Friday, August 29, 2003

Losing the Numbers Game

Manassas High copes with low enrollment and hard times on the gridiron.

Posted By on Fri, Aug 29, 2003 at 4:00 AM

The bottom fell out for the Manassas High School football team last Friday as Mitchell whipped them 81-0.

And the season has just begun. Only 18 players, barely half the team, showed up for practice Monday on the old baseball outfield that serves as the school's football field. The barren infield is hard as concrete. There isn't a goalpost or yardline marker in sight.

"I just want you to know I appreciate you all coming out here to practice," Coach Danny Pogue tells his players before leading them in a prayer and splitting them up into groups by position. The backs work on footwork and pitchouts. The receivers run pass patterns over the remnants of second base. The linemen -- all three of them -- take turns blocking each other.

Manassas, which opened in 1899, has heart, guts, and history. Entertainer Isaac Hayes and school board member Sara Lewis are among its distinguished graduates. But it has a serious numbers problem both on the football field and in the classrooms, with a total enrollment of about 350 students.

For incoming schools superintendent Carol Johnson and the school board, the looming question is whether to close Manassas or try to save it by building a new school. On the one hand, Manassas is just minutes from downtown, St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, and the government-subsidized Hope Six housing development that will soon replace the demolished public-housing projects on Danny Thomas. On the other hand, it is directly across the road from a long-abandoned Firestone factory and acres of buckling concrete and an industrial wasteland.

Assistant principal Glen Chapman has been at Manassas for 29 years. But even when he arrived, the school had only 800 students, including middle-schoolers. At its peak, Manassas had nearly 2,000 students who filled the current building as well as an annex torn down several years ago. Students look at the pictures of the old campus in Chapman's office and barely recognize their school.

"Kids in this neighborhood need this school," he says. "Without it they would be lost. I would rather see them whittle down the mega-schools. I know most of the kids here by name already."

Manassas loses students to other city schools with more courses and extracurricular activities, but it has little advantages too. Last week a girl asked Chapman how to get to a class. Instead of giving her directions, he walked her there himself.

"I would hate to see this school closed," he says. "There is a point where you have to close a school, but I don't know what it is."

What he does know is that Manassas has clout on the school board and alumni chapters in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. His hope is that the board will follow through on plans to build a new school, which could cost $25 million or more.

"A few years ago, Mitchell High School was in the same boat we are, but they got a new building and have 1,200 kids now," he says. He admits, however, that the growth came at the expense of older schools like Westside.

Westside lost 71-0 to Carver last week. "When we play Westside," Chapman says half-joking, "it ought to be a good game."

In the football locker room, Coach Pogue isn't laughing. His team was 1-9 in each of the last two seasons and had not won in 30 outings before that. Handsome, young, and physically fit, Pogue doubles as waterboy and equipment manager. On the Saturday after the 81-0 loss, he called a practice, but only eight boys showed up.

"After 81-0, what can you say?" he asks. "They're getting beat up. If the game is 85 percent mental, then these kids are getting beat up. I think we could be a real good team if our kids would accept the fact of having a program."

Manassas has some athletes, just not enough of them. The running backs are husky and run through drills with agility and speed. But they have to play the entire game. Sophomore quarterback Derrick Vaughn, 6-2 and 195 pounds, was a star on his undefeated middle-school team and is used to being on the other end of lopsided games.

"No sir, I hope it don't happen again," he says with a smile as he lofts 45-yard spirals. "I couldn't go to sleep after that loss."

His teammates who have showed up for practice are equally determined.

"The people who ain't here might be discouraged," says a smiling Alexie Smith.

Assistant coach Bo Phillips exhorts them to stay positive.

"We're going to turn it around!" he shouts.

"Hope so," comes a tentative voice from the back of the little huddle.

"Ain't no hopin' about it," Phillips snaps. "We're going to do it. You're going to see a different ballclub, I guarantee it. You're going to be proud to be Manassas."

An Ill Wind?

Alternative power sources are already in place and making money.

Posted By on Fri, Aug 29, 2003 at 4:00 AM

When in the midst of a Blame Typhoon, with charges and counter-charges being hurled in all directions, I find it most useful to consult those two polar stars of utter wrongheadedness, Tom DeLay and The Wall Street Journal's editorial page.

