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editor's pick
Baylor repairing riverbank to stop erosion of long-buried debris
 Rhiannon Saegert  / 

Waco’s tornadic past is peeking out of a riverbank on the Baylor campus.

Erosion along the Brazos River is slowly exposing debris along the riverfront, and the university now plans to spend $1.8 million to patch it up. Baylor spokeswoman Lori Fogleman said testing revealed it was construction debris, making its origins as part of the long-defunct city of Waco dump clear.

“As we mentioned before, that landfill primarily contains debris from the ’53 tornado,” Fogleman said. “We have conducted environmental testing of the area, which found mainly brick and glass.”

This isn’t the first time the old landfill, which originally spanned 15 acres, has created a headache for present-day Waco. In 2008, an archaeology firm did borings along the route of the riverwalk extension downstream of the Texas Ranger Museum and found trash deposits, and reported that the extension was “entirely within the old city dump,” according to a 2010 Tribune-Herald article.

Baylor’s Simpson Athletic and Academic Center was built over part of the closed landfill in accordance with a permit from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

The eroded area includes 2,100 linear feet along the south bank of the river, behind the Highers Athletic Complex. The waterline extends from the Daniel inlet, just past Baylor Law School, toward the Pullin Family Marina, which is on the Waco Creek inlet. Fogleman said the materials they found are inert and will not decompose, meaning they aren’t in danger of leaching chemicals or gases into the water. The TCEQ has not levied fines or penalties against Baylor for the debris, Fogleman said.

“This is a matter of doing the right thing,” Fogleman said. “The university worked with the TCEQ to handle this in the right manner. The riverfront is a huge asset and a selling point for Baylor.”

The fix will involve layering rock riprap, also known as man-placed rock, on top of a thickened foundation at the waterline. For this project, large slabs of stone will extend out into the river for 4 feet to 8 feet and prevent further soil erosion on the bank. Fogleman said the erosion is not near the riverwalk, which will remain open during construction, and the project is scheduled to be completed in August.

Erosion revealed

A routine Texas Commission on Environmental Quality inspection revealed the riverbank erosion in spring 2017. After the landfill material was discovered, Baylor conducted ongoing inspections and spot-cleanups while developing a plan to fix the waterline with TCEQ and the U.S. Army Corps of Civil Engineers. The Baylor Board of Regents voted to approve the construction at their May meeting.

The riverfront area was cleared by federal Urban Renewal programs in the 1960s and later acquired by Baylor. The city of Waco operated a dump at what was then First Street and Jones Avenue where garbage was burned in the open, according to a Feb. 5, 1954 article in the Waco News-Tribune. The article mentions that smoke had been rising from the site for “the past 50 or more years.”

editor's pick
Waco ISD board president Atkins steps down after 17 years
 Brooke Crum  / 

After 17 years on the Waco Independent School District board of trustees, president Pat Atkins is resigning, citing his family’s decision to move outside the district’s boundaries and his desire to step out of the way as the board prepares to hire a superintendent.

His resignation takes effect Thursday, if the board accepts it, leaving trustees to discuss at their meeting how to fill the vacancy, according to a Waco ISD news release. State law and board policy allow the remaining board members to either fill the vacancy by appointment until the next trustee election or call a special election.

Atkins, 54, served as president for nine years. He is a civil attorney, and his wife, Sandy, is a Waco ISD teacher. Their three children graduated from Waco ISD schools.

He told fellow school board members that he and his wife plan to sell their home in Waco ISD and move outside the district later this year. At that time, he will no longer be eligible to serve on the board. Atkins notified trustees of his plans because the board is starting its search for the district’s next superintendent.

“I have been reflecting upon our impending move and this board’s search for the next superintendent,” Atkins wrote in his resignation letter to the trustees. “This hire likely will set the course for the district and the Waco community for several years. I know I can remain on the board a few more months until our new home is complete. It is important, though, that my successor — who will actually be working with the new superintendent — have an opportunity to participate in the hiring process.”

The announcement comes two months after the board and then-Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson came to an agreement for Nelson to resign after his misdemeanor marijuana possession arrest. The board took its first steps toward hiring a new superintendent Friday, when it began accepting applications.

Atkins said he believes Nelson made the right choice by resigning because Nelson recognized that the spotlight had shifted to him instead of the students. Atkins recognizes that Nelson was “dynamic leader,” but that it would have been difficult for him to sustain the same level of leadership after his arrest.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte, file  

Waco ISD board President Pat Atkins speaks at a meeting earlier this year during a discussion about Superintendent A. Marcus Nelson’s employment.

