in Houston, Texas
Waco ISD ground zero for Texas student discipline reform
Tuesday, Oct 30, 2012, 02:38PM CST
By Curt Olson
Waco school bus

A new student discipline program that emphasizes handling bad behavior in schools rather than courts has taken hold in Waco ISD.

Advocates believe that if the program improves academic outcomes for teens, it could become a model for a broader shift away from criminalizing student behavior in a state where students have been ticketed for horseplay, cursing or putting on perfume. The pilot, initiated by the the governor’s office, is in its second year.

Charlene Hamilton is among the believers.

“We’re living in a culture of zero tolerance. We got away from classroom management,” said Hamilton, who oversees the project for the Waco Independent School District. “We are remedying that here.”

The students she works with used to be slapped with police citations and sent before a judge. Now, teachers and students are trying to address situations on campus through a program called Suspend Kids to School. The program is aimed at preventing students teetering on the edge of suspension or expulsion from landing in alternative education programs.

Gov. Rick Perry’s Criminal Justice Division picked Waco ISD for the $600,000 pilot project because it has its own police department, officers were ticketing students for behavior issues and Waco has close proximity to Austin. If Perry likes what he sees when a report on the program emerges from Texas A&M University’s Public Policy Research Institute, state leaders may reform zero tolerance laws adopted in the mid-1990s.

Under Suspend Kids to School, teachers receive training to better manage their classrooms, and leaders among students receive training in peer mediation and campus teen courts. The district also has a Saturday course to help parents address student behavior.

The early signs have proven positive.

The number of students referred to alternative school has dropped dramatically. The district referred 104 students to Challenge Academy, the county’s alternative education program, last school year, Waco ISD spokesman Dale Caffey said. So far this year Waco ISD has referred three students and estimates that with the reforms the district will refer 22 students total this year.

The number of citations for Class C misdemeanors dropped 42 percent in 2011-12 compared to a year earlier, Perry spokeswoman Lucy Nashed said.

These strategies could bite into the estimated $600 million spent per year statewide on campus policing and on-campus and off-campus alternative education programs. The 11 biggest school districts in Texas spent $140 million last school year on disciplinary and juvenile justice programs for suspended and expelled students, on top of some $87 million spent on campus security efforts, according to a report released this week by Texas Appleseed, an Austin-based social justice think tank.

There are costs to families, too.

discipline in texas schools

Ticketed students typically land before a local justice of the peace, where they can be fined $500 for fighting or other disruptions. Throw in lost time from work for a parent to take a child to court and pay the fine, and the cost climbs higher.

At least in Waco ISD, the reforms don’t mean a reduction in costs from staffing the police department of about 30 people. A district spokesman said that responsibilities would shift, turning police who write citations now into truancy officers.

“The objective of the program is not to decrease the size of the WISD police force. However, the program is enabling police officers to be spend less time handling disciplinary related matters that are more appropriate for school administrators to handle,” Caffey said via e-mail to Texas Watchdog. “Police officers ... security guards and crossing guards, all of whom make up the Waco ISD police department, are still needed to keep our schools safe.”

Campus police for school districts write some 275,000 tickets a year for disrupting class, disorderly conduct, truancy and other conduct violations, according to a 2010 study by Texas Appleseed. Study authors say it’s likely the number of tickets written “grossly exceeds that number,” based on low reporting of data to the Texas Office of Court Administration.

Many students are repeatedly ticketed, with fines of $50 to $500 for each offense.

“One municipal court providing data to Texas Appleseed indicated a youth had received as many as 11 tickets. In the same court, more than 350 youth had received multiple tickets, with some receiving six or more,” the study states. (See page 69.)

Officers in Waco ISD issued 1,070 tickets in 2006-07, when the district had more than 15,400 students, the Texas Appleseed study found.

A separate report by the Council of State Governments Justice Center suggests all that ticketing is associated with poorer academic outcomes.

Researchers for the Council of State Governments followed every Texas seventh-grader in 2000, 2001 and 2002 — about 930,000 students — for six years. The study found that almost a third of students disciplined ended up repeating at least one grade, and that African-American and special education students were disproportionately disciplined.

“This report demonstrates that if we want our kids to do better in school and reduce their involvement in the juvenile justice system, we in the legislature need to continue looking into how teachers can be better supported and how the school discipline system can be improved,” State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, and chairman of the Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee, said via a Council news release when the report was published.