Both good for a chuckle, and both perfect weathervanes for the wrong direction. When in doubt, disagree with DeLay, and you'll be okay.

The Journal, in addition to meretricious arguments, vast leaps over relevant stretches of fact and history, and an awesome ability to bend any reality to its preconceived ideological ends, also offers that ludicrous dogmatism that never fails to charm.

A column about energy politics by George Mellon in a recent Journal contained just the right mix of irrelevant argument (he's very upset that a bunch of nervous nellies want to shut down the Indian Point nuclear plant, as though this had anything to do with the frail, undercapitalized transmission grid that caused the August blackout), expedient forgetfulness (uh, actually, OPEC had quite a bit to do with the gasoline crunch of the 1970s), and perfectly delightful nuttiness ("millions of Naderites are trying to peddle windmill farms, even though these inefficient H.G. Wells monsters are already destroying the scenic beauty of places like Palm Springs and the Dutch coast").

Scenic beauty of the Dutch coast?

When Mellon goes on the aesthetic offensive against unsightly windmills as compared to the ever-so-sightly coal-fired plant, oil refinery, and nuclear power catastrophe-in-waiting we must snap to attention. Mellon may be interested to know that in Austin we can purchase "green energy" from the windmill farm near Fort Stockton, Texas, for 2.85 cents per kilowatt hour, and that cost is guaranteed not to increase for the next eight years. Regular electricity from Austin Energy, a municipally owned company, is now undergoing a three-step price increase that will move its fuel charge from 1.774 cents to 2.796 cents per kilowatt hour by the end of January.

Mellon works for our most respected financial newspaper: If the Journal could get a 10-year, fixed-price energy contract at 2.85 per kilowatt hour, would the Journal take it? (In New York City, the price for power generation charged by ConEd hovers around 10 cents per kilowatt hour.)

As for the aesthetics of windmills: Cars pull over by the highway in West Texas so the kids can watch the things go round and round.

Clean, cheap, endless energy no radioactive waste, no air pollution, no strip mining, no oil spills, and no gas-pipeline explosions. Yet the Bush administration wants to spend billions subsidizing coal, oil, gas, and nuclear power and leave both wind and solar technology unsubsidized and unhelped. Now, is that a stupid policy or what?

Every energy source in this country has been vastly subsidized, including hydropower by government-built dams. If wind power were subsidized at a fraction of what we already spend with tax breaks, loopholes, and outright corporate welfare for polluting and destructive energy sources, it would already be the cheapest, not to mention the cleanest, energy source available. This is not pie-in-sky Naderism (whatever that is). This is right now, 2.85 cents per kilowatt hour.

And why do we have such dumb, damaging, self-destructive energy policies? Do you think it has anything to do with corporate campaign contributions? Do you think it has any connection to the fact that Dick Cheney wrote the National Energy Plan? (In secret, with the advice of oil, gas, and coal executives and lobbyists.) A couple of Ken Lay's suggestions in his famous memo to Cheney were incorporated word-for-word in the Cheney plan.

As for the always-egregious Tom DeLay, the Exterminator, two years ago he blocked a program of loan guarantees for upgrades to the transmission system. Said he of the Democratic proposal, "It's pure demagoguery." The first thing he did when the lights went out was to blame the Democrats, of course.

Now, according to The New York Times, the Republicans are refusing again to pass stand-alone transmission-grid improvements. They insist on including the rest of the Cheney rip-and-run plan, including drilling for oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge and other economically marginal and environmentally disastrous schemes.

These free-market fundamentalists are on the wrong side of history, the wrong side of economics, the wrong side of technology, the wrong side of progress, and the wrong side of the environment. Better, cleaner, cheaper sources of power are now available. Get your heads out of the sand, your asses in gear, and join the 21st century. This is not "Naderite" romanticism, you dumb schmucks. It's already making money.

Friday, August 22, 2003

Out on a Limb with Lynn Lang

Ex-coach's credibility vital to the NCAA, two U.S. attorneys, the CA, and UT boosters.

