Friday, October 29, 2010

Have YOU Filled Out the Community Survey Yet?

SA2020 held it's second meeting last night at McCollum High School with an overflow crowd.  If you would like to see the meeting check out the recorded webcast here. If you didn't get to the meeting, you should check it out to see the word art formed by the surveys.  They are pretty remarkable.  At the meeting people were divided into groups to discuss each of the separate issues facing San Antonio to come up with a vision for the future. 

The next meeting will be on November 20, 2010.  You can sign up to go to the meeting on the SA2020 website.  If you can't make the meeting, like me last night, you can watch the live webcast and participate in the meeting on the chat moderated by NowCastSA, during the meeting. 

So far over 3,000 people have filled out the Community Survey and more than 65% of respondents were highly satisfied with Arts, Culture, Affordable Housing, Safety, Health Services, Sense of Community and the Quality of Public Service in San Antonio.  But we definitely have a lot of work to do.  Areas that received the least amount of satisfaction were Transportation/Traffic, the Ability of Regular Citizens to Influence Local Government, Opportunities to find Well Paying Jobs, the Quality of the Physical Infrastructure and Education.  These were the topics that were discussed at the meeting last night.

Ben Warner of JCCI, the facilatator of the meeting, puts together meetings like this in cities all over the country.  He said getting 1,000 survey responses is about a much as a city can expect.  Well, so far we have proved him wrong.  Have you filled out your survey yet? 

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Woe is me, I pay TOO much for taxes in Texas

After reading an article about a promised $2000 tax savings on property taxes that never materialized, and this quote from Tax Assessor/Collector Sylvia Romo who says
she routinely hears complaints about property taxes.
“I especially hear from out-of-state people — newcomers to San Antonio,” Romo said. “They are shocked because the property taxes are so high. Now they are paying in the thousands instead of hundreds” of dollars.
She added, “Welcome to Texas.”
I just felt that I needed to speak up.  Yes the article is correct that Perry's promise of a $2000 savings on property taxes never happened, but this last quote makes it sound like Texans pay high taxes.  Well our property taxes may be high in comparison to other states, BUT, we have no state income tax.

According to the Tax Foundation, Texas ranked 43rd with an 8.4% tax rate in State-Local tax burdens in 2008. The tax rate has gone up a whopping 0.3% since 1977.

Yes, I know, no one likes to pay taxes, but an awful lot of people like to complain about the things that government is not getting done.  Well, just remember, you get what you pay for.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

SA2020, Next Meeting

The next meeting to plan San Antonio's future is coming up October 28, 2010 from 6:30 to 8:30pm at Mccollum High School.  All are welcome to participate, just RSVP at   If you can't come (or even if you can), fill out the Community Survey to put your two cent in.  The survey isn't just for adults, here's a link to the Youth Survey.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Early Voting Starts TODAY!

Early voting starts today.  Check here for a list of locations.  Bring your voter's registration card, or a valid ID.  Check out this earlier post for all the information you'll need to know about voting and candidates.

And as Al Capone said  "vote early and vote often!" (I mean in different elections of course)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

A Consolidated School District for SA?

At the SA2020 kick off meeting, one of the participants suggested that the 15 independent school districts in the San Antonio area be consolidated into one district in order to increase efficiency and effectiveness. Surprisingly (to me, anyway) a lot of people in the room cheered.  Apparently State Rep. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, has been backing this, who know's maybe he was the guy who brought it up at the conference
First of all, could this even happen? Yes, there are 3 ways to do it.

  1. The Board of Trustees of the school districts involved can adopt a resolution to consolidate and then hold an election.
  2. Constituents of the districts can do it by petition, requesting an election to consolidate, signed by a required number of voters in the district.
  3. The Commissioner of the Texas Education Agency can force the consolidation of a wealthy district with a poor one, if the wealthy district cannot come to an agreement on wealth sharing with the poor district.
School districts have been able to consolidate since 1995, when Chapter 13 was added to the Texas Public Education Code. Forced consolidations, also allowed in 1995, are part of Chapter 41, the Equalization of Wealth Level provision of the Public Education Code, otherwise known as the "Robin Hood" legislation.

So it can be done, but is consolidation PRACTICAL??

If all the districts in SA were consolidated the student population would be:
  • Alamo Hts             4,762 growing
  • East Central           9,292 growing
  • Edgewood           12,392 growing
  • Harlandale           14,521 growing
  • Fort Sam               1,472 growing
  • Judson                 21,750 growing
  • Lackland                  936 stable
  • North East           65,498 growing
  • Northside            94,369 growing
  • Randolph Field      1,198 stable
  • San Antonio        55,327 growing
  • Somerset              3,726 growing
  • South San Antonio 9,974 stable
  • Southside               5,216 growing
  • Southwest            11,531 growing
                                    311,964 Total Students and GROWING

 The seventh largest school district in the US and the largest in Texas, Houston ISD, had an enrollment of 202,773 students during the 2009-10 school year.  Enrollment has been declining since 2006.  HISD had over 208,000 during the 2004-2005 school year (pre-Katrina, the HISD took in many students from New Orleans after the evacuations).  The district has also had many scandals and problems, such as doctored dropout rates, fraud allegations, failing teachers, and failing to meet federal standards for special education.

