A1 A1
Longview ISD trustees tout equity, quality as reasons for charter expansion

Members of the Longview ISD community still have unanswered questions as the district moves closer to its March 31 application deadline to make all campuses charter schools. One main question still remains: Why now?

Board members’ answers have remained the same, which is that the funding is available now.

About 40 parents, employees and taxpayers of the district packed Broughton Recreation Center on Tuesday evening to ask three of the elected trustees about the district’s plan to make all 13 campuses charter schools.

Trustees Shan Bauer, Place 5, Ted Beard, Place 6, and Troy Simmons, Place 7, hosted a question-and-answer session about the district’s plan to turn all campuses into charter schools as authorized by Senate Bill 1882.

SB 1882 is legislation that provides financial incentive to districts that allow nonprofit organizations to take over campuses as charter schools.

Currently, the district has six SB 1882 schools operated by the nonprofit East Texas Advanced Academies. Those campuses are East Texas Montessori Prep Academy, Ware East Texas Montessori Academy, Johnston-McQueen Elementary School, J.L. Everhart Elementary School, Bramlette STEAM Academy and Forest Park Middle School.

The seven remaining campuses are Ned E. Williams Elementary School, Hudson PEP Elementary School, South Ward Elementary School, Judson STEAM Academy, Foster Middle School, Longview High School and the Longview Early Graduation High School.

On Jan. 6, the district received four applications from potential partners to run the remaining campuses. Those applicants are Longview Educates and Prospers, which was formed by city of Longview officials; Texas Council for International Studies, an International Baccalaureate program; Lions Pride, a partnership with Texas A&M University-Commerce; and the International Center for Academics and Technology, for which Superintendent James Wilcox is the original filing agent.

When asked if trustees knew about Wilcox’s involvement in iCAT, trustees deferred to Wilcox to answer.

“We’re a team of eight. We work together for every student in this district,” Wilcox said. “We don’t have a biased approach for reporting and giving information. We give all the information to everybody.”

The News-Journal filed an open records request on Jan. 7 with Longview ISD for the applications submitted to the district by possible charter partners. The district declined to provide the information after the initial request and is seeking an opinion by the Texas attorney general.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Simmons said he supports the charter move because he believes it is the right thing to do, not because Wilcox has convinced him to do so.

Simmons, who was first elected to the school board in 1986, said the district currently is as equitable as he has seen yet, and he wants to keep it that way.

“They’ve never funded (public education) right,” Simmons said, referencing lawmakers, “and when they did fund it right, schools were so segregated that our kids — black and brown kids — never got the benefit of a quality education. We were always secondhand, used, everything. This is the first time in 34 years I’ve seen this district be equitable.”

Bauer said she believes it is the right move because it allows the district to provide students with a great education.

“We’re trying to move forward, so our district is in front of the changing times as opposed to catching up,” she said.

Beard said the partnerships will allow the district to provide not only quality and equitable education, but a properly funded funded one, too.

Beard emphasized the tax system is not going to change, because Longview ISD still will be a public school district.

Simmons told attendees the board can decide to back out of a contract with a charter partner if that partner is not meeting the standards set by the district.

One man in the audience, the Rev. Homer Rockmore, asked what the difference is between what the district wants to do and the charter systems that have failed.

Simmons said the charters that people see failing are private, for-profit charter companies that select students. He said Longview ISD’s charter campuses will continue to accept all students.

Lauren Land, a mother who said she has three children in the district, said ETAA was formed a year ago, and a lawsuit already has been filed.

She said Wilcox’s involvement in iCAT is concerning to her as a parent. She asked trustees if there will be a pause and why the district is in a rush to make the change now.

The lawsuit Land referenced was filed Jan. 30 by the Texas State Teachers Association. The organization is claiming the district is in violation of the law by enrolling more than 15% of its student population in charter campuses.

The district has a Texas Education Agency waiver to bypass that rule, but the TSTA said TEA does not have the legal right to grant that waiver.

Bauer reiterated that the charter expansion is about being proactive instead of reactive and taking advantage of the opportunity now. Simmons said there will not be a pause.