Posted By on Fri, Aug 22, 2003 at 4:00 AM

For a deposition last week, University of Tennessee booster Roy "Tennstud" Adams put on his orange UT blazer and a coonskin cap made from a fox that looked like a blond fright wig. He sipped whiskey. He posed for pictures. He underwent four hours of questioning, which is like four minutes for the loquacious Adams. Then he gave recaps on radio sports programs.

Normally, such behavior in the course of legal proceedings might be considered strange, but there isn't much normal about the four-year saga of the recruiting of college football player Albert Means and the federal investigation of charges made by his high school coach Lynn Lang.

Adams was deposed by attorneys and University of Alabama fans Philip Shanks and Tommy Gallion in Shanks' Memphis office in connection with their lawsuit on behalf of former 'Bama assistant coach Ronnie Cottrell against university officials and the NCAA.

The root question in all of this: Did Alabama booster Logan Young pay Lang $150,000 cash to get Means to enroll at Alabama, as Lang said he did in making his guilty plea last November?

After the deposition, Adams said Gallion repeatedly asked him if he really believed Young or anyone would pay $150,000 for a high school defensive lineman.

"I absolutely do," Adams replied, noting that he and Young used to have lunch together a couple times a week for nearly 10 years.

Young says he didn't do it. No matter, say his doubters he's a country clubber and a slave-trader through and through. Alabama disassociated from Young. The NCAA punished Alabama. And when Lang changed his story and pleaded guilty last November, it seemed to be the beginning of the end of the story.

"Anyone not believe it now?" wrote Commercial Appeal columnist Geoff Calkins.

Well, gosh no. Who needs an indictment and trial?

Except that Young has proven to be a hard man to bring down. He remains unindicted. He can afford a first-class defense, including Nashville lawyer Jim Neal and former Shelby County district attorney John Pierotti.

Lang's sentencing has twice been postponed. Some of his story hasn't checked out. He said somebody was supposed to arrange for a ringer to take the college entrance exam for Means, but Means is suiting up for the University of Memphis this fall with impunity. Milton Kirk, Lang's former assistant coach, says Lang screwed him out of his part of the alleged payoff. Lisa Means, Albert's mother, disputes Lang's claim that she got money from him. And Richard Ernsberger, the author who first wrote about the story in his book Bragging Rights, says Lang told him two different stories about whether or not he had children.

There are a lot of people out on the limb with Lang Kirk, the NCAA, the University of Alabama, United States attorneys Fred Godwin and Terry Harris (who used to work for Pierotti), the CA, Adams, and fellow UT booster Karl Schledwitz.

Gallion and Shanks, working on a contingency fee, think they can saw that limb off. Last week, Gallion and Schledwitz had a testy exchange at Ronnie Grisanti's restaurant, before Cottrell intervened, and they wound up shaking hands. Schledwitz well knows the awesome power of the federal government, having been acquitted 10 years ago as a co-defendant in the Harold Ford trial. He says he wouldn't wish an indictment on anyone.

Gallion and Shanks, however, see Adams and Schledwitz as instigators of the Means investigation. Neither is named as a defendant in Cottrell's lawsuit. Whether that lawsuit has merit or is just UT vs. 'Bama radio and Internet fodder should be clear by the end of the year.

There are three dates to watch:

On October 2nd, a state court judge in Tuscaloosa will hear motions to dismiss the case. Shanks says if he prevails, then the NCAA and the University of Alabama will have to give up documents he thinks will help Cottrell make his case. "Look for a flurry of activity after that motion is ruled on," he said.

On October 25th, the universities of Tennessee and Alabama once again square off in Tuscaloosa. Oh, never mind, that's just a football game.

On December 2nd, Lang is scheduled to be sentenced.

Cottrell's lawsuit says the NCAA and Alabama officials, aided by the UT partisans and federal prosecutors, tried to ruin careers and a storied football program. They're seeking $60 million. Never mind that both the universities of Alabama and Tennessee, so long as they employ the likes of Mike Price and John Shumaker, seem perfectly capable of destroying themselves.

Somebody's sensational claims should be borne out or discredited by the time we have a new national champion.

