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NASCAR this week banned the flying of the Confederate flag from its racetracks and venues, formally severing itself from what many Americans see as a symbol of racism and oppression.

Report recommends Waco ISD eliminate some assistant principals, add elementary and special ed teachers

The Waco Independent School District could save more than $3.6 million in the next few years by eliminating several administrative and assistant principal positions, while adding more elementary and special education teachers, according to a staffing study.

The Texas Association of School Boards’ study recommends Waco ISD restructure multiple administrative departments, such as finance and human resources, to streamline those areas and add many campus-level workers, such as counselors, librarians and teachers so there are enough for every student in the district.

But it is unlikely Waco ISD will implement every recommendation in the TASB study, especially considering the uncertainty about what school will look like in the fall, Superintendent Susan Kincannon said during a special school board meeting Thursday night. The Texas Education Agency has not yet provided school districts with guidance on how to plan for the upcoming school year in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It could take some time,” Kincannon said. “It’s likely we’re going to need extra staff this fall if we have to have 11 or 15 kids in a classroom. It’s strategic, so we have to decide what recommendations we want to take and when we want to implement them.”

Waco ISD is not cutting jobs but would eliminate the positions in the report through attrition, meaning the district would cut the recommended jobs as people leave them.

The report recommends Waco ISD:

  • Add 10 counselors: one at University High, Tennyson Middle, Alta Vista Elementary, Cedar Ridge Elementary, Crestview Elementary, J.H. Hines Elementary, Kendrick Elementary, South Waco Elementary and two at Cesar Chavez Middle; eliminate one at G.W. Carver Middle
  • Add 28 elementary school teachers, eliminate 12 middle school teachers and two high school teachers
  • Add another human resources director and eliminate two professional positions and a specialist
  • Eliminate six assistant principals: two at University High, one at Waco High and one at each middle school; add assistant principals at Alta Vista and Parkdale elementary schools
  • Add six librarians or equivalent positions if district transforms libraries into makerspaces
  • Add 19 special education teachers and seven special education aides.

TASB looked at Waco ISD’s student enrollment and staff and compared them to districts of similar sizes with comparable student demographics, or peer districts, said Zachary Hobbs, TASB human resources services assistant director. The report used last year’s rate of Waco ISD students who are considered economically disadvantaged by the state, 76.9%, but the district’s rate for this past school year was 90.5%.

Some of the 10 peer districts included in the study are Brazosport, Bryan, Crowley, Duncanville, Harlandale and Wichita Falls ISDs.

The report also compares Waco ISD to TASB’s salary survey data and guidelines from various professional associations, such as the Texas Counseling Association and the National Association of School Nurses.

Among the report’s findings, it states that Waco ISD’s student enrollment dropped 1.3% from the 2015-16 school year to the 2018-19 school year. In that same time frame, total personnel increased about 6.4%.

Hobbs said most districts take two to three years to implement these staffing changes through attrition, but that process could be sped up if the district wanted to go ahead and eliminate non-contract positions.

“This is just information for the district to make decisions going forward,” he said. “You may have a different initiative than some other districts in certain areas, and you may want to staff heavier or lighter in certain areas because of that initiative. It’s going to force you, as a district, to look at these areas and evaluate them.”

Kincannon said the district will have to look at the “big picture,” including its budget and specific needs. She said she knows Waco ISD needs more counselors and special education teachers.

Trustees Cary DuPuy and Stephanie Korteweg both said the district should take the report’s recommendations and tailor them to Waco ISD’s needs.

Board Secretary Norman Manning agreed, saying he believes the district’s elementary schools need more support, while the Waco ISD administration is “top heavy.” He emphasized the need for all Waco ISD schools to perform better according to state academic standards and to do that in a way that works in Waco, not somewhere else.

“We have to look at what Waco ISD is doing,” Manning said. “Until we close that graduation gap and get schools better rated, we have to do things differently here. Until we reach a level of success, some of these staffing guidelines will not work for us.”

Czech developer plans skyline-shaping project next to Magnolia Silos

Developers are eyeing up a project that could come to reshape Waco’s skyline and represent a $100 million investment just across the street from Magnolia Market at the Silos.

Julius Kramaric, an attorney and sports agent from the Czech Republic, already a force behind the Czech-inspired Pivovar restaurant and brewery on South Eighth Street, now envisions an office, retail and condo project next door with a pair of buildings that would tower over most others, if not all, in Waco.

Kramaric leads an investment group with principals in Washington, D.C., Miami and the Czech Republic, said Waco real estate agent Gregg Glime, who recently brokered sale of the Texas Meter & Device Co. complex at 300 S. Eighth St. to Kramaric and his colleagues. Glime said demolition may start next month, and partners expect a two-year design and permitting process.

A finished product probably is four years away, Glime said.

During conversation, said Glime, Kramaric expressed his desire to include towers taller than the ALICO Building at Fifth Street and Austin Avenue, once the tallest skyscraper in Texas at 22 stories.

“I’m not sure that’s still his plan, but I think it’s safe to say it will change the skyline of downtown Waco as we know it, and may prove to be one of the most attractive buildings west of the Mississippi,” Glime said.

