupil. Of course, the argument is that the state has shortchanged school districts on QBE funds. That argument does not work, as the state funds the CCSD to the same extent that it does all of the other school districts in the state. If QBE funds were the problem, there would not be such a disparity between the CCSD and our surrounding school districts - a disparity that exists not just in AYP, but in graduation rates and test scores as well (and you do know that the real cuts to QBE funding ended with FY 2004; since then, QBE funding to the Clarke County School District has increased dramatically - even with "austerity reductions," the amount of QBE funding continues to increase).

I do not enjoy beating up on the CCSD. I know that there are dedicated people in our local schools who are doing the best that they can. I also know the students (and parents) who value education can get a perfectly good one here.

At some point, however, we need to admit that the way we’ve been doing things is not working and that simply throwing more money at the schools will not affect positive change.

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Friday, July 18, 2008

Broun Celebrates Victory in CSRA

Sorry for the late notice, but I just got the following from the Broun campaign:

AUGUSTA, GA – U.S. Congressman Paul Broun is inviting friends, family, and the media to join him for a victory celebration as he grills out at the Savannah River Rapids Pavilion. Broun looks forward to thanking his supporters for campaigning, fundraising, and voting for him in the July 15th Republican Primary Election. Broun won reelection in a landslide, earning 71 percent of the vote in Georgia’s Tenth Congressional District race.

U.S. Congressman Paul C. Broun, M.D.

Republican Primary Victory Celebration

5:30 p.m. FRIDAY, July 18

Savannah Rapids Pavilion
3300 Evans-to-Locks Road
Martinez, Georgia 30907

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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Two Gloats And One Observation

The first gloat concerns Dr. Paul Broun. It was fun attending his primary victory celebration at the Georgia Center last evening (we Republicans in Clarke County usually do not have much to celebrate). My wife and I had the opportunity to chat with Nikki at some length and with Paul briefly (as one would expect, he was in great demand).

Thankfully, the issue was not in doubt until the wee hours of the morning. Elect returns came in slowly at first, but then the dam broke and it was apparent early on that the good doctor was destined to win in a blowout. Barry Fleming called Broun to concede at about 8:30 (or so). Paul then delivered his victory speech to those assembled at about 9:15 (or so).

As I have said before, quite apart from my ideological affinity with Broun’s positions, he has impressed me by going to Washington and governing exactly as he campaigned (an example from which other GOP legislators at the state and federal levels could benefit).

The second gloat concerns Bill Cowsert, who won by a comfortable margin in the Senate District 46 primary. Living on the eastern side of Clarke County, we are in Ralph Hudgens’ District 47 (who had no primary opposition) and could not vote for Bill. Nonetheless, he is a great guy and represents Athens-Clarke County well in the General Assembly.

And now for the observation. Twice in as many years, the Republican establishment’s favored candidate in the 10th congressional district has run a horrible campaign (I use the term "establishment" in a generic sense to mean insiders as opposed to the formal party hierarchy - since I represent the district on the Georgia Republican Party’s State Committee, I am a part of that establishment to a certain extent, though I am hardly a mover or shaker).

Jim Whitehead made innumerable bone-headed comments, went to great lengths to alienate those who did not reside in his part of the district, and committed the unforgivable mistake of opting out of high-profile candidate functions in Athens. He thereby prompted a load of Democrats to vote for Broun in the runoff.

Barry Fleming ran a thoroughly negative campaign from start to finish. When the questionable strategy of painting Broun as a liberal (!) went nowhere, Fleming fell back on deliberately mischaracterizing Broun’s votes and positions and even dredged up personal matters from decades ago. I’ve met Fleming a couple of times; he struck me as an intelligent and likeable enough guy. So why take a "low road" approach guaranteed to turn off lots of the GOP rank and file?

If this is the best they can do, the establishment insiders should do us a favor and not run more candidates for congress, especially against an incumbent Republican who sticks to his princip

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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Paul Broun Election Celebration

Anticipating a GOP primary victory this evening, the Paul Broun campaign is holding an election night celebration in Athens. The event begins at 7:00 p.m. and takes place in Magnolia Ballrooms 1 and 2 of the Georgia Center for Continuing Education, located at 1197 South Lumpkin Street, diagonally across the Carlton Street/Sanford Drive intersection from Stegeman Colesium. Everyone is invited to come by, track election returns, and socialize with fellow Broun supporters.

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Monday, July 14, 2008

TDRs: A Shell Game In The Making?

More than a year and a half after its target date, the Transferable Development Rights Committee has finally released its much-anticipated report. The issue of TDRs has been bandied about locally since at least 1999, and for the entirety of that period I have been dubious as to the effort, noting that the county lacked both sending zones and receiving zones.

