Archive for March, 2012

Update: The Inquisition on Ross Avenue

Posted in Theater of the Absurd on March 30, 2012 by onlookerslowdown

This is a quick update on Onlooker Slowdown’s earlier post about DISD teacher Elliott Monteverde-Torres, who was put on leave for accusations of unspecified misconduct after mailing a 12-page letter to the Texas Education Agency and DISD Interim Superintendent Alan King.

According to the Dallas Observer, Monteverde-Torres had received word that he would not be returning to the district in 2012-2013. He has been a probationary contract employee since his 2007 hire, which means that the district does not have to have cause to deny his renewal. Most districts, though, only use probationary contracts during an employee’s first year. After that, the contracts are called “term” contracts, and districts have to go through a lengthy series of steps to fire a teacher.

It would be worth knowing why Mr. Monteverde-Torres was kept for so long on a series of probationary contracts. If a teacher is not performing well on a probationary contract, a district will generally simply non-renew. Was DISD just keeping its requirements for due process at a minimum? Or making it easier to get rid of employees for financial purposes?

As we know more, so will you.


Property Tax Refunds, Anyone?

Posted in Theater of the Absurd on March 29, 2012 by onlookerslowdown

If you live in Dallas, it seems like these people are the ones spending your property taxes.

If I lived in the boundaries of the Dallas Independent School District, I would start looking into ways to get my property taxes refunded to me — at least the part that goes to fund the local school district. It’s not like the low performance of the school district is anything new, but now the district has apparently turned into a place where teachers are punished for making their schools a better place.
It wasn’t enough that Joseph Drake got briefly suspended for allegations of “misconduct” after emailing a district trustee about some comments that trustee made about the length of the teacher workday. The trustee implied that teachers were not giving their schools a full work day, and Mr. Drake took exception in an email. The next day, he found himself suspended. A few days later, the community and union pressure got Mr. Drake back into his classroom.

(Special note: if a teachers’ union can sway district decision making in TEXAS, you know that the union had a case more ironclad than the Monitor and the Merrimac)

Now, DISD has suspended another teacher: this time, it is Elliot Monteverde-Torres, a teacher at Botello Elementary School in Oak Cliff. He sent Superintendent Alan King and the TEA a 12-page letter detailing a list of allegations against his principal, Angel McKoy. According to the list, the principal overlooked students bringing (and sharing) prescription drugs, and a student who brought a BB gun to school and shot another student. Because nothing happened, the student brought the BB gun again another day. Other allegations include the misuse of federal funds (which is not a new allegation in Dallas).

The state has ordered the district to investigate Mr. Monteverde-Torres’ claims. According to a letter from the TEA, the teacher’s letter raises “serious questions regarding the school administration at Botello Elementary.”

This might seem obvious to you and me, but this is the same TEA that refuses to investigate claims of testing score irregularities at districts throughout the state, including 17 districts in North Texas alone. The agency recommends that districts investigate these issues, but does not mandate any scrutiny.

Because it’s testing season, here’s a question for you:

Upon receiving a letter from a teacher about alleged misconduct by a principal, DISD administration first:

A) announced an investigation of the principal and the campus

B) placed the principal on paid leave pending the results of the investigation
C) revisited the issue of the student with a BB gun and prepared a press release
D) suspended the teacher who filed the complaint and accused him of unspecified “misconduct”

Yes, the answer is D.

Joseph Drake was lucky enough to be a member of the American Federation of Teachers. If Mr. Monteverde-Torres is not, it’s up to those of us who believe in the open sharing of information as a way of improving organizational culture to stand up for him. Superintendent King’s office number is (972) 925-3700. The Human Resources department number is (972) 925-4200.

If it turns out that Mr. Monteverde-Torres was sending in fraudulent allegations, then he should be fired. Not suspended, but let go. De-certified. Banished from the profession. However, if what he says turns out to be true, then the same thing should happen to his principal.

And to everyone who signed off on his suspension. The district should take the time to figure out what happened before threatening anyone’s livelihood.

Darkness in West Texas

Posted in Book Reviews on March 26, 2012 by onlookerslowdown

No Country for Old MenNo Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t usually read books after I’ve seen the movie — one of two things will happen. The depth of the book will cheapen the movie, or the movie will make the book sound like a screenplay. I saw Jane Austen’s “Persuasion” (an underrated period piece) before I read the book, and I felt like I was reading what I had seen at the movies, so I just stopped. I read Stephen King’s “It” after I’d seen the movie, and the book’s rich description made the movie seem like a Nerf football trying to sneak in for use in an NFL game — it just didn’t stand up.

