November 17, 2007

What is a church? Stained glass ... or people?

Some people think a church is a big, imposing building, preferably built of brick or stone, and with a tall spire. It should have welcoming doors, arched at the top would be nice; large and beautiful stained glass windows, and an organ with hundreds of brass pipes filling the front of the sanctuary.

It is, after all, the House of God.

Racine's First Baptist Church was one of those. It pre-dated the Racine County Courthouse, which sits catty-corner at the intersection of Wisconsin Avenue and 8th Street, by half a century, and the boxy and undistinguished jail addition which now rudely crowds the church's front entrance.

It was a grand church, with a large, high-ceilinged sanctuary, an attractive balcony strung along three sides, a big kitchen for preparing meals for the poor. Its large rose window, above, is second to none.

Next door to the south, attached to the church, is a three-story community building with classrooms, a gymnasium, a small chapel, even a two-lane bowling alley in the basement. Gorton Hall, the addition is called; it was built and paid for by the Gorton family, congregants of First Baptist, and donated to the church.

This, clearly, is a church with a proud history, one of the earliest in Racine. Go back 167 years to 1840 -- just six years after Gilbert Knapp founded the settlement of Port Gilbert that would later become Racine -- and you'd run into the Rev. Jason Lathrop, formerly of Kenosha, who organized Racine's First Baptist Church here on April 25, 1840. There were 16 parishioners. The city later named an important street after him.

The church's cornerstone, which proudly reads "1876," doesn't tell half its history: this, actually, is the third church the congregation constructed. The first, built in 1850, later burned down. Its replacement, while under construction, also fell victim to fire.

So the congregation moved downtown, to the site on Wisconsin, and built the impressive church you see there today.

The one that's now vacant. Forlorn. For sale. (Listing HERE.)

What is a church? Is it the building, or is it the congregation? Bricks, mortar and stained glass ... or people with God in their hearts and a mission?

First Baptist's transformation occurred four years ago. That wonderful old church was showing its age. There was a "pesky" leak in the roof, and although various roofing companies "fixed" it, the fixes only lasted until the next rain. The estimate for a new roof: $70,000. The boiler became temperamental, requiring $25,000 a year just to keep it functioning. The elevator was questionable. The south wall of the church started bowing outward, stabilized finally by strong steel girders erected in the courtyard between the church proper and Gorton Hall.

"We could have fixed this, and that," said Pastor Holly Anderle, "but we asked the question: 'Are we going to spend the rest of our lives ministering to people, or ministering to a building?' "

"We're so much more than that white elephant," says the Rev. Anderle, who spent nine years as an Army officer before realizing, "there's only so long you can run from God." She led the congregation to the present First Baptist Church -- a rented, one-story structure behind a strip mall. Even knowing the address, 3117 Lathrop Ave., I drove by it, twice, unable to find it.

Pastor Holly Anderle in new sanctuary

Yes, it's a former warehouse. Some old-timers might remember it as Cindy's restaurant. (The drive-up window can still be found inside what's now the sanctuary.) And there's no stained glass. In its last iteration, before the blue sign by the street was painted over, it was the Abundant Life Church.

Now, this is the First Baptist Church, and the congregation is happy here. Praying. Teaching.Growing.

The final service in the old church was in 2003. A flyer taped to the door then still tells visitors where services are now conducted. The underlying message: "We're still alive; we've just moved."

"As much as it hurt to leave, if we were going to be a church, we had to leave that building. We're a congregation, not a building," the Rev. Anderle said.

"We're concerned about people. In the old church, we had a hot meal program on Mondays for the needy; today we do that at the Salvation Army. We're more interested in people being loved, and being part of the church family."

First Baptist has gained some new members since the move in 2004, a good mix of older and younger. "We're moving toward a blended kind of worship; not being hidebound; using new music. Our Sunday school kids made a videotape of a newscast as it might have been done in Jesus' time; we have to bring religion home to the kids. Our biggest focus is keeping things authentic."

