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Split Waco ISD board poised to hire superintendent Thursday
 Brooke Crum  / 

Most Waco Independent School District trustees still plan to hire Belton ISD Superintendent Susan Kincannon as the district’s new leader Thursday night, despite concerns by two trustees over her ability to lead a much more diverse district.

The board of trustees voted 5-1, with trustee Stephanie Korteweg absent and trustee Norman Manning dissenting, on Aug. 7 to name Kincannon as the lone finalist for the open superintendent position.

Trustees Allen Sykes, Cary DuPuy, Jose Vidana and board President Angela Tekell all said Wednesday they plan to vote for Kincannon again. Trustee Robin Houston did not return calls for comment.

Since Aug. 7, Manning has explained why he voted against naming Kincannon the lone finalist. He said his main concern is that she does not have experience working with a student population that is mostly Hispanic and black, as well as economically disadvantaged, like Waco’s.

Manning said Wednesday he still plans to vote against Kincannon’s contract.

Korteweg said she missed the Aug. 7 meeting because she was still processing her options, but she also shares Manning’s concern about the stark differences in student demographics between Belton and Waco ISD. She said while Kincannon has experience in “recruiting talent” and “developing people,” Korteweg has not seen evidence Kincannon can “move the needle” academically with student populations like Waco’s.

“It’s not an easy decision,” Korteweg said. “I think everyone has to vote their conscience, and I hope that’s what we’re all going to do. It all boils down to who is the best person for the kids.”

She declined to say whether she would vote for Kincannon’s contract Thursday night.

“Looking at all factors, I do feel comfortable voting tomorrow,” Korteweg said. “It’s not going to be a unanimous vote, and I think that’s OK.”

Manning also voiced concerns over Tekell’s 11-year working history with Kincannon as Belton ISD’s school board attorney and their accompanying friendship. The Tekells and the Kincannons share ownership of a house on the Brazos River with a couple of other people. The group rents out the house on Airbnb for $295 a night, according to the website listing.

Local Texas State Teachers Association President Pam Fischer said it is the school board’s job to pick the superintendent and to do so with integrity and complete transparency.

“That ship has sailed,” Fischer said. “Will they back it up and start over? Will they steam ahead? Bottom line is, we have to trust whoever they hire, and that’s a little wavy right now.”

Regardless of the superintendent situation, school has started, teachers are still doing their jobs and students are still learning, Fischer said.

Tekell has said her working and personal relationship with Kincannon does not present a conflict of interest for the school board president. She said Wednesday she is “absolutely” ready to vote for Kincannon’s contract Thursday night. She listed multiple reasons why Kincannon is right for Waco ISD, including her experience as a superintendent and her expertise in developing curriculum and instruction, in addition to her ability to engage her community.

“We’re lucky to have her,” Tekell said.

Vidana, who joined the Waco ISD board in June along with Houston, said he also plans to vote for Kincannon again. While he respects and understands Manning’s and Korteweg’s concerns, Vidana said he still believes Kincannon is the best fit for superintendent. Vidana has two children currently enrolled in the district.

“We do have a diverse district that is different from Belton,” he said. “But we still have to give her an opportunity because you can’t hold people back from doing a job just because they come from a different background. If you put in the work and the work is good, everything else follows.”

DuPuy said he, too, remains convinced Kincannon is the best choice for the job and plans to vote for her Thursday night. He, Vidana and Sykes visited Belton ISD for a day, talking to staff, parents and community members.

“She is so highly thought of in that community, from all corners,” DuPuy said. “I was tremendously impressed.”

He said he does not share Manning’s and Korteweg’s concerns about Kincannon but that it is not unusual for people to have different views on a situation.

“I have profound respect for both of them, but I also don’t have to agree with them on everything,” he said. “I don’t agree, and I think that’s OK. In the end, what I believe is that Dr. Kincannon would be the best person for the district.”

Sykes said he is even more sure Kincannon is the right person to lead Waco ISD after taking additional time to review her qualifications and speak with Belton ISD community members and staff. What he found only reinforced his decision to vote for her.

“I think she’ll do great things,” he said.

West ISD looks to pass $21.5 million bond election a year after failed referendum
 Brooke Crum  / 

West Independent School District officials hope to accomplish the final project in rebuilding the district after a fertilizer plant explosion devastated the town six years ago, calling for a $21.5 million bond election this November, a year after a similar one failed.

The $21.5 million bond package would replace West Elementary School, which was built in 1952 and no longer has the capacity to handle the school’s enrollment, Principal Carrie Kazda said.

