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Dog-piling, Grandstanding or Rescuing?

It'll take months to know which part of the headline is correct, but however it goes, you have to say that Carole Keeton Rylander took over the Texas School Performance Review with a bang. She returned -- uninvited -- to the room where she taught high school history years ago to say that she was going to send her staff and a team of consultants over to find out what ails the Austin school district.

It'll take months to know which part of the headline is correct, but however it goes, you have to say that Carole Keeton Rylander took over the Texas School Performance Review with a bang. She returned -- uninvited -- to the room where she taught high school history years ago to say that she was going to send her staff and a team of consultants over to find out what ails the Austin school district.

That school district currently has no superintendent and is under a criminal investigation directed by Travis County Attorney Ken Oden for allegedly manipulating student test scores so that schools would themselves score higher in state rankings.

It is in the middle of a bungled superintendent search that has already seen one candidate turn down the job after being publicly paraded as the number one choice and the savior of the district. The naming of a second group of candidates started what could be described as a "reputation skeet shoot" by various factions and interest groups in the city.

And Rylander's not the first outsider to reach the scene of the accident: Austin Mayor Kirk Watson has already marched in and named an ad hoc committee to "help" the district find its way.

That's where the dog-piling and grandstanding charges come from.

It's hard to tell how this will play out, but Rylander's foray has some interesting turns and twists. In addition to teaching in the Austin schools, Rylander got her political start (at least as an elected official) as a member, and eventually president, of the Austin school board.

Her predecessor, John Sharp, did a performance review of the Austin ISD in the early days of the school audit program, so the new comptroller could spend a fair amount of her time explaining what's different about the new effort. She'll have room to say the district is dramatically different then than now, and that the state's performance reviews have improved immensely since the last outing.

Some questions will come from outside of Austin. On one hand, the state has more than 1,000 school districts, and the comptroller already has a long waiting list of districts that have requested school performance reviews. Some of them are bound to wonder why their requests languish while another district is getting a second crack at the program.

Not By Invitation Only

But that part about "uninvited" might be most intriguing and significant change in the way the agency handles school reviews. She said during her campaign she'd be the state's "education watchdog," and she's taking a more aggressive position than her predecessor.

Sharp's tack was to wait for an invitation from a school board member, a superintendent, a legislator or someone before he'd go in (those invitations were engineered as often as not, but they were, until now, a standard feature of performance reviews).

Rylander's approach is to call the school district and tell officials that she's on her way and they should get ready to have their district's performance reviewed. The law says the comptroller "may" go into school districts from time to time and do performance reviews. During the last session, Rylander asked for and got some additional money and a legislative directive to do ten reviews a year.

Her change in policy -- the decision to go into districts like San Antonio and Austin without waiting for a red carpet -- could make this a more visible program than before, if only because of the drama of busting down the doors. It's also designed to keep school districts looking over their shoulders, knowing the comptroller might show up anytime, invited or not.

Bench Press

Houston jurist John Devine, spanked two years ago by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, is the newest addition to the list of folks who would like to succeed Steve Mansfield on the state's Court of Criminal Appeals. Mansfield is dropping out of that race, in part, because of the slings and arrows he thinks he would attract. Part of the reason he feels he would be a target is because of two scrapes with that same conduct commission. Devine, who entered the public spotlight as an anti-abortion activist, is a state district judge who won election in 1994. In 1996, he sought the GOP nomination for Congress in the CD 25 seat held by U.S. Rep. Ken Bentsen, D-Houston. He lost the primary, but that race gave rise to his admonishment by the judicial reviewers: Devine announced his bid for the seat in his courtroom. He did that after hours, but the agency still frowned on it.

Devine is the second Houston judge to join that contest. State District Judge Jim Wallace, who's at mid-term on his current job, will make a bid. Corpus Christi attorney Tom Greenwell is also in the hunt, and several others from around the state are considering it. Everyone who's announced so far is after the Republican nomination.

