Local Election Guide 2017: Samuel Miller District

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County Board of Supervisors candidates John Lowry and Liz Palmer discuss the issues at the Senior Statesmen of Virginia forum. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Board of Supervisors Candidates — Samuel Miller District

We asked each of the candidates about their views on current Albemarle County Board of Supervisors issues, and the following is a sampling of their answers.

John Lowry lives in North Garden and is a former financial manager and stock broker, and also former chair of the Albemarle County Economic Development Authority.

Liz Palmer is the incumbent supervisor for the Samuel Miller district, including serving as chair of the Board in 2016, now seeking a second term. She lives in Ivy, and has been in private practice as a veterinarian for 25 years.

John Lowry and Liz Palmer

Do you think there is sufficient development in the County’s growth area (currently 5% of total County acreage)?

LP: I disagree with this whole idea that 5 percent of county land slated for development is not enough. It’s not that we’re not allowing any development in the rural area, we are protecting rural areas for agricultural uses, and that’s a huge portion of our economy. A lot of people are employed by the wineries and the wedding industry and one of the reasons we are a wedding destination is because we protect those areas. I favor careful, properly placed commercial growth, and I voted against hiring an Economic Development Director [for the County] because we are now looking at economic development as a planning process, using form-based code to increase density and increase revenue. I wanted somebody who really understood the plan, whereas it seemed like the [proposed] new person would have been more traditional in their approach.

JL: Because we rely on property taxes for our revenue, our land is our means to sustain ourselves; only 15 percent of our revenue comes from commercial activities, whereas in places like Henrico it’s more like 30 percent. I do think that if we had more commercial activity, there’d be more jobs. Over the last five years, both [real estate] assessments and tax rates have gone up, and our debt has doubled, and this is fiscally irresponsible. We should have an Economic Development Director and staff and managers. The County has 470,000 acres, and only 100 acres are zoned for light industry and 440 acres are zoned commercial—there is a paucity of land immediately available. My district contains a lot of farmers, and they may not realize the extent to which they are subsidizing the development area. The growth area isn’t paying for itself, so the Board raises the real estate tax on everyone, and that is not sustainable.

Would you vote to move the County Courthouse from downtown Charlottesville to an alternate location in Albemarle County?

LP: I have said no in the past, and the only way I would change my mind would be if the new proposal were to enhance the administration of justice. Stantec [the consulting firm advising the County on the move] said clearly that we should not consider a public-private partnership (P3) as a funding source, and we can’t do many of Stantec’s options anyway, because by law the county has to own the building. So I’m set on keeping the courthouse downtown.

JL: P3’s can be wonderful opportunities, but we have to be sure what we’re getting into. I am open to listening, but it doesn’t normally work that the private entity goes first and then the county comes in. It’s a pig in a poke as far as I’m concerned—the county’s going to have to buy the property without knowing who the private partner would be. They talk about Option 5 [moving the courthouse to Albemarle Square] being cheaper, but they haven’t bought the land yet, and the land has to be in the county’s name by law. So I am definitely in favor of keeping our beautiful courthouse downtown and renovating the Levy building, plus asking the city to build a parking garage.

Do you support or oppose the ACE (Albemarle Conservation Easement) program, in which the County provides payments to landowners to put their land under easement?

LP: Most conservation easements are privately owned. If you are trying to protect rural areas for farming and to protect the soil, then the Albemarle Conservation Easement program allows less wealthy landowners to do that. As the price of land keeps going up, if you’re permanently giving away development rights [via conservation easements], that to me is a lot better than our land use program, which only requires a five-year clawback of taxes. You have land speculators who hold land, put it in land use for a while and then flip it, and so our attempt to try to slow down development is with the ACE program.

JL: Virginia is among the most liberal in the country in putting land under easement. My view is, if a private owner wants to put land under easement, that’s fine, but I can’t tolerate taxpayer funding of easements. The combination of conservation easements and land use taxation has really reduced our county’s tax revenues, and those are private decisions. The current Board has made it clear that they won’t try to up-zone land in order to woo and win business, but it doesn’t make sense to me. If a person puts a conservation easement on rural land in the growth area, it can never be developed. That shows me how they really feel about economic development.

In 2015, large commercial brewer Deschutes considered building a facility just south of the I64/US29 interchange, but the Board did not approve a Comprehensive Plan amendment to accommodate the brewery. What is your view of this decision? 

LP: In my view, Deschutes had already made their decision to go to Roanoke even as they were negotiating with us. There were folks who wanted us to expand our development area boundaries outside the Comprehensive Plan process, which we review every five years, and that would weaken our ability to fight lawsuits in the future. Our legal advice was not to do it, the Planning Commission voted 7-0 not to do it, traffic was a big issue, we would have had to raise taxes to get seed money to help them, and we would have put an industrial brewery where tractor trailers would have been coming and going 24/7. We would have had to denude part of the mountain, we would have had to bring water and sewer there, and in addition we didn’t own that land—it was owned by a private developer—so this would have cost us millions of dollars.