A spokeswoman for the Council said officials nationwide started examining different aspects of school discipline earlier this month, though their findings are more than a year away.

“The policy recommendations will focus on both state and local efforts that can be tailored to the distinct needs of jurisdictions, and we hope that the report will have utility for lawmakers” and others dealing with juvenile justice, Council spokeswoman Martha Plotkin said via email.

***
Contact Curt Olson at curt@texaswatchdog.org or 512-557-3800. Follow him on Twitter @olson_curt.

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Photo of bus by flickr user ErnestBludger, used via a Creative Commons license.

Creative Commons License
Like this story? Then steal it. This report by Texas Watchdog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License. That means bloggers, citizen-journalists, and journalists may republish the story on their sites with attribution and a link to Texas Watchdog. If you do re-use the story, e-mail news@texaswatchdog.org.

Austin officials escape charges in open meetings case, pledge to follow law in agreement with Travis County DA
Thursday, Oct 18, 2012, 12:42PM CST
By Curt Olson
Austin City Hall

Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Austin City Council members will avoid being charged with criminal violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act by agreeing to conditions of future behavior.

The move by some city leaders to sign a “compliance agreement” seeks to end the long investigation into accusations city officials violated the open meetings law. Leffingwell and Councilman Mike Martinez signed the agreement this week, and former Councilwoman Randi Shade signed it during the summer, the Austin American-Statesman reports.

Under the agreement, city leaders admit no wrongdoing. They will take open meetings classes and have pledged to follow open meetings laws.

“We said from the beginning that (council members) did not do anything sinister or improper. They are hardworking and have made every effort to be transparent, to go beyond what they think is required in the Open Meetings Act, because they all agree open government is a good thing,” Martinez’s attorney, Joe Turner, told the Statesman.

Austin resident Brian Rodgers filed a complaint with Travis County District Attorney David Escamilla in January 2011, contending council members routinely gathered in small groups to discuss city business prior to council meetings, the newspaper reported. A “walking quorum” is a violation of the state open meetings law.

As part of his investigation, Escamilla asked the officials to turn over notes and e-mail records. Media outlets including the Austin Bulldog, an investigative news website, did as well.

The Bulldog sued the city and council in March 2011, arguing officials failed to disclose all emails and other messages regarding city business sent on private accounts and mobile devices. That lawsuit is pending.

By June, the investigation had cost Austin taxpayers $344,000 to hire three separate Austin law firms to advise city officials on the investigation and open meetings issues, according to the newspaper.

***
Contact Curt Olson at curt@texaswatchdog.org or 512-557-3800. Follow him on Twitter @olson_curt.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of Austin City Hall by flickr user Michael Connell, used via a Creative Commons license.

Water company in San Marcos hikes $40 meter fee to $4,000
Wednesday, Oct 17, 2012, 11:09AM CST
By Curt Olson
water

Customers of a San Marcos water company are experiencing sticker shock after the utility catapulted the water hookup fee from $40 to $4,000.

The Crystal Clear Water Supply Corp. was downright murky in its notices about its purchase of the previous water supplier, residents say, with the detail of the astronomical increase in the fine print. There’s also the matter that on the day of the sale any inactive meters with an outstanding balance on the books would require a new hook-up charge, KVUE reported.

Crystal Clear’s attorney Mark Zeppa said the company was “under no obligation” to tell customers of the closing date or its consequences, according to KENS in San Antonio.

Residents are turning to their state lawmakers because Crystal Clear won’t budge.

***
Contact Curt Olson at curt@texaswatchdog.org or 512-557-3800. Follow him on Twitter @olson_curt.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of water by flickr user fd, used via a Creative Commons license.

Feds to withhold $100 million from La Joya ISD if school lunch program errors persist
Monday, Oct 15, 2012, 03:23PM CST
By Curt Olson
lunch tray

La Joya Independent School District has two months to prove it can account for all lunches served in the district or risk losing out on $100 million in federal funding.

The district has struck out twice so far. The district has reported serving thousands more meals a month than it actually doled out, two audits conducted by the Texas Department of Agriculture in the last year showed.

If a third audit in December reveals discrepancies, the district will lose $100 million over five years, the Mission Progress Times reported. The Rio Grande Valley district has about 29,000 students, more than 90 percent of them identified as “economically disadvantaged.”