“What was difficult with that situation was we had made so much progress over the last two years, really engaging the community and earning the trust and the commitment of community members, as well as their buy-in to the mission of the Waco public schools,” Atkins said. “It was difficult to see how divided people were becoming over that one issue, that there were reasonable, thoughtful people on both sides who were coming to very different conclusions.”

Interim Superintendent Hazel Rowe said Atkins has had such a profound impact on the district that it is difficult to articulate.

“For 17 years, he has asked what we can do, together, as a community to give our kids a brighter future,” she said. “And for just as long, he has taken seriously the responsibility to be a good steward of our community’s tax dollars. Our kids, our schools and our community are all better off because of his leadership.”

Atkins has led the school board through several difficult decisions, one of which involved the state Legislature slashing $5.4 billion from public education funding in 2011. Waco ISD’s budget took a $3.4 million hit in state funding.

Between October 2011 and February 2012, Atkins and other district officials led community discussions about how to bridge that funding gap. The resulting plan included closing nine campuses.

Waco NAACP President Peaches Henry said Atkins has been a good partner to the community.

“He has listened to the concerns of the community and has been committed to actively listening and seeking input from us," she said. "We would encourage whoever next serves on the board to follow his good example.”

Atkins said the district’s initiatives in the last few years are starting to pay off in turning around underperforming schools.

In November 2015, voters approved increasing the district’s total tax rate by five cents in what was called a “tax ratification election.” School board members committed that the additional funds would be used to expand opportunities for students to earn college credit, raise literacy rates and improve behavior and discipline.

“We’ve already seen significant progress in all three areas,” Atkins said. “This year, 30 seniors will graduate with both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree from McLennan Community College. Between 2016 and 2018, the percentage of third-graders passing the state reading assessment increased seven percentage points. Our out-of-school suspension rate has dropped by 51 percent since 2015.

“There’s much more work to be done, but there’s no doubt that the tax ratification election has been a game-changer for Waco schools,” he said. “In 2015, eight schools in Waco ISD failed to meet state standards. In 2018, only one campus did.”

A law passed in 2015 requires the state education commissioner to either close any campus that fails to meet state standards for five consecutive years or replace the school district’s elected board of trustees with an appointed board of managers.

In 2017, six Waco ISD schools failed to meet state standards. Five of the schools had failed to meet them for five or more years in a row. They would have faced closure if they failed to meet state standards for another year.

A 2017 law offered school districts the option of partnering with a nonprofit organization to operate chronically underperforming campuses. If the partnerships met certain eligibility criteria, the campuses would receive a two-year reprieve from accountability interventions.

That is how Transformation Waco was born, a result of a partnership between Waco ISD and Prosper Waco. It is a first-of-its-kind in-district charter system in Texas.

“Superintendents tend to focus on the data sets that they’re going to turn in to the state,” Atkins said. “I understand that. That’s a large part of how their district and their performance is going to be measured. I think our role as board members is simply to remind superintendents and the administration that in this community there is more to education than just standardized testing.”

Atkins said the Waco community is committed to increasing opportunities for students to participate in fine arts and advanced academics, as well as career and technology programs. That is evident by the formation of both the advanced manufacturing and advanced health care academies in the district.

“To really be an effective board member, you have to take the time to listen to a lot of different perspectives, and you need to make yourself accessible to where folks are comfortable not only giving feedback but also willing to raise concerns about something that the board is considering doing,” he said.

Staff photo — Jerry Larson  

Longtime Waco ISD school board member and president Pat Atkins is stepping down after 17 years.

“I’ve been doing it for 17 years at no pay because it is very gratifying, and it is rewarding to know that you’re making a difference in the lives of students and their families. To really understand the issues takes time, and I hope a number of folks will consider applying for or running for my seat because it may be the most difficult, rewarding opportunity in the community.”

Waco American Federation of Teachers representative Rosalinda Silva said she is sorry to see Atkins go.

“We need somebody in there that is going to be as fair-minded as Pat Atkins,” she said. “We will miss him. We love him and wish him and his family well.”

Reports: Iran quadruples production of enriched uranium

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran quadrupled its uranium-enrichment production capacity amid tensions with the U.S. over Tehran’s atomic program, nuclear officials said Monday, just after President Donald Trump and Iran’s foreign minister traded threats and taunts on Twitter.

Iranian officials made a point to stress that the uranium would be enriched only to the 3.67% limit set under the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, making it usable for a power plant but far below what’s needed for an atomic weapon.