JL: For economic development in the County, the Deschutes Brewery is a case in point. That corner is just barely into the growth area but the brewery needed more than 38 usable acres, so it would have been necessary for the BOS to do a Comprehensive Plan amendment to change the boundary. The Comprehensive Plan isn’t law, it’s just policy, one that hasn’t changed in 30 years—they could do an amendment to the plan tomorrow. My opponent wouldn’t do it, and we’ve given up $2.5 million a year in tax revenues as a result. I’d like to see more balance in our land use.

What are your expectations for the new County Executive?

LP: We are losing several people at once—Lee Catlin (the Assistant County Executive) is retiring and also the director of planning just retired. The new executive will have a fresh viewpoint but he will also lack that kind of institutional knowledge. The previous County Executive was less interested in the newer form-based code processes and more interested in traditional models, and the Board has been clear that next executive has to have that kind of background and outlook. We’ll focus on organic growth and walkable, bike-able work areas, and place-making is the important part of this, so I’m optimistic.

JL: Philosophically, I’m a businessman, so I look at the Board as a Board, advisory in nature. The executive should run the County. Right now some supervisors are almost in the trenches with the staff running the County, and I don’t think that’s their role. We need a great leader with great vision, and I would love to work with the new executive. He seems like a smart guy with a fresh vision.

How do you think the County handles spending and taxation issues?

LP: Most of any budget surplus goes into the capital improvements fund. We have been so behind on our capital projects for so long because during the recession the previous Board went into maintenance mode only, and we reduced staff by attrition. After the recession we had a huge gap in funding for the future and we now are going to have to make storm water changes, deal with overcrowded schools, spend money on police training, provide raises for employees, and face many other pressures. So we voted to increase the real estate tax rate, but it wasn’t until a year ago that what people are paying equaled what we had paid before the recession. We’ve been chipping away at the capital improvements plan (CIP) but we still have a long list of things we have to do. If there is extra money in the CIP, then we can meet to decide if tax rates should be reduced, trying to equalize revenues with rates. Back in 2007, they lowered the [real estate tax] rate 5 cents, and that was too much at once.

JL: For the last fiscal year reported, there was an $8.5 million surplus. They gave some of the money to each of the small area plans, and the rest was put into the CIP budget. The majority of the CIP spending goes toward schools, parks, and sidewalks. If they had an Economic Development department, they could be encouraging people to have pad-ready lots to entice business to come in. The supervisors are right now riding a wave of prosperity, but I believe I’m the person who will take better care of the Samuel Miller district, maybe because I know what’s coming. Time and time again this Board has done things where they either don’t realize or don’t want to recognize the consequences of what they are doing. The County’s debt has doubled, and tax rates have increased in four of the last five years. I’d like to see us have more balance in how we finance ourselves.

School Board candidates Graham Paige and Julian Waters debate at the Senior Statesmen of Virginia forum. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Candidates for School Board — Samuel Miller District

We asked each of the candidates about their views on current Albemarle County schools issues, and the following is a sampling of their answers.

Graham Paige is the incumbent seeking his first full term. He lives in Esmont, and is now retired after having taught in the Albemarle County school system for 25 years.

Julian Waters is a recent graduate of Western Albemarle High School, who has been active for the last three years in education policy issues, and is seeking his first term in elective office.

Graham Paige and Julian Waters.

The 2017-18 School Board Budget is titled “All Means All.” What does that mean to you?

GP: To me, All Means All refers to the idea that although we really do a good job generally, we still see that an achievement gap does exist among our students. That gap is partially racial and also due to socio-economic factors, and our goal is that all students in Albemarle County, no matter where they live, should be able to have the best possible education. The main part of the All Means All budget increase this year is the funding for the Social Emotional Academic Development (SEAD) program. A staff member heads the program, and it includes school psychologists, counselors, and social workers in the schools, working with the students that need help, beginning with schools in the urban Ring. Hopefully, we will be able to close that gap, then apply what they learn to other parts of the county. It’s a struggle with state and federal funding—after the recession the state has never made up the difference of what we had been receiving.

JW: All Means All means we try to serve all types of student learning. As a recent student, I know there has historically been an emphasis on a test-based system, and now there’s a movement toward a project-based system. Teachers say professional development hasn’t changed enough to support these new expectations, so we have to make sure they are prepared. Even if we have to shift a little bit, we ought to find a budget baseline that is consistent with our priorities. For instance, when you look at the Dept. of Accountability, Research & Technology, their budget has received a massive influx of dollars in the County, and we should think about what is important and how we can support curriculum changes as the education landscape is changing.

What is your perspective on the new High School 2022 initiative?

GP: I served for four years on the County’s Long-Range Planning Committee, and I saw the school overcrowding issues firsthand. Right now a consulting firm out of Maryland is conducting a study on what to do with our schools, whether we need to build or add on, and even what the curriculum should be. The High School 2022 initiative will emphasize experience-based learning, and might address some of the overcrowding problems as students do more outside the classroom. The High School 2022 plan has had student, parent, and teacher involvement the whole way, and I’m excited about it.