With “No Country for Old Men,” I’ve probably seen the movie 20 times — or at least parts of it. It comes on cable a lot, and I really enjoyed it in the theater. The ambiguous ending, which really irritated my stepfather, who wanted some closure to the store of Anton Chigurh, fits the moral ambiguity which seems to have taken over the “country” in question.

The movie is really the story of Anton Chigurh, but the book is the story of Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, whose grandfather was a sheriff before him, and who carries the ghosts of a Bronze Star that he received in World War II without really having deserved it — at least in his own opinion. He returned from the war determined to be the sort of sheriff that takes care of everyone in his county — in his words, he feels he should be the “first one to die” if violence breaks out. Because he failed his combat group, he never wants to fail again. He has committed to a life of integrity.

Into his county spills the chaos of a drug war — in a valley, Llewellyn Moss happens upon a scene of mass slaughter — a truck with brown heroin in the back, several other trucks with people in them who have been shot. Llewellyn finds one man still alive who just asks him for water. Because he has no water, Llewellyn leaves, looking for the man who escaped. He finds him some distance away, having died of his own wounds — with an oxbox next to him with over $1 million inside. Llewelyn grabs the money and runs.

That night, Llewellyn feels guilty for leaving the man behind to dehydrate, so he takes a jug of water and drives back out there, despite his wife’s protests. He realizes that what he’s doing is foolish, but his guilt drives him.

Of course, people are looking for the missing money; when he goes down to give water to the man (who has since died), he looks up to see others around his truck, and he realizes that his life has become one of unending flight. Anton Chigurh, a mysterious “freelancer” in the world of assassinations and recovery of large sums of money, uses the information on the truck to find where Llewellyn lives and then breaks in to read Llewellyn’s phone bill, to guess his destination. There are two choices — Del Rio and Odessa, and Chigurh chooses Del Rio. This choice mirrors the coin that Chigurh carries with him, to allow his potential victims to, possibly, avoid their fates. Because Chigurh chose correctly (and because the money case has a transponder in it), he is able to track down Llewellyn.

Sheriff Bell sees the violence that is headed for Llewellyn and tries to reach him, through his wife, Carla Jean. However, the ruthlessness of Chigurh and the Acosta gang, both of whom are outraged at the theft of their drugs and their money, are more than a match for Llewellyn’s determination. While the movie follows the strangely amoral advance of the assassin, the novel follows the sheriff’s growing frustration with the fact that he can no longer protect the people in his county, with the notion that right and wrong have been muddied beyond recognition for too many in the world. The notion behind the title is the idea that old men look scared and helpless in modern times, because the ethical compass with which they navigated the world has lost the source of its magnetic attraction. Sheriff Bell ascribes it to the disappearance of “Sir” and “Ma’am” from the speech of the young, but that again is just a symptom of something larger, of an individualism that no longer heeds ethics in its pursuit of what it wants.

The story unfolds with the same unyielding intensity that the Coen Brothers used to render it in their film version, although it is interspersed with more ruminations from Sheriff Bell, and a lot of the questions that go unanswered in the movie are resolved in the book. The most important one, though, which concerns the future of a society with no ethical foundation, remains open, because we do not yet know where this will take us.

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Gregg Williams and Pete Rose

Posted in Theater of the Absurd on March 21, 2012 by onlookerslowdown

In an earlier post, Onlooker Slowdown reported on the case of Gregg Williams, currently the St. Louis Rams’ defensive coordinator but also an alleged creator of a bounty system with the New Orleans Saints, and possibly with other teams as well, that rewarded defensive players at different financial levels, going as high as $1500, for hits that injured opponents (with bonuses if the medical personnel had to take the player off with a cart).

As has been widely reported, the NFL has come down with extremely firm penalties for the personnel involved. Williams has been banned for at least a year but is currently under indefinite suspension. Saints head coach Sean Payton has also been suspended for the entire 2012 season, because he was told about the program, was told to stop it, and did not. General manager Mickey Loomis has been suspended for a half-season. The team has been fined $500,000 and has lost draft choices in 2012 and 2013.