Elsewhere, a couple of Democratic judges are about to bump heads over an open seat on the 13th Court of Appeals, which is based in Corpus Christi, but covers 20 counties. Robert Seerden, chief justice of that court, isn't seeking reelection to that post. Two state district judges with free shots (they're not up for reelection this time, and losing won't remove them from office) are jumping into the race. One is Judge Rogelio "Roy" Valdez of Brownsville, who has signed Austin consultant Jeff Montgomery to run his campaign. The other is Judge J. Manuel Bañales of Corpus Christi. Montgomery will also be busy in another judicial race, that of the so-far unopposed J. Woodfin "Woody" Jones, who wants to keep his seat on the 3rd Court of Appeals, based in Austin.

Can't Miss Him If He Won't Go

While we're knocking around on the judicial beat, consider the case of state District Judge Alex Gonzalez, whose territory covers three counties in West Texas. Gonzalez sent a letter to the governor in February, announcing that his resignation would be effective at the end of April. When the time came, however, Gonzalez told the governor's office he was rescinding his resignation and had decided to stay. He's still serving, but aides to Gov. Bush say they consider him to be serving in what's called a "holdover capacity." That means that, in their opinion, the governor can appoint someone and the judge has to leave the bench. Gonzalez doesn't agree. So far, there's no appointment, and no confrontation. If no appointment is made, Gonzalez could remain on the bench until his term is over at the end of December 2002. The governor's office, an aide says, is looking at options.

Redistricting Redux

Lt. Gov. Rick Perry, as previously noted, hasn't named interim committees yet (and won't for a month or so, aides say). His folks also say he hasn't made final decision on who will go where. For instance, they squelched speculation last week about who will chair the redistricting committee (that rumor of the week, denied in Perry's shop, had Sens. Troy Fraser, R-Horseshoe Bay, and Mario Gallegos, D-Houston, co-chairing the panel).

Rumors or not, watch some of the staff movement over the next few weeks. Attorney Steve Foster, who was on the staff of Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, during the legislative session, has moved to Perry's staff and will soon be working out of Fraser's offices.

That's not described to us as permanent placement, but wherever he finally ends up, Foster is likely to be hip-deep in redistricting for the next couple of years. This week's rumor in the Senate is that Fraser is in line to chair the committee and that that's the reason Foster is being moved to his shop.

All the News That's Fit To Air

How much television news can one state support? Time Warner Cable is gearing up an all-news channel that will concentrate on Central Texas, saying that will be on the air at an unspecified date in August. They've built a building and hired a sizable news staff. Once it's on the air, Time Warner says the channel will be available in about 240,000 homes, most of them in and around Austin.

There's another twist here, which might or might not be a view of the future: Instead of sending a crew -- a reporter and a photographer -- to a story as most outlets do, the "News 8" outfit will send one reporter who'll also do his or her own camera work.

This brings to three the number of large-scale TV news efforts in Texas over the last year.

The San Antonio-based News of Texas has won broadcast time in most of the state's television markets for one or more half-hour newscasts each day. Dallas-based Belo Corp. started an all-news cable network that rolls for 24 hours a day, but is only available in some parts of the state, mostly North Texas. Behind some of this is a fight over whether a cable company like Time Warner should have to carry programming from Belo or anyone else, or whether they can start their own deals and shut newcomers out. So far, the cable operators are winning that argument.

But what does it all mean to news junkies and to people in business, politics and government? Folks who advise politicos and corporate types on media say the growth of new outlets means two big changes, one of them good and one of them bad. It will be relatively easy to get on the air because of the phenomenon newsies call "feeding the beast" -- the demand for content on the new programs is incredible. On the flip side, it will be relatively difficult to get bad news off the air. Bad news will tend to be repeated again and again until something fresher comes along.

Either effect could be watered down if more than one of the Texas news outlets manage to survive. If there's only one, it's reasonable to assume that that's where most people will go for news. If there are several outlets (in addition to what's already provided by local stations around the state), then the relative importance of a story in any one place is diminished.

