Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson gave the first detailed look Thursday night at his recommendations for saving five Waco Independent School District campuses from possible closure by the state.
The literacy-driven plan with an emphasis on early childhood education involves repurposing several campuses and partnering with the local nonprofit Prosper Waco.
Nelson presented the transformation plan to the school board Thursday night. The board is expected to vote on the plan next week, after taking feedback from parents and residents at seven community meetings between Saturday and Tuesday.
The plan will then go the state by March 1 for final approval, but district officials will not know how much of the plan will need to be implemented until results of state accountability exams come out in August. If the schools pass, the plans will not be needed to avoid closure.
“We’re basically being asked to build an airplane and finish building it in order to land it while we’re flying it,” Nelson said.
If approved by the state, the plan would keep Alta Vista Elementary School, Brook Avenue Elementary School, J.H. Hines Elementary School, G.W. Carver Middle School and Indian Spring Middle School open another two years.
Each campus failed state academic standards for five consecutive years or more, which leaves them open to closure by the state if they do not pass this May, but a new law passed last summer gave school districts a chance to come up with an alternative plan to fend off potential closures.
If the schools pass, Waco ISD spokesman Kyle DeBeer said it is unclear how much of the recommended changes might still be used going forward.
Of the strategies, the biggest changes include turning some campuses into early childhood development centers, allowing Prosper Waco to coordinate wrap-around services with other nonprofits and creating a thorough blended learning model across the district, Nelson said.
Research shows that children living in poverty have heard about 30 million fewer words by age 3 than their more affluent peers, according to a written presentation on Nelson’s plan.
With more than 80 percent of the district’s student population considered economically disadvantaged, and with a little more than half of third-graders reading on grade level, Nelson recommended realigning grade levels at four elementary campuses to create two new early childhood schools.
“Our plan is to identify 3-year-olds in specific zip codes and neighborhoods, and we want to invite them to be part of a full-day, prekindergarten pilot program to hopefully prepare 3-year-olds to be pre-K ready by the time they’re 4 years old,” Nelson said. “We think between 3 years old and third grade, if we will focus on literacy, reading and writing, it will help us eliminate the achievement gap we currently see.”
Attendance zones would not be redrawn, but students would be re-grouped by grade level at some elementary schools, DeBeer said.
Brook Avenue Elementary would go from serving prekindergarten through fifth-grade students to serving prekindergarten through first-grade students in the Brook Avenue and J.H. Hines Elementary attendance zones, and would host the new prekindergarten pilot program.
It would also host a pilot dual language program for a section of kindergartners starting in fall 2018.
J.H. Hines would then change to serve second- through fourth-grade students in those attendance zones, and the dual language program would follow the students who start it at Brook Avenue as they advance through the grades, Nelson’s plan states.
Alta Vista Elementary would go through a similar repurposing, except it would serve students through second grade in the Alta Vista and South Waco Elementary attendance zones. South Waco would serve third- through fifth-grade students in those zones.
Cedar Ridge Elementary, Dean Highland Elementary, Provident Heights Elementary and West Avenue Elementary would serve students in prekindergarten through fourth grade under the new plan.
Fifth-graders zoned to those campuses would attend Indian Spring Middle School, along with fifth-graders currently zoned to G.W. Carver Middle School. G.W. Carver would serve seventh and eighth grade students in the Indian Spring and G.W. Carver attendance zones, the plan states.
With those changes, the district has also partnered with a national literacy expert to develop a districtwide literacy plan, Nelson said.
“Literacy is the biggest problem we have as a city. You see it in 3-year-olds, and you see it all the way through adult literacy problems today,” Nelson said. “When you go to McLennan County jail cells and you start to identify the problems we have with crime and poverty and some of the other serious societal issues, they all stem back to people not being able to read, to write or to pursue some type of career, technical trade or post-secondary education.
“We’re developing a districtwide literacy plan not only focusing on closing the achievement gap in reading in pre-K through third grade, but we want to have a literacy plan that even goes to our parents.”