Friday, August 15, 2003

The Mind Boggles

What a summer for national credulity fitness!

Posted By on Fri, Aug 15, 2003 at 4:00 AM

My credulity gets a lot of exercise, since I cover Texas politics. Like Alice in Wonderland's White Queen, years of practice have enabled me to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast. But here we are with a perfect feast of mind-bogglers, everyone's credulity stretching and straining in a giant national workout session.

Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor of California. Well, sure, I can handle that one. Manna from heaven for political humorists of all stripes. I'm afraid the joke will begin to wear thin, however. I know we all like to make fun of California as the epicenter of nuttiness, but in fact, that big, beautiful state is in terrible trouble. A $36 billion deficit is not amusing. Teachers are being fired, programs to help the most helpless -- the oldest, the youngest, the most frail -- are being cut.

The state's economy took a terrible blow in the artificially created energy crisis of 2000-2001. Enron and the other corporate thieves -- empowered by years of the Republican mania for deregulation -- drained as much as $45 billion out of the state. It's a mess, and, as is often noticed, Gray Davis is so uninspiring he makes wet Kleenex look exciting. But the 200-plus other candidates should realize that no governor can be popular faced with a mess that size.

Now, the fact that our government was contemplating creating a futures market in terrorism is a bit of a pause-causer. "They're doing what?" we said, in a rare moment of national unity. This bonkola endeavor became more understandable when we learned John Poindexter, of Iran-Contra fame, was behind it. Poindexter was up to his neck in Iran-Contra, one of the battiest pieces of illegal cloak-and-dagger fruitcakery ever perpetrated by a government infested with wannabe James Bonds.

You may recall that Admiral Poindexter -- whose streak of insanity is cleverly disguised by a personality that makes Gray Davis look exciting -- was convicted of lying to Congress (his five felony counts were overturned on appeal). He is the player who came up with the idea for the now-defunct TIA program. TIA (Terrorism Information Awareness) was the loony scheme under which our government would collect every scrap of information available on each of us -- financial records, health, library visits, etc. -- in a mind-boggling exercise of government control that would have made the old Soviet Union look like a libertarian paradise.

That one was scotched by a righteous combination of civil libertarians and librarians, but it left poor Poindexter with nothing to do but hatch yet another insane scheme, the market in terrorism futures -- traded right up there on the Chicago Board of Trade, right after sowbellies and soybeans.

It's reassuring to know that after three strikes, you're out of this administration. The question remains: Why in the name of sanity did George W. ever give Poindexter a job in the first place? Iran-Contra wasn't bad enough? Did the Republicans owe him for keeping his mouth shut about parts of it?

Next up, we have the one that still leaves me whomper-jawed. In one of those little flurries on the still waters of the Potomac that indicates some very big creatures are under there having a horrible fight came word that Colin Powell was on his way out. No, not on his way out. Yes, on his way. No, not.

Covering this administration gets more and more like the Sovietology of old: People actually study group photos to see who is standing where. The possibility of losing Colin Powell, who mostly seems to have his head screwed on straight, is daunting enough. What sent me into the You've Got To Be Kidding!!! mode was word about who is under consideration to replace him. Quick, who would be worse: Paul Wolfowitz or Newt Gingrich? Yep, that's the list, and even your worst nightmares didn't prepare you for that one, did they?

Wolfowitz, one of the leading neo-con hawks who got us into this horrible mess in Iraq, is such a clumsy diplomat that he not only couldn't get our old ally Turkey to even let us use its bases during the war, he actually implicitly threatened them with a little regime change in their own country by way of a military coup -- all the better to bring democracy to Iraq, of course. One is reduced to whimpering plaintively, "Please give me a break."

It is truly hard to tell whether Newt Gingrich as secretary of state is a more horrible prospect than even Wolfowitz. That silly, hypocritical blowhard, that ridiculous pseudo-intellectual with a nasty streak a mile wide. You may have forgotten Newt's advice to Republicans before the 1994 congressional elections, but I haven't. That was the infamous memo from his political action committee, GOPAC, saying that the Republicans should describe their Democratic opponents as "sick," "pathetic," "bizarre," "twisted," and "traitor." If you want to know when and why civil political discourse in this country broke down, try that memo.

