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Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte/  

Third-year Riesel head coach Robert Little (center, in hat) said, “When I first got here, we went into some games we should have won, and would find ways to lose. That way of thinking is not the norm anymore.”

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Baylor announces lead gift for $105 million basketball facility
 John Werner  / 

Baylor University Athletic Director Mack Rhoades announced plans Tuesday to build a new $105 million basketball facility on the banks of the Brazos River, initiated by the largest gift in the university’s history.

A portion of the $100 million gift from an anonymous donor, which was announced Saturday to support the university-wide $1.1 billion Give Light campaign, will go toward the basketball facility and another portion toward academics.

Baylor officials didn’t specify Tuesday how the major donation will be divided, but Rhoades said the university still needs to raise $30 million before construction will begin on the new basketball pavilion, which will be built in the current parking lot between the Ferrell Center and Baylor Ballpark.

“Certainly to remain competitive and to continue to recruit student-athletes at the highest level as well as really have an environment for fans, it’s critical to have the best facilities,” Baylor President Linda Livingstone said. “That’s true on the athletics side, but it’s true on the academic side as well. This gift is so important because it helps us on both sides of that.”

Baylor University rendering  

The Baylor Basketball Pavilion will sit near the Brazos River on an existing parking lot between the Ferrell Center and Baylor Ballpark.

The announcement of the new facility comes at an opportune time as Kim Mulkey’s women’s basketball team won its third national championship last month while Scott Drew’s men’s basketball team reached its fifth NCAA tournament in the last six years.

“We have programs in basketball at Baylor that have done their jobs on the floor,” Mulkey said. “And I’m so grateful and thankful that now I can actually talk to you guys and the fans and recruits about the possibility. I don’t know when, but at least it’s exciting that now we can start drawing things and having ideas and show them some pictures.”

After the new basketball facility is completed, the Ferrell Center will be renovated at a projected cost of $20 million to accommodate Baylor’s volleyball, acrobatics and tumbling teams.

“This gift is symbolic of our united effort to raise the bar across all of our sports,” Rhoades said. “While the Ferrell Center has been home to our men’s and women’s basketball programs for over 30 years, this project will now create additional opportunities beyond basketball. With volleyball and acrobatics and tumbling taking over the Ferrell Center, they too gain a remarkable competitive advantage for their respective sports.”

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte 

The new Baylor Basketball Pavilion will be located behind the Ferrell Center, near Baylor Ballpark.

For now, the new basketball facility is being called the Baylor Basketball Pavilion, but that could change if the lead donors decide to remove their anonymity.

The new venue will be dramatically different from the Ferrell Center, which has served as Baylor basketball’s home court since its opening in 1988. While the Ferrell Center holds 10,400 fans, the new facility will hold 7,000 to 7,500 in an effort to create a smaller, louder environment with fans closer to the basketball floor.

“The big thing nowadays in facilities is proximity,” Drew said. “In new facilities, fans are on top of you more. You’re not so spread out. The closer, the more noise. The more noise, the more motivation, and the harder it is to communicate for the other team.”

Baylor’s philosophy in building the basketball pavilion is similar to construction of McLane Stadium. After moving from 50,000-seat Floyd Casey Stadium in 2014, McLane Stadium was downsized to 45,000 seats in an effort to create more ticket demand.

Downsizing basketball arenas has become a trend across the state and country. The University of Texas is projecting capacity of its new arena at 10,000 seats after playing in the 16,734-seat Frank Erwin Center. Texas Christian University dropped its seating capacity from 8,500 to 6,800 when it reconfigured its basketball arena.

“I don’t think there’s any question the trend is toward smaller arenas and smaller stadiums,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said. “As Mack (Rhoades) said, I think Baylor got it exactly right with their football stadium, and they built a lot of amenities into it. They built it the right size and I think this one’s the right size.”

Baylor University rendering  

A rendering shows the inside of the proposed basketball pavilion.

