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The Drive-Thru Graduation Extravaganza

By COVID necessity, school graduations are coming in various forms and degrees of ingenuity this spring. There are the motor speedway variety, the football stadium version, the major league ballpark venue, the drive-in theater event and the Zoom virtual, maybe more.

Last Saturday morning, at Murchison Middle School in Austin ISD, there was the “Drive-Thru Graduation Extravaganza” for daughter Caroline and her eighth-grade classmates. During a two-hour window – with staggered time slots based on where last names fell in the alphabet – family cars, with the graduates’ names displayed in the windshields, drove slowly around the corner, up the line and then around the school’s front circle driveway past the front door, the normal drop-off spot for students every morning during a normal school year.

The last three months of this school year, of course, weren’t normal, but the drive-thru graduation was fun and greatly appreciated by my graduate, who wore a new red blazer for the occasion and rode shotgun, while her mother took video from the back seat.

The front lawn of the school was decorated with rows of colored photos of the graduates, courtesy of the PTA. Teachers and school staff, wearing masks, lined the driveway, holding signs and calling out to the graduates, and the kids returned their greetings. As we slowly drove past the front door, a school counselor with a microphone — and aided by the signs in the windshields — called out each graduate’s name.

The emailed instructions to the parents had been clear: “You may absolutely drive slowly/leisurely to enjoy the good vibes, but there will not be stopping and getting out.” And there wasn’t.

Through the open window, Caroline called out to teachers and administrators she recognized behind their masks and held out a sign reading, “We miss you guys.”

Our part of the drive-thru graduation lasted five minutes at most. We spent a lot longer in a Starbucks’ drive-thru line afterwards. But Caroline got a kick out of it, and so did her parents. We thank Principal Beth Newton, Assistant Principal Anthony Bromberg and all the Murchison teachers, staff and PTA for the thoughtfulness and hard work making it possible.

We returned to the school that afternoon to collect Caroline’s souvenir graduation photo from the lawn. Honor roll and other special recognitions will be emailed later.

No, a promotion from eighth grade is not a graduation from high school or college, but it is an accomplishment and a big deal for eighth graders. And I feel for the high school and college graduates who didn’t get to walk across the traditional stage or enjoy the real proms and real parties normally associated with these landmark accomplishments.

But I congratulate all of them and hope they and their families have stayed safe and well during this health crisis. I also hope everyone will be able to enjoy a more-normal graduation season next year.

Clay Robison

Attorney General Paxton to educators and other Texans: Vote, but you may get sick

Some of you may recall that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton misused his office two years ago to try to intimidate educators from actively supporting pro-public education candidates in state elections. He failed then, but he is at it again now, on a larger and, in the current pandemic, a potentially deadly scale.

You may not be thinking about voting yet because you have more pressing needs at present: keeping yourself and your family safe from the coronavirus and, if you are an educator, adjusting to distance learning. But because of the coronavirus and its devastating effect on our economy, this election cycle, especially the general election in November, is extremely critical, and that is why Paxton is trying to suppress voter turnout again. And he is not alone.

Partly because of the premature political reopening of Texas and other states, health experts are warning that the pandemic may still be posing a serious health threat in July and even in November, the next times Texans go to the polls. This is why many Texans (63 percent, according to a recent poll) are concerned about voting in person and would like to have the option of voting by mail. But Paxton, with the obvious support of Gov. Greg Abbott and other state Republican leaders, says no and is fighting the mail-in alternative in court.

Many states make wide use of mail-in ballots. But under Texas law, you can get a mail-in ballot only if you are older than 65, are a member of the military, have a medical condition that makes voting in person dangerous or impossible or will be away from your home county during the early voting period and on Election Day.

In a lawsuit brought by the Texas Democratic Party, a state district judge in Austin ruled that the medical condition provision applied to people who were concerned that voting in person would put them at risk of contracting the coronavirus and endangering their health. He said anyone who felt that way could legally apply for a mail-in ballot.

But Paxton is appealing that judge’s order and has warned local election officials of “criminal sanctions” if they advise voters to seek mail-in ballots. As far as Paxton is concerned, let educators and other voters who want to exercise their constitutional right to vote put their health and maybe even their lives at risk.

Paxton is following President Trump’s lead. Trump has said publicly that he expects to lose reelection if too many people vote.  If too many people start voting by mail during this pandemic, he said, “all of a sudden you lose elections you think you’re going to win.”