Newt Gingrich is the polar opposite of a diplomat. The only instinct he has is for the jugular. The colossal hypocrisy of his performance during Ken Starr's investigations would have made the sanctimonious Uriah Heep blush.

So here we are with our collective credulity tanned, buff, limber, and ready. What the heck do you think they'll do to us next?

Molly Ivins writes for Creator's Syndicate and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

Thursday, August 7, 2003

Charitable Disclosure

Local media lag when it comes to holding nonprofits accountable.

Posted By on Thu, Aug 7, 2003 at 4:00 AM

Charitable foundations do much good work, but they can also be as unaccountable as the federal bureaucracies they often resemble," said The Wall Street Journal in an editorial this week. It went on to praise Rep. Harold Ford for co-sponsoring legislation focusing on salaries, travel, and office furnishings counted as "charitable spending."

Needless to say, Ford, a Democrat, is not exactly a house pet of the conservative Wall Street Journal. But Ford and the Journal recognize something that most of the Memphis media, notably The Commercial Appeal, don't. Namely, that disclosure of salaries and expenses at foundations and nonprofits transcends partisanship and is simply good government and good reporting.

In 1996, this newspaper published a long story on local nonprofit agencies that listed the salaries and benefits, along with the revenues, of a representative sampling of 40 organizations ranging from hospitals to colleges to the Boy Scouts of America.

It wasn't an original idea. Other weekly newspapers had done it, and we got the idea and some helpful pointers at an annual convention. The main thrust of the story was that nonprofits do a lot more than prepare food baskets for the needy.

It was no picnic. Some of the people at the top were our advertisers, sources, and friends. Several organizations strongly resisted giving our reporters access to their federal 990 tax forms, even though the form says in the upper right-hand corner, "This form is open to public inspection." Many of them called in their lawyers, dragged their feet, provided outdated information, or refused to let us make copies. One invoked "the privacy act."

We repeated the survey for two more years, to include more organizations and because it was popular with readers. It seemed both fairer and more informative than spot-reporting of a single salary or expense without context just because it happened to be in the news. There was plenty to go around, and our hope was that other local media organizations would do the same thing. Newspapers are especially well suited for this kind of detail-laden project. But The Commercial Appeal, with its bulldog editor and its lighthouse logo and its platitude about giving light and all that, never did.

After a few years we climbed off that particular hobbyhorse and went on to other things. But the influence of nonprofit organizations and foundations in the public sector continued to grow, and it is still growing. The Center City Commission, the Riverfront Development Corporation, and the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau receive taxes or fees and influence policies and projects such as the downtown taxing district, FedExForum, and riverfront redevelopment. Ambitious politicians have learned to get themselves named to their boards if they want to be where the action is.

The Sports Authority, the Memphis Redbirds Foundation, Memphis Development Foundation (Orpheum), and the Blues Foundation promote and seek financial support for tourism, events such as Spring Fling, and music and cultural events. The Plough Foundation, Hyde Family Foundation, and Partners in Public Education (PIPE) seek to influence policy on public education.

In recent years, top city employees including Rick Masson, Dexter Muller, John Conroy, and Benny Lendermon have found that they can make as much or more money with fewer headaches working for a local nonprofit. It is very likely that former county mayoral aide Tom Jones would not have come to grief if he had done the same four years ago. Most of the salaries are competitive and reasonable. But disclosure only works if the media do their part, which they don't.

Two years ago, the Flyer reported that the Redbirds Foundation was spending more than $400,000 on its top two salaries and just over $200,000 on inner-city baseball. The rest of the media yawned. Just a few weeks ago, the CA said that the Sports Authority is passing the hat in the wake of Spring Fling but lamely reported a ballpark figure of $200,000 for staff salaries and expenses. Executive director Tiffany Brown makes $120,000. Likewise, when PIPE lectured the city school board about spending its money efficiently, it became appropriate to examine PIPE's own spending in a year when PIPE has frozen its support for public schools. Interim PIPE director Ethele Hilliard declined to disclose her consulting fee but said it is less than the $100,000 to $125,000 a year plus bonus that PIPE plans to pay a new director.