The pavilion will also include an “integrated state-of-the-art practice facility” that will include separate locker rooms, practice gyms, team lounges, and office suites as well as shared athletic medicine and athletic performance spaces.

The new basketball fieldhouse is expected to give the Bears a boost in the recruiting game. Though the facility won’t likely be completed for several years, Drew plans to use it as a selling point to recruits immediately.

“Obviously when you’re doing recruiting visits, they love new,” Drew said. “It’s a game-changer. It’s huge. From the standpoint, if you look at analytics we have the second-best road record in the Big 12 in the last decade. To win the Big 12, you’ve got to win the homecourt advantage.”

Livingstone stressed that the recent $100 million donation supports an academic initiative as well as the basketball pavilion.

University officials declined to break down how much of the $100 million gift will go to the basketball facility and how much to the academic initiative. Livingstone said the academic portion will go to a matching fund for endowed chairs, in what is called the Baylor Academic Challenge.

“If they give $1.5 million, we’ll match $1.5 for a $3 million chair,” Livingstone said. “We’ll match up to $3 million which will create a $6 million chair. Currently, we have about five chairs, ... and this will allow us probably to create up to 17 more chairs at $3 million or more.”

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Seeing clearly: 400 Waco ISD students get free eye exams, glasses
 Brooke Crum  / 

Cristian Garcia, 5, slipped on a pair of navy blue frames, looked into the handheld mirror in front of him and grinned. Then he shook his head.

“No? OK. Try this pair,” said the Greater Waco Advanced Health Care Academy student holding the mirror for him. She handed him a pair of lime green and black eyeglass frames.

Cristian slid the black and green frames over the bridge of his nose and smiled broadly into the mirror, turning his head from side to side as the older student adjusted the glasses to fit his head. He nodded so vigorously the glasses nearly fell off his face.

Why those frames? “I like green,” he said.

Cristian was one of about 400 Waco Independent School District students from 22 campuses who received a free eye exam this week, thanks to a collaboration between the school district, Transformation Waco, the Bernard & Audre Rapoport Foundation, and the Essilor Vision Foundation. The two-day event, dubbed “Vision Fest,” took place at the Greater Waco Advanced Health Care Academy, where trained student volunteers assisted with the vision screening process.

Staff photos — Jerry Larson  

Kendrick Elementary School student Jeremiah Lozano plays around with Waco High School student-volunteer Angela Ibarra as he waits for the results of an eye exam during Vision Fest on Tuesday at the Greater Waco Advanced Health Care Academy.

The Essilor Vision Foundation, a Dallas-based nonprofit, found seven optometrists from around the state to volunteer their time Monday and Tuesday to provide eye exams. After the optometrists determined the students’ prescriptions, Essilor produced prescription glasses and fit them for each student.

Some students were able to get their glasses the same day, and others with more complex prescriptions will get theirs in about three weeks, said Marina Patino, associate director for Kids Vision for Life, an offshoot of the Essilor Vision Foundation.

“It’s not just about putting a pair of glasses on a kid,” Patino said. “With glasses, his whole life is going to change completely.”

Since 2007, the Essilor Vision Foundation has provided more than 1 million pairs of eyeglasses to people in need, according to its website.

Patino said many parents associate poor vision with age and do not get their children’s vision tested, so they are not aware their children need corrective lenses. Children, on the other hand, have no point of reference, so they do not know whether their vision is impaired.

“We’re bridging the gap of accessibility and affordability and providing awareness,” she said.

Staff photo — Jerry Larson  

Kendrick Elementary School student Millo Vega covers one eye as he takes an eye exam during Vision Fest at the Greater Waco Advanced Health Care Academy on Tuesday.

Vision Fest is an initiative of Transformation Waco, the in-district charter system comprised of five Waco ISD schools that were on the brink of state closure. Transformation Waco offers “wraparound services” like Vision Fest to students to address unmet needs that may affect academic success, according to a press release.

