Waxahachie band sweet on New York; Months of selling, practicing lead to Macy’s parade

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 21A

The dentists in Waxahachie must be in heaven.

It took selling more than 5,000 sugary lollipops – not to mention untold hundreds of chocolate bars, hard candies and cookie dough chunks – but the Waxahachie High School band has raised enough money to march in one of the country’s most prestigious events: the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York.

“Actually, the dentists in town did give us some money,” said head fund-raiser and band mom Sue Simmons. “All that candy might explain that.”

In April, the band received notice that it was one of 12 bands selected from more than 400 applicants to march among the giant Big Bird, Barney and Garfield balloons.

“It’s the first major national parade they’ve been invited to,” said band director Benny Davis. “It’s our biggest undertaking yet.”

Few could have predicted the honor even a few years ago. A decade ago, the Waxahachie band was only 48 students strong, tiny by Class 4A standards. But since then, their numbers have grown – about 220 band members will make the trip to New York – and the accolades have started to come in.

“We’re beginning to gain a reputation of being one of the strongest band programs around in our classification,” Mr. Davis said. “There’s been a great deal of improvement for the last three to five years.”

“There’s a different attitude now,” said senior drum major Jason Hentschel. “Our standards are a lot higher. We’ve got bigger goals than we used to.”

In April, when Mr. Davis received word that the band would be invited to New York, he called a midday band meeting in the school’s auditorium.

“They didn’t know what it was about,” he said. “There were all these rumors: that one of the directors had been fired, or someone was dead or dying, or that they canceled the band program for next year. Some of the kids were crying.”

Then he told them about the Thanksgiving parade, and suddenly kids were crying for a different reason. “They just went berserk,” he said.

Band leaders began to assemble a program for the 2.5-mile march, centered on selections from the musical Les Miserables.

But there was plenty of work to be done away from the practice room. Getting all those students – not to mention parents, alumni and boosters – to New York isn’t cheap. The total price tag for 382 people: $300,000.

Students and parents have been raising money since April. They sold fireworks for the Fourth of July. They sold German food for Oktoberfest. They even arranged a “lube-a-thon”: A local car repair shop sold nearly 1,000 oil changes at $15 a pop, with proceeds going to the band. More than $75,000 has been raised to help pay for the trip.

“I have a full-time job,” said Ms. Simmons, mother to freshman trumpeter Steven and junior trombonist Kyle. “But I spent many a night up until midnight or 1 a.m. counting money. It’s exciting.”

The band leaves Tuesday and will stay through Nov. 25. First on the agenda after they arrive: a drive along the parade route. “We’ve got to march by David Letterman’s theater and Columbus Circle and Times Square, all these places people have heard about on TV. We don’t want them tripping over each other when they’re marching all goo-goo-eyed,” Mr. Davis said.

Then on Thanksgiving, the months of anticipation and fund raising should finally pay off.

“Waxahachie is a small town, but our name is going to be on national TV,” said freshman clarinetist Jennifer Hallabough. “We’re gonna be bounced off the satellites all over the world. It’s gonna show that it doesn’t matter where you come from, you can do great things with hard work.”

Teachers rally for insurance; Coalition is seeking state-funded program

By Terrence Stutz and Joshua Benton
Staff Writers

Page 17A

A coalition of teacher groups and leading education associations – backed by several legislators – announced Monday they will push for a state-funded health insurance program for teachers and other school employees next year.

The effort comes as the cost of health insurance for teachers continues to soar across the state, creating financial strains for local school districts and pinching the pocketbooks of thousands of teachers.

Many teachers say the raises they received from the Legislature last year were swallowed up by increased health coverage premiums.

“If there was ever a time for the Texas Legislature to address this issue, now is the time,” said Robby Collins, a former Dallas school official and chairman of the Better Texas Coalition.

“Texas has a budget surplus this year, we face a critical shortage of teachers during the next decade, and a recent stopgap effort by the Teacher Retirement System for retired school employees will run short of funds by September 2001,” he said, calling the situation a “grave crisis” for school districts and the state.

Rep. Harryette Ehrhardt, D-Dallas, filed legislation Monday – the first day to pre-file bills for the 2001 legislative session – that would establish a state-funded health insurance program for all public school employees. By negotiating with insurers as a group, proponents say, a state agency could get better insurance rates than any individual district could.

