Off the Desk
The city's new bicycle and pedestrian coordinator will officially pedal into office Feb. 1. Formerly an industry bicycle advocate for Specialized Bicycle, Linda DuPriest worked on behalf of cyclists for nine years. DuPriest replaces Keith Snodgrass, who resigned in late October. She says her goals are to finally implement the city's bicycle plan as well as develop a citywide pedestrian plan to make Austin more walkable. Hope her résumé contains the words "miracle worker." -- L.T.
Parents say the citywide Parent-Teacher Association's resolution declaring a lack of trust in the AISD Board of Trustees and district administration grew out of common experiences parents from East and West Austin shared during discussions on proposed school boundary changes. The resolution, read to the board Jan. 11, reflected a uniform discontent with school officials' disengagement from chronic problems at campuses across the district. Austin Council of PTAs member Cheryl Bradley says it became apparent to her that parents were frustrated with low student performance, teaching quality, and an inability to be heard by school district personnel at all schools, not just ones in East Austin. O. Henry Middle School parent Debbie Hanna came to the same conclusion, saying that as each PTA member related similar "horror stories" about being "summarily ignored by the board and administration ... we got a gut feeling that there is a callous disregard for direction and basic common sense" among AISD personnel.
Parents say their voice in school policy was virtually quashed by Jim Fox's reign as AISD superintendent, and that Fox's influence transformed AISD into an entity that solicits parents' input as a mere checkoff procedure that ultimately has no effect on the district's decisions. LBJ High School parent May Schmidt says in her 25-year history with AISD she's never seen the council of PTAs express such wholesale dissatisfaction with school district leadership.
"Parents see a discontinuity between officials' reports at meetings and what they see in schools on a day-to-day basis," says Schmidt. "I can't even go buy groceries without somebody telling me about problems at the schools, but apparently members of our staff can."
The resolution, the PTA councilmembers say, is a first step toward defining why communication between parents and staff is breaking down and how it needs to be addressed. A subcommittee formed to study the problem met for the first time Saturday morning. The resolution is also a signal, members say, that the council of PTAs intends to fill a perceived leadership vacuum in the district. "It's almost like a system that's running itself," says Schmidt. "You end up in these circles, frustrated at hearing about difficulties and not being able to get anybody to respond."
Meanwhile, AISD town meetings on school boundary changes continue 7pm tonight (Thursday, Jan. 28) at Bowie High and next week. Call 414-1200 for times and locations or see http://www.austin.isd.tenet.edu. -- K.F.
After about 20 years of talk and three years of stop-start action, the Austin Revitalization Authority finally has won City Council approval for its plans to revitalize the heart of central East Austin.
At its Jan. 14 meeting, the City Council gave the OK to both the ARA's East 11th/12th Street Community Redevelopment Plan (CRP) and its Central East Austin Master Plan (CEAMP). The CRP is an actual urban renewal plan, underwritten (to start) with a $9 million federal loan and expected to cost more than $100 million in private and public funds by 2018, when the ARA will officially go out of business as a redevelopment agency. Enforceable by eminent domain if necessary, the CRP covers only East 11th (between San Marcos and Navasota) and East 12th (between Curve and Poquito), with specific project types specified for every block.
Meanwhile, the CEAMP, which covers all of the neighborhoods that surround 11th and 12th, suggests desired development options but has none of the CRP's legal weight. This is a mighty important distinction, especially since the CRP does not include any property bordering I-35, including the controversial Bennett Properties tract south of 11th. The Bennett tract -- site of the almost-surely-dead East Side Mall proposal -- was the focus of angry words over the ARA, voiced to council by Bennett supporters at the surreal "CSC-night" meeting last month.
