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editor's pick
Early STAAR scores show improvement at most of Waco ISD's struggling schools
 Brooke Crum  / 

Three of the five Transformation Waco schools that are part of an in-district charter system designed to improve student achievement showed gains in reading and math scores over last year’s state standardized test scores, according to preliminary data released Wednesday by the Texas Education Agency.

The preliminary test scores come a year after the TEA approved a plan between the Waco Independent School District and Prosper Waco, a nonprofit, to form Transformation Waco, an in-district charter partnership for the district’s five chronically underperforming schools. The first-of-its-kind partnership in the state shields the schools from closure for two years under Senate Bill 1882, which passed into law in 2017.

Three of those schools — Alta Vista Elementary School, Brook Avenue Elementary School and Indian Spring Middle School — showed improvement in their reading and math scores from last year. But the reading and math scores for both J.H. Hines Elementary School and G.W. Carver Middle School decreased from the previous school year.

Based on the preliminary data, Alta Vista Elementary School fifth graders made the biggest gains, with reading passing rates increasing by 18 percentage points to 62% passing. Eighth graders at Indian Spring Middle School showed the next biggest gains by increasing their math passing rate by 15 percentage points, up to 76%.

Hundreds of students in Transformation Waco schools chose to spend their spring breaks at school to sharpen their literacy and math skills in preparation for the state exams. Administrators selected about 90 students from each school who showed the most potential for improvement to attend the academy, bringing total participation to about 450 students in third through eighth grades.

District spokesman Kyle DeBeer said it is unclear how the standardized test scores will impact the district’s accountability rating. Final STAAR scores and accountability ratings will be released by the state in August.

<b>5TH GRADE</b><b>READING</b><b>MATH</b>
Alta Vista44621869701
Bell’s Hill77871088913
Brook Avenue37481159645
Cedar Ridge6157-46965-4
Dean Highland6953-167067-3
Hillcrest PDS7974-57771-6
J.H. Hines5249-35251-1
Lake Air Mont.626647364-9
Provident Hts.7764-137867-11
South Waco54651167714
West Avenue7252-207877-1
<b>8TH GRADE</b><b>READING</b><b>MATH</b>
Cesar Chavez62675637916
G.W. Carver5853-55753-4
Indian Spring67714617615
Lake Air Mont.85883728311

TEA spokeswoman DeEtta Culbertson said the preliminary scores give school districts an opportunity to vet the data and ensure they reported student scores and information correctly to the state.

Waco ISD’s overall scores for fifth grade reading and math did not vary much from the previous year, nor did the eighth grade reading and math scores. The biggest difference was an increase in eighth grade math scores, which rose from 64% passing last school year to 72% passing this school year. Eighth grade reading scores went up, as well, from 67% to 68%.

Waco ISD fifth graders passed the reading test at 63%, the same passing rate as last year, but their math test passing rate dipped from 72% to 70%.

DeBeer said the district is still in the process of analyzing the data and breaking it down to look at it on the individual student level. He said while campus and district trends can be meaningful, the district would rather focus on more “granular” data.

“Our mission is really down to the individual students,” he said. “If you think about a classroom teacher, it’s not ‘all of these kids in my class need the same thing.’ It tends to be a much more individualized approach to instruction.”

Likewise, Midway ISD’s fifth grade reading scores remained steady, dropping slightly from 91% passing to 90%. Math scores for fifth grade also dipped a percentage point from the previous year, down to 93% passing.

Midway eighth graders passed the reading test at 90%, up from 89% the previous year. A greater percentage of eighth graders passed the math test this year at 88%, up from 82% last year.

No Midway administrators were available for comment Wednesday.

