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On Segregation, it’s the County Council and County Executive’s Turn to Act


On Segregation, it’s the County Council and County Executive’s Turn to Act

Hiruy Hadgu

Approximately one week before the Howard County Superintendent would present his much-anticipated redistricting proposal to the Board of Education and the general public, three members of the Howard County Council jointly announced via a press-release their intent to file a resolution, ostensibly spear-headed by Councilpersons Mercer-Rigby and Jones calling for the school system and the Superintendent “to develop a county-wide integration plan to desegregate its schools”.

The press-release opened with “… school district boundaries in Howard County are drawn (emphasis added) in a manner that concentrate students participating in the Free and Reduced Meals program (FARMs) into certain elementary, middle, and high schools.”

Now, a bystander would read the press-release and think “of course we should do everything possible to desegregate schools. Enough already!”

That is because segregated schools are as American as apple pie and it doesn’t require special skills to know the role school segregation played in our history. While some would incorrectly say segregation ended a long time ago, we continue to see the existence of “two” distinct communities and while the distinction primarily breaks down by color, the wealth gap is starting to transcend the race factor, although data shows that poor blacks are still statistically much poorer than poor whites.

It is in this context the Council decided to drop this “political bomb” one week before the Superintendent’s presentation. It immediately set off a flurry of reactions on its timing and content.

Timing of the Press-Release and Resolution

To the extent such a resolution would have any impact, it would do so at two distinct times: the beginning of the preparation of the Superintendent’s proposal (much earlier than a week before its release) and after the release of the proposal. Only if the expectation was the plan would fall short would the timing make sense. Perhaps, this is what the sponsors counted on.

Maybe they didn’t expect a plan with such an ambitious scope. Maybe they expected a plan that would perhaps move a few hundred students, which would then make their “urgent call” prescient and afford them the politically desirable position of pushing for positive change.

In the event of a sub-par proposal, their resolution would be viewed as putting political pressure on the Superintendent. Then, a few supporters would testify to support the meaningless resolution, the sponsors would pat themselves on the backs for “doing the right thing”, and move on.

But, it appears there was a gross miscalculation.

The August 13 press release could not have been more awkward. Emails showed that many members of the Board of Education as well as the Superintendent were not aware of the press-release. They were blind-sided.

The timing made it even more bizarre. The size and scope of the move their resolution called for would require months of effort so it was not clear how such a resolution would change anything one week before the public announcement of the plan, unless the general expectation was the plan would fall woefully short.

Since the resolution would not have any impact one week before the plan’s announcement, what was its goal?

One possible motive is retaliation. Late last year, just a few weeks after the County Executive and County Council were elected, the Superintendent submitted a $998.4 million budget request – 15.8% more than the previous year’s spending plan. The ensuing back and forth between the County Executive and Council-members Mercer-Rigby and Jones, and the Superintendent can only be characterized as acrimonious.

Broadly speaking the Superintendent’s plan is bold, ambitious, and credible. Many legitimate concerns have been raised and there is no doubt the School Board is up to the task in addressing them on a micro-targeted level after the numerous public hearings.

Content of the Resolution

Moving on to the content of the press-release and the actual resolution itself. The resolution itself has 13 Where As clauses. Combined with the press-release they paint a picture of a school system segregated largely due to racist school boundaries due to the legacy of separate-but-equal and other racist laws.

The contribution of zoning and land-use decisions do not get discussed in the resolution until the 10th Where As clause. Even then, they discuss vaguely the impact of “development patterns” and lack of “diversity of housing types”, which look haphazardly added after the sponsors faced massive backlash for ignoring the impact of development on segregation from their press-release.

They end their reference to development with: “the County is building upon policies to expand housing affordability, diversifying housing types and their distribution throughout the county”, which is a gross-misstatement, because the County is not doing that.

Contrary to the resolution’s assertions here is the reality in Howard County. Corporations such as Howard Hughes Corporation have received an endless list of favorable zoning provisions through developer rights and responsibilities agreements (DRRAs) with very little discernible responsibilities, but numerous rights worth 100s of millions of dollars. They received density bonuses and tax increment financing in exchange for the provision of affordable housing, with not a single affordable housing to come on-line to date.

