Sunday, September 28, 2008

School Board Bond Blitz

A week after the Bond facilities committee finally formed up and promised a "blitz" of informtion to encourage voters to vote "yes", and BTW, 37 days from election Tuesday, we finally see the opener: a quarter page ad, page A-8 of the Standard-Times. Excuse me if I am underwhelmed.

Whichever version of God one believes in, He must have a strong sense of irony. Directly above the SAISD quarter-page ad for the bond is a picture of Board member Art Hernandez selling funeral plots/tombstones. One can hope this accidental confluence of events is not predictive.

This week's economic news does not bode well for any tax increase. I have a record of opposing new taxes, including a decade-long losing battle against the half-cent sales tax. Ironically, after three wins, I lost the last round of that fight to Dr. Brian May, head cheerleader for this bond. Dr. May, I'm on your side this time, feel free to chime in at your convenience.

This bond is a tax increase I can, indeed must, embrace, and it has been many years since my kids were in the system. Last time, SAISD deserved to lose, as they did, for the first time in San Angelo's history. It took them too long, but they really have digested that loss and gone 180 degrees from that bond. Long-term maintenance still needs firming up, but it is vastly better than the system that helped defeat the last bond. Kudos here to people I criticized last bond, Steve Van Hoozer and James Elson have done more with less in a shorter time than I would have believed three years ago.

I know we are in a time of economic uncertainty, but we have seen worse and lived to prosper. The original Central High bond was passed during hard times and drought. It turned into a model school that school systems followed nationwide. We are not putting forth that degree of vision now, we are looking to maintain a basically good system.

If you think we have been poorly served by past or existing school boards, get out and un-elect them. I am asking you now, this November, to give our students the basics. This is not a Taj Mahal bond, it is a down to the nuts and bolts needed bond.

We have spent this summer almost $10 million in addition to regular upkeep, I have personally seen a lot done. We are still WAY behind on ADA (disabled) compliance, something a court could order at any moment. I am talking to teachers who tell me about, shall we say "aromatic" bathrooms that incline one to look for a nearby tree, heat and AC that makes "climate control" a rude joke, and sidewalks or other access that make it difficult for disabled students to overcome.

This bond is NOT bells and whistles. It is basic to a functional system, and honestly, less than the system needs to get back to first-rate. Please, find it in your hearts to provide our kids a decent place in which to learn.

I know you get the tax bill as a combination of city/county/SAISD, but don't confuse the items. School tax, as in most places is top, but schools are expensive enterprises, private or public. I remember an 8th grade class in NC with 65 students and that was the "gifted&talented" appropriation.

Let me give you my vision of good schools. The buildings should be at least adequate, class size down to something that allows personal interaction between student and teacher, and access to the net that almost replaces the library. I say almost, because I am old enough to remember and hold to the love of holding a printed book and reading it at my convenience.

Ballinger, Ballinger for the love of God, is giving its high school students laptops. No, I am not denigrating the fine town of Ballinger, I am praising them. You want an incentive to stay in school and graduate (and a possible reduction in textbook cost, that is currently being adjudicated), give each freshman a laptop, if they graduate, it's theirs to keep and upgrade. Rough cost, $2 million a year, not that big in a $100 million budget, and hardware cost is rapidly declining. The social cost of drop-out students is demonstrably higher.

Frankly, as tight-fisted as San Angelo voters claim to be, they have paid little attention to the high item on their tax bill. We finally have a superintendent I honestly believe has more interest in the district than the next job or San Diego football games. Carol Bonds walked into a mis-directed bond she had no input to, and no choice but to support. The Board has been dragged, kicking and screaming, into an entirely different bond from that which failed. A lot of people have worked hard to present this bond, credit especially to Lorenzo Lasater. Please, overlook the speedbumps and vote "yes" Nov. 4.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Sunday Shopping Notes

In my progress from "barkeep" and a bit of a rake to a homebody on the trembling verge of old fartdom, I still notice some details. Allow me to distill a few observations from my last trip across town.

First, I have to go across town because East Angelo has "limited" shopping venues. Nothing conspiratorial there, if I were investing in a large retail box, I would put my money where the money is.

OK, I start on Harris heading west. The traffic lights give me pause to admire downtown at Main, then Chadbourne, then lest I have missed our magnificent courthouse, again at Randolph/ MLK. I'm sure someone can tell me why the southern three blocks of Randolph are still Randoph instead of Martin Luther King . From there west, Sherwood Way lights are pretty well co-ordinated, but downtown, traffic control has a homework assignment. Yes, I know there are only two of you, but earn those big bucks

Being Sunday, I pause at the park with the lilly pads. It really is worth a look. Mr. Landon has done a literally "world-class" job there. One's love for aquatic flora aside, this park seems designed to inspire introspection. My never-to-be-humble opinion, the lilly pads come closer to that than the rusty pile of junk labelled "art" to the south.

Now I merge into Sherwood by the Texas Bank. Hey, guys I remember the "flying saucer", it's still obvious in the interior, which design weenie decided it had to be disguised?

Finally get to HEB. As is too common with grocery stores, about the time I have all the aisles and products memorized, you got to change them! Not really a beef here, the expansion will be good for customers. Please promise me one thing; get it right and then LEAVE IT BE!

Pardon this ellipse into policy, but at checkout I bump into one of these serendipitous moments. It takes a while, the lady in front of me has loaded up two carts with $293 worth of goods. She swipes a Lone Star card for $262 of eligible groceries, then a few dollars more for WIC. My first reaction is, I'm price-shopping, getting house brands if they work, this lady is buying name brand all the way.

