Thursday, March 13, 2014

Climate for Change & Transparency

Many in Purcellville feel a sense of elation and relief with the news this week that the the apartment applicant has withdrawn their application.  The entertainment complex is weighing their options and have requested a delay.  Outside of this development, some other changes have taken place, and much needed ones.  

On March 6, 2014, Mayor Bob Lazaro sent out an email via his official government email requesting residents to take part in a survey. "I realize for many it is difficult to get to a Town meeting due to family commitments, work etc. As such, I have put together this short citizen survey so you can let me know whether you support or do not support the project. I will share the results with my Council colleagues."  

Unbeknownst to many in our town, this email list is maintained and distributed solely by Mr. Lazaro and not via the town, other council members, or accessible through the town website. I myself once was on the distribution to receive Mr. Lazaro's email updates but they stopped in the fall of 2012 when I started speaking out publicly against the apartment development and it appears this has occurred to other residents as well.   

On March 7, 2014 I made an inquiry with the town manager inquiring whether this survey would be accessible through the town website and efforts be made to distribute it in a equitable fashion.  
The response was:
I am not aware of any survey being conducted by the Mayor or any TC member. I have ask our staff and there seems to be no knowledge nor do we have any copies or links to any such survey. I will forward your request to the Mayor for clarification. 

To further muddle the validity of this survey, this was an additional response sent by the town manager: 
This survey wasn’t sent by the Town or managed by the staff so it clearly isn’t an official survey nor would it be anywhere on our website or any other official publication of the Town. I’m not sure who was collecting it and what it was being used for but our staff hasn’t seen it or used it in any staff reports. 
I’m not sure who created it or how the data if any would be used. As staff, I’m reluctant to put a survey that wasn’t created by the Town staff or approved by the TC on the Website. In addition, the Town generally doesn’t use “yes or no” surveys for decision making in land use cases. We provide public notice to the community and required legal adjacent property owners. In turn, we receive public comments by email, regular mail, petitions and public hearings which are all a matter of public record. 
I can only assume that someone or group sent this out for their own personal use. I hope this helps and thank you for sharing this information with me so at least I know why people are sending emails this morning. I will pass it on to the Mayor for clarification. 

This survey was solicited via a distribution list that was only sent to select people chosen at the will of the mayor.  Many residents who regularly receive Mr. Lazaro's email updates did NOT receive the survey email. This was a blatant attempt at providing a biased outcome and it is shows the lack of transparency and ethics of his office.  

Many of us in the community complained about this potential breach of ethics and it appears that Mr. Lazaro has now decided to send his updates via his personal email address (pictured below). His update email still has the look of official town correspondence and there is no disclaimer explaining that it is not sanctioned town correspondence. 

Mr. Lazaro once had the 
official town seal on them and has since removed it.  But the next step to true transparency will be Mr. Lazaro, and of course our future mayor, making sure that all who receive the 'Mayoral Updates' know the true source of the content.  A better step would be to make the updates accessible via the town website and available to all residents who wish to subscribe.    

Monday, March 3, 2014

Loudoun County School Budget

An open letter to the Loudoun Board of Supervisors,

In 2010, my Loudoun county tax assessment bill was $6325.00 and in 2013 the amount was $5513.00;  $812.00 below the level it was four years ago! My assessment increased by 7% for 2014, and if the Board adopts the $1.15 rate, my tax bill will increase by $143.00.  So yes, my taxes would go up, but they would still be far below what they were just a few short years ago. 

While I applaud the Loudoun Board of Supervisor’s efforts to cut waste, ensure that spending is on a needs basis, and to lower the tax burden on Loudoun residents, I don’t appreciate it being done with notion that it is simply to cut wasteful spending.  

Supervisor Shawn Williams (Broad Run) has stated, “When I hear that we’re cutting education, it is just not true.” Geary Higgins (Catoctin) said, “I don’t know where you want us to go with taxes. We already have the highest taxes in Virginia.”  Both of these statements are patently false and misleading.

