Off the Desk:
You say all you want for Christmas is a Chronicle "Web Extra" listing the city council's policy goals for the 76th Legislative Session? Well, Merry Christmas to you. See issue 16 --L.T.
When It Rains...
Having just committed an additional $25 million in bond money for construction that will likely mean a property tax increase in the near future, the last thing the Austin Independent School District needs now is a costly legal fight. But civil rights groups say they're preparing to throw the first punch if the AISD Board of Trustees approves in February a new boundary plan that would end busing for integration.
Austin NAACP president Parisrice Robinson says his organization, along with the League of United Latin-American Citizens, the Urban League, and other East Austin activists, will consider actions "up to, and including a lawsuit," to prevent a "slide toward segregation" in Austin schools. Opponents of the board's plan to end busing say that the school district will be confining poorer and minority students to substandard schools east of the interstate. Asked if he envisioned a compromise that might head off a legal showdown, Robinson said there appeared to be little middle ground on the issue. "If there is [a compromise], part of it would have to be advocated by the Board of Trustees," said Robinson, "which, judging from their response after meeting with civil rights groups, they have rejected."
District One board member Loretta Edelen, who represents Northeast Austin, cast the only vote against ending busing, and says she won't be surprised if a lawsuit comes. Saying the district has not yet delivered equitable educational opportunities to East Austin, Edelen urged the board not to create a "ghetto which has the potential to persist for years. ... I would hope that we would give a little more of a listen to what people in the community are saying," she said. "There is no urgency to create such a change. ... Why are we doing this?"
But District Two member Rudy Montoya, who represents Southeast Austin, voted with the rest of the board, saying diversity through busing has failed to eradicate educational inequity.
Meanwhile, over in West Austin there's relief among parents and administrators that remodeling and new construction at Lamar Middle School -- where an entire wing has been sitting vacant for months awaiting long-delayed improvements -- may finally get off the ground. Faulkner Construction submitted an acceptable $7.2 million bid for the project Thursday. Of all the bond construction budget overruns at various school campuses, Lamar's has proven one of the most difficult to resolve; the previous contractor, Spaw Glass, was unable to do the work under budget, and the school's bond oversight committee was reluctant to compromise, forcing the project to undergo a new bidding process. Such fiascos were supposed to be prevented by vigilant oversight from the district's hired project management team, BLGY/Sverdrup, but more on that later. --K.F.
What Would Jesus Do?
Pastor Marvin "Bubba" Acosca served his last meal to the homeless of East Austin the day before Thanksgiving, something he and members of his congregation had done for nearly three years. The next day, Acosca was forced to close his soup kitchen to the many men and women who ate there daily because his building can't meet inspection standards.Since July, Acosca ran Faith Home Outreach located on East 12th and Chicon. Each day from 11:30 to 1:30pm, Acosca and members of his church invited the area homeless in for a free, hot, cafeteria-style meal. Some days, Acosca said, there would be 30 to 60 people at his mission, and on others, upwards of 100.
For more than two years, Acosca served as pastor to a church in North Austin and another on South Congress where he and his congregation ran similar homeless outreach programs, funded through donations.
When Acosca couldn't afford to keep his North Austin location open, he sold the building and bought Faith Home. But because Acosca's current building was built in 1934, its restrooms do not comply with wheelchair accessibility standards under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA). Under the federal ADA requirements, an existing public-service facility is required to remove hindering barriers before continuing operation. City health inspectors are also requiring Acosca to reroute his kitchen plumbing to install grease traps in his sinks and to add new vents in his restrooms. Acosca says he's looked into getting his building up to standards, but just can't afford the construction. He says his main problem is how the city interprets the law -- the city will allow members of his church to use restroom and kitchen facilities all they want, but when he tries to feed the homeless, they demand he make repairs. The city won't even allow him to prepare food and carry it out into the streets, Acosa said. City officials did not return repeated phone calls.
