Opinion Your Views — 13 June 2013
It’s hard not to be cynical these days

To the editor:

Recent angst about doubling Norfolk Southern’s ethanol storage tanks and building a gigantic Jefferson-Houston School suggests folks’ textbook understanding of civics doesn’t jibe with how our city government really functions. So let me explain:

Neighbors blew a gasket about Norfolk Southern’s ethanol storage tanks. The tanks must meet federal standards such that an explosion would be confined to the worksite.

They sit on a low point of land, so burning ethanol — the same substance in folks’ medicine and liquor cabinets — would flow downward and be contained. If complainers understood basic chemistry or physics, they would understand that ethanol is highly combustible but not highly explosive.

Now, if there were tanks containing ethanol at a brewery, whose proprietor is featured at the Democratic National Convention, does anybody believe City Hall would be describing them in such apocalyptic terms? Or if there was some developer proposing such tanks in exchange for handing out amenities — worked out with City Hall in some cozy closed-door meeting — does anybody believe that officials wouldn’t be telling nearby residents how foolish their concerns are rather than taking those foolish concerns and legitimizing them with legal tactics?

Norfolk Southern’s earliest predecessor was chartered in 1827 and ran the country’s first regularly scheduled passenger train in 1830. Norfolk Southern’s 20,000 route miles run from Ontario to Iowa to Louisiana. Unlike Alexandria’s City Hall, Norfolk Southern knows how to run its business. It is certainly self-respecting enough not to show up offering amenities the way that developers do in exchange for political protection and favors.

Similarly, school officials have repeatedly insisted that their gigantic edifice along Cameron Street — that will increase capacity at Jefferson-Houston School — was a safety valve to absorb over-enrollment citywide. Testing, bolstered by sociological factor analysis, is pretty good at predicting academic outcomes. So plausibly, the original scheme was to use the new Jefferson-Houston to select the most challenged students systemwide from overcrowded schools and selectively dump them into the brand-new building so that other schools can continue succeeding academically.

Along comes Richmond, which took away Jefferson-Houston’s accreditation and imposed this wretched school takeover law, probably necessitating a change of plans. Now the theoretical student whose father works in the embassy gets to go to the beautiful new school to pull up its scores and the one who arrived yesterday gets fit into his or her neighborhood school in hopes that things will work out.

But even if they don’t, the school still has many years to outfox Richmond. For a decade, we’ve heard how hard everyone is trying — sans success — to improve academics at Jefferson-Houston. The powers that be have resigned to letting current Jefferson-Houston students continue to fail, but with careful selection, the overflow students redirected from elsewhere will pull the overall Standards of Learning scores up enough to get the school out of hock with Richmond.

School officials will rely on their lawsuit against the school takeover law to buy them enough time to pull this off by forcing the state Legislature through a constitutional amendment process.

Am I being too cynical, or not enough?

- Dino Drudi
Alexandria

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