Fact: Cost per pupil spending would be cut 4.2% if the Board’s cuts go through.  Loudoun County per pupil spending is lowest in our region and our tax rate is lower than many of the surrounding jurisdictions. 

When it comes to our schools, they are being asked to make do with minimal increases in the budget year to year.  The increases barely cover the cost of new schools, students, and other fixed costs that have increased.  The cry for cuts in wasteful spending are suspect and pledging to cut taxes to the peril of our school system is beyond unconscionable.   

Well, I am here to tell you that these tight budgets hurt and not always for the reason you first think. These cuts have far reaching effects.   

In 2004, my 2-year-old daughter was cut from the PIE (Parent Infant Education) program in Loudoun County after receiving services for over a year.  We were told that she was now able to walk and “good luck and she may still have some idiosyncrasies.” Suffering from repeated tantrums (the likes of which I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy), sensory processing issues, still non-verbal, and being physically behind peers her age, our family took a leap of faith and moved to a state known for providing better special education services.  Within one month of our move, she was entered into the school system’s special education preschool program.  For three years, she received physical therapy, occupational therapy, and cutting edge applied behavioral therapy.

If we had not moved, who knows if we could have reached into her mind and gotten the result we have today. How long would we have waited to get services in Loudoun County?  The window of opportunity for therapy for kids like her is quite small and the younger they are, the better the outcome.

Today, she is a “normal” 6th grader in all honors classes.  We had a child with an autism diagnosis not knowing what her future would be and now she is thriving with no educational supports whatsoever. 

What did we gain as a society from this? Plenty.  She will grow up to be an independent adult.  She is smart and will contribute to society no doubt.  She gained. Our family gained. But society also gained.  

When someone says at a board meeting that they “don’t use the school system, “ I say yes, yes you do. Our entire society benefits from my daughter’s successful therapy.  Our society benefits from having a well-educated population.  Our society benefits in so many measurable and immeasurable ways from our education system that it is a foolish statement to claim you shouldn’t have to pay for a system which someone mistakenly believes doesn’t benefit them. 

If I don't own a car, I still help pay for the roads.  If I don’t use the park, I still help pay for the park. If I don’t go to the library, I still help pay for it through my taxes.  I don’t begrudge society these things because my fellow citizens benefit from them. My town, my state, and my country benefit from all of these services.

These school budget cuts filter down and hurt more than just a teachers pay and increase class sizes. They directly hurt children. They have directly hurt my own children. Not just in 2004, but again when we moved back to Virginia.

In 2008-2009, my other daughter was diagnosed with Dysgraphia, which is a learning disability that affects writing. Dysgraphia makes the act of writing difficult. It can lead to problems with spelling, poor handwriting and putting thoughts on paper. The LCPS system denied my daughter any educational supports or help because she “was passing and had no educational need for it.”  So, we did what any parent would do and we pulled her out of school every week during 5th grade and went to Loudoun Hospital for occupational therapy costing in excess of $15,000.  After fighting for two years, we finally got her an I.E.P (individualized Education Program) to provide her educational supports and today she is thriving.  

A large majority of special needs families experience added financial burdens for therapies, rehabilitation programs, specialty medical care, and other expenditures. I often think about the families out there without the resources to provide these services. What about the family who isn’t able to fight the system and their child falls through the cracks?  What about the child we neglect to help?  What about the long-term cost to society?  

It is a shame when I hear stories of Loudoun teachers being told to not discuss any suspected issues with parents. What purpose other than cost savings is at the heart of this internal policy?  To willingly circumvent services to children and allow them to needlessly suffer and to not realize their full potential is the biggest failure of tight budgeting and the continued nickel and diming of our schools. 
We should be ashamed that Virginia is ranked 47th in the country when it comes to services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.  In a survey of the best cities and states that offer the best support for children with autism spectrum disorders, Virginia was ranked 38th. 

To the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors I say please fully fund our schools. Fully realize the potential in all of the children who attend our schools and give the teachers the ability to truly do their jobs and to do so without one hand tied behind their backs. 

Society wins when a child gets the help and resources they need.