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Area superintendents talk safety, state funding at Longview summit

School safety was on the minds of area superintendents Wednesday at the Texas Public Schools Post 86th Legislative Summit hosted by Longview ISD.

In some cases, it’s always on their minds, said White Oak ISD Superintendent Mike Gilbert.

“Nobody’s more concerned with safety than we are,” he said. “You can be consumed with that to the point that you don’t experience the joy this job is capable of giving you.”

Gilbert, along with Mount Pleasant ISD Superintendent Judd Marshall, Lindale ISD Superintendent Stan Surratt, Texarkana ISD Superintendent Paul Norton and Tyler ISD Superintendent Marty Crawford, took part in a panel on reactions to the 86th legislative session, which ended this spring. School board members and other administrators also participated.

Gilbert said the school finance bill, or House Bill 3, “was the most significant funding increase that I’ve ever experienced in 39 years in this business.” The legislation injected billions of dollars into Texas public schools.

“It directly and immediately impacted our districts salaries to employees,” he said.

Gilbert said he does not refer to the salary increases as a pay raise, but a correction. Many employees were able to receive extra compensation that they deserved, he said.

Still, districts should be cautious with the funds in case there is not as much money available to schools in the next session in Austin.

“As board members and as superintendents, you want to stay cautious. We did not spend all the new revenue,” Gilbert said. “Nothing comes for free. Stay active, but be cautious about what’s to come.”

Marshall said Mount Pleasant ISD spent much of the summer talking about safety and security. The conversation was not just limited to shootings or other violent situations, but safety during severe weather and other emergencies.

Voters in Mount Pleasant ISD passed a $55 million bond package in May, he said. Much of that funding will pay for improved security features.

Those updates include new cameras with better resolution and a room with monitors to view all cameras at once, Marshall said. There also will be someone in the room viewing the cameras at all times.

Gilbert said after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012, White Oak ISD started looking into how to make the campuses safer.

Those changes include making doors exit-only, badges for teacher and staff entry, an area that law enforcement has access to if it needs to investigate something on campus and other improvements.

For Norton, safety starts with relationships, then good technology.

“The No. 1 thing you can do for safety is have a relationship with your kids,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing we can do to keep our kids from making poor choices.”

Other topics discussed Wednesday at the summit included what the session means to public schools, an overview of the bills passed, educator benefits and other talks with educators and lawmakers.

Longview ISD Place 6 Trustee Ted Beard ended the panel with thanking not only the moderators, but superintendents in attendance.

“There’s a saying that I say with teachers — not only do you have to love what you teach, but who you teach — and so you guys have shown that particular model,” he said. “For the board members in the room, I use a similar script — not only do you have to love what you serve, but who you serve.”

Long-range Longview road plan includes unfunded highway, street projects

The price tag for needed road projects in the Longview area during the next 25 years exceeds $415 million, according to road planning documents compiled earlier this year.

Transportation Planning Manager Macie Wyers presented the Mobility 2045 Plan on Wednesday at the Longview Metropolitan Planning Organization Policy Board meeting.

Mobility 2045 was a project in which the Metropolitan Planning Organization and other agencies gathered public input to determine the transportation needs of residents in Longview, Gladewater, White Oak and surrounding areas during the next quarter century.

Several projects identified in Mobility 2045 were included in the 2020 Unified Transportation Program that received approval for funding in August from the Texas Transportation Commission. Among those projects is reconfiguring the Interstate 20-U.S. 259-Texas 31 interchange that Wyers said includes widening the interstate from four lanes to six lanes. That project is estimated to be let for contractor bids in 2023.

“They’re all estimates at this point in time,” Wyers said. “It will depend on the development of the project. Really, the (2020 Unified Transportation Program) was just adopted, so those let dates will get refined over time.”

Three projects selected for the Mobility 2045 list are on roads that have a history of fatal crashes. Seven projects are within a quarter mile of a school campus, while 14 projects are along designated truck routes.

The plan includes five Longview street projects that will receive $21.12 million in bond funding through 2022, including Fairmont Street reconstruction, Estes Parkway reconfiguration, Cotton Street improvements, Reel Road widening and Mobberly Avenue reconstruction.

