Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Texas newspapers:
The Facts. Feb. 25, 2018.
State government officials calling for independent school district leaders to essentially keep their mouths shut about urging people to get out and vote or supporting candidates who simply are strong backers of public education need to slow their roll.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton targeted the Brazosport, Holliday and Lewisville districts with intimidation tactics he attempted to pass off as an effort to clamp down on "unlawful electioneering." His claims, however, are highly tenuous and appear more akin to the state government’s usual tricks of trying to keep voters who disagree with them at home. In this case, the disagreement is simply about the value and importance of strong public schools.
Paxton recently sent cease-and-desist letters warning the districts, alleging they are violating state law by using taxpayer money to distribute messages to their staffs advocating for specific candidates and policies.
Brazosport ISD Superintendent Danny Massey made it convincingly clear this was not the case, denying neither he nor district officials used taxpayer funds to endorse any candidates.
"There was no district funds or resources used to express favor toward any candidate," he said. "We will certainly comply with the election code."
Paxton referred to posts made to Massey’s personal Twitter account, which were retweeted by the Brazoswood High School Twitter account, including a picture of the superintendent and Scott Milder, the Republican challenging Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in the March primary race.
"Thank you @smilder for standing up for public ed," read the post, dated Jan. 29. "Red dot for Scott. Vote in the March 6 Primary."
Other posts made from Brazoswood High School Principal Rita Pintavalle’s personal account and retweeted by Massey appear to advocate for Milder in the lieutenant governor’s race. Massey also retweeted a post from Bob Covey, vice president of the Cypress-Fairbanks ISD board of trustees, that linked to an interview with candidate Kristin Tassin.
Tassin, president of the Fort Bend ISD board of trustees, is challenging state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Southside Place, in the March Republican primary.
"This woman is my choice if I could vote for her (Tassin)," Covey posted Jan. 24.
"She has stood up to LG Patrick and his continuing knock on public schools! We need her in our TX Legislators for all students!"
Of course, there is nothing wrong with these tweets or for public school officials to support candidates who in turn support public schools. It’s natural and commonplace. What would be strange is if public school leaders backed a candidate who wanted to undermine public schools, such as through a voucher or so-called school choice plan that would rob already cash-strapped public school districts of more badly needed funding.
There are concrete reasons why public school teachers, administrators and other supporters of public education support particular candidates. It’s because those candidates’ platforms align with their own interests. This is not rocket science.
"Uniting behind the common cause of public education is not a violation of any law," points out Jeff Crownover, the Lewisville school district’s general counsel, in a letter stating the obvious to Paxton.
School administrators and teachers and/or their trade groups have supported candidates who shared their interest for as long as memory goes back, but mainly they usually just urge teachers and staff to vote and make their voices heard. So why the sudden, and unusual, accusations by top officials in charge of Texas that schools districts and educational groups are trying to unfairly sway elections?
The first place to look to answer that question is the state’s recent history of attempts to tamp down voter participation of certain groups of voters. Federal courts in fact have recently ruled that both the state’s voter ID law and highly gerrymandered electoral maps for congressional and legislative voting districts suppressed voter turnout by discriminating against poor people and minorities.
But aside from that shady track record, there’s another factor that could have sparked the misguided cease-and-desist letters from Paxton. That is simply this: Since early voting began, Democrats have so far seen participation dramatically surge compared with the last midterm primary elections in 2014.
When power is threatened, we might expect it to lash out in an attempt to protect itself. Perhaps some of that is at play here.
As for Massey, he has said his tweets or posts were always his own, and now his Twitter handle makes that even more clear: @DannyMassey44, with "Tweets are my own!" in the section below his picture.
Maybe the most troubling part of this situation is that even if the state does not carry out the threats mentioned in the letters sent to school districts, those letters still could have a chilling effect among school officials and educators, and prevent them from exercising their right to urge votes in favor of public education’s interest. That would be a shame.
Longview News-Journal. Feb. 25, 2018.