First Baptist keeps things authentic in two languages, for two congregations. They shared the old church with a sister church, Iglesia Bautista Renacer, a Hispanic American Baptist congregation, and those parishioners came along to the new location. First Baptist holds its Sunday services at 10:30 a.m.; Iglesia Bautista Renacer holds its services at noon. The Rev. Juan Trujillo is its pastor.

Congregants from both churches helped remodel the building when they moved in and built the altar. "We're both stronger together," said the Rev. Anderle.

"It's important that people know this is a living church. People think we're so depressed at losing that wonderful building, but we're full of life and excitement."

Parishioners share her feelings. At a Bible study this week, I talked to a group of church members. "The people are the church," said Donna Peters. "I miss the church, but the people are still here," agreed Sheryl Krohn. Joyce Aber said, "I miss the organ. But when we got here, we were very much at home, like a family. I love this church." The organ, noted Ron Brinkmann, went to a Catholic Church in Arizona.

Still, there's some sadness. "We all feel a loss," said Nadia Brinkmann. "I can't wait until the old church is sold."

And what will happen then? "We'll start a building fund," says the Rev. Anderle.

Heavenly building waits for a miracle

The real estate listings are overstocked these days, but this property stands out as unique:

A strikingly beautiful 1876 brick landmark; 21,189 sq. ft. with a wonderful downtown location; amenities like a gymnasium, two bowling alleys, an elevator, stained glass windows. Price reduced from $480,000 to $250,000!

All that is true. Unfortunately, it's also a fixer-upper: needs new roof, maybe a furnace; some foundation work may be in order. But, ah, once you have it finished -- some paint and decorating, of course -- you'd have a real gem, a cathedral. Well, a fine church, for sure.

The Realtor selling this gem is John Crimmings, of First Weber. He's clearly conflicted as he shows the former First Baptist Church to prospective buyers.

"In its day, it was a beautiful, beautiful thing," he says. "It still has a lot of potential; it could really be something."

The problem is, he says: "The churches that could use it, can't afford it." Other Racine churches have sold in recent years, most notably after the Catholic Church consolidated parishes: St. Stanislaus, Holy Trinity, St. Rose ... Crimmings ticks them off, noting that some had rectories, or parking, while First Baptist does not.

And so, while he continues to show First Baptist to congregations that would relish a downtown location and a potential showplace -- it was once; it could be again! -- at the back of his mind is the dark thought that the highest and best use for the property, located across the street from the Racine County Courthouse and the Racine County jail, is as a parking lot.

But still he perseveres, trying to perform a miracle. "To a congregation, a church has very important meaning in their lives. It would be nice to be able to return it to grandeur," he says.

Listing is HERE.

What is a library worth? No, really ...

"A good library is a palace where the lofty spirits of all nations and generations meet."— Samuel Niger (1883-1956)
"The medicine chest of the soul."—Inscription over the door of the Library at Thebes.
"A library is not a luxury but one of the necessities of life."— Henry Ward Beecher

The amazing library of Trinity College, Dublin.

Well, duh! But what economic benefit do libraries provide Wisconsin residents? (Yes, it is a sad fact of the times in which we live that everything must have a dollars and cents price tag. Get over it.)

Soon, we may well know. NorthStar Economics, Inc., a Madison-based consulting firm, will conduct a study, funded through the federal Library Services and Technology Act, focusing on "the economic benefits that libraries bring to a global, knowledge-based economy. Public libraries increasingly have to compete with other municipal services for funding, and they need to be better able to articulate their contribution and economic impact in their respective communities."

"It is our hope to illuminate the important role of public libraries as significant economic drivers in the New Economy," said Dr. David J. Ward, NorthStar president.

Part of NorthStar's report will be a detailed look at the economic impact of three libraries: Madison, Milwaukee and Racine. Jessica MacPhail, director of the Racine Public Library, said she looks forward "to learning what our residents value about public libraries. Other states have done economic impact studies and have learned that libraries provide a good return on investment."

