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March 12th, 2011:

Saturday video break: You can do anything with a ukulele

Well, maybe you can’t. But Jake Shimabukuro can, as his rendition of “Bohemian Rhapsody” will attest:

The only thing I would criticize is the lack of head-banging at the expected moment. But beyond that, it’s full of awesome.

Rally Day

Thanks in part to our only Governor, those attending today’s rally are even more fired up about it.

As thousands of teachers, school staffers and parents prepare for a state Capitol rally Saturday against education cuts, they’ve found new recruits and fresh motivation from an unlikely source: Gov. Rick Perry.

Reacting to Perry’s comments, some teachers and support staffers said Thursday they were angry and discouraged but mostly emboldened to publicly oppose billions of dollars of cuts in education.

Perry said state leaders were not to blame if as many as 100,000 people lose their jobs at school districts statewide.

“He just seems unaware of the agony schools are going through,” said Carolyn Foote, a librarian at Westlake High School in Eanes Independent School District near Austin. “It’s like a slap in the face to anyone working in education.”


“I think he’s been in office so long that he is going to get his way,” said Nadia Sanchez, a kindergarten teacher at Baskin Elementary in the San Antonio Independent School District. “I just don’t know if he’s ever going to understand.”

Other teachers, including Kimberly Reznicek, a fourth-grade teacher at Raba Elementary School in Northside ISD, thought Perry was passing the buck.

“He sounds like he is doing everything he can to be elusive to avoid answering the question that needs to be addressed: How is he going to fund school finance moving forward? That is a state government issue and all school districts can do is deal with how the state makes its school finance decisions. It’s not school districts’ fault,” Reznicek said.

I don’t know how many people are just now discovering this aspect of Perry’s personality, but I welcome them to the table anyway. And I sure hope they all remember this next November.

The Austin Chronicle has a great story on the people behind the effort.

Save Texas Schools fundraising committee co-Chair Brian Donovan said he’s inspired by the response coming from outside Austin. When the House released its draft budget, he said, “there were spitting mad editorials in Denton, Midland, and Odessa.” With that popular pressure rising, Donovan said, “a huge rally of angry parents from all over the state seemed the tonic needed to bring the Lege and leadership around to funding education as much as possible.”

By late February, Save Texas Schools already had 88 volunteer organizers around the state. That group includes people like Kimberly Miller, a Denton Independent School District resident whose whole family has signed up to help spread the word. Even though its population is rapidly expanding, Denton faces a $15 million-to-$16-million drop-off in state funding. “We’ve had a lot of public outcry in Austin about the cuts, and they have got coverage,” said Miller. “But talking to districts outside of the capital, they’ve found it very hard to get their story heard.”

The Save Texas Schools organizers soon found they were not alone in planning rallies and that others were eager to combine their efforts. Within days of the draft House budget being released, Weeks heard about statewide efforts being planned as far away as Pasadena and Arlington, where Leanne Rand was already working on her own protest. Like most parents of school-age children, Rand had heard about the state budget crisis. Yet it was purely an abstraction until the principal at her kids’ high school explained what the district’s projected $35 million shortfall would mean on his campus: fewer staff, less money for maintenance, and the loss of programs like Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities. Rand said, “Frank­ly, it made me mad, and I said something like, ‘We should march on Austin – I am going to organize a Million Mom March.'” While she admits she was half-joking at first, she was quickly contacted by parents who wanted to get involved, along with groups and businesses that wanted to sponsor Arlington’s attendance at the march.

The Dads Club at Arlington’s Butler Ele­ment­ary is pooling money to cover travel costs for teachers, and that effort is simply one part of a bigger push to get everyone informed about the issues and solutions. The North Arling­ton Education Alliance has scheduled a series of campus-based information sessions to walk people through the numbers. Butler Dads Club communications officer David Wil­banks is particularly worried about the extra stress the situation is placing on kids, but so far, he said, “Parents are uninformed as to how the state and our district woke up and found ourselves in this situation.”

