Naked City

Off the Desk:

Last week Rep.Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, joined fellow Austinite and longtime friend Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul, and Mary fame on the steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., for a congressional sing-along in support of federal arts funding. Doggett gave a heartfelt rendition of "This Land Is Your Land," but said his level of support for the arts shouldn't be judged by his singing voice:"When we sang 'If I Had a Hammer,' I could have sworn Peter added: 'I'd use it to keep Doggett quiet.'"--L.T.

Troubled Waters

David Waters, the former office manager at American Atheist General Headquarters, was arrested Wednesday, March 24, on federal weapons charges. Waters, a convicted felon, has been a leading figure in the mysterious disappearance of famed atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair, Jon Garth Murray, and Robin Murray-O'Hair, all of whom vanished without a trace in 1995. On Wednesday morning, officials from the FBI, Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, IRS, Austin Police, and Dallas County Sheriff's Office served a search warrant on Waters' apartment at 6008 N. Lamar. Assistant U.S. Attorney Gerald Caruth told the Chronicle the weapons charges are based on ammunition seized at Waters' apartment. "As a convicted felon, Mr. Waters is prohibited from possessing any firearms or ammunition." Caruth added that the weapons charge carries a
10-year sentence. Waters' attorney, Patrick Ganne, was unsure how much longer he would be representing Waters, saying, "I can't afford to represent him for nothing." Waters is behind in his restitution payments to the American Atheists. In 1995, he pled guilty to stealing $54,000 from the atheist organization. According to his apartment manager, Waters is also three weeks behind in his rent and has been served with an eviction notice.

Speaking of Waters, Ganne said: "There are serious clouds on his horizon." Then, in an astounding admission, Ganne added he had spoken to Caruth about Waters and "the U.S. Attorney said his co-conspirators are rolling over and are saying Waters was involved in the conspiracy to kill Madalyn Murray O'Hair."

Waters has consistently denied knowing anything about the disappearance of the three atheists. Last October, he told the Chronicle the three had been planning to disappear "well before I went to work" at atheist headquarters. "There were strong suspicions that these people were going to take flight," he said. --R.B.

Don't Seek, Don't Find

As Texas legislators press the Texas Education Agency for better reporting of dropouts to account for the startlingly high attrition of students from public schools, the AISD just initiated a study to track where its junior and high school students end up over four-year periods. This laudable research should provide reliable -- and sorely needed -- data on district dropouts. The thing is, AISD conducted just this sort of investigation, called cohort tracking, in the early Nineties. The dropout numbers produced weren't very glowing, and in 1995, the year Superintendent Jim Fox took over, the district's Office of Research Evaluation was merged with another department and the office's director was dismissed.

"When you get a new boss, you get reorganized and things change," says Susan Kemp, interim director of AISD's Office of Accountability. Kemp says bottom-line financial realities were forcing the district to streamline operations, and "the ORE's work wasn't on the have-to-do list." But the research analyst who authored the ORE's dropout reports in 1993 and 1994 says scuttling his position was part of a plan to "fix" the district's problems by sweeping them under the rug.

"Anything that says, 'My goals aren't being obtained,' needed to disappear. And who was that? The people with the numbers," says Mario Sanchez, now president of a test-scoring company in Austin. The report Sanchez produced in 1994 showed AISD's four-year dropout rates for the class of '93 at 23.3% -- and that was the lowest rate recorded in five years. The annual dropout rate for students in grades 9-12 was reported as 9.8%. By comparison, AISD currently reports a four-year dropout rate of 10% and an annual rate of 1.8%.

Has the district made drastic improvements in the percentage of students it graduates over the past five years? Not necessarily.

Sanchez says the documentation his office required to verify and track dropouts was significantly more rigorous than TEA required. And just how many students leave public school systems without being classified as dropouts is a matter of dispute. Research by state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos' office, for example, shows that as many as one-third of Texas public school students simply "evaporate" without a trace between ninth and 12th grades. TEA disputes that such a high number of students are dropping out of school, but then again, is not sure where they are.

Using Sanchez's numbers, the district was clearly over the 6% annual rate that TEA sets as a standard for acceptable schools under its Academic Excellence Indicator System. But after the ORE was dissolved, AISD's recorded dropouts declined precipitously, and with TEA crunching AISD's numbers, AISD now appears to perform well above AEIS standards. Sanchez says that's no coincidence. Kemp says TEA now asks for more detailed records about students who leave school, but that data won't be available until 2001. --K.F.

