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December 26th, 2007:

Let’s debate that

Interesting op-ed from the weekend by Barbara Radnofsky.

Now, in many urban high schools and particularly in Houston, policy debate is gone. Private and suburban public high schools are still actively involved in debate, but predominantly low-income minority students lack the opportunity.

Houston needs an Urban Debate League to bring competitive debate back to the inner city, and to involve minority and low income students. By public-private participation, we can also aid both sides in the HISD bond controversy and litigation.

Urban Debate League (UDL) structures partnerships between the urban public school district and a private partner, a local not-for-profit organization (the UDL Advisory Board) composed of civic-minded leaders in business, law, academia, government and the nonprofit community.

Atlanta, Miami, Chicago, Kansas City and Baltimore all have successful Urban Debate Leagues. Now, Dallas has stepped forward.

The programs succeed. Here’s the evidence from the National Association of Urban Debate Leagues: UDLs increase literacy scores by 25 percent, improve grade-point averages by 8 percent to 10 percent, achieve high school graduation rates of nearly 100 percent and produce college matriculation rates of 71 percent to 91 percent.

We are University of Houston debater alumni seeking resurrection of urban policy debate programs in Houston.

We’ve pledged our service in Houston’s UDL Advisory Board if the NAUDL will sanction a League. We call on Houstonians to contact NAUDL (312-427-0175, [email protected] and to join us.

Also noted here; the idea got some good feedback in today’s letters to the editor. This is more call-to-arms than ten-point-plan, so it’s not clear how this would be done, but that’s not important right now. For right now, this strikes me as a fine idea, one on which I hope there will be some follow through. I hope something will come of it.

Looking Forward to 2008: Noel Freeman

(Note: I have asked a variety of people to submit an essay to me to be posted during the month of December, to be called “Looking Forward to 2008”. This entry was written by Noel Freeman.)

I always look forward to a new year, and 2008 is much the same … lose some weight, set new goals for my work with the City and community and build up my own business. What’s different is that I’m presenting a challenge to Mayor White and several new members of City Council who have the opportunity to learn about some issues that are very important to me and have taken up a large portion of my time and effort over the past year.

Probably the biggest issue I have concentrated on has been flooding and drainage. We all know how important this issue is to Houstonians, and it is vitally important that we resolve to do more to make a difference in the coming year. After Allison, we learned a huge lesson – that we were $2.5-3 billion (yes, that’s billion) behind on drainage infrastructure improvements. Mayor White has done a good job of increasing the budget for improvements, but sadly we are still budgeting less than $50 million per year (FY2008 was right around $45 million).

If you combine that with the $32-34 million we spend on maintenance and repairs, Houston still falls behind cities like Philadelphia, where the annual budget for similar programs and improvements is nearly $100 million. Nevermind that Philadelphia is physically about ΒΌ the size of Houston or that it has a half million fewer residents. At this rate, it will take 50 to 60 years just to bring our infrastructure up to today’s standards.

With this in mind, it is my hope that Mayor White and our new Council members will take the lead and accept a challenge – to set the budget for drainage infrastructure maintenance and improvements at no less than $100 million for FY2009 and to set a five year plan to increase that number to $150 million by FY2013. I think this number is realistic and attainable.

Further, the City needs to look at real solutions to address developments that place a large added burden on our drainage infrastructure, such as big-box stores with multi-acre parking lots and residential developments that provide very little pervious surface to absorb water. Development can still continue, but there are better ways that can make a real difference.

2007 also saw a related issue hit mainstream and highlight the real rock-and-a-hard-place situations we in the City often find ourselves in. That issue was development in the floodway. You may have seen some stories on the news or in the Chronicle about some floodplain maps that changed. It may not have hit close to home for most of you, but it sure did for several thousand people who now find their properties in the floodway. I was glad to see the City remove some provisions from the floodplain ordinance that offered variances because it showed that we were finally getting serious about the floodway and moving to limit future flood losses.

Unfortunately, there were some unforeseen side effects of that change that have had potentially adverse effects on residents. I would like to see Mayor White and Council move to establish a buyout program specifically for properties in the floodway and dedicate at least 5-10% of the drainage infrastructure budget mentioned above to do it.

The way I see it, 2008 is a great opportunity to make a real difference. I’ve got six months to educate Council members about these issues, and if they accept the challenge and do to the FY2009 budget what I’ve proposed, six more months to see how much better and safer it makes our communities. Here’s to 2008.

Noel Freeman works for the City of Houston’s Department of Public Works and Engineering and is a member of the Texas Floodplain Management Association. He was a previous candidate for City Council and is pursuing a Master’s degree in Public Administration from Norwich University.

RIP, Greenway Theatre

Well, here’s an unlovely Christmas present.

The Greenway Theatre, which has screened films in the basement of Greenway Plaza for 35 years, will close at the end of this year.

Employees say Landmark Theatres lost its lease at 5 East Greenway Plaza. Landmark, a chain that specializes in independent and foreign films, has operated the Greenway since 1994.

A board designated for patrons’ reviews of offered films has turned into a makeshift memorial as people protested the closing.

Written lamentations of “We will miss you” and “NO” in bold, penciled script were posted, along with a message from a self-described 30-year patron who simply offered: “We are sorry.”


Landmark informed theater employees Saturday, two days before Christmas, that they’d be laid off. A sign taped to the ticket booth announces the closing and refers all questions to Landmark’s corporate office.

It also reads: “Hope you remember us fondly.”