West ISD is working on purchasing 30 acres behind the new high school and athletic facilities so there can be “one home for all the Trojans,” Superintendent David Truitt said. The new school would be about 81,000 square feet with 35 classrooms, enough space for roughly 750 students.

“We’ve outgrown this campus,” Kazda said. “The overcrowding causes a multitude of issues. It hurts with arrival and dismissal, but then it affects behavior, too. It’s hard to get everyone through the hall in an orderly manner.”

If voters approve the referendum, West ISD’s tax rate would increase by 18 cents to $1.37 per $100 valuation. That would add about $247 a year in taxes for the average homeowner in West ISD, whose home has a taxable value of $137,379, according to the McLennan County Appraisal District.

Truitt said West ISD is in a much better financial position this year to acquire bond debt. The bond package voters rejected last year would have increased the tax rate by 24 cents and cost the average West ISD homeowner about $304 more a year in property taxes.

“West is getting back on its feet,” he said.

In 2018, voters rejected a $20 million bond issue that would have built a new, 80,000-square-foot elementary school. The bond package failed by 61 votes. The school would have been the last major project for West ISD since the fertilizer plant explosion in April 2013 that killed 15 people. The district opened the new high school and middle school facility in 2016.

West Elementary School currently serves students in prekindergarten through fifth grade, which is an additional two grade levels than before the blast, Truitt said. The school used to serve prekindergarten through third grade, and an intermediate school served fourth and fifth grades.

“Following the explosion, everything got moved back together because the intermediate school burned down,” Truitt said. “We’ve got seven full grade levels now, and as the years pass from the explosion, families are returning and our enrollment is going up.”

West Elementary School added 78 students in the past three years, placing enrollment at 597 students, Truitt said. The school has 29 classrooms.

Before the blast in 2013, the campus had 405 students, according to the Texas Education Agency. That number jumped up to 579 for the 2014-2015 school year, when the two other grade levels were added to the campus.

“You would think it’s the age of the building, but we’re not even discussing that because our administration building is from 1923, and it’s wonderful,” Truitt said. “It’s not age. It’s about lack of room and space.”

Kazda said the school simply was not built to hold so many children. The hallways are too narrow for students to pass each other, and the gym, cafeteria and library are so small that staff has to be strategic about planning which classes go where and when.

Another concern is security, Kazda said. Students often have to walk in and out of buildings several times a day for physical education and music classes. The school also lacks an alarm and sprinkler system because it is so old, but it does have a bright red bell that hangs on the wall near the entrance that can be rung by hand in case of emergencies.

“West is getting back on its feet,” Truitt said. “We’re blessed. Our families have been patient and understanding. Our kids are so resilient. We say we’re the district of grit and greatness because I firmly believe a lot of districts would not have survived what we did.”

Truitt said it would be more cost-effective to build a new school than to renovate the current elementary school, given its age. Adding portable buildings is not an option either because that would require encroaching on the students’ playground area and the parking lot, he said. The district cannot expand the campus because it is surrounded by houses, businesses and Interstate 35.

“We know right now it’s a tough time to be asking for a bond, but we feel the need is there and we have the community support,” Truitt said. “We’ve listened. We’ve done our best to answer every question from the previous bond project.”

The West ISD school board unanimously approved the $21.5 million bond election Aug. 15 and hired Claycomb Associates Architects firm.

Farmers' loyalty to Trump tested over new corn-ethanol rules

LACONA, Iowa — When President Donald Trump levied tariffs on China that scrambled global markets, farmer Randy Miller was willing to absorb the financial hit. Even as the soybeans in his fields about an hour south of Des Moines became less valuable, Miller saw long-term promise in Trump’s efforts to rebalance America’s trade relationship with Beijing.

“The farmer plays the long game,” said Miller, who grows soybeans and corn and raises pigs in Lacona. “I look at my job through my son, my grandkids. So am I willing to suffer today to get this done to where I think it will be better for them? Yes.”

But the patience of Miller and many other Midwest farmers with a president they mostly supported in 2016 is being put sorely to the test.

The trigger wasn’t Trump’s China tariffs, but the waivers the administration granted this month to 31 oil refineries so they don’t have to blend ethanol into their gasoline. Since roughly 40% of the U.S. corn crop is turned into ethanol, it was a fresh blow to corn producers already struggling with five years of low commodity prices and the threat of mediocre harvests this fall after some of the worst weather in years.

