Friday, July 29, 2005

Big Chimney WV

While it was not the first place I ever lived, Big Chimney WV was the place where I grew up, and is what I consider to be my hometown. I was surprised that I haven't been able to find a blog entry about Big Chimney, so I've taken it as my duty to write a little something about our town.

First off, I didn't actually live IN the unicorporated town of Big Chimney. Our place was across the Elk River from the town in an area that I didn't even think of as having a name until one day some government agency decided to erect signs naming our crook in the highway as "Milliken." Don't know where that name came from, and I can't recall the name ever being useful when giving directions. "Across the river from Big Chimney" was the most efficient way to describe the location of our neighborhood.

Big Chimney is about eight miles upriver from the mouth of the Elk River (northeast, but West Virginians don't use compass points to describe directions) , at Cooper's Creek. The mouth of the Elk River is in downtown Charleston WV, where the Elk joins the Great Kanawha (can-NAW-uh) River. The Kanawha River flows into the Ohio River at Pt Pleasant WV. So our little Elk River is part of the mighty Mississippi watershed, which is a primary reason Charleston and the Kanawha Valley was settled in the first place.

Another reason was the abundance of natural resources: coal, oil, gas, water and timber for example. One valuable minieral resource found locally is potassium nitrate, commonly known as saltpeter. Saltpeter is an important component in the making of explosives, first gunpower, and later dynamite. In trying to extract calcium from limestone, a 19th century experimenter got carbide instead. Carbide is a rock-like substance that gives off acetylene gas when exposed to water. One of the uses of carbide was to fuel the little lanterns that coal miners wore on their hard hats. In the town of Clendenin, about 10 miles further up the Elk River, the first Union Carbide plant was built to make the stuff.

When I was a kid, Charleston was to the chemical industry what Pittsburgh was to the steel industry. All the major players were there. Union Carbide was the largest employer with several major plants and the corporate R&D center in the Valley. Next was duPont, where my Dad and Grandfather worked. FMC, Dow Chemical, Diamond Shamrock and Monsanto were also large employers.

Some of the business and landmarks in Big Chimney:

