Naked City

Off the Desk:

The Triangle Square development is close to finding a new residential developer for the project, says Cencor Realty's Tom Terkel, chief developer for the project. Terkel said yesterday that Cincinnati-based Ewing Properties has emerged the frontrunner. The search for a multi-family developer has been going on since Post/West Properties opted out of the project back in December. Post wanted a 70-year lease agreement, but MHMR was limited by its across-the-board 50-year lease requirement for the entire project. ...

Don't be left out of the May 1 City Council elections. Today is the deadline to register to vote; early voting begins April 14. Voter registration forms are available at the Travis County Voter Registration Office, 1010 Lavaca, or your local post office, supermarket, or library. For more info, call 473-9473 or on the Web, check out http://www.co.travis.tx.us/elections. --L.T.


A Test of Credibility

Even students who doze through high school English could appreciate this irony: Less than one week after an AISD research analyst admitted to county prosecutors that he altered district TAAS scores, AISD released a 1997-98 performance report boasting that, you guessed it, more students are passing their TAAS exams. The district also reports that the AISD dropout rate, as calculated by the Texas Education Agency, has dropped to 1.8%.

But County Attorney Ken Oden says the public has "ample reason" to doubt the integrity of AISD's reporting of both TAAS scores and dropout numbers -- performance data crucial to school ratings. Oden says AISD employee Ricky Arredondo's "no contest" plea last week is only the first step toward determining full responsibility for the TAAS score manipulation and possible concealment of dropout numbers.

"It strains credibility to think [Arredondo] did it without knowledge or approval from those whom his work was benefiting," says Oden. He says his investigation will continue up the AISD chain of command, from Deputy Superintendent Kay Psencik to former superintendent Jim Fox.

What also strains credibility is that TEA allows Texas schools to report dropout numbers which even minimal research can prove absurd. When AISD compiled demographic information to determine new school boundaries last year, for example, those calculations allowed for an attrition rate in grades 9-12 of roughly 30%, says Dennis Harner, the demographer hired by AISD. That's considerably higher than the cumulative dropout rate of 10% that AISD reports for grades 7-12.

Johnston High School Registrar Cecilia Martinez says that in a typical four-year period, a class that begins with 700 Johnston freshmen graduates a senior class of around 250. Not all of those losses are dropouts; some students transfer to other schools. But it's telling that only a small minority of those students show up in Martinez's office with a parent to officially withdraw. Most simply stop showing up for class. Court orders bring some of them back in, Martinez says, but the district has to find the rest. At Johnston, that's the job of a football coach, who Martinez says finds many of the kids working jobs. Evanilda Muniz, a former counselor at Johnston, says that for students who show no intention of returning to school, parents or guardians are asked to sign a form indicating their kids will enroll in a GED program. School districts do not have to report these withdrawals as dropouts. But Martinez says only about a half-dozen students with GEDs cross the graduation stage at Johnston each year.

TEA Associate Commissioner Criss Cloudt says that schools need to show only a parent or guardian's signature indicating that a student intends to transfer outside the district or pursue a GED to remove the student from its dropout list. But a high percentage of dropouts are freshman, and kids under the age of 17 cannot lawfully enroll in GED programs without a court's permission. Oden and former AISD research staff say district administrators may have gone too far in reducing AISD's dropout lists, crossing off students who they knew or suspected had no intention of continuing their education. Deputy Superintendent Psencik, who oversees the district's dropout reporting, has declined to comment. --K.F.


Raising a White Flag

Last week, two of Austin's most celebrated enemy camps -- the Save Our Springs Alliance and the Real Estate Council of Austin-- inked a peace treaty settling 10 years of ground warfare over the Barton Springs portion of the Edwards Aquifer. The agreement, brokered over a five-month negotiation process that included two months of cathartic screaming, is both monumental and anti-climactic. Monumental because no one thought it could happen, and anti-climactic because, in many respects, the war actually began tapering off last year when S.O.S. and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce forged a partnership to support the successful Prop. 2 land-acquisition measure.

In short, the new deal calls for acquiring 50,000 acres over the watershed through public and private funding sources, and allowing for some previously stalled development projects on environmentally sensitive soil to proceed. The agreement will serve as the foundation for an ordinance the city is expected to craft and adopt by May 1. What happens after that is a crap shoot, dependent on Austin's luck at the Texas Capitol, where certain legislators are poised to bring the axe down on Austin by restoring SB 1704, the 1995 bill -- accidentally rescinded in 1997 -- that allows for grandfathered development under less restrictive water quality rules.