“There is unanimous agreement across this state that we have a problem,” Ms. Ehrhardt said. “Our over 1,000 school districts have a patchwork of health insurance plans. Often they require employees to pay most, if not all of the premiums – sometimes as much as $1,400 a month.”

Forty school districts have no health insurance program at all.

The Dallas school district faced angry teachers earlier this month after they discovered that their health insurance premiums rose suddenly and with little notice after an administrator’s error. The district eventually renegotiated the contract and agreed to pick up more of the tab.

Ms. Ehrhardt said the state’s situation is forcing many teachers out of the profession and steering prospective teachers to other jobs.

Her bill would give public school employees the same health insurance benefits as employees of state government and public universities. Retirees, who are now covered under a statewide plan but must pay roughly half the cost, also would be covered under Ms. Ehrhardt’s bill.

The Dallas lawmaker was unable to estimate the cost for her bill. But some supporters of the program said it would cost the state as much as $4 billion in the next two years. Currently, school districts that provide health insurance are paying $1 billion to $1.4 billion a year in premiums.

With an estimated surplus of nearly $4 billion in the next two-year state budget, the health insurance plan would consume the lion’s share of the surplus if lawmakers were to adopt it. The proposal will compete with requests from several state agencies for a portion of the surplus funds.

School officials held news conferences in more than 10 cities across the state Monday, including Dallas and Fort Worth, to drive home their intention to make this the top issue of the legislative session. They said that dealing with rising health costs distracts from their primary task of educating children.

“Twenty-seven years ago, when I became a math teacher, I didn’t expect to spend a majority of my time dealing with health insurance,” Castleberry ISD Superintendent Gary Jones said at the Fort Worth rally.

As officials in Austin have imposed more statewide standards on local schools – including a stricter testing regime and accountability standards – some educators said the state should be willing to take up some of the financial burden. One sign held up at the Fort Worth rally read: “Texas expects the best – school employees expect the same.”

“When it’s something they want, like testing, it’s all top-down,” said Joy Murray, a fourth-grade teacher at Clarke Elementary in Fort Worth. “But when it’s something to our benefit, it’s ‘local control.'”

Dr. Ray Freeman, superintendent of the tiny Itasca school district in Hill County, called health insurance for teachers “the Number 1 issue facing Texas this year.” Earlier this year, the district’s insurance company announced it was ending its contract with the district.

Dr. Freeman, who is also a past president of the Texas Association of Rural Schools, said the district has been hunting for a replacement, but high prices have made the process difficult. Many insurers aren’t interested in small districts like Itasca, which has only about 50 teachers. One insurer quoted a rate of more than $450 a month per individual employee, double the cost the district had been paying. To insure an employee’s family, the cost would rise to more than $1,200 a month, almost triple the previous rate.

“It’s a matter of defining priorities,” said Fort Worth Superintendent Thomas Tocco. He said Fort Worth spends about $16.5 million a year on employee health insurance, a sum that “could go a long way toward taking care of our technology needs.”

Ms. Ehrhardt filed similar legislation in the 1999 session, but it failed as three of the four state teacher organizations put their emphasis on a pay raise for their members rather than health insurance.

This time, the four teacher groups are backing the health insurance bill. They include the Texas State Teachers Association, Texas Federation of Teachers, Association of Texas Professional Educators and Texas Classroom Teachers Association.

“State-paid health insurance is our Number 1 legislative priority this year,” Texas Federation of Teachers president John Cole said at the Capitol.

Other members of the coalition include associations representing principals, urban school districts – including Dallas – rural schools and retired teachers.

Mr. Collins said business and medical groups will join the lobbying effort.

Several lawmakers were present at the press conference, including Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, D-Austin, who said the state cannot afford to ignore the health insurance problem any longer.

Recount switches winner of Wilmer-Hutchins rematch; Precinct reporting error may put race back in court

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 37A

Al Gore and George W. Bush aren’t the only ones whose political futures hinge on a recount.

A mistaken tally from one precinct has apparently taken a seat on the Wilmer-Hutchins Independent School District board away from Brenda Duff and given it to her rival, Luther Edwards III.

