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Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte 

Valley Mills’ Elijah Degrate throws in the seventh inning against Crawford.

editor's pick
Baylor regents pick new chairwoman, approve capital projects, $698 million budget
 Rhiannon Saegert  / 

The Baylor University Board of Regents announced Friday that Jerry Clements will serve as its next chairwoman, replacing Joel Allison, who served two years in the role.

After wrapping up their three-day quarterly meeting, regents also announced they approved several construction projects and a more than $698 million annual operating budget, chose committee chairs, and welcomed new regents as others cycle off the board.

The board approved $4.1 million to get an estimated $20 million renovation of the Tidwell Bible Building started, according to a university press release. Most of the money approved by regents, $3.1 million, will actually pay for work on the Cashion Academic Center, where Tidwell classes and faculty will be housed during Tidwell’s extensive 36-month renovation. The other $1 million regents approved will pay for renovation designs.

“That’s an exciting next step, and the first capital project we’ll be working on as part of Illuminate,” President Linda Livingstone said, referring to the university’s strategic plan regents approved a year ago.

Work on Cashion is expected to start in the fall and wrap up by next spring. Work on Tidwell itself is expected to start next year and wrap up in 2022. The university announced a $15 million donation late last month from the Kansas-based Sunderland Foundation to get the Tidwell project rolling.

The board also approved $1.3 million for improvements to Baylor Sciences Building research facilities that house the university’s mass spectrometry center, microscopy and imaging and molecular biosciences center. Livingstone said the proposal for the project came from the College of Arts and Sciences and interim Vice Provost for Research Kevin Chambliss, and will involve mechanical, plumbing and infrastructure improvements, as well as expansion of equipment space used by multiple departments.

Part of building out the Illuminate plan has involved “looking at making sure the lab space that we’re providing our faculty is what it needs to be to really move us forward on the Illuminate strategy,” Livingstone said.

While the university has its sights set on multiple construction projects, one stuck out, literally. The board approved $1.8 million for “regulatory corrective actions” along the Brazos riverbank behind the Highers Athletics Complex, where erosion started to reveal trash and debris from a closed and capped city landfill. Repairs along the riverbank are scheduled to be completed in August.

The $698.4 million 2019-20 annual operating budget is up from $660.1 million for 2018-19 and from $621.7 million the year before.

The upcoming budget includes an additional $13.4 million for scholarships, compared to an additional $9.9 million last year and an additional $16.8 million two years ago. Livingstone said bolstering scholarships is part of the overall academic plan.

“It’s an ongoing challenge for all universities,” Livingstone said. “Certainly, as we build our budget each year, we’re doing everything we can to make sure that we’re pushing as much of our resources toward support for students, including scholarships, support for faculty, and trying to reduce administrative overhead.”

Clements will officially take over from Allison as chair of the board June 1. Clements is a partner in the international Dallas-based law firm Locke Lord LLP. She served as chair of the firm from 2006 to 2017, overseeing two mergers and an increase in annual revenue from $222 million to $449 million, according to her page on the firm’s website.

She graduated from Baylor Law School in 1981 and is wrapping up a term as vice chair of the board of regents.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

Joel Allison talks about his two years as chairman of the Baylor University Board of Regents after the board’s meeting this week. Jerry Clements will take over as chairwoman of the board next month.

Allison started as chair of the board in June 2017, the same time Livingstone started as president of the university. He retired as CEO of Baylor Scott & White Health in February 2017.

“I can’t tell you how wonderful he was during my first two years as president,” Livingstone said of Allison. “He did a fabulous job with the board. Really, the board is in a really good and healthy place, and a lot of that is due to his leadership this year.”

At a press conference after the meeting, Allison said he likewise is impressed with Livingstone’s work.

“We both started our positions on the same day and practically the same time,” Allison said. “She has done a fabulous job. She has the full support of this board.”

During his time as board chairman, Allison oversaw a restructuring of board governance that changed the regent nomination process and the board leadership structure, and created a second faculty regent position, among other changes.

“With our governance restructuring pretty much now fully implemented, it’s really working extremely well,” Allison said. “The board is engaged. Dr. Livingstone and her team are very engaged.”

In addition to executive committee and committee leadership selections, other board membership updates approved this week include new regents elected by the board, a regent elected by alumni vote, regents appointed by the Baptist General Convention of Texas and confirmed by the board, a regent nominated by the Baylor Bear Foundation and confirmed by the board, a faculty regent confirmed by the board and a student regent confirmed by the board.

Livingstone said the topic of Gamma Alpha Upsilon, an unofficial student group seeking recognition as an official chartered group, came up in a handful of committee meetings, including the Student Life Committee chaired by Kim Wilson Stevens. The group’s stated purpose is to support LGBTQ students, and its leaders have said it is not an advocacy group. University policy prohibits LGBTQ advocacy groups.