"Public libraries are a tremendous asset to their communities" said State Superintendent Elizabeth Burmaster. "We anticipate that this study will confirm and quantify the important contributions that public libraries make to lifelong learning and quality of life for Wisconsin residents."

NorthStar will announce its findings at the Wisconsin Public Library Association annual conference in May.

That is too late for this year's budget cycle. The Racine County budget recently increased funding for Racine's library by 1.5%, an amount which reduces the percentage of cost reimbursement from 91% to 87%.

Racine's city budget is to be finalized Monday; the city is expected to fund the library at the state mandated level, which is the average of the three previous years.

UPDATE, 11/19: The amount in the budget for 2008 library funding is $2,057,588, some $5,000 LESS than this year. (Did heating costs go down? Electricity? Wages?) Because the library budget was cut by $32,000 in 2005, the current number is indeed the three-year average, thus continuing the pain ad infinitum. There's got to be a better formula.

(More wonderful quotes about libraries can be found HERE.

Cacaphony of antiwar support greets protesters

There was no "honk if you oppose the war" sign at the Racine Coalition for Peace and Justice's demonstration this morning -- it would have been superfluous.

The hour a dozen antiwar protesters stood out in the cold holding a variety of peace signs was a cacaphony of car and truck horns, and myriad shouts of encouragement.

If a vote had been taken today, at the corner of Highway 20 and Route 31, all U.S. servicemen would be out of Iraq. Never would have gone in the first place.

"Public sentiment is clearly against this war. But people are still confused by the administration's rhetoric," said Ken Yorgan, a chiropractor by day and chairman of the Coalition, adding, "Put 'lies' in quotes after 'rhetoric.' "

"We want to elevate the conversation, stimulate the dialogue about this illegal war," he said.

Sister Alice, a Racine Dominican waving a "HELP VETS" sign, explained why she and the others were there: "When somebody puts themselves on the line like this, it energizes others. It gives them hope.

"And, maybe next time, they'll be out here too. For the person doing it, it puts the issue firmer in your mind; it's not abstract any more."

Peggy Huset-Duros recalled participating in antiwar protests before the U.S. invaded Iraq. "At that time, we got a lot of nasty yells and hecklers. But not any more."

The Racine Coalition for Peace and Justice meets the 1st and 3rd Thursdays of each month, 7 p.m., at the Cesar Chavez Community Center, 2221 Douglas Ave. They will be out at the corner of Highays 20 and 31 once more this year, on Saturday, Dec. 15, 10 a.m. -- braving the cold with warm hearts hoping for peace.

November 16, 2007

Christmas card stamping workshop offered

Quick, easy and home-made Christmas cards? Send a little bit of yourself this year with hand-made, rubber-stamped cards. Learn to make them at a class sponsored by the Caledonia Parks and Recreation Department.

You will make five cards, and one will have a detachable Christmas ornament for the tree. The latest color schemes and a choice of templates will be available. All supplies will be provided, but if you'd prefer not to wait to use the shared supplies, you may bring your own scissors and adhesives.

Instruction will be by Michelle Laycock, who has won awards for stamp art.

The workshop is Thursday, Nov. 29, from 6:30 - 9 p.m. at the East Side Community Center, 6156 Douglas Ave., Racine. Fee is $15. For further information, call 752-1682 or e-mail.

November 15, 2007

The Artful Shopper Explores Downtown Racine

Shopping. We all do it, some of us better than others. One of the tricks is going to the right stores: not the same-old, same-old. And being open to new things.

Are you the person who's always giving great gifts? Well, the doctor is in! RacinePost to the rescue, as it were. We'll scour local shops for purchases you won't find everywhere.

This week we'll help those of you traveling for the holidays. You want to bring a special hostess gift, right? Not the usual bottle of wine (do your hosts even drink wine?) or flowers that may or may not be welcome. Not that we have anything against either of those, but this year you want something more original. Well, try these:

How about these beautiful butterflies, mounted in glass so both sides are visible and the differences apparent? Here, 14 butterflies, for $78. Dover Flag and Map.

