The Whole Star

Fracking equipment near homes in Denton.
Fracking near homes in Denton, TX.

Update 7:45am: Denton voters will decide the fate of fracking in their city come November after the City Council voted against the fracking ban this morning shortly before 3 a.m.

The Council seemed partial to the ban supporters during the hearing, which lasted eight hours, but in the end no one seconded Councilman Kevin Roden’s motion to pass the ban. The members voted 5-2 for a motion to deny passing the ban, so the initiative will now be on the November ballot. Activists had predicted their City Council would not adopt the citizen-led initiative, but the news was still disappointing and folks took to Twitter to say that industry won once again in Texas. We’ll be watching this come November, so stay tuned.

Update 12:42am: Word is there are more than 100 speakers signed up at this point, and we’ve heard from about 80 of them so far. They’re mostly Denton residents who are in favor of changing the city’s drilling ordinance to outlaw fracking; industry representatives appear to be gone for the night.

The testimony is starting to get a little repetitive and Council members are asking less questions. One man with Frack Free Denton called out several Council members, who he says promised to vote for the fracking ban if it went to Council during their respective campaigns. Councilman Greg Johnson clarified that he had promised to support the ban if that’s what Denton residents voted for, but none of the others commented. Smitherman’s letter to Council suggesting Russia’s involvement in the petition has provided ample fodder for jokes throughout the night.

Update 10:04pm: The night began with a string of folks opposed to passing the fracking ban in Denton, and about one-third of the speakers who were registered at the beginning of the hearing have now spoken. We’ve heard from two elected officials and a slew of industry reps, as well as some Denton residents. The City Council has surprised ban supporters by grilling industry representatives on inflated numbers regarding the economic benefits of fracking in Denton, as well as dismissing claims of easy solutions.

The Council is frustrated by the lack of inspection of natural gas wells and insufficient enforcement of regulations that are supposed to ensure companies practice “safe” fracking. At one point, Council Member Jim Engelbrecht asked an industry representative to “do a little ass-kicking” to help regulate fracking and another council member suggested Engelbrecht needed some chocolate. (He later announced he had secured the chocolate.)

Various council members have at different times throughout the night acknowledged the city’s shortcomings in creating an adequate gas drilling ordinance and protecting residents. Denton Mayor Chris Watts—who has been far more sympathetic to ban supporters than Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings was in a similar City Council public hearing in Dallas in December—expressed the Council’s frustration that it had “come to this.”

 

Original: The Denton City Council will consider a proposed ban on fracking tonight, after a group of citizens gathered enough signatures to force a vote. The council will likely kick the decision to voters in November, but that isn’t deterring participation in the public hearing tonight. City officials expect record crowds and have hired additional police officers as security. If the citizen-led initiative eventually passes, Denton will be the first Texas city to impose an outright ban on fracking, though Dallas and Flower Mound have imposed strict setback requirements that have effectively ended fracking in their jurisdictions.

The decision is being closely watched because of its precedent-setting potential. If a city in drilling-friendly Texas—which accounts for one-third of the country’s total natural gas production—can ban fracking, then a city in any other state can do the same. That strikes fear into the hearts of oil and gas producers and heartens environmental activists. Denton sits atop the Barnett Shale and currently has 275 active gas wells within city limits (and an additional 212 wells in its extraterritorial jurisdiction).

In anticipation of tonight’s vote, Texas Railroad Commission Chairman Barry Smitherman sent the Denton City Council a letter denouncing the ban. In the four-page letter, Smitherman suggests that Russia may be behind the effort, pointing to reports of Russia “secretly working with environmental groups in Europe.” In an editorial in the Denton Record-Chronicle, the president of the Texas Independent Producers & Royalty Owners Association blamed East and West Coast activists “seeking to slow responsible hydrocarbon development through fear” for the petition.

North Texas drilling-reform activist Sharon Wilson, who helped organize the petition drive, joked that she hasn’t received her check from Russia yet. She said the suggestions of outside influence are insulting to Texans.

“We’re being influenced by our direct experience of living next to fracking,” Wilson said. “The problem that is terrifying industry is that Texans know fracking better than anybody, so if we can’t live with it, nobody is going to be able to live with it.”

