Off the Desk

First there was sludge, now nuclear waste -- what`s next for Sierra Blanca? West Texas is the country's newest dumping ground, particularly among the Davis mountains. The first of three public hearings will be held August 6 in Sierra Blanca as state officials hear comments on the proposed national radioactive waste dump in the desert area. The Sierra Blanca Legal Defense Fund is arranging a caravan from Austin to Sierra Blanca for the hearing, leaving Monday, August 5, and returning August 7. For info on the hearing and lodgings, call 474-2117. -- L.C.B.

It was just like any other sweltering Texas summer wedding at the Governor's Mansion... except that the mansion gates were locked, the JP presided through a bullhorn, and the bride and groom were both women. Yup, just another sweltering Texas summer wedding, or political action, as it were. The Lesbian Avengers, along with 35 friends, well-wishers, and onlookers, celebrated the mock marriage of Avengers Nan DeRosa and Leslie Bodie last Friday, July 26 in protest of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, and of the implications of the Yea vote lobbed by our local Congressman, Lloyd Doggett. The bill, which passed the House by an overwhelming margin, defines marriage as a "legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife," and is certain to be signed by President Clinton after it sails through the Senate floor like a shotgun groom. Doggett's office defends his vote, stating that "marriage is the wrong battle in the war against discrimination. A gay or lesbian couple should not require the approval of `marriage' in order to obtain rights such as a partner's access to health benefits."

After the wedding, DeRosa commented that even though she doesn't believe in the institution of marriage, "it felt pretty good standing up for what I believe. I sure as hell want the option to choose." CBS affiliate K-EYE covered the entire ceremony, while the Fox affiliate abruptly shut down operations, as if on cue, as the JP invited the brides to seal their commitment with a kiss. -- K.M.

Rolling Out the Dough

This time it's not the lack of money being discussed, but how to spend it. At a conference on the South Texas colonias last week at the University of Texas, the Attorney General's Office and the LBJ School of Public Affairs brought academics, government officials, and South Texas border residents together to figure out what to do with $250 million in state funds already alloted for installing water and wastewater and other basic amenities in the substandard colonias communities on the U.S./Mexico border. Most of the hundreds of thousands of residents in the colonias subsist without running water, electricity, roads, schools, or health care facilities.

Another $318 million in state funds is proposed for the planning and construction of new facilities in the colonias areas. The feds are getting involved as well: Congress appropriated $170 million to the EPA for water and wastewater services in the Texas and New Mexico colonias; the Department of Housing and Urban Development is spending $8.7 million for colonias housing this year; and more funding is expected from the federal Rural Development Agency.

The main problem so far has been getting what funds are available out to where they are needed. Special Assistant Attorney General Dan Torrez says that a coordinating body would be able "to get funders together to better direct resources" and to consult for agencies, organizations, and institutions on how to spend available funds. Even with the current funding, Torrez warns, 20% of colonias residents will be left out. Another function of the coordinating body, therefore, would be to see to it that public agencies create partnerships with private foundations to fill the gaps.

These and other suggestions from a report circulated by the AG's office will be distributed to state legislators and heads of relevant state agencies, says Torrez. And in keeping with Attorney General Dan Morales' anti-government bent, Torrez adds that it has yet to be decided whether or not the AG will push for a state-appointed group over an "informal" one made up of volunteers.

Since Morales has recently proclaimed himself Colonias Czar, what has become of his much-ballyhooed legal campaign against colonias developers? Torrez says that "a fair number [of lawsuits] have been successful and helped stop the proliferation of colonias." AG Inter-Governmental Relations Official Pat Guillermo says that there are many investigations underway into the activities of colonias developers, and currently around 40 active lawsuits, mainly for health violations or deceptive trade practices. Juan Idrogo, president of Gloria Development Corporation, a group dedicated to helping colonias inhabitants build solid homes, says he feels that the "benefit with the Attorney General... is in raising awareness and removing [bad] developers from our ranks." Guillermo adds that since the passage of HB 1001, a bill sponsored by Sen. Judith Zaffarini and Rep. Henry Cuellar which is designed to stop development of new colonias lacking proper water and wastewater services, the AG has only found two developers in non-compliance with the new law. -- C.C.

Got the Shake-Ups

The Austin Independent School District (AISD) has rotated, reassigned, or retired almost

one-third of its principals since the January 1995 arrival of Superintendent Jim Fox. In the past 19 months, 30 out of 96 principals' positions have opened up for interviews, including all but two of the district's senior high schools.

To date, the leaders of the following elementary schools have been in their positions about one year or have been newly hired: Barrington, Blanton, Galindo, Graham, Harris, Kocurek, Pease, Pleasant Hil, and Sims. Middle schools include: Bedichek, Lamar, Murchison, and O. Henry. High schools include: Anderson, Johnston, LBJ, and McCallum.