I'm guessing that school consolidation proponents think that having only one school district would equalize wealth, make schools across the district equal and the school population would be spread equally across all schools.  Well, let's take a look at Northside ISD.  It is a sprawling district that extends from Hwy 90 just inside Loop 410 north into Southern Bandera County and west to Medina County.  Back in 1949, when it was formed, this area had a low population so in order to have a similar population to other districts in the area it had to be this big.  Now though, NISD is in the most popular region of SA, population is booming. Even during the middle of the Great Recession, from 2007 to 2009, the district grew by 8.0%.  As of March 2009, when it's population was only 82,587, it was the 37th largest school district in the nation.
Credit: NISD Resource Planning

 All schools in NISD are required to teach the TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills), which all Texas schools are required to teach,  all teachers are required to meet the same standards, and several bond issues have been held to update older schools.  Magnet schools exist at Holmes HS(Business Careers) and Jay HS(Science Academy) to encourage students from other parts of the district to attend these schools. 

So, each school in NISD should be considered worthy and relatively equal, but public perception and actions say otherwise.  Growth in the city has been moving steadily north westward for the last twenty years, so now there are at least 10 elementary schools in NISD outside Loop 1604.  The average student body population for elementary schools gets larger the farther out the school is.

Average School Population
  • Inside 410--646 students 
  • between 410 and 1604--796 students 
  • outside 1604--898 students
There were 5 new schools opened for the 2010-11 school year. All, with the exception of Martin ES which is the first school built inside Loop 410 in 20 years, are outside Loop 1604. Martin ES is in the Canterbury subdivision, which is the only area in NISD inside Loop 410 to have much growth. Six of the proposed schools from the 2010 bond issue will also be built outside Loop 1604 (the seventh school's location has not yet been determined.)

NISD tries to spread some of the school population around by capping student population at over populated schools, and sending those students to cluster schools.  There are 13 cluster schools in the district, 3 inside Loop 410, the rest scattered across the district between 410 and 1604.

The table below shows a comparison between the elementary school populations inside Loop 410 and outside Loop 1604.  Housing in NISD inside Loop 410 has become less desirable over time, while outside 1604 is where most of the new housing is being built. I compared elementary schools because this is the foundation for growth in the district for the next ten years.

(sorry for the chopped off totals on the right, if I made the table any smaller, it would be unreadable)
Source:  NISD Resource Planning Enrollment Reports
Total school population in both areas is projected to increase, but what is really telling is the percent change in class sizes for the two areas.  Class size tends to drop off some after 1st grade, but the slide is much more dramatic (14.08% inside 410 versus 2.23% outside 1604) for the schools inside Loop 410.  This may indicate that families tend to move outside Loop 410 after 1st grade, to get their children into "better" schools.  What constitutes a better school in NISD, is all based on perception.  Lower income areas are assumed to have worse schools solely based on their location.

Proponents of school district consolidation, like State Rep. Roland Gutierrez, believe that a consolidated district administration would lead to effiencies that would lower costs. But Mike Falick, a trustee for Spring Branch ISD, says
I have yet to find any [empirical data] that would suggest consolidation in Texas would lead to greater efficiency or effectiveness in the delivery of education to Texas's 4.3 million students.  Indeed, the data I found from other states shows that efficiency and effectiveness are negative correlates to consolidation.
I am interested in any data that supports consolidation by showing improvements in the effectiveness and efficiency in the delivery of education. If you are aware of any such data, please email me or post a comment with the information.

The article was written in 2005, so far, no one has posted any comments.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

San Antonio Gettin' It's Chalk On

Who says you can't stop traffic to play in the street

Sidewalk Art in Progress

Political Ad

Peace around the Loop?
San Antonio always has lots of free events going on, such as ArtPace's Annual Chalk It Up Festival, on Houston Street.  Check out all the free fun at the Convention and Visitor Bureau's site and the Express-News Free Events site.

Monday, October 11, 2010

SA, 5th Fastest Growing City in North America

San Antonio made Joel Kotkin's list of North America's Fastest Growing Cities.  SA ranked 5th, after Raleigh/Durham NC, Austin, Salt Lake City, UT and Calgary, Alberta, Canada.  Yes, the ranking is for all the cities in North America, not just the US.