If Denton outlaws fracking, it’s possible that at least some of the 19 companies active in the city will sue. After Dallas passed a de facto ban on fracking in December, a company with gas drilling permits sued the city for more than $30 million. The case is ongoing, but opponents point to a protracted legal battle as one of many potentially negative consequences Denton could face if it adopts the ban.

According to a study commissioned by the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce released Monday, Denton will lose more than $250 million in economic activity as well as more than 2,000 jobs and $5.1 million in tax revenue over the next 10 years if the city outlaws fracking. The report was conducted by Waco-based Perryman Group, a firm frequently hired by business interests to make their case.

The hearing is set to begin at 6:30 p.m. As of 5:30, at least 79 people had registered to speak. The city expects that upwards of 500 people will attend, so the vote will likely take place well past midnight. We’ll be following via livestream, so stay tuned for updates.

Follow @pmozkeda for updates tonight. 

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This Land Press

Let’s face facts: Magazines can be difficult to read while you’re out and about. Flipping pages on a crowded bus? Forget it. Reading cover to cover on your bike commute? An impossibility. Luckily, there’s a way to get your Observer fix hands-free.

We’ve partnered with This Land Radio (a production of This Land Press) to bring you classic Observer stories repackaged in a pleasant audio format. The first to roll out is “Walmart, I Can’t Quit You” by Joe R. Lansdale and originally published in 2010.

When This Land Radio produces more audio Observer stories, we’ll link to them here. In the meantime, check out This Land Press on SoundCloud for more audio goodness.

Migrantchildren
Eugenio del Bosque

While fears of immigrant children carrying disease persist, public health experts on the front lines offer reasons for calm.

The Dallas Morning News reported over the weekend that “the likelihood of [these kids] spreading disease is low.” The story cited health officials who have documented just three cases of flu, three cases of tuberculosis, and 23 cases of chickenpox among the 57,000 children detained in Texas.

This report comes while Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins—acting on his idea that “in Texas, we don’t turn our back on children”—prepares his county to receive 2,000 unaccompanied migrant kids.

The physicians and state health officials interviewed by the Morning News emphasized the same message that the Observer reported last week: The Central American kids streaming across the border pose very little threat to the health of Texans. They do need medical care—mostly for the fatigue, dehydration and twisted ankles that have resulted from their journey.

As the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has repeatedly emphasized, each child receives a screening for infectious disease.

Texas Department of State Health Services spokesperson Carrie Williams told the Morning News that health risks in the detention facilities spring mostly from “the lack of hand-washing facilities.” The occasional cases of lice and scabies, which have excited the ire of a Border Patrol union, do not seem to impress the medical professionals much.

Astute readers will have noted that chickenpox (also known as varicella) is in fact a vaccine-preventable disease. In 1995, the U.S. became the first country to recommend universal vaccination against chickenpox, which is typically a mild disease. (I had it. You probably had it. Serious complications are rare enough that many American physicians questioned whether vaccinating against varicella was worth the trouble.)

Since the mid-’90s, only a handful of nations have adopted universal varicella vaccination. In developing countries that face more pressing health issues, it wouldn’t be cost-effective. Agencies like the World Health Organization and UNICEF don’t include rates of varicella vaccination in their worldwide reports, because it’s not a global health priority.

In tropical regions such as Central America, chickenpox tends to occur more in teenagers and adults, rather than exclusively in young kids. That’s another factor in these few cases at the border: Kids from a temperate region might’ve already had chickenpox; many kids from Central America are still “immunologically naive”—that is, they haven’t been exposed to the virus.

But please don’t flip out, Internet. Most Americans are immune to this pox, thanks to vaccination or prior infection. Here in Texas, 90 percent of kids are vaccinated against varicella by age 3, according to the Department of State Health Services.

Like lice and scabies, chickenpox spreads more quickly in crowded and unsanitary conditions. The refugee kids who get chickenpox are likely to be itchy and miserable—and quarantined—for a couple of weeks, until the virus subsides.

If we want to spare them that ordeal, adequate hand-washing facilities in the detention centers might be a good place to start. We could also offer the children prompt varicella vaccination, as a recently published article in the journal International Health recommends. We should also move kids quickly from detention centers into the safety of families.