Consider the following paragraphs, taken verbatim from my 2006 campaign web site:

The Mayor has appointed a committee to study Transferable Development Rights (TDRs), with a report expected by the end of 2006. Just as in 2002, I am receptive to the idea of a TDR program, but have doubts as to such a program’s suitability for Athens-Clarke County.

There are two reasons for this, one concerning potential “sending areas” and one concerning potential “receiving areas.” Regarding the former, the Commission has already down-zoned the development potential of the AR zones by 90 per cent; over the years, it has steadily reduced the allowable density of residential development from one house per acre to one house per ten acres. Also, the Commission has deleted some 35 linear miles of sanitary sewer lines projected for the outlying areas of the county from the Public Utilities Department’s original Service Delivery Plan, as called for by the Unified Government’s Charter. Without sanitary sewer lines, any area’s development potential drops precipitously. The Commission is already using the possible implementation of a TDR program, at some unspecified point in the future, as a reason for denying rezoning requests in the formerly unincorporated areas of the county. In light of these actions, one may reasonably wonder just what development rights remain in the peripheral areas of the county to be transferred anywhere else.

Regarding receiving areas, the questions of where they may be located or how they may be structured have yet to be answered. As an observer of local politics for several years, I fully expect that any proposals to increase density in existing neighborhoods will be fought tooth and nail. Without receiving areas willing to increase their residential densities, there can be no workable TDR program.

About the only thing that has changed since then is that the idea of transferring development rights from rural residential areas to in-town residential ideas proved too daunting, so the Committee shifted the focus to transferring development rights from rural residential areas to in-town industrial and/or commercial areas. Even so, I still have questions about just what will be transferred. The Committee’s recommendation that “for the purpose of transfer only, A-R zone property owners should be allowed one property right per acre” strikes me as arbitrary, especially given that what that really means will be determined at a later point by Planning Department staff.

Says Blake’s article on the Committee's report from last week:

But a TDR program alone won't work, [Commissioner Alice] Kinman said. The committee recommends using sales tax revenue and grants or working with nonprofits to buy undeveloped land and easements near waterways and wetlands.

Great. Let’s use even more of my tax money to take more property off of the property tax digest, thereby forcing taxes up on that property remaining on the tax rolls to compensate for the loss. I have pointed out the ultimately self-defeating nature of this process for years, to no avail whatsoever.

Continued Blake’s article:

Commissioner David Lynn said he'd like officials to consider downzoning property in receiving zones to a lower density so TDR credits are more attractive. Athens-Clarke officials should also work with counterparts in surrounding counties to add sending zones in Jackson, Madison and Oglethorpe counties, protecting the Athens water supply upstream and avoiding doughnut-style development with subdivisions just across the green belt on the Clarke County line, Lynn said.

No disrespect intended toward Commissioner Lynn, but this is worst than the idea floated by John Barrow back in 2002 (you know, back when the erstwhile congressman was the darling of Athens’ progressive set and not W’s “rubber stamp”). Barrow’s bad idea was to “downzone” property in receiving areas and make developers pay through the nose merely to reclaim the original density. Lynn would take that bad idea and make it worse by drawing surrounding counties into the scheme. Given the serious implications for their own sales and property tax revenues, good luck getting any responsible officials in adjacent counties to buy into that one.

Which brings me to another point. I commented on Barrow’s downzoning idea In response to an Athens Grow Green Coalition questionnaire back in 2002:

Would you support implementation of a Transferable Development Rights program to protect open space and direct growth?

YES "I am not opposed to TDRs if such a program is structured in a reasonable manner. I would not support a plan, through which an area's existing development rights were 'down zoned,' only to be 'up zoned' at a later date back to their previous level by virtue of a fictitious transfer of development rights from another area. In such a case, I feel that no transfer of rights has occurred in any meaningful sense."

I thought that AGGC’s assessment of my response was deliberately disingenuous, as the organization knew full well that such an approach was precisely what a sitting commissioner, one that it invariably supported, had proposed:

James Garland’s positions consistently contradict those of Grow Green. In addition, his answers to our questionnaire suggest a lack of understanding of issues such as TDRs . . .

Be that as it may, this entire TDR thing is sounding more and more like a shell game to me.

Such cynicism may be forgiven by recalling the “conservation subdivision” ordinance adopted back in 2003. That ordinance, which gave the green activists everything they wanted, was touted as the end-all for managing development in the greenbelt. That ordinance has been a complete and total failure, as its draconian regulations made the construction of a conservation subdivision prohibitively expensive, a fact evidenced by the number of such subdivisions proposed since then, which is precisely zero (zip, zilch, nada). On the other hand, though, if the idea was to go through the motions of passing a development ordinance – one that effectively prevented such development - thereby locking in the one house per ten acres restriction in the greenbelt and giving the Commission political cover, it has been an astounding success.