The Prosper Waco board voted Wednesday to help the district in whatever way necessary to transform the campuses, Nelson said. Nelson is on the Prosper Waco board, and school board President Pat Atkins serves as chairman. Both recused themselves from the vote, Nelson said.
The details of the district’s partnership with the nonprofit are still being sorted out, and no contract for a partnership has been negotiated.
“The Prosper Waco initiative was envisioned as the Waco community stepping forward to address some of the biggest challenges we have as a community, including the area of education, and we still stand ready to partner with the school district to make that happen,” Prosper Waco Executive Director Matthew Polk said on behalf of his board. “And when I say we, I don’t just mean the Prosper Waco backbone organization I represent. I mean, we the community.”
Other strategies include a renewed focus on enhancing special programs, including the bilingual, advanced academic, special education, career and technology, fine arts and athletics programs. The district is considering a blended learning model to get more technology in students’ hands to push their literacy skills forward and allow for individualized progression through lessons. But school officials have not figured out how to fund the seven-figure idea yet.
DeBeer said Thursday’s meeting marks the beginning of discussion on the plan. The seven community meetings will help refine the plan moving forward.
But Nelson said no matter what, closing a school is not an option. He emphasized that every campus is equally important and that underperforming schools would receive a higher level of focus, more support from administrative staff and more professional development.
“We won’t rest until we improve these schools. I believe the community deserves a public school system where every school meets or exceeds all state or federal expectations,” Nelson said. “It embarrasses me there are people who perceive the Waco Independent School District has being some type of inferior product. It’s not true.”
McLennan County District Attorney Abel Reyna and his Republican primary opponent, Barry Johnson, squared off Thursday for the first time this campaign season, with each landing a few jabs during a forum at the McLennan County Republican Club.
Johnson, 61, opened the luncheon by challenging Reyna’s integrity, accusing him of violating his oath of office and putting the county in financial jeopardy by what Johnson called Reyna’s “complete mishandling” of the May 2015 Twin Peaks incident.
Reyna, 45, countered that Johnson has little criminal law experience, that he recently moved back to McLennan County after a career as a personal injury trial attorney in Dallas and that newly created programs instituted by Reyna have made McLennan County a safer place to live.
Reyna, the son of former district attorney and appellate court justice Felipe Reyna, is seeking his third, four-year term. Johnson, the son of the late longtime Judge Joe N. Johnson, told the crowd Reyna needs to be replaced and referred to affidavits filed in Twin Peaks cases that claim Reyna dismissed cases for friends and donors, was delivered cocaine by a drug dealer, was or remains under federal investigation and made the decision to arrest 177 bikers en masse on identical warrants because of his political ambition.
“The most important qualification for this job, and I was told this many times by my father, who was a judge in our courthouse for 40 years, is integrity,” Johnson said. “If you don’t have integrity, you are done.”
Reyna’s former first assistant, Greg Davis, filed an affidavit last year in which he accuses Reyna of dismissing criminal cases for friends and wealthy donors and operating a two-tier system of justice. Reyna called Davis a liar Thursday and referred to the allegations as “fake news.”
“The truth is that those allegations came out in the 2014 election,” Reyna said. “Biker lawyers decided to file, unethically, different motions and put all this information in there and then they could protect themselves from being sued. That is what you have. All of it is ridiculous, untrue, including the allegations that I have ever had, or done, or delivered to me or done cocaine. It is ridiculous, and the fact that someone wants to embrace that, then that says more about my opponent than I can ever say.”
Reyna touted the work of his office, saying he created a pretrial diversion program to steer non-violent offenders, veterans or those with mental health issues away from the justice system. He said he has also created family violence and crimes against children units, collected more than $1 million in hot checks for merchants and small business owners and established a “hard plea process” that reduced crime in the county.
“Violent crime is down,” Reyna said. “The criminals, the thugs that prey on our families, are getting it. They got the message, and they got the message about the work our people have done, led by me, and I wouldn’t expect a personal trial lawyer to understand that.”