Do What Lawmakers Meant -- Not What They Wrote

School districts that use lease-purchase schemes to finance new construction have escaped unharmed from a provision in the latest school finance bill that was unearthed after lawmakers left town. Some districts were already using so-called "Tier 2" funds to pay for their lease-purchase financing arrangements, and a handful of others were planning to use the same financial approach for new construction. Lawmakers changed the definitions of what could be funded under Tier 2, and for whatever reason didn't move what was excised to another part of the school finance formula.

For a few weeks there, it appeared that legislators had inadvertently shut off a relatively popular form of facilities funding. The school finance bill rejiggered funding formulas in a way that prevented the districts from using Tier 2 money for that kind of financing without explicitly providing another way to pay those debts.

All hell broke loose, with bond rating agencies putting several Texas districts on credit watch lists and Attorney General John Cornyn putting several pending lease-purchase deals on hold. After a couple of weeks of plotting by lawyers and school finance wizards, Cornyn put out a letter last week saying the districts can use their basic funding -- the so-called "Tier 1" money -- to make their payments on lease-purchase deals.

That frees the districts that already had such plans in place, and it also gives the green light to districts that had deals stalled at the AG's office. Lawmakers can come back next session and straighten it out, so that future facilities funding comes out of the money pot they intended.

The ruling from the AG also allows Standard & Poors and other rating agencies to exhale. Though the money is coming out of a different pot than they had expected, bondholders will get paid. The Tier 1 money was never intended for such use, but since it's not flatly against the law, it gives the state a way out of what would have been a severe funding problem.

Child Support Central

The attorney general's office is struggling with a federal program that requires the state to centralize the payment system for child support. AG John Cornyn and company have a list of horribles to parade. The federal program would require the state to take over child support disbursement programs from the counties, to absorb all of the costs and to do it all without any obvious savings to taxpayers. Cornyn's version of this story is that the state now handles about $850 million in child support disbursements every year, and has a caseload of about 232,000 families. The counties handle 162,000 cases (about a third are in Harris County alone), and the total dollar amount is unknown, but is estimated at up to $1.4 billion.

The federal program involves a match of $2 from the feds for every $1 from the state. The overall cost of doing this, according to Cornyn's folks, would be $78.2 million every biennium. The Legislature gave them only $35 million to do that, however. Cornyn's aides don't have any idea how much the counties would save by giving up the program.

They've asked the feds for a waiver from the requirement, while at the same time designing a centralized system for the state in case their waiver requests fail.

Go Figure

One study, from the Washington, D.C.-based Children's Rights Council, says Texas is a lousy place to raise kids, better than only Louisiana, New Mexico, and the hometown of the Children's Rights Council. The same study had Texas ranked 29th and 33rd in the last two years, respectively. Oddly, some of the numbers used in the rankings came from another group -- the Annie E. Casey Foundation -- that ranked Texas 38th among the states. Whatever the ranking, a lot of the statistical measures apply more to public health issues than to raising children. The categories used by the Council were abuse and neglect, immunizations, child poverty, infant and child mortality, high school dropouts, prenatal care, juvenile arrests, births and divorces. Several critics pointed out that while all of those are important, the list is weighted too heavily to public health and doesn't really measure quality of upbringing for kids. The study also came down hard on Border States and on big states with ethnically diverse populations, like New York, Florida, California and Texas.

Want an Interview? Get a Job at the Washington Post

There's another set of lawyers in another case involving the government seeking to get an interview with a presidential candidate, Gov. George W. Bush.

We've written about the subpoenas in a whistle-blower case involving the Texas Funeral Commission. Lawyers for the former director of that agency want to depose Bush and a number of other state officials and their aides. They contend that when the agency was pressing forward with an investigation of Houston-based SCI, the company called on Bush and other elected officials for help. Their suit says Eliza May got fired as a result. The board of the agency denies it, and that's the fight.