<b>5TH GRADE</b><b>2018</b><b>2019</b><b>+/-</b><b>2018</b><b>2019</b><b>+/-</b>
Waco ISD63637270-2
Midway ISD9190-19493-1
China Spring ISD9190-193963
La Vega ISD677588280-2
Connally ISD555617558-17
Robinson ISD90909494
Bosqueville ISD9384-986871
<b>8TH GRADE</b><b>READING</b><b>MATH</b>
Waco ISD6768164728
Midway ISD8990182886
China Spring ISD8784-387925
La Vega ISD69745628119
Connally ISD5963459645
Robinson ISD8283177836
Bosqueville ISD9284-88988-1

River up, lakes down: High water slowly draining away
 JB Smith  / 

Waco’s riverfront is expected to stay soggy for another couple of weeks as Lake Whitney and Lake Waco continue to send pent-up floodwater toward the Gulf of Mexico.

The Brazos River river gauge in Waco was at 20.4 feet Wednesday as the river swamped most of the riverwalk, backing up into storm drains and keeping boat ramps closed. Levels are expected to drop to about 19.5 feet by this weekend, according to the National Weather Service’s Advanced Hydrological Prediction Service.

The river was moving Wednesday at 27,770 cubic feet per second, according to the U.S. Geologic Survey, 17 times the river’s median flow for June 12.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte 

High water covers a walkway at Brazos Park East, where both boat ramps remain closed.

Most of that flow was coming from Lake Whitney, where the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is releasing about 24,000 cubic feet per second to bring down water levels that are still 8.5 feet above normal. The lake level peaked in mid-May at 22 feet above its normal level of 533 feet above sea level.

Meanwhile, Lake Waco was releasing 3,373 cubic feet per second Wednesday as it stood at 4.7 feet above its normal level of 462 feet. Both Whitney and Waco lakes dropped about a foot over Tuesday and Wednesday.

Most of the parks around Lake Waco remain closed, but Lake Waco park ranger Mike Champagne said the recreation season is not completely lost.

Airport Park will remain closed for the time being after suffering from erosion and wave damage, but the Corps plans to open the Speegleville campground and boat ramp June 21. On July 1, boat ramps and pavilions at Twin Bridges and Airport Beach are set to reopen, along with some campsites at Reynolds Creek Park. Midway Park’s campground is already open.

“I’d consider that a real good recreational chance for people,” Champagne said.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

High water swamps part of Brazos Park East. 

Gov. Greg Abbott signs bill designed to limit property tax growth

Against the backdrop of an Austin burger joint struggling with its property taxes, Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law Wednesday an expansive reform measure meant to slow the growth of Texans’ property tax bills, long a priority issue for GOP state leaders.

The ceremonial bill signing was a victory lap for top Republicans, who spent the legislative session hammering the issues of school finance and property tax reform. Yesterday, they gathered at an Austin elementary school to witness the signing of a public education package that includes about $5.1 billion to lower Texans’ property tax bills.

“That [bill] will be eroded by increases in property taxes in future years without Senate Bill 2,” Abbott said.

Senate Bill 2 makes an array of changes to the property appraisal and tax systems. New requirements, including that tax rates and other information be posted in an online database, are meant to make the process more transparent and easier for taxpayers to understand.

But the measure includes one controversial provision that requires many cities, counties and other taxing units to hold an election if they wish to raise 3.5% more property tax revenue than the previous year. The growth rate excludes taxes levied on new construction and can be averaged over three years, allowing taxing units to exceed the 3.5% threshold in some of them.

Municipal officials have repeatedly said the 3.5% election trigger will hamstring their budgets and hamper their ability to provide public safety and other local services. Moody’s Investors Service, a credit-rating agency, issued a May analysis that said the law would lead to “minimal” homeowner savings and “hurt local governments substantially.”

In 2017, the Legislature twice failed to pass similar property tax reform measures that could have set the election trigger higher, between 4% and 6%.

Since the 1980s, taxing units have been constrained to 8% annual property tax growth, but voters have had to petition for an election to roll back the increase, a requirement some lawmakers deemed onerous.

“What this does is achieve something that has never been done before with regard to property tax reforms of the past,” Abbott said.