  • O.V. Smith & Sons Grocery Store: This is the first place I worked where I got a real paycheck. O.V. was still alive when I was a kid, although his sons Jim and Bill were running the business when I worked there. In the 60s, the Smiths added a hardware store, a furniture store, had a little strip mall with a couple of other tenants like the barber shop, and eventually built a second grocery store up the river about five miles, in Elkview. The grocery stores are still in operation, and being managed by Bill's son, Bob -- who is a definite knockoff of his grandfather, O.V.
  • Big Chimney Elementary School: When I started school there in the 1st grade (we didn't have kindergarten in our school system), the school was a big white building that had been constructed early in the 20th century. It had one classroom for each grade, one through six, a special education classroom, an office and a kitchen. There wasn't a lunch room. Each teacher lined her kids up in the hallway,SAID A PRAYER, then marched to the kitchen to be served on trays, cafeteria style. Then you walked back to your room with your tray and ate. When everyone was done, you marched as a class back to the kitchen and dropped off your trays to be washed.While I was in the first grade, a 'new' building was built adjacent to the old one. It had six classrooms, the new offices, and a multipurpose room that served as both gym and cafeteria. We could actually get everyone in there all at once for lunch. It was cool! The old building was left standing, so there were now 12 classrooms, allowing each grade to be divided into two sections, with the dividing being done according to standardized test scores and grades.There was an old school bus garage on the property that our parents talked the school system into letting us refurb as a Scout building. Our folks replaced the dirt floor with concrete, my Dad hung new lighting and wired the place up, the windows were replaced, and the big old garage doors were replaced with a block wall. It was very cool to have this place of our own. I doubt that the school systems could support Scouting like this today.
  • Big Chimney Baptist Church: Although we weren't big churchgoers when I was a kid, we connected to this church and my Dad was even baptized there. It became the sponsoring organization for our Scout Troop, but eventually did what many Baptist churches do -- it split into two congregations. The original building is now a branch library.
  • Advent Christian Church: I didn't understand these folks who went to church on Saturday, even though I attended Sunday School there a couple of times with one of my buddies. The building is still there, although now instead of being hidden on a back street, it's right at the end of the 'new' Big Chimney bridge. Not sure what it's used for.
  • Big Chimney Bridge: (the old one): Nothing special other than being a landmark. It was a one lane bridge across the Elk River, meaning that if someone was coming your way, you needed to pull over before getting on the bridge, and wait until that person cleared. I don't ever remember anyone honking their horn or getting impatient. Maybe it was because the person coming your way, or in front of you in the waiting line, was likely to be a friend and neighbor. Funny how folks lose their manners in big cities where no one knows anyone else.
  • Chicken Shack: One of the several drive-in diners that were all around before McDonald's and Wendy's. It burned down one day when they had a kitchen fire. The story is that the guys of the Pinch Volunteer Fire Department showed up to put out the fire, but forgot to set the parking brake on the pumper truck. So it rolled backwards across the road and over the hill. No more Chicken Shack and no more firetruck.
  • Dairy Queen: The Dairy Queen was built when I was in junior high. I ever worked there one summer. During the summer of 1969, Derald Rollyson, Mike Hively and I wore out the phone booth in the parking lot. We were all dating girls who lived in Clendenin (Derald and Mike were dating sisters). Our neighborhood was in the Charleston exchange (34x), so it was a long-distance call to Clendenin. But if you crossed the river, that area was served by the 965 exchange, and calls to Clendenin were local - meaning they cost a dime. So every evening, the three of us (and usually Deb Rollyson, Mark Hively and Deb Hively) all piled in one of Rollyson's VWs and went to the Dairy Queen. While one guy was talking to his girlfriend in the phone booth, everyone else would grab a cone or a shake and hang out.
  • Charlie Six's Gulf Station: Classic post-war gas station. A little block building with one garage bay with a pit instead of a lift, two pumps and a little store. Charlie was probably in his 60s when I was a kid. He and Mrs Six would sit on stools behind the counter. If someone drove up for gas, Charlie would go out, pump the gas, wash the windshield and check the oil. Mrs Six ran the register and sold the goodies in the store. They had this unusual soda pop vending machine -- I never saw another like it. The machine was like a chest freezer in that you opened up a big lid on the top. The pop was in bottles of course. Rows of metal strips were mounted crosswise far enough up from the bottom of the chest, and far enough apart so that the bottles would hang between them. The right end of the strips were attached to the wall of the chest, but the other end was open to a channel that ran front to back in the chest. The width of this channel was enough to move the bottle around, but not enough to pull the bottle out. To get the bottle out, you moved it to a position where there was a gate. When you put you dime in the slot, the gate would release, and you could get that one bottle out. But the gate blocked any more bottles from getting out, and relocked once you got your one bottle out.The trick was that Charlie carried more flavors of pop than there were rows on the machine. So it could be that the bottle of Grape Nehi you wanted was at the trapped end of a row, and you would have to move all the bottles on that row to other rows to get your bottle of Grape out. If the machine was too full, there might not be enough space to move all the bottles off your row. Charlie was good about never filling the machine that full, and for mixing the bottles up enough so that whatever flavor you wanted was close to the front. But sometimes when he went out to pump gas, and if Mrs Six wasn't in the store, we would try to rearrange the bottles so when the next kid came in, it would be a pain to get his favorite flavor out (there were only about ten of us at any given time who were old enough to cross the road to Charlie's, and not old enough to drive).
  • Little League Baseball field: I think it was Jim Hively who got Little League going in our area. The Hively's moved to the neighborhood from the exotic town of Sandusky Ohio when I was 4 or 5 years old. The boys, Mike and Mark, had played Little League in Sandusky, but we had no such thing in the Elk Valley. So one summer, Jim and a bunch of Dads assembled a league. The teams were the Big Chimney Indians (since the Hively's were Cleveland fans), the Pinch Tigers, the Elkview Braves, Blue Creek Cubs .. and I'm thinking there were a couple more. There was a minor league squad, and the major leaguers. I played a couple of years in the minors (Dad coached one year), and played at least one year in the majors. The majors were cool because you got a whole uniform: hat, button-up shirt, real baseball pants (wool of course), and even stirrup socks.The Big Chimney field was in a flat spot at the creek level, well below the main road. The good news was that the field was very level and made of the natural clay that was everywhere. The bad news was that it would easily flood in a big rain storm. But I spent many a day on that diamond.
  • The River and The Island: The Elk River was lots of things to us. It was a natural barrier that caused us to plan travel routes that included driving miles to cross a bridge to get to a place I could see from my front porch. It was something that flooded, sometimes with disasterous results. If was a good place to go fishing and catch whopper catfish (some of the big channel cats looked like monsters). On a hot day, it was a great place to go swimming.There was some shoals and a permanent sand island just downstream from the mouth of Cooper's Creek. While the margins of the sand island might move around a little, the core of the island was kept in place by large trees that had probably been there for decades. You could camp on the island, and even build fires using the rounded lumps of coal that washed up. It would disappear in a flood. I saw a chest freezer full of food stuck in a tree about ten feet up after one flood.The whole river ran over shoals on either side of the island, and these shoales were only a foot or so deep in some places. It was great fun to sit in these shoals and let the power of the river push you downstream. I once had a catfish get caught in my swim trucks doing this very thing. If you had real guts, you could go upstream of the shoals, lie face down with your head downstream, and run the rapids. Usually a bad idea because you never knew if a sharp rock had become exposed (most of the rocks were well rounded).Downstream of the island was a deep pool where the river widened and slowed. Some of the older kids had hung a tire swing with a steel cable way up in a tree so that you could get up on the upper bank, and swing WAY out over the river. The downside was that you had to swim back to the bank, and even though the river ran slower here, that would usually mean getting out 50 yards downstream and having to walk back. If you didn't swim reasonably hard, you could easily end up a mile downstream.