In November the district reported 4,600 more meals than were actually served. In March, the district over-reported by 3,200. Federal officials suspended funds for school lunches, and the district has been paying about $1.5 million a month since then, the McAllen Monitor reports.

Superintendent Alda Benavides has implemented stronger monitoring of school lunches for the district.

“I make a promise to the community that whatever the situation, that we as a board will work diligently to make sure the students of La Joya ISD will continue to see their free lunch. This is something we need to take seriously,” said La Joya ISD Trustee Isaac Sulemana, as reported by the Progress Times.

***
Contact Curt Olson at curt@texaswatchdog.org or 512-557-3800. Follow him on Twitter @olson_curt.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of lunch tray by flickr user bookgrl, used via a Creative Commons license.

City of Austin official insists taxpayers not taken for a ride with purchase of Mercedes Benz vans
Thursday, Oct 11, 2012, 11:55AM CST
By Curt Olson
Mercedes Benz hood ornament

With an eye toward the environment, Austin officials have outfitted the city fleet with vans by luxury carmaker Mercedes Benz, KEYE TV reports.

The 2010 Mercedes Benz vans cost about $17,000 more than the comparable Ford and $5,000 more than the comparable Chevrolet. However, city of Austin officials say they expect to recoup $10,000 in fuel savings from the Benz vans, which run on biodiesel. City fleet manager Gerry Calk says when you factor the Benz’s higher resale value, the purchase makes sense.

The Mercedes Benz model still ends up being “slightly more expensive” over its lifetime than the similar model from Ford, but less expensive than the similar Chevrolet, KEYE reports.

The news came as a surprise to longtime Mercedes car owner Frank Muller, who pointed out that once the warranty on a Mercedes expires, the cost rises for repairs.

“Certainly a Mercedes is not something that I would think is appropriate,” Muller told the TV station.

However, Calk insists he’s not taking Austin taxpayers for a ride.

“My goal in life, if you will, is to make sure taxpayers get the best bang for their buck for every dollar we spend,” Calk tells KEYE.

***
Contact Curt Olson at curt@texaswatchdog.org or 512-557-3800. Follow him on Twitter @olson_curt.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of Mercedes Benz hood ornament by flickr user JWSherman, used via a Creative Commons license.

Houston Public Works employees shop, work side businesses on taxpayer’s time
Wednesday, Oct 10, 2012, 01:02PM CST
By Curt Olson
Houston City Hall

Taxpayers scoff when they see road crews standing around, but the city of Houston’s Department of Public Works and Engineering has workers who are far more creative. They shop, run errands, go home and work their side businesses.

All while they are supposed to be repairing streets and sewers for Houston taxpayers, according to an analysis of personnel records conducted by KHOU.

Consider utility worker Keith Perkins, who has spent up to three hours a work day the past couple of years tending to his horses at his private stable. Or field supervisor Carlos Ramos, who attended an auto auction to bid on vehicles for his side business while on the city clock.

There’s also meter reader Marcus Estes, who KHOU trailed one afternoon. Estes sat in a drug store parking lot for 20 minutes, drove his city pickup in and out of neighborhoods, headed to the Gulfgate Mall and spent about 30 minutes in a grocery store. Shortly after, he clocked out.

When KHOU questioned him about how he spent taxpayer time, Estes drove away. The department, which has fired some workers for slacking on the job, issued Estes a verbal warning.

"Unacceptable, unacceptable, unacceptable," Public Works spokesman Alvin Wright said of such conduct. “The public demands and expects our employees to be accountable, and so we feel an obligation to make sure that that occurs.”

Department leaders call the employees’ behavior dereliction of duty and theft of time. The department turned to GPS technology beginning last summer to track the location of employees that it suspects of wrongdoing. The strategy has caught about 24 employees so far. Public Works is asking residents who see workers goofing off to snap a photo, jot down the details and send the info to the city.

***
Contact Curt Olson at curt@texaswatchdog.org or 512-557-3800. Follow him on Twitter @olson_curt.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of Houston City Hall by flickr user luna715, used via a Creative Commons license.

Allen ISD approves $2 million in one-time payments to staff
Tuesday, Oct 09, 2012, 11:37AM CST
By Curt Olson
money

Allen Independent School District, known for its shiny, new $60 million football stadium, has a split school board over $2 million in lump-sum raises to district teachers and staff.

The recent 4-3 board vote authorized the one-time payments in November, ranging from $375 to $1,000. The payments are aimed at keeping district pay competitive with that of its neighbors, the Allen American reports.