Now comes another former agency director and another team of lawyers, with a similar tactic: They want to interview Bush to see whether he had a hand in the firing of Lawrence Littwin, the state's shortest-tenured lottery director. Littwin's argument is that a commission appointed by Bush fired him because he was being too hard on GTECH, the state's lottery operator.

That company employed as a lobbyist a former lieutenant governor, Ben Barnes, who allegedly helped Bush get into the Texas Air National Guard 30 years ago. Barnes has disputed recent stories about whether he helped get Bush in the Guard. He told the Dallas Morning News he doesn't remember, and all concerned say none of that has anything to do with what happened at the lottery. In any case, they deny that Bush had a hand, or that it was a payback to Barnes for the old favor.

In both cases, the state's lawyers say they'll fight to keep Bush off the witness stand.

An Agency in Search of a Head

The state's General Services Commission is looking for a new executive director to replace Tom Treadway, who resigned after the latest legislative session. The front-runner for the job -- in fact, the only candidate we're aware of after talking to a fair number of people about it -- is Larry Soward, who's in the top management at the General Land Office under David Dewhurst.

Soward was a top aide to Rick Perry when Perry was the state's agriculture commissioner, and now that Perry is the state's lieutenant governor, the push to bring Soward to GSC has a well-placed advocate. But the wheels of government can grind slowly, and that's apparently what they're doing now. Treadway left fairly soon after the session was over, and Soward's name has been in circulation for several weeks. The commissioners at the agency had said they would be hiring an executive search firm to build a list of candidates for the job, but they met last week without hiring a firm. Depending on who's talking, that either sets the stage for a quick hiring of Soward or it means will take a fair amount of time to get a new exec at GSC.

ETCETERA: Watch for the Texas Department of Economic Development to hire an outside fundraiser to bring money into its non-profit arm. Aides to Jeff Moseley, the new chief at the agency, contend the private sector is eager to put money into economic development. Monies added to the non-profit could be used to shore up state funding for the agency itself. It can also be used for prospecting: If the agency spends money putting together a deal that doesn't come through, officials wouldn't be in the position of explaining why that wasn't a waste of taxpayer money. Lawmakers didn't give TDED all the money the agency sought last session, but did, according to the agency, give it a green light to beef up the non-profit.

The Continuing Takeover

We've noted that most of the appointments the governor makes this year and next will complete his mark on state government. Many boards and commissions have six-year terms, staggered so that a governor has partial control in two years, majority control in four and full control in six. George W. Bush is the first governor to have made it all the way to the wire since Dolph Briscoe, who took office in 1973 and stayed six years.

Another way to put it is that Bush is the first governor since Briscoe to have the opportunity to replace every single appointee put in place by his predecessor. The latest:

• Bush appointed George Timothy Boswell of Mineola to be the first judge of the new 402nd District Court. That court, created during the last legislative session, opens for business September 1. Boswell is a former staff attorney at Baylor University, and was president of the Waco school board. The appointment is subject to Senate confirmation, but Boswell will be up for election to the post in November 2000, which is probably before the Senate will meet to consent.

• The governor picked three new regents for Stephen F. Austin State University. They are Gary Lopez of Dallas, an executive with Southwest Airlines; R. Lyn Stevens, a Beaumont attorney; and Mike Wilhite of Henderson, owner of an oil and gas drilling and production company. All three are graduates of the school.

• Rumors among environmental activists to the contrary, Bush says he'll reappoint Ralph Marquez of Round Rock to the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission. Marquez' term expires at the end of the month; the new term will run through August 2005.

• This commission doesn't generally make much news, but Bush's comments and actions in the subject area of charities and volunteers are in the spotlight, thanks to speeches he's been making on the subject in other states. Bush made a handful of appointments to a relatively quiet government outfit called the Texas Commission for Volunteerism and Community Service. He named Joyce Edwards Feinberg of El Paso, the executive director of the Sun Bowl Association; Amy Mettlen Meadows of Dallas, communications director at Fidelity Investments Southwest; and reappointed Rosemary Mauk of Fort Worth.