I’ll be the first to admit that the Texas medical system has its problems. But if the biggest “health threats” these kids from Central America bring are head lice, some twisted ankles and 23 cases of chickenpox, well, Texas can handle that.

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Broadsword-Student-Advantage

Predatory student loan services are on notice this week after Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan filed lawsuits against two “scam operations that prey on student loan borrowers.” It’s the first lawsuit of its kind, and one of Madigan’s targets is Carrollton-based Broadsword Student Advantage.

Broadsword uses radio ads and other marketing tools to lure potential customers to its loan repayment services, capitalizing on a growing demand—the nation’s climbing student loan debt has tripled in a decade, and surpassed the $1 trillion mark two years ago. Broadsword is part of a new world of debt settlement firms, which promise to lower monthly payments in exchange for up-front fees, getting into the student loan business.

Some loan repayment services are already available for free through the U.S. Department of Education, but Broadsword claims that people are “turned off by its complexities and paperwork.” Instead, Broadsword and other loan repayment businesses charge high upfront charges and monthly fees to process loan repayments.

According to the lawsuit, Broadsword ads target specific professionals with claims that their loans can be forgiven:

“Attention teachers, nurses, social workers, government employees, police officers, and firefighters if you’re still paying on student loans get ready for a special announcement. Your entire student loan can be forgiven. You heard correctly. Broadsword Student Advantage has free information on how you could potentially have the remaining balance on your student loan debt forgiven.”

Madigan’s suit says that these ads, along with Broadsword’s domain www.getforgiven.org, are a violation of the Illinois Consumer Fraud and Deceptive Business Practices Act.

The domain appears to be a “source for consumers to obtain student loan debt forgiveness,” according to the lawsuit. In fact, student loan forgiveness is a federal program through the Department of Education with specific requirements. Broadsword doesn’t inform its consumers of these requirements, either, the suit claims.

In one instance described in the complaint, a public school teacher in Illinois called Broadsword after hearing a radio ad. She was pressured into giving her bank account number so the company could debit $499 for services (though the company’s ads claims it offers free information). After being told she qualified for loan forgiveness, the teacher found out several months (and $898.60 later) that her job as a teacher made her ineligible for loan forgiveness.

The lawsuit also alleges that Broadsword and its affiliates try to get power of attorney from their customers so the company can file documents, get information and even intercept communication from the loan servicer to the borrower.

When customers are charged for Broadsword’s services, they are billed by a separate financial planning firm called Affordable Life Plans. This company shares an address and phone number with Broadsword, and its About Us page includes the Bible verse “Where there is no vision, the people perish.”

The lawsuit included complaints from people who hadn’t signed up with Affordable Life Plans, or gotten any financial advice beyond the loan service, yet were billed by Affordable Life Plans—possibly to minimize Broadsword’s risk. “Defendants are directing fees to Affordable Life Plans as a subterfuge in an attempt to escape liability for offering student loan debt relief services in violation of the Illinois Debt Settlement Act,” the lawsuit states.

Broadsword Student Advantage, LLC, was organized in August 2012 by its president, Kenneth L. Talbert, the man behind other financial firms like EFA Processing (a debt settlement company), DebtXS, Eckity Capital Markets, Safeguard Capital and CocoaLife of Texas, to name a few. Talbert’s interconnected business entities have been scrutinized before, and he’s been compared to Bernie Madoff by a former employee for his debt settlement business.

If the court finds Broadsword intended to defraud its customers, the firm could be charged a civil penalty up to $50,000 per violation. Broadsword didn’t return the Observer’s requests for comment.

Andrea Grimes
Jen Reel
Andrea Grimes

When we began reinventing the then-biweekly newsprint Texas Observer in 2010 as a glossy-paged monthly magazine, a passel of new columnists was core to the redesign. The first on board was Bill Minutaglio.

