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Local
Longview superintendents seek solutions for teacher shortage

The number of students entering Texas schools is growing, while the number of new teachers is decreasing. It’s a problem Longview-area superintendents are trying to solve.

According to the Texas Education Agency, in 2009, state classrooms gained 21,442 new teachers. In 2017, that number was about 18,000 — roughly a 16% decline.

And 80,000 new students have entered Texas school districts every year during the past 15 years, said Spring Hill ISD Superintendent Wayne Guidry.

“That’s a major problem, and so many of our school districts in the state of Texas are struggling with that,” he said. “I talk to superintendents all the time who have to start school with substitute teachers, and every year that problem gets worse and worse.”

While the problem is not as severe at Spring Hill, Guidry still sees the issue as something all Texas districts should be concerned about.

Longview ISD Superintendent James Wilcox said the teacher shortage is related to the bashing of public education.

“I think nationally, not just in the state of Texas, there has been a lot of — for whatever ulterior motives — a philosophy of bashing public education,” he said, adding that “private school advocates or persons with other agendas” could be behind the bashing.

“I think the disparagement of the public education profession for a number of years is what’s led to the teacher shortage.”

Steve Clugston, Pine Tree ISD superintendent, said the problem can be traced to not removing obstacles for teachers.

One of those obstacles is discipline. Clugston said if a teacher is always dealing with those issues in the classroom, it is harder to do the job.

“Getting obstacles out of the way and giving teachers the ability to do what they love to do, I think, is a lot bigger factor than money,” he said. “I mean everybody likes to pay their bills, but I do think teachers don’t get into this business for money — they get into it because they love kids, and they want to truly make a difference.”

Guidry said he believes the teaching profession has become “devalued.”

“College students are deciding to become something else other than to get into education,” he said. “Until that changes, we’re going to continue to have this problem.”

Solutions

For Wilcox, the solution seems simple — more money.

“We are certainly trying to be as competitive as possible in the salaries that we pay professional employees as well as our support people because we need them all to be successful,” he said.

The district is planning about $8 million in salary increases, pending school board approval Aug. 28, Wilcox announced Friday at the district’s convocation.

And other incentive programs could make pay even higher, he said.

The district is proposing about $2 million in extra incentive pay.

“What that means is the Thursday before Longview gets out for the Christmas holidays, there will be an infusion of approximately $2 million into the Longview economy,” he said. “Because that’s what we plan on paying out teachers and other support staff is $2 million in their December check before they get out.”

Wilcox expects about eight to 10 teachers in core testing areas to get at least $20,000 in incentive pay bonuses for improving performance of students in low socio-economic statuses. Those incentives also are pending school board approval.

The district expects about 40 teachers to get some other kind of incentive pay, he said.

Guidry is looking at a teacher pay scale that is able to balance rewarding new and veteran teachers, he said.

“The Legislature has come out and said we want you to prioritize veteran teachers and give more money toward them; and it’s not that I wanted to do anything special for the other end of the pay scale, I just didn’t want to forget about them,” he said. “We’re trying to increase the bottom part of the scale so we can get more college students and try to get them into our field.”

Clugston is working on creating a district that removes obstacles that make it harder for teachers to do their jobs, he said.

“Teachers, they love to teach, they want to have the freedom to teach,” he said. “So really giving teachers that opportunity to do that I think helps teachers a great deal in making Pine Tree an attractive place to be.”

That means acknowledging a teacher may present material differently than Clugston would, he said, but trusting their strengths to do a good job and teach students well.

He also said he wants to decrease the amount of paperwork and technology issues that teachers have to deal with.

Pine Tree also is looking at the future of teachers in its district, particularly with a program it announced in May that will allow students to take dual-credit education courses with LeTourneau University.

The program fast-tracks getting a degree and certification and almost guarantees at job in the district upon completion.

“I think it allows you to grow your own,” Clugston said. “As Texas continues to grow with students at the rate we’re going, there’s a lot of teachers still teaching out there today that are eligible to retire, and the shortage gets a lot worse.

“The more people we can put in the business, the less competition there is for great teachers because there’s more of them.”


Local
Superheroes save day for CASA at Longview fundraising run

Superheroes saved the day Saturday for a Longview nonprofit agency that represents children in times when help is most needed.

At the East Texas Court-Appointed Special Advocates’ Superhero 5K and 1-mile runs at the Longview Mall, the fact that some superheroes were dressed like dinosaurs, cowboys and video game characters didn’t matter.

“It’s a statewide theme, because our volunteers are superheroes for children,” said Shelly Smith, executive director of East Texas CASA. “The work that they do, the caring hearts that they have, that makes them superheroes.”

CASA is an agency in which screened, trained volunteers picked by judges represent and advocate for young people in courtrooms during child protection proceedings.