But by increasing production, Iran soon will go beyond the stockpile limitations set by the accord. Tehran has set a July 7 deadline for Europe to come up with new terms for the deal, or it will enrich closer to weapons-grade levels in a Middle East already on edge. The Trump administration has deployed bombers and an aircraft carrier to the region over still-unspecified threats from Iran.

Already this month, officials in the United Arab Emirates alleged that four oil tankers were damaged in a sabotage attack; Yemeni rebels allied with Iran launched a drone attack on an oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia; and U.S. diplomats relayed a warning that commercial airlines could be misidentified by Iran and attacked, something dismissed by Tehran.

A rocket landed Sunday near the U.S. Embassy in the Green Zone of Iraq’s capital of Baghdad, days after nonessential U.S. staff were ordered to evacuate from diplomatic posts in the country. No one was reported injured. Iraqi military spokesman Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasoul told The Associated Press that the rocket was believed to have been fired from eastern Baghdad, an area home to Iran-backed Shiite militias.

The Iranian enrichment announcement came after local journalists traveled to Natanz in central Iran, the country’s underground enrichment facility. There, an unidentified nuclear scientist gave a statement with a surgical cap and a mask covering most of his face. No one explained his choice of outfit, although Israel is suspected of carrying out a campaign targeting Iranian nuclear scientists.

The state-run IRNA news agency later quoted Behrouz Kamalvandi, the spokesman of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, as acknowledging that capacity had been quadrupled. He said Iran took this step because the U.S. had ended a program allowing it to exchange enriched uranium to Russia for unprocessed yellowcake uranium, as well as ending the sale of heavy water to Oman. Heavy water helps cool reactors producing plutonium that can be used in nuclear weapons.

Kamalvandi said Iran had informed the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N. nuclear watchdog, of the development. The Vienna-based agency did not respond to a request for comment. Tehran long has insisted it does not seek nuclear weapons, though the West fears its program could allow it to build them.

Before Iran’s announcement, Trump tweeted: “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!”

Trump’s remarks reflect what has been a strategy of alternating tough talk with more conciliatory statements he says is aimed at keeping Iran guessing at the administration’s intentions. He also has said he hopes Iran calls him and engages in negotiations.

He described his approach in a speech Friday, saying, “It’s probably a good thing because they’re saying, ‘Man, I don’t know where these people are coming from,’ right?”

But while Trump’s approach of flattery and threats has become a hallmark of his foreign policy, the risks have only grown in dealing with Iran, where mistrust between Tehran and Washington stretch back four decades. While both Washington and Tehran say they don’t seek war, many worry any miscalculation could spiral out of control.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif soon responded by tweeting that Trump had been “goaded” into “genocidal taunts.” Zarif referenced both Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan as two historical leaders that Persia outlasted.

“Iranians have stood tall for a millennia while aggressors all gone,” he wrote. “Try respect — it works!”

Zarif also used the hashtag #NeverThreatenAnIranian, a reference to a comment he made during intense negotiations for the 2016 nuclear accord.

Trump campaigned on pulling the U.S. from the deal, which saw Iran agree to limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. Since Trump withdrew America a year ago from the pact, the U.S. has re-imposed previous sanctions and come up with new ones, as well as warning other nations they would be subject to sanctions as well if they import Iranian oil.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told journalists in Geneva that Iran should not doubt the U.S. resolve, warning that “if American interests are attacked, they will retaliate.”

“We want the situation to de-escalate because this is a part of the world where things can get triggered accidentally,” Hunt said.

Meanwhile, Oman’s minister of state for foreign affairs made a previously unannounced visit Monday to Tehran, seeing Zarif, the state-run IRNA news agency said. The visit by Yusuf bin Alawi comes after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Oman’s Sultan Qaboos bin Said last week. Oman long has served as a Western backchannel to Tehran and the sultanate hosted the secret talks between the U.S. and Iran that laid the groundwork for the nuclear deal negotiations.

In Saudi Arabia, the kingdom’s military intercepted two missiles fired by the Iranian-allied Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen. The missiles were intercepted over the city of Taif and the Red Sea port city of Jiddah, the Saudi-owned satellite channel Al-Arabiya reported, citing witnesses. The Saudi Embassy in Washington later confirmed the interceptions.

Hundreds of rockets, mortar rounds and ballistic missiles have been fired into the kingdom by the rebels since a Saudi-led coalition declared war on the Houthis in March 2015 to support Yemen’s internationally recognized government.

The Houthis’ Al-Masirah satellite news channel denied that the rebels had any involvement with this round of rocket fire.