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Friday, July 11, 2008

Clarke County Charter School (2008 edition)

The Clarke County Board of Education is again considering a charter school, this time involving a partnership among the Clarke County School District, Athens Technical College, and the University of Georgia. The resulting Athens Community Career Academy would be geared toward the acquisition of job skills and college credit.

So far, so good. I am not opposed to a charter school in principle. Quite the opposite is true, in fact, as the proposal is one of the few made by the local education bureaucracy in recent years of which I have approved. That said, I do have some specific concerns as to how the proposal is taking shape.

My first concern has to do with financing. Last year’s CCSD proposal for a charter school was dependent on securing a specific grant from the Georgia Department of Technical and Adult Education; when that grant application was denied, the proposal was dead in the water. This year, the CCSD missed the deadline for a US Department of Education grant and is now hoping that Athens Tech can get a grant of its own to renovate the H.T. Edwards building, a property that the CCSD owns, at a cost of $3.2 million.

So why all of this emphasis on grants? It is not like the CCSD doesn’t have plenty of money at its disposal. Just last month, it approved a budget that included $9.244 million in reserve funds. Why can’t the CCSD use a mere one-third of its existing reserves, without relying on other education bureaucracies to fund the project, and get on with it?

Which brings me to my second concern, which is that involving those other education bureaucracies poses its own set of problems. The CCSD should be perfectly capable of designing and operating a charter school on its own. It does not have to reinvent the wheel here, as there are successful charter schools all across the country which it could model. I recognize the appeal of involving Athens Teach and UGA, namely that the other members of the proposed partnership have some nice things that they can bring to the table in terms of facilities, expertise (hopefully), etc.

On the other hand, involving other education bureaucracies necessitates having more seats at that table, the invariable consequences of which are problems of coordination and a diffusion of responsibility among different institutions that may not share the same goals and expectations over time. Again, I think that a strong argument can be made that the CCSD may be better off acting alone.

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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Clarke County Advance Voting

At the half-way point of advance voting, more than 500 people had cast ballots at the Clarke County Board of Elections office (178 on Monday, 257 on Tuesday, and about 100 through noon on Wednesday). Turnout has been so large that additional voting machines were set up in City Hall to supplement the three in the Board’s office.

According to Supervisor of Elections Gail Schrader, who always graciously answers my questions, election workers had processed 548 Democrat primary ballots (325 in office and 223 mail-ins) and 344 Republican primary ballots (194 in office and 150 mail-ins) through the close of business on Tuesday. That works out to a 61% to 39% split, which is pretty much what one would expect here in the bluest of blue counties.

She also informed me that additional voting machines will be set up in old Fire Hall portion of the Classic Center for advance voting prior to November’s general election.

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Just An Observation On My Part

Anyone else get that direct mail piece a few days back advertising a “Retirement & Estate Planning Workshop” put on by The Lloyd Group? What intrigued me was the fact that Dale Cardwell’s name and photo are prominently displayed at the top of the page. Cardwell is slated as a “guest speaker” for the workshops to be held at the Watkinsville Community Center at 11:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. on 31 July (there are also workshops in Gwinnett County on 24 July, but I do not know if Cardwell is scheduled for those).

I realize that not all of life revolves around politics. This did strike me as quite odd, however, given that Cardwell is currently up to his eyeballs in the Democrat primary for United States Senate - and presumably would immediately shift into general election mode should he win.

Regardless, the question is academic to me. As one may easily surmise from this, I chose the GOP primary ballot and voted for Paul Broun. The only other contested races on my ballot were a couple of seats on the Public Service Commission.

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Petrovs To Address CCRC

Valdis “Red” Petrovs, candidate for the open District 6 seat on the Athens-Clarke County Commission, will address the Clarke County Republican Committee on Monday, 14 July. The meeting, which begins at 6:00 p.m., will be held at CCRC Headquarters located at 455 North Milledge Avenue.

Petrovs has an impressive background in the business world, but is best known locally as vice-chairman of Partners for a Prosperous Athens and its subsequent OneAthens anti-poverty initiative.

Even so, from my perspective Petrovs has made some welcome noises concerning the continuing growth of the Unified Government’s budget and has exhibited some skepticism about government as the solution to every problem. That being the case, many in self-consciously progressive Athens will be only too happy to tar Petrovs with the Chamber of Commerce and/or Republican labels. In fact, some will regard his appearance at a GOP function, despite the fact that the election is nonpartisan and I am sure that Petrovs will also speak to local Democrats, as a reason to vote against him.

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