Frasier Fir Home Fragrance, from Thymes: crisp Siberian Fir needles mixed
with warm cedar and sandalwood; $10-$67, at Artistry Furniture.

Inis is an imported Irish perfume, with a light refreshing fragrance, from Molly MaGruder. Fragrance, $32; lotion $19.50.

Will O’the Wisp glittering ornaments are hand-made by Patricia Lee Raichert. Each comes with its own stand, $45. Available at Monfort's Fine Arts Gallery.

Finally, this comfort-food reminder of a meal we're always thankful for -- PB&J -- at a time when, hopefully, we're about to receive a more elaborate repast. $20, Copacetic.

New Sandpipers owner: I liked the place so much ...

Sandpipers Waterfront Grill -- a k a, the former Livingston's Landing -- has been sold.

The new owner is Lori Medendorp, a Racine gal who's worked as an internal auditor and selling real estate, and who has waitressed, tended bar and managed, but never owned a restaurant before.

So why'd she buy it? She gives an answer reminiscent of the late Victor Kiam, famous for his ad slogan, "I liked the razor so much, I bought the company." The razor was Remington, and it did so well that Kiam eventually bought the Boston Patriots.

Says Lori: "This is something I've always wanted to do, and I've wanted this place for the past eight months, since I first saw it. The area, the river, downtown, all the new things going on. When I heard it was available, I jumped right on it." Sandpipers is just east of the Main Street bridge, with a terrace overlooking the Root River; 303 Dodge Street for you landlubbers.

She's already painted the interior, and has plans to make Sandpipers "a fun place," with theme nights, open jam nights and soft music ... but no major changes.

Don't touch that dial: technical difficulties

UPDATE: We're back! Phew.

Yes, cyberspace still has some kinks in it.

Our site host for is making some upgrades, and that part of our site seems to be unavailable this morning.

But the blog is up and functioning, with lots of new material, so spend your time reading about Ryan and Feingold, and Larry and Unified's 10-year-report card.

We'll have the rest back as soon as possible.

pete and dustin

Reaction to Unified 'report card'

Reaction to the Public Policy Forum's 10th comparative analysis of public schooling in Racine was offered by a panel of district experts Wednesday night.
Here's some of what they had to say:

"None of us likes where the test scores are, but we see some advancement, particularly in elementary grades. Our point of emphasis now is secondary (education improvements)."
--Tony Baumgardt, president, Board of Education

"One can't help but be distressed. But we're beginning to see some things happening, some reasons for hope."
-- Jack Parker, interim superintendent

"The data are a wakeup call to arms. We have to rethink how we deliver services, a monumental task. We need a 'secondary transformation;' fundamentally delivering instruction differently. (online, different schedules, etc.) If done right, Racine will be the best urban district in the country by 2010-2012."
-- Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard, chief academic officer

"The state funding system is broken."
-- Peter Knotek, president, Racine Education Association

"Minority failures are at the heart of the matter ... This requires a total reconception of how we think of minority students. How would you feel carrying around the label 'at risk'? We must reconceptualize all of our kids as kids with promise. This will require a total community effort."
-- Jack Parker

Ryan & Feingold agree at last!
On same side, but for opposite reasons

Yesterday's House-passed bill providing $50 billion for Iraq, which also requires the president to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq within 30 days of passage, with a goal of having American combat troops out of Iraq by Dec. 15, 2008, has drawn strange bedfellows.

U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-WI, 1st District, joined other Republicans in voting no, because the Democratic-sponsored measure gives President Bush only one-quarter of the $200 billion he requested, and because of that withdrawal deadline. Ryan's statement is HERE.

"The bill is the latest in a series of politically driven, and ultimately unsuccessful, votes to set specific withdrawal dates or otherwise take steps that limit U.S. commanders’ ability to fight and prevail in the war in Iraq," Ryan said.

Today, Sen. Russ Feingold, D-WI, a longtime opponent of U.S. engagement in Iraq, also came out against the House bill, saying it is too weak.