The switch marks the second time in a year that controversy has marred a contest for the board seat, and it’s likely the matter will end up being decided by the courts.

“I’m not sure what in the world is going on,” said Barry Finkel, attorney for Ms. Duff. “It just seems almost unbelievable.”

“It was divine intervention,” Mr. Edwards said. “I knew the Lord would protect me.”

The ballot controversy dates to May, when Ms. Duff, a former school board member trying to regain her seat, ran for the first time against Mr. Edwards, the incumbent. Ms. Duff won by only three votes. But Mr. Edwards challenged the results in district court. On Sept. 1, a visiting judge found that six votes had been illegally cast by nonresidents and ordered a new election.

Because of the dispute over the previous balloting, Dallas County election officials decided to hand-count the ballots cast in Tuesday’s rematch. Counting was done at two area election sites, one in DeSoto and one in Lancaster, and results were phoned in to the Dallas County Elections Department on Stemmons Freeway.

Those phoned-in totals again gave Ms. Duff a victory, 1,377 to 1,297, after counting concluded early Wednesday.

But later in the day, the ballots were taken downtown and recounted. County elections administrator Bruce Sherbet said that is standard procedure for any hand-counted ballots.

Officials discovered that totals from precinct 3700 – an area southwest of the Interstate 45/Interstate 635 interchange – had been misreported by phone. The precinct had been recorded as casting only 13 votes for Mr. Edwards.

In fact, Mr. Edwards won 134 votes in the precinct, officials said. The switch moved Mr. Edwards from an 80-vote loser to a 41-vote winner, Mr. Sherbet said.

“A human being on one end of the phone conversation either wrote down the wrong information or gave the wrong information,” he said.

But even with Mr. Edwards now declared the winner, the battle for the seat is not over. Mr. Finkel said Ms. Duff will request a recount. Should it still indicate that Mr. Edwards is the winner, Mr. Finkel said that he would have “no choice” but to file a petition asking the district court to set aside the election for a second time.

“We will launch an investigation to find out whether these people really voted, because for all I know, they stuffed the ballot box,” Mr. Finkel said. “We’ll probably have to go door-to-door.”

This sort of controversy is not unusual for Wilmer-Hutchins. In 1996, the Texas Education Agency took over the district for two years to help reverse poor student performance and mismanagement by former district officials. In April, former Superintendent Stanton Lawrence was terminated by the board amid allegations of sexual harassment, which he denied.

Elections for school board posts in Wilmer-Hutchins have often been marked by legal challenges on all sides.

“I’ve never held an election in the last three, four years without being barraged by complaints of people doing improper things,” Mr. Sherbet said. “I would really not mind not holding elections for them again.”

Classrooms resonate with presidential civics lesson; Students take note of voters’ power

By Mike Jackson and Joshua Benton
Staff Writers

Page 29A

George W. Bush and Al Gore fared no differently at Peabody Elementary School than in the nation at large.

The presidential candidates were so close in Tuesday’s mock election at the West Oak Cliff school that students demanded three recounts.

“It surprised me this morning,” Peabody principal Manuel Ontiveros said. “It was almost an exact simulation. Our kids reflect what the country is thinking about.”

Teachers across the Dallas-Fort Worth area used this year’s presidential election as a lesson in American politics. On Wednesday, many had a historic close finish and a cliffhanger recount in Florida to extend the classroom exercise.

“I’m just going nuts,” said Dianne Gibson, who teaches at L.D. Bell High School in Hurst. “Is this not the best thing in the world for a government teacher?”

The mock election at Peabody was organized by students in Renee Hardy’s talented and gifted classes. Votes were cast by 502 students in Ms. Hardy’s classroom, where registration cards and polling booths were set up.

The school voting age was set at about 7: Pre-kindergarten and kindergarten students were deemed too young to participate. Among the rest of the school’s students: “We had 100-percent participation,” Ms. Hardy said.

Some of Ms. Hardy’s students served as board members who carefully monitored the tabulation. Ana Mendez, 11, was among them. She said one of her classmates appeared to count some of Mr. Bush’s votes twice.

“We were done counting and he got more,” Ana said.”And I don’t know where he got them from. We had to count over.”

