- Associated Press
Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Here are excerpts from recent editorials in Texas newspapers:

Austin American-Statesman. Jan. 27, 2017.


Austin Independent School District Superintendent Paul Cruz has proposed a ban on suspensions for students in prekindergarten through second grade with provisions that still allow campus administrators and teachers the flexibility to maintain the safety, welfare and integrity of their classrooms.

In an attempt to reduce suspensions and phase out sending unruly students home, the district will provide support services in schools to better serve the needs of students who may otherwise have faced suspension.

It’s a good move.

The goal is to prioritize safety of teachers and students while ensuring that students removed from classrooms are getting academic instruction and counseling as opposed to the current system, in which many end up in a baby-sitting arrangement in the principal’s office. In addition to that goal, Cruz’s proposed ban on suspensions of students in early grades aims to address the district’s longstanding racial disparities regarding such suspensions.

Austin ISD data show that black children, who make up only 7 percent of the district’s students, were 38 percent (or 529) of all lower-grade suspensions during the past four years. In the same time frame, Hispanics were 48 percent (or 696) of the suspended students on average. The vast majority of those students who were suspended were boys.

Cruz rightly amended his measure, which initially was proposed as a blanket ban on suspensions and expulsions of children from classrooms - except those required by law - after talking with educators, members of the school board and the public. A pilot program to examine the effects of the ban begins this spring in selected schools. The board will take up Cruz’s proposal in February.

Cruz’s proposal now permits suspensions when a child kicks or punches a teacher, physically bullies other kids or is a danger to himself or herself. Those are circumstances covered by the Texas Education Code.

The Austin school district is not the first to consider a suspension ban for lower grade schools. Houston and El Paso have already adopted similar measures. Dallas is currently weighing the same policy. And Austin is taking cues for its plan from a national Social and Emotional Learning collaborative that includes 10 districts from across the country, including Austin’s.

The current trend to do away with suspensions at the elementary level is backed by research that shows removing young students from their learning environments for minor violations has negative effects on children, particularly in later years.

Certainly, troubled students have a right to learn - but that must be balanced with the rights of all students.

For example, after separate, recurring unpunished bullying incidents that left two siblings fearful of attending school and incapable of focusing on classwork, the parents of the children withdrew the from their home school. The children were then enrolled in a school with clear discipline policy when it came to bullying.

Another piece of the puzzle that must be addressed is the district’s huge racial disparity in suspensions and expulsions that even administrators concede aren’t justified by bullying or unsafe behaviors by students. A variety of studies show that a majority of young students of color and students with disabilities are more frequently suspended for minor incidents - a practice that is blamed for the so-called school-to-prison pipeline.

Some behaviors, especially when exhibited by boys who are minorities, are misunderstood by teachers. In other situations, teachers who aren’t properly trained to recognize symptoms of underlying issues can rely too heavily on removing the child from a classroom as a resolution. Too often a missed diagnosis is the beginning of a series of suspensions for misunderstood children who are then swept into a series of suspensions without resolutions to their needs. And when suspensions and expulsions are overused, students are at substantially greater risk of dropping out and the likelihood of later criminal misconduct increases.

If one of the goals for Cruz and other educators is to close the gap on these disparities, then a closer look must be taken at the real causes behind these high number of suspensions, which can be something as simple as a teacher being unfamiliar with a child’s culture or as complex as a child acting out because of underlying social, emotional issues or learning disabilities. Until administrators identify and provide the resources to resolve those contributing factors, disciplinary flexibility cannot be taken away from teachers and principals.

We’re encouraged that Cruz is pushing in-school placements for students removed from their classrooms in which the district provides a designated space where the student can continue to receive educational instruction while getting help for behavioral issues. That help will include counseling and other social and emotional learning experts. We urge Cruz to avoid vague language in defining “disruptive behavior” that could lead to overuse of the provision instead of identifying the root cause of the student’s problem.

Cruz’s proposal will complement programs like Social and Emotional Learning, which is practiced in a majority of classrooms, as well as mindful and restorative practices also in place. The district has already established a central team of over 70 specialists - including 15 licensed mental health professionals, 14 Social and Emotional Learning specialists and eight family resources specialists - ready to be deployed where needed across the district. The new policy will call for the addition of two more specialists to the team, we were told.

