News briefs from Austin, the region, and beyond
Eighth Graders Ousted
Last week's marathon State Board of Education debate over new curriculum standards also provided an unfortunate lesson in free speech for some magnet students at Fulmore Middle School. Chair Gail Lowe (l) ordered the students out of the meeting room after they applauded the remarks of state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, who had urged postponing the decision. The handful of students, escorted by parent and former City Council Member Brigid Shea, had attended the May 19 hearing as part of a social studies field trip. When the students clapped, Lowe snapped, singling out in particular Shea's son, Eamon Umphress. "Will the audience members who just applauded, including the young gentleman in the front, in the purple shirt ... you'll need to step into the hall, please," Lowe ordered. Eamon "was wearing his Latin scholar T-shirt," explained Shea, still reeling from the public incident. One consolation for her son is the shirt's upbeat Latin message: "I shall either find a way or make one." See "SBOE: Reading, Writing, and Fighting Socialism."
ACC Expands North, East
Austin Community College is buying up land, both within its taxing district and outside of it, looking ahead to possible expansion of that district. On May 13, the college announced the purchase of 100 acres in Leander in response to huge population growth (Leander is currently served by the Cypress Creek campus). Five days later, ACC reported entering into a contract for 98 acres in Elgin, in anticipation of Elgin ISD voters approving annexation into ACC. Both candidates in the June 12 ACC board run-off election said they approve of the purchases. "ACC is following up on their master plan," Vic Villarreal told the Chronicle. "It's a function of today's board honoring the commitment of a board a couple of years ago to continue a land-banking strategy, and I agree [with that decision] because it saves ACC taxpayers quite a bit of money in the long run." His opponent, David Reiter, has stressed the need for ACC to grow responsibly. "I think the land purchasing is part of a longer-term process for expansion of ACC, so that part makes sense," he said. "But with that said, I do think ACC needs to be careful ... so they don't get overextended. To automatically assume we can build a new campus every time there's a new taxing district would be a mistake. It needs to be part of a longer-term plan." ACC said it expects to complete the first phase of an Elgin campus in 2014, if annexation occurs. – Lee Nichols
ACC Shopping Spree
On the heels of the May 12 bankruptcy filing by Highland Mall property owners, Austin Community College announced Tuesday it had purchased part of the property on the site. The school plans to redevelop it as college facilities within a mixed-use campus, a plan that aligns well with the city's redevelopment initiative for the Airport Boulevard corridor. Mayor Lee Leffingwell lauded ACC's news, saying, "This is the type of dense infill development Austin needs." ACC cited proximity to the MetroRail Highland Station as a key reason for the acquisition; its acquisition in Leander is also near a MetroRail station, and its new Elgin parcel is near an anticipated station on the future Green Line. ACC announced that it's partnering on the project with RedLeaf Properties, led by principal Matt Whelan, who formerly led the Mueller redevelopment team. Whelan said the Highland Mall site could be transformed over time into a similar "successful mixed-use project that is reflective of the community's goals." ACC plans to renovate 194,000 square feet of the Dillard's building into classrooms and offices; additional uses could include continuing education facilities, a conference center, and offices for partner nonprofit organizations. ACC expects to begin renovation in two to three years. – Katherine Gregor
Supremes to Hear Death Row Appeal
The U.S. Supreme Court said Monday that it will hear the appeal of Hank Skinner, a death row inmate trying to get access to evidence never before subjected to DNA testing. Skinner denies responsibility for the 1993 murders of his longtime girlfriend, Twila Busby, and her two grown sons inside the home they shared in Pampa. At issue for the court is whether Skinner and other death row inmates may use federal civil rights law to gain access to evidence for testing, including a rape-kit test collected from Busby, two bloody knives – one of which was likely a murder weapon – a bloody towel, and a windbreaker stained with sweat. (See "Death Row Case Evidence May Never Be Tested," March 12.) "We are pleased that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear Mr. Skinner's appeal," said Rob Owen, head of UT School of Law's Capital Punishment Clinic and Skinner's lead attorney. "That decision represents the necessary first step to our eventually obtaining the DNA testing that Mr. Skinner has long sought. We look forward to the opportunity to persuade the Court that if a State official arbitrarily denies a prisoner access to evidence for DNA testing, the prisoner should be allowed to challenge that decision in a federal civil rights lawsuit." Skinner's case will be heard during the court's next session, which begins in October. – Jordan Smith
MetroRail Ridership Down
As expected, in Capital Metro's first full month of MetroRail data, ridership has dropped off since the first week of (free) service. Once riders had to pay, the weekday-only commuter line dropped to 901 boardings per day during April (not counting the special May 1 Saturday service that drew overflow crowds). Since that figure represents boardings, the number of people riding is presumably lower, as many commuters are taking round-trips. Cap Metro leadership doesn't seem fazed. "Obviously we want to maximize ridership, but this is right on par," said Cap Metro board chair and Austin Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez. "Our goal is to be at 1,700 to 2,000 by this time next year. But the on-time performance, customer satisfaction – that's what we enjoy seeing, as well as steady ridership. We're going to do more outreach, try to do some creative marketing, try to partner up with things like Car2Go and CarShare, so hopefully we can just educate folks and try to get them to understand what their options truly are." (Such as, he said, teaching Statesman reporter Andrea Ball to get off at the right station, unlike in her recent car vs. train "race" with the daily's transportation reporter.) "We're cautiously optimistic about the future of rail," said Martinez, "but the work is not done." – L.N.
Cap Metro Responds to Sunset Review
"We view this report not as a recommendation but as marching orders." That was the message Capital Metro board Chair Mike Martinez delivered to the state Sunset Commission Tuesday, in response to commission staff's scathing review of the transit agency that was released last month. Aside from being utterly perplexed by Cap Metro's labor arrangement with StarTran, the contractor that hires Cap Metro workers, the state lawmakers were impressed that Martinez said the buck stops with him and the board, rather than engaging in blame-shifting. They were less impressed with longtime Cap Metro critic Jim Skaggs, who apparently felt that the recent legislatively mandated restructuring of the board wasn't enough to stop endless cycles of incompetence at the agency. Skaggs presented a plan to have a panel establish a slate of qualified experts as candidates for the board, and then have the public vote on them. "Who selects the panel?" asked Sen. John Whitmire, pointing out the obvious. Skaggs then said that the local political leaders do not have the requisite experience to pick the board members who run the agency. Austin Sen. Kirk Watson, who wrote the restructuring legislation, said that issue had already been addressed there, as the new board must have at least one member with 10 years' experience as a financial officer and another must have a decade of experience as an executive. – L.N.