The first count indeed appeared to be in error. After three recounts – just to be sure – Mr. Bush was deemed barely victorious, 257 votes to 245.

The similarly close national result had to have government teachers everywhere smiling Wednesday.

Mrs. Gibson said the momentous twists and turns had her students’ attention.

“They’re asking questions, talking about the news they’ve heard,” she said. “They know the significance of Florida. They know Jeb Bush is the governor there, and one asked, ‘Doesn’t his brother have any strings he can pull?'”

For some students, the tight race has driven home the point government teachers have been harping on all semester: Voting matters.

“I think it’s got a lot of people to really see how important an election is,” said Tim Gingrich, a senior in Mrs. Gibson’s class. “You can’t say anymore, ‘My vote doesn’t count.’ I think it really will make a lot of people feel their vote is important and needed.”

“It’s incredibly exciting,” said Xander Snyder, another senior in the class. “One state could swing the whole thing. And one vote in that state could do it.”

In the Plano Senior High School classroom of Dodie Kasper, students were glued to CNN all day. “They’ve been talking about it since the minute they walked in,” Ms. Kasper said.

Her classes learned about the Electoral College last week, but this year’s race drove home the potential vagaries of the system. “Several kids said, ‘I fell asleep in front of the TV and someone was winning. Then I woke up and someone else was winning.’ You couldn’t have a better time to be a government teacher.”

She said the “incredible” increase in student interest for this election could mean that today’s high school students might be more willing to vote once they reach age 18.

Turnout among young people has been dropping ever since 18- to 21-year-olds got the vote in 1971. Curtis Gans, director of the Committee for the Study of the American Electorate, predicted last month that this year’s election would have the lowest voter turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds ever recorded. Official youth turnout numbers won’t be known for weeks, but Mr. Gans said Wednesday that he stands by his prediction.

According to exit poll data, those age 18 to 29 made up 17 percent of those voting in Tuesday’s election. That age group makes up 22 percent of the total voting-age population, indicating that young voters again lagged behind their older peers in turnout.

Mr. Gans said he doesn’t believe that even a close race like this year’s would measurably improve youth turnout for future races. “There was no real sense of idealism in this election,” he said.

But if the energy in government classes Wednesday was any indication, a few new political junkies could be in the making.

“I’m telling them: This is their history,” Mrs. Gibson said. “It’s no longer mine or their grandparents. This is their history, and I think maybe that makes it real for them. They realize that government is not just something you have to study to get a credit for graduation.”

Children’s primer: UNT Web site features reviews of books for youths

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 24A

Having trouble telling Isaac the Ice Cream Truck from Dear Dr. Sillybear? Can’t distinguish Minnie and Moo Go Dancing from You Forgot Your Skirt, Amelia Bloomer?

A newly unveiled Web site from the University of North Texas can make finding answers easier.

The site, www.school-library.org, catalogs thousands of reviews of recently released children’s books.

“It’s fun, and hopefully a service to parents and children,” said Dr. Barbara Stein, a professor in the School of Library and Information Sciences.

The site grew out of a graduate school class on children’s literature. One of the class requirements is that students review several new books. The site puts those reviews, edited by professors, into a searchable public database.

“Most of the students who are writing reviews are already practicing teachers who are already working in libraries, people who have been working with children for quite a number of years,” Dr. Stein said.

Each review includes information on what ages the book is aimed at, a description of the plot, the book’s price and a rating on a five-flower scale. Only books with at least a three-flower rating get posted. The site’s users are also allowed to leave comments.

According to the site, You Forgot Your Skirt, Amelia Bloomer and Isaac the Ice Cream Truck are worth recommending without reservation. Dear Dr. Sillybear, however, might have too much complex wordplay for its intended 5- to 7-year-old audience.

And the tale of cannibalism among cows that is at the center of Minnie and Moo Go Dancing might be too disturbing for kindergartners, the reviewer warns.

Reviewers are quick to point out any flaws they find. Cynthia Rylant’s Tulip Sees America, while given a generally positive review, is criticized for too many sentence fragments and “a seemingly unnecessary episode of taking off one’s clothes in the Nevada desert.”