Mobility 2045 also includes eight highway projects totaling $533 million that are unfunded. They include other I- 20 improvements and widening NE Loop 281 from Eastman Road to U.S. 80, SW Loop 281 from U.S. 80 to Estes Parkway and Texas 31 between I-20 and South Street from four lanes to six lanes.

“We’re estimating that the I-20 corridor widening from four to six lanes from Longview MPO boundary to Longview MPO boundary is going to cost $260 million for construction,” Wyers said. “The Longview MPO will not receive enough funding to cover a project like that in a 25-year period, so it would actually take Texas Transportation Commission action to allocate funding for a project like that, which is what happened with the I-20/Texas 31 interchange project.”

Other unfunded projects for Longview streets include reconstructing Fourth Street north of Loop 281, widening Dundee Road, Silver Falls Road, Airline Road and East Hawkins Parkway and extending Spring Hill Road east to Airline Road and Bill Owens Parkway north to George Richey Road.

Paying for those city street projects likely would require bond funding, Wyers said.

Until Oct. 25, residents can ask questions, get copies or make comments about the draft Regional Thoroughfare Plan and the Metropolitan Transportation Plan — both part of Mobility 2045 — by emailing Wyers at mpo@longviewtexas.gov or writing to her at P.O. Box 1952, Longview, TX 75606.

The Longview Metropolitan Planning Organization Policy Board will consider adopting the plans at its next meeting at 2 p.m. Oct. 30 at City Hall.

Longview students gather for See You at the Pole events

Students at Longview schools started their day with prayer Wednesday during annual See You at the Pole gatherings.

See You at the Pole is a national rally where students meet at their schools’ flagpoles to pray.

Longview, Pine Tree and Spring Hills schools held rallies Wednesday morning, with the Rev. Brad Daugherty of New Beginnings Baptist Church leading Spring Hill High School students in song.

See You at the Pole also was open for faculty and staff to join students.

According to a statement from the American Family Association, which promotes the event, about 3 million students across the country gathered Wednesday.

“All around the globe, in every time zone, students will be gathering at their flagpoles, praying for their school, friends, families, churches and communities,” said AFA President Tim Wildmon. “See You at the Pole is a day committed to global unity in Christ and prayer for the young generation.”

Washington plunges into Trump impeachment investigation

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump pressed the leader of Ukraine to “look into” Joe Biden, Trump’s potential 2020 reelection rival, as well as the president’s lingering grievances from the 2016 election, according to a rough transcript of a summer phone call that is now at the center of Democrats’ impeachment probe.

Trump repeatedly prodded Volodymyr Zelenskiy, new president of the East European nation, to work with U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer. At one point in the July conversation, Trump said, “I would like for you to do us a favor.”

The president’s request for such help from a foreign leader set the parameters for the major U.S. debate to come — just the fourth impeachment investigation of an American president in the nation’s history. The initial response highlighted the deep divide between the two parties: Democrats said the call amounted to a “shakedown” of a foreign leader, while Trump — backed by the vast majority of Republicans — dismissed it as a “nothing call.”

The call is one part of a whistleblower complaint about the president’s activities that have roiled Washington and led Democrats to move ahead with an impeachment inquiry of the Republican president on the cusp of the 2020 campaign.

After being stymied by the administration, members of the House and Senate intelligence committees took their first look at the complaint late Wednesday. Republicans kept largely quiet, but several Democrats, including Intelligence committee chairman Adam Schiff, called the classified account “disturbing.”

Some from both parties want it to be made public. Congress is also seeking an in-person interview with the whistleblower, who remains anonymous.

Trump spent Wednesday meeting with world leaders at the United Nations, a remarkable TV split screen even for the turbulence of the Trump era. Included on his schedule: a meeting with Zelenskiy.

In a light-hearted appearance before reporters, Zelenskiy said he didn’t want to get involved in American elections, but added, “Nobody pushed me.” Trump chimed in, “In other words, no pressure.”