“That flashpoint was reached and the frustration boiled over, and this was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” says Lynn Chrisp, who grows corn and soybeans near Hastings, Nebraska, and is president of the National Corn Growers Association.

“I’ve never seen farmers so tired, so frustrated, and they’re to the point of anger,” says Kelly Nieuwenhuis, a farmer from Primghar in northwest Iowa who said the waivers were a hot topic at a recent meeting of the Iowa Corn Growers Association. Nieuwenhuis said he voted for Trump in 2016, but now he’s not sure who he’ll support in 2020.

While Iowa farmer Miller saw Trump’s brinkmanship with China as a necessary gamble to help American workers, the ethanol waivers smacked to him of favoritism for a wealthy and powerful industry — Big Oil.

“That’s our own country stabbing us in the back,” Miller said. “That’s the president going, the oil companies need to make more than the American farmer. ... That was just, ‘I like the oil company better or I’m friends with the oil company more than I’m friends with the farmer.’ ”

The EPA last month kept its annual target for the level of corn ethanol that must be blended into the nation’s gasoline supply under the Renewable Fuel Standard at 15 billion gallons for 2020. That was a deep disappointment to an ethanol industry that wanted a higher target to offset exemptions granted to smaller refiners. Those waivers have cut demand by an estimated 2.6 billion gallons since Trump took office.

At least 15 ethanol plants already have been shut down or idled since the EPA increased waivers under Trump, and a 16th casualty came Wednesday at the Corn Plus ethanol plant in the south-central Minnesota town of Winnebago. The Renewable Fuels Association says the closures have affected more than 2,500 jobs.

The 31 new waivers issued this month came on top of 54 granted since early 2018, according to the association. While the waivers are intended to reduce hardships on small oil refiners, some beneficiaries include smaller refineries owned by big oil companies.

The administration knows it has a problem. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said at a farm policy summit in Decatur, Illinois, on Wednesday that Trump will take action to soften the effects. He would not say what the president might do or when, but said that Trump believes the waivers by his EPA were “way overdone.”

Geoff Cooper, head of the Renewable Fuels Association, said the heads of the EPA and Agriculture Department and key White House officials have been discussing relief, and that his group has been talking with officials involved in those conversations. He said they’ve heard the plan may include reallocating the ethanol demand lost from the exempted smaller refiners to larger refiners that would pick up the slack, but many key details remain unclear, including whether the reallocation would apply in 2020 or be delayed until 2021.

“Anything short of that redistribution or reallocation is not going to be well received by farmers, I’ll tell you that,” Cooper said.

The White House referred questions to the EPA, where spokesman Michael Abboud said only that the agency would “continue to consult” on the best path forward.

Another example of the tensions came last week when the U.S. Agriculture Department pulled its staffers out of the ProFarmer Crop Tour, an annual assessment of Midwest crop yields, in response to an unspecified threat. The agency said it came from “someone not involved with the tour” and that Federal Protective Services was investigating.

Despite farmers’ mounting frustrations, there’s little evidence so far that many farmers who backed Trump in 2016 will desert him in 2020. Many are still pleased with his rollbacks in other regulations. Cultural issues such as abortion or gun rights are important to many of them. And many are wary of a Democratic Party they see as growing more liberal.

Miller, too, says he’s still inclined to support Trump in the next election.

Though Trump has inserted new uncertainty into Miller’s own financial situation, he believes the president has been good for the economy as a whole. And as a staunch opponent of abortion, he sees no viable alternatives in the Democratic presidential field.

Chrisp, too, says he doesn’t see an acceptable Democratic alternative. Still, he cautioned Republicans against taking farmers for granted.

“We’re not a chip in the political game, though I’m certain there are folks who are political strategists who view us that way, but it’s not the case,” he said.

Brian Thalmann, who farms near Plato in south-central Minnesota and serves as president of the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, confronted Perdue at a trade show this month about Trump’s recent statements that farmers are starting to do well again.

“Things are going downhill and downhill very quickly,” Thalmann told Perdue.

Thalmann, who voted for Trump in 2016, said this week that he can’t support him at the moment. He said farmers have worked too hard to build up markets and the reputation of American farm products and “I can’t see agriculture getting dragged down the path it currently is.”


Karnowski reported from Minneapolis. McFetridge reported from Des Moines. Associated Press writer John O’Connor contributed from Decatur, Illinois; Candice Choi from New York, and Kevin Freking and Ellen Knickmeyer from Washington.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte, file/  

More than a dozen folk dancing groups perform each year at Westfest.