Trustee Mark Jones contended the raises are fiscally irresponsible after asking taxpayers to dig deeper for Allen ISD last November.

"Our greatest charge is to ensure the future financial viability of this school district,” he said. “I don't think we can do that by offering a $2 million bonus when we just got finished asking our taxpayers to pony up 13 cents extra just last year.”

Supporters see the move as the district keeping its promise to employees at a time of state budget cuts that have hurt Allen ISD. They argued it is the best conservative option given the district’s circumstances.

The district of about 19,000 students in Collin County, north of Dallas, has gained national attention for its $60 million football stadium, which opened in August. There’s also been controversy over the location and about $40 million in construction costs for a new bus service center, CultureMap Dallas recently reported.

***
Contact Curt Olson at curt@texaswatchdog.org or 512-557-3800. Follow him on Twitter @olson_curt.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of money by flickr user 401 (K) 2012, used via a Creative Commons license.

Former mayor sues El Paso, city leaders to prevent demolition of City Hall for baseball stadium
Monday, Oct 08, 2012, 01:43PM CST
By Curt Olson
baseballs

The fight over the proposed Triple A baseball stadium in El Paso will head to the courtroom as former Mayor Ray Salazar and two others have sued the city and several city officials to prevent the demolition of City Hall.

David Ochoa and Jesus B. Ochoa Jr. joined Salazar, the city’s mayor from 1977 to 1979, in the lawsuit filed Thursday in federal court against Mayor John Cook, City Manager Joyce Wilson and city Reps. Susie Byrd, Ann Morgan Lilly, Cortney Niland, Dr. Michiel Noe and Steven Ortega, the El Paso Times reports. The five city representatives have voted to let the baseball stadium proceed.

The 13-page complaint alleges an orchestrated strategy by Wilson, Niland and Ortega to ensure the stadium proceeds as “a done deal.” The lawsuit also seeks immediate relief because city hall’s demolition could begin soon, and Salazar and the Ochoas want voters to decide the issue.

The lawsuit comes two weeks after City Council approved a contract with MountainStar Sports for the lease of the ballpark, which requires the demolition of City Hall, the Times reports. The group would bring the Tuscon Padres, an affiliate of the San Diego Padres, to El Paso for the 2014 season.

This also comes following two attempts by city residents to put the issue on the November ballot. The second petition had enough signatures, but it was too late for the November ballot.

The lawsuit also comes amid heavy campaigning for passage of a “quality of life” bond issue. Voters also will decide the fate of an increase in the hotel tax to cover most of the stadium’s construction cost.

***
Contact Curt Olson at curt@texaswatchdog.org or 512-557-3800. Follow him on Twitter @olson_curt.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of baseballs by flickr user paul.hadsall, used via a Creative Commons license.

Former El Paso ISD superintendent Lorenzo Garcia sentenced to 3 ½ years in prison, ordered to pay $236K in restitution, fines
Friday, Oct 05, 2012, 04:00PM CST
By Curt Olson
scales of justice

Former El Paso Independent School District Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia was sentenced to three-and-a-half years for his role in a scheme to manipulate test scores.

Garcia, who pleaded guilty in June to two counts of conspiracy to commit mail fraud, will also pay $180,000 in restitution and a $56,500 fine, the El Paso Times reports. Garcia steered a $450,000 district contract to a mistress and rigged the testing system to boost scores and meet federal accountability students.

State Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, who made the first accusations in 2010 that ultimately proved true, called on Senior U.S. District Court Judge David Briones to give Garcia a harsher sentence.

Garcia’s sentencing ends only a part of the sordid story that has plagued EPISD. The district, under the guidance of trustees who have failed to lead, is under state oversight.

***
Contact Curt Olson at curt@texaswatchdog.org or 512-557-3800. Follow him on Twitter @olson_curt.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of scales of justice by flickr user mikecogh, used via a Creative Commons license.

Robstown ISD voters will decide fate of smaller bond issue after $1 million mistake
Thursday, Oct 04, 2012, 03:00PM CST
By Curt Olson
money

A last-minute change of plans and human error created a $1 million mistake for the bond issue on the November ballot for Robstown Independent School District voters.

District leaders discussed plans over the summer for a $12.5 million bond issue to demolish and reconstruct 30 Robstown High School classrooms and a cafeteria and library. Days before the final vote, trustees increased the bond issue to $13.5 million after input from financial advisers, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times reports.