Feingold spoke in support of his own legislation, co-sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, to end funding for the Iraq war once U.S. troops are safely redeployed by June 30, 2008. Feingold's remarks to the Senate can be heard here: MP3

The House bill, which passed on a 218 - 203 largely party-line vote, does not do enough to end the war and bring U.S. troops home, according to Feingold.

Today, with Sen. Reid’s support, he will seek a vote on his bill in advance of the Senate’s consideration of the supplemental spending bill passed by the House yesterday

“The Iraq bill passed by the House is too weak and doesn’t ensure the timely redeployment of our troops from Iraq,” Feingold said. “It’s not good enough to have a redeployment ‘goal’ instead of a binding end date. Every day, this disastrous war saps our ability to focus on al Qaeda, and its affiliates around the globe, which are the real threat to our national security.”

The Feingold-Reid legislation requires the vast majority of U.S. troops to be redeployed from Iraq by June 30, 2008, with a few narrow exceptions.

November 14, 2007

Playful Larry needs a home, and a trainer

Meet Larry.

He's a handsome one-year-old Labrador mix, playful and active. But at the same time, he's shy and dependent. He needs an owner willing to train him, and to give him some attention. Countryside Humane Society guesses that he's been mostly ignored, maybe just tied up in somebody's yard, and he's hungry for attention. But he does know how to do some things, like sit on command. Sometimes, anyway.

Larry comes to us from a shelter in Dunn County, IL. He's going to take a little work, but when you're done you'll have a friend for life.

UPDATE/ 11/14: Last week's dog, Mama, a Chihuahua mix, has been adopted!

UPDATE, 11/19: Larry is adopted!

Unified's performance is 'distressing'

After ten years of exhaustive diagnostics, poking and prodding, the patient -- Racine Unified School District -- still is quite sick.

The Public Policy Forum's just released 10th annual comparative analysis of RUSD (paid for by Education Racine, the not-for-profit foundation of RAMAC) -- comparing the district to nine peer* districts with similar enrollments -- is measured in many places, objectively reporting such things as student achievement, graduation rates, truancy and more.

But the bottom line, stated with ultimate tact -- "Our data do not fit with the customer satisfaction objective." -- gives clear warning of what's to come.

The report's major findings, released at a Wingspread briefing tonight, conclude:

Diversity: The minority population in RUSD, the state's fourth largest district with 21,696 students, continues to grow. Racine's classrooms now are 48.1% minority, up from 36.9% ten years ago, thanks to an influx of Asian and Hispanic students. African-American enrollment has increased "modestly" in recent years and white enrollment has "declined somewhat."

White students now make up 51.9% of RUSD's enrollment; African-Americans 26.7% and Hispanics 19.6%. Statewide, 22.1% of students are minority.

Operational Efficiency: State aid to RUSD has increased 40.2% in 10 years, yet we're now 8th out of 10. (State aid to Kenosha has risen 70.8% in the same period.) Property tax revenue is up 21.4%; Kenosha's has gone up 41.7%. RUSD falls to 9th in the growth of federal aid: up 87.5% in 10 years, while Kenosha has gone up 146.9% and Appleton 346.9%.

The district ranked 8th out of 10 in property taxes collected per pupil. Racine was third in instructional spending per pupil, sixth in operational spending. RUSD spent $10,169 per pupil, just $119 below the state average, but well below Madison's $12,163.

Student Engagement: For the fifth straight year, RUSD improved its truancy rate; in 2005-06 it was 8.7%, the lowest in 10 years and below the statewide average of 9.7%. But at the same time, the attendance rate declined year-over-year, and the dropout rate increased. "Compared to other peer districts, RUSD had the highest rates for both suspensions and expulsions." In 2005-06, 120 students were expelled, about 60% of the number expelled the previous year.

RUSD's attendance rate of 93.6% puts it 8th among the 10 districts, and below the statewide average of 94.4%. The dropout rate of 3.8% is less than half the 8.4% it was 10 years ago, but is still more than double the statewide average of 1.6% and higher than all its peer districts.

