Off the Desk:

Black churches have burned throughout the South; redistricting to give blacks a voting majority was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court; and now affirmative action was dealt a devastating blow at the University of Texas last Tuesday when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a reverse discrimination case against UT's School of Law. That means the Fifth Circuit Court's ruling barring the school from considering race in accepting students still stands. Only universities under the Fifth Circuit's jurisdiction -- Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas -- are affected, so the rest of the country can still use race as a factor in admissions. The law could hurt UT's already sparse minority enrollment, its faculty recruitment, and its efforts to obtain grants... Speaking of court decisions, at least the Texas Supreme Court came up with a good one. Property-rights advocates were told last Friday that they would have to yield to the benefit of all with regards to water rights, when the state Supreme Court unanimously upheld the Edwards Aquifer Authority's right to regulate the amount of water that can be pumped from the southern portion of the aquifer. The case had been brought against the Authority, the State of Texas, and the City of San Antonio by farmers and ranchers who irrigate their crops with water from the aquifer. The decision means that landowners will now have to seek permits from the Authority to withdraw water from the aquifer in all or parts of Hays, Caldwell, Bexar, Comal, Guadalupe, Medina, Uvalde, and Atascosa Counties... Texans got tons of attention -- most of it unflattering -- in Washingtonian magazine's annual ranking of the best and worst in Congress. About 300 congressional staff members voted on the categories which ranged from "best dressed" to "brainiest." Texas Republican Senator Phil Gramm was voted the biggest Senate "showhorse," and ranked third in the "meanest" and "biggest windbag" categories. Fellow Texan and Republican Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison came in second behind California Representative Sonny Bono in the "no rocket scientist" category, and managed to win first place as "best dressed" in the Senate, earning her a photo on the magazine's cover... -- A.D.

Talk about synchronicity. TheChronicle recently told the story of one family's fruitless struggle to obtain mental health services for their nine-year-old daughter through their medical plan ("Warning: Managed Care May Be Hazardous," June 21, 1996, Vol. 15, No. 42). A seven-year-old community partnership, dedicated to aiding families in the same type of crisis, is shedding its old skin and repositioning itself as a "new" resource. The Children's Mental Health Partnership, a coalition of over 44 different public-education, law-enforcement, and mental-health entities in the Austin/Travis County area, helps coordinate some of the most-needed services of all -- monthly conferences with parents, counselors, and other involved parties to help end the delays in service that hamper a child's recovery. Need help, or know a family who does? Call 445-7780. -- R.A.

Red-Baiting Rednecks

You could almost hear the collective panties of Austin's business establishment wadding all over town last week when news got around that KVET's morning deejays Sammy Allred and Bob Cole had launched a red-baiting attack on the much-wooed and oft-praised Samsung Corporation. During their June 25 talk show, Sammy and Bob expressed fear that Samsung, which will open its first U.S. chip-making plant in Austin, will bring dreaded socialism to our fair city. "These people aren't used to living in a democracy. They ain't Christians," quipped Allred. The duo also managed to slip in a Korean War reference and made fun of the popularity in Korea of the name Lee. Rather than ignore the shocks the jocks were trying to cause, pillars of the business community spent the next few days phoning each other to spread the word that it was time to send fawning apology faxes to Sung Lee, president of Samsung Semiconductor. If Sung Lee didn't catch the show before, he has now.

Cole says his words, to some extent, have been misconstrued. "I was talking about how the cradle-to-the-grave protectionist philosophy that Samsung uses as an employer meshes very well with the `It takes a village to raise a child' philosophy [recently espoused in a book by First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton]." Cole, who has arranged to meet with Sung Lee to "understand each other," regrets that the Statesman did a front-page article on a show that he says received little attention from rank-and-file listeners. Cole explains, "This article will be photocopied and put in the hands of every company that considers coming to Austin by competitors who will say, "Do you want to go to a town with rednecks like this?'"

Statesman editor Rich Oppel says he is a Sammy and Bob fan, and happened to catch the show about Samsung. "I thought that might stir a few leaves around town," Oppel says. "Indeed, we discovered that calls had been made to Samsung... I thought it was a story and we published it." -- A.D.

Convoy in East Austin

The alarm in Hispanic East Austin continues. Numerous neighborhood leaders attended last Thursday's Austin city council meeting to denounce a proposal by Capital Metro and Longhorn Railway Company that would have sent 180 18-wheelers a week through Eastside neighborhoods. Since the city is the owner of the railway, the city council is a major target for the neighborhoods' anger.

"We're concerned about safety," said a tearful Lettie McGarrahan, president of the Guadalupe Association of Independent Neighborhoods (GAIN). "Our children are just as important as anyone else's children."

The original plan, which Capital Metro nearly authorized on June 24, would have allowed Longhorn Railway to transport aggregate to Capital Metro's Downtown Properties at East Fourth and Waller. From there, the aggregate would be loaded onto trucks that cut through neighborhood streets, and routed down East Seventh Street, bound for Capital Aggregate's concrete production facility.