"We have everything we need to do what we're supposed to do, but in order for us to get any of this fixed, it's going to cost us thousands of dollars," said Acosca. "Until then, our hands are tied and we're shut down." He said that after the soup kitchen closed, many still dropped by to be fed. "They were heartbroken. They depend on that meal because they don't have one on a regular basis."
Acosca quoted the gospel according to Matthew as providing the foundation for his mission: "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you invited me in. I was naked and you clothed me."
Acosca feels the city should give him a break considering the help he gives others: "Jesus didn't say, 'According to city ordinances and the health department,'" Acosca said bitterly. "The fact that our hands are tied by a city that's anti-Christ is just saddening." --B.M.
Make Love Not War?
Under a giant Christmas tree and with the lights along Congress Avenue serving as a glittering backdrop, over 100 protesters stood vigil outside the Capitol last week with candles and signs in opposition to the recent U.S. military strikes against Iraq, which they condemned as "illegal, immoral, and ineffective." Among the protesters were members of the University of Texas Student Anti-War Committee, the Islamic Center of Greater Austin, and the Austin Anti-War Committee. Bob Jensen, a UT journalism professor who was arrested last month during a protest of U.S. sanctions against Iraq during former President George Bush's appearance at the Texas Book Festival, said that last week's airstrikes would have little effect on a country already devastated by U.S. policies. "The Clinton administration cannot tell us what bombing Iraq is going to do at this point," Jensen said. "Iraq is a totally devastated nation; it has virtually no weapons to threaten anybody. It's a threat only to U.S. power." Some protesters erected a
15-foot-tall puppet of President Clinton -- with a missile in one hand, a cigar in the other -- and held up signs with messages like "No Bombs for Blow Jobs" to express their disapproval of the president's actions.
Besides beginning only a week before Christmas, the bombing of Iraq began just days before the start of Ramadan, the holiest month of the Muslim year. "It's very astonishing for the Muslim community as well as the whole world to hear this decision by the Clinton administration to resort to a bombing campaign," said Mohammed Abdul Moheeth, chairman of the Islamic Center of Greater Austin. "It's a very strange coincidence, for this year Christmas is coming with the holy month of Ramadan, and I don't think any religion allows anybody to use such despicable actions."
Hearing President Clinton had called an end to the attacks on Sunday, protestors said they were pleased, but they reiterated their call for an end to economic sanctions against Iraq. --E.C.B.
According to the Windham School District in Huntsville, nearly half of the inmates in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Institutional Division read below the 6th grade level. Inside Books is a fledgling Austin organization that wants to help change those dire statistics in Huntsville and in jails and prisons throughout the state by helping inmates gain access to books. Based on the Prison Literature Project in Berkeley and other similar organizations, the project will receive prisoners' book orders and send the book to them free of charge.
The program intends to start small, donating to a local jail, such as Travis County's facility in Del Valle. So far there is no books-for-prisoners program in Texas, but organizers at Berkeley and Seattle-based programs say they receive stacks of book requests from many of Texas' 144,600 prisoners.
Inside Books plans to offer dictionaries, writing and grammar books, books on cultural studies, classics, and popular literature. The organization plans to advertise in magazines geared toward prison populations, such as Prison Legal Newsand Raze the Walls, but they need donations and a sponsoring bookstore. At the group's first meeting two weeks ago at FringeWare, a half-dozen people discussed applying for non-profit status. "There are lots of obstacles and we probably haven't found out what half of them are," said Marci Schneider, co-founder. "I just hope the program and group organizing it don't become obstacles to themselves."
In prison, the possession of a book is considered a privilege, like sending and receiving mail, but naturally, not just any book or publication is allowed in. The prison rejects, for example, anything regarding the manufacturing of explosives, weapons, or drugs and any sexually explicit material that could foster deviate criminal sexual behavior. Both the prisoner and the source that sent the book should be alerted if the book is rejected. Books in foreign languages are sometimes subject to translation, but are permitted -- and greatly needed. To help Inside Books, contact Schneider at firstname.lastname@example.org. --E.G.