The district’s bond counsel didn’t amend the election order, and the board secretary, who was absent from the special meeting for the final vote, didn’t notice it before sending it to Nueces County elections officials, the Caller-Times reported. Officials of the district of more than 3,300 students about 20 miles west of Corpus Christi sought the $1 million cushion in the bond for unexpected higher costs for the projects.

The district chose not to spend $15,000 to change the ballots, the newspaper reported.

Robstown ISD School Board President Osvaldo Romero wasn’t happy when he noticed the mistake on a sample ballot.

"I was livid,” he told the newspaper. “That's a million-dollar mistake.”

If voters approved a $13.5 million bond, Robstown ISD tax rates would have increased to $1.67 per $100 valuation from $1.61 per $100 valuation. That will drop if voters approve the $12.5 million bond issue on Nov. 6, though the dust hasn’t settled enough for officials to say by how much. When they do, we hope they’ve checked those figures twice.

***
Contact Curt Olson at curt@texaswatchdog.org or 512-557-3800. Follow him on Twitter @olson_curt.

Keep up with all the latest news from Texas Watchdog. Fan our page on Facebook, follow us on Twitter and Scribd, and fan us on YouTube. Join our network on de.licio.us, and put our RSS feeds in your newsreader. We're also on MySpace, Digg, FriendFeed, and tumblr.

Photo of money by flickr user 401 (K) 2012, used via a Creative Commons license.

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Peter Corbett ✈ | 7 years 8 months
I'm at McCarran International Airport (LAS) w/ @almacy http://t.co/KvmId07i
KERA Public Media | 7 years 8 months
TONIGHT at 7pm on KERA TV: Presidential Debate: Learn more at PBS NewsHour. http://t.co/Z9kYdun8
PBS MediaShift | 7 years 8 months
Tech Snafus Make Bill O'Reilly/Jon Stewart 'Rumble' More of a Stumble http://t.co/4OfeBlrG (@kegill | @pbsmediashift) #rumble2012
Will Sullivan | 7 years 8 months
Great addition, been burned too much by bad subs. "Google Play Announces Free Trials For In-App Subscription Services" http://t.co/TOLgRVak
TxDOT | 7 years 8 months
I-35W/North Tarrant Express #constantcontact http://t.co/QDzrQumu
keyetv | 7 years 8 months
Serial shotgun robbers suspects arrested. http://t.co/ka8T4U9B
Karen Townsend | 7 years 8 months
Aren't State Dept career people suppose to be non-partisan? Not the political appointees, the career people. #Libya
San Antonio Current | 7 years 8 months
Go ahead, chalk it up http://t.co/YMWpC5wM #satx #chalkitup
Caller.com | 7 years 8 months
Scanner: Bathroom on fire in 600 block of Virginia, CC fire dept. on the way
Ballotpedia | 7 years 8 months
Does your state offer early voting? Do you qualify? Find out! #election2012 http://t.co/eodxBYVD
Dallas Morning News | 7 years 8 months
Why a Dallas-area cycling coach believed Lance Armstrong was drug-free (video) http://t.co/gURdYkj1
Caller.com | 7 years 8 months
Dozens of illegal waste dumpers sentenced in Jim Wells Co.; others on the run: http://t.co/NgerCdsQ
Karen Townsend | 7 years 8 months
Consistently impressed w/raullabrador when I listen to him in Congressional hearings. #Libya
Cory Crow | 7 years 8 months
Diigo: United raises fares by up to $10 per round trip - Business - http://t.co/kWY8gwPV http://t.co/bw25JP5R
News 4 WOAI | 7 years 8 months
If you see news in or around San Antonio 'SEND IT' to @NEWS4WOAI here: http://t.co/uMqbMXQv OR email us at: NEWSDESK@WOAITV.COM
swamplot | 7 years 8 months
Mining Houston Garbage for Recycling and Compost Gold http://t.co/HMMBArMX
swamplot | 7 years 8 months
Daily Demolition Report: Tulane Highway http://t.co/JXmkSx11
KFDA NewsChannel10 | 7 years 8 months
Obama and Romney: Where they stand on the issues http://t.co/y3VrPfkM
Williamson County | 7 years 8 months
Mental Health Awareness Week FREE Webinar:"Understanding Depression-How to Help You or a Loved One" Thurs,Oct 11@1pm-https://t.co/YUWi19WY
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