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Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte, file 

Obim Okeke played a career-high 10 minutes against Kansas State earlier this season.

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Waco City Council approves conversion of Washington Avenue into 2-way street
 Phillip Ericksen  / 

As part of an effort to make downtown friendlier to businesses and pedestrians, the Waco City Council approved a plan Tuesday to convert Washington Avenue into a two-way street.

The unanimous approval of the ordinance, which the council is expected to finalize at its next meeting March 19, calls for Washington Avenue, from North Fifth Street to North 18th Street, to allow for two-way traffic after 62 years as a one-way street.

The work, expected to start this summer, follows at least four years of discussions and public meetings.

“I think that this is one step closer to a goal that we’ve had for years to ensure that businesses and retail and restaurants can thrive,” said Councilman Dillon Meek, whose district includes the area. “And I’m excited for the businesses who have long advocated for this conversion to experience what I hope is greater success.”

The council unanimously approved another ordinance that will convert two blocks of Ninth Street, from Washington Avenue to Franklin Avenue, into a two-way street.

Kate Duncan, the owner of the clothing store Wildland Supply Co. in the 700 block of Washington Ave., said she has been fighting for the conversion since she and her husband bought the building in 2015.

“If they go through with the plan that includes a bike lane, I think it’ll just be a lot more of a pedestrian-friendly street, but then not as cramped as an Austin Avenue,” Duncan said. “I think it’ll really do great things for the street.”

In December, the council signaled support for the conversion, which will be funded from traffic signal modernization money in the pavement management program, and possibly from tax increment funds, according to the city. It will cost about $250,000.

The proposal will convert four lanes and a parallel parking lane into one lane going each direction with parallel parking on both sides, and a two-way bike lane separated by a raised median on one side.

The stretch has been one-way since 1957. At the time, City Engineer R.T. Gregory wrote a column in the Tribune-Herald saying traffic needed to be sped up and congestion cleared.

The city council has also considered proposals to convert Franklin Avenue to two-way traffic. Downtown property owner David Lacy has been an outspoken opponent of converting either road to two-way traffic.

BU Founders Medal

Baylor University President Linda Livingstone presented the Baylor Founders Medal to city leadership. The school has awarded the honor to supporters annually since 1969.

Baylor and the city have partnered on projects including Waco Hall, McLane Stadium, the Lake Waco Wetlands, the Baylor Research and Innovation Collaborative, the Waco Mammoth National Monument, the Baylor University Shuttle, the Waco Symphony Orchestra and Start Up Waco.

“We are so appreciative for a century, almost, of partnership and collaboration, and we look forward to all the good work we’re going to do for the city and the region in the years ahead,” Livingstone said.

Mayor Kyle Deaver, who received undergraduate and law degrees from Baylor, said he is equally appreciative of Baylor for its role in Waco.

Past recipients have included Drayton McLane Jr., Jane Meyer, Mary Russell McCall and Ted and Sue Getterman.

TIF money approved

The council showed initial approval for a proposal that would use about $7.4 million from the downtown Tax Increment Financing Zone for improvements associated with the a full-service Embassy Suites hotel slated for South Second Street.

A second vote is necessary to finalize the transaction, which will include a 308-space parking garage adjacent to the hotel. There will be 141 public spaces in the garage.

The development will stand on the site of Downtown 301 Events Center, which will be demolished soon. The TIF board recommended the deal last month.

Jerry Larson  

Kendrick Elementary Leadership Council 5th grader Miley Picazo play the xylophone at the new Kendrick Park playground.

Jerry Larson  

Waco District 3 Councilmember John Kinnaird turns the microphone over to Waco City councilmember for District 2 Alice Rodriguez at the dedication for the new Kendrick Park.

Sweeping Texas House school finance plan could clash with Senate fix

With Texas House lawmakers unveiling their long-awaited school finance proposal Tuesday and the Senate’s version likely close behind, teacher pay appears to be emerging as one of the biggest sticking points between the two chambers.

House Public Education Committee Chairman Dan Huberty, R-Houston, and House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, laid out their reform proposal at a press conference Tuesday, calling for raising minimum salaries for a broad group of educators, increasing health and pension benefits, and offering opportunities for merit pay programs. That approach differs substantially from the $4 billion proposal that sailed through the Senate on Monday that would provide mandatory across-the-board $5,000 raises for classroom teachers and librarians.