San Antonio, Texas

Last year this historic Texas metropolis--home to the Alamo--ranked second on our list "best cities for jobs" among larger cities. The region has been growing rapidly to well over 2.1 million. As the economy, particularly in Texas, recovers, an already strong health care sector will be joined by an expanding industrial base. One key factor in San Antonio's favor: stable house prices--even by Texas standards. PMI Mortgage Insurance Co.'s most recent risk index, which is a two-year measure, lists San Antonio as having the lowest risk from falling prices among large Texas cities.

Legislation, the Solution to Bullying in Schools?

Grits for Breakfast has a good post about this subject.  Check it out here.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

How much POWER does the Governor of Texas have?

The other day someone asked me if Bill White were elected Governor of Texas, would he be able to institute a state income tax.  The answer is a resounding NO.

The office of Governor is extremely weak in Texas. You can thank the Reconstruction Republican government after the Civil War (or as we southerner like to say, the "War Between the States") for that.  During Reconstruction the Radical Republicans took over the government in Texas and pretty much instituted Marshall Law.  The appointed governor at the time, Edmund J. Davis, was a Southern Unionist who fled Texas after it joined the Confederate States and eventually became a Union General.  A new constitution was written in 1869 that gave the Governor
power to appoint more than 9,000 offices, impinging on the independence of local government and the will of the people.
During elections in 1873, Democrats won back many elected offices, despite intimidation by the State Police.  The Governor's seat was won by Democrat Richard Coke, but quickly invalidated by the Texas Supreme Court (all Davis appointees).  Angry Texans refused to accept the decision and when General Grant ignored requests to send federal troops to help Davis, he reluctantly stepped down.  In 1876 a new Constitutional Convention was held, and devised a constitution that weakened the State Government to a shadow of it's former self.

Now the Governor's powers are limited to appointments to over 200 boards and commissions in Texas (approximately 3000 positions), mobilization of the Texas National Guard and Texas Rangers, and the line item veto.  Just about every other office besides the board and commissions are elected by the People. The Governor has to be a very good persuader to get the Legislature (the law making and budgetary authority) to do what he wants, but he has no formal power over them.

Most appointees have 6 year terms and have to be approved by 2/3 of the Texas Legislature.  Since a Governor's term only lasts for 4 years, if a new Governor is elected, he/she cannot appoint new commissioners,, until their terms have expired.  In this way, the former Governor continues his legacy.

Due to Perry's longevity in office (10 years, longer than any other Texas Governor), all of the boards and commissions are filled with his "Posse".  This is where Perry's strength lies.  He also knows how to game the system.  If an elected official leaves office before his term expires, such as a Texas Supreme Court Justice (he's appointed 5 of them), Perry can also make an appointment to these offices.  He also bent the Legislature to his will by vetoing 82 bills (more than any other Governor in a single session) in his first year in office, pretty much invalidating the entire session.

Other people have asked me why the Governor's office doesn't have term limits.  (Perry has served 2 elected terms plus 2 years of Governor Bush's term when he left office to become President.)  No other Texas Governor has completed 2 consecutive terms in office.  So up till now, there has been no need for term limits.  But, I have a feeling, that there soon will be calls for an amendment to the Texas Constitution to remedy this situation.

If Bill White gets elected, he will be starting from scratch, and may have to wait awhile before he can make any appointments.  Also, since he didn't come up through the Legislature, he doesn't have the knowledge of the ins and outs of the system that Perry has.  As a State Representative, Perry served on two of the most powerful committees in the legislature (Appropriations and Calendars) where he learned the importance of timing in the use of the veto.

So, if you want a super weak Governor, versus a semi-weak Governor, Bill White is your man.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Code For America: The Experiment

I have just added a Twitter Search for Code For America to follow their Open Cities Think Up experiment. 
Local governments are considered “laboratories of democracy” — the places where ideas are generated, tried, and evaluated. Instead of relying on just the one, decidedly tedious national government to generate new policy, the founders crafted a flexible federal structure, where the more numerous and more nimble states and cities could experiment on their own and see what works. Simply put, no institution would have a monopoly on good ideas. The best ideas from any government would bubble up and benefit every government. For that to happen, though, the knowledge and learnings from those experiments must be shared. That’s why today, with so many cities and states across the country currently experimenting with open government, today we’re launching our own experiment, and, in true democratic fashion, we need your help.
Tell us how technology is making a difference in your city; point us to good ideas, where they're happening, and the people and organizations behind them. Reply to any of the questions [on the feed] to deepen our collective understanding of how cities are becoming more open.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Solar Panels, Affordable?

A solar energy powered home has always been a dream of mine, but I always thought it would take years before the costs would come down enough to afford it.  So Saturday, my husband and I decided to visit a couple of homes on the Solar San Antonio 2010 Solar Tour just to get an idea of how outrageous the cost would be.  The tour was free and self-guided, and with a printable tour map we were on our way. Over twenty five homes and businesses participated in the tour, so it was pretty easy to find a house that would be somewhat similar to ours to look at.