About 450 East Texas CASA volunteers represent between 700 and 800 children in Gregg, Upshur and Rusk counties, but Smith and racers said more volunteers are needed.

“We always need volunteers. That’s our biggest need all of the time, and until we start serving 100 percent of the kids in care, then that is our biggest need,” Smith said. “We need at least 100 volunteers.”

Dr. Tiffany Egbe offered the same sentiment as to why she was running Saturday, along with a host of other doctors from Christus Good Shepherd Health System.

“I’m here to support Court-Appointed Special Advocates, children that have been taken out of the home,” Egbe said. “We need more volunteers. We need more resources for volunteers.”

Theresa Hollis of Longview was one of several racers dressed as Wonder Woman.

“I am Wonder Woman according to my son,” said Hollis, who is in training to become a CASA volunteer, “and also I believe in health and working out and exercising, and I enjoying running in 5K races, so let’s put the two together.”

Saturday wasn’t her first race in costume. She participated in last year’s Monster Dash benefiting the Junior League of Longview, but she didn’t have a name for that costume.

“It was something I just kind of put together with a tutu and black and pink, so it was cute,” the Junior League member said. “That’s what matters — it was cute.”

Longview Police Area Representative Officer Misty Ryan handled security, but with a twist.

Ryan dressed as the Incredible Hulk, and her 6-year-old son Ty stood beside her in his Super Mario Bros. costume.

“He said (Mario) is a superhero,” Ryan said, adding that CASA “a chance of getting fostered, to have a family and a better life.”

Hallsville 11-year-old Dalton “Bubba” Hill won the 5K race for the second consecutive year. When asked about the secret to his success, he answered, “Just run.”

His mom, Stephanie Hill, said as much. “He just runs.”

Smith hoped the fundraiser would bring in about $4,000 for CASA, but she appreciated the creativity she sees each year at the race.

“Running in a dinosaur costume is just kind of crazy, and then we had some different superheroes,” Smith said. “It’s always fun to see what everybody does, and then the dogs dress up in their costumes, too.”

Oh, yeah, there was a boxer-mastiff dressed as Wonder Woman, too. Go figure.


Local
Longview Transit center, route changes, safety measures debut by Oct. 1

Longview Transit bus transfers will move from Magrill Plaza to a new multimodal center by Oct. 1, Assistant General Manager Tequita Dudley said this past week.

Opening the transfer center on Pacific Avenue will coincide with changes to each of the city’s bus routes, she said. Longview Transit also is adding security measures to increase safety for transfers.

“We still have a few more things to do, but it’s looking to be at the latest Oct. 1,” Dudley said about construction of the multimodal transfer facility, which is about 98% complete.

Casey Slone Construction of Marshall has been building the transfer center since the Longview City Council awarded the $1.036 million contract in September. The Texas Transportation Commission, Gregg County and the city are funding the project in an effort to combine public bus, private bus, passenger rail and other transportation modes to a central location.

Longview Transit will move its transfer operations away from Magrill Plaza the same day that the transfer center on Pacific Avenue opens, Dudley said.

In the meantime, she intends to complete prospective route changes by the end of August so that they can be implemented with the transfer center move.

Among the changes will be a new bus stop in front of retailer Target, marking what will be the northernmost stop on Eastman Road, she said. Currently, Route 4 travels on Eastman no farther north than Eden Drive almost 2 miles from Target, while a Route 2 stop at Walmart on Fourth Street is the closest stop to Target.

While each route will notice a change, none of the changes will be more than about three or four blocks, Dudley said.

Passenger ridership increased this past month, but Longview Transit is seeking to make the Pacific Avenue location safer to increase ridership even more, she said.

One safety enhancement is inherent.

The new transfer center will have shorter layover times for passengers and buses than at Magrill Plaza because the routes will be tighter with the changes, she said.

“Plus, everyone at this area will be boarding (buses) instead of loitering,” Dudley said.

The transfer center will be monitored by staff for Longview Transit, whose administrative offices already are on Pacific Avenue, and by the Longview Police Department’s Outreach Services Team that is housed nearby inside the Train Depot.

“We’re looking for ways to increase safety, and, of course, we still have our cops in transit,” Dudley said.

“We’re busy and excited,” she said about the coming changes. “This is something that we’ve wanted the whole duration of Longview Transit. We’re excited to have it all in one spot.”


US attorney: Epstein abuse probe steadfast despite his death

NEW YORK — The FBI and the Justice Department’s inspector general’s office will investigate how Jeffrey Epstein died in an apparent suicide Saturday, while the probe into sexual abuse allegations against the well-connected financier remains ongoing, officials said.

Epstein, accused of orchestrating a sex-trafficking ring and sexually abusing dozens of underage girls, had been taken off suicide watch before he killed himself in a New York jail, a person familiar with the matter said.