Bill was a relative newcomer to the Observer’s pages, but by the time of his inaugural column, in the Jan. 22, 2010 issue, he was already an oddly youthful èminence grise in Texas journalism circles, having worked at dailies in Abilene, Houston, San Antonio and Dallas, not to mention staff and stringer stints at top-shelf national outlets too numerous to mention. Nobody knew the ins and outs of the business more intimately, few practiced it more conscientiously, and from his perch as a journalism professor at the University of Texas, few were better positioned to watch the trade’s future scrolling across the transom. The fruits of his experience and insight have graced Bill’s State of the Media column since 2010. 

Until now. Bill has decided to turn his attention to scripts, screenplays and other projects piled up in his perpetually overstuffed pipeline, and if we can’t say we’re surprised, we’re certainly sorry to see him go. We’ve frankly never understood how Bill found the time to teach, write books, serve as a go-to bullshit detector for the national press corps on all topics Texas, and write a monthly column for this magazine, all the while sending us a steady stream of well-trained interns and acting as an on-call reference desk whenever some Observer reporter or frazzled editor needed a pointer to a source or a refresher on how—and why—to do what we do. 

So it’s with great gratitude that we want to acknowledge Bill’s departure from the State of the Media desk after the better part of five years.

“It was an honor to launch this column,” Bill writes. “The media needs watching, and thank goodness the Observer will continue to watch it.”

Indeed we will. Even as we bid Bill a fond adios—(fond and partial, since we fully expect to continue benefitting from his reporting and writing in other contexts)—we say hello to Andrea Grimes, a young Austin writer who’s been making her name not in the state’s legacy daily newspapers but online. Andrea is a former editor of Eater Austin, a former staff writer at the Dallas Observer, an occasional stand-up comedian, a senior political reporter with  RHRealityCheck.org, and the whip-smart human behind the indispensable Twitter handle @andreagrimes. We’re excited to invite you to follow along as she guides the State of the Media column down its next new path.  

BASIS San Antonio's campus

Since the Arizona-based charter network BASIS Schools opened its first school in 1998, the chain has built a reputation as one of the nation’s strongest charter organizations.

Two of the chain’s original schools, in Scottsdale and Tucson, ranked in the top five of U.S. News & World Report‘s latest high school rankings. In 2012, both schools boasted that 100 percent of their students graduated and went on to college. At BASIS Scottsdale, students earned an average of 4.1 out of a possible 5 points on AP tests.

But at the chain’s new Texas outpost, one parent says BASIS has failed to address her child’s special needs, in violation of federal law. Her claim has reignited an old charge against charters that outperform traditional school districts—that they keep scores high by gradually pushing out students who can’t keep up.

In June, BASIS San Antonio parent Sharon Bonilla accused the school of failing to accommodate her child’s ADHD and using bully tactics to push him out of the classroom. She leveled the accusation in a letter published on Cloaking Inequity, a blog written by University of Texas researcher Julian Vasquez Heilig.

As a parent, I was “wooed” by Basis. We were sure that Basis was the “one” for us – the school that would accept all children regardless of color, creed, or impairment. Who wouldn’t fall in love with this charter school initially? Who would have thought our year would end with a hearing, and a desperate search for legal counsel?

[…]

Much to my surprise, drawing up a 504 Accommodation Plan was the extent of the service we got from Basis. There were no plans implemented or followed up on throughout the fall months. The spring was no different. The evidence first came when I saw my child’s failing grades. Basis ignored my steady emails day after day, and week after week. With every failing quiz, test, and progress report, I sent my concerns to the Special Education Director, Head of School, and teachers, which were met with no reply, dismissive attitude, or disciplinary action against my child. It was clear that the honeymoon was over.

Bonilla also happens to be a social worker at San Antonio ISD. She told the Observer that after five months of trying to contact BASIS staff about her child’s special accommodations—under federal law, schools must create what’s known as a “504 plan” to meet the needs of students with disabilities—Bonilla learned that the plan had never been implemented and that her child would be held back a grade.

“It feels like an injustice,” she said. “I did everything I could to get in touch with BASIS staff.”

After she was excluded from decisions about her child’s accommodations, Bonilla said, BASIS’s head of schools tried to counsel her out of sending her child to the school next year.

“She said, ‘Your [child] isn’t doing well here. Why do you want him here anyway?” Bonilla said.