Reyna alone is responsible for 100 civil lawsuits being filed by bikers against McLennan County, Johnson charged, because he went to the crime scene, took over the case from experienced Waco police investigators and made the call to arrest 177 bikers.
“My position is that our district attorney here, that his actions in the Twin Peaks matter, have placed justice in jeopardy in McLennan County,” Johnson said. “It can expose the taxpayers in McLennan County to millions of dollars in liability.”
He also charged that Reyna’s office failed to win a conviction in the first Twin Peaks case that they “cherry-picked” to try first and sought a postponement of the second Twin Peaks trial so Reyna would not lose the case before the March 6 primary. Johnson said he believes Reyna intends to dismiss the case against Twin Peaks defendant George Bergman, who rejected Reyna’s plea offer of deferred probation on a charge reduced from a first-degree felony to a Class A misdemeanor.
Johnson challenged Reyna to say whether he intended to dismiss Bergman’s case. Reyna never answered the question.
“You would think, how can it be worse than that? To be on the hook for potentially millions and millions of dollars in tax liability for no reason other than our district attorney’s ambition,” Johnson said. “Well, it can be worse than that. I want to talk to you about justice for sale in McLennan County. When an elected official betrays his oath of office and betrays the public trust by giving special favor to friends and political contributors, there is only one word to describe that, and that is corrupt.
“That is the reason the FBI and the feds have been investigating our district attorney and are continuing to investigate our district attorney. It’s an embarrassment.”
Reyna disputed Johnson’s claims, saying prosecutors in the state’s largest counties go to crime scenes and advise police officers before making arrests. Reyna also said claims in Davis’ affidavit about him showing favoritism to his friends are not true, adding that his office has given life sentences and other lengthy sentences to some of those named by Davis.
“I expect (Johnson) to say that,” Reyna said. “Why? That is the gang member bikers’ rhetoric. That is what they say. So what do you have? You have their guy right here, talking for them. The thing is, I had a desire to run for district attorney and I told you then that I would have a presence in the community, a presence in the office and a presence in the courtroom, and that is exactly what I have done. But I don’t expect a personal injury trial lawyer who made his living suing doctors and suing other individuals for financial gain to understand.”
In a portion of the forum in which Reyna and Johnson got to ask each other a question, Reyna asked Johnson how many criminal trials he has been involved in. Johnson said two.
Johnson asked Reyna why he is not more transparent with the Tribune-Herald, why he has not spoken to reporters there for more than five years and why he has ignored the newspaper’s invitation to Reyna to meet with its editorial board.
There have been a few exceptions over the years when Reyna has spoken with Tribune-Herald reporters for stories.
“Are you really, seriously questioning whether or not, with this audience that I have seen month after month for several years since I was what, Dad, 18, when you took me to the Republican Club at Underwood’s Cafeteria when it was still there. I seriously wonder if I have to dignify the question of why I won’t talk to the Tribune and Herald.
“Are you serious? They don’t get it right. It’s a fake news outlet. I’m not going to be a party to it. People have told me that when you talk to them and all they do is change your words, it legitimizes that ridiculous rag of a paper we have in this county. So if that is your candidate, so be it,” Reyna told the crowd.
A widow who donated $30 for flour and sugar to help fill the pantry at the area’s first veteran transition home is a good example of the kind of work that made the effort possible, said DeLisa Russell, Heart of Texas Veterans One Stop director.
A large number of often small contributions made the opening of the now fully furnished three bedroom, two bath house decorated with military memorabilia possible, Russell said. The house is named to honor Robert “Popeye” Carter, a longtime advocate for Veterans in Waco who, among other efforts, organized the Waco Veterans Day parades.
Carter, a Gulf War veteran, had been involved in talks through his work at the Heart of Texas Veterans One Stop and shared in the excitement more than a year ago about the idea of opening a transition home, Russell said. Carter died over Thanksgiving in a car crash.
Naming the first of what organizers hope to be many transitional homes after Carter seemed like a fitting tribute to his legacy, Russell said.