In fact, there was one house in the subdivision right next door and another about a mile away.  At the first residence the owner had installed his panels over a two year period with the first installation in 2008. He saved $913.70 on electricity between August 2009 and August 2010.  Well that got our attention!  He also told us about the incentives offered by CPS and the federal government, a rebate for 50% of the cost up to $30,000 from CPS for the installation and a 30% tax credit on the remaining balance from the Feds.  What's really cool about the CPS rebate is you don't even have to worry about it, your solar contractor will deal with the paper work and CPS directly.

So how much would it cost you to install a solar system?  Well, here is a handy dandy Solar power energy calculator that estimates the impact of a solar energy system on your electricity bill and your pocket book.  Plug in your zip code, select your utility company and your average kilowatt hour usage per month, or your average monthly electrical bill.  Here's my calculation

System specifications for: San Antonio, TX
Utility: CPS Energy

Solar Radiance: 5.28 kWh/sq m/day
Avg. Monthly Usage: 1,620 kWh/month
System Size: 6.37 kW
Roof Size: 637 sq ft
Estimated Cost: $44,598.45
Post Incentive Cost: $20,515.29
Not exactly cheap, but definitely doable.  You can also get Solar Financing from San Antonio Credit Union for as low as 5.75%. 

From Solar San Antonio
Solar Radiance is the amount of solar energy received on a given surface area at a given time and varies based on the weather (cloudy or sunny) and the latitude of the location.  At just below the 29th degree parallel, San Antonio is at one of the closest latitudes to the equator in the US.  We get 300 sunny days a year on average.   

Here's another cool calculator that estimates your roof's solar potential by using Google satellite maps and your average monthly electricity bill.  This calculator tells you how much of your roof is usable to collect solar energy and gives you an average electrical bill per month after a solar installation.  The part of your roof that is on the southern exposure is the place you want to put solar panels.  Why south, you may ask?  Well it has to do with our latitude, or the angle that San Antonio faces the sun.  The southern exposure gets the most rays during the day as the sun moves overhead.

Now you may wonder why you would still have an electricity bill if you have a solar array.  Unfortunately, the sun doesn't shine 24/7 so during the times when the panels aren't being charged you have to have another source of energy.  You could go completely off the grid by installing a generator, but the homeowners we spoke to said that was a lot of hassle and rather expensive.  Instead they opted for Windtricity during solar down time.  That way all of the energy they use is renewable and doesn't produce CO2 emissions.

There are several contractors in town that install solar panels, check out this list.  Also, solar panels aren't the only way to go, you can opt to install solar powered appliances, like water heaters, pool heaters and attic fans.
Solar Water Heater System
So what's holding you back now?

Friday, October 1, 2010

Are we in Danger from our Gas Mains?

I've been waiting for three weeks for someone from CPS to come and change my gas meter to a smart meter.  The gas technician finally showed up yesterday, apparently changing meters is low priority.  It's lucky I work out of my house!

So I decided to take the opportunity to find out about the safety of the gas mains in San Antonio.  Well, first off, if you suspect you have a gas leak and you report it to CPS, you go to the top of the list, no waiting.
Lisa Krantz/Express News

When I asked the technician if SA was in danger of an explosion like the one that happened in San Bruno, California, he said that there are old gas mains in San Antonio, but the problem in San Bruno was lack of maintenance.  Gas mains in Texas are regulated by the Railroad Commission.  The name of the commission is confusing, in 1891 it was set up to regulate railroad pricing, but now its main function it to regulate oil and gas in Texas.  The commission's responsibilities range from well drilling permits to evaluating the work performance of the natural gas technician who came to my house yesterday.

Every year the Railroad Commission requires every natural gas utility in Texas to run tests of their gas mains using some pretty cool technology called a smart pig.  San Antonio was actually the testing ground for the prototype smart pig back in 1998.  So what the heck is a smart pig?  It's sort of like a torpedo that is sent through the gas mains.  As it travels it uses magnets to detect corrosion and ultrasound to find cracks and thinning metal.  When the pig identifies a problem it broadcasts a GPS signal back to the technicians so they know exactly where a main needs repair.
Calscan Smart Pig testing a pipeline

Now, you will probably say, but wait a minute I heard that there was a fire caused by a gas main rupture at Blanco and Huebner a few months ago. There was, but it was caused by a contractor digging in the the street and nicking the main.  In fact most gas main problems are caused by someone (contractor, home owner, etc) digging near a main and damaging it and then covering it back up and not informing CPS.  You see, there are fines involved, who wants to pay those.

So if you suspect you have a gas leak, notify CPS immediately (210-353-3333).  For tips on natural gas safety, check out the safety link on the CPS website. 

So, if you're out digging in the yard and you hit a pipe, don't cover it up, call CPS, after all the home that could blow up would be your own.