It gets worse. Zoning regulations and agreements reached with developers have resulted in net lower number of affordable housing through alternative compliance to reduce the percentage of affordable homes, by charging so-called fees-in-lieu that have no market-basis, or by simply exempting large regions of the county from requiring any affordable housing-  New Town, Turf Valley, Maple Lawn, Village Centers, Downtown Columbia, River Hill, either have received exemptions or do not require any affordable housing.

Political Wedge-Issues and The Howard County Democratic Party Establishment

Politicians and political parties have a long history of using politically charged issues to their advantage to score political points. When it comes to establishment politics, the Howard County Democratic Party is one of the most entrenched. Its leaders who occupy influential offices in the County and the State are skilled in this art. Use a politically charged issue to make the opponent look bad, use wedge issues to create divisions, and reap the benefits of this division.

This is the explanation for the resolution’s odd timing and hollow content. It was less about the need to address segregation and more about creating a politically difficult environment for the Superintendent. This is why the resolution addressed zoning and land-use in the most cursory way rather than address it head-on.

The entrenched interests of the party rely on two groups of people to get elected. One group does not pay attention to the issues daily. This group knows the Democratic party brand through these kinds of cynical signals and agrees with the so-called values the party espouses.

Another group is responsible for delivering the actual votes. It gives the entrenched interests political cover, helps raise funds, creates a network of supporters and helps maintain power, while defending these ridiculous missteps. This group also plays a huge role in diverting away from the actual county issues.

Luckily, the County Council is not lost. Two Democrat members of the council (Deb Jung and Liz Walsh) have shown a track record of voting to improve the budget, school quality, accountability, and affordable housing.

The other two Democrats have voted with the County Executive to adversely the budget, school quality, accountability, and affordable housing. It so happens that they have the strongest ties to the party establishment and are susceptible to its influence.

But, it is not too late for them. Their tenure started a mere nine months ago so they can turn in around. They can change their narrative starting today by taking action to deal with the county issues that have actually led to the segregation they lament.

It’s the County Council and County Executive’s Turn to Act

Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance:

While the County dealt with the issue of school capacity in 2018, it continues to be undermined by talking points from flawed “studies” funded by the County administration and the Economic Development Authority. This needs to stop.

Also, the county council can address other public facility issues.

For example, we need a hospital capacity test. In a 2017 citizen’s budget hearing held by the then County Executive, the hospital requested $5 million for capital projects and $3 million annually to assist in operations. It is inconsistent that the hospital is willing to accept public money without being subject to public policy.

We also need to strengthen the existing road capacity standards to reduce congestion. Concerns have been raised about the conflict-of-interest between the private entities that perform the test and developers. Such conflicts should be eliminated.

The adequacy of public facilities such as storm water management systems and EMT should be tested with new development. Furthermore, we need to ensure the ability of our law enforcement to continue the practice of community policing, which becomes difficult with strained capacity.

These issues are directly tied to the health of the budget, which affects the county’s ability to deliver education in an equitable way.

Affordable Housing:

Require a minimum of 10 to 15% affordable housing in all zoning districts of the county. New Town, Turf Valley, Maple Lawn, Village Centers, Downtown Columbia, River Hill, either have received exemptions or do not require any affordable housing.

Once the threshold is established, survey the county's existing affordable housing inventory and the locations. In parts of the county where the threshold is met, require the developer to pay a fee that is market based.

Where possible revise existing agreements. If the Downtown Columbia DRRA can be renegotiated, we need to go back to the drawing table. I have already stated my concerns regarding the $90 million TIF the county has given to HHC. These questionable practices should be audited to protect the county's welfare.

Inclusionary zoning practices rather than practices that concentrate poverty in specific areas of the county should be the goal. If we continue in the current path, we will increase the segregation by income and race, which is already apparent. All we have to do is look at the free and reduced meal (FARM) percentages in certain schools.

Individual Pieces of Legislation:

Pass CB17-2019: to alter the number of consecutive years a project or phase of a project must be retested each time the County Council adopts new annual housing unit allocations and school capacity charts under the school capacity test of the Adequate Public Facilities Act.

Pass CB42-2019: to alter the school facilities surcharge fee. Ideally amend the legislation to increase the fee to $8.0 per square foot. Pass the legislation with no exemptions, loopholes or grandfathering of projects.