Between the two targeted cities is Mecca, home to the cube-shaped Kaaba that Muslims pray toward five times a day. Many religious pilgrims are in the city for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Texas House passes religious liberty bill amid LGBTQ Caucus' objections

Over the tearful opposition of the Legislature’s first-ever LGBTQ Caucus and several failed attempts at a procedural block, the Texas House passed a religious liberty bill Monday that LGBTQ advocates fear would license discrimination against their communities.

When the lower chamber first considered the bill just over a week ago, the LGBTQ Caucus torpedoed it with a procedural move. This time, an attempt to do the same failed, as did emotional exhortations from the five women who make up the caucus.

After two hours of debate, Senate Bill 1978 — which prohibits government entities from punishing individuals or organizations for their “membership in, affiliation with, or contribution ... to a religious organization” — passed on a nearly party-line preliminary vote, 79-62. If the House grants formal approval and the Senate agrees to a change made on the lower chamber’s floor Monday, the bill will head to the governor.

“This bill is going to pass; let’s face it,” state Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, said from the front of the chamber minutes before her colleagues cast their votes. “It’s been cloaked in religious freedom, but the genesis, the nexus of this bill, is in hatred.”

When the bill was first filed, it contained sweeping religious refusals language that had the potential to gut the few existing protections for gay communities, hailing from a national sweep of anti-LGBTQ model legislation. As it’s made its way through the Legislature, the bill has been progressively stripped of its most controversial provisions, leaving a version that largely codifies existing legal protections: freedom of religion and freedom of association.

On Monday, House sponsor Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, weakened the measure further, removing a provision that would have empowered the Texas attorney general to bring lawsuits against governmental entities accused of religious discrimination.

Krause said removing the provision was a show of “good faith,” as it had proved a “big sticking point” with opponents of the bill. Given the changes he described as efforts to compromise, Krause said he was surprised at the level of opposition to the measure.

“Look at the language in this bill,” Krause said. “There is nothing discriminatory in the language. … There is nothing discriminatory in the intent.”

But despite the revisions, the bill “perpetuates the rhetoric that leads to discrimination, to hate and ultimately bullying that leads to the consequence of people dying,” said state Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, who chairs the LGBTQ Caucus.

State Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, who lobbed an unsuccessful point of order aimed at killing the bill, questioned Krause for some 30 minutes about how the bill might spark discrimination. And each member of the newly formed LGBTQ Caucus spoke against the bill, several of them emotionally, just before the House voted.

One member of the caucus, state Rep. Jessica González, D-Dallas, tried and failed to amend the bill with language that would have protected LGBTQ communities against discrimination from employers and the government. Currently, there is no state law that explicitly prohibits employers from firing workers based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, but some cities have codified those protections at the local level.

Her amendment failed 65-76.

With emotional appeals looking unlikely to change minds, several LGBTQ Caucus members tried to persuade their colleagues to oppose the bill out of practicality — telling them, sometimes subtly and at times directly, that a vote for this bill could hurt their reelection chances in 2020.

“Members, this bill is here, being debated on the floor today, to make LGBTQ Texans feel less than, to make us feel attacked by our government,” said state Rep. Erin Zwiener, a Driftwood Democrat and freshman member of the LGBTQ Caucus. “We are living in history, members. Attitudes toward the LGBTQ community have changed rapidly over the past few decades. Young Texans in particular are overwhelmingly accepting of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.”

Her amendment failed 65-76.

With emotional appeals looking unlikely to change minds, several LGBTQ Caucus members tried to persuade their colleagues to oppose the bill out of practicality — telling them, sometimes subtly and at times directly, that a vote for this bill could hurt their reelection chances in 2020.

“Members, this bill is here, being debated on the floor today, to make LGBTQ Texans feel less than, to make us feel attacked by our government,” said state Rep. Erin Zwiener, a Driftwood Democrat and freshman member of the LGBTQ Caucus. “We are living in history, members. Attitudes toward the LGBTQ community have changed rapidly over the past few decades. Young Texans in particular are overwhelmingly accepting of people of all sexual orientations and gender identities.”

Proponents and detractors acknowledged that the bill is likely to spark activity in the courts. Krause said that even without a provision empowering the attorney general to sue, individuals and organizations have a private cause of action under the bill — and can always look to groups like the First Liberty Institute, a law firm that crusades for religious liberty.

Opponents, meanwhile, emphasized that challenges to the law would mean major costs to the state.

“I have no doubt that if passed, SB 1978 will be fought in the courts at every level and at great expense to the taxpayers. To vote yes today is to put your signature on that invoice,” said state Rep. Julie Johnson, the Dallas Democrat who successfully sank the bill in its first appearance on the House floor earlier this month. “The underlying message remains the same — and that message poisons this state. It sends the message that Texas is not open and welcoming to all.”