JW: I’ve been involved with High School 2022 as a student advisor for several years, and it’s really based on the changing requirements from the Virginia Dept. of Education in terms of how prepared students are for college. It will totally rethink high school from the bottom up, and will create a whole new learning environment. I think we need a curriculum not focused mainly on projects or mainly on tests, but instead we should ask how can we structure it so that each student has options in dealing with course material, and strike a balance over multiple years. There are cross-curricular learning opportunities that can make students more invested in their overall holistic learning experience, but at the same time it will be a strain on teachers, and will be difficult to pull away from the AP course model that colleges want to see.

What is your perspective on the closing of Yancey Elementary School in the Samuel Miller district?

GP: One of the biggest issues I faced during my first term was closing Yancey Elementary. It was a very quick decision, only about a month [from start to finish], and I think it should have been less quick. That hurt me a lot when that happened so fast, but the bright side is that the building is going to be used by the County; there will probably be a food bank there. We’ll also make sure that the kids at Red Hill and Scottsville are doing well, and that the transition went smoothly. I think people were angry because Yancey’s been on the chopping block so many times in the past. Generally speaking, sometimes redistricting becomes necessary, and all of our urban ring elementary schools face that problem. We’ll also have to do something with AHS because it’s overcrowded, and after the School Board voted not to redistrict some AHS students to MHS, we are hearing further recommendations on that now.

JW: The constant, aggressive redistricting drives people nuts. The current policy is a minimum reset time of three years, so that elementary student could potentially be redistricted twice. My three-step plan for redistricting is: (1) work with the Long-Range Planning Committee to find development opportunities, and then work with developers to ask what are their five- and ten-year goals, and how can we focus this development so we understand where to put school capacity; (2) expand that reset period to a six-year minimum (unless there is massive overcrowding), so a kid could get all the way through elementary school; and (3) reform how we look at school capital projects. Instead of constantly playing catch-up and throwing in trailers to handle excess capacity, we need an ongoing architectural review process which will help us plan better, and make better projections of enrollments based on planned building.

What is the best way to implement the Equity in Access initiative?

GP: The achievement gap will be hard to close. Research shows that if anything traumatic happens to you when you are even 1 or 2 years old, there can be a strong effect on your development down the road. Within the [$1.3 million] Equity in Access initiative, $500,000 is for professional development so that each teacher can decide which area they’d be most interested in working on. We’d like to see an increase in the number of minority students in the [high school] academies, and we’re trying to get minorities into those classes and upper level classes.

JW: Equity in Access is a big part of the budget, but right now the Culturally-Responsive Teaching (CRT) initiative doesn’t seem to be having a big impact on teaching effectiveness [at the high school level]. I think it’s inefficient to focus on Equity in Access when it comes to high school, but that’s how it’s being measured. I think it would be better to expand Pre-K access, which would give students these experiences when they’re still very young and are more inclined to be tolerant and have diverse mindsets. A greater investment in Pre-K would pay off with lower costs in middle and high school, so the investment pays for itself in one generation.

How would you address the issue of teacher pay in the County?

GP: Always in the past, we’ve compared our teacher pay to the local market—Charlottesville and surrounding counties and maybe a few others—but a recent study by a group called Niche used a variety of criteria to rank schools similar to us, though not necessarily close to us. That survey gave us a better idea of what our pay should be. In the early years we do pretty well, but we seem to fall behind around year 10. County staff are going to come back with proposals, perhaps combining the best of both markets. One thing we are looking at might be to increase our stipends, which are amounts added on to base salary for things like professional development or advanced degrees, and that might be able to close the gap. We have to consider this carefully because the pool of teachers is shrinking too, so we have to stay competitive. Within a few years this could become a pretty big problem.

JW: I have friends who are teachers who are not paid enough to be able to live in Albemarle County. They have to room with others or live outside the district, which is an economic disadvantage for the County as well because it’s not getting their tax dollars, plus they’re not putting roots down in the community. I think we have to recognize that teachers are the single greatest asset we have in the school system, and we have to pay them fairly. While we do seem to be competitive among school systems similar to ours, it’s unacceptable that we are not paying first-year teachers enough to live close to their schools.

What is your rationale for wanting to serve on the School Board?

GP: I have more experience than my opponent on the School Board, and 25 years of teaching experience in Albemarle County. I’m a life-long resident here in the community, and these are all important advantages when it comes to having perspective on the issues. Most important to me would be resolving the parity issues between schools, and trying to close the achievement gap between students with the Equity in Access initiative.

JW: I’d like to strike a balance between my three years of policy experience with Albemarle County and my 13 years of experience with the school system. The school board has lawyers, dentists, and educators, but they don’t have any recent students, and all perspectives should be represented. My voice would be both recent and relevant, which is critically important to policies and changes that we’re making from an administrative perspective that will have lasting impacts.

 

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