Paxton doesn’t want educators, health care advocates and other Texans who value public services to vote for president or in this year’s legislative races. The legislative winners, when they convene in January, will deal with a huge revenue shortfall because of the millions upon millions of tax dollars being lost during this pandemic.

The lower the voter turnout, the greater the likelihood of electing legislators who will attack education and health care budgets with chain saws, rather than writing new budgets based on serious thought about the future of public education in Texas and the critical needs of millions of Texans. Being an ideologue, Paxton prefers chain saws to serious thought – or serious, capable leadership, in Austin and at the highest level of government.

Clay Robison

As one restaurant owner suggests: What if you are wrong, governor?

Weighing the health and safety of 29 million Texans during this deadly pandemic with the economic needs of millions (many in the service industry) who have lost their jobs obviously is not easy for the governor. Throw in the political desire to appease the scorched earth supporters of President Trump, whose overriding concern during this national emergency is his own reelection, and the task becomes almost impossible.

It also is a lot easier to second-guess the governor’s decisions than to make them, but reopening restaurants to on-premises dining and movie theaters to viewers, even at reduced capacity, is scary. About the time the governor was making his announcement on Thursday, the coronavirus count in Texas was 25,297 cases, 663 deaths and rising.

One of the best summations I have seen so far is from a restaurant owner in Dallas, who is not sure when he will reopen but is sure he won’t be reopening on Friday.

“Who doesn’t find this to be hasty,” the restaurateur told The Dallas Morning News. “We can take all the precautions in the world, but you can’t eat with a mask on. You can’t drink wine with a mask on.”

He added: “And if we’re going to be putting people into small spaces with enclosed dining rooms and air conditioning systems – it’s been shown that that’s where (the coronavirus) spreads — statistically it’s a certainty that at some point somebody is going to walk through those doors, and they’re going to have it (the coronavirus), and one of my staff is going to get sick, and then what do we do?”

Or another diner – or handful of diners – gets sick, and on and on.

Then what do we do, governor? Good question.

From my perspective, Gov. Abbott has been wrong on numerous public policies. This time, though, I really hope he is right. But I am not betting my health on it. I am not eating out.

Clay Robison

Reopening states too early will bring deadlier outcomes, coronavirus projection models show

The pension sharks are back, and educators better watch out

The pension sharks are back, and once again – if you are an educator or public employee – they are circling your retirement income, drawn to your nest egg like four-legged predators are to blood. They love the smell of your money, they want some of it and the coronavirus pandemic has stirred them up.

Replacing the defined benefit pensions enjoyed by teachers and other public workers with much-riskier defined contribution plans, such as 401(k)s, has long been a goal of the Texas Public Policy Foundation and other groups and individuals who believe the primary purpose of government is not public service, but profit for themselves and their privatization allies.

The teacher retirement pension fund alone is just too huge a prize to ignore, and the sharks already were zeroing in on the Teacher Retirement System, which administers the fund, before the pandemic struck. TRS will be up for the Legislature’s sunset review next year, making the future of the pension fund a handy target. Add to that the huge public relations fiasco that TRS recently created with the expensive and not-entirely-transparent lease of office space in an upscale Austin tower, and blood started flowing.

TRS is trying to abort the tower lease, but just as publicity was beginning to wane came the arrival of the coronavirus emergency, followed by a plummeting economy and a reeling stock market, which has whacked several billion dollars off the TRS pension fund’s value. The fund still had a value of about $150 billion last Friday (April 17). So, it is not likely to dry up anytime soon.

But one of the guys at the Texas Public Policy Foundation tweeted the same day that TRS was “likely in the ditch” – not true, but a signal that the people who want to take away your defined benefit pensions will use the volatile stock market as an opportunity. Do you want to trade your defined share of a $150 billion pension fund with a long performance history for a 401(k) with no guarantee of any kind of return? The only guarantee a 401(k) offers is how much money you put in it, not how much, if any, you take out of it.

A recession is a particularly awful time to be talking about 401(k)s. Do you have one? Have you checked your balance lately? Yeah, it may be, as the guy said, “in the ditch.” How many school teachers, bus drivers or cafeteria workers want a 401(k) as their sole source of retirement income?

But the pension sharks have a different interest in 401(k)s. They consider the potential management fees they and their allies, instead of TRS, could be raking in from billions of dollars’ worth of 401(k)s. So they will continue to circle.

Clay Robison