Student achievement: "Student performance measurements at RUSD yielded mixed findings." Tenth-graders scored lower in both reading and math than in the previous year. Reading scores in the 4th grade, and math scores in the 8th grade also declined. Third grade reading and 4th grade math scores increased from last year.

In 2006-07, 69.8% of RUSD 3rd graders were at or above proficient in reading on the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts (WKCE) exam, 4% higher than last year, but 9th among peer districts. Statewide, 81% of 3rd graders scored at or above proficient.

The figures are similar for 4th graders: 69% at proficient for RUSD, compared with 82% statewide; Kenosha was at 81%. Over the past five years, RUSD has shown "a steady decline" in the percentage of 4th graders testing well; this year the drop was 4%.

It gets worse: Among 8th graders, 70% were proficient in reading and 55% in math. Both figures are the worst, by far, of the peer districts, and well below state averages: 84% in reading and 75% in math.

It is in the student achievement section that the report is most devastating: seven tables compare RUSD students' reading and math scores to their peers in the nine other districts. In grades 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 10, in both reading and math, with just one exception, we score 10th. Dead last. The single exception: 3rd grade reading, where we come in 9th, ahead of Green Bay's 3rd graders.

"On the face of it," said Unified's interim Superintendent, Dr. Jack Parker, who took the job in September, "these are really distressing results; really distressing. And they are similar to previous years."

He added: "To turn around an urban school district is a major societal effort. The school district is a major player, but we're talking about social issues: poverty, lack of jobs, dysfunctional family systems and attitudes outside and within the minority population."

Taking the long view -- over the 10 years that data for Unified and the peer districts have been collected -- some clear trends have emerged:
-- Enrollment is stabilizing.
-- Minorities soon will be in the majority at RUSD.
-- Private and charter school enrollments are declining.
-- RUSD has less-experienced teachers, but is paying them more than ever.
-- Student "engagement" is up, as measured by declining truancy rates.
-- Student performance figures are both positive and negative.

The entire report will be available online soon, on both RUSD's website and on the Public Policy Forum's website.

The full report is 17 pages of comparative analysis, how RUSD stacks up -- or doesn't -- against the peer districts and the state, and 41 pages showing enrollment numbers and demographics, and -- more to the point for parents wondering how well their kids' school is doing -- RUSD school-by-school student scores on standardized tests and attendance figures, including truancy rates, suspensions and expulsions. The numbers can be quite sobering. For example, here are RUSD's four high schools, side by side:

And here are six of the district's 22 Elementary Schools compared:

Two of the more interesting statistics presented concerned RUSD's teaching staff. With an average of 11.2 years of experience within the district, and 12.9 years' total experience, RUSD's teachers ranked 8th among their peers. Teacher experience level here is dropping: down 16.6% in four years. Kenosha's teachers have fractionally less experience than RUSD's, but while our average went down, theirs rose 3.4%.

The report doesn't give a definitive reason for this, but one can be inferred from the compensation tables: While RUSD's average teacher salary is $48,534, only $2,136 below Kenosha's (RUSD is 7th among the peers, Kenosha 4th), when it comes to fringe benefits there is no comparison. RUSD's fringes are worth $23,726 per year, 3rd among the districts; Kenosha's are listed as a staggering $42,016, far and away the most generous: $13,795 above second-place Waukesha and $20,514 above last place Sheboygan.

BUT ... as he presented the report Wednesday night, researcher Jeffrey Schmidt of the Public Policy Forum declared that the value of Kenosha's fringe benefits appears to be an error. Although the printed report still carries that figure, he suggested we ignore it until it can be verified.

November 13, 2007

Local churches oppose upcoming children's movie

Nicole Kidman and Dakota Blue Richards
in 'The Golden Compass'

UPDATED 11/15: See below

At least two Racine Catholic churches are speaking out in opposition to a new children's movie, starring no less than Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, the most recent James Bond.