Teenagers are not big readers of newspaper editorials, but if we could be granted a fervent wish, it would be that all of them read this one.
Its message is not complex or controversial. It is simply this: Don’t hit "send."
We refer to modern technology to transmit a message that includes everything from emails and text messages to the many social media programs that reside on the cellphones carried by almost every teenager — or even much younger children.
Don’t hit "send" to threaten any individual, and don’t do it to suggest you are getting ready harm people at your school. Don’t even do it if you mean it as a prank and you are "sure" everyone will think is funny.
No one will think it is funny, least of all you when you find yourself arrested, in juvenile detention, then likely removed from that school forever.
It certainly will not amuse the police who, at the mere possibility of a threat against schools, must react quickly and in full force. Then they will have to unravel whether your threat is real or just the prank you intended.
While they do that, another matter or person won’t be getting the police attention they need.
It won’t be funny to school administrators, either, who, at the first sign of threat will have to find ways to contact parents of the other students. Of course the parents will not be amused, either.
It will not even be humorous to your fellow students, who might have to feel the terror of sitting in a dark classroom not knowing whether they will live or die until police determine your message was just a prank.
Most teenagers are sensible enough not to take these kinds of actions, either in reality or jest. But, unfortunately, it only takes a few to cause a tremendous problem.
As a testimony to this we would take you back to 2014, when a student at Pine Tree High School threatened a shooting spree in the school cafeteria. It was a credible threat as the student had the weapons to make it happen, but happily the police were there to make sure it never happened.
Though no one was hurt, that young man’s life path was dramatically changed that day. Would he have actually gone through with it? Was it really just a prank? We don’t know, but even the slightest threads of suspicion must be acted upon.
Ask the three Panola County students who were recently arrested about the consequences of their actions. As this is written, they are in juvenile detention and face having to find another school to attend when they are released.
If you want to play a prank, put toilet paper in their trees, give them some spicy gum or put a whoopee cushion where they sit.
But whatever you do, don’t hit "send."
Houston Chronicle. Feb. 25, 2018.
If you thought Mayor Sylvester Turner’s $1 billion pension bond issue solved all of Houston’s budget problems, think again.
A newly released consultant’s report offers a grim assessment of the city government’s financial future: Houston is on track to spend $1 billion more than it will take into its coffers in the coming decade. The city will have to dramatically cut spending and raise revenue to balance its budget. Otherwise it will eventually face insolvency, triggering layoffs in the city workforce, a shrinking police department and a general decline in services.
The city paid an outside consultant, PFM of Philadelphia, $565,000 to take a hard look at municipal finances. We won’t dwell on the fact that this is a job we’re already paying the mayor and city controller to do. But we will point out that this report highlights the need for some fundamental changes in the way Houston’s city government does business.
Take, for example, the recommendations for the city’s fire department. The report suggests saving up to $40 million a year by changing the structure of firefighters’ schedules, going from four shifts down to three. Fire Chief Sam Peña says that would require his people to work longer hours, but it could also allow him to raise firefighters’ pay, deploy more ambulances and provide more training without raising the budget.
The Houston Fire Department is long overdue for fundamental restructuring, because it’s now mostly an ambulance department that responds to many of its emergency medical calls in firetrucks. Today about nine out of every 10 calls to HFD are for emergency medical help. Figuring out the most cost effective way to provide fire protection and ambulance service in the 21st century is an essential part of any serious discussion about the city’s financial future.
The dire picture painted by this report is also further evidence that Houston needs to repeal its revenue cap. If you’re new to Houston or you haven’t followed this complicated mess, you should know that the nation’s fourth-largest city has its hands tied when it comes to raising money for municipal government. An arbitrary algorithm dictates that if the city takes in more than a certain amount of property tax revenue, it has to cut its rate. Homeowners get a few extra bucks, but the city government loses a fortune. A couple of the nation’s biggest bond rating agencies, Moody’s and Standard & Poor, specifically cited the revenue cap as one of the reasons they downgraded Houston’s credit rating a couple of years ago. Nobody likes paying property taxes, but Houston needs to get rid of the cap.
