Off the Desk
Christian conservatives gained more ground on the State Board of Education last week when Gov. George W. Bush appointed Republican Jose Garcia De Lara of San Antonio to replace Democrat Esteban Sosa, who resigned in September for health reasons. GOP boardmembers now have a 9-6 majority. The Ft. Worth Star-Telegram reports that De Lara, a member of the Christian Coalition, supports using public funds to pay for private schools in the form of vouchers and sends his only child to Catholic school. - R.A.
The new US290/Loop 1 Task Force hit the ground running at its first meeting
last Friday, with some members questioning the environmental controls
instituted to protect the Edwards Aquifer and Barton Springs from highway
runoff. Seventeen area politicians, environmentalists, business, and civic
leaders make up the task force, which is co-chaired by two State
Representatives, Republican Susan Combs, and Democrat Sherri Greenberg. Austin
Transportation Study (ATS) chair, Senator Gonzalo Barrientos, appointed the
group in response to an outcry from the environmental community over continued
funding of the US290 freeway. Environmentalists say that the highway
construction is causing loads of silt to run into Barton Creek and Barton
Springs, resulting in water degradation and endangering the Barton Springs
salamander. To soothe those concerns, ATS representatives created the 290 task
force to evaluate the effectiveness of the environmental controls, such as
detention ponds, instituted by the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT)
on south MoPac and US290.
Control the Controls
At the task force's initial meeting on Friday, the issue of environmental controls leapt quickly to the forefront. TxDOT geologist Gary Lantrip said that the state has no standards for measuring and regulating the quality of stormwater runoff going into the aquifer. Current rules merely prescribe the water protection structures to be built, without providing performance standards regarding water quality. Richard Hamner, aide to Senator Barrientos, suggested that the question of performance standards be raised before the Texas Natural Resources Conservation Commission (TNRCC) when it meets December 12 for its annual review of aquifer regulations. Rep. Greenberg said that when the ATS meets on December 11, it will consider sending a task force representative to the TNRCC meeting.
Another big issue arose when environmentalist and task force member Tim Jones said that the group should consider not only direct highway pollution of the aquifer, but also the secondary impacts brought on by the development for which the freeway paves the way. Greenberg argued that consideration of secondary impacts was beyond the charge of the task force, but Bee Cave representative Rick Wheeler agreed with Jones. "If we don't look outside the [US290] corridor, we're only looking at a small segment of what needs to be taken care of," he said, adding that the ultimate problems from US290 construction could come from "the proliferation of thousands of private water quality ponds, where they put maintenance at the bottom of their priorities."
Greenberg suggests that those wanting to get more involved attend the meeting of the task force's Technical Advisory Committee on December 15, at 9am in the Municipal Annex, 301 W. Second. The next meeting of the task force is tentatively scheduled for January 5, at 1:30pm in Room 036, Wing E2, of the new State Capitol Extension Building. Public hearings will be scheduled in the future as well. Call the ATS at 499-2275 for more info. - N.E.
The quandary of how best to get Austin's homeless off the streets will be in
the spotlight at today's council meeting. For members of downtown business
organizations like the Downtown Austin Alliance, a solution to the crisis
depends on Mayor Bruce Todd's proposed "encampment" ordinance. The ordinance,
which will make camping in public a Class C misdemeanor, has the votes to pass
into law on third and final reading today. On the first two readings by
councilmembers over the course of five months, Eric Mitchell has abstained and
Brigid Shea and Jackie Goodman have voted nay.
Jail the Homeless?
Those councilmembers, along with supporters of the homeless, say the solution must also include a homeless shelter as an alternative to getting a ticket. The Homeless Resolution Task Force, a committee formed by the city council to pursue such a facility, has recommended a $3.5 million shelter. It would cost about $1.5 million a year to operate, would probably be located on publicly owned land in a still-undetermined location, and would include a job-training program, health care, and an education center, among other services. The council has commended the idea, but resistance, especially from the mayor, has arisen over the proposed cost. Richard Troxell, president of House the Homeless and a task force member, says public dollars would represent only a small portion of the expense. "We believe if the city embraces the idea and endorses it with a resolution, we could go to corporations within the city and we believe we could, having identified philanthropic dollars, have a premier facility," he says.
The courts seem to be on Troxell's side. A Dallas law similar to the mayor's encampment ordinance was branded unconstitutional by a federal court last year. Like Austin, which has only 417 shelter beds for an estimated 6,000 homeless, Dallas simply didn't have enough beds for everyone. So the court ruled that the homeless shouldn't be punished for sleeping in public when there is no immediate alternative. House the Homeless has consistently threatened to sue if the encampment ordinance passes. - A.M.
Is it literally possible to be too smart for your own good? That's the claim
of the majority of respondents in a study released last month by Public Agenda,
a policy research group based in Washington, D.C. Most participants in the
study, entitled "Assignment Incomplete: The Unfinished Business of Education
Reform," found that fostering curiosity and a love of learning in young
children is good - 61% of parents with school-age children and 57% of the general public said so.
But after some unspecified period, if children don't like a subject or don't
see the real-world application of their schooling, they shouldn't be pushed
into advanced academic studies. Many perceived that studying literature,
especially, makes a person dull, elitist, impractical, or, most importantly,
hard to deal with in the work place.
Wise Guys Finish Last
"I wouldn't sic Shakespeare on anybody," one man is quoted as saying.
"There are a lot of people with no education who are billionaires," said another.
Some 71% of respondents said they agreed that "book smart" people "lack the common sense and understanding of regular folks."
They told Public Agenda researchers that "well- roundedness," including good interpersonal skills, is more useful and desirable than being highly educated. One woman said, "`If you just focus on the brain, it becomes too tedious.'"
While this apparent disdain for "useless" education may alarm some people, the president of a local teachers' union reads a different message in Public Agenda's findings. "We are in danger of having a large percentage of the population functionally illiterate," said Louis Malfaro of the Austin Federation of Teachers. "If there is a consensus, it's that students need to learn the basics in school." - R.A.
Although formalities have so far been at a premium, high-profile Austinites
Willie Kocurek and Elizabeth Christian will lead the effort to coalesce
interested volunteers into a bond campaign committee for the Austin Independent
School District (AISD). Former bond advisory committee chair Mel Waxler, who
had repeatedly said he would not spearhead the campaign to pass a proposed $370
million package, had been acting in an ad hoc fashion within the business
community (at the behest of AISD superintendent Jim Fox) to find leaders.
Former school board president Kocurek "seemed like a natural;" a number of
people also put Christian's name in the hopper and she replied yes, Waxler
said. Christian is the spouse of Mayor Bruce Todd, parent of an AISD elementary
school student, and head of her own public relations firm.
Ties That Bond
Christian said the next steps in the bond campaign process are to find volunteers and gratis headquarters space, and to set up a com-mittee structure. The first meeting to recruit vol-unteers will be held December 14 at 5:30pm (location to be announced). Christian intends to have the machine in motion by the time the AISD Board of Trustees votes on a bond package in January. She said she senses that although people are always worried about rising property taxes, interest in passing the bonds is also rising. "A good school district is essential to protecting property values and the tax base," Christian
said. "It's a `property rights' issue, if you will."- R.A.