Veterans can apply to live at the Robert Carter Veteran Transition Home, in the 1200 block of Merganser Way, for six to nine months and will be surrounded by assistance from the Veterans One Stop to help them get in a more stable position, Russell said.
“There are a lot of housing opportunities for veterans but not veterans with families,” she said. “Say you have our fastest growing population, which is the female veteran, and many of them are actually homeless with children, so where do you put that person? What if we had a house and we could bring the veteran and their family and put them in there for six to nine months, surround them with all of our services, let them live there … just help them find that base.”
Russell said she hopes the success of the first home, part of a program dubbed Operation Forward March, will generate enough interest and donations to open up more homes.
“That’s one thing about the One Stop I always try and emphasize: We don’t just take care of the veteran, we take care of the family,” she said. “If you don’t take care of the family you don’t effectively take care of a veteran. What have those kids been through? … Do we need to collaborate with one of the schools to see what we need to do to set them up for success?”
During a tour of Veterans One Stop in November 2016, Air Force Chaplain, Capt. Brenner Campbell, president of the Children’s Mission Network, heard about Russell’s idea for a transition home. Campbell said he was blown away by the Veterans One Stop and called his friend, Stylecraft Builders President Randy French.
“He gets hit up for stuff all the time. He knows I’ve never asked him for anything,” Campbell said of French. “I said, ‘You’ve never seen anything like this.’
“From somebody who is on active duty and as a chaplain I hear a lot of the terrible things in life. One of those things is it’s really difficult for veterans to go from military life to civilian life. The bureaucracy of veterans, be it the VA, VA hospital all of these different things, it can be just mind-boggling to figure out what are the different steps I need to take. What are the benefits that are even available to me? I hear that all the time. So to go into one facility that has encompassed all the many different aspects of veterans, in one place, they can get everything they need in one place. That’s genius. I don’t know why people haven’t thought of that before.”
French toured the Veterans One Stop and agreed to build a transition house for free, Russell said. Children’s Mission Network bought the lot and provided some interior necessities. Then a multitude of donations came forward to help furnish the living spaces and make it complete.
“That’s what makes it beautiful,” Campbell said. “We’ve got American citizens benefiting from the service of those who raised their right hand now circling back to take care of those who served.”
Lowe’s donated tools and a toolbox for the garage as well as yard tools, Russell said. Residents have donated food, pots, pans, dishes, even furniture for the backyard.
“It’s such a community thing,” she said. “It’s not just a group. It’s everybody: veterans, non-veterans, business owners, everybody, like the little widow who gave $30 to buy sugar and flour. It’s the veteran who came over here and made sure the vents were ready.”
The Veterans One Stop will cover the cost of utilities at the home, and every service the organization provides to veterans is free of charge, she said.
“We always need support for the Veterans One Stop, whether it’s for this house, or we feed over 200 people every Wednesday a meal, whether we’re looking at bus passes or gas passes to help them get to work. With this kind of weather, we went through all of our coats,” Russell said. “We have a professional clothes closest. We have a regular clothes closet. We have a small food pantry. We provide diapers both for the young and old. We’ve teamed up with the Waco Diaper Bank on that. We try to look at everything they need. But for this to be sustainable in this community, you always need the support of the community and you always need donations.”
Most veterans don’t like to ask for help, she said.
“They are the first to stand up and say, ‘How do I help my brother and sister?’ But they are not always the best about asking for help themselves,” she said.
In the crowd gathered Thursday for the home’s unveiling was Carter’s wife.
Roxanna Carter said she remembers her husband coming home and sharing his excitement about the idea of a veteran’s transition house.
The couple was married three years before he died, but they had been high school sweethearts, she said.
Having the transition house named after her husband is such an honor to his legacy, she said.
“He loved the veterans. That was his ministry, his everything,” she said. “He wanted to help the veterans.”
College athletics administrators nationwide are crunching the numbers — not on touchdown passes or fairways hit, but on the effects of the federal tax overhaul on their big-money programs.