Attorney General William Barr, in announcing the investigation, said he was “appalled” to learn of Epstein’s death while in federal custody.

“Mr. Epstein’s death raises serious questions that must be answered,” Barr said in a statement.

Epstein was found unresponsive in his cell Saturday morning at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons. Fire officials received a call at 6:39 a.m. Saturday that Epstein was in cardiac arrest, and he was pronounced dead at New York Presbyterian-Lower Manhattan Hospital.

Epstein, 66, had been denied bail and faced up to 45 years behind bars on federal sex trafficking and conspiracy charges unsealed last month. He had pleaded not guilty and was awaiting trial.

The federal investigation into the allegations remains steadfast, U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman said. He noted in a statement Saturday that the indictment against Epstein includes a conspiracy charge, suggesting others could face charges in the case.

Epstein had been placed on suicide watch and given daily psychiatric evaluations after an incident a little over two weeks ago in which he was found with bruising on his neck, according to the person familiar with the matter who wasn’t authorized to discuss it publicly. It hasn’t been confirmed whether the injury was self-inflicted or the result of an assault.

Epstein was taken off suicide watch at the end of July, the person said.

The Bureau of Prisons confirmed that he had been housed in the jail’s Special Housing Unit, a heavily secured part of the facility that separates high-profile inmates from the general population. Until recently, the same unit had been home to the Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who is now serving a life sentence at the so-called Supermax prison in Colorado.

Epstein’s death raises questions about how the Bureau of Prisons ensures the welfare of such high-profile inmates. In October, Boston gangster James “Whitey” Bulger was killed in a federal prison in West Virginia where had just been transferred.

Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, a Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote Saturday in a scathing letter to Barr that “heads must roll” after the incident.

“Every single person in the Justice Department — from your Main Justice headquarters staff all the way to the night-shift jailer — knew that this man was a suicide risk, and that his dark secrets couldn’t be allowed to die with him,” Sasse wrote.

Cameron Lindsay, a former warden who ran three federal lockups, said the death represents “an unfortunate and shocking failure, if proven to be a suicide.”

“Unequivocally, he should have been on active suicide watch and therefore under direct and constant supervision,” Lindsay said.

Epstein’s removal from suicide watch would have been approved by both the warden of the jail and the facility’s chief psychologist, said Jack Donson, a former prison official who worked for the Bureau of Prisons for more than two decades.

An attorney for Jeffrey Epstein, Marc Fernich, said in a statement that jailers at the Metropolitan Correctional Center failed to protect Epstein and to prevent the “calamity” of his death.

Fernich also said that reporters, plaintiffs’ lawyers and court officials “should be ashamed of their behavior” following Epstein’s indictment. He said Epstein had “long since paid his debt to society” for his crimes.

Epstein’s arrest last month launched separate investigations into how authorities handled his case initially when similar charges were first brought against him in Florida more than a decade ago. U.S. Labor Secretary Alexander Acosta resigned last month after coming under fire for overseeing that deal when he was U.S. attorney in Miami.

On Friday, more than 2,000 pages of documents were released related to a since-settled lawsuit against Epstein’s ex-girlfriend by Virginia Giuffre, one of Epstein’s accusers. The records contain graphic allegations against Epstein, as well as the transcript of a 2016 deposition of Epstein in which he repeatedly refused to answer questions to avoid incriminating himself.

Sigrid McCawley, Giuffre’s attorney, said Epstein’s suicide less than 24 hours after the documents were unsealed “is no coincidence.” McCawley urged authorities to continue their investigation, focusing on Epstein associates who she said “participated and facilitated Epstein’s horrifying sex trafficking scheme.”

Other accusers and their lawyers reacted to the news with frustration that the financier won’t have to face them in court.

“We have to live with the scars of his actions for the rest of our lives, while he will never face the consequences of the crimes he committed the pain and trauma he caused so many people,” accuser Jennifer Araoz said in a statement.

Brad Edwards, a Florida lawyer for nearly two dozen other accusers, said that “this is not the ending anyone was looking for.”

“The victims deserved to see Epstein held accountable, and he owed it to everyone he hurt to accept responsibility for all of the pain he caused,” Edwards said in a statement.

Epstein’s arrest drew national attention, particularly focusing on a deal that allowed Epstein to plead guilty in 2008 to soliciting a minor for prostitution in Florida and avoid more serious federal charges.

Federal prosecutors in New York reopened the probe after investigative reporting by The Miami Herald stirred outrage over that plea bargain.

His lawyers maintained that the new charges in New York were covered by the 2008 plea deal and that Epstein hadn’t had any illicit contact with underage girls since serving his 13-month sentence in Florida.

Before his legal troubles, Epstein led a life of extraordinary luxury that drew powerful people into his orbit. He socialized with princes and presidents and lived on a 100-acre private Caribbean island and one of the biggest mansions in New York.