When asked about the Senate’s proposal, which Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has championed, Bonnen said, “I don’t know how you call a $5,000 across-the-board teacher pay raise ... with no discussion of reducing recapture, no discussion of reducing property taxes, no discussion of early childhood education, no discussion of incentivizing the teachers going to a tougher school to teach” a school finance plan.

“What we have is a plan,” he added. “I think teachers are some of the smartest people in Texas, and they are going to figure out that the Texas House has a winning plan for the teachers and students in Texas.”

Patrick, in a statement to The Texas Tribune responding to Bonnen’s remarks, said that the two chambers “have taken different approaches” on the issue.

“The Senate has 3 bills — SB 2, SB 3 and SB 4 — that address the issues in HB 3,” Patrick said. “The good news is that both the House and Senate remain focused on property tax reform, increasing teacher pay and school finance reform, and we look forward to working with the House on these issues this session.”

The House proposal, House Bill 3, would increase the base funding per student while requiring school districts to meet a higher minimum base pay for classroom teachers, full-time counselors, full-time librarians and full-time registered nurses. Many districts already exceed the current minimum salaries for educators at different experience levels.

It would work hand-in-hand with House Bill 9, filed Monday by the speaker’s brother, Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood, which would increase the state’s contribution to Teacher Retirement System pensions over time while keeping active member and district contributions the same.

HB 3 would also provide funding for districts that offer a merit pay program, rating their teachers and providing the top-rated ones with more money — modeled on a Dallas ISD program touted among lawmakers. The Senate is expected to include a similar proposal in its school finance bill later this week.

The politics surrounding the Senate’s teacher pay raise bill this session are unusual, with Patrick, who has previously clashed with educators, advocating for a proposal many teachers like. Meanwhile, conservative group Empower Texans, a key contributor to Patrick’s campaign, has come out against the bill, with one employee criticizing conservatives like Patrick for “kowtowing” to liberals.

That bill has divided the education community, with superintendents and school boards arguing they need more flexibility with additional funds and many teachers supporting the directed raises.

Huberty said Tuesday that the House would “certainly have a hearing on that [Senate] bill” but that the school finance panel that worked to develop recommendations for lawmakers did not include across-the-board raises.

He said HB 3 provides more opportunity for local school boards and superintendents to decide how to use increased funding. More than 85 House members have signed on as co-authors of HB 3, and in a public show of support, many of them were present at Tuesday’s press conference.

At least one educator group is calling for an across-the-board raise. HB 3 “will provide more classroom resources and may give some teachers a pay raise. But we need an across-the-board, permanent pay raise for every teacher guaranteed in the law and an increase in funding to also assure pay raises for all school employees,” Noel Candelaria, president of the Texas State Teachers Association, said in a statement Tuesday.

The dueling proposals highlight how a lot of negotiating still needs to be done in order to get both chambers on the same page. Although Senate and House lawmakers previously said they wanted to have a joint press conference releasing identical school finance bills, the Senate’s education chair, Larry Taylor , R-Friendswood, was not present at Tuesday’s press conference and has not filed a companion bill. He is expected to file Senate Bill 4 later this week, which will likely not be identical to HB 3.

Overall, HB 3 covers three priorities — teacher pay, property tax reform and school finance reform — that Abbott named “emergency items” in his State of the State address last month, meaning state lawmakers can move faster to pass them. Of the $9 billion proposed in the bill, $6 billion would go to school finance reform and $3 billion would go to property tax relief.

On Tuesday, Abbott praised HB 3 while avoiding specifics about teacher pay.

“We promised Texans that this session would be transformative and address big issues like school finance and property tax reform, and today’s announcement by Chairman Huberty is a big step in honoring that pledge,” he said.

At 186 pages, HB 3’s wide-ranging set of policy proposals would also:

  • increase the base funding per Texas student by $890, bringing it from $5,140 to $6,030. That base number has not been changed in four years and is not adjusted for inflation.
  • compress all school districts’ tax rates by 4 cents per $100 of taxable property value, which could save the owner of a home with a taxable value of $250,000 about $100 annually in school district taxes.
  • help reduce recapture payments by about $3 billion. Recapture, also known as Robin Hood, is a state program that takes excess funding from wealthier school districts with higher property values and redistributes it to poorer school districts and charter schools.
  • help fund full-day pre-K for eligible students.
  • provide $140 million for a program to help school districts recruit and retain teachers.
  • give an incentive to school districts that want to offer an extra 30 days of half-day instruction for elementary school studies during the summer.


