Texas Legislature convenes for third Special Session
(Photo: Sen. José Menéndez speaks on the Senate floor Wednesday.)
On Monday, the Texas Legislature convened for a third special session called by Gov. Greg Abbott to address redistricting, ban vaccine mandates, restrict transgender athletes, appropriate federal stimulus money, and outlaw tethering of dogs in unsafe conditions. On Wednesday, just two weeks after his initial announcement of the special session, Abbott added two additional items to the agenda—additional property tax relief to what had already been passed in the previous special session and a new constitutional amendment to make it harder for people accused of certain crimes to be released on bail.
On Tuesday, the Senate Health and Human Services Committee heard testimony on the discriminatory transgender athlete bill, SB 3. Despite the vast majority of testimony coming from those opposing the bill, the committee sent the bill to be voted on by the full Senate, which passed the bill the following day. This is the fourth time this year that the Senate passed a version of this legislation.
This week Sen. Joan Huffman proposed maps dividing the state into new Senate and State Board of Education (SBOE) districts based on 2020 census data. Republicans have control over the redistricting process due to their majorities in both the Senate and House. We share our allies’ concerns that the Republicans will use their control to decrease the number of competitive seats and ignore the growth of communities of color. The Senate Redistricting Committee will receive testimony on these two proposed maps at the Capitol today and tomorrow.
This week, Abbott also signed several remaining bills passed by the Legislature during the previous special session into law. HB 5, which provides funding for the 13th check for TRS members, and SB 3, the classroom censorship bill, were signed by the governor last Friday. HB 5 will be effective immediately due to the widespread support that the bill received from lawmakers, but SB 3 will not be effective until December 2. Because the bill requires the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) to be amended by SBOE, it will likely take much longer for the bill to be fully implemented.
TRS gets green light to build new headquarters, with no impact to health of pension fund
The Teacher Retirement System of Texas Board on Friday approved a plan to build a new agency headquarters north of downtown Austin, a move that officials said would save TRS money and not impact the soundness of the retiree pension fund or plans for cost-of-living increases.
TRS plans to consolidate its staff—currently working in two different buildings—into one location at the Mueller development in north Austin, the former Austin airport location that now serves as a mixed-use neighborhood of homes, offices, retail, and restaurants. The plans are to sell the current Red River Street headquarters and end the lease at another downtown building.
TRS officials said the sale of the current building, along with savings on maintenance of the old site, and owning rather than leasing the additional building, will almost offset the $250 million to $300 million cost of a new campus and eventually will save TRS $15 million a year.
TRS deemed the move necessary because more staff will be needed to serve TRS’s growing membership, which is expected to more than double from 1.7 million to up to 3.7 million in the next 30 years.
A key to the plan’s approval was an assessment from the TRS actuary that showed agency operations expenses at only .14% of the revenue from employee payrolls, well below the national average of .4%. And savings from the deal would not increase the funding period for actuarial soundness (a measurement needed to provide cost-of-living increases for retirees in the near future). The actuary also looked at a scenario if TRS were to bear the full brunt of the relocation costs at $350 million, which also would not affect the funding period.
TRS officials also touted the agency’s efficiency in delivering member services. In a review of seven similar pension funds, TRS was 57% lower than the average number of service employees per pension-fund member.
New TEA guidance on masks stirs the legal pot on mask mandates and spurs a federal investigation
See Texas AFT’s COVID-19 Resource Page for info on how to take action and stay safe.
The U.S. Department of Education is launching an investigation of Gov. Greg Abbott’s order prohibiting mask mandates, which federal officials said could break federal law and discriminate against special education students. The USDOE has launched similar probes in four other states with actions by governors prohibiting mask mandates in school districts.
Federal law requires that students with disabilities are protected from discrimination and are guaranteed the right to receive education in a regular educational environment to the maximum extent appropriate to their needs, and disabilities include students with underlying health conditions that put them at high risk with COVID-19. A letter from USDOE to TEA stated the investigation would look into whether Abbott’s order “may be preventing school districts in the state from considering or meeting the needs of students with disabilities” and the need to ensure that Texas provides “an equal educational opportunity to students with disabilities who are at heightened risk of severe illness from COVID-19.”
In addition to a widespread revolt, with many districts defying the governor’s order and requiring masks and some suing in state courts, the nonprofit Disability Rights Texas also has filed a federal lawsuit against Abbott and TEA Commissioner Mike Morath on the basis that their actions and orders discriminate against disabled students. Attorney General Ken Paxton has pushed back, vowing to sue every school district that defies the governor’s order, and he has filed lawsuits against a handful of school districts already.
That aggressive action by Paxton and new TEA guidance/rules spurred the USDOE to take action and launch its investigation. TEA’s public health guidance/rules on September 1 noted: “mask provisions of [the governor’s order] are not being enforced as the result of ongoing litigation.” The updated document for September 17 reads: “school systems cannot require students or staff to wear a mask.”
“TEA has entered the fray with its newest rules,” said Texas AFT President Zeph Capo. “TEA is now solidly on board with the governor’s dangerous edict. On the other hand, our members and educators across the state have stood solidly with our campaign urging districts to use whatever safety measures are necessary—including mask mandates—to keep their communities safe. The governor’s order has a significant impact on disabled students with health risks, and we are encouraged that the federal government is stepping in to stand up for their rights.”
Report: Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine for 5- to 11-year-old children is safe and effective; provides ‘robust’ antibody responses
Pfizer announced this week that recent trials showed its COVID-19 vaccine was safe and effective in children ages 5 to 11. The trial included 2,268 participants ages 5 to 11 and used a two-dose vaccine regimen administered 21 days apart. Few children in the trial experienced side effects, which were similar in frequency and severity to the side effects experienced by adults. Pfizer also confirmed that there were no instances of myocarditis, a type of heart inflammation that has been linked with mRNA vaccines. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine is currently approved for people aged 16 and older and authorized for use in people ages 12 to 15.
Pfizer executives said that a vaccine for children ages 5 to 11 could be available by Halloween. Coronavirus infections have risen at a dramatic rate among children in the 5 to 11 age group across the United States. Children account for nearly 29% of all U.S. COVID-19 cases, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The Kaiser Family Foundation conducted a nationwide poll last month, which found that 26% of parents of children ages 5 to 11 say they will vaccinate their children “right away” once a vaccine is authorized. However, 40% of parents said they would “wait and see” how the vaccine is working before they get younger children vaccinated.
Bridges Institute offers Mindfulness Essentials series
The Bridges Institute will be hosting the Mindfulness Essentials series via Zoom next month. The series started on Wednesday and will continue each Wednesday from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m., throughout the months of September and October. These free instructive webinars will help participants better understand their mind and emotions. CPE credit will be issued per hour of participation. Sign up for the webinars here.
In addition to the instructive webinars, The Bridges Institute will also host weekly practice sessions in which participants can take part in guided meditation. These sessions begin September 20 and occur on subsequent Mondays, from 6:15 p.m. to 6:45 p.m., throughout the months of September and October. Sign up for the practice sessions here.