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June 21st, 2014:

Saturday video break: Careless Whisper

Back to the 80s, a time and place we’ve visited more than a few times, and one of the biggest hits by Wham!.

I wasn’t a big fan of Wham! back in the day, but this was the song of theirs I liked the most. I was amused when it made Dave Barry’s “Book of Bad Songs” due to objections to the line about guilty feet not having rhythm. That always mad sense to me. Anyway, here’s a cover by Ben Folds and Rufus Wainwright:

Vocal harmony almost always adds something positive to a song. Any other cover versions of this out there that you like?

HISD passes its budget

They restored a lot of funding, but it’s the changes to magnet school funding that everyone is talking about.

BagOfMoney

Bouncing back from recent cash-strapped years, the Houston school board Thursday approved a bigger budget that gives raises to all employees, provides more money to campuses and may require a tax rate increase.

The board, over complaints from passionate parents, also voted 5-4 to overhaul the system for funding the district’s beloved magnet schools. Superintendent Terry Grier’s plan to standardize the haphazard funding for the specialty programs will slash some schools’ budgets and boost others over the next three years.

The board will not set the tax rate until October, but the district’s financial chief, Ken Huewitt, said he estimates needing a 1-cent or 2-cent hike, depending on the final tally of property values. The increase is tied to the district’s voter-approved 2012 bond program.

Any rate increase would come on top of the 3 cents the board added last year to fund operating expenses, which put the rate at $1.1867 per $100 of assessed value. With property values rising across the city, many taxpayers would feel an even bigger hit if the rate goes up as expected.

[…]

Grier’s plan to standardize magnet school funding drew the most controversy, bringing roughly 60 parents, students and community members to the board meeting to speak in opposition. The proposal funds programs with the same theme – such as fine arts or engineering – by the same amount per pupil, instead of the current arbitrary system.

Critics say the new formula does not take into account what the programs need to thrive and could cripple some of the district’s best schools.

“It is 40 years of inequity, and it is time we do something,” Skillern-Jones said, speaking for the narrow board majority, which also included Wanda Adams, Paula Harris, Greg Meyers and Manuel Rodriguez Jr.

Opposing the measure were Anna Eastman, Mike Lunceford, Harvin Moore and Juliet Stipeche.

See here and here for the background. I still don’t know what to think about the magnet funding changes because I’m still not clear on what the formula is and what it’s supposed to achieve. I’m not necessarily opposed to this change, and I recognize that any essentially zero-sum alteration will have winners and losers, I just don’t feel like HISD had communicated this well enough to objectively evaluate it. At this point all I can say is that I hope the schools that lost money aren’t adversely affected, and that if there are negative effects that the Board revisits the issue as soon as possible. Hair Balls and School Zone have more.

Another entry for the judicial election files

Get Wallace Jefferson on the phone for me, will ya?

Three justices on the Tennessee Supreme Court are facing an election-year attack, not for any particular decision they have authored or even for any unpopular opinion they have espoused. No, in an ugly campaign in Tennessee that appears to be getting ever uglier, Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, who is also the state’s lieutenant governor, is attempting to oust three state Supreme Court justices in their Aug. 7 retention elections, chiefly for the judicial outrage of having been appointed to the high court by a Democrat. Under Tennessee law, the governor appoints Supreme Court justices, and then they come up for retention elections every eight years thereafter. This is a pretty common set-up in states that elect their justices.

Former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen appointed justices Gary Wade, Cornelia Clark, and Sharon Lee to the high court. They are all up for retention in two months and Ramsey, seemingly unable to get past the first few entries in the “Stock Campaign Insults” dictionary, has mounted a statewide assault targeting the three as “soft on crime” and “anti-business.” As the Shreveport Times notes, Ramsey is going after the three jurists “despite the fact that the Judicial Performance Evaluation Commission that Ramsey helped to appoint found them qualified to retain their posts.” Ramsey is a member of the Republican State Leadership Committee, which has a history of targeting judicial races across the country and calls the Tennessee race “high on our radar.”