The next steps in the impeachment inquiry were quickly developing a day after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi launched the probe. A rush of lawmakers, notably moderate Democrats from districts where Trump remains popular, set aside political concerns and urged action.

One option Pelosi is considering, pressed by some lawmakers, is to focus the impeachment inquiry specifically on the Ukraine issues rather than the many others Congress has already been investigating.

“For me, that’s what’s important,” said Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., among the new lawmakers in Congress with national security backgrounds. She said it’s “just an egregious idea that the president of the United States can contact a foreign leader and influence him for dirt on a political opponent. ... That can’t be normalized.”

Pelosi announced the impeachment probe Tuesday after months of personal resistance to a process she has warned would be divisive for the country and risky for her party. But after viewing the transcript on Wednesday, Pelosi declared: “Congress must act.”

Trump, who thrives on combat, has all but dared Democrats to move toward impeachment, confident that the specter of an investigation led by the opposition party will bolster rather than diminish his political support.

“It’s a joke. Impeachment, for that?” Trump said during a news conference in New York. He revived the same language he has used for months to deride the now-finished special counsel investigation into election interference, declaring impeachment “a hoax” and the “single greatest witch hunt in American history.”

Republicans largely stood by the president and dismissed the notion that the rough transcript revealed any wrongdoing by Trump.

“I think it was a perfectly appropriate phone call, it was a congratulatory phone call,” said Rep. Liz Cheney, the No. 3 House Republican. “The Democrats continually make these huge claims and allegations about President Trump, and then you find out there’s no there there.”

The Trump administration also continued to raise questions about the whistleblower’s motives. According to a Justice Department official, the intelligence community’s inspector general said in letter to the acting director of national intelligence that the whistleblower could have “arguable political bias.”

The memo released by the White House was not a verbatim transcript, but was instead based on the records of officials who listened to the call. The conversation took place on July 25, one day after special counsel Robert Mueller testified on Capitol Hill about his investigation into Russia’s 2016 election interference.

In the 30-minute phone call with Zelenskiy, Trump encourages the Ukrainian leader to talk with Giuliani and Barr about Biden and his son Hunter, who served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company. Immediately after saying they would be in touch, Trump references Ukraine’s economy, saying: “Your economy is going to get better and better I predict. You have a lot of assets. It’s a great country.”

At another point in the conversation, Trump asked Zelenskiy for a favor: his help looking into a cybersecurity firm that investigated the 2016 hack of the Democratic National Committee and determined it was carried out by Russia. Trump has falsely suggested Crowdstrike was owned by a Ukrainian.

In the days before the call, Trump ordered advisers to freeze $400 million in military aid for Ukraine — prompting speculation that he was holding out the money as leverage for information on the Bidens. Trump has denied that charge and the aid package does not come up in the conversation with Zelenskiy.

Trump has sought to implicate Biden and his son in the kind of corruption that has long plagued Ukraine. Hunter Biden served on the gas company’s board at the same time his father was leading the Obama administration’s diplomatic dealings with Kyiv. Though the timing raised concerns among anti-corruption advocates, there has been no evidence of wrongdoing by either the former vice president or his son.

Biden said it was “tragedy” that Trump was willing to “put personal politics above his sacred oath.” He singled out Trump’s attempts to pull Barr and the Justice Department into efforts to investigate Biden, calling it “a direct attack on the core independence of that department, an independence essential to the rule of law.”

While the possibility of impeachment has hung over Trump for many months, the likelihood of a probe had faded after special counsel Robert Mueller’s Trump-Russia investigation ended without a clear directive for lawmakers.

Since then, the House committees have revisited aspects of the Mueller probe while also launching new inquiries into Trump’s businesses and various administration scandals that all seemed likely to drag on for months.

Details of Trump’s dealings with Ukraine prompted Democrats to quickly shift course. By the time Pelosi announced the probe, two-thirds of House Democrats had announced moving toward impeachment probes.

The burden will probably now shift to Democrats to make the case to a scandal-weary public. In a highly polarized Congress, an impeachment inquiry could simply showcase how clearly two sides can disagree when shown the same evidence rather than approach consensus.