County commissioners again reject move to change road and bridge oversight

McLennan County Judge Scott Felton again tried unsuccessfully to gain the support of his fellow commissioners court members for taking a step toward merging the county’s precinct-based road and bridge units into one operation.

Commissioners sent a resolution to the state Legislature two years ago requesting the change. But the Legislature did not take up the issue before the last session ended, and commissioners have voted down two opportunities in the past two weeks to send a new resolution.

But since the resolution two years ago, the court has gained a new commissioner, and, as another commissioner noted, has not discussed the proposed to change to road management.

“There’s probably no use to take it to a vote, but I will anyway so taxpayers know where we stand,” Felton said after a back-and-forth between county leaders.

The move to approve the resolution failed again in a 3-2 vote, with Felton and Precinct 4 County Commissioner Ben Perry in the minority. The vote failed by the same margin during a Feb. 19 meeting.

The resolution would have asked the state to give McLennan County the option to merge its four precinct-based road and bridge departments into a single department under a department head, referred to as a “unit road system.” Under the precinct system, commissioners oversee the road and bridge operations, including separate crews and equipment, for the precincts that elected them. As judge, Felton is the only member of the court who does not oversee a road and bridge department.

The resolution, if the state were to act on it, would only have given the county the option to change with another majority vote of commissioners, Perry said.

“Had the legislation passed, I would have asked this court to undertake an exhaustive study to try and determine if the unit road system is right for McLennan County,” Felton said. “I don’t understand how we, as a body, cannot be supportive of legislation that allows us the same opportunity as many other counties. If a road system study shows that a unit road system is the most efficient for McLennan County, why wouldn’t we want the opportunity to move to it as expediently as possible, rather than waiting for another legislative session, when the bill could again be caught up with other local bills and not passed.”

Newly elected Precinct 2 County Commissioner Pat Chisolm-Miller said she does not oppose changing the system. However, she said she wants to see information before taking a vote about how the change would affect the county’s costs and personnel.

Asking the voters

Precinct 1 Commissioner Kelly Snell, who has maintained opposition to switching to a unit road system, said the county is not prevented from moving in that direction. It could put the matter before voters, Snell said.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Jones agreed and said a study should be completed first.

“I think we all strive very hard to make the roads the best that we can out in our precincts,” Jones said. “I know that I do and I know that the county employees do also. We’ve got a long way to go before we’re ready. If we do find that system that is the perfect fit for us, I don’t think we would have a hard time at all taking that to the voters and getting it passed.”

Snell said he does not see an urgent need for action.

“I think if anything needs to be done, it needs to be done by the vote of the people,” he said.

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Village Bakery proprietor remembered for more than abundant kolaches
 Mike Copeland  / 

Mimi Montgomery Irwin, whose family put kolaches on the Texas map with their Village Bakery in West and whose devotion to the Czech enclave included founding the annual Westfest celebration, died Monday, reportedly while traveling between her hometown and Waco. She was 74.

The West community expressed shock Tuesday as word spread of Irwin’s death. Twitter and Facebook messages carried the news few could believe.

“It tore me up, and I’m still not over it — shocked, to say the least,” friend Wilburn Willis, 80, said.

Willis said he was finalizing plans to give Irwin a lift to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport for a trip she planned to Mexico.

“She had not been feeling well for several weeks, had suffered a fall,” Willis said. “She had not been quite herself. But when I talked with her on the phone, she sounded like her old self. She said she hadn’t felt that good in a long time.”

Irwin was a tireless ambassador, civic treasure and helping hand, several people said Tuesday. A death in the family or a celebratory event meant a box of kolaches, or maybe a hundred, courtesy of Irwin and the Village Bakery. She and her staffers gave away kolaches, strudel and pie as emergency workers gathered in West after the April 2013 fertilizer plant explosion that leveled buildings, claimed 14 lives and changed the community forever.

Wide influence

Justice of the Peace David Pareya, of West, said Irwin’s sphere of influence went well beyond Central Texas.

