Year in Review (Part I)

Year in Review (Part I)

<sh> BRACing For Change

<bt>BRAC was the dirtiest four-letter word in Arlington all year, and with good reason. For on Aug. 25, the federal Base Realignment and Closure Commission announced the Department of Defense would vacate most of its leased space in the county.

Though several top-tier research facilities will be retained, Arlington will lose approximately 20,000 defense industry jobs, 8 percent of the county’s total work force, over the next six years. Nearly 4.2 million square feet of office space in 39 buildings will be abandoned, mostly in Crystal City.

Arlington-based defense workers and private contractors will be relocated to Fort Belvoir in southeastern Fairfax County, Fort Meade outside Baltimore and other military bases across the country.

The decision, made to cut costs and better protect military employees from terrorist attacks, infuriated local officials, many of whom questioned the political motives of Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.

“This can’t be justified economically or from an operational standpoint,” said U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D-8). “We had a synergy here that was helping the defense industry. Arlington is a hub of the best-skilled technology people.”

Though the county is sure to suffer from losing so many jobs, officials are optimistic about Arlington’s long-term prospects. To them the exodus of Defense Department agencies presents an opportunity to restructure and diversify the economy, and transform Crystal City into a more vibrant community that is not reliant on a single industry.

“Arlington has the economic power to absorb this shock,” said Stephen Fuller, director of George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis.

ARLINGTON SHOULD have little difficulty filling the vacated office space because of its proximity to the Pentagon and downtown Washington, its safe environment and lower taxes and costs, county officials said.

Two valuable research facilities that supply 1,700 jobs, the Office of Naval Research and the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, will remain in Arlington, retaining some of the county’s most highly-skilled workers.

The Northern Virginia BRAC Working Group recommended in December that the state allocate money to relocate these agencies within Arlington, if necessary, create tax incentives for companies transferring to vacated space and to establish a job assistance center in Crystal City.

The committee, created this fall by Gov. Mark Warner, also insisted that Arlington be eligible for federal funds available to communities losing military bases.

Though Crystal City will feel the effects of losing thousands of jobs in a short time period, county officials believe the influx of new and diverse companies will invigorate the neighborhood and help convert it into a major attraction in the county.

“There will be challenges in the short-term, but there are still so many assets offered by Arlington,” said County Board Chairman Jay Fisette. “Crystal City will continue to compete very well with other parts of the region.”

<sh> Affordable Housing Compromise Reached

<bt>One of the greatest concerns of residents is that the shortage of inexpensive housing in the county is driving out low-income families and decreasing Arlington’s diversity.

This year the county took a big step toward ensuring more affordable housing units will be generated and preserved in Arlington, when government officials, developers and community activists forged a compromise plan in October after months of contentious negotiations.

The 23 members of the Affordable Housing Roundtable voted unanimously to accept a measure that requires developers to provide affordable units, or otherwise contribute money to a housing fund, whenever the county board grants projects additional density beyond what is permitted by existing zoning rules.

Under the compromise, smaller projects with density below a county-established threshold will be exempt from providing affordable units. Developers of projects above the threshold can provide units on-site, off-site units nearby, units elsewhere in the county or contribute to the Affordable Housing Investment Fund. The new measure creates incentives to encourage developers to supply inexpensive units in new projects.

“It’s a good deal for the community and it assures us that developers will contribute to affordable housing in Arlington,” said County Board Vice-Chairman Chris Zimmerman. “It does not completely satisfy everyone, but it is a deal everyone can live with.”

BETWEEN 2000 AND 2004 the county lost 9,300 affordable units, or 47 percent of the total number, because of a confluence of rapidly escalating rents, redevelopment and the conversion of apartments into luxury condos.

Many activists say teachers, hospital workers, police officers and fire fighters no longer earn enough to live in the communities they serve.

The county instituted new guidelines in April 2004 obliging developers to devote

10 percent of total gross floor area in new construction projects to affordable housing units, or contribute to the AFHI. Developers won a subsequent lawsuit against the county in December 2004, nullifying the new requirements.

The county formed the Roundtable in May 2005 as a last ditch effort to fashion a compromise. In early October the negotiations were deadlocked and a seven-member task force was appointed from the Roundtable group to hammer out a deal.