State leaders have said the new law will slow the pace at which property tax bills grow and will update a growth rate set during a period of high inflation. The site for Wednesday’s signing ceremony, Wally’s Burger Express, has seen its property taxes increase significantly in recent years, according to Abbott’s office.

Community colleges, hospital districts and small taxing units — with rates of 25 cents per $100 of taxable value or less — will need voter approval to increase a property tax levy by more than 8% annually.

Notably absent from the celebratory gathering was Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, the bill’s author and the upper chamber’s “tax man,” who shepherded the measure through the Senate.

A source familiar with plans for the event said Bettencourt had not been invited.

A longtime advocate for property tax reform, Bettencourt spent much of the session crafting and recruiting support for the top priority bill. But he also caused controversy by publicly questioning a proposal by Abbott, along with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, to buy down property taxes by raising the state sales tax by one cent.

“We appreciate his contribution. I don’t know his schedule or keep it,” Patrick said Wednesday.

In a statement, Bettencourt said only that “the clear winners here are the taxpayers of Texas.”

“I am proud of the work I did on their behalf,” he added.

editor's pick
Ascension Providence breaks ties with Scott & White Health Plan
 Mike Copeland  / 

Competition between Baylor Scott & White Health and Ascension Providence, two major health care providers in Waco, may have intensified.

Ascension Providence will end its contract with Baylor Scott & White’s Scott & White Health Plan effective Sept. 1. Customers who have health insurance through the plan will lose their in-network status at Ascension Providence health facilities that day, according to a statement that the plan is sending some of its 220,000 members in Texas.

“Terminating providers are: Providence Health Center, DePaul Center providers, Providence Health Alliance providers and Waco Internal Medicine Associates,” according to the statement.

Ascension Providence recently became the official name of the former Providence Healthcare Network, which has roots in Waco going back more than a century. Providence long has fallen under the umbrella of Ascension, a Catholic nonprofit health system operating 2,500 care sites and 151 hospitals around the country.

“If you are currently under the care of one of these providers, you may continue care at the in-network benefit level through Aug. 31, 2019. Any care or procedures/surgeries scheduled on or after Sept. 1, 2019, will be considered out-of-network,” according to Scott & White Health Plan’s statement. “Certain exceptions may be made for acute medical conditions such as pregnancy, newly diagnosed or relapsed cancer, active treatment of acute conditions, and active hospital confinements.”

The split with Scott & White Health Plan applies only to Ascension Providence providers, not to other Ascension providers, Ascension Providence spokeswoman Danielle Hall said. In Texas, Ascension also operates Ascension Seton, which includes Dell Children’s Medical Center and Dell Seton Medical Center in Austin.

“We will continue to be part of the provider panel for all the other major health plans and will work with our patients to ensure continuity of care, regardless of their decision,” Hall wrote in an email response to questions. “We know the individuals we serve have many options for their health and wellness needs, and we want to continue to offer Waco and the surrounding communities access to an integrated group of medical providers who can best meet individuals’ health needs.”

Ascension Providence cited “their organization’s access and growth strategies for the future” in making the decision, according to Scott & White Health Plan’s statement.

When Baylor Scott & White Health learned of Ascension Providence’s plans to drop the contract, “we began working immediately in an effort to make this a smooth transition for our members affected by this network change,” spokeswoman Julie Smith wrote in an email response to questions.

Baylor Scott & White Health has “dedicated customer service advocates standing by to assist with transition of care requests,” she said. “With more than 1,000 care sites in the area, including Baylor Scott & White Medical Center — Hillcrest in Waco and multiple hospitals in surrounding communities, Scott & White Health Plan remains committed to offering health insurance products that include providers throughout the region.”

Executives with Ascension Providence and Baylor Scott & White Health did not return calls seeking comment Wednesday.