Big Chimney is still there, as are many of these landmarks. But my friends are all gone, as are most of the parents (moved away or passed on). The access road for Interstate 79 was run along Cooper's Creek to mate up with a new, much higher and wider bridge just downriver from Smith's store. It doesn't feel so small and intimate any more. Rather it feels small and exposed. I think there are just a lot fewer trees around than there used to be.

It's just different.

A Magical Neighborhood

I've described the physical aspects of my hometown in a separate blog titled Big Chimney WV, so will try to talk about the people a little here.

The center of our neighborhood was the Rollyson's house. Mr Rollyson, Derald Sr, owned the Volkswagen dealership in Charleston with his dad, Bruce. He bought the house originally built by Bill Warner for his large family. It was a cool design, almost like a barn from the outside. The main floor had a two+ car garage, a kitchen, a formal living room (that NO ONE was allowed to enter), and a HUGE family room, which probably measured 30ft by 50ft. The second floor had a master bedroom, three medium sized bedrooms for the daughters, and a dorm-like bedroom for the boys which took up the whole space above the garage. The front yard was about 30yds by 80yds and was made for playing touch football. The Warners had even planted little pine trees to mark sidelines and end zones. Behind the house was a pool that was fed by water from the downspouts and from tiles that ran under the hillside -- no filtration. The Rollysons converted the garage into a game room with pool table and table tennis, then built a four car garage on a courtyard that doubled as a basketball court. It was a house designed for kids, and many of us spent many days and nights there. On the way home from school on the bus every day, the conversation was about what activity we were going to engage in that afternoon: touch football, basketball, goofing off around the pool, playing pool, and sometimes even a neighborhood spanning game of War.

Mr Rollyson wasn't around very much, so I can't say I really knew him. In fact, when he was home, the neighborhood kids were usually encouraged to leave. Big Derald passed away a couple of years ago.

