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Pilots navigate Longview skies as Great Texas Balloon Race begins competition

The first day of competition for the Great Texas Balloon Race kicked off Friday with several balloons launching from downtown Longview to catch the wind heading northwest toward targets.

“I think we’ll be doing a lot of flying,” Great Texas Balloon Race Chief Meteorologist Brad Temeyer said during Friday morning’s briefing, anticipating great weather through the weekend.

Pilot Mike Gullo of Bossier City, Louisiana, and his crew settled on a launch spot in downtown. Gullo was eager to get into the air with his balloon, “Main Squeeze.”

“I said if he ended up getting another balloon, he should call it ‘Main Squeeze’ because I’m the other woman,” Gullo’s wife Angie said, laughing.

Gullo got back into ballooning two years ago after about a 15-year hiatus.

“The only thing I had was a fan because I was just starting to acquire stuff to get back into it,” Gullo said. He obtained his pilot license in 1994 and few until about 2004 when his children were teenagers.

When Gullo was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, he decided to get back to flying.

“The first thing I asked the doctor when he said ‘you have cancer’ was ‘does that qualify me for disability?’ And he said yes,” Gullo said, laughing. He is now cancer free and retired from his career as an electrician.

Disability and his pension helped him to pursue his love of ballooning again and purchase his own balloon, which he designed — with input from his wife, children, grandchildren and others.

“That’s what’s beautiful about (ballooning) — it’s a family adventure,” said crew member Stephanie Speicher of Longview.

Speicher and her daughter were volunteer crew for Gullo and also have a passion for ballooning. Her family purchased a balloon in 2018.

Lillian Speicher, 18, expects to have her pilot’s license within the next month and hopes to compete in the Young Guns competition as part of the Great Texas Balloon Race next year. She said COVID-19 slowed down the process.

“Our whole family does it,” she said.

Once Gullo’s balloon launched and the sounds of the city quieted, he and his navigator quickly found the best altitude and route to the targets. Though Gullo threw his markers and came close to the first target, he completely missed the second, which resulted in quite a bit of joking.

Cameron Wall of Las Vegas said it was a beautiful morning to fly.

“Interesting wind layers,” said Wall, 22. “Not typical Longview winds, however, it made for a fun flight.”

Wall believes his scores will be average, but he was happy with the flight.

“I didn’t do incredible on most tasks, but I threw all of my markers, so I can’t complain,” he said. “Seemed like a fun morning for all.”

Spencer Copas, 22, of Sellersburg, Indiana, said he had decent scores on all of the targets.

“It was a great morning to fly,” he said.

In total, Gullo’s balloon traveled between about 7 miles to land in a field behind the Dollar General Distribution Center along with other pilots.

Angie Gullo said she hopes they will be back at the Great Texas Balloon Race next year. The family will head to Colorado and then to Yellowstone National Park to fly in the coming weeks.

Targets and tasks will be determined this morning and Sunday morning and given to the pilots at briefings. Winners will be announced daily on the Great Texas Balloon Race website with overall winners awarded during a Sunday ceremony.

Morning competition flights will start about 6:45 a.m. today and Sunday. The non-competition evening flights will begin about 7 p.m. today only.

For flight updates and information, such as locations of the targets across the city, visit greattexasballoonrace.com or visit the News-Journal’s Facebook page at facebook.com/newsjournal .


Education
Kilgore College, Gladewater ISD launch CTE program partnership for area students

A new partnership between Kilgore College and Gladewater ISD will help East Texas students better choose their path after high school.

Kilgore College is set to launch a new career and technical education program at Gladewater High School this fall, allowing Gladewater students as well as others from across the area to take a selection of core classes before they graduate.

Mike Turpin, vice president of instruction at KC, detailed the program at Monday’s board meeting, saying four classes — safety and ergonomics; blueprint reading and sketching; basic electrical theory; and analog controls — are part of a “technical core” that “would allow students really to take those four courses and apply them into a number of different programs so they don’t have to make the decision to go down one road and take courses that maybe would not apply to another program.”

“So when they complete those four courses, then they’ve got a jumpstart on a number of different programs,” Turpin added.

Gladewater ISD Superintendent Sedric Clark said the program will give students “lifelong, high levels of learning.”

“For us, basically everything we do is rooted and grounded in what type of positive impact will it have on our students,” he said. “For our students who haven’t decided whether they’re going to college, having these skills from this partnership they can go straight to the workforce or further their education at Kilgore College, a four-year college or some other type of training.”

Turpin said Kilgore College would begin offering safety and ergonomics this fall and then blueprint reading and sketching next year. The other two classes would be added the following year.

The college hopes the Gladewater program will work the same way as a similar career and technical education program in Overton does in drawing students from several small area schools so that they can offer the program on-site, Turpin said.

Turpin said the program was an “innovative way to introduce students to our workforce programs as well as giving them the opportunity to take a number of different courses that will apply to several different programs.”

Clark said the partnership is something that has been in the works for awhile.

