Sunday, April 13, 2008

Surprising San Angelo and FLDS

A few years back, a billboard on Knickerbocker greeted Mathis Field visitors with the "Surprising San Angelo" slogan. We might think about reviving that slogan, it is inarguably true.

This past week, we had an early AM, thankfully minor, tornado or two. As it happened, CNN national feed beat the local alert system on the report by a few minutes. That is not a slap at the local system, we just happened to have in town a hundred or so of the hungriest news hounds on the planet covering the FLDS sect story. Given the time of day (OK, night), the CNN crew might well have been making their way home from Fat Boss Bar when they personally encountered this remarkably fast moving storm. Don't know that, pure speculation, but...

The Standard-Times is really doing a pretty good job, but they are running out of front page space. Had someone told me last May that the next SAISD Bond proposal would be buried under more urgent news, I'd have told them straight up to activate the third brain cell, no way. Oops!, would have lost that dollars-to-donuts bet. BTW, yours truly will be truly busy Monday, SAISD will hear a second presentation of the bond Committee and at 7:00 PM the ASU College Republicans will host another police chief candidate forum in CJ Davidson Center. With luck, I can catch most of both. Conchoinfo does have limited staff.

S-T has done a remarkable job of reporting this FLDS mess, but I have a few points worth mentioning. Using the term "sect" in the paper instead of "cult" was a good starting point. More on that point later.

Before I wander afield in general speculation, let me make clear; I support the idea of prosecuting any genuine statutory, even more vigorously any forcible rape arising from this investigation. Freedom of religion has limits. The Supreme Court may allow a Santeria believer to sacrifice a chicken to his God, but human sacrifice, be it mortal or rape, is clearly out of bounds. Christian Scientists are allowed to refuse medical treatment and die in good faith, but they may not withhold it from their underage children.

When FLDS bought the Eldorado property, a lot of people went into panic mode, not without reason. The history of this group in Colorado City, Az. or Hilsdale, Utah was scary. There, they had registered voters, put people on ballot, and in essence, they were the city gov't and police force. Had FLDS tried this in Schleicher County, with its limited number of voting age eligible, they probably could have owned Eldorado, politically. One of "Prophet" Jeff's policies was to withdraw from, rather than engage in, local affairs. Where the twin towns of Hildale and Colorado City had attracted enough attention that the states took over, Jeffs counseled the FLDS that flying "under the radar" would be more effective for the sect's interests than an overt takeover.

I am a little concerned that the breadth of the warrants issued might exceed the scope justified by a slightly shaky, second hand report, recanted in the last phone call to a non-gov't agency by a 16 year old as yet unproduced. Note here; law enforcement from two states have interviewed the alleged offender and chosen not to make an arrest as yet. Fortunately or not, Texas Statute gives Child Protective Services standing here that nearly no other criminal investigating unit gets. If this were an old-fashioned drug-trafficking case, it would take a high pockets Miami lawyer about two minutes to shred the warrant and the subsequent "fruit of the poisonous tree", effectively dumping a week long investigation in the nearest bar ditch. If one is curious, the warrant application is here.

As has been reported, State Rep. Hildebrand (Kerrville) put forth several legislative changes in response to FLDS. The most important was the change in the age at which a marriage can be "blessed" by the state from 14 to 16. There was also an "anti-polygamy" law which has yet to be tested in the real world.

To me, the most under-appreciated player in this drama is Schleicher Co. Sheriff David Doran. By approaching the FLDS leaders non-confrontationaly, he at least got their ear. Thanks to Doran and his connections, FLDS elders cannot claim ignorance of the change in statute: also thanks to Sheriff Doran, this raid did NOT turn into a Waco, Branch Davidian armed stand-off. Should it come to pass that the authorities over-reacted, at least everybody will be alive to hear that judicial determination. If Sheriff Doran comes off as "Andy of Mayberry", well look back at that TV series and its stress on common sense: good ol' boy Andy Taylor was hardly an idiot.

FLDS is one of the original spin-offs from the Utah statehood/Mormon agreement to ban polygamy. The Mormons disavowed polygamy in 1890 and Utah was given statehood in 1896. FLDS is not the only polygamist sect out there, they just get the headlines. Most of the 40-50,000 polygamists tracing back to some sect of Mormon belief escape official attention by drawing a bright line at age 18. Once past the age of legal consent, "spiritual unions" escape most polygamy/bigamy laws by not sanctioning with state license. In the eyes of the law, they are no different from any unwed "shack-up" relationship.

