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December 7th, 2012:

Friday random ten: For the ladies, part 8

We come to the end of our lady lists.

1. Roxanne – The Police
2. Sally Goodin – Hot Club of Cowtown
3. Sally Goodin – The Chieftains
4. Sally Simpson – The Who
5. Sister Fatima – Don McLean
6. Susie Q – Creedence Clearwater Revival
7. Sylvia’s Mother – Dr. Hook and The Medicine Show
8. Thumbelina – The Pretenders
9. Wendy – Rexway
10. Windy – The Association

In re: Sally Goodin, the line between Celtic folk and Western swing is finer than you might think. Hope you enjoyed this little excursion as much as I did. Maybe I’ll do the same thing for dude names. I’ll bet there are far fewer such songs in my collection.

Plaintiffs rest their case in school finance lawsuit

Phase one is over.

Hundreds of districts suing the state over its school finance system wrapped up their case Wednesday with testimony that largely blamed the Legislature for creating the current funding crisis that stripped away an unprecedented $5.4 billion from public schools.

After more than six weeks of testimony, the four plaintiff groups of school districts put on their final witness, who summarized the main arguments against the funding system and asserted school districts will never be able to properly educate all their students without major changes.

On the list of the biggest challenges for schools are a rapidly increasing number of lower-income students, a new testing program that is already seeing widespread failures, the inability of districts to raise enough local tax revenue, and a cycle of funding cuts that is thinning teacher ranks and increasing class sizes.

John Folks, former Superintendent of San Antonio’s Northside ISD and 2011 Superintendent of the Year, was the closing witness for the school districts.

Folks discussed the impact of education budget cuts on Northside ISD, where officials cut spending by $61 million before the Legislature took away another $85 million for the past two academic years.

The district has cut computer specialists, library assistants, gifted and talent teachers, counselors, coaches, special education teachers and classroom teachers. In all, 80 elementary teachers, 80 middle school teachers and 64 high school teachers were eliminated, Folks told Judge John Dietz.

“We went from 6,218 teachers in 2010-11 to 5,972 in 2011-12 at a time when our enrollment increased by 2,500 kids,” he said, adding that Northside had to increase elementary class sizes for the first time.

Folks also described the structural deficit the Legislature created while passing the 2006 school-finance bill. Legislators miscalculated when they reduced school property taxes and replaced the revenue with a new business tax, which fell “far short” of what’s needed to replace the property tax cut, he said. The problems were compounded when lawmakers used one-time federal stimulus money in 2009 to fill the revenue hole.

“It (stimulus funds) was one-time money. We urged them not to use that money to fill the hole because it was going away. They were told not to put that money into recurring expenditures, but that is exactly what the Legislature did,” he said.

Like most Texas school districts, Northside’s student population is undergoing a major transformation. In the past 12 years, the district’s percentage of low-income students has jumped to 54 percent from 41 percent.

“As you get more of those students in your district, you have to have the resources needed to help those students be successful. I hold them to the same standard as I do other students who are not low-income or limited-English proficient,” Folks said.

He said districts have limited options to deal with their recent funding reductions.

“There is no meaningful discretion anymore,” Folks said, explaining Northside ISD has not held a tax-rate election to raise its current maintenance and operation rate of $1.04 because it has been forced to have a bond election every three years to handle tremendous enrollment growth requiring new schools.

And now Phase Two begins.

Shelley Dahlberg, lead counsel for the state, said during opening statements in late October that the school districts must prove that they are spending their money efficiently on providing students foundational knowledge rather than on extras such as iPads, teacher aides and sports.

“They make big, big budget decisions within their discretion,” Dahlberg said.

The Legislature has delegated a substantial amount of local control to the school districts when it passes on public money to them, Dahlberg maintained, so it would not be fair to fault the state for the districts’ failure to use that money wisely.

Speaking directly to state District Judge John Dietz, Dahlberg added: “I would ask you to look at district choices.”

[…]

Of the districts’ arguments, the most sweeping — and difficult to prove — is that the state has failed to provide adequate funding to ensure that students can meet the increasingly rigorous academic standards mandated by the Legislature.

In the 2005 school finance ruling, the state Supreme Court seemed to put the Legislature on notice that it could be headed for trouble absent reforms. The court cited substantial evidence that “the public education system has reached the point where continued improvement will not be possible absent significant change, whether that change take the form of increased funding, improved efficiencies, or better methods of education.”