Mrs Rollyson -- Jackie -- was a saint, and a second mother to most of us. I never remember her telling us to quiet down, or go home, or doing anything but being a great mom. If you were there when dinner was served, you were invited to stay. If a bunch of us wanted to sleep over in the rec room, listening to Bill Cosby albumns late into the night, then get up to watch "Lancelot Link: Secret Chimp" on Saturday morning, that was okay too. Pancakes for everyone. Derald and Jackie were divorced sometime after I went away to college. She's still living in Charleston, but I haven't seen her for years.

The Rollyson kids were Derald, Debbie, Derrian and Doug. Derald is three years older, so were were never in the same school at the same time. Debbie is a year older, but had been ill when she was in first or second grade, and ended up missing a year of school. So we were in the same grade growing up. Derrian is a couple of years younger, and Doug is the same age as my younger brother, Jeff. Debbie let me call her my girlfriend for a while when we were in 9th grade. I had no idea what that meant, but loved hanging out with her every day for lunch, and taking her to all the dances. One day she told me she had a new boyfriend. That hurt, but I got over it quickly and the friendship endured (the next year I met the girl who would become my bride).

The other key family of my youth was the Hivelys. They lived in two different houses in our neighborhood, but I think of the one next door to the Rollyson's as being their house. Mike is two years older than me. Mark is the same age as Debbie Rollyson, but a year ahead of us in school, Debbie Hively and I are about 60 days different in age, but the difference put her a year behind me in school. The youngest, Cindy is a couple of years younger than Debbie.

That was our core group of kids. Derald, Deb R, Deb H, Mike, Mark and I hung out continuously through most of our youth. As time went along, we connected to different interests, and had broader circles of friends, but that group was like family. Jackie Rollyson and Jim and Marg Hively were like parents to all of us, and we moved between their homes as though it were all common property.

Sadly, we've been out of touch with one another for thirty years. Deb Hively has exchanged Christmas cards with us for a number of years, and she visited us in Columbus last fall. I spoke to Jim and Marg on Jim's 75th birthday a couple of weeks ago. Outside that, little contact. It sure would be good to get together again.

We had other great friends in the neighborhood.

The Adkins lived kinda next door. Their kids were Mike and Bridget. Mike was one of the older kid in the neighborhood, and good guy. Bridget was something special. I had a crush on her most of my youth. But she was two years older -- quite a gulf at that age. I saw Bridget a few years ago when both of us were visiting our parents.

The Frames lived a few more houses away. Hibby and Jackie were the parents. Butch was the eldest, about the same age as Mike Adkins. He was always a snappy dresser and a tough cookie. He once beat the snot out of the neighborhood bully, who was terrorizing us younger kids. I guess Butch was sort of the neighborhood Fonzie. He even had the coolest car (a Camaro RS). Butch passed away a couple of years ago from cancer. Nancy is a year older than me, and a real nice girl. George is a couple of years younger, and was a fine young man. I've seen Nancy the most recently of all of the Frames, but that has probably been 10 years ago. Hibby has passed away.

The Terhune's lived next to the Frames. They had a son who was much older than me, and an Army officer in Vietnam, so I never met him. Their second son, Larry, was the same age as George Frame. Larry was a very smart kid. I think he's aerospace engineer or something now. Mr and Mrs Terhune were great people.

Jim Ashley was a good friend of Dad's, and I think still visited him has long as he could. I liked Jim a lot. He was arrested for pointing his shotgun at a guy who was planning on tearing up Jim's yard while building next door. Like many of the men in our neighborhood, he was a combat hardened WWII vet, and didn't get intimidated easily.

Chester and Betty Flick were good friends of my folks and my grandparents. Their sons were Chester Jr and Charlie. Both were suffieciently older that I never really knew them that well. Chester Jr bought a Corvair when they first came out, and I remember getting to ride to church in it once. Charlie was the first kid on the neighborhood to get a motorcycle, sort of. His folks got him a Honda 50 on Christmas. Still it had an engine, so that made him a stud.