As chance would have it, when I get to my truck, she is two spaces down from me, and still unloading stuff: into a spanking new Honda X-Terra. I load my paltry puchase and leave while she is still packing crap I helped pay for.

If I sound reactionary, miffed, or even slap-ass PO'd, well, I was. I drive about in a 30 year old beater that gets me where I need to go. I promise you, should the day come that I have to rely on the gov't "safety net" , well I am not so reactionary as to hold there should not BE a net BUT...

Before I dip into my fellow citizens' hard-earned wallets, I will have traded the Honda for a reliable cheap car; I will not live in a better house than the neighbors whose wallets I am raiding; if I ever get there, I will buy, with your generous money , the cheapest goods on the market.

Done ranting. Talked to my parents in south Fl. Ike gave them a pass, lined up for us, then hit shore and took a hard right Limbaugh would be proud of. They stole our hurricane, again! Keep faith and pray for one good lake-filler of a hurricane rain out. If we can fill Twin Buttes and Ivie, OC Fisher just to make it official, the plaintiffs in this water suit will have that much further to reach.

A huge "attaboy" for the economic development board as to the wind power Martifer deal. This is what "economic development" is supposed to be about. Now we hear upkeep on the railroad is a problem? Drive east on 67 , from here to Ballinger there are stacks of new RR ties every half mile or so. At this time, those stacks have provided landscaping "midnight suppliers" with nice new lumber. This is not the time to get bogged down in a turf war over who maintains what. I was born on Old Ballinger Highway when it was THE road into town. I remember mile-long trains going by, once, twice a day. Whatever it takes, put those ties under the rails, beg, borrow or steal the money to rebuild that one bridge, but getterdoneson, Martifer is the best deal we've seen, or are likely to see for a while.

One final thought; this historic election seems to inspire voters on either side. I have worked elections since '94, I will be there this Nov. 4. In the past, my undervoting precinct has been such that I bring a book to read; a long book. I'm not endorsing anyone here, but I am asking you VOTE DAMMIT! Vote either way, vote for Engleburt Humperdink if it pleases you, but vote. (An aside to the younger set; there really WAS an Engleburt Humperdink. The 60s; you had to be there.) Going back to my literal "Barkeep" days, yes politics gets discussed in bars, but I used to put a plug in some mouths by asking, "Did you vote?" A surprising number of mouthy patrons had to admit not. (Anyone can access records of WHO voted- not for whom they voted, but whether or not they bothered). My line from the barkeep side shut down a lot of arguments: if you didn't vote, you didn't earn your license to bitch.

There are still huge swaths of the world where voting, at least voting against the Party in power, is literally a "bet your life" deal. No excuse for it here, if election day is a problem, we have two weeks of early vote, one Sunday, and if by chance you are going to be an astronaut, Texas Election Code has THAT covered!

School Daze and Dollars

Note: This was published in the Friday edition of the Standard- Times. With permission, I replay it here.

In May of '07, I was the S-Pac treasurer for a group in opposition to that school bond. Prior to that, I had supported the '96 bond.

I will go straight to the point here, forget the flowery language: the school bond on November's ballot is crucial to San Angelo's future. People, we have high fuel prices, we have a substantial bump in water rates, we have something still out there on stormwater unfunded mandates, Yes, it seems like every time we turn around, the government is dipping its hand in our wallet.

I know this. I am not easily persuaded to any tax hike. I am a long time from having a child in the system. I did not oppose the last bond on money, but the direction of the money. Where it would have closed, moved, and consolidated students into mega-schools, this bond preserves and improves existing campuses.

“Portables”, ie trailers, will be replaced by permanent buildings, existing buildings will be brought up to ADA requirements, we will have enough lab space to comply with state mandates for science curriculum. This is not the last bond with “lipstick on the pig”, it is 180 degrees from it. Your elementary kids (Holiman, San Jacinto Crockett etc.) will still be able to walk to school.

One does not have to love the SAISD board to vote “yea”. I have been out in front pointing out policy and tactical errors. This bond would have had better odds had it been presented last Nov. with less competion for public attention. Had it been passed then, it would have bought 15% more real improvement for the dollar, a figure that gets worse by the day. The best I can say here is that the Board finally took to heart a devastating defeat and decided to listen to the voters. In the words of Mark Twain, “First God made idiots; that was for practise. Then He made school boards”.

That is a bit unfair, I have come to know members, and they care, they have been misdirected. Part of that is our fault; we the voters did not make our voices heard until it was too late. San Angelo has never been stingy when it comes to education. We passed the visionary Central High in times of drought and hard money. The last bond was the first time in history local voters turned down a school bond.

I know we are flying in the face of tax payer fatigue. We don't have many chances to stand athwart history and say “NO”. I am telling you, I have kept up with SAISD issues, I am begging you, anyone who gave me credibility on the last bond election, please, trust me, this is not a good time for a taxpayer rebellion.

A dozen years ago, I wrote here supporting the '96 bond and responding to a Cookie Roberts column in opposition to that bond. Stealing a line from my column of 12 years ago, this a “Pay me now, or pay me later” moment, and paying later will not be cheaper. Had Ms. Roberts' view prevailed in '96, Lincoln students would be attending in a building older than I am, and God only knows where we might be cramming in 700 Lamar students.

Locally, realitistically, this bond vote is as important as any decision we will make Nov. 4. Conaway will be our Congresscritter, Texas' electoral votes will go to McCain, that decision will be made in Michigan or Florida, or somewhere, but this bond vote will be ours, and ours alone.
Our childrens' education is as important a part of the city's infrastructure as streets and pipes, long term, possibly moreso. Right now, with all the other items on the ballot, this gambler puts the odds about 20% against. Please prove me wrong.