But the high court did not uphold the district court’s finding that that system violated the Texas Constitution.

“An impending constitutional violation is not an existing one, and it remains to be seen whether the system’s predicted drift toward constitutional inadequacy will be avoided by legislative reaction to widespread calls for changes,” the Supreme Court wrote.

The state has homed in on that court language to suggest that the districts are jumping the gun in bringing the case so early in the roll-out of the new, more rigorous testing and accountability system.

So the state’s argument is basically “it’s too early to say that there are any problems, and if there are we can fix them later”. That may be true, but it won’t be of much use to the students who will be ill served until “later” arrives, whenever that is. Still, the state doesn’t have to have a compelling case, because the burden of proof is on the plaintiffs. That’s always a high bar to clear. We’ll see how much of a dent the state can make in the districts’ arguments.

On the Parking Benefit District

A proposed ordinance to create a parking benefit district in the Washington Avenue corridor was on Council’s agenda this week, but it was tagged and will wait a week while everyone gets up to speed on it.

CM Ellen Cohen

District C Council member Ellen Cohen says the city has been working with business owners to come up with a plan to test having parking meters,not only better regulate the constant influx of traffic, but:

“To deal with the issues of parking, increased crime, of safety, and neighbors live several streets off, and they walk in the evenings to restaurants and other services there. It’s a great place, but we want to make sure that it works, and so we’re gonna give it an 18 month trial and see how it goes.”

Mayor Annise Parker says contrary to some belief, they’re not creating an entertainment district.

“We’re trying to create a tool, so we can better manage the intersection between the businesses and the neighborhoods, and the public that needs to travel these major thoroughfares. I do hope that taking some of the lessons learned from creation of this parking benefit district will have 18 months to prove itself. We are not trying to create a one-size-fits-all model of this is what a parking benefit district looks like.”

Jane West is president of the Washington Avenue Coalition. She says money generated from parking meters will go to things like more sidewalks, better lighting and overall improved safety.

“This is a rare example of where members of our residential community, our business community and our development community have come together in a consensus opinion, for a proposal before city council. We’re disappointed that is wasn’t vote on this week, but we anticipate a favorable vote next week.”

See here for some background. I think this is an idea that makes a lot of sense. It’s based on the simple principle that parking is a valuable commodity, and it seeks to leverage that commodity and invest the revenue it generates back into the district. If you’ve ever tried to walk along Washington Avenue, you know how badly the infrastructure there needs work. Anyway, courtesy of CM Cohen’s office, here are some documents to help familiarize yourself with this proposal:

The PBD FAQ and flyer, plus the full presentation put together by the city. Be sure to at least read this document.

The left and right halves of the map of the area in question.

We’ll see what Council does with this, but I fully expect it to pass. What do you think about the idea?

The hospitality industry industry’s effect on the economy

I had the opportunity recently to attend a presentation by the Greater Houston Restaurant Association (GHRA) of a study they sponsored of the economic impact of the hospitality industry in Harris County. Here’s the high level view:

The study found Houston’s hotels, restaurants and drinking establishments make significant annual contributions to the local economy. The ardent purchasing power of the hospitality industry is both directly and indirectly linked with significant benefits for local businesses in the form of sales, employment, employee income and taxes.

“The combined efforts of the industry have resulted in an apparent economic boon to the Houston economy; the vibrancy of our local industry is a major draw within our city and the surrounding metropolitan area,” said GHRA President, Reggie Coachman. “The economic success of the region’s hospitality industry is directly linked to the thousands of owners, employees, suppliers and wholesalers that support it.”

The study reported hotels, restaurants and their employees contributed an estimated $792 million in direct, indirect and induced state and local taxes in 2011. The majority of direct taxes were property taxes paid by hospitality industry establishments and their employees. For every million dollars of direct industry sales, there was an estimated $700,000 of associated indirect and induced sales related to hospitality industry purchases from local suppliers, hospitality industry and supplier employee purchases from local businesses. Hotels and restaurants remitted $740 million during 2011 in sales and hotel occupancy taxes on consumer purchases.

Hotels and restaurants in Harris County are responsible for directly employing more than 162,000 workers, roughly nine percent of the county’s workforce, and generating $7.9 billion in annual sales revenue. Additionally, there were an estimated 41,800 indirect and induced jobs created to support the industry. The total employment contribution of the Harris County hospitality industry is estimated to be 203,900 full-time and part-time jobs.

