In a political city like Austin, it is sometimes easy to forget the magnitude of the responsibility that our elected public servants take on. This is especially true of our judges, who usual rise to office on quiet campaigns and only make headlines when truly heinous crimes or otherwise noteworthy cases land on their dockets.
Our district judges preside over and help sort out the most troubled parts of humanity: the criminal, mentally ill, distraught, wounded and fearful. The decisions they make and the judgments they hand down affect the course of the lives for all who appear in their courts: the victims, the innocent, the guilty and witnesses.
It’s a heavy burden — and as events this weekend prove, it can also be a dangerous one. I was as stunned as everyone else to wake up on Saturday morning and read about what appears to be an assassination attempt on the life of State District Judge Julie Kocurek in her own driveway.
Kocurek, whose court handles felony cases such as murder, sexual assault and major drug crimes, was injured Friday night when a shooter fired into Kocurek’s car at the gate of her West Austin home, officials said. Kocurek had been returning with her family from a high school football game.
Investigators are questioning a person of interest in Houston, who has been charged separately with an unrelated shooting death and was had a pending criminal matter in Kocurek’s court.
Our thoughts are with Kocurek and her family as she recovers from her injuries — and they are also with the county’s legal community, which is understandably shaken.
Without judges, our judicial system falls apart. Judges need to be able to do their jobs without looking over their shoulders in the courthouse and at home.
— Tara Trower Doolittle
Investing in Austin students
Formerly the Austin Public Education Foundation, the Austin Ed Fund again is establishing itself as a key player in helping educate the school district’s 84,000 students in a way that keeps the money in Austin classrooms. Yes, district taxpayers are paying for schools through their property taxes. But as many know by now, the Austin district does not get to keep all that its taxpayers generate.
This school year for example, the school district will surrender to the state $273 million in local money to help balance inequities between property-rich and property-poor districts across Texas. That is roughly 30 cents on every tax dollar collected in property taxes. If that money was channeled into teacher salaries, it would amount to $45,000 more annually per teacher. Clearly, it’s a big bite out of district schools.
It’s unfortunate that the state has shirked its duty to finance public schools equitably and relies so heavily on local property taxes to take care of Texas’ more than 5 million public schoolchildren. That system creates a deficit in a district such as Austin’s, which the state classifies as rich, but whose students by a big majority – 60 percent – are from low-income families.
The Ed Fund is working to fill that gap. As a nonprofit, it is not subject to state regulations regarding school finance. So what is raised in Austin stays in Austin. And already we’re seeing some results from the rebounding fund.
We learned at a recent event, which served as both a fundraiser for the Ed Fund and a backdrop for Austin Superintendent Paul Cruz’s state of the district address, that the fund awarded nearly $50,000 for innovative classroom projects that enrich instruction in science, technology, reading and ecology, as well as skills in leadership and resolving conflicts or problems constructively.
The fund’s board has a mix of old and new that provides stability and fresh energy. It retains founding board member Edwin Sharpe but has added new faces, such as Kendall Pace, an Austin school district trustee elected last year. Ed Fund chairman Darrell Pierce brings business and community service to the board, as does Liz Watson, who is as engaging and folksy as her influential spouse, state Sen. Kirk Watson.
Many of the other board members are equally connected and accomplished. Their challenge is to renew and grow relationships with Austin’s growing tech and health sectors and to reach out to companies – large and small – that might not know of the Ed Fund or the Austin district’s struggle to generate dollars that stay in its classrooms.
Some have already stepped up; Google, H-E-B and St. David’s HealthCare are among those. I’m happy to say that the American-Statesman also is a contributor. But aside from the usual suspects, the Ed Fund should court Austin’s booming tourist and events sectors, as they are likely to benefit from the fruits of Austin public schools: its graduates.
It’s time that more companies and individuals respond to student pleas to “invest in me.” When we do that, we invest in ourselves.
For more information about the Ed Fund, its programs or how to give, go to austinedfund.org.
— Alberta Phillips
From more perspectives from the editorial board, visit the Viewpoints blog at viewpoints.blog.statesman.com.