Next door to the Flicks were the Wentz's. Mr and Mrs Wentz were kind old folks, and had one son, Keith, a couple of years older than me.

On the other side of the Flicks were the Cavenders. Martina is my age, and we've connected up several times at class reunions. She's a beautiful and gracious lady, as always. She had a younger brother who we always called 'Buddy'. No news about him.

Several friends of ours lived in "the Bottom," which was a secluded little development along the river which was separated from the main road by a woods. There are houses dating back to the early 1800s in this area, built by the Slack family. The big house in the Bottom was owned by the Burdettes. They, along with the Rollysons, were the rich folks of the neighborhood. They had a son who is several years older than me, while their daughter Kirtha is younger. The main thing I remember about Kirtha was that she got kicked in the face by her horse, and it was quite a serious injury. She also stayed friends with one of the Warner girls long after the Warners had been transferred to Parkersburg.

The Hunter family also lived in the Bottom. Mr Hunter was the executive chef at the zooty resturant at the airport. He was one of my Mom's favorite people. The Hunter kids were Cindy (a couple of years older), Cayla (a year younger), Cathy (a couple of years younger), and Tab (about five years younger). Kayla was once married to my wife's cousin, Randy Hess. So her kids and our kids are related. Don't start the WV jokes.

When I was about 17, our church had a basketball team, and Tab was one of the kids on it. One snowy evening after practice, we plotted to go into a beer joint and buy a six-pack. I think a fellow Boy Scout, Jay Douglas, was in on it. Since I was the oldest looking, and driving the car, I was elected to go. The guy sold me the beer, and we proceeded to go down into the Bottom, pull off on a side lane, and chug it down. We dumped Tab off at his house, then I found that I couldn't get the car back up the icy road from the Bottom to the main road. So I had to walk all the way back up to our house and get my Dad to come retrieve the car. He yelled at me for getting the car stuck, but I never heard anything about the beer. But the next day when I got on the school bus, the Hunter girls all started yelling at me for getting Tab drunk. Little did they know that on the guy's side of the bus, hearing that I had bought beer illegally and actually drunk it scored a lot of points.

One of my closest buddies was Warren "Tinker" Coon. He lived next door to the Burdettes in the bottom. His Dad was a botanist with the State Dept of Agriculture. Warren was the oldest of a bunch. He had sisters Pam and Vivian, but I don't remember the youngest. Pam and Vivian were real cuties. He's a couple of years younger, which is significant when you're a kid. We did Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts together, and had lots of fun playing together in the adolescent years. Before high school, Warren's family moved to their family farm in Boone County, and I saw him only a couple of times afterward. Once was in 1969 when we both went to the Boy Scout Jamboree in Idaho as members of different troops. Later, I rode out to his farm on my first motorcycle. I haven't seen anything of him since then. Good guy, and I hope he and the girls are doing well.

Further down the road was the Kee's house. Mr Kee was a Sr Master Sgt in the Air National Guard, and also ran a little cattle farm on the hill behind my home. Their eldest was Shirley, who is probably five or six years older than me. Wayne, or Bud, is four years my elder. He was the neighborhood superjock. He was tough as steel and a fierce competitor. In high school he was the state wrestling champ for his weight class. I ran into Wayne a couple of years ago at the WV HOG Rally in Snowshoe. He still looks like he's in great shape. There were two more Kee girls - Debbie and Marsha - good people.

I don't know how I would have turned out had I not been blessed to grow up in that neighborhood. I learned how to be good, even though I did some bad things over the years. I learned how to make friends and be a friend. I learned how to act in a community of friends. If any of you guys ever read this -- thanks for letting me be part of that community -- it molded what I am.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Memorable Teachers

One's life is shaped by teachers, good and bad. I had some excellent teachers and some pretty poor teachers. There were also times when I was a bad student. Here's some memories:


1st grade: Mrs Snyder. She seemed really old, but was probably only a little older than I am now. She was like having a grandmother for a teacher. Kind, gentle, and skilled. She taught me how to read and write (Run Tip Run).