The hospitality industry’s total Harris County direct, indirect and induced income contribution totaled $6.0 billion in 2011, including $3.5 billion of direct wages, tips and benefits paid to hospitality industry employees and $2.5 billion of indirect and induced income earned by employees of suppliers and other businesses. For each dollar of direct compensation paid to hospitality industry employees, the total estimated contribution to Harris County personal income was $1.70.

The study was done by Ernst and Young for the GHRA’s 75th anniversary, and you can see the bullet points here and the full study here. One of the things I find impressive about this is that the number of dining and drinking establishments grew from about 5000 in the county in 2001 to about 6000 in 2011, with only 2008 seeing a drop in the total. Given the way the economy has been buffeted in that time, that’s really something. Something they talked about at the presentation is how hospitality is the first job for many people. That was true for me, and I think it does you a lot of good to spend a few months waiting tables or working some other aspect of food service. Given how Houston has grown in stature as a restaurant town, it’s good to see the benefit of this quantified. Now that the GHRA has this study, I hope it will help lead it to the right conclusion about food trucks. Anyway, it’s good stuff, so check it out. Tory, who was also at the presentation, has more.

How long before marriage equality comes to Texas?

As is so often the case, the state of Texas will lag behind the rest of the country on the issue.

On the right side of history

If DOMA is struck down, questions will be raised about states that don’t recognize same-sex marriages and if it matters where a couple lives to receive federal benefits, [Ken Upton, a senior staff attorney in the Dallas office of Lambda Legal, the national LGBT civil rights group] said. Those questions won’t be answered until after the decision has been handed down.

One thing is clear, though: Contrary to popular belief, a favorable DOMA ruling wouldn’t require states like Texas to recognize same-sex marriage.

“I’m not sure this is going to completely answer all the questions if the court takes it up, but it’s going to move us a lot further down the road,” Upton said. “In terms of marriage, it won’t have any affect on that. The Supreme Court’s decision in DOMA cases is not going to tell states they do or don’t have to marry someone. It’s just going to tell the federal government if you’re legally married, you have to recognize it.”

Texas and the other states with marriage amendments have two potential paths to marriage equality — repeal the bans before passing marriage equality legislatively or at the ballot box, or await a future Supreme Court ruling forcing them to recognize same-sex marriages.

Most advocates believe the court will force Texas along with other holdout states to recognize same-sex marriage in about a decade as more and more states legalize the practice.

Equality Texas Executive Director Chuck Smith said the likely outcome would be a majority of states approving same-sex marriage, leading Congress or the Supreme Court “to make a decision on a national level.”

“I don’t think it’ll be all that long,” Smith said. “I think it’s certainly probable within a five- to 10-year timeframe.”

Smith said Texas’ marriage amendment could be repealed, but it would take educating voters, as well as electing more politicians who support marriage equality. Repealing the amendment would require a two-thirds majority vote of both the state House and state Senate to place it on the ballot, then approval from a simple majority of voters.

“It is possible if there is intense, on-the-ground work convincing Texas that public opinion is on our side,” Smith said. “So it would be a significant amount of electoral change in order to legislatively change marriage in Texas. That’s not impossible, but it just takes work.”

I don’t think a legislative solution is likely to be viable. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy that Rep. Garnet Coleman introduces a bill to repeal Texas’ awful Double Secret Illegal Anti-Gay Marriage constitutional amendment, but it’s precisely because this bit of bigotry has been enshrined in our state’s constitution that I don’t think it can be removed by the same means. I can envision a legislative majority on marriage equality during this decade if I’m feeling optimistic, but a two-thirds supermajority? Not in the foreseeable future, possibly not in my lifetime. The numbers are improving, but there’s still a long way to go. No, one way or another I believe it will be settled in a courtroom. My assumption has always been that when and if DOMA is struck down by the Supreme Court, sooner or later someone will file a lawsuit in Texas arguing that the state’s law discriminates against those who don’t have the wherewithal to travel to a more enlightened state to get married, and that this represents an unequal situation that cannot be allowed to stand. How long that might take – I assume it too would ultimately be decided by SCOTUS – I have no idea. But first things first. Let’s hope SCOTUS does the right thing on DOMA, and we’ll go from there.