“This is really a student life issue, and how we support and care for our students, certainly our students in the LGBTQ community,” Livingstone said. “In the context of that, we really talk about how we love and care for all of our students, and make sure they have a healthy and safe and nurturing learning environment.”

She said the university will continue to follow its existing policies when it comes to LGBTQ student groups.

“Obviously, there’s going to be a lot of robust discussion on this topic, and that’s what universities are about,” Livingstone said.

editor's pick
Sorghum tariffs add to uncertainty for farmers
 Mike Copeland  / 

A year ago, Chinese officials issued a fist-flying response to President Donald Trump’s plans to raise tariffs by announcing they would slap a 179% levy on grain sorghum, which they use to make liquor and feed ducks.

Texas Grain Sorghum Association Director Wayne Cleveland said he recalls a lump forming in his throat. China was a big customer. Sorghum growers already were battling sugarcane aphids and feral hogs. Livestock feeders were leaving sorghum for corn. Tariffs would represent a quadruple whammy, one he said growers could stomach as a brief skirmish in Trump’s battle to right decades of wrongs with China over trade gaps and charges of cheating.

But not something that would benefit an already sagging bottom line.

“I was cautiously terrified,” Cleveland said.

On Friday, while driving in far South Texas, where sorghum growers are enjoying a once-a-decade bumper crop, he said he was cautiously optimistic.

Staff photo — Jerry Larson 

Rodney Schmalreide gets into his truck at his farm in McGregor. He said he hauls gravel and liquid fertilizer to make ends meet.

He said Spain and Saudia Arabia are buying more sorghum, tightening slack created by the dispute with China. Tariffs caused 90% of the contraction in sorghum planting Texas has experienced, but he sees a turnaround, Cleveland said. Growers realize grain sorghum still has much to offer, he said.

“It’s a low-input crop,” Cleveland said, meaning modest costs are associated with raising it. “It’s a great rotation crop, a great utility crop, and farmers realize that.”

Still, old habits are hard to break. Stung by three years of drought in 10 years, that pesky aphid, Hurricane Harvey and now tariff threats, farmers are slowly, but Cleveland believes surely, returning to the old standby.

China’s 179% threat also proved more bark than bite. China now levies a 25% tariff on grain sorghum, an economic tit-for-tat, in that the impact is comparable to the U.S. levy on Chinese aluminum, Cleveland said.

Josh Birdwell, a Malone resident who works 6,800 acres in Hill, Navarro and Limestone counties, including 400 planted in sorghum, said he believes Chinese tariffs are responsible for cutting sorghum prices 20 percent.

“Something needs to be done,” he said of Trump’s stance with China. “This is a problem 25, 30 maybe even 40 years in the making, and he’s trying to fix it in a short period of time. It’s hurting us out here in the country. Our bottom lines are not looking very good right now. Excess moisture with all the rains we’ve had is not helping the situation. We’re struggling. If prices don’t turn around, there is going to be some real hardship out here.”

Staff photo — Jerry Larson  

Rodney Schmalreide looks over his sorghum crop in the McGregor area. He said Chinese tariffs applied in response to U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods have hurt sorghum prices considerably.

Besides growing crops, Birdwell serves on the Texas Grain Sorghum Producers Board, and tariff’s dominated discussions during the board’s meeting last month. He said he also operates a grain storage service, and sorghum is scarce.

“In our area, milo (another name for sorghum) is in direct competition with corn in terms of acres planted,” Birdwell said. “With all the disadvantages associated with sorghum right now, including reduced markets, corn is just more lucrative for a lot of people.”

Despite the crop’s headwinds, the share of sorghum used in food is growing, said Calvin Trostle, a professor and extension specialist in Texas A&M University’s Department of Soil and Crop Sciences.

“I recently told a Texas Farm Bureau person that tariffs have knocked $1 a bushel off sorghum prices,” Trostle said. “To many people sorghum is perceived as inferior, a lesser grain fed to cattle. But use in food is growing, now reaching 1 to 2 percent of yield, and there is a breakfast cereal available in some grocery stores around the state with sorghum.”

McGregor-area farmer Rodney Schmalreide said the issue is frustrating.

“We, as farmers, do not have a lot of control over anything we do: tariffs, the weather, the markets. You just have to hang on,” Schmalreide said. “People are bashing Trump, but in my opinion, he’s trying to fix something that should have been addressed a long time ago.”

Staff photo — Jerry Larson  

Rodney Schmalreide looks over his sorghum crop in the McGregor area. He said Chinese tariffs applied in response to U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods have hurt sorghum prices considerably.

Back a few years ago, “when China was taking all it could get its hands on,” Schmalreide said sorghum would fetch $7 to $8 per hundred pounds when he hauled his product to Houston. He said that price has shrunk considerably.