Meanwhile, there’s no cap on tax increment reinvestment zones that suck up millions in property taxes to spend on questionable endeavors.
And as this consultant’s analysis makes abundantly clear, the landmark pension deal painstakingly negotiated by Turner was no panacea. Two years from now, the city government is projected to spend just as much on pension plan contributions as it did two years ago. And the costs just keep on rising, albeit nowhere near as drastically as they would have without Turner’s deal making. Constantly escalating pension costs cannot be a permanent fixture in Houston city budgets.
Our city government spent more than a half-million bucks on this report. The mayor and City Council shouldn’t just set it on a shelf and watch it gather dust. Some council members have already expressed dismay that the upcoming municipal budget doesn’t implement enough of the recommended reforms.
As this report clearly explains, City Hall needs to make some difficult decisions or face potentially ruinous consequences.
The Dallas Morning News. Feb. 26, 2018.
"Every societal failure, we put it on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cop handle it. Not enough drug addiction funding, let’s give it to the cops. … Schools fail, give it to the cops."
For anyone who doesn’t remember, those lines were issued by then Dallas Chief of Police David Brown after the vicious attack that killed five officers July 7, 2016. Now after another mass shooting, this one in Florida, the idea at the heart of Brown’s comments echoes through our thoughts.
We are in an era of mass shootings, and yet our response to the complex set of problems that enable them is something akin to whack-a-mole. We too often leave it to police officers alone to catch these killers before they commit their horrific crimes — and after each shooting we dissect what went wrong, spotlight a gap that "allowed" the shooting to take place, and then call for that gap to be filled in.
If that remains our approach, we are a long way from curbing mass shootings. The human mind — especially one bent on cruelty — can be very creative. It is nearly impossible to stay ahead of that creativity by focusing solely on the means in which such cruelty is inflicted. The next killer will always find a fresh gap in the system.
What’s more, in our divided political world, there is sharp disagreement about how to fill in those gaps, and that locks us into inaction. So even as no one today would argue that Nikolas Cruz should have been allowed to have a gun, we are stuck on the question of how to stop the next Cruz.
One thing that has emerged about the Parkland, Florida, school shooting is the number of red flags swirling around Cruz: suspension and expulsion from school, cruelty to animals, and violence at home. His declared desire to be a school shooter. A 911 call where he spoke of his world collapsing.
After Parkland, it should be clear that one big crack in the system is that local officials are too reluctant or unable to intervene. In any case, even if Cruz had been blocked from buying a gun, he still would have fallen into an abyss — and it is anyone’s guess if, once there, he might have figured out another way to perpetrate a mass killing.
This is where many people throw up their hands in frustration.
We, too, are horrified by each of these shootings, but we are not among those discouraged by the work ahead. This paper has editorialized in favor of a number of measures that would keep deadly weapons out of the wrong hands by curbing access to assault weapons such as the AR-15 and limiting magazine capacity. And we will continue to do so.
But our guiding principle is public safety, and here Brown’s comments resonate. If part of the problem is that we leave it to the police to correct too much of society’s carnage, then we aren’t thinking broadly enough. To that end, we offer three ideas that, taken together, offer a comprehensive approach to the problem.
First, clear the path for obvious reforms. These include banning bump stocks (which increase the rate of fire of a semiautomatic rifle to make it virtually indistinguishable from an automatic weapon), fixing the National Instant Criminal Background Check System to include data it already is supposed to include (there is already a bill in Congress that is hung up on a different issue that should expedited), and extending background checks to all gun purchases.
Second, build creative new alliances. The National Rifle Association is being vilified for the pressure it’s exerting in Washington — and that back and forth is part of democracy. But for real movement, we’d look to the source of the organization’s political power — its 5 million members. The NRA runs youth and other programs. Is it willing to launch a new public campaign to support programs that serve young men heading down the path to violence as a preventive measure?