Gensler, an international architecture, design, consulting and planning firm with 5,000 employees and 50 offices, including in Dallas, Houston and San Antonio, has been hired to lend its expertise, he said.

Uses the building will encompass remain a work in progress.

“I think it’s still up for conversation, and Julius wants input from the city, collaboration on what’s best for the site,” Glime said. “I’m sure retail is going in there, and there has been discussion of high-end penthouse condos with 360-degree views of downtown, the Silos and Baylor University. Apartments are a consideration. So is multi-family. Entertainment could not be ruled out.”

He said providing parking is a must and he sees potential for underground space.

The 2.6-acre site is situated between Sixth and Eighth streets and Mary and Jackson avenues, within an Eighth Street corridor brimming with new, planned and established attractions, including the Magnolia Press coffee shop and the reconfigured entry to Magnolia Market scheduled to be completed in late summer or early fall. Not to be upstaged, the refurbished and expanded Hippodrome Theatre at Eighth Street and Austin Avenue offers first-run movies in an iconic setting, as well as multiple dining options.

Peter Ellis is spending an estimated $5 million converting the former Stratton-Stricker Furniture Co. building, also at Eighth Street and Austin Avenue, to a multi-story store called “Stories” to carry high-end and imported merchandise. He also plans a chef-driven restaurant and lofts.

Then there is the Union Hall food hall at Eighth Street and Franklin Avenue, which has resumed operations following a COVID-19-induced shutdown.

City Center Waco Executive Director Megan Henderson said she knew the Texas Meter & Device Co. address had suitors salivating. With a deal done, she looks forward to the public having more residential options, Henderson said.

“With more and more of these projects, you hear, ‘Wow, that’s a big step.’ We are a place taking big steps, and this is another one,” she said. “The location makes sense. Pivovar is surrounded by Texas Meter, so I’m not surprised the (Pivovar) owners are considering how to make a larger, more ambitious site plan.”

Pivovar, which means “brewery” in Czech, remains under construction at South Eighth Street and Jackson Avenue. Project bakers told a Tax Increment Financing board in 2018 that a brewery on the ground floor will produce Czech-style lager, served tank-to-tap. A restaurant will serve a fusion Czech-Texan cuisine, including goulash, and Pekarna Bakery will serve pastries.

Kramaric told the TIF board then his years-long search for a location ended in Waco because of the area’s Czech influence, particularly in nearby West.

Glime said green space may link Pivovar to Kramaric’s new development.

Henderson said she is eager to see how Kramaric’s planned buildings complement the five-story AC Hotel by Marriott proposed at the southeast corner of South Sixth Street and Mary Avenue. That $40.4 million undertaking will include a small restaurant, a bar and lounge with outdoor and seating, an executive conference center, retail space and a five-level parking garage.

“It’s great to see bread crumbs dropping dropping between the Stratton building and the Hippodrome, down to Magnolia, strengthening the connection between hotels, entertainment and shopping,” Henderson said.

Chris McGowan, a developer working with a group once planning an office park near Heritage Square, said Class A office space is nonexistent downtown. He said it has become a critical need going forward.

Local homebuilder Steve Sorrells is converting the former Bank of America building on Austin Avenue to what he calls Class A office space.

“We have some preleasing done, and we are in the middle of finalizing two other deals as we speak,” Kelly Realtors agent Colt Kelly said. “We are receiving quite a bit of interest, and construction is moving at a great pace.

“There is nothing else like this in Waco.”

Kramaric has a home in Waco, but is out of the country. Glime said Kramaric and other investors plan to convene in Waco in a few weeks.

The Texas Meter & Device Co. site includes several buildings. Though demolition will begin next month, the company that specializes in producing electric metering equipment and tools used in the utility industry can stay there up to two years, as it searches for a new home “in more of an industrial setting,” said Jim Peevey, a real estate agent representing the company.

“This is the epicenter of tourism right now,” Peevey said of Texas Meter’s location on South Eighth Street. “Everybody can see the potential of this site, and these guys have a vision for it. The sale is good for the area.”

Neither Glime nor Peevey would reveal the sales price.

Texas Meter President and CEO Steve Swenke could not be reached.

“Julius Kramaric, I’ve never met him, but I look forward to meeting him,” Peevey said. “Gregg told me a little about him. He probably doesn’t sleep.”

Glime could not say with certainty how much Kramaric will invest to create his towering monument to what has become his second home.

“But I would not be surprised if it turns out to be $100 million,” he said.

ATLAS student headed to National History Day has personal connection to topic

The topic that was Oliver Houston’s ticket to National History Day was close to his heart in more ways than one.

The ATLAS Academy rising eighth grader performed his way to the nationals as Dr. Alfred Blalock, who developed a heart procedure that saved Oliver’s life as a baby.

He was among six ATLAS middle-schoolers who got a surprise “porch visit” Friday from Waco Independent School District leaders and teachers to celebrate their top awards at the Texas History Day competition on April 25.

“I was very surprised,” Oliver said of the visit. “I was like, oh my gosh!”

Oliver won second place in individual performance, giving him a shot at the national competition, which normally would be held at the University of Maryland, with a side trip to Washington, D.C., thrown in.