Positions still not filled: Houston, Kiker, Maplewood, Ortega, Pecan Springs, and Zilker Elementaries; Dobie and Martin Middle Schools; and Austin, Crockett, Reagan, and Travis High Schools. Several of these openings were created when standing principals transferred to open positions at other campuses. Another slot opened up last week when the principal of Gullett Elementary accepted a position in Round Rock; Webb Middle School may also be in the market for a new leader if the board approves the Webb principal's move over to Austin High.

What gives here? On the positive side, Fox's reputed commitment to change could be interpreted as cutting out the deadwood, and moving successful principals along to campuses that are struggling. AISD spokesperson Della May Moore attributes the recent principal turnover to an unprecedented number of individuals who were simply eligible to retire, but also to Fox's "willingness to entertain movement," and allow people to grow professionally. "You don't have to leave the district to get some experience now," says Moore.

On the other hand, complaints have been levelled at Fox for dismissing community input in this reassignment blitz. Every campus has an advisory committee comprised of parents, teachers, and administrators who interview candidates and submit their recommendations to the superintendent. But at least one parent on the advisory committee at Maplewood Elementary, for example, says she has found the whole exercise "frustrating." Theresa Perry says that her committee submitted two candidates to Fox (one of whom was urged to interview for the job by over 60 Maplewood parents), but the superintendent turned them both down. The committee reconvened and submitted another three candidates; Maplewood and the dozen other schools without principals will not know who their next leaders will be until the next school board meeting on August 5, eight days before school begins on Tuesday, August 13.

Moore calls the parents' participation "vital," but adds that "the final decision does rest with Dr. Fox and the administrative team." She thinks that Maplewood's situation is not typical, and that Fox has been adopting campus-level recommendations "95% of the time."

Perry agrees that moving principals around is probably good, but disagrees with the way hiring a new one was handled at her school. "Why are we interviewing people he (Fox) doesn't think are appropriate?" she asked, adding that some parents had difficulty arranging time -- twice -- on short notice to participate in the interviews. "Then it just becomes this game of, `Okay, did we pick the right one?'" -- R.A.

Raining Prayers on Heaven

The denominations were different, but the prayers were the same: Send rain, soon.

On July 24, half a dozen ministers from Blanco's churches gathered on a Wednesday night in the shade of the courthouse to lead about 250 local residents in prayers for precipitation. The town of 1,400 has just seven weeks' worth of municipal water remaining behind a series of small dams on the Blanco River, and weather forecasts show little promise of rain. So the town's Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran, Assembly of God, Russian Orthodox, and Methodist leaders decided to join their spiritual forces in prayer.

As half a dozen TV cameras rolled, Rusty Hicks, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Blanco began to pray. "Lord, we need it to rain," he said, as the crowd, withering in temperatures that remained above 90 degrees even at seven in the evening, bowed their heads. "Livestock is being lost. Crops are being lost. This city won't make it without the water. God, you are the only one who can restore that reservoir."

In a normal year, Blanco receives about three feet of rain. So far this year, the town has received just 10 inches, and daily high temperatures have been near 100 degrees since early June. This week, the town plans to drill a well. However, numerous wells in the region have already gone dry, and Blanco mayor Ryan Trimble admits that, "I don't know if we will hit anything." If the well doesn't produce and the drought continues, Blanco could be forced to truck in water, which Trimble says could cost the town $2,000 per day.

For months, church and city leaders throughout Texas have implored their congregations to pray for rain. In March, Bishop Michael Pfeifer of San Angelo, 200 miles northwest of Blanco, sent a letter to all 74 churches in his diocese asking them to pray for rain. The bishop also convinced the city's mayor to declare a day of prayer for rain. Not that it did much good; according to records from the National Weather Service, the city received six inches of rain over the following three months.

"Weathermen deal with facts," said Bishop Pfeifer. "We believers deal with faith. I believe that we take God at his word. If we ask, God will take care of us and hear us."

In the Panhandle town of Dalhart, citizens have been meeting in local churches to pray for rain since last fall. Pam Newsom of the First Baptist Church believes it is working. "I haven't watered my yard for two weeks," she said. Figures from the National Weather Service show the town has received nearly seven inches of rain this month alone. For Newsom, the rain showers prove the power of prayer. "The Lord knows we need rain," she said. "But he also knows that we are to ask for what we need."

But the rain showers keep missing Blanco. So Gene Benningfield, the pastor of the Assembly of God Church, told the crowd at the courthouse that it was time to "bombard heaven with our prayers." Benningfield told the crowd that he didn't just want it to rain, he wanted four inches of rain. "And if He doesn't send it today," he said, "I'm going to keep praying until He does." After Benningfield and the other ministers finished their prayers, the crowd held hands and sang "Amazing Grace." They then recited The Our Father and, with a last, loud "Hallelujah," they went home.

Some local residents thought the prayer meeting a waste of words. "I don't think that's going to help," said Gary Corradini, who like many other livestock owners in the region has been forced to begin hauling water from other sources for his calves and horses. Corradini said his water well is "getting weak" and no longer produces enough water for his livestock. "It's Texas. It's July. It's supposed to be dry," he said.

But while Corradini had no interest in offering prayers to end the drought, he showed a different kind of faith. "It'll turn around," he said. "It always does." -- R.B.

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