The Republican bill, much of which went into effect Jan. 1, includes two elements relevant to college sports: the elimination of an 80 percent deduction for donations tied to season tickets and the creation of a 21 percent tax on salaries for nonprofit employees earning more than $1 million.
To buy season tickets at many major college sports events, buyers must also make a donation to get a “seat license.” The seat-license donations, the formerly deductible portion, range from $25 to $2,000 at Baylor University, Athletics Director Mack Rhoades said.
Whether season ticket holders continue buying without the opportunity to deduct 80 percent of the connected donation remains to be seen.
“It’s our hope that people are still going to donate, still give,” Rhoades said. “Those donations are used and go toward our Baylor Bear Foundation, which helps offset the costs of scholarships for us. I think and hope that people will still do that and support our 535 student-athletes. The impact that they can have on their lives directly is really what this is about more than anything, and I hope it’s less about specific seat location.”
Baylor’s athletics department sent its season ticket holders and fans several notices before the new year telling them about the elimination of the deduction. Rhoades suggested donors complete 2017-18 commitments and prepay on 2018-19 plans by the end of last year to claim the deduction.
U.S. Rep. Bill Flores, R-Bryan, said the elimination of the deduction is unlikely to deter college sports fans. A season ticket holder at his alma mater Texas A&M University, Flores said his goal on tax reform was relief for working class families. His successful push to spare graduate students from paying taxes on tuition waivers, for example, fell into that sphere.
“When Kyle Field was renovated down at Texas A&M, the seat license went up substantially,” Flores said. “I was getting a deduction for 80 percent of the value I was paying for seat licenses, which was tens of thousands of dollars, and I’m losing that deduction. This one hurts personally, but is it the right thing for working class America? Absolutely. I’m still going to buy my seats at A&M, and my expectation is all of our passionate Baylor fans will continue to buy their seat licenses irrespective as to whether they get a deduction or not.”
Rhoades said the push to donors in December gave Baylor a $1.2 million increase in donations compared to December 2016.
The athletics department operates on a more than $100 million annual budget, according to a university source familiar with it.
A spokesman for House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, a Texas Republican, told the Austin American-Statesman in November the deduction was the “epitome of a special interest loophole.” Flores said most members of Congress were uncomfortable with the deduction.
Eliminating it “freed up money to make available for tax cuts for working class Americans,” he said.
Keeping the seat licensing issue deduction was one of nine issues on Baylor’s tax wish list, which also included the protection of student loan interest deductions. The interest deductions made it into the final bill.
An opponent of the season-ticket change in the tax law is Tom McMillen, president of the advocacy group the Lead1 Association, which represents about 130 college athletics directors. McMillen said the move could sway fans considering whether to buy season tickets and make donations, while also limiting funding for the “Olympic sports.”
“You’re going to end up getting rid of non-revenue and low-revenue sports,” McMillen said. “So the point of it is, if you treat college sports like a business from a tax perspective, the folks that are going to get hurt are your Olympic sports: the 57,000 kids who are swimmers and softball players and field hockey and all those teams. And that’s kind of unfortunate because the college system is really the Olympic development system in this country.”
Cutting money to football programs is not an option, because they generate the most revenue, he said.
The other athletic interest point of the law is a 21 percent tax on nonprofit salaries more than $1 million. The tax is applied to the portion of the salaries past $1 million, and there is a similar tax in the for-profit world, Flores said.
According to its most recent public tax filings, five Baylor employees earned more than $1 million between June 1, 2015, and May 31, 2016. Four of them were in athletics: former head football coach Art Briles, former defensive coordinator Phil Bennett, head men’s basketball coach Scott Drew and head women’s basketball coach Kim Mulkey. Former President Ken Starr also made more than $1 million.
Rhoades said 2018 will be an educational year as his department, and its faithful donors, comply with the overhaul.
“We encourage all of our donors to consult with their tax experts,” Rhoades said. “We’re certainly not in a position to tell anyone how to handle their own tax deductions.”