Another attendee, Erika Rader, who said she mentors students at Ware, asked if the charters will be the first to go if the state cuts education funds.

Simmons said the board would do what it usually does when funding is cut.

“If money is cut, what we have traditionally tried to do, like in 2011 when the state cut $5 million out the budget, we made a concerted effort not to cut salaries,” he said. “We’ve always worked for the benefit of our teachers to pay them well and give them as much support as possible.”

But Simmons said the board will not know what to do until it knows what the state cuts.

Rader asked what would happen to the jobs ETAA created.

Simmons responded that, at this point, the district has no plan for that situation.

“It’s a plan to move our program forward, not to move our program back,” he said.

The Montessori program in the district also received some discussion.

Chandalyn Jenkins, who has a child at Johnston-McQueen, asked if the district has a demographic breakdown of the students who qualified for Hudson PEP because of the Montessori programs. She said her concern was to see if the ETAA campus truly is closing the gap between students of color and white students.

Hudson PEP is a districtwide elementary school for students who perform in the average to above average range in grades 1-5. Students are tested before admission.

Simmons said anyone can call the district’s administration and get that information.

He said the expansion will lead to some confusion, and trustees will not always have all the answers, “but the trade-off for that is what we can do for our kids. And for me, it’s worth a shot if it’s going to improve our student performance and our kids are going to be exposed to things that they haven’t been exposed to.”

50 years in, News-Journal food columnist Barbara McClellan always looking for a good recipe to share

Barbara Richardson McClellan can’t stop herself from collecting and sharing recipes.

On Tuesday, the day she was celebrating her official 50th anniversary as the News-Journal’s local food columnist, the conversation turned toward pizza and how she makes a quick vegetarian version using naan bread. When she heard about a quick, made-from-scratch pizza dough recipe, she asked, with surprise, “With yeast and everything?”

“Send me your recipe,” she said.

That’s how it usually goes with the woman who’s worked for more News-Journal editors than she probably cares to count. She described a yummy pattern at church and social gatherings.

“I take a bite, then get up immediately and go around the room and say, ‘Who made it?’” she said.

McClellan, who is almost 81, had moved to Longview from the Houston area in 1967 with her family. She recalled an eventual conversation she had with Ellie Hopkins, who was then editor of Longview’s morning and afternoon newspapers. McClellan said she was in the choir with Hopkins at First Baptist Church, and she asked him why the newspaper didn’t have any local food columns, only columns from The Associated Press or other content services. Houston’s two newspapers at the time, the Post and the Chronicle, both had local food columnists she enjoyed reading.

“He said, well we just don’t have anyone to write it,” he said, and invited her to write one.

Her first column appeared Feb. 11, 1970. She was hooked, and so were the newspaper’s readers.

Her most popular recipes over the years have been her mother’s Strawberry Pie and her own Beef Vegetable Soup. Her tomato soup — a quick combination of bottled marinara and alfredo sauce and broth — is also popular. She picked it up from a conversation she overheard in the Good Shepherd Medical Center gift shop when she was there for a family member’s surgery.

“That’s my kind of recipe,” she said, because it has so few ingredients and requires so little time to put together.

At almost 81, she regularly does Tai Chi and volunteers at the Junior League of Longview’s Bargain Box. And, she said, she’ll keep writing the column until she collapses at her laptop — or until News-Journal Editor Ric Brack says so.

“At this point, I plan to keep going,” she said.

Moore: Dilapidated Longview eyesores on path to demolition

Demolition is slated for a burned-down convenience store, and the same fate appears likely for a dilapidated strip center on Pine Tree Road.

Ed Moore, District 1 representative on the Longview City Council, made the announcements at his town meeting Tuesday at Pine Tree Community Center.

The New Way Food Store at 4306 W. Marshall Ave. burned about two years ago and never reopened.

“The owner has finally contracted with a reputable demolition firm,” Moore said adding that the firm performed recent demolitions of the former Waffle Shoppe restaurant and Globe Inn.

Also, the city has posted condemnation notices at a strip shopping center in the 900 block of Pine Tree Road, he said.