There is some ambiguity about the appeals process. Commissioner Goodell believes that he will be the one to whom appeals go, even though he handed down the punishment, based on the new conduct policy. There is a loophole that may push the appeals to a special master.

As long as Pete Rose is kept far away from baseball, Gregg Williams should not get back on a football field. It was wrong for Pete Rose to gamble on his team’s games. It did affect the integrity of the games.

However, Rose never ordered any of his players to injure opponents. Football is an aggressive sport. Malicious injuries, though, should never be part of this aggression. This malice affects the integrity of the games, and the disregard that Coach Williams showed for his opponents shows such poor character that he should find another profession. Immediately.

Is One of Your Neighbors a Terrorist?

Posted in Book Reviews on March 17, 2012 by onlookerslowdown

The Impossible DeadThe Impossible Dead by Ian Rankin

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The police thriller has many fine practitioners that have filled bookshelves with compelling stories — Ed McBain’s richly noir world in Isola, and the Los Angeles of Harry Bosch that Michael Connelly has created are two fictitious realities that stay with the reader long after putting the book down.

In any conversation about great police thrillers, you have to include Ian Rankin, whose “The Impossible Dead” is a sequel to “The Complaints.” His main character, Malcolm Fox, continues a tradition of Rankin detectives that internalize the mayhem that they experience, both in their personal and professional lives, and exude a quiet anger at the injustices in the reality around them. While Rankin’s first major character, John Rebus, would likely take a bat to anyone in the Complaints Division, the teetotaling Fox is Rebus after rehab, in a number of ways.

“The Impossible Dead” involves Malcolm Fox’s Complaints Division (the Scottish equivalent to what police departments here call “Internal Affairs” is looking into a coverup of a sexual harassment complaint against Paul Carter. Naturally, his colleagues have all dummied up. When Paul Carter’s uncle Alan, who turned in his nephew and caused the investigation in the first place, turns up dead, and his nephew was the last person to see him alive, the wheels start turning faster and faster.

The further Fox digs into this haggis of intrigue, Fox finds so much to deal with, in addition to turning up mysterious nationalist terrorists from the 1960’s, that what is a thematically rich novel founders a bit on plot. The musings in the story about the pride that backed the Scottish nationalists in their rage against the British government; the sadness that comes with caring for one’s parents, after they can’t take care of themselves; the difficulties of dealing with siblings that resent your success and their own failings; all of these weave richly through the story.

However, it would have just taken a swift trip through Google Images for any intrepid reporter to keep some of these shadowy figures from the terrorist past in Scotland from inhabiting their current lives (I won’t say more, because it’s central to the plot). Just know that the twists and turns in the narrative, which Rankin generally has conducted so masterfully, seem a bit contrived at the end. A compelling read, but one which leaves you shaking your head at the end.

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Hail to the Comedian-in-Chief: Dithering about Oil

Posted in Theater of the Absurd on March 16, 2012 by onlookerslowdown

As most of us know, it’s easier to make jokes about problems than it is to solve them. It’s a lot easier to make jokes about your rivals’ ideas about problems than it is to solve them, too. So yesterday, when President Obama got behind a podium at Prince George’s Community College in Maryland to discuss energy, I was curious to see what he would have to say. The text is here, and the all-important talking point is here:

Apparently, there is no quick fix that will bring down gas prices immediately. There was a lot of talk about biofuels, alternative sources, and conservation. If this sounds familiar to you, and you’re old enough to remember the gas crisis in the late 1970’s, when there were shortages at many gas stations, and President Carter put on Mr. Rogers’ cardigan sweater and asked us all to turn down the thermostat, then you know that We the People have a hard time with conservation.

Back in the 1970’s, though, the Chinese and Indian economies weren’t booming, thirsty for oil themselves. So, demand for oil is going to shoot up globally. And we’re not the only ones who have a hard time switching from gas guzzlers to alternative-energy vehicles: even the Chinese are having a difficult time convincing consumers to purchase electric cars.

But guess who is pushing electric cars in China? The electric utilities — in addition to the government. Why don’t TXU or Reliant Energy jump on this issue and start putting in those special outlets everywhere? Wouldn’t their profits just go up? Why doesn’t Green Mountain Energy start running some ads with Nissan Leafs plugged into outlets next to a wind turbine? Why isn’t President Obama pushing the utilities to market this?