And when a younger reader might need to be warned away from a book, the site says so. The review of Froggie Went A-Courting, by Marjorie Priceman, comes with this advisory: “One character is eaten by a cat and no one cares. She was the only animal who opposed the mixed marriage between Froggie and Miss Mouse, so getting eaten was her punishment. This might upset some younger children who don’t see the irony and the humor.”

Because it focuses only on books released in the last few years, the database isn’t complete. Even the most-popular children’s books in recent history, the Harry Potter series, are underrepresented; only the first of the four books is reviewed.

Children’s book publishers send UNT dozens of books monthly, many of which are reviewed on the site.

Dr. Stein said she plans numerous additions to the site, including a section aimed at parents looking for books on specific topics, such as the death of a family member.

“We’re always developing it,” she said, “always trying to make it better.”

Polished acts: D-FW bands dazzle judges at state finals

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 1A

WACO — Christopher Franks had to wipe away the start of a tear when he thought about it.

“To a lot of us, this may be the most meaningful thing we’ve ever done,” said the 17-year-old drum major for the L.D. Bell High School marching band. “It’s all your work for years and all your emotions compressed into eight minutes.”

On Monday, 52 schools from around the state sent their musical best to Waco, where, in eight-minute performances, they put all their hard work on the line. For the musically inclined, the 2000 State Marching Band Contest was like the Super Bowl, World Series and the Rate-a-Record segment of American Bandstand all rolled into one.

The final round of the competition was Monday night. Of the nine Dallas-area schools competing in the Class 5A division, four – Richardson Berkner, Duncanville, The Colony and Hurst Bell – made it past Monday morning’s preliminary round.

All of the area 3A schools competing – Aledo, Canton and Castleberry – made the cut. Canton placed second, Castleberry third and Aledo sixth. Of the 15 bands still standing Monday night, seven were from the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

The 3A and 5A schools compete in even-numbered years, with 1A, 2A and 4A taking odd-numbered years.

In the 5A division, L.D. Bell from the Hurst-Euless-Bedford district placed first, Duncanville second, The Colony fifth and Berkner seventh.

Although some schools known for their band programs are regulars at state, the presence of Carrollton’s Newman Smith High School was something of a surprise.

When the Carrollton-Farmers Branch school district opened Creekview High School in 1998, the school absorbed some of Newman Smith’s students. That change left Newman Smith’s student population temporarily unbalanced, with 374 seniors and 739 freshmen.

As a result, the Newman Smith marching band was the smallest competing in 5A Monday and possibly the youngest. Of the 100 students who marched, 12 were seniors, with more than 70 freshmen and sophomores.

“It’s the little band that could,” said Cindy Jackson, proud band mom to freshman trumpeter Allie.

Terry Kay, mother of senior drum major Whitney and freshman mellophonist Trevor, was more than a little bit nervous.

“Honey, I’ve been shaking all the way here,” she said before the band performed. “I’m a wreck.” Several parents reported being unable to eat breakfast.

The moms expressed their worries: Would the band, used to artificial-turf fields, perform well on the grass of Baylor’s Floyd Casey Stadium? Would the stadium’s acoustics amplify the small band’s sound?

Would the children be as nervous as the parents?

Fifteen-year-old Newman Smith band member Zasil Oriedo said she copes with her nerves by pulling her marching band hat as far down as it can go, just over her eyes. “That blocks out the audience,” she said.

Shortly before 9 a.m., band members rolled their xylophone, kettledrums, marimba and gong onto the field. The band itself soon followed, to screams of “That’s my baby!” from the Newman Smith cheering section.

The eight-minute performance featured some spirited playing and intricate marches. But in the end, the damp turf took its toll. Two musicians fell at inopportune times, and a few flags dropped midtwirl. The miscues kept Newman Smith from making the finals.

Few seemed too upset. “We didn’t have any pretense we were probably going to be finalists,” band director Bill Centera said.

“The kids were super. I never dreamed we’d get this far. The goal was to build a foundation for the future, not necessarily to do this well now.”

He said band members would watch bigger, more-experienced bands to see where they need to aim.

An hour after Newman Smith’s performance, it was time for Duncanville High School to take the field. If Newman Smith’s is a Cinderella story, Duncanville’s is a tale of raw, brute force. At 385 members, Duncanville was by far the largest band at state; only two others, including Coppell High School, passed 300. Duncanville also has a tradition of success matched by few.