At a formal hearing next Tuesday, Bonilla will plead in front of an arbitrator, hired by BASIS, to move her child to the next grade and restore her rights as decision maker in her child’s education. With help from lieutenant governor candidate Leticia Van de Putte, Bonilla wrote, she also filed a complaint with the Texas Education Agency. In the letter posted at Cloaking Inequity, Bonilla summed up her frustration:

Are the events of this year tactics Basis San Antonio practices to scare away children who do not meet their academic standards? Other Basis parents who did not feel supported transferred out earlier this year, should we have moved too? My child was emotionally tormented and struggled entire school year trying to maneuver through the Basis curriculum without his 504 accommodations. … How can a “world class” publically [sic] funded, educational institution be permitted to ignore the needs of their disabled students and their parent’s constant cries for help?

BASIS Communications Director Phil Handler declined to speak specifically about Bonilla’s case, but denied that the school pushes out students with disabilities or lacks the resources to serve them. “We’re a public charter. Anyone who wants to come to our school is welcome,” Handler said.

All schools that receive public funding are required by federal law to offer services for students with special needs. But accusations that BASIS and other charter schools try to wiggle out of offering these services are hardly new.

Educating students with disabilities takes time, money and specially-trained staff—and since the state grades schools by their students’ standardized tests, critics say charters have an incentive to spend more on the students most likely to score high. Traditional public schools still have to educate the rest.

That logic might explain the findings from a 2012 Government Accountability Office report on enrollment in charter schools. The report found that disabled students represented only 8.2 per cent of students enrolled at charters across the 2009-2010 school year, compared to 11.2 percent in traditional public schools. The number suggests a systemic trend that runs deeper than BASIS.

Last summer, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights opened a federal investigation into a parent’s complaint that BASIS D.C. discriminated against students with disabilities after the school had been open for just one year. The D.C. Public Charter School Board also conducted a two-day review of the school’s special education program, which found that the school’s services were insufficient. The local board required BASIS to make improvements the following year—but only after 44 of its 443 students, half of them with disabilities, had already dropped out.

Amy Silverman, a parent of a child with Down syndrome, called this trend a new kind of segregation in a Phoenix New Times story earlier this year. Silverman described her desperate search to find a charter middle school for her daughter in Arizona, a state with over 500 charter schools. In a number of conversations with special education teachers at charter schools, Silverman says she was told she’d be better off enrolling her daughter in a traditional school. Silverman claims in the article that even Great Hearts Academies founder Jay Heiler, who she describes as the “godfather of the school choice movement,” dissuaded her from trying to enroll her daughter at a charter. (Great Hearts, like BASIS, is another ambitious charter chain expanding into Texas.) By refusing to address their own lack of special education resources and pushing away students with special needs, Silverman argues, charters are becoming increasingly exclusive.

Heather Cole, a graduate student in special education at the University of Texas and a former education advocate at Disability Rights Texas, said charters make less of an effort to tailor their programs to special education students than traditional schools. Cole told the Observer that funding for special education is an issue both in public schools and charters, but that charter school teachers frequently lack the instructional training to accommodate students with special education needs.

“It’s almost a given that [students with special needs] might be excluded,” Cole said. The danger, she suggests, is that parents seeking schools for their children will eventually get the idea that charters just aren’t an option, without any school ever telling them directly.

Denise Pierce, an attorney at the Texas Charter Schools Association said that all charters should strive to provide the same quality of special education as traditional schools. “Charter schools, just like districts, are required to provide a free and appropriate education to students with special needs,” she said. “Charter schools and school districts alike are always challenged to bring to the appropriate needs to every child, because every child is an individual.”

Pierce said that charters with tight finances could try sharing special education teachers with other schools. But pushing students with disabilities out of school is never the answer.

Still, a case like Bonilla’s—where even a social worker familiar with the education system finds her child cut off from those services—suggests charter schools still have a long way to go.

“Charters are supposed to be the solution to this big system that didn’t work. ‘We’re smaller. We’re tighter. We’ll be responsive to your needs,’” Cole said. “That is not the case. We’re seeing greater exclusion. We’re seeing more of the tracking of kids into alternative educations and juvenile justice programs. They are not the panacea that people hoped.”

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