Invisible Handyman

Whenever the invisible hand of the market needs a helping hand, Wendell Cox is there. Last year, Cox, a consultant based in suburban St. Louis, showed up in San Antonio with an unsolicited performance review of VIA, San Antonio's public transportation authority. Although VIA has been ranked among the best transit authorities in the nation, Cox's study -- sponsored by James Leininger's Texas Public Policy Foundation -- found the agency to be "unproductive" and inefficient. Among other things, he recommended privatization, either by replacing VIA's union workforce with privately contracted staffers one at a time (through attrition), or, for quicker results, eliminating the entire operations staff and contracting it out to the lowest bidder. Last month, Cox gave Austin'sCapital Metro much the same assessment, once again recommending increased privatization.

Coincidentally, Cox's firm -- Wendell Cox Consultancy -- has also done a lot of work for private bus companies who bid on such contracts. Cox has conducted dozens of seminars on competitive bidding for the American Bus Association, which represents private intercity and contract bus operators, and for the National School Transportation Association, which represents private school bus operators. He also served as the marketing director for a Slovenian bus company trying to break into the U.S. market in the early 1990s. But suggestions that some "invisible handshaking" might be going on left Cox outraged. "The fact is that everybody in consulting works for all kinds of people, and I think it is a real damn shame" that some insist on questioning his integrity. "It's typical, because they don't have any arguments for the stuff I come up with."

What a load of stuff it is. Over the last 10 years, Wendell Cox Consultancy has been the attack dog for groups opposing public transportation projects -- especially light rail and commuter rail-- across the country. On his Web site, Cox takes credit for helping derail light rail projects in Milwaukee, Chicago, Phoenix, Seattle, St. Louis, Denver, and Salt Lake City, as well as a high-speed rail project in Florida. (In heview of Cap Metro and VIA, Cox criticized both agencies for reserving funds for light rail. He also opposes the proposed Georgetown-to-San Antonio commuter rail line). Cox and a few other libertarian policy types "have made a whole industry of debunking any kind of investment in public transportation," says Roy Kienitz of the Washington, D.C.-based Surface Transportation Policy Project. "It's all the same stuff, the same set of statistics, generated mostly eight to 10 years ago, that are recycled over and over again."

Since founding his company in 1985, Cox has been on a crusade against publicly subsidized transit, government spending, unions, regional government, and aggressive land use planning. "The first thing we need to do," Cox told the Chronicle, "is get away from ideology and wishful thinking ... and start planning transportation systems based on demand." That means cars, cars, cars. "There is this view, and it's particularly extant in Austin, that we can force the city to be more compact and therefore force people out of their cars and onto transit, and that is absolute madness," said Cox. "It is simply not going to happen." --N.B.

Family Outing

It was the sound of theologies clashing Sunday as a throng of 7,000 marching to oppose legislation to prohibit gays from adopting children met a phalanx of jeering East Texas Baptists gathered at the gates of the Capitol. Wielding pink and blue signs with stern black letters proclaiming "God Hates Fags," the row of Baptists gave way as the six-lane wide column of marchers advanced off Congress onto the Capitol grounds chanting "Hate is not a family value."

As the marchers met the anti-gay protesters, former schoolteacher Carol Gillingham steered her daughter, seven-year-old Allison, into the crowd so she couldn't see the hateful signs. Her partner Carmen covered the ears of Gillingham's other child, Andrew, who had said he didn't want to hear anyone say anything mean. Heritage Baptist minister W.N. Otwell pulled a Capitol security guard aside and said it was a crime to let the marchers be out on the streets. "Why should they have a right to march? They're no good to society."

Maybe the Baptists didn't know, or didn't care, but among those pushing baby-strollers, holding balloons, beating drums, and chanting their way up Congress in the Lesbian Gay Rights Lobby of Texas-sponsored "March on Austin -- March for Our Families" were city employees, schoolteachers, and, yes, Christians. University Methodist Church of Austin member Tanya Voss was there with her partner of over 10 years,Sue Marriot, and Sue's five-month-old son Mason, whom Tanya is in the process of adopting."We're trying to hurry [the adoption] through in case, God forbid, this legislation passes."

At the Capitol, speaker after outraged speaker lambasted the proposed legislation. The fear of and anger toward the bills -- and their sponsors Reps. Warren Chisum and Robert Tarlton -- was apparent. "Texas does not have the right to decide who can be a parent!" exclaimed Dianne Hardy-Garcia, LGRL executive director and the event's organizer. But it was the Rev. Linda Pendergrass, pastor of the Unity Church of Austin former Dallas police chief, who best summed up the message Sunday: "Two caring people are parents. Let people be evaluated as individuals, and if they have the ability to love and nurture a little child."--K.F., E.G.

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