We need to start considering electric vehicles seriously — and we need to start today, not “someday.”

Two more questions — while it’s great that we finally stopped subsidizing corn ethanol, why is there still a tariff on sugarcane ethanol from Brazil will burn more cleanly and more efficiently? The Brazilians import our corn ethanol without a tariff, and we should do the same. I didn’t hear anything about that from President Obama, who was busy making jokes about Newt Gingrich and President Hayes to tell us what he’s actually doing.

And finally, if unrest in the Middle East is really causing prices to spike, who’s setting the prices? Speculators — and according to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who has sponsored the End Excessive Oil Speculation Now Act. This law doesn’t actually create any new regulations (which may be why President Obama opposes it). Instead, it asks Congress to make the Commodity Futures Trading Commission enforce existing law putting limits on speculative oil positions that match those in place for the past 11 years on the New York Mercantile Exchange and force speculators to follow margin requirements of 12 percent on their oil trading speculation — that way, if prices don’t follow the speculators’ projections, the speculators lose money. As Senator Sanders put it: “I can tell you, in every district — whether it’s a red or blue state — members of Congress are getting calls from constituents who are getting sick and tired of being ripped off at the pump,” he says. “They want action. I hope occasionally, maybe we can do something for the people rather than for speculators and Wall Street.”

This didn’t get any attention from President Obama, either.  He did have time to reference the Flat Earth Society, though. At least his speechwriters can use Wikipedia.

Would either step drive down the prices of gas? It’s hard to say what the immediate effects would be. They would have been more effective, though, than making jokes about drilling for oil on the National Mall.

If these questions have made you want to contact your congressional representative, as thousands are already doing about high gas prices, you can find out how to do it by entering your ZIP code into this link.

The Persistence of Memory — or Not

Posted in Book Reviews on March 14, 2012 by onlookerslowdown

Before I Go to SleepBefore I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s funny what we try to do to banish certain memories from our consciousness. One of the reasons that narcotics and alcohol are so compelling to so many is that they bring the promise of forgetfulness, even if just for a short time, of those thoughts that plague us. Once the dissipation passes, though, those memories have returned, a legion of ravens perched atop wisdom, despite all of our best efforts to the contrary.

But what if memory faded each morning, and you could start again? With a clean slate? Yes, this was the premise behind the Adam Sandler movie “30 First Dates,” in which Drew Barrymore woke up every morning with a cleaned-out memory bank.

It’s also the premise behind S.J. Watson’s “Before I Go to Sleep.” Christine Lucas wakes up every morning not knowing where she is, thinking she is in her twenties, next to a strange man. Over the next few minutes, she goes from confusion to terror to acceptance, as each morning she finds a series of photographs in the bathroom that are of her and the man in her bed. She also sees her fifty-year-old skin in the mirror, and on her hands. Once her husband finds her, he explains what has happened.

This happens. Every day.

A neurologist learns about her case and tries to help her, but her husband won’t allow it: she’s been through too many quack labs as it is, and the stress of new treatment might be too much. The neurologist is intrepid enough, though, to wait outside for her to take one of her daily walks, and he ends up meeting with her, helping her recover her memory. After all, her case is so unusual that it would make a great academic paper.

He gives her a journal and encourages her to write things in it before bed each night, and he calls her in the morning to remind her to look in her journal, to catch up on who she is. As time goes by, she learns more and more. Even there are no pictures of this person in her house, she and her husband apparently had a son — Adam. Who died. She had a best friend — Claire. Who moved to New Zealand. At least as far as her husband told her.

And who else can she ask?

To tell you much more about the plot would give away a marvelous series of twists and turns that is as close as you can get to riding a roller coaster without getting out of your chair. The great Dennis Lehane (Mystic River, Shutter Island, Gone Baby Gone) called this book “Memento on crystal meth.” If you’ve seen “Memento,” you might be wondering if that plot could move any faster, or with any more insanity. It can.

The most powerful part to this story is the way in which the author creates an amnesiac narrator. The attention to the details that would be involved in picking up the pieces of your mind (forget about your life — your mind is in shards) each day is what resonated with me. And so when the end comes, the feelings that you and I would feel, as people with normal memories, are multipled by a million. To call this book a pageturner would insult it with cliche — this book yanked my attention, strapped it into a seat, and pushed the button. Only when the ride was over did I even think to look up.

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