Scott & White Health Plan has 220,000 members in 80 counties in Central, West and North Texas, according to information on its website. It also bought Austin-based FirstCare Health Plans, with a presence in 143 counties, most in West Texas. The buyout became effective Jan. 1.

Combined, the two plans have 400,000 members, according to the website.

The break with Scott & White Health Plan comes as Ascension Texas CEO Craig Cordola prepares to take the role of COO of Ascension, overseeing all operations effective July 1, according to a press release distributed Tuesday. Cordola previously served as president and CEO of Ascension operations in Waco and Austin, according to the press release.

Nancy McEachern, business development director at Waco-based Insurors of Texas, which specializes in insurance plans for businesses, said she had heard about the decision by Ascension Providence to break with Scott & White Health Plan. She said the plan is among several options her clients choose.

“We deal with many providers, Scott & White being one of them,” McEachern said. “We have respect for both health care systems. Clients come to us, we sit down with them, get to know them and help choose the plan that best suits the needs of their employees. Our goal is to be an advocate for our customers. We believe we have two amazing health care providers in Waco.”

PID board considers cutting downtown surtax rate as budget deadline looms
 Rhiannon Saegert  / 

While most city entities are working on the final draft of their 2019-20 budgets, the downtown Public Improvement District board is deciding between two with different tax rates.

The PID board discussed two slightly different versions of its 2019-20 budget during a brief meeting Wednesday but did not get a chance to vote on the matter. The 28-member board, which includes downtown property owners, was forced to cut its meeting short because it lost its quorum partway through.

The twin drafts are a reflection of the PID finance committee’s recommendation to lower the amount that property owners in the district pay into the budget, which covers services including security and landscaping. Currently, property owners pay a surtax to the PID at a rate of 10 cents per $100 in property value, but the PID may reduce that assessment to 9 cents for every $100. The 10-cent version budgets for $688,000 in expenses, while the 9-cent version budgets for $627,000.

“(10 cents) is what it has been since the PID was established,” City Center Waco Executive Director Megan Henderson said. “I think for the first time ever, the board is considering reducing the assessment.”

Henderson said both versions of the budget prioritize the same services and do not differ dramatically. The board has a list of what can be accomplished with each rate in place.

“There are a number of things downtown that require some kind of monitoring, and playing catch-up is not very effective,” Henderson said.

Jim Clifton, who represents the Dr Pepper Museum on the board, said the PID may create a position for someone to observe and report graffiti and trash during daytime hours, a role filled by Texas Star Security guards and, for a brief period, Waco Police Department officers.

“It doesn’t seem like we need a security guard during the daylight hours,” Clifton said. “We might not find anybody who will do it, but what we’re doing now is not effective.”

Graffiti removal at no extra cost is one of the services the district provides business in its boundaries. Henderson said graffiti in the district has increased significantly this year, from about 4 buildings total last year to more than 40 this year.

Both budgets reduce the amount spent on merchant support from $39,000 to $30,000 and increase the amount spent on messaging and advertising.

“This would allow us to add some more functionality to our website and produce some more materials for communication,” Henderson said. “What we’re hearing from merchants is a real feeling that locals are using downtown less.”

The board plans to bring back a part-time “trolley ambassador position,” an employee who rides the downtown trolley, answers tourists’ questions and gives directions, which will cost an additional $10,000.

Brian Ginsburg, who represents W Promotions on the board, met with downtown merchants who expressed interest in bolstering First Friday events, which encourage downtown businesses to run special discounts or extend their hours on the first Friday of every month. The draft budgets allocate $20,000 in seed money for First Friday events.

“They’ve very interested in locals coming and doing business with them, not only during the day but during events like that at night too,” Ginsburg said.

The budget may change slightly before the final vote in August, as the board is still waiting on the final appraisal roll from the McLennan County Appraisal District, which will determine property values, giving the board an official total.

Because the board lost its quorum before a vote could take place, it will need to make a final decision during its August meeting to meet its budget deadline. A meeting last month was canceled because the board did not have a quorum.