Baylor president's statement on LGBTQ issues stops short of student demands
 Rhiannon Saegert  / 

Baylor University President Linda Livingstone announced this week that the university will take steps to better support LGBTQ students, but a request to recognize unofficial LGBTQ student groups was not addressed.

In an email Tuesday to students, faculty and staff, Livingstone stated Baylor students will not face disciplinary action for their sexual identity, and said that Baylor counselors do not practice or condone so-called conversion or reparative therapy to change their orientation.

Baylor officials have faced pressure in recent months from students and alumni who have petitioned them to recognize LGBTQ student organizations, and Baylor regents discussed related issues at a retreat this summer.

“During the course of these conversations, it has become evident to us that there are many misperceptions regarding Baylor’s stance on human sexuality and that there is more we can do to support our LGBTQ students,” Livingstone said in the statement Tuesday.

Baylor’s website now contains a page stating the university’s LGBTQ resources are compliant with Title IX, the federal law that bars gender discrimination on campus. The page states that students are not expelled or disciplined for same-sex attraction. In a frequently asked questions section, the site reiterates Baylor’s official statement on human sexuality, which reads:

“The University affirms the biblical understanding of sexuality as a gift from God. Christian churches across the ages and around the world have affirmed purity in singleness and fidelity in marriage between a man and a woman as the biblical norm.”

The page also states LGBTQ students seeking community support can find it through Baylor’s counseling center, Baylor’s Bias Response Team or the Department of Spiritual Life.

“With this said, we understand that we must do more to demonstrate love and support for our students who identify as LGBTQ,” Livingstone’s statement continues. “A common theme emerging from all of the aforementioned conversations is the need for us to provide more robust and more specific training for students, faculty and staff in loving, caring for and supporting our LGBTQ students.”

The unofficial student group Gamma Alpha Upsilon, formerly known as SIF, said in a statement that their members appreciate the university’s efforts, but that Baylor still has not addressed issues they raised during the previous semester.

“We wish to point out that they have continued to ignore our requests and refuse to talk with us about the issues we face as LGBTQ+ students,” they stated. “We have clearly outlined what issues we have found, in the petition written in April, that we wish to be addressed. In the email, the president has expressed interest in continuing the conversation and we would greatly appreciate the ability to establish this dialogue with her and other Baylor administration.”

Gamma Alpha Upsilon President Elizabeth Benton said the group is still seeking a charter from the university’s Division of Student Life, which would give them official status and access to assistance other groups receive.

“It still refuses to acknowledge what we’ve been asking for the entire time,” Benton said.

Benton said the new webpage referring students to the Baylor Counseling Center and other campus resources is not a negative but also does not fully address the issue.

“They’re not always equipped to help,” Benton said. “On many occasions, the counseling center has turned students away because their ‘problems’ were too much to handle, and they’d send them to other places that would either cost too much or that people weren’t able to get to.”

She said her group exists to provide a sense of safety and security for LGBTQ students who might not be able to find it elsewhere.

“Take it outside of this context,” Benton said. “Whenever you find a group of people that you really connect with, you feel safe and you feel comfortable. That’s why we’re here.”

Benton said her group is still seeking an audience with Baylor administrators. The group asked to address the Baylor Board of Regents before the end of the semester last year, but was not allowed to.

“Have a conversation with us,” Benton said. “They keep bringing in people who don’t go to Baylor, who have no affiliation with Baylor, and it feels like a slap in the face when they do this. It’s just really disappointing on our end.”

Kyle Desrosiers, a Baylor student who wrote about the issue in a Tribune-Herald guest column, called the statement a “callous lack of action.”

“Though President Livingstone and the Baylor administration think that current resources, which most LGBTQ students don’t currently trust to meet their needs, are enough, LGBTQ students are constantly faced with harassment and hatred at Baylor in many ways small and great,” Desrosiers said. “Additionally, LGBTQ persons cannot and have never been able to participate in the Baylor community as fully as straight students.”

BU Bears for All founders Skye Perryman, Jackie Baugh Moore, and Tracy Teaff, who authored an open letter calling for recognition of Baylor’s unofficial LGBT student groups that gained more than 3,000 signatures, released a statement in response.

“Dialogue is part of academic life and can be useful,” they stated. “At the end of the day, this is an effort about real people who are in the Baylor family living their lives as dialogue about their civil rights is happening around them.

“Until all members of the Baylor family, including LGBTQ+ people, are afforded equal opportunities to participate fully in campus life, our work is not done. We and thousands of others look forward to helping Baylor move forward and urge it to adopt policies that are in line with its academic and athletic peers.”