He said crop insurance and government assistance programs help keep farmers afloat, “but nobody is tickled about having to rely on government. Our means of income is a pawn in the battle they’re having right now, and I guess it is right they take steps to keep us from being slaughtered.”

A farmer since 1995, Schmalreide said considering equipment failures and sleepless nights, he considers quitting the business three times a day, “but four times a day I decide to stay in it.”

He said he hauls gravel and liquid fertilizer to make ends meet.

editor's pick
Waco ISD launches superintendent search, could seat one in August
 Brooke Crum  / 

The Waco Independent School District has opened the application process for its new superintendent, which the school board hopes to have in place soon after the start of next school year.

The board of trustees approved the process Thursday to permanently replace A. Marcus Nelson, who resigned in March after a misdemeanor marijuana possession arrest.

Applications are open through June 19. Trustees will review applications June 24 and start the first round of interviews with candidates July 16.

Follow-up interviews will be conducted July 22-24, and the board plans to vote to name the lone finalist July 31.

State law requires the school board to name the finalist or finalists for superintendent at least 21 days before officially voting to employ the person. The earliest the Waco school board could vote to hire a new superintendent would be Aug. 22, two days after the start of the 2019-20 school year.

The public is invited to fill out a leadership qualities survey, the results of which the board will consider while reviewing applications.

The Texas Association of School Boards’ Executive Search Services is conducting the superintendent search. TASB helped Waco ISD with its previous superintendent search, and under the firm’s contract, this search will be free to the district, minus expenses, because Nelson did not stay with the district for two years.

Veteran educator Hazel Rowe is serving as interim superintendent until a permanent replacement is hired. The board named her interim superintendent March 28, the same day it rehired TASB.

Board members briefly discussed characteristics they want to see in the next superintendent Thursday, including the willingness “to listen and learn and interact well with staff and community” and a “proven record of developing successful and effective professional relationships with businesses and community groups.”

“I think that’s what we’re looking for — somebody willing to go out there and listen and do that interaction with the community,” board President Pat Atkins said.

Nelson resigned March 21, two weeks after his arrest in Robertson County. He was returning from meeting with the Houston Independent School District board about its vacant superintendent position. A Texas Department of Public Safety trooper stopped Nelson for a traffic violation and found less than 2 ounces of marijuana in his vehicle.

Nelson entered a pretrial diversion program that will drop the charge if he avoids trouble for 90 days.

1 year after Santa Fe shooting, Texas shuns tougher gun laws

AUSTIN — A year after a high school mass shooting near Houston that remains one of the deadliest in U.S. history, Texas lawmakers are on the brink of going home without passing any new gun restrictions, or even tougher firearm storage laws that Gov. Greg Abbott backed after the tragedy.

A Republican governor pushing even a small restriction on firearms kept at home in gun-friendly Texas was a landmark shift after two decades of loosening weapons regulations. And it put Texas in line with other states exploring ways to prevent not just mass shootings, but thousands of lethal gun incidents involving minors.

But the state’s effort was met with a swift and severe rebuke from gun-rights advocates who have all but killed the issue. The anniversary of the shooting at Santa Fe High School is Saturday.

“I saw my friend and co-worker killed,” Flo Rice, a Santa Fe substitute teacher who was shot five times that day, told lawmakers. “Had stricter gun laws been in place, maybe the shooter’s father would have had his guns locked up, 10 lives would have been spared ... It is too late for Santa Fe, but maybe this bill will save other children’s lives.”

Her words had little impact. In the final two weeks of the legislative session, Texas lawmakers are instead moving toward arming more school personnel , boosting campus security measures and mental health services for teenagers. Those also were ideas from Abbott, who has gone silent on the issue of gun storage safety since first proposing it.

“It’s really sad,” said Ed Scruggs of Texas Gun Sense. “Here we are coming up on the one year anniversary and they’re not doing anything but putting more guns in schools and hardening school sites. And this was something that could have applied directly to a situation like Santa Fe.”

Police have alleged the Santa Fe shooter, a student at the school, used his father’s shotgun and handgun to kill eight students and two substitute teachers. Thirteen others were wounded.

Within days, Abbott held a series of roundtable discussions on school violence with victims and gun rights and gun control advocates. Ideas that emerged included increasing the penalty for gun owners — from a misdemeanor to a felony — when minors take and use their firearms to harm or kill someone. Texas has no requirement that all firearms be locked up.

The blowback was almost immediate.

Members of the Legislature’s “Freedom Caucus” vowed to oppose home gun storage regulations as government overreach on the right to bear arms. Gun rights groups insisted firearms must be kept easily available for self-defense.

“I will fight it forever,” Rep. Jonathan Stickland, a Republican, tweeted hours after Abbott first backed tighter gun storage laws. Within a month, opposition to the plan was part of the 2018 state Republican party platform.