She was a key player in the fashion industry, traveling abroad and to the East Coast and Los Angeles as a consultant to high-end retailers and design houses, Pareya said. Irwin was a University of Texas graduate whose parents, Georgia and Wendel Montgomery, opened the Village Bakery in 1952. A sign on Interstate 35 calls it “the oldest Czech bakery in Texas,” and Pareya suggested no one has come forward to dispute that.

“She was a big advocate and supporter of our chamber of commerce, and the city in general,” he said. “This year, as it always does, the Texas Legislature is celebrating ‘West Day,’ and all of our bakeries will get together on March 28 to prepare for the trip. We’ll serve every member of the Legislature. Mimi always organized that trip, the presentation of pastries, as they called it.

“The governor, lieutenant governor, all the lawmakers are there. It’s one of the highlights of each session. West kolaches have been designated the official kolache of the Texas Legislature, and we’ve been named the Czech capital of Texas. We are proud of both of those designations.”

Pareya said he was notified Monday of Irwin’s medical emergency. He said she indeed began feeling ill while driving I-35 between Waco and West, pulled off the highway near Dee’s Donut Shop in Elm Mott and called her bakery in West for help. An ambulance was dispatched, and responders administered CPR to no avail. Pareya said Irwin was dead on arrival at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center. His colleague, Justice of the Peace Dianne Hensley, ordered an autopsy. Services are pending at Aderhold Funeral Home in West.

Historic bakery

Pareya said speculation has started on what will become of the historic bakery Irwin has shepherded since the death of her parents. Several who spoke with the Tribune-Herald said Irwin had no close relatives.

“She was a saint, always bringing something to eat to the office, helping with the Kiwanis blood drive,” West Police Chief Darryl Barton said. “If she was in town, she was at the bakery, but she traveled quite a bit for recreational purposes and business purposes. She also was quite a historian, wrote a chapter about the community in a book on the history of McLennan County, and was active in the historical society.”

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte, file  

As a clothing and textiles major at the University of Texas who was studying for a career in fashion, Mimi Irwin was especially smitten with Jacqueline Kennedy. While a sophomore in 1963, she was chosen as part of the welcoming committee for President President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 visit to Austin. In this 2013 photo, Irwin is seen with the handbag, gloves and jewelry she intended to wear while escorting Jackie Kennedy to her table for an event that was canceled because of the president’s assassination.

McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara said he formally met Irwin during his first campaign but had known for years about her community activism.

“She was a bright spot in everybody’s life, a lovely lady that everybody seemed to love, plain and simple,” McNamara said. “Apparently she was going about her business and her life when this happened. It sounds kind of like what happened to my brother, Mike. I talked to him at 4 o’clock, and at 5 o’clock he was dead. It happened all of a sudden. I don’t pretend to know all the details, but I am hearing she suffered a massive heart attack.”

Jamie Allnutt, a friend for a decade, described Irwin as a “self-made woman with an incredible career.” She said Irwin became her mentor, exposing her to culture on her visits to New York.

“She had some amazing stories,” Allnutt said. “She was involved in a women’s organization at the University of Texas, was part of the welcoming party for JFK when he came down from Dallas. Of course, that never happened. There is a plaque on the wall of her bakery recognizing her contribution to rescue efforts after the tower explosions, the terrorist attacks on 9/11. She, through her contacts, assisted in acquiring resources for some of those involved in the response. In many ways, Mimi had had a tough life. She lost a fiance and a dear friend in 9/11, and she could be hard on herself about some things.”

Her fashion career went well beyond buying for retailers.

“She would select fabric colors two seasons out, spent a lot of time in Milan,” said Allnutt, who added she last spoke to Irwin last Wednesday.

Nancy Hykel, president of the History of West Museum and director of the West Public Library, released a statement about Irwin.

‘Bigger than life’

“To me, Mimi was bigger than life in our little town,” Hykel said. “I don’t know about others in West, but having grown up on a farm near Abbott, I was in total awe of her and rather intimidated by Mimi after first moving back to this area a few years ago. Heavens, she had traveled the world and was still jetting off to exotic places all the time.

“It was through serving on the History of West Museum Board during its planning stages in 2011 that I first got to know Mimi. Though still in awe of her, I soon realized she was down-to-earth, generous, and a most gracious person. And, she loved West. I can’t even begin to count the number of kolaches and gift baskets she donated to the museum for fundraisers and special events. But even more than her continued support, it’s her friendship we’ll miss most.”