Many members already engage in such work through churches and other organizations. We’re asking if the NRA will make fostering such public service a top organizational priority. (If you are an NRA member already doing such service, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet the editor of editorials at @brendanminiter.)
If "guns don’t kill people, people do," then let’s do more work on the people side of that equation.
And finally, let’s put more data toward solutions. Amid the flurry of proposals, our mind turns to a prosaic but productive idea. After 9/11, the federal government reorganized intelligence assets into one place to close the gaps that allow terrorists to slip through. Now it’s time for a similar approach to mass shootings.
We’d like to see Congress create a federal center for mass shootings that would collect key data and review federal, state and local laws to find gaps before the next shooter does. This would give us a chance to get ahead of the problem of sorting through the thicket of laws that prevent officials from intervening as young men descend down the deadly path of mass violence. We’d call it the National Center for the Prevention of Mass Shootings. But whatever it is called, its purpose would be to create accountability to act on the red flags evident in these shooters’ lives.
For years we’ve heard people say, "If you see something, say something." After the Florida school shooting, the mandate for officials at all levels needs to be that if you know something, you need to act.
San Antonio Express-News. Feb. 27, 2018.
The city’s firefighter union is playing with fire.
The San Antonio Professional Firefighters Association push to dramatically alter the city’s charter could very well kill their golden goose. The proposed charter changes would be catastrophic for the city’s ability to recruit quality workers or for elected officials to govern effectively and efficiently, let alone pay for those health benefits and raises firefighters covet.
As Express-News reporter Josh Baugh has outlined, the proposal would make a number of sweeping changes that would undermine the city in a variety of ways.
It would cap the city manager’s salary to 10 times that of the city’s lowest-paid employee. It would also place an eight-year term limit on the city manager. It would allow voters to overrule council decisions on spending, taxes and utility rates. It would require binding arbitration when the city hits an impasse in negotiations with public safety unions.
There are many problems with these proposals.
Capping the city manager’s salary and limiting the position to eight years would hurt San Antonio’s ability to attract the best and brightest for the job. The market should dictate salary, not some arbitrary regulation.
If someone is doing an excellent job as city manager — say a certain highly paid executive is saving taxpayers millions of dollars a year thanks to a Triple-A bond rating and efficient staffing — why would it be in the public’s interest to end that person’s term after eight years?
And if someone isn’t performing, the City Council can fire that person as city manager. This reflects the broader problem with the proposed charter change. It undermines elected officials. Besides, if the public doesn’t like decisions City Council and the mayor are making when it comes to spending, taxes and other fiscal priorities, they can vote those people out of office.
It will take 20,000 signatures to trigger a charter amendment election, which would be in November. That’s a relatively low bar, and anyone concerned about this proposal should be organizing an opposition campaign. Looking at you, San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Tech Bloc and others.
The fire union has flexed its political muscle before. The group was instrumental in killing the controversial downtown streetcar project in 2014, collecting signatures that would have brought the project to a vote. But that was an unpopular project. This threat would take a hammer to city government over a prolonged contract dispute and vitriolic animosity toward City Manager Sheryl Sculley.
It’s a well-run city, one with a Triple-A bond rating, that pays for the salaries of firefighters. Let’s not forget 80 percent of the city of San Antonio’s highest paid employees are firefighters and police officers.
It’s a well-run city that rewards public safety with raises and health benefits that substantively don’t exist in the private sector.
Let’s not forget the 2016 agreement between the city and the San Antonio Police Officers Association included a 3 percent lump sum bonus, a guaranteed wage increase of 14 percent over four years and minor, but necessary, cost shifts on health care. Officers choose between two plans: One with premiums for dependents; and one without premiums, but a higher deductible.
This type of agreement was a win for the police officer’s union, and is expected to save the city close to $90 million over five years. But it’s not good enough for the fire union, which has refused to negotiate a new contract, and would rather take a wrecking ball to city government.
If the fire union is successful, the irony is it would create a city incapable of delivering the deal it covets.
This threat is ridiculous — why it has to be taken seriously.