I suppose the surprising thing is that they kept the lease for this long in that part of town. Still a damn shame, though.

For those of you keeping score at home, this leaves one Landmark Theater property in Houston – the endangered/doomed River Oaks Theater. When/if that shuffles off this mortal coil, your options for seeing nonstandard fare will be (mostly) reduced to the Angelika downtown and the Alamo Drafthouse out in East San Antonio. Not the most pleasant prospect I’ve ever considered.

When the Greenway opened in 1972, it was hailed as an important part of developer Kenneth Schnitzer’s Greenway Plaza. The development’s mix of uses –office space and retail with entertainment such as the theater and a basketball arena — was considered visionary.

Those were the days, huh? Rest in peace, Greenway Theatre.

Filing news: Gene, Gene, the Do-Nothing Machine

The biggest “news”, if you can call it that, since my last update on who’s filed for what, is that perennial do-nothing Gene Kelly has made his biennial donation to the Texas Democratic Party primary fund, and will once again clutter up the ballot for US Senate. If you thought you’d heard the sound of several thousand eyes rolling over the weekend, that would be why. He was greeted by a bizarre press release from Ray McMurrey, welcoming him to the race, which in retrospect seems fitting enough as neither candidacy is about anything other than being on the ballot. The practical upshot of all this is that it will ensure that the Rick Noriega campaign stays active and fully engaged throughout the primary season, since the specter of a runoff against either opponent, especially the inert-but-recognizable Kelly, would be ill advised.

I will say this: While I have nothing but contempt for Kelly and his pathetic obsession with “running” for office, I do disagree with those who have been complaining that his presence has made various Democratic candidates “waste” campaign resources that could have been used against their eventual Republican opponents. The one thing Rick Noriega needs now more than anything is name ID, and there’s really no better way to get that than to have a contested primary. Money spent identifying and targeting Democratic voters is to me an investment, not a waste. The only waste here would be of the opportunity if Noriega supporters fail to recognize this for what it is. The good news is that I’m confident his campaign will not make that mistake.

Elsewhere, BOR diarist Benawu rounds up the current status of Democratic Congressional filings. I’ve said it before, but for whatever the reason there’s just not as broad an interest in running for Congress this time around, though I’m fairly sure several of those empty slots will be filled by someone when all is said and done. While that’s disappointing and a bit puzzling, the good news is that we ought to have a couple of very interesting races here in Houston, what with CD10 making the national radar already, CD07 drawing an exciting contender, and of course Rep. Nick Lampson’s defense of CD22. The field may not be broad, but it has some depth, and will provide some real opportunities.

Finally, it’s not really a filing per se, but this news from last week is fascinating.

U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, the Texas Republican running for president who’s had surprising fundraising success, got a stick (or maybe a dust speck) in the eye Thursday as the Libertarian Party of Texas said Eugene J. Flynn, an immigration attorney, wants to challenge Paul for re-election to the U.S. House next year.

Paul intends to run simultaneously for re-election and for the GOP presidential nomination, as permitted by Texas law. Paul was the 1988 Libertarian Party nominee for president and generally hews to a libertarian platform.

According to the Libertarian Party of Texas, Flynn tried to run against Paul as a Libertarian in 2006, but party members chose not to nominate a candidate against the Lake Jackson Republican at their spring convention.

Wes Benedict, executive director of the Texas party, said in an e-mail that he expects to be blasted “over this,” meaning Flynn’s challenge.

Yes, I imagine he would, given Paul’s hero status among the Libs. What interests me is not the hissyfit potential as much as the issue on which Flynn intends to challenge Paul:

Benedict quoted Flynn as saying: “I agree with Ron Paul about 80 percent of the time. The problem is the other 20 percent is the most important to me, that is, immigration. … Ron Paul offers no way to allow those illegally in the U.S. to get right with the law. Instead he wants to spend more and more money to create bigger bureaucracies to secure our borders to protect us from needed workers.”

Contacted by e-mail Thursday, Flynn said; “We need a guest worker program NOW! One way to help get it is to defeat the (immigration) restrictionists such as Ron Paul.” He noted that as the party’s nominee for chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court in 2002, he drew 80,185 votes, just under 2 percent, statewide.

More power to you, sir. It’s not clear that the Democrats will field a candidate for CD14 this time around, so someone needs to be a voice of reason on this issue. May this be one of those vanishingly rare times when an LP candidate gains some traction.

As for Paul, here’s my fifty-cent prediction for the week: Regardless of what he may or may not be saying now that he’s made the national talking-heads circuit, I say if he fails to survive his own primary challenge for CD14, Ron Paul will be on the ballot for President this fall. He’ll never have this kind of platform again, and I can’t see the logic in folding up the tent eight months before the election if he gets ousted from his Congressional district. If he’s still the nominee for Congress, then he won’t pursue his Presidential ambitions past the point of the GOP nomination, but if not, what has he to lose by keeping his circus in business? Whether under the banner of the Libertarian Party or as an independent (surely his national network can help him meet whatever ballot access obligations he’ll face), if Paul isn’t running for Congress after March (or May, if there’s a runoff), he’s running for President in November. You heard it here first – or not, if I’m wrong.

UPDATE: Eye on Williamson mentions a challenger to State Rep. Dan Gattis in HD20, meaning that each State House seat in Williamson County will have a Democrat on the ballot. HD20 is considerably more Republican than HD52 (Bill Moody got 39.1% in HD20, 47.8% in HD52), but it ought to help provide for a better metric of how far along the bluing of WillCo has come.