"One of the biggest complaints coming from the development community was the lack of predictability and certainty" with respect to development rules, said RECA president David Armbrust, who still bears the scars from his days as a lawyer-lobbyist for mega-developer and enviro nemesis Freeport McMoRan, since renamed Stratus Properties. "What we have now is a high level of predictability, particularly with those [grandfathered] projects going forward." While Stratus, which owns some 2,000 undeveloped acres in southwest Austin, was not included in the settlement (though the company's outside counsel, Steve Drenner, was part of the RECA negotiating team), efforts are underway to broker a customized settlement with the company. Stratus "is a good candidate for the parameters of our deal with RECA," said S.O.S. Board president Robin Rather.

In the meantime, the negotiating teammembers are still buzzed over what they managed to pull off. Given the personalities of some of the players, it's no wonder. The S.O.S. team includedRather, Mary Arnold, Mark Yznaga, George Cofer, Grant Godfrey, and Lauren Ross. The RECA slate was made up of Armbrust and Drenner, as well as Milburn Homes' Terry Mitchell, Faison-Stone's Tim Hendrix, developer Paul Linehan, engineer Paul Bury, and RECA legislative point man Jerry Weintraub. In the end, not everyone was pleased. S.O.S. executive director and chief counsel Bill Bunch dropped out of the negotiating process and advised the S.O.S. board to vote against the agreement, which drew a 13-3 vote in its favor. The S.O.S. company line is that Bunch respects the board's decision and will assist in the settlement's implementation. But there's dissent on the other side as well, and some of the RECA naysayers aren't as charitable. Some are said to be spitting mad over the settlement and are rubbing their hands in anticipation of the Lege coming down hard on Austin. --A.S.


Touchy-Feely Transit

And you thought they never listened to us: After months of speculation and back-channel buzz, Capital Metro will kick off a "public feedback effort" to guide us toward our transportation future on Monday, April 5. The campaign, dubbed "AIM" -- or "Austin Area In Motion" -- is intended to last through August, leading up to a possible November referendum on light rail. (The Cap Met board is now talking about postponing that referendum until 2000. But if Rep. Mike Krusee, R-Round Rock, has his way in the Lege, a 1999 referendum will be mandated, not just on light rail but on the distribution of Capital Metro's sales tax collections.)

The AIM effort is in three phases: First, we "define transportation issues," then we "prioritize transportation alternatives," then we "select a transportation option." The "we" is the important part: After years of attacks for working in a vacuum without public input, Cap Met promises that "the preferences, concerns, and opinions of thousands of citizens, employers, businesses, community leaders, and technical experts will be sought out and listened to." There will be surveys, focus groups, community meetings, scientific studies (already underway), and so on. All this starts Monday with a heck of a PR shindig -- the special AIM bus, carrying Cap Met General Manager Karen Rae, will travel from Leander (7am) downtown, then to a press conference with CMTA Board Chairman Lee Walker at Hancock Center (10 am), then back downtown for a "free lunch" event (noon), then to the HEB on South Congress (2pm), and then to Pflugerville (6pm). All along the way, you, the citizen, are invited to share your opinions and participate in the AIM community survey of transportation options. And there will be balloons and buttons, too. For more info, call 637-4AIM or visit http://www.aim99.org. --M.C.M.


Moving on Up

For two and a half decades, Caritas of Austin has operated out of a crowded office it leases from St. David's Episcopal Church. Within six months, Caritas, one of Travis County's oldest and biggest providers of services to the poor and homeless, will move into the former 7-Up bottling plant at 611 Neches. Official word of the move came Tuesday when the agency announced it has raised $2 million of the $2.5 million it needs to buy and renovate the old warehouse. The dusty warehouse will be converted into a full-service social service agency with room for dozens of offices, a soup kitchen, meeting space and even a play area for children. The new facility will double the agency's floor space, and allow it to consolidate its operations into one location. At present, the agency has two locations on East Seventh -- one containing offices, the other holding a food pantry and soup kitchen.

Founded in 1964, Caritas provides emergency assistance to individuals and families who need food, clothing, medical services, rent money, utility payments, and job counseling. The agency also provides counseling and assistance to refugees. And demand for its services is growing rapidly. In 1996, Caritas provided $673,000 worth of assistance to its clients. This year, they expect to spend twice that amount. The capital committee for the agency's move into its new quarters was headed by local businessman Lowell Lebermann, who calls Caritas "an organization that meets the needs of the people who need the most, the poorest of the poor." But then, Lebermann reminded the attendees at the Tuesday press conference that "We still need $500,000. So let's get to work." For more info on Caritas, or to donate money to the building effort, call Beverly Waddill at 472-5269. --R.B.

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