How nice it would have been if people had woken up about this six months ago, but at least it’s happening now. I think it’s already had the effect of making some people nervous, as evidenced by this hysterical reaction from professional “drown it in the bathtub” advocate Peggy Venable:

[Allen Weeks, who heads the coalition’s steering committee and leads Austin Voices for Education and Youth, a nonprofit educational advocacy group that is helping coordinate the rally and handling donations] said the total cost of the rally and its promotion will be about $30,000, mostly direct and promotional costs. As of Thursday, 130 donors had contributed just under $23,000. Contributions have come in small amounts — the largest being three $1,000 donations — and “lots of in-kind volunteer hours,” he said.

Venable challenged Weeks’ grass-roots claim, and accused the coalition of spreading an “alarmist message.”

“These are radical liberal organizations that are pushing this, and they are using citizens who are ill-informed about how our dollars are currently being spent as pawns,” she said.

Hey, Peggy? Tell that to Bill Hammond:

Even the otherwise parsimonious Texas Association of Business has voiced concerns that slicing education funding now will endanger the state’s long-term economic viability. The group has called on lawmakers to use $1.9 billion from the Available School Fund to continue funding all-day prekindergarten and the technology allotment, as well as providing the updated textbooks required for the new curriculum. Normally a staunch opponent of government spending, TAB President Bill Ham­mond has become a vocal advocate for protecting education today to create better workers tomorrow. Hammond said, “The Legis­lature can and should invest in education and should make substantive reforms that ensure excellence over mediocrity.”

As a sign of how much of a political paradigm shift Save Texas Schools could be, Ham­mond is currently penciled in along with San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro to speak at the March 12 rally. Weeks described that diversity of voices as vital in breaking any misconceptions about the breadth of support. He said, “If it’s another rally that people can say, ‘Oh, it’s those people again,’ then it’s not very effective.”

Like I said, judging by Venable’s paranoia, it’s already been effective. Now we just need to make sure there’s followup, during the session and in next year’s elections.

I will not be at the event, but I expect to receive reports and photos from it from some folks who are there. I will post them as I can. If you attend, please let us know how it’s going – leave comments or drop me a note at kuff – at – offthekuff – dot -com. Thanks!

HISD starts cutting

HISD’s board of trustees began the budget cutting process on Thursday in anticipation of cuts to public education funding in the Legislature. Barring some really good news from the Lege, there will be much more of this to come.

The largest cut made Thursday — a $58 million decision – reduces per-student funding about 8 percent to roughly $3,260 per student for the 2011-12 academic year. Principals will have to decide how to make up for the $275-per-student cut. Options include firing teachers and cutting programs.


Depending on what happens on the state level, HISD can consider further cuts, dip into savings or raise taxes, said chief financial officer Melinda Garrett. Trustees vowed to return money to the classroom if the state forecast improves.

Also approved Thursday were a $2.4 million reduction to the district’s small-school subsidy, a $4.6 million cut to funding at a handful of other campuses, and a $2.3 million cut to the teacher incentive pay program.

Board members also agreed to move forward with the possible closures and consolidations of Grimes, Love, McDade and Rhoads elementary schools. If the campuses are closed, the district would save about $1.7 million.

Another $45 million in savings – including eliminating 260 central office jobs – has been identified and will be discussed March 24.

See Ericka Mellon’s liveblog of the meeting and Superintendent Grier’s letter to employees about the cuts for more. Remember that the scenario that the Board is currently planning for is one they have termed “optimistic” – the worst case scenario is “catastrophic”. The rally to save Texas schools is today, but the fight will continue on long after the last marcher goes home. Hair Balls has more.

The EaDo decade

Things are looking good for a wave of development in East Downtown, a/k/a EaDo.

Discussions are under way for a six-block-long linear park in EaDo, and there is talk, still in the early stages, of a 1,000-room convention hotel.

The area has already seen plenty of apartment complexes built in the past few years, and a music venue and bars have also popped up. But it also has its share of warehouses, vacant lots and boarded buildings.

The more residential density in the area, the greater the chance it will also produce a thriving entertainment district, [Anita Kramer, senior director of retail and mixed-use development at the Urban Land Institute in Washington, D.C.] said.