My "Let's take a deep breath" moment on this comes to considering the application of the legal changes not to this sect, but to society at large. We all know that there are an unfortunately large number of under 16 girls in Texas who somehow manage to produce babies each year, completely unrelated to FLDS, virgin birth, or anything remotely religious. If it is society's will that these children be consigned to illegitimacy, something the 14-with-parental-consent law sought to avoid, well, bastardy isn't the social burden it was in my youth, so be it. Do we intend to go after the fathers of these children as criminals?

I grant that FLDS has demonstrated a pattern of forced under-age marriage beyond anything society should tolerate in the name of religious freedom going back to the 1890 schism from the Mormon Church. I am afraid the tools we craft in haste to go after FLDS will turn into an instrument of prosecutorial discretion which could later be used against individuals or groups which simply happen to be out of favor.

I recall the 70's when a few states dusted off the old, long dormant laws prohibiting unwed cohabitation. They were almost always used against "Hippies", mixed-race relationships, or whomever the local law thought to be "subversive". We saw police raiding large houses, counting noses, counting bedrooms, checking whose clothes hung in which closets, and busting unwed adults for sleeping in the same bed. As I recall, the passion for this sort of suppression weakened about the time the Governor's daughter was charged along with the Mayor's son, but perhaps you see where I'm going.

We need to take whatever time is needed and craft laws that are directed to the act we want to abolish, not suppression of a religion most of us find to be "weird". By definition, any religion, being a belief in something supernatural, requires a "suspension of disbelief". Typically, if it is our religion, we call it "Faith" and hold it in high esteem; if it is someone else's religion, we pity the poor brainwashed fool. When Thomas Jefferson forced into reality the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the most notable "cult" protected by it was some new-fangled bunch of deranged Protestants known as "Baptists".

Take the following thought experiment. The majority of us are Christian, so assume we are describing our belief to someone of average intelligence and good moral character, but he is from the other side of the world and knows nearly nothing about Christian doctrine. After you have thoroughly befuddled him with the mystery of the Trinity and the duality of Christ's manhood/Godhood, throw in an explanation of a core Christian doctrine, the Miracle of Transubstantiation. Just for fun, explain that while taking Communion. Assuming he believes you, don't be shocked if he becomes physically ill watching you (from his point of view) drink blood and indulge in cannibalism.

I am not mocking my own religion, I am making the point that to a non-believer, ANY religion is horsefeathers. Civic law needs to rest on non-discriminatory legal precedent, not anyone's Holy Book. To do otherwise invites another generation, using another Holy Book, to turn the tables on us.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

New Bond; A Qualified Winner

Before the new school bond was unveiled Monday evening, I posted here some things voters should look for in a new bond, knowing that something was to be presented Monday night. The early hints had the bond total at $99 million, the origin of my reference to it as a "99-cent sale".

Many of the things I asked voters to look for were indeed present. The only surprise was a Proposition 2 asking for $30 million above that to build a new Central on the present site. I will come back to that Prop later.

As to the foretold $99 million bond, Proposition 1 as now styled, I find few faults with it. It is specific, possibly overly specific, but in contrast with last May's proposal, a huge improvement, and I can say now, I will support it. There is some needed new construction, but rather than the "tear it down and build new" focus of the last bond, this bond looks to maintain and improve on existing schools at existing sites.

The very first item contrasts 180 degrees from the failed issue. It proposes $5.28 million to expand Holiman. A year ago, Holiman and San Jacinto were to be closed and consolidated with Bradford. Coincidentally, the same SAISD meeting announced that Holiman had received recognition for educational excellence limited to 146 schools, not systems, but schools, statewide, and Holiman was a school the last bond would have closed.

San Jacinto (my attendance area school) will receive $6.4 million in upgrades, with $1 million going to new construction to replace "portable" classrooms. Hey, that's OK, call them "trailers", a lot of hard working parents and kids on this side of town still live in "trailers", we're almost perversely proud of being " trailer trash". Bradford, without the consolidation will still get $5.3 million in improvements with a new cafeteria and classrooms. Crockett, instead of being moved to an industrial park where nobody lives, will remain in its neighborhood, and get $8 million in improvements.