In the past, Transformation Waco has secured eye exams and eyeglasses for students with vision needs who were identified through screenings by school nurses, the press release states. Through financial support from the Rapoport Foundation, 97 students from five schools received prescription eyeglasses provided by the Essilor Vision Foundation.

Rapoport Foundation administrative coordinator Jenny Peel said the foundation knew it needed to help bring Vision Fest to Waco after hearing about similar vision events Essilor had conducted before.

“It was a no-brainer,” Peel said of getting the foundation’s board to agree to help with Vision Fest. “If you can help them be able to see, you can solve a lot of problems.”

Staff photo — Jerry Larson 

Cesar Chavez Middle School student Brooklyn Green smiles as she looks over some frames in a mirror held by Isabel Mendoza, from Bruceville-Eddy. Transformation Waco offered about 400 students exams and prescription glasses Tuesday during Vision Fest at the Greater Waco Advanced Health Care Academy.

Just ask Transformation Waco CEO Robin McDurham. She often tells the story of one student who read everything on two different lines.

“Can you imagine how difficult it is to learn reading that way?” McDurham said. “You have to be able to see to read.”

But the problems do not end there. McDurham said vision impairment sometimes leads to students zoning out during lessons or misbehaving in class.

“For some kids, if you can’t fully engage in the lesson you are easily distracted,” she said. “We often use the word ‘focus,’ and this is the perfect example of why that word is so commonly thrown out.”

She recited a thank-you letter one student sent Transformation Waco after receiving a pair of eyeglasses that sums up the motivations behind Vision Fest. It read: “Thank you for the glasses. Before, everything was blurry, and now I can see.”

Staff photo — Jerry Larson 

Versonyca Reeves, of Mexia, high-fives Kendrick Elementary School student Jazzanay Jones after giving her an eye exam Tuesday.

Seventh-grade Cesar Chavez Middle School student Brooklyn Green, 13, cannot wait for the moment she can see clearly. She said she often has to ask to see her friends’ notes from class because the board is blurry from her seat and the more she tries to squint to see, the blurrier everything gets.

“When they tested my eyes, it was so clear,” Brooklyn said. “I could see the small letters. It was really nice to be able to see.”

She picked out a pair of silver, round eyeglass frames, but that was not her favorite part of Vision Fest. Brooklyn said she also enjoyed meeting new people and mingling with different personalities, and she said everybody was extremely nice.

Vision Fest is not over. As part of Transformation Waco’s long-term plan, students at the Greater Waco Advanced Health Care Academy will learn to make prescription eyeglasses on site using equipment to be purchased with Rapoport Foundation funding.

Vote on Texas sales tax increase for school tax cuts postponed in House

A proposal to pay for long-term school district tax cuts by raising the state sales tax, endorsed by Texas’ top three political leaders, could be dead after the House delayed a vote on it Tuesday.

State Rep. Dan Huberty, the top public education leader in the Texas House, tabled until 2021 — the next legislative session — House Joint Resolution 3 and the accompanying House Bill 4621, which would ask voters to increase the state sales tax by one penny to buy down school district property taxes. The Houston Republican’s move came the day after the Senate, headed by a lieutenant governor who had endorsed the proposal, stripped such a provision from its version of the school finance bill in what was perhaps a signal that the measure would be dead in the upper chamber anyway.

Despite Tuesday’s postponement, the idea could still be revived this session; lawmakers could use a different bill as a vehicle to fund school district tax cuts.

Huberty criticized members of the Senate on Tuesday who “have spent their whole careers calling for property tax relief” but did not vote for the school finance measure the day before. And he repeatedly affirmed questions by House colleagues that suggested state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, the Houston Republican who leads the upper chamber’s property tax committee, had failed to take responsibility for coming up with a viable mechanism for property tax cuts when he was part of a school finance commission last year and during the current legislative session.