Three weeks from now, on Dec. 7, "The Golden Compass" is due to hit a silver screen near you. The film is an adaptation of the first novel in a trilogy called “His Dark Materials” by English author (and atheist) Philip Pullman.

Proponents and critics alike compare it to "Harry Potter," "Lord of the Rings," and "Chronicles of Narnia." (Not such a stretch: there's a search for a unique elementary particle that could unite the world, journeys to strange lands and the protagonist, a 12-year-old girl, hides in a wardrobe.)

Fox News summarized the plot of "Compass" and the controversy like this: "A children's fantasy film that stars Nicole Kidman and features a little girl on a quest to kill God has some Christian groups upset over what they believe is a ploy to promote atheism to kids."

Christian groups are afraid the movie, however watered down, will encourage children to read the books. "These books denigrate Christianity, thrash the Catholic Church and sell the virtues of atheism," said Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League.

Last weekend's parish newsletters at both St. Rita's and St. Lucy's Catholic Church's exhorted parishioners to avoid the movie.

St. Rita's Principal's Newsletter said this: "The movie story is against Christianity. Philip Pullman is a proud atheist who detests C.S. Lewis and writes his books as an antithesis to "The Chronicles of Narnia." In the end the children kill and defeat God. School parents should know about this book and movie and should not support this author's work."

In St. Lucy's newsletter, Sandy Gottfredsen, pastoral associate, wrote: "The movie has been watered down, but seeks to get into the minds of children and parents go out and buy the books where in the end the children kill God. And this is what Pullman's strategy is: to kill God in the minds of children."

UPDATE, 11/15: This weekend's issue of St. Rita School principal's newsletter has a followup: Principal Diana Lesnjak looked deeper into the issue, and was surprised to find the book in the school library, and in its book fair flyer. After confirming the book's anti-religious, anti-Christian elements and themes, she decided to remove it from the school.

She writes: "
Because of this honest debate going on, on, since we are a Catholic school, we will remove the Pullman book or books from our school library and we will not sell the book at our book fair.

"If any parent wishes to pre-read this book (it's recommended for adults) you may decide it is fine for your child. At school, we won't make that choice for you by having it here. I am aware that I may now be declared a book-burner, if parents disagree with me about losing this book. I can only do what I'm hired to do, and part of
that is maintaining the Catholic identity of this school- that’s as simply as I can state it. I’m not proud of this, or sad about it -- it is what it is."

November 12, 2007

Racine's solar array is just the beginning

"So," I said to Racine Mayor Gary Becker, "when did you become Al Gore?"

"Not Al Gore," he replied. "I blame this on Mayor Richard Daley."

To understand our exchange, go back a week ago, when the City Council, at Becker's urging, piled the best of intentions on a foundation of mostly taxpayer dollars to construct a solar array in the City Hall Annex parking lot. At a cost, if anyone's counting, of $341,934.

Did I mention: mostly taxpayer dollars?

Money collected but ... ahem ... otherwise not really needed, is how the storyline goes. See, $135,000 had been allocated to repave the 50-space parking lot. But "nobody parks there," the mayor said, since there's another lot nearby. And bids on an unrelated City Hall remodeling project came in $71,928 less than budgeted -- so (Of course!) -- that money also was burning a hole in the city's pocket, in a manner of speaking. We all should have such problems.

Nobody suggested giving it back to the taxpayers. Instead, Public Works director Rick Jones and Becker came up with the idea (each credits the other) of a 37-kilowatt solar-powered electrical generating system. Big solar panels mounted on poles, filling the parking lot. How California can you get?

There's no sex appeal in parking lot repaving, or City Hall remodeling, but mention the word "solar" and money falls from the sky: We Energies is giving the city a $99,975 grant for the project. And the Wisconsin Focus on Energy is giving another $35,000. Voila!

As a taxpayer, it's easy to be cynical about this project. Until you talk to Becker. His enthusiasm and clear-headed explanation turned my head around. I'm still uneasy about how the $200,000 pile of city money was accumulated, but the project itself actually may make sense, in a Mayor Moonbeam sort of way.