The structure had been frozen from alteration by federal authorities after a December 2014 raid of the Glass Dragon store, but the center is “no longer under a federal freeze,” Moore said.

Multiple yellow condemnation tags are visible around the property, he said, and the owner has about a month or so to respond to the city that they will either improve the building up to municipal code or tear it down.

Moore also used the town meeting to update residents on West Longview projects that were approved in the 2018 city bond.

The city remains in negotiations with three properties at the site on South Street where it plans to build a new, three-story Longview Police Department headquarters, he said.

Contractor bids could be opened by late May, and construction could begin in August and take about two years, with a move-in possible by Christmas 2022, he said.

Fire Station No. 5 on Niblick Street will see construction begin likely in August, but fire crews will be able to remain in the existing station while work takes place, Moore said.

Fire Station No. 8 on McCann Road across from the post office will be relocated to land on George Richey Road across from the Dollar General distribution center.

Longview Economic Development Corp. donated the 11.5 acres, which will save the city about $380,000, Moore said, and will expand the fire department’s 4-minute-response-time service area from the current 8.6 square miles up to 14.7 square miles.

Construction should begin in the fall of 2021.

Fire Station No. 7 on Gilmer Road will be torn down, and a new two-story station will be built on site. Construction should begin in the summer of 2023.

Fairmont Street — between Avenue B and H.G. Mosley Parkway — will be improved to a concrete, two-lane street with a center-turn lane, curb, gutter and sidewalks as early as May 2021 with an 18-month construction timetable, Moore said.

Reel Road — from Gilmer Road to Pine Tree Road — will be widened to a concrete, four-lane street also with curb, gutter and sidewalks over an 18-month construction window, though work won’t start until spring 2023, he said.

Jim Martin, a longtime critic of city spending, questioned why city leaders chose to widen Reel Road and not Dundee Road, another two-lane thoroughfare that runs between Gilmer and Pine Tree roads that handles more traffic.

“You’re exactly right,” Moore said acknowledging that Dundee handles more than 10,000 vehicles a day compared the more than 8,000 vehicles daily on Reel.

However, more wrecks have occurred on Reel Road, and the cost of widening Reel is about $2 million cheaper than Dundee’s cost to widen, Moore said.

“The difference is that Reel has had some accident history that Dundee does not have,” Moore said.

“Well, I hate to say this,” Martin responded, “but I think they ought to have a driving class for the whole city of Longview. ... I can’t see Reel Road (being a higher priority) because it looks like it will take a lot of yards up.”

A significant amount of right of way property will be needed for utility relocation and the street itself, Moore said.

Schematics of the Reel Road project aren’t yet ready, he said, but he plans to hold a public meeting for residents to view those designs at a later date.

Also, “Dundee Road is No. 1 on my list for the next capital improvements project, as is Silver Falls Road,” Moore said. “We just can’t do everything at once.”

Trial team quits Roger Stone case in dispute over sentence

WASHINGTON — The four lawyers who prosecuted Roger Stone quit the case Tuesday after the Justice Department overruled them and said it would take the extraordinary step of lowering the amount of prison time it would seek for President Donald Trump’s longtime ally and confidant.

The resignations raised immediate questions over whether Trump, who earlier in the day had blasted the original sentencing recommendation as “very horrible and unfair,” had at least indirectly exerted his will on a Justice Department that he often views as an arm of the White House.

The department said the decision to shorten the sentencing recommendation was made Monday night — before Trump’s tweet — and prosecutors had not spoken to the White House about it. Even so, the resignations of the entire trial team broke open a simmering dispute over the punishment of a Trump ally whose case has long captured the president’s attention. The episode was the latest to entangle the Justice Department, meant to operate free from White House sway in criminal investigations and prosecutions, in presidential politics.

The four attorneys, including two who were early members of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia team, comprised the entire Justice Department trial team that won convictions against Stone last fall.

Each had signed onto a Monday sentencing memo that recommended between seven and nine years in prison for Stone, who was convicted of lying to Congress, witness tampering and obstructing the House investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia to tip the 2016 election. None lent their names to a Tuesday memo that called the original recommendation excessive.