As a whole, Cruz’s proposal gets to the heart of a student’s behavioral issues while continuing to give flexibility to ensure classroom safety and integrity. But if it does not effectively address and reverse the huge racial disparities in suspensions, it will need further revisions.

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The Monitor. Jan. 31, 2017.

The accidental release of sensitive personnel data of nearly a thousand employees who work for the Mercedes Independent School District is a security breach that school administrators should not take lightly.

How the W-2 forms for 950 workers were compromised is baffling, and inexcusable.

Mercedes ISD Superintendent Dr. Daniel Treviño Jr. blamed the security lapse on an oversight and told the Mid-Valley Town Crier’s editor, Michael Rodriguez, that sensitive information within the documents - such as Social Security numbers and dates of birth - should now be considered compromised.

Apparently the data was released by the district’s payroll office upon receipt of an email that an employee there thought was a legitimate information request relating to the preparation of W-2 forms for 2016.

That certainly is no consolation to the employees who now must monitor their Social Security statements and other documents for years to come. Hopefully no nefarious usage will come of this breach, but nevertheless it means added effort and agony for hundreds of Valley families.

It also should serve as a warning to all of us to be careful with email requests and to safeguard our most precious and personal data.

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The Dallas Morning News. Jan. 31, 2017.

Feb. 1 marked a changing of the guards in Dallas: T.C. Broadnax officially assumed the helm as manager of the ninth-largest city in the nation.

Which means Dallasites don’t have career bureaucrat A.C. Gonzalez to kick around anymore.

And that’s a good thing, both for the city and for Gonzalez, who never offered Dallas the bold and visionary leadership it needs to innovate.

We’ve noted before the need for Broadnax to be a quick study. He must also wield his administrative powers with precision to fix all that is broken at City Hall while keeping city spending in check.

Coming from Tacoma, Washington, Broadnax is the first outsider hired in decades to preside over Dallas’ 3,000 employees and $3 billion-plus operating budget. And he takes over at an inauspicious time:

Dallas is facing two pressing financial crises - a failing pension system for police officers and firefighters, and a series of lawsuits over back pay for public safety employees that could cost the city up to $4 billion - that are of great concern to homeowners, businesses and credit rating agencies.

That alone is enough to keep Broadnax up at night for the foreseeable future.

His first few months in office likely will be more of a trial by fire than a traditional honeymoon as he deals with these challenges and a host of others that have shaken the public’s confidence in City Hall.

Unlike his predecessor, who’s still not willing to acknowledge that a breach of trust exists, Broadnax can ill afford to be trapped inside city hall’s vast, self-validating echo chamber.

The moment demands a city manager who will keep a firm hand on the wheel and at least one finger on the pulse of the community. A less insular and more nimble city government promises to help Dallas do a better job of delivering basic services to all of its citizens.

For too long - as evidenced by the shortage of affordable housing, a growing homeless population, crumbling streets and loose dogs - City Hall has failed to live up to that promise. You can also throw an understaffed Police Department into the mix.

That’s why an outsider was so appealing; a fresh vision is needed to lift Dallas out of its doldrums.

As a newcomer, Broadnax will need a steady hand, a steel resolve and a clear set of priorities to steer Dallas around the many obstacles in his path. In our council-manager form of government, of course, he must demonstrate the political prowess needed to work with a mayor and council that set policies.

But as the top bureaucrat, he also must pull together an innovative team that will help him set an agenda - and a new course - aimed at fixing the basic problems we’ve outlined.

Welcome to Dallas, Mr. Broadnax. Our city is now in your hands.

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Beaumont Enterprise. Feb. 1, 2017.

With so many petrochemical plants in Southeast Texas, this region’s state representatives and senators could do something truly significant for their constituents in this session of the Legislature: Close the loophole that allows some large industrial plants to drive their taxable valuation below true market value. If they do that, they will help average homeowners and small businesses.

The math is clear on this issue. When large petrochemical plants pay fewer tax dollars than they should, that puts a crunch on cities, counties and school districts. They can reduce services like road maintenance or law enforcement, or they can raise tax rates for average Joes and Janes. Neither option is attractive.