H.L. Mencken proposed a simple standard: No publicity and no public funds for any organization until every penny of salaries and expenses is freely disclosed. If The Wall Street Journal and Harold Ford can agree, maybe the CA and the rest of the Memphis media can put down their pom-poms and join in. But don't hold your breath.

An American Hero

Troops looked up to him. His mother loved him.

Posted By on Thu, Aug 7, 2003 at 4:00 AM

There was no ceremonial viewing of the body of Pfc. Raheen Tyson Heighter on July 28th. His remains have not arrived here from Iraq. He was a spectacular 21-year-old who was killed when a convoy in which he was riding was attacked early in the morning outside of Baghdad.

His mother, Cathy Heighter, spent yesterday afternoon sitting with relatives in her mother's house on Long Island. She expects the body back next week. Then there will be a public viewing.

"I want to let people know he died for this country," the mother was saying. "He died an American hero."

"He was supposed to be home in June," one of the women in the living room said.

"Been there too long," an aunt, Barbara Adams, said.

"They wanted to come home," one of the others said.

Cathy Heighter is a pretty woman of 45. She wore a cream blouse and blue pants and sat on a living-room couch underneath front windows. "The field commander called me," she was saying. "He talked so very highly of Raheen. He said the troops looked up to him. He fought to the end. He emptied his gun.

"I loved him," she said.

"He loved you," one of the women said.

Her son has written moving, memorable lines of the war. They were in a letter sent on June 20th that arrived at his mother's house on July 2nd: "Today is a blissful day ... . Today is the first time I realized you have tried your hardest to bring the bestowed, hidden, optimistic, and spontaneous qualities out of me ... . As I sit here in tears, I thank you."

His mother never liked the idea of the Army from the start. He was 17, and she was in her beauty shop, "Beyond Images of Beauty" on Main Street in Bay Shore, when an Army recruiting officer came in. He said that he had seen Raheen in high school and the young man told him that he wanted to join.

"The recruiter said he just needed my signature," she said. "I told him, 'Don't even ask. Get out of here.'"

Her son, however, saw his life ahead as something that he had to run right up to like a train on the tracks outside. At 14, he came home from school and took a number-two pencil and drew a father holding his son. Holding the child to his chest with a powerful left arm protecting the child from a world that the father, his face strong and simultaneously haunted by pain, could see ahead for the son.

It is a wonderful drawing.

He and his mother, who sells art out of her beauty shop, made prints of the drawing and sold them. He thought that was a good enough start, but he was going to go so much higher. He was going to pierce the sky. When he graduated from high school, he worked in a brokerage and he studied for a license exam, but he saw so much more dancing on the horizon. He wanted to go to college outside of New York. He would use such a place, with its walks through trees, with its professors, as an exciting studio for his art.

The combined income of his mother and father, who was in construction, wasn't spectacular, but it was over the limit for scholarships and loans.

There was one way. Out there in the high school halls were the military recruiters with their dark bargains. You put your body up and if nothing happens you get college paid for. Raheen took the Army. That is the contract signed by so many. The Army buys them for a college degree. It works unless you wind up in Iraq and come home in a box.

On August 7, 2001, he walked into his mother's shop and said he was leaving for the Army the next day. He had sold himself. He was now old enough to enlist without her written permission. "He put me in shock," she said. "We got up at 5:30 the next morning. He had three big duffel bags packed. They told him to bring only one. I hugged him. I told him I loved him. I told him be a man."

The other day at 10 a.m., she was on the phone in her beauty shop with a customer. Her oldest son, Glynn, and two Army officers walked in and stood nervously. "You think you're seeing ghosts," she said. "I'm standing there on the phone and I know they are there to tell me that my son is dead. How can this be happening? They are ghosts."

"Why do we stay there?" an aunt said. "They don't want us there."

"Shooting at us. They don't want us there."

"Do they know why they're there?"

"No. They don't know. They're there for their country. That's what they know," the soldier's mother said.

"Do you know?" one aunt was asked.


"Oil," Cathy Heighter said, softly and so sadly.

Jimmy Breslin writes for Newsday, where this column first appeared.

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