Political People and Their Moves

Wow, what a well-kept secret! Texas Education Commissioner Mike Moses leaves to take a $190,000 job as deputy chancellor at the Texas Tech University System. The governor's office is interviewing replacement candidates... For several years, David Cole has been the point man for Southwestern Bell Telephone on legislative and deregulation issues. Now the company is moving him to Dallas, where he'll look over residential telephone service in the five states served by the company. Jim Shelley moves up the food chain to take the job Cole is leaving behind... The Texas AFL-CIO gave new four-year terms -- without opposition -- to Joe Gunn, the president, and Emmett Sheppard, the secretary-treasurer. Gunn's been in office since 1989; Sheppard since 1993... U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, hires James Gaston, a former aide to several Texas senators and an operative on several campaigns, as her new chief of staff... Former Capitol reporter Stefanie Scott, who also did a stint with then-Railroad Commissioner Barry Williamson, has signed on to do media work for MCI Worldcom in Austin. Another former reporter, Mary Lenz, moves to UT Austin, where she'll be a science and technology writer in the public affairs department. She was most recently an analyst with the House Research Organization... Lois Moore, the former head of the Harris County Hospital District, got hired about a month ago to fill in as interim nursing dean at Prairie View A&M University. She's been unhired; the school found out the hard way that such a hire needs to be vetted by the state's Board of Nursing Examiners. Moore, as it turned out, didn't meet five out of six of the agency's requirements for the job (she's a nurse, as required, but there are five other barriers to entry)... Nick Voinis, formerly an aide to U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, moves to Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander's press shop later this month. He had been with the Independent Insurance Agents of Texas for several years... His old boss, IATT honcho Ernie Stromberger, is at home recovering after a blood vessel busted in his brain. He's apparently fine, and might be back at work by the time you see this.

Quotes of the Week

Jack Gargen, the 68-year-old Floridian elected chairman of the Reform Party at its national convention: "Some of the stuff you've heard about me is true. I ride a motorcycle. I shoot a pretty fair game of pool. I've been known to stay up all night playing poker. And I have an eye for the ladies. And those are my good qualities."

Ari Fleischer, spokesbot for Elizabeth Dole, espousing a hopeful theory of attrition: "What happens when Steve Forbes and George Bush start spending all their money on each other? Sometimes in the Godzilla vs. King Kong movies, it was the civilians on the sidewalks who survived."

Ellen Miller, founder of Public Campaign, a non-profit organization that advocates public financing of political campaigns: "Just about four percent of Americans give money to political candidates at any level, from president down to dogcatcher. Most people get it -- they get the fact that we have a pay-to-play system, and they can't afford the price of admission."

Lobbyist and former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, during a CNN interview where she predicted Gov. Bush will win the GOP nomination for president, on his ability to stick to what he wants to talk about: "If you said to George, 'What time is it?' he would say, 'We must teach our children to read.'"

Former U.S. Rep. Bill Paxon, R-New York, a Bush supporter, on chances of the GOP's various factions staying in step with each other, and behind one candidate: "It's a long way between now and November 2000. I'm going to be holding my breath for a year and a half."

Texas Tech Chancellor John Montford, on why he recruited Education Commissioner Mike Moses to be a deputy chancellor at the school: "I've had two angioplasties in three years. I'm headed for that big angioplasty in the sky if I don't get some help."

Vegetarian Bruce Friedrich of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, defending advertising placed by that group in men's rooms in Houston and elsewhere that attempts to link impotence to eating meat: "Vegetarians are not only generally slimmer and more sexually attractive than meat-eaters, they are also better lovers."

Texas Weekly: Volume 16, Issue 5, 2 August 1999. Copyright 1999 by Printing Production Systems, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without written permission from the publisher is prohibited.

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