The gun storage penalties, and a plan for a statewide public service campaign on safe storage, still had some GOP support when lawmakers convened in January. One of the primary sponsors of the Senate’s gun storage bill is Republican Sen. Joan Huffman, a former prosecutor and judge from Houston.

She’s also the chairman of the Senate committee where her bill was assigned. The session ends May 27 and Huffman has yet to give her own bill a hearing.

“That’s the clearest signal possible” that Republican leadership wants to make sure the bill will die, said Mark Jones, political science professor at Rice University.

Despite their strong majorities in the House and Senate, Republicans want to avoid any votes that could be interpreted as anti-gun in a state with more than 1.3 million handgun license holders, Jones said.

“An overwhelming majority still worry far more about the Republican primary than the general election,” Jones said. “They are always worried about being outflanked on the right.”

Huffman and Abbott’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

The House at least gave the gun storage bill a late-night committee hearing to hear testimony, but didn’t take a vote.

Rice, the wounded teacher, was among a handful of witnesses. With the aid of a cane, she limped to the podium to plead with lawmakers to pass the bill. She was immediately followed by Rachel Malone, Texas director of Gun Owners of America, who opposed the measure.

“We should give (gun owners) freedom to protect themselves,” Malone said. “Guns are used more often to protect innocent lives than they are used to take it.”

The bill for a statewide safe storage campaign fell flat. Representatives of the NRA and the Texas State Rifle Association lobbied against it, arguing that gun rights groups and gun manufacturers have already created similar campaigns that are distributed to gun stores and shooting ranges.

That way, gun owners get “content delivered from a source they trust,” NRA lobbyist Tara Mica told lawmakers. A state campaign designed by the Texas state police could easily be corrupted by anti-gun rhetoric, she said.

The ability to stonewall two bills that had the support of Abbott just a year ago proves the muscle of the gun lobby in Texas, said Rep. Joe Moody, a Democrat.

“It shows the stranglehold that unreasonable zealots have over this issue,” Moody said. “And that’s a sad state of affairs given where we were a year ago in Santa Fe.”

editor's pick
Families sue hotel over chlorine-related ailments after pool party
 Tommy Witherspoon  / 

Members of several families who attended a swimming party at a Lacy Lakeview hotel two years ago are suing the hotel, alleging they became ill after exposure to high levels of chlorine in the pool and hot tub area.

The suit, filed on the families’ behalf in Waco’s 74th State District Court by Waco attorney Dale Williams, alleges each plaintiff became “severely ill,” with adult plaintiffs missing work and their children missing days of school after the May 21, 2017, party at the Fairfield Inn & Suites Waco North, 4257 N. Interstate 35.

A manager at the hotel declined comment on the lawsuit Friday, and the hotel owners, Avatar Frontera Waco, of Plano, did not respond to an email request for comment.

The plaintiffs are seeking more than $200,000 in total damages but less than $1 million in damages, according to the lawsuit.

Plaintiffs include Aaron and Kristin McGregor and their children, Mason and Amelia, of Hillsboro; Matthew and Melissa Boyle and their son, Bryce, of Hillsboro; Mindy Moore and her son, Jaxon, of Waco; Frank Webb, of Waco; and Stuart and Amanda Scarborough, and their children, Caroline, Luke and Ella, of Hillsboro.

According to the lawsuit, Mindy Moore booked the pool area of the hotel for a going-away party for her husband, Robert Moore, who was being deployed for active Army duty in Korea.

“The air smelled heavy with chlorine, especially in the area of the hot tub,” the suit alleges. “All of the plaintiffs spent time in the hot tub. Many of the children complained of burning in their eyes from the excessive chlorine.”

Over the next 24 hours, those at the party became “severely ill,” with symptoms persisting most of the next week, including bacterial infections, myalgia, pneumonitis, chloramine gas poisoning, inhalation injuries, fever, respiratory infections, chest pain, coughs, burning in throats and eyes and severe vomiting, the suit alleges.

“Defendant Fairfield Inn failed to exercise ordinary care to keep the hotel and pool area in reasonably safe condition, failed to inspect the pool and hot tub area to discover latent defects, failed to make the premises safe and failed to give adequate warning to plaintiffs,” the suit claims.

This is the second time the Fairfield Inn & Suites Waco North has been sued this year. In January, Waco attorney Samuel Wright alleged he contracted Legionnaires’ disease during a six-day stay at the hotel last summer.

There were two cases of Legionnaires’ disease reported in McLennan County in 2016, two cases in 2017 and three cases last year. All the reported cases emanated from the Fairfield Inn & Suites Waco North, Kelly Craine, a spokeswoman for the Waco-McLennan County Public Health District, has said.

Wright’s suit remains pending in Waco’s 414th State District Court.