“We’re always looking for ways to meet the needs of our students and to make sure their futures are secure. This aligned with what all of us wanted to do,” he said. “We will begin an initial phase this year, and the plan is to continue to grow. It’s a great opportunity for kids, and that’s who it’s all about.”


Education
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Longview-area schools formulate plans to use millions in federal funding

Leaders at Longview-area school districts are identifying needs as they formulate plans to spend millions in federal stimulus funding.

The federal money is managed under a Texas Education Agency grant program called Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief. Schools must submit an application with the agency to receive funding, and, according to the TEA, it will be distributed over three years to Sept. 30, 2024.

Longview ISD Assistant Superintendent of Finance Wayne Guidry said schools must spend local money then apply through the TEA program for reimbursements.

LISD is set to receive two allocations totaling about $19 million, and the district still is deciding the best ways to spend the money.

“We are monitoring the new guidance TEA is releasing and applying that guidance to our district so that we can utilize and optimize (the federal) funds the best way possible and complete our plan once those guideline updates have been finalized,” Guidry said in a statement. “In the meantime, we have been identifying needs and analyzing student data across the district, focusing on how best to support our students and teachers.”

Spring Hill ISD Superintendent Penny Fleet said her district is expecting $2.4 million over three years, adding that 20% of that must be spent on filling instructional gaps resulting from COVID-19.

And some of that funding already has been allocated to provide summer school teachers a raise. The Spring Hill ISD board approved pay bumps from $25 an hour to $40 at its meeting this week.

As far as other plans, Fleet said that hasn’t been decided. She said the district has sent out a survey for staff input, and it will be discussed with the school board.

Pine Tree ISD Superintendent Steve Clugston said his district expects about $9.1 million over three years.

“We have extended our summer school to six weeks and upped summer school pay, because sometimes it’s hard to find people to work all summer,” he said. “We put some stipends in there for more extended day work with kids after school. We put some money aside to hire back some retired teachers to do some work with kids in small groups.”

Most of those programs are for remediation, he said. The district also has added more parent liaisons, who also serve as at-risk coordinators. Those positions are a line of communication between the district and homes and can help get students extra help when they need it.

Some of the federal funding also could be used on upgrading air ventilation and other facilities to help keep the air clean, Clugston said.

“Some is set aside to help upgrade some curriculum products and things of that nature,” he said. “But the vast majority is geared at closing that gap due to the learning loss everyone experienced a bit of.”

About $3.2 million over three years is expected at White Oak ISD, said Superintendent Brian Gray.

The district is reviewing options for the funding, and Gray said the board will have its budget workshop July 19, which is when more of the plans will be outlined.

“We’re going to try to be wise about how (the money) will be utilized,” he said. “We will utilize it to have as much of a direct impact on students as possible.”


Local
Abbott vetoes funding for Legislature and staff as punishment for Democrats’ walkout
  • Updated

Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday followed through on a threat to veto a section of the state budget that funds the Texas Legislature, its staffers and legislative agencies.

The governor’s move targeting lawmaker pay comes after House Democrats walked out in the final days of the regular legislative session, breaking quorum, to block passage of Senate Bill 7, Abbott’s priority elections bill that would have overhauled voting rights in the state. The move also killed bail legislation that Abbott had earmarked as a priority.

In a statement, Abbott said that “funding should not be provided for those who quit their job early, leaving their state with unfinished business and exposing taxpayers to higher costs for an additional legislative session.”

“I therefore object to and disapprove of these appropriations,” the governor said.

House Democratic Caucus Chair Chris Turner of Grand Prairie called the move by Abbott an “abuse of power” and said the caucus “is exploring every option, including immediate legal options, to fight back.”

“Texas has a governor, not a dictator,” Turner said in a statement. “The tyrannical veto of the legislative branch is the latest indication that [Abbott] is simply out of control.”

Since Abbott issued his threat earlier this month, other lawmakers and political leaders have raised concerns over how the move could impact staffers and legislative agencies that are funded by Article X, which is the section of the budget he vetoed, such as the Legislative Reference Library and the Legislative Budget Board.

“I’m just concerned how it impacts them because they weren’t the ones who decided that we were going to break quorum, it wasn’t their decision, right?,” said House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, in an interview earlier this month.

Questions have also been raised about the constitutionality of the move, which according to the Legislative Reference Library is unprecedented.

Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who heads the Senate, had expressed support for Abbott’s proposed veto, saying the move could force Democrats to come back for a special session.

The biennial budget at hand covers the fiscal year beginning Sept. 1. If lawmakers are back in Austin for a special session before then, they could pass a supplemental budget to restore that funding.

{p class=”t-copy t-links-underlined t-align-left”}Lawmakers are paid $600 a month in addition to a per diem of $221 every day the Legislature is in session, during both regular and special sessions.

{p class=”t-copy t-links-underlined t-align-left”}The Legislature is expected to convene for at least two special sessions, Abbott has said in interviews. One, set for September or October, will focus on the redrawing of the state’s political maps and the doling out of $16 billion in federal coronavirus relief funds. Before that, the governor has said he will call lawmakers back to work on the elections and bail bills as well as a number of other issues he has not yet announced.


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