It has been a finals regular since the state competition began in 1979, including state titles in 1986 and 1990 and third- and second-place finishes in the last two contests.

When the band and Duncanville’s drill team and flag corps unfolded on the stadium field, their members spanned from one 10-yard line to the other. A few moments into the first piece, “Fourth of July” by Morton Gould, the band’s horns let out a great bellowing roar, as if to announce Duncanville’s arrival.

The exacting performance is the result of years of drilling and practice under the intense leadership of Dr. Tom Shine, Duncanville band director for two decades.

“He keeps them so disciplined that they don’t want to let him down and give a bad performance,” said Louise Pegues, mother of Duncanville flutist Kristle. “The program speaks for itself.”

Kristle has landed a band scholarship to the University of Oklahoma, which Ms. Pegues attributes to the renowned strength of the Duncanville program.

“These kids have worked for hours and hours, every week,” Dr. Shine said after his band’s performance. “I think people are surprised that we play as well together, technically, as we do.”

Growing constituency: Children pick up the voting habit in mock elections for Bush, Gore

By Joshua Benton
Staff Writer

Page 31A

It’s a campaign slogan that could win the stomachs of millions: “Vote for me – get free ice cream.”

What high-priced campaign adviser has put forth an idea as heartfelt or as true as the one proposed by Adam Gravitt, a fifth-grader at Northwood Hills Elementary?

Adam’s plan is just one of the many ideas being tossed around to get young people to the polls on Election Day. With voter turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds plummeting – only 12.1 percent voted in the 1998 elections – people are willing to try almost anything to reverse the trend.

For many North Texas schools, part of the answer involves bringing the political process into the classroom through mock elections. The idea is that children who become accustomed to casting a ballot in school will carry the habit into adulthood. Efforts range from the traditional (paper ballots stuffed into a shoebox) to the cutting edge (Internet elections with millions of voters and the latest in encryption technology).

At Northwood Hills, in the Richardson school district, students are casting ballots via their school Web site. On Wednesday, Texas Secretary of State Elton Bomer stopped by to offer encouragement.

“Without people voting, the system doesn’t work so good,” Mr. Bomer told an assembly in the school’s cafeteria. “When you are all 18 years old, are all of you going to vote?”

“Yes!” came the resounding reply.

But the children aren’t Mr. Bomer’s only target.

“I hope you all go home and talk to your parents about why it’s important they go vote on Tuesday,” he said. “Why is it important your parents vote?”

“So they can complain about the government!” responded fourth-grader Silvano Alvarez, to a chorus of giggles.

After the superintendent’s speech, several fifth- and sixth-graders cast ballots in the presidential race, with Gov. George W. Bush jumping out to a quick 5-2 lead. They also offered suggestions on how to end voter apathy.

Charles Shorter wants to build libraries and gyms open only to people who voted in the last election. Milly Arcovedo sees a cartoon based on the adventures of Voterooni, the Election Hero. Amy Stroth suggests having the presidential debates televised “on the popular channels” such as MTV, not just on the major networks. Aside from his ice-cream pledge, Adam Gravitt proposes a line of presidential dolls that say “Vote!” when squeezed.

Northwood Hills is far from the only school featuring a mock election this year. Since 1992, the secretary of state’s office has sponsored Project VOTE, an election-based curriculum now used in 101 school districts across Texas, including Dallas, Plano, Arlington, Duncanville, Garland and Grand Prairie. This year, results from mock elections held at the schools will be sent to Austin and released moments after the real polls close Tuesday.

In Irving, middle school students created an online database to handle and tally mock votes. More than 22,000 of the district’s 29,000 students have registered for the mock election, according to Margaret Watrous, the district’s coordinator of instructional technology.

Nationally, several large mock election groups, including the flagship National Student/Parent Mock Election, have joined forces behind an online initiative called Youth-e-Vote, which allows schoolchildren to vote online for president and other races. As of Wednesday, more than 1.1 million votes had been cast online. Youth-e-Vote will announce the results of this year’s presidential race Thursday on its Web site, www.youthevote.net.