June 6, 2012

City Dope

Athens News and Views

Neighbors of this stately oak on Talmadge Drive mobilized to protect it from becoming a casualty of development.

What Neighborhoods Are: Some residents of the part of Normaltown that spreads out behind Athens Regional Medical Center have been concerned of late that infill development in the area, which has picked up due to the conversion of the U.S. Navy Supply Corps School into the University of Georgia Health Sciences Campus, is being undertaken without sufficient regard for the neighborhood's sleepy, spacious character. Those worries came to a head last week as a local developer knocked down a house at 380 Talmadge Dr. to make way for new construction that many feared would also lead to the cutting down of a very large, very old oak tree which they consider a neighborhood landmark.

A petition was circulated to ask Jared York of J.W. York Homes to spare the tree, and signs reading "Jared: Save the Tree" were planted in yards. But the residents' attempts to contact York during the week got no response until Friday afternoon, when the homebuilder emailed a statement to reporters who had contacted him saying he had "no plans which would require the removal of the tree at this time."

That came as a relief to neighbors (though one, Emuel Aldridge, was quick to point out he "would feel more comfortable if we could delete those last three words"). Area residents have grown increasingly frustrated as developers, including York, have subdivided lots to build houses that strike many as out of scale with the neighborhood, sometimes clearing out or fatally damaging mature trees that have been seen as important parts of the neighborhood's identity. This is all allowed by the zoning code, of course, which in many places encourages increased intown density in order to de-incentivize sprawl.

But the rush to pack new housing into Normaltown has many residents wishing for a happy medium. The result in this instance has been a good one from the neighborhood standpoint, assuming it holds up, and whether he changed his mind under pressure or never meant to fell the tree in the first place, York should be commended for living up to his company's commitment to "respect the environment in which we all live and strive to maintain as much tree canopy and green space as possible." But what happens when the developer with a historic tree in his way is not one who brands his work as "green" and "responsible"? With evidence mounting of what it freely allows, perhaps now would be a good time to revisit the zoning before one of Athens' quietly iconic neighborhoods is quickly remade.

Not Helping: With the Athens Banner-Herald not running house editorials anymore, the paper has had to look elsewhere for opinions, to that end turning three times last week to its trusty "What Others Say" op-ed header. That has a bit of a funny ring, of course, when those "others" are the editorial boards of papers also owned by Morris Communications, the ABH's parent company, as was the case with two of those three pieces. One was a hysterical screed from the Savannah Morning News against a tiny federal concession toward union rights (oh, that radical Obama!) that bared the rosy, pampered ass of an impossibly entitled corporation that has managed by its legal maneuverings to keep piling up obscene profits for its sheltered owners despite its continuing demonstration of an absolute inability to operate effectively in the marketplace, yet cries "Stalin!" at shoe clerks who hope to negotiate for retirement plans.

But the other—a bit of folksy wisdom from the Morrises' Augusta Chronicle entitled (in the ABH) "Let's introduce competition to public education"—was much more scary than funny. Its author makes an impassioned if unsupported case for "true school choice," which we must assume means funding private schools with public money—though the article never makes that clear—apparently because the government can't ever do anything right and because public entities whose mission it is to educate children perform better when they have to "compete" with private entities whose mission it is to turn a profit for their investors (but which are nonetheless funded by taxpayer money that would otherwise be going to their "competitors," i.e., the public schools).

Actual presidential candidate Mitt Romney is quoted as saying "school choice" is "the civil rights issue of our time," which is incredibly frightening unless you happen to believe the appellation should be applied to the travails of privileged white people who wish they weren't spending so much on their kids' prep schools. And the editorial's coup de grâce is the fully idiotic assertion that since, according to a Google search, the words "competition makes you better" are often recited by jocks in locker rooms, "academia"—meaning, presumably, those of us who cling to the lofty view that there needs to be a well supported public school system if we want to keep calling ourselves a civilized society—had better take heed.

The preposterousness of the arguments in the Morris editorial can be taken as proof of the bankruptcy of the position they're supposed to support. And the fact that this destructive agenda is being pushed by one of the state's largest media conglomerates in advance of a November "charter schools" referendum that could fling wide the doors of public education in Georgia to corporate profiteers is beyond concerning: it's offensive.

An Unexpected Ally?: That editorial appeared in our daily newspaper during a week when local progressive advocates for public education were already on edge, having dropped the ball on fielding a candidate for the Clarke County School Board seat being vacated by Allison Wright, who is running for the ACC Commission. Many erstwhile activists were jolted from their inertia when the sole, last-minute qualifier for the seat was Carl Parks, one of the members of Mayor Nancy Denson's Economic Development Task Force. Parks is a former aide to the late Republican Senator Paul Coverdell, advisor to the George W. Bush transition team and insurance industry lobbyist whose resumé suggests a deep allegiance to free-market policies. That background, and the recent memory of Parks' enthusiastic defense of Walmart's corporate citizenship in a February Banner-Herald op-ed, led some to speculate that he would walk onto the school board and serve as an internal advocate for exactly the kind of outsourcing of public education to the corporate sector that the charter schools referendum is designed to facilitate.

But asked last week for his position on charter schools and the referendum, Parks was unequivocal in his opposition to handing the power to approve local charters to a state commission, saying by email, "I support local control of education and the principle that government policy is best managed at the closest level possible to the people affected." He also expressed strong admiration for the leadership of CCSD Superintendent Phil Lanoue and praised the achievements of the district's two public charter schools, J.J. Harris Elementary and the Community Career Academy. "I believe we have accomplished much despite budgetary issues and the various significant challenges we face," he wrote, and "I especially appreciate the value of CCSD and our other fine educational institutions and look forward to advocating for them at every opportunity."

Is Carl Parks a conservative Republican? Absolutely. But if these statements are an indication, he is not one of those who would like to see the public education system burned to the ground. And if, as a school board member, he will use his lobbying skills and connections to press for the interests of Clarke County's public schools at the state level, as we should hope he will, then he could become a tremendous asset. Should that turn out to be the case, Athens progressives, asleep at the wheel, will have unwittingly avoided a crash.