Ramsey is arguing that he clairvoyantly knows that the Supreme Court as constituted will overturn limits on payouts in medical malpractice and other civil lawsuits that ensure “you’re not going to be punished by some jury that gives you some exorbitant return on the lawsuit.” And he’s also grumpy that in 2011 the Supreme Court vacated the death sentence of murderer Leonard Edward Smith because of ineffective counsel. (Smith ultimately got a life sentence in exchange for the death penalty being dropped.) But beyond the usual bellyaching about the suckiness of some court decisions with which he personally disagrees—or hopes to disagree with someday—there’s all sorts of speculation in the Tennessee press about what Ramsay is really attempting to achieve with this campaign. If even one of the incumbents loses, it will shift the balance of the court to a majority-Republican institution. The Shreveport Times posits that since the state Supreme Court justices pick the state attorney general, the purge may be an effort to create a “Republican” majority on the five-justice court to ensure that there is a newer, more Republican, attorney general. Ramsey pretty much just up and said so at the state GOP’s annual fundraiser in Nashville last week: “Folks, it’s time that we had a Republican attorney general in the state of Tennessee.”

Or it may not even be that targeted. As the editors suggest, “since the Republican Party now has supermajorities in both legislative houses and holds the governor’s office, perhaps the campaign only is an effort to complete the trifecta with the addition of the judicial branch.”

Sam Venable, a columnist at the Knoxville News-Sentinel, pointed out last week that purging the entire state of all those with a “D” behind their name—or anyone seated by anyone with a “D” behind his or her name—“is completely understandable, of course. It’s what politicians do. It’s how they live, breathe and have their being.” And of course this is true. Smearing judges who can’t, or won’t, smear back is politics pure and simple. The problem for the justice system is that the only solution to a bad guy with a well-financed attack campaign is to construct a good guy with a well-financed ad campaign. After all, the enduring lesson of the Iowa Supreme Court meltdown of 2010 is that dignified silence doesn’t win elections. And so the Tennessee Bar Association is, in an admirably bipartisan fashion, getting itself organized to finance and promote a counterinitiative to keep the judicial seats as judiciously as possible. That this is bipartisan is good. That it is happening at all (lawyers raising money for the judges before whom they will appear) is a disaster.

Note that Tennessee is using the appointment-with-retention-election system for picking judges, which is often cited as a nice, safe way to get partisan politics out of the judicial selection process. Until some people decide they don’t like the judges that the governor of the other party selected, so they’re going to work to defeat them so that the governor of their preferred political party can name replacements. Note that since these are retention elections, these judges don’t have opponents, so they technically exist outside the partisan voting process, and definitely aren’t affected by straight-ticket voting. And yet they’re affected by the partisan voting process anyway, because the people who are the most interested in the outcome of these elections are smart enough to know who plays for which team. The lack of a label on the actual ballot does not deter them. Which is what I’ve been saying all along.

I keep harping on this issue because there continue to be so many examples of why the “solutions” that so many people like to propose to “fix” the judicial selection process don’t actually work they way their advocates claim they would. The root of all problems in the judicial election process is the influence of money in judicial elections. You have to address that problem if you want to have any chance at success. I can’t see any path to a solution for judicial elections that doesn’t involve strictly limiting campaign contributions and/or public financing of judicial elections. As we currently live in a Citizens United world, that will probably require a Constitutional amendment allowing for such limits on campaign spending first. Hey, I never said this was going to be easy. The alternate path is an appointment-only system for all judicial positions, which needless to say has its own hurdles to overcome – there are thousands of judgeships in Texas, so just having a system that can scale to such a degree is daunting, and of course there’s politics aplenty any time one person gets to hand out goodies like these. My preferred approach is to overhaul the campaign finance system first, since that would also help make for better non-judicial elections, and then deal with whatever problems remain. That’s a journey of a thousand miles, and the sooner we take that first step without going down needless detours, the better.

Reading and writing and operating systems

Religion, politics, and operating systems – three things sure to start a spirited discussion.

By January 2016, when the Houston Independent School District’s latest tech initiative hits full stride, the district will issue laptops to every high school student and teacher in the district. All 65,000 of those laptops will run Windows 7 and cloud-based Office 365. For Microsoft, that’s sweet news: a solid little victory in the digital war for global domination.