Instead he will be competing virtually in an online national competition that runs Saturday through June 20, with this year’s theme “Breaking Barriers in History.”

In his video, he portrays Blalock, a surgeon who worked with Dr. Helen Taussig and surgeon Vivien Thomas on the first successful operation on a patient with tetralogy of Fallot, or “blue baby syndrome.” The procedure helped save the lives of many children with the disease, which hinders flow of blood to the lungs.

Oliver, 13, son of Roger and Robin Houston, had a different heart condition when he was born, but he received the same type of shunt that Blalock’s team pioneered. It was three surgeries that allowed him to live a normal life, said his mom, who is a member of the Waco ISD school board.

Oliver said he started researching Blalock a couple of years ago and discovered that he developed the procedure with Taussig, who was deaf, and Thomas, who was African-American.

“They were breaking barriers in medicine, breaking barriers in women’s history and breaking barriers in African-American history,” Oliver said.

Oliver said Thomas did not receive recognition for his part in the achievement until the 1980s.

Oliver said he felt “upset and cheated” that the in-person contests at state and national levels were canceled this year, but he hopes to compete again as an eighth grader and get a chance to visit the nation’s capital.

Waco ISD’s other state-level winners in the junior division who were honored Friday were as follows:

  • Lily Howell, Claire Prather and Lydia Allen: group performance, third place
  • Alexis Hookham and Daniel Garner: group documentary, finalists
  • Paiton Jones: individual documentary, finalist.

Some states hit pause, others press on amid spike in virus

AUSTIN — Utah and Oregon put any further reopening of their economies on hold amid a spike in coronavirus cases, but there was no turning back Friday in such states as Texas, California, Arkansas and Arizona despite flashing warning signs there, too.

One by one, states are weighing the health risks from the virus against the economic damage from the stay-at-home orders that have thrown millions out of work over the past three months.

And many governors are coming down on the side of jobs, even though an Associated Press analysis this week found that cases are rising in nearly half the states — a trend experts attributed in part to the gradual reopening of businesses over the past few weeks.

Texas, which saw new highs this week for hospitalizations and new COVID-19 cases, prompting Houston’s top county official, Lina Hidalgo, to warn that “we may be approaching the precipice of a disaster,” allowed restaurants to expand eat-in dining Friday to 75% of capacity, up from 50%.

“Oh, yeah, I’ve been concerned,” 32-year-old Renata Liggins said as she settled in front of a plate of brisket at Black’s Barbecue in Austin and the number of people now hospitalized with COVID-19 in Texas climbed to its highest level yet, at over 2,100. But “it just feels I can finally breathe a little bit.”

Alabama, which began reopening in early May, has seen more than a quarter of the state’s 23,000 cases come in the past two weeks as Republican Gov. Kay Ivey emphasized personal responsibility. And Arkansas, where both active cases and hospitalizations have more than doubled since Memorial Day, is letting restaurants seat more customers on Monday.

“Regardless of what we see in the next week, we made the right decision to go ahead and lift some of these restrictions so we don’t cause more damage to people’s lives and their livelihood,” GOP Gov. Asa Hutchison said.

Arizona has become one of the most troubling hot spots in the U.S. as new cases have surged to more than 1,000 a day, up from fewer than 400 before stay-at-home orders expired in mid-May.

Republican Gov. Doug Ducey has given assurances the health care system can handle it, and Arizona Health Director Dr. Cara Christ said: “We are not going to be able to stop the spread, and so we can’t stop living as well.”

Even California, the site nearly three months ago of the nation’s first statewide stay-at-home order, entered the most expansive phase of its gradual reopening Friday, though its daily average of new cases is up by more than 600 from a week ago.

Wineries in California started uncorking their bottles and welcoming people back to their tasting rooms, and hotels, zoos, museums and aquariums were also allowed to reopen. San Francisco restaurants resumed outdoor dining, and the San Diego Zoo opened on a limited basis.

So far, only a small number of governors have shown a willingness to retreat, or at least hit pause.

Republican Gov. Gary Herbert of Utah and Democratic Gov. Kate Brown of Oregon said they would halt lifting further restrictions for the time being as new cases flare.

“As I’ve said before, reopening comes with real risk,” Brown said in announcing a one-week pause that will affect, among other places, Portland, the state’s biggest city.

She said the increase in positive test results was caused in part by the reopening of some counties. Oregon reported 178 new cases Thursday, the highest count since the outbreak began.

Elsewhere around the country, Iowa bars, restaurants, theaters and other businesses were allowed to pack in more customers. Swimming pools, senior centers and adult day care centers were also cleared to open back up. Iowa is still seeing hot spots, especially near meatpacking plants.

While President Donald Trump has pushed hard for states to reopen, the decisions to charge ahead or go slow have not fallen neatly along partisan lines. California Gov. Gavin Newsom is a Democrat in the biggest blue state of them all.

In Texas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott “is making pretty clear at this point he wants the economy to open,” a worried Austin Mayor Steve Adler said. “My hope is that when he sees what kind of surge there’s going to be, he does act at a state level.”