This tells me the facilities committe listened to parents and recognized we want our kids going to neighborhood schools. If we sacrifice some economy of scale, so be it. The population in the Lamar area is large enough that a 600+ student size is still "neighborhood", but regardless, we want youngsters to be going to school close to home, and we'll pay the differential. Glenmore, Reagan, Goliad, Santa Rita, all get similar improvements, similarly detailed. Lee middle school, it's in there, in detail.

This bond tells us transparently how much money will be spent on each campus and for what. I have to say, I've been over it several times, I do not find any project our schools don't absolutely need. If anything it is over-specific, might nudge the contractors' bids high. I mean, well, take Santa Rita, scheduled for $6,430,696 in updates. Are we that sure the correct figure might not be $6,430,692? Honestly, in projections such as this with construction costs inflating as I speak, only the first two digits of any figure are significant.

In others details, Lee middle school will see $13 million and Lakeview, the newest campus since the fire rebuild, gets about $2 million, very neatly replacing the same sum which was "diverted" from the insurance check after the fire.

One thing I advised voters to look for was "vision", a long term plan that would leave the children of today's students proud to attend the schools we build or renovate today. This brings in Proposition 2, $30 million which in addition to the $39 million in Prop 1, would rebuild Central as a single building "box" school at the present location.

Trustee Cookie Roberts was not alone in questioning this unanticipated Prop 2. This is crunch time for the future of secondary education in San Angelo. I mentioned Max Parker's "Viewpoints" article on the difficulties imposed on us by UIL district "redistricting" . The idea of SAISD moving toward a three 4A high school system has been kicking around for at least twenty years. The population is moving southwest, and shows no sign of changing, exception to Holiman, which is growing. If we were to go to a three 4A design, we would be halfway to a UIL district in the city limits. As Roberts pointed out, a third high school would increase the opportunity for students to engage in extra-curricular programs, especially sports.

Dr. May stated that, "I don't think there is a single committee member on the advisory board that wouldn't like to have three 4A high schools. It was a level of affordability, we didn't feel we could go there." Here is where the "Vision" comes in. If all the committee members, like it, why not give the voters a chance to speak? I have advised polling on the bond since the defeat of the last bond.

Now I sense, from taking comments over the years, this may be an area where, like smaller elementary schools, voters may be willing to forego big-box efficiency in favor of three high schools placed where the students live. I do not know this, but neither does the committee or the SAISD Board until we have some legitimate public opinion survey. Saints preserve us, not another push-poll such as failed us so badly last time, but a 5-600 respondent demographically diverse honest poll. In the context of a $130 million bond, low 5 figures for a good poll is cheap. As it stands, both SAISD and I are guessing as to voter preference.

I will not revisit arguements "fer or agin" here, but I think that polling is crucial to selling this bond. We have seen last May what happens when we try to sell voters a product they don't like.

From the Sunday post, "What to look for in a Bond", I suggested it might have been wiser to hold off the unveiling until after the HOT poice chief race. I have been making a nuisance of myself at work, the watering holes, anywhere I can get someone to stand still and listen, doing some very "selective" polling on my own. Last night I bought one gentleman an adult beverage, he was the first I had asked who even knew this bond was out there, and he had it confused with the last one. I still awarded him my "gold star for civic interest"; between a mysterious murder, a chief's race, water line breaks, he was the only person I asked who even knew this was on the table.

Trust me that will not hold, not posed on a November election. Unless something changes, I am putting the over/under on voter turnout at 33,500 in Nov. a record setting 60% turnout. Problem is, we will get a lot of voters who will be primarily there for the Presidential, who may or may not know squat about the bond. They will just trip over it on the ballot and think, "Sounds like money out of my pocket, no thank you". On strictly process electoral terms, the bond should be THE headliner on whichever election date it is placed. Well, it is what it is.

I will say this; if I am proved wrong as to voter sentiment, I will give my full-throated support to both Propositions. For now, I will lobby hard to get consideration of a three high school vision, but I am hardly ready to oppose either, if that is what we go with. On Prop 2, I am for the moment, frankly, dithering.

Board members, Superintendent Bonds, you know I have read all the Huckabee material the Committee saw, possibly other info they did not review. The last successful bond was amended before it was put in formal ballot language, we have time to "take the temperature" of voters now, and amend if necessary. If I am "dithering", where do you think the voters, who may well think you are selling the last bond again, might be?

We cannot afford to lose two bonds in a row. If voters really prove to prefer the 5A/4A two high school vision, I will accede to that preference and do what I can to help sell it. The fact that the committee preferred the three school vision tells me we really need to look at that idea before we let the bean-counters flush it.