As every tech geek knows, Microsoft, the world’s third-largest technology company, is embroiled in a three-way war with the first- and second-largest, Apple and Google. Each of those behemoths hopes to establish its own computing ecosystem as the world’s digital default, to be the system that everyone everywhere just seems to use on the fast-growing array of devices that connect to the Web. (Coming soon: Dog collars! Home thermostats! Cars!)

In the last two years, elementary, middle and high schools have been among the war’s hottest fronts. In part, that’s simply because K-12 education is a fast-growing, largely untapped market: According to analyst Phillip Maddocks of Futuresource, a research and forecasting company, only about 25 percent of U.S. students and teachers are currently equipped with devices such as laptops or tablets.

But that number is bound to rise. Last year, President Barack Obama announced the creation of the federal ConnectEd program, with a goal of making high-speed broadband available to 99 percent of American students by 2017. In January, Obama’s State of the Union address included a call to bring American classrooms up to date. Soon after, a group of private tech companies, including Apple and Microsoft, committed to donate $750 million in devices, software, training and Wi-Fi – as well as to offering deep discounts.

For those tech companies, such efforts are one part altruism, one part gold rush. As the remaining 75 percent of American students obtain devices and Wi-Fi, their hardware, software and habits are up for grabs.

“The scale is what’s so new,” says Cameron Evans, chief technology officer at Microsoft Education. “Before, there were always five computers in the back of the classroom. Until 2012, that was acceptable.”

As the story notes, Apple has been the leader in this space, but they’ve been vulnerable lately thanks to the high profile flop in Fort Bend and some embarrassing security failures in Los Angeles. Both were more due to design and implementation flaws than anything else, but they still look bad. Microsoft and Google have been competing on price and on compatibility, and have made some inroads. I know this is somewhat heretical to say, especially for an IT guy, but to some extent the OS and hardware don’t really matter. Basic concepts, about things like security and programming and how to use various apps, don’t really change that much from one device to the next. Of course, from the vendors’ perspective, they’re trying to lock in preferences. From my perspective, I’d like to see kids get experience with multiple platforms. Mostly I hope they get a solid curriculum that really takes advantage of the technology available to them. We’re still figuring out how to do that, so I hope we stay flexible and open-minded about it.

Feral hogs cross the border

You can’t stop them, and hoping to contain them is not looking so likely, too.

If nothing else, the voracious wild hogs that years ago destroyed the lucrative melon and cantaloupe harvests in this isolated border city — and are now ruining the alfalfa, corn and oat crops — have discriminating tastes.

“They like vanilla. It really attracts them,” Leonel Duran, an animal control agent for the state of Chihuahua, said as he stirred two bottles of Vera Cruz vanilla extract into a blue barrel of fermented corn.

When the concoction was ready, the crew hauled it to a large octagonal trap in a fallow field near the dry, narrow channel of the Rio Grande. The mix was quickly spread inside, followed by dry corn and stale rolls.

With the sun going down, the wily, nocturnal hogs would soon be up, and drawn to the trap.

The people who farm the oasis-green irrigated croplands around here, just across the border from Presidio, are just the latest to suffer from hog predations.

Omnivorous and intelligent, the non-native beasts now roam almost all of Texas, as well as most of the continental United States and Hawaii.

Some 5 million feral hogs are found throughout the country and in almost every habitat, spreading as far north as Canada from their original territory in the South.

“They have expanded their range from 17 to 39 states in the last 30 years, and cause damage to crops, kill young livestock, destroy property, harm natural resources, and carry diseases that threaten other animals, as well as people and water supplies,” said Edward Avalos, a U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary, noting in a news release that hogs cause an estimated $1.5 billion in damage and control costs each year.

In April, the USDA launched a $20 million hog-control program, a move some see as a long overdue.

“We’ve been singing about pigs from the choir loft for years. Congress finally caught on. They didn’t hear us, they heard the landowners,” said Mike Bodenchuk, state director for Texas Wildlife Services, a federal-state cooperative.

We’ve been exporting feral hogs domestically, so I guess this was the natural next step. I’m sure that somewhere Ted Cruz is muttering incoherently about “sealing the border”. Beyond that, the most interesting thing I learned from this story is that El Paso is the only one of Texas’ 254 counties to not have any hogs in it. I don’t know what your secret is, El Paso, but good luck maintaining that.