“I was hopeful from the beginning but I did not have certainty,” that the various sides would agree on a plan, said County Board Chairman Jay Fisette. “People came together and swallowed hard to get the compromise done.”

<sh>School Bus Accident Jolts Community

<bt>Fifteen accidents have occurred at the intersection of Columbia Pike and South Courthouse Road since 2003 — the latest, a fatal school bus crash on April 18 that killed two Arlington elementary school students.

Nine-year-old Lilibeth Gomez and 7-year-old Harrison Orosco, both students at Hoffman-Boston Elementary School, were killed when an oncoming garbage truck and the school bus, which was making a left turn, collided. Fifteen students were on the bus at the time of the accident, and 13 were hospitalized, including Gomez and Orosco.

“Harrison Orosco was a happy, warm and loving son, friend and brother,” family friend Laurie Granger told the Arlington Connection. “He loved soccer, science and learning. Harrison will be deeply missed by everyone who knew him.”

School bus driver Pamela Sims, who was thrown from the bus during the crash, has been charged with one count of reckless driving and another count of “failure to pay full time and attention.” Her trial was scheduled to begin on Sept. 27, but was delayed until Jan. 17. Garbage truck driver James Wallace is charged with a single count of reckless driving. His trial was postponed from Oct. 25 until Jan. 30.

Both Sims and Wallace were hospitalized, and Sims refused medical attention until she had helped pull all the children out of the wreckage. Sims had a clean diving record during her eleven years as a school bus driver, school officials said.

Following the accident, seventeen counselors were deployed to Hoffman-Boston, and school officials have held meetings to assure concerned parents that school bus drivers are taking further safety precaution measures. The Hoffman-Boston PTA established a fund to aid the families of Harrison and Lilibeth.

“This is something that affects the whole community,” County Board member Walter Tejada said at Harrison’s wake. “In our hearts, I think we recognize that this is a time for us to come together as a community to show our support and to be with the family.”

-Additional reporting by Stefan Cornibert

<sh>Mixed Year for Arlington Schools

<bt>This past year produced an abundance of both promising and disappointing news for Arlington Public Schools. Though the school system posted stronger test scores last year, it failed to meet its goals under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Eleven of Arlington’s thirty schools did not make “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP), though half missed their targets by only one or two indicators. Schools experienced greater difficulty with the reading exams last year than with math tests.

School officials said that the failure to meet the benchmarks masks the school system’s significant achievements last year. Arlington schools saw a 2 percent increase in its pass rate for all students on the reading exam and a 20 percent rise in the pass rate for “limited English proficiency” students on the reading test.

The standards for achieving AYP this year are more stringent than in the past, and officials said they are focusing more resources on meeting the individual needs of students in order to meet AYP.

“There will be increased challenges this year but nevertheless, I am optimistic we will do better,” said Superintendent Robert G. Smith.

The school system made great strides in enrolling students in advanced courses, one of Superintendent Smith’s highest priorities. The number of Arlington students who took Advanced Placement tests last year increased by nearly seven percent, and has more than doubled over the past six years.

“We have been encouraging kids to stretch higher,” said School Board member Elaine Furlow. “This shows that both families and students are hungry for more rigorous classes.”

CLOSING THE ACHIEVEMENT gap between white and minority students has continued to pose problems for Arlington Public Schools.

The number of black students graduating last year with an International Baccalaureate or advanced diploma fell by nine percentage points, down to 23 percent. The figure for white graduates grew by three percentage points, to 73 percent, and by one point for Hispanic graduates, to 31 percent.

There were slight improvements in minority results in high school math courses, but they lagged behind the strides made by their white counterparts. The percentage of white students passing Geometry with a C or better by the end of ninth grade grew by seven points last year, while increasing two points for black and one point for Hispanic students.

Though certain categories saw improvements — including a sharp rise in the number of black elementary school students reading on grade level — Arlington school officials admitted they were disappointed by this year’s results.

“This is a major source of concern,” said School Board Chairman David Foster, who pointed out that black and Hispanic students improved their scores on the state Standard of Learning tests last year. “It will take increased efforts to narrow it in the future.