"Am I going to sit here and tell you this is the greatest investment the city has ever made?" Becker asks rhetorically. "No. But strictly from a dollars and cents perspective, it's close." In other words, given the price of electricity, it will pay for itself in about 15 years, providing about 10 per cent of the annex's electrical needs. "It'll break even at current energy prices, although nobody in his right mind would expect those to stay the same. With energy prices rising, buildings are the low-hanging fruit."

But for Becker, this solar project is not a dollars and cents issue. "I'm a believer in leading by example," he says. "Climate change is real out there. And buildings, not cars, are the biggest producers of CO2. Absolutely."

The mayor says he became an environmentalist after meeting Chicago Mayor Richard Daley (Daley fils, not Daley pere: Richard M, the current mayor, not his father, Richard J.). They met at Becker's first meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. Now Becker chairs the Great Lakes, St. Lawrence Cities Initiative. And the Mayor's Climate Control Agreement, which more than 700 mayors have signed. "We can do Kyoto," he says.

Kyoto? The 1997 U.N. agreement that 173 countries and the European Union have signed to reduce greenhouse gases to at or below 1990 levels? The so-called 2005 Kyoto Protocol which the U.S. refuses to sign?

Yes, that one. "We're practically there already," Becker says. "Racine is probably well below the 1990's."

But he's just getting warmed up. "I'm working on an Urban Environmental Agenda," he says, differentiating between the kind of environmental activities that city dwellers might need and appreciate and the ones you more often hear about. "Saving the Spotted Owl doesn't cut it in the 'hood," he says. Rather, he means lead paint abatement, rivers clean enough for fishermen who eat their catch, recreation, "green" jobs.

The matron in Wind Point has different concerns than the man on the street wanting a job, to put it delicately.

"Is this project going to save the planet? No," Becker asks, and answers. "But reforestation, lake and river cleanup, they're all pieces of the puzzle. There's no silver bullet.

"As we try to reposition and recreate the city, these are the kinds of things that show that this is a forward-thinking community.

"Next year, I'm going to put windmills on City Hall."

Yes, I knew he was kidding about that. Right? "Daley Center has a couple of wind turbines," he said. A little too wistfully, I thought.

November 11, 2007

$400 million for Racine County? went through an interesting exercise the other day:
"If the Bush administration succeeds in its latest request for funding the war in Iraq, the total cost would rise to $611.5 billion, according to the National Priorities Project, a nonprofit research group. The amount got us wondering: What would $611 billion buy?"
They came up with some fascinating Boston-centric alternatives. Such as, building 4,000 replicas of Newton Central High School (at $156.5 million, the most expensive in Massachusetts). Or, the war funding could instead buy 14 million years of tuition, board and books at Harvard ... or 53 million years of tuition and fees at U-Mass. Or seven years of food and education for all the world's poor.

But, of course, $611.5 billion is too big a number to really grasp. What about our share of that cost ... the amount collected from those of us in Racine County? What could we have done with our portion, had we been given the chance?

Unless my calculator is toying with me, each of 300 million Americans paid an average of $2,038 of that $611.5 billion ($611.5 B / 300 M). The 2006 census said there are 196,096 of us living in Racine County ... which multiplies out (196,096 * $2,038) to a staggering $399,709,013 as our collective share. (And you were complaining about an $18 million jail expansion?)

What the hell, let's play government and just round it up to $400 million.

Now, what would you do here with that much money, if given the opportunity?

Don't be shy; we'd love to hear your suggestions. Best replies win a vote in the 2008 election.

Want to run for Racine City Council?

Candidate packets are now available in the City Clerk's Office for candidates seeking office for Aldermen of the even districts, according to the City of Racine's Web site. Aldermen up for election this April include:

District 2 - Robert L. Anderson

District 4 - Jim Kaplan

District 6 - Sandy Weidner

District 8 - Q.A. Shakoor, II

District 10 - Thomas Friedel

District 12 - Aron Wisneski

District 14 - Ronald D. Hart