Bettencourt has arguably been the most vocal GOP senator opposed to the tax swap proposal, a position that has caught some by surprise since he’s closely aligned — both personally and professionally — with Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who has made clear he supports the measure. Bettencourt marked himself “present, not voting” on the school finance bill Monday, while the majority of the upper chamber approved the legislation. And on Tuesday morning, ahead of business in both chambers, Bettencourt took to Facebook to once again reiterate his opposition to the tax swap, saying there is “simply no need to raise taxes even higher.”

In response to House members’ criticisms, Bettencourt said he’s long been clear about his concern that the tax swap proposal could amount to a tax increase.

When Huberty proposed that the tax swap devote 80% of the new sales tax revenue to property tax cuts and the remainder to public school funding, for example, “I immediately red-flagged that,” Bettencourt said.

”Emotions run high when bills fail,” Bettencourt said. “If you have the votes, pass your bill — don’t blame somebody in the other chamber. That’s just kind of a rule that I’ve learned.”

Gov. Greg Abbott, Patrick and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen — considered Texas’ “Big Three” GOP leaders — have in past weeks thrown their full support behind a proposal to pay for long-term decreases in Texans’ tax bills by raising the state sales tax by 1 percentage point, which would raise about $5 billion a year. The proposal had been moving through the Capitol in the form of a joint resolution, which needed two-thirds of each chamber to pass. If the Legislature passed the resolution, the sales tax swap would then land on the November ballot for voters to decide.

In a statement Tuesday afternoon, Abbott said through a spokesperson that his office is “continuing to work with the House and Senate to deliver meaningful property tax relief to Texans.” Patrick, meanwhile, said through a spokesperson that the chamber is “looking at other options to increase the size of the property tax cut for taxpayers including our ongoing review of possible cuts in our budget.”

Because school districts levy the majority of property taxes in Texas, many lawmakers have been seeking ways to help reduce those portions of Texans’ tax bills. But since the state is required to ensure school districts have enough money to educate students, any effort to cut taxes would have a significant cost — requiring the state to reimburse schools if they’re unable to collect enough from local property taxes.

On Tuesday morning, before the House gaveled in for the day, Bonnen told House Republicans during a caucus meeting that there would be no point in bringing up the proposal for a vote in the lower chamber if it was considered dead in the Senate, according to multiple people who were at the gathering. Caucus members at the meeting, according to those sources, largely agreed with Bonnen, who said the Senate stripping such a provision from its version of the school finance bill Monday suggested the upper chamber couldn’t muster enough support to approve a tax swap proposal.

After Huberty postponed the tax swap legislation, a Bonnen spokesperson said in a statement that the proposal had been “an opportunity for lawmakers to further reduce property taxes” and sustain tax relief found in the lower chamber’s school finance bill.

”Speaker Bonnen believes it is in the House’s best interest to devote the limited time left in session to our Day One priorities — passing legislation to provide meaningful school finance and property tax reform for all Texans,” the statement read.

Democrats’ opposition to the proposal centers on the fact that the sales tax is regressive, meaning it takes a bigger portion of income from poorer Texans than richer ones. An official analysis of the economic impacts of HJR 3, which first circulated Friday, showed that the average Texas household making less than $100,000 would expect to see an increase in its annual tax bill. The average household making $100,000 and up would see a lighter annual tax bill.

The future of the sales tax proposal, which state leaders first endorsed in April, appeared especially fraught after the Senate signaled it was backing away from the idea during a debate on its school finance legislation, House Bill 3. That bill originally included billions of dollars in mechanisms to cut school district taxes, contingent on a form of long-term funding, such as the percentage-point increase in the sales tax. State Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, the school finance bill’s author, instead stripped the sales tax swap from HB 3.

Instead of the sales tax swap, the upper chamber voted to create a Tax Reduction and Excellence in Education Fund to pay to lower school district taxes. A Senate working group came up with a plan to get about $3 billion from a few sources, without raising taxes, including diverting money from the severance tax on oil and gas extraction and collecting money from an online sales tax.

State Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, the school finance bill’s author, said that could pay to lower school district taxes statewide by 10 cents per $100 valuation, saving the owner of a $250,000 home about $250 a year.

“The bill before us today has no linkage to the sales tax and is not contingent upon a sales tax,” he told fellow senators Monday, hours before he successfully moved to pass the school finance bill.

Beyond the tax swap proposal, Huberty told reporters Tuesday after delivering his remarks that he’s still hopeful the two chambers can reach a compromise on the school finance bill. He also said he supported some of the Senate’s other ideas for long-term revenue to cut school taxes.

White House launches new uphill bid to overhaul immigration

WASHINGTON — Reviving a deeply contentious issue that has stymied both Congress and the administration, the White House launched a new bid Tuesday to overhaul the national immigration system that President Donald Trump relentlessly rails against.

Though similar efforts have failed to garner anywhere near the support necessary, Trump hopefully invited a dozen Republican senators to the White House to preview the plan, which was spearheaded by senior adviser and presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner.

It’s the latest step in a new, more methodical approach for an administration often marked by Trump’s hastily written executive orders and declarations by tweet. Kushner’s team has pulled in officials with experience in legislation-writing from other agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, to help with the drafting.

Still, the road to passage remains uphill. Democrats are likely to strongly disapprove of parts of the plan.

Kushner outlined two major ideas:

  • A border security bill that would focus, in part, on modernizing ports of entry to make sure all people, vehicles and packages are scanned.
  • A second package of immigration proposals that would create a more “merit-based” system to give preference to those with job skills rather than relatives of immigrants already in the country.

Under the plan, which does not address temporary visa categories, including for laborers, the same number of immigrants would be permitted to enter the country, but their composition would change.

The White House is also working with Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina on additional legislation that would address the nation’s asylum system, in an effort to stem the flow of migrants across the border, according to a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to outline the plan.

It’s just the latest effort by the Trump White House to push Congress to overhaul immigration laws that he has long complained compromise national security and depress American workers’ wages by allowing too many immigrants to compete for jobs. But Trump has also said the country needs more workers thanks to economic gains and has said that educated, killed workers — especially those who graduate from American colleges — should be able to stay and work.

While Trump had previously rejected an earlier version of Kushner’s proposal, asking him to incorporate more border security measures, the senior official told reporters after the meeting Tuesday that Trump had signed off on the effort last week and it should now be considered “the President Trump plan.”

The White House is now seeking feedback and pressing for support from Republican lawmakers.

The official declined to say when more details would be unveiled or how the White House intended to get Democrats — who have yet to be briefed on the plan — on board.

Several GOP senators who attended the meeting did compliment the effort.

David Perdue of Georgia said Trump was “developing a platform for immigration that he can be for — and I was impressed.”

“The conversation was about border security and the immigration side — how to become much more effective at allowing the right kind,” he said.

Tom Cotton of Arkansas said, “I heard large areas of agreement from everyone in the room.” He said he still needs to see details, but things are “moving in the right direction.”

Kevin Cramer of North Dakota called it a “good starting point” that could be appealing to Democrats in the right situation. He said, “I think the environment right now with the booming economy, workforce demands, a crisis at the border that’s no longer deemed manufactured presents an opportunity for discussion.”

But Democrats were skeptical of a Republican-only effort that fails to incorporate Democratic priorities on immigration.

Rep. Pete Aguilar of California said, “I appreciate our Republican senators weighing in on this issue, but if their solution is to cut legal immigration it’s a nonstarter for us.” He added, “We’ll see.”

And former Vice President Joe Biden, who is running for the Democratic nomination to challenge Trump, accused the president Tuesday of using immigration “to demonize people.”

“It isn’t who we are. We’re better than that,” Biden said as he kicked off a rally.