The resignations leave in limbo the resolution of a case that was one of the signature prosecutions of Mueller’s team and that cut to the heart of his mission — to determine whether the Trump team had access to nonpublic information about Democratic emails hacked by Russian operatives and provided to WikiLeaks.

The Justice Department’s leader, Attorney General William Barr, has been a steady ally of the president’s since taking the position. Barr last year cleared the president of obstruction of justice even when Mueller had pointedly declined to do so, and Barr has declared that the FBI’s Russia investigation — which resulted in charges against Stone — had been based on “bogus narrative.”

It’s not clear what sentence the department will ultimately seek — a new sentencing memo filed Tuesday evening indicated that the original recommendation was too harsh but proposed no recommended punishment of its own.

A Justice Department official said authorities decided to step in and seek a shorter sentence because they had been taken by surprise by the initial recommendation. The person, who was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity, said prosecutors had told the department to expect a recommendation for a shorter sentence.

It is extremely rare for Justice Department leaders to reverse the decision of its own prosecutors on a sentencing recommendation, particularly after that recommendation has been submitted to the court. Normally, U.S. attorneys have wide latitude to recommend sentences on cases they prosecute. A mass exodus from a case is even rarer, though the tumult did conjure an episode from last summer when Justice Department lawyers abruptly left a lawsuit over whether a citizenship question could be added to the census.

The day of upheaval began with a morning tweet from Trump that the Stone case was a “miscarriage of justice.” He later told reporters he didn’t speak to Justice Department officials, though he said he could if he wanted.

“I have the absolute right to do it. I stay out of things to a degree that people wouldn’t believe, but I didn’t speak to them,” Trump said.

Hours after Trump’s tweet, a Justice Department official called the original recommendation “extreme” and “grossly disproportionate” to Stone’s crimes and said it would file a new sentencing memo.

The departures began soon after. Aaron Zelinsky, a Mueller team member, quit the case and his job in Washington, with plans to return to his position as a federal prosecutor in Baltimore.

Another early Mueller team member, Adam Jed, also withdrew from the case. His status at the Justice Department was not clear. Before joining Mueller’s team, he worked on civil cases there.

Another federal prosecutor in Washington, Michael Marando, withdrew from the case. A fourth trial team member, Jonathan Kravis, resigned his position as an assistant U.S. attorney.

Justice Department officials filed a revised sentencing memorandum, arguing its initial recommendation could be “considered excessive and unwarranted under the circumstances,” but saying it would defer to the court.

Sentencing decisions are ultimately up to the judge, who in this case may side with the original recommendation. U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson has repeatedly scolded Stone for his out-of-court behavior, which included a social media post he made of the judge with what appeared to be crosshairs of a gun.

Meanwhile, Democrats decried the decision, with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer calling for an investigation by the Justice Department’s inspector general.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said it would be a blatant abuse of power if Justice Department leadership intervened on Trump’s behalf.

“Doing so would send an unmistakable message that President Trump will protect those who lie to Congress to cover up his own misconduct, and that the Attorney General will join him in that effort,” the California Democrat said.

Federal prosecutors also recently softened their sentencing position on former national security adviser Michael Flynn, saying they would not oppose probation after initially saying he deserved up to six months in prison for lying to the FBI. That prosecution is also being handled by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Washington.

In the initial memorandum Monday evening, prosecutors asked for Stone to serve between 87 and 108 months in federal prison — which they said was consistent with federal guidelines. Such a sentence would send a message to deter others who might consider lying or obstructing a congressional probe or tampering with witnesses, they said.

The prosecutors wrote that “Stone’s actions were not a one-off mistake in judgement” and that he “decided to double — and triple — down on his criminal conduct by tampering with a witness for months in order to make sure his obstruction would be successful.”

Stone has denied wrongdoing and consistently criticized the case against him as politically motivated. He did not testify and his lawyers did not call any witnesses in his defense.

Witnesses in the case testified that Trump’s campaign viewed Stone as an “access point” to the anti-secrecy site WikiLeaks, which was in possession of more than 19,000 emails hacked from the servers of the Democratic National Committee, and tried to use Stone to get advance word about hacked emails damaging to Hillary Clinton.