“EaDo has all the potential in the world,” said David Cook, executive vice president and shareholder at the Cushman & Wakefield real estate firm.

“I see the same kind of blossoming in EaDo as we saw in Midtown.”

EaDo is a triangle-shaped area bounded by U.S. 59, the Gulf Freeway and the Union Pacific rail line running from Cullen to Congress. The soccer stadium, clubs and the planned promenade and the hotel under discussion are in the section closest to downtown.

EaDo land prices have increased dramatically recently, Cook said – to the $50-per-square-foot range, about the same as in Midtown, from around $25 to $30. By comparison, Cook said, land is about $400 per square foot downtown.

The area has already seen fairly significant growth this past decade. I believe that it will see a lot more, and will establish itself as a significant population center. Proximity to downtown is a valuable thing, and while there are still corridors close to downtown that have room for development, EaDo has the most in one place. There’s one thing that might hold it back, however.

“A complete redevelopment in EaDo is likely more long-term than short-term, but all indicators are positive,” Houston Mayor Annise Parker said.

She added, “I do believe Highway 59 creates a visual and psychological barrier, and it is quite possible there will be a thriving downtown and EaDo side by side.”

The city will try to bridge that barrier with improved lighting and sidewalks and street signs to help people find their way under the overpass, she said.

Here’s a radical suggestion: Rebuild that stretch of US59 so that it’s underground instead of above it. You know, like it is from Midtown to 610, where you’ll note that neighborhood development is more continuous. It’s not a panacea – I-45 still serves as a barrier north of downtown even though it’s a trench and not an overpass; there is an alternate suggestion for that as well – but I’m willing to bet it would help. That would cost a boatload of money, of course, for which the federal government would need to pick up the tab, but why not see what support might exist for it? If it gets anywhere, maybe we can try to do the same for the Pierce Elevated next. It won’t change history, but it would still be a good idea.

Two Republican Senators oppose Bradley’s nomination to the Forensic Science Commission


The confirmation of Williamson County District Attorney John Bradley as chairman of the state Forensic Science Commission appears to be in deep trouble, as two Senate Republicans confirmed today that they will vote no.

That would leave Bradley four votes short of the required 21 needed to bring his name up for a Senate vote.


“At this point, his nomination not going anywhere,” said Nominations Committee Chairman Bob Deuell, R-Greenville. “Unless something changes, it’s over.”


Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, said he is against Bradley’s nomination because of his controversial tenure as chairman of the commission. The exchange with [Sen. Rodney] Ellis is “only the latest example,” he said.

“This is no longer about him, it’s about the need for a change,” Eltife said. “Once a situation becomes this volatile, sometimes you need to make a change. That’s what I think the commission needs.”

Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, said he also opposes Bradley’s nomination, and has no intention of changing his mind.

“I watched his disrespect for members of the Legislature on this and many other occasions, and based on that issue alone I will vote no,” he said. “His sheer dismissive attitude toward questions, toward the Legislature, that he has demonstrated time and time again, cannot be overlooked.”

Bradley’s Republican supporters said they hoped to persuade Sen. Eddie Lucio, D-Brownsville, to vote for the nomination. But Lucio said he is not switching.

“I don’t like the way he treated me on my life-without-parole bill last session, the way he talked down to me and treated me during that discussion,” Lucio said. “He was the biggest opponent of that bill . . . There was no common courtesy.”

I’m not sure which is my favorite part, the fact that he’s going down or the fact that he has no one to blame for it but himself and his arrogant, obnoxious attitude. The only bad news in this is that as the story notes Bradley would still be chairing the Commission on April 15, when it next meets to possibly take action on the Willingham case. As such, Bradley would have one last chance to fulfill the mission he was given by Gov. Perry, to permanently undermine any effort to examine and fix what went wrong in that case and set standards for arson investigations in the state. If he had any honor, he’s recognize the position he’s in and step down now, so that someone who could be confirmed can be nominated. But then if he had any honor he wouldn’t be in the position he’s in.