We appreciate our petrochemical plants and the jobs and tax revenues they provide. Not every plant takes advantage of this loophole, and some make generous charitable contributions as well. We don’t want them overtaxed … or undertaxed. We want them paying taxes based on the fair market value of their properties, just like other homeowners and businesses.

Thanks to the unintended consequences of a bill passed in the waning days of the 1989 session, big industries can pay less than they should.

Basically, if they find a comparable plant elsewhere with a lower valuation, they can use that to try to reduce their tax value. Incredibly, they can even do this with plants in other states. It’s a race to the bottom that produces “a lack of uniformity and inequality,” in the words of Jefferson County Judge Jeff Branick.

Local plants usually are treated well by county commissioners and city councils. They receive generous tax abatement deals most of the time they seek them, sometimes on expansion projects that would have happened anyway. Average homeowners and small businesses don’t get those deals, and neither do they have the resources to challenge valuations so aggressively.

Nobody likes paying taxes. We’re all going to use every legal means available to reduce our tax burden. But the best system is one in which we all pay our fair share. If this loophole were closed, Texas would be closer to that goal.

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Houston Chronicle. Feb. 2, 2017.

As we watch President Donald Trump lurch from one controversy to another, let us focus on one that is close to home - his disastrous beginnings with Mexico, our neighbor, friend and trading partner for whom he appears to have zero regard.

It is bad enough that our new leader wants to build a useless $25 billion wall between our two countries and insults Mexico by insisting our southern neighbor will pay for it.

But it is equally disturbing that he thinks the landmark North American Free Trade Agreement between the U.S., Mexico and Canada is a giant rip-off of the United States.

Trump has pointed to the $58 billion trade deficit the U.S. had with Mexico last year as an example of NAFTA’s treachery. He misses two important points.

One is that we also have a deficit with Canada that dropped to $9.1 billion last year - but even with that has averaged $46 billion annually since 2000.

The other is that, according to the U.S. Trade Representative’s website, our deficits are not the result of a trade imbalance, but rather, our thirst for oil, which we buy from Canada and Mexico.

“The largest factor affecting the trade balance with NAFTA countries is the importation of fossil fuels and their byproducts. If those products are excluded, there is no deficit. In fact, the United States has a large and growing trade surplus in goods, including agriculture and manufactured goods, as well as in services,” the site says.

It is true, as NAFTA critics charge, that jobs in some sectors have been lost to lower-wage labor in Mexico. But the large increase in trade with the two countries under the pact also has created many new jobs in the U.S. - an estimated 5 million of them, many here in Texas.

So, if Trump wants to renegotiate NAFTA as he says, that’s fine. It has been in place since 1994 and could probably use some updating.

But if he wants changes that threaten the trade pact’s future or decides to pull out, he needs to know he will cause significant disruption to economies that have become closely integrated.

Texas would not escape unharmed because Mexico is our biggest trading partner, with $95 billion in commerce in 2015, the last year for which figures are available.

But Trump’s other problem with Mexico is not about money; it’s about his imperious, insulting attitude toward the country.

He and President Enrique Peña Nieto have had several conflicts already, the latest in a recent phone call that was supposed to have cooled things down.

It turns out, according to The Associated Press, that Trump threatened to send U.S. troops into Mexico to eradicate drug cartels, because he said the Mexican army was afraid to fight them.

And according to a report in the Mexican press, he told Peña Nieto he didn’t need Mexico and the Mexican people.

That might sound unlikely, but The Wall Street Journal revealed in a recent editorial that when Trump visited the newspaper last November and was asked about U.S. policy toward Mexico, he responded, “I don’t care about Mexico, honestly, I really don’t care about Mexico.”

Unfortunately, his lack of knowledge and concern for Mexico has become painfully apparent.

Quite simply, we would urge President Trump to take the time to learn more about Mexico, Canada, NAFTA and our interconnected economies. He could start by reading his own trade representative’s web page. Texas’ senators and our congressional delegation also should take the lead.

As things stand now, Trump’s apparent lack of understanding makes it hard to take him seriously. When it comes to U.S.-Mexico policy, he does not speak for our country’s best interests.


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