April 23


Attack of the charters

Pretty much everyone agrees that San Antonio’s public schools need a lot of help, even by the standards of a national education system in crisis. In large swaths of the city, college readiness hovers around 2 percent of the high-school graduation-age population. By some estimates, only 10 percent of the city’s students will graduate from college within six years of finishing high school. The only big city in Texas with a smaller percentage of bachelor’s degrees in the workforce is El Paso. Et cetera.

In an effort to address these problems, Mayor Castro has staked his reputation on a bold move to build a sales-tax supported Pre-Kindergarten program outside of the public school system, accountable to City Council (the proposal also feeds money and professional development into existing public school programs). But Pre-K 4 SA is not the only game in town.

Choose to Succeed is also making an end run around San Antonio’s public school districts by providing seed funding to help high-performing charter school management organizations (CMOs) open facilities in the Alamo City. (Although charters get state operational funding comparable to traditional public schools, they do not receive state moneys for facilities — a consortium of charters is currently suing Texas over this and other impediments to growth in the charter school industry.)

The George W. Brackenridge Foundation’s Victoria Rico describes the project as a “loose affiliation of community leaders and philanthropists,” including the Brackenridge and Ewing Halsell Foundations, as well as former mayors Hardberger and Cisneros, among others.


Garza pays back campaign funds

State Representative John Garza announced Friday he is reimbursing his campaign approximately $6,000 for questionable expenditures. The move comes just after my story revealing Garza used campaign funds to pay his wife $4,000 for campaign work and a Christmas Eve dinner with his family and other unnamed "supporters." The Republican lawmaker is also refunding money used to buy a tuxedo and other clothing at Men's Warehouse and boots from Cavender's.

Below is the press release sent by the Garza campaign.


Garza's campaign finance flub

Illustration by Jeremiah TeutschState Representative John Garza, who is fighting to win a second term in Austin, has some explaining to do about the way he's spending campaign funds. Those questionable expenditures include an expensive holiday dinner with his family and paying his wife to work on his campaign.

Garza is the freshman representative in District 117, which runs from Helotes to far western Bexar County to the southwest side. He's locked in a bitter battle with democratic challenger Philip Cortez's, a former San Antonio city councilman.

"I thank you very much Brian. God bless you, you're a great person," Garza said sarcastically when I caught up with him outside a political event last week. I tracked him down because he would not answer questions about expenses listed on his campaign finance report filed with the Texas Ethics Commission.


Early voting trends and the distant blue state

With a hotly contested presidential race, a hotly contested congressional race in District 23, a hotly contested state representative race in District 117, and a citywide tax initiative to fund the Mayor’s pre-K program, Bexar County’s early voting numbers are running around 4 percent ahead of 2008, once you adjust the numbers for a decrease in registered voters.

As of Wednesday, 94,219 voters had cast their ballots for the 2012 election. Based on these numbers, early voting will most likely make up between 75-80 percent of the overall vote in this year’s election. Unless a race is extremely tight after the early voting numbers come in, most races can be predicted as soon as those numbers are reported on election night.

About 64 percent of the early votes so far have been cast in centers located in the northern areas of the county. The vote totals at most of these centers are averaging about 4-6 percent each of the total votes cast in this year’s election, compared with voting centers in the center or southern areas of the county, which are averaging around 1.5 to 2 percent of the total.


Because I said so: the criminal trespass Catch-22

In the seven years that Michael Bernard has served as City Attorney, the City has issued two criminal trespass warning letters to members of the public. Those letters forbid the recipients from entering government property, including City Hall and Municipal Plaza. The letters are signed by Bernard and Police Chief William McManus, and the ban is indefinite – “until you are notified, in writing, by someone with authority to act on behalf of the City of San Antonio that these prohibitions have been lifted.”

The practical effect of this official Dear John notice is that the recipients can’t attend Council meetings, including Citizens to be Heard – where members of the public have the opportunity address their elected officials in an open forum – or the various committee meetings where future ordinances are first vetted. It also prevents them from participating in protests or demonstrations at City Hall, placing a severe restriction on their exercise of free speech.  

Two letters doesn’t sound like much and the City may have good reason for issuing them, but Bernard and McManus follow no set protocol in doing so. Bernard said the attorney-client relationship prevented him from discussing all of the details of the cases, but the City may issue a letter “if a client comes to us and they have certain reasonable fears.” The recipients of the letters get no hearing beforehand where they can challenge the allegations, and the letters give no instructions for appealing the decision.

The City is most likely violating the recipients’ civil rights.


The sheriff's political suicide

With early voting for the Nov. 6 election starting next week, Bexar County Sheriff Amadeo Ortiz is again defending his management of the jail, this time touting steps he's taken, with the help of a consultant, to decrease the number of suicides in the facility.

Ortiz says he asked for help after six suicides in the Bexar County jail in 2009. The previous year there were none. On Wednesday, the San Antonio Current published a blistering story that asked "Why have jail suicides soared under Sheriff Ortiz?" During a media tour Thursday, the Sheriff emphasized that the number of suicides per year has dropped as the jail population has decreased, with two reported this year.


Will Alamo Colleges pay benefits or cut classes?

Alamo Colleges Chancellor Bruce Leslie has pushed the district’s five colleges to reduce their full-time faculty to 50 percent, with the remainder of courses taught by adjunct professors. It’s meant to be a cost-saving measure, since part-time teachers earn less per course than their full-time counterparts, and haven’t been earning benefits.

But it’s not as much of a bargain as they thought. District legal counsel informed Leslie this fall that the district has failed to comply with a requirement that it pay into the Teacher Retirement System for adjunct faculty that teach the equivalent of half-time or more. In the Alamo Colleges district, that’s 7.5 contact hours per semester. Adjunct teachers who qualify must contribute 6.4 percent of their pay to the TRS, an amount that will be matched by their employer. Participation can’t be waived.


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