This month's ARA fuss came from property owners on 12th Street who seemed genuinely surprised to find out that the CRP called for redevelopment of their property. Outgoing ARA executive director Byron Marshall noted that in one of the many drafts of the plan, one of the many pages -- the one featuring the block in question -- was inadvertently left out. The CRP as finally adopted by council includes amendments, proposed by the city's Urban Renewal Board, allowing property owners who have different, but not necessarily incompatible, plans to secure variances. With the adoption of the CRP, the city can now receive its long-promised HUD money, so expect to start seeing demolitions and land purchases along East 11th, and maybe East 12th, in the near term. Expect, also, more interesting scenes as the several-dozen-member ARA board gets down to the business of making its plan happen. -- M.C.M.
Can You Spare a Dime?
With picket signs draped around their necks and stacks of flyers in their hands, about 30 homeless men and women walked the Sixth Street corridor Saturday calling for fair minimum wages in order to get off the streets. Led by homeless crusader Richard Troxell, director of House the Homeless, the parade weaved in and out of businesses and along the sidewalks sending the message: If city merchants don't like panhandling, pay a higher minimum wage so people can better afford housing. Troxell, who also helped start the Austin Living Wage Coalition along with 15 local organizations, says the current minimum wage of $5.15 an hour isn't nearly enough for anyone to afford a one-bedroom apartment in a city with skyrocketing rents. According to the ALWC, minimum wage should be raised to $8.93 an hour to meet the current housing index. Downtown businesses were targeted Saturday because efforts by the Downtown Austin Alliance and the Austin Police Department to eliminate panhandling and public nuisance in the downtown area.
"Panhandling is not a crime, it's a social condition, and so is sleeping on the streets," said Troxell to a sidewalk audience. "You want to stop panhandling, camping in public, you pay a fair living wage."
In 1997, House the Homeless conducted a survey indicating 92% of the city's homeless worked at some point during the week, mostly day labor or other subcontracting work. Several homeless men and women at the demonstration said they frequently work but still can't afford a place to live. The problem isn't just the rent, they said, but coming up with a security deposit, first and last month's rent, and having to pass credit checks. They said they're usually stuck trying to rent rooms in residence hotels that can run as much as $300-$400 a week.
"In order for someone to have their own place in this city, you need at least $1,000 to $2,000," said Barry, who asked that his last name be withheld. "Therefore these people should pay fair."
The march ended just at nightfall outside the Old Pecan Street Cafe at 310 E. Sixth St., owned by Bob Woody, president of the East Sixth Street Community Association. Woody, who owns several businesses on Sixth Street including Shakespeare's and the Ritz Lounge, said everyone who works for him makes more than minimum wage and he's even employed people from the Salvation Army on East Eighth. But the reason Troxell targets him has nothing to do with fair wages: Woody has been vocal in his opposition to Mayor Kirk Watson's recent initiative to convert the Salvation Army building to a men's shelter, which he fears will increase the crime in the downtown area. "He went against me to further the mayor's position," said Woody. -- B.M.
Only 30% of the low-income women in need of subsidized family planning receive the health care they need, according to the Texas Family Planning Association. Planned Parenthood's Margot Clarke, a guest at a recent League of Women Voters of the Austin Area forum on indigent health care, blamed the low numbers on legislators' narrow-minded take on health care: "It seems obvious to us how family planning fits in with women and children's health," said Clarke, "but it eludes a lot of our lawmakers. In my most cynical moments," she continued, "I think it's about sex, and that legislators don't think women should be having sex, especially poor women."
Clarke and fellow panelist, health advocate Rose Lancaster, each raised concerns about plans for Travis County to turn its clinics over to Seton Healthcare. Catholic-run Seton is prohibited by the church from counseling women about abortions or the use of contraceptives. Clarke said despite Seton Healthcare's reputation as "an excellent health care provider," she was not optimistic that women would be provided with complete health care in Seton-managed county clinics. Lancaster said beyond the implications for reproductive services, the Seton takeover could limit overall accessibility to health care. Seton proposes to close all but one of the county's existing clinics and would fragment the current system which integrates medical services with the provision of other social services. "It's a public responsibility to provide health care to the indigent," Lancaster said, "and it should remain public." -- E.G.