But after the public outcry began, Longhorn and Capital Metro began discussing other sites two weeks ago, and Councilmember Gus Garcia passed a resolution last Thursday directing the city manager to include affected neighborhoods in discussions to move the site farther east, preferably past Ed Bluestein. Still, that means little to the residents, who say one of the sites under discussion is at East Seventh and Pleasant Valley, just a mile from the original location. While Longhorn Railway seems open to finding a site that doesn't affect neighborhoods, the final resolution is still up in the air, and so is Eastside security. -- A.M.

Money Matters

It doesn't matter if you care about building a "world class" public education system in this community or not. No matter how it turns out, you're going to pay -- and pay some more -- for it. The AISD Board of Trustees on June 24 passed the largest budget in the school system's history -- $411. 5 million for maintenance, operation, and debt service. What will the district do with it all? Accommodate almost 2,000 new students, compensate its teachers a bit better, and launch a number of new initiatives in the curriculum, including putting technology into the classrooms. AISD officials boast that they've made a good head start on raising student achievement and quelling the dropout rate; the subtle subtext behind that spirited claim is that these recent gains well justify the increased spending AISD plans to do.

For many political conservatives, however, school spending is just like sand down a rat hole; they say costs for U.S. public education have skyrocketed while test scores and graduation rates have dipped. The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative Washington, D.C., think tank, recently published a public school "report card" for all 50 states, proclaiming, "there is no statistical correlation between spending and student achievement." Over the last 25 years, inflation-adjusted, per-pupil spending has increased 82%, ALEC complains, and education's costs have run amok of the Consumer Price Index. None of the states that spend the most per pupil -- for example, Alaska, New Jersey, and New York -- are the country's top-achieving states, the group reports.

But assertions such as these are nothing new in the debate about public education's efficacy, and public school apologists say the allegations are complete canards. A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute (also in Washington, D.C.), funded in part by the Metropolitan Life Foundation, found that education spending has indeed risen -- by 61%. But the money goes to a very different kind of public school than it did 25 years ago. Special education accounts for the majority of the additional spending; programs such as dropout prevention, alternative instruction, and bilingual education swallow up the rest.

What's more, the report states, the Consumer Price Index is a very poor yardstick with which to measure the "output" of schools. And unlike in the rest of American "business," cutting back on labor costs, the biggest expenditure in education, does not generally yield more student "productivity." They also point out that at least some of the ebbs and flows in standardized test scores are the result of some significant changes in the makeup of the student population. -- R.A.

Pedaling Politics

In a little over a month, Austin police will start issuing tickets to bicyclists caught pedaling in town without helmets. However, some bicycle enthusiasts, calling themselves the Citizens for Cycling Freedom (CFCF), are not giving up without a fight. The CFCF is determined to repeal the helmet ordinance passed May 6 by the Austin City Council.

If the councilmembers stick to their original votes, a repeal won't happen -- even with two new councilmembers. The ordinance, sponsored by Mayor Bruce Todd, passed unanimously. (Former Councilmember Max Nofziger, who was against it, was not at the meeting.) Despite the odds, CFCF members, led by founder and UT student Becky Schleinkofer, are lobbying to change some Councilmembers' minds. Schleinkofer says she already has the support of Councilmember Eric Mitchell for a repeal, but she adds that he would not sponsor a motion to overturn the ordinance. The CFCF has set their sights on new Councilmembers Daryl Slusher and Beverly Griffith; however, Slusher's aide says that the councilmember has not taken a position one way or the other. And Griffith's aide says the councilmember supports the helmet law. If CFCF can't gather the council support, they say, they'll try another route -- to force a referendum to repeal the law by collecting the signatures of 40,000 registered voters over a span of six months.

The CFCF and others appear to be turning up the heat. Susan Sheffield, Councilmember Jackie Goodman's executive secretary, says the flow of calls opposing the new law has been steady for more than a month.

Between 50 and 70 CFCF members regularly attend council meetings, where they make these arguments against the helmet law:

* It eliminates cyclists' liberty to choose whether to wear helmets. That could reduce the number of cyclists -- and increase the number of exhaust-spewing cars on the road.

* More needs to be done to create a safe environment for bikers than simply requiring helmets. The group wants to see new bike lanes and other improvements around Austin.

* So many people will violate the law that police can't possibly ticket them all. So they'll ticket selectively, and unfairly. "That's going to create a cops-and-robbers game," Schleinkofer says. "It's not an enforceable thing."

Mayor Todd brought the helmet proposal to the council table in May, but his aide Trey Salinas says he was responding to calls for a helmet law from the public. And the opposition, he says, sounds a lot like early opposition to seat belt and motorcycle helmet laws. "Basically, it was the right thing to do, period." This law is important, Salinas added, because when uninsured riders are injured, taxpayers have to pick up the hospital bills.

A citation will cost the unhelmeted $50 for their first offense and more for additional offenses. Until August 15, police are only writing warnings. -- G.M.


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