2nd grade: Mrs Buckner. She was a stern lady, but an excellent teacher. She lived only a couple of houses away from me, so I had her known most of my young life.

3rd grade: Mrs Fields. I barely remember her, but those memories are good. Don't even remember what we did in the 3rd grade.

4th grade: Mrs Black. She was the youngest teacher I had at Big Chimney, and kind of a fireball. Tough and fair. Probably the first time I ever thought my teacher was hot.

5th grade: Mrs Holland. Fifth grade was a little tough for me because I had not yet memorized my multiplication and division tables, something I was supposed to have done before finishing 4th grade. Mrs. Holland was patient but insistent. My folks did the flash cards with me, even through it was very frustrating for everyone. Then one day, something clicked and arithmetic became easy. I started school when I was only 5 years old, so I was the youngest in the class. I think my brain just didn't wire itself for math until later in the year. By the way, I was in Mrs Holland's class when the principal (Mr Pauley) came into the classroom and said President Kennedy had been shot.

6th grade: Mr. Spradling. This guy scared the hell out of everyone. Back in those days, corporal punishment was very much still allowed, and Mr Spradling had a fierce temper. I saw him slam Steve Pennington into a corrugated steel wall so hard the wall warped. I know I got whacked by him a time or two, but you know, I never felt it was undeserved or excessive. I also remember him as an excellent teacher.

Music: Mr Hamer: Kids were allowed to take instrumental music starting in the 5th grade. I went to the orientation session at the school, where the local musical instrument merchant set up displays of all kinds of band instruments. I really wanted to play saxophone, but the guy who later came to our house said the clarinet was a better instrument to start with. So my parents bought me a clarinet, and I was hooked. Music was one of the key activitiies of my youth. Anyway, Mr. Hamer was a patient and effective teacher. He became a good friend (more later).

7th Grade English: Mrs Parsons. She was a tough old bird who actually taught grammar. I hated memorizing conjugations of irregular verbs. Everything else was cool. I even liked diagramming sentences. We had the occasional 'literature' periods. A little was okay, but memorizing poems sucked. The grammar sunk in (it helped that my parents and grandparents used proper grammer too), even though it doesn't always show. I still have my 7th grade grammar book, right next to the computer.

Science: Mr Wright: I really liked Mr. Wright, mostly because I really liked science. In the 9th grade, he invited me and about ten other kids to take a special microbiology class. We grew stuff in petri dishes, did the stains, and looked at the bacteria through a new microscope he acquired for the class. He team-taught this class with another science teacher, Mr Robbins.

Band: Mr Hamer. I was now old enough to realize that Mr Hamer was a professional jazz trumpet player who taught school only to earn a steady income. We never had much of a marching band, but we had a blast practicing. Mr Hamer started a Stage Band one year, and asked me if I wanted to learn tenor sax and play in it. ABSOLUTELY. He would let me experiment with any instrument I wanted. I played Euphonium (treble clef) and Sousaphone (Eb) regularly, and occasionally even sat in on drums. Bob Hamer was a good man, tremendous teacher, great musician, and a wonderful friend.

Band: Bob Leighty: Have to start the high school list off with this guy. High school band was fun, demanding, rewarding and the center of my high school life (okay, second to a girl named Terry who I met in band). This was a high performance organization. We sounded good, looked good, and even won the top prize at the major band festival in our county when we were seniors. I was introduced to Ohio State by Mr Leighty through a trip we took to an OSU football game in 1970, and I knew I had to go to school there.

Biology: Mrs. Conner: Not much of a teacher, and I was a pain in her class. She gave me a D one 9 weeks because she said Terry was doing my work. It wasn't true. I rarely got anything but A's in science classes before or after.

Chemistry/Physics: "Doc" Chaffin: Doc was my homeroom teacher all three years of high school. I don't remember much of chemistry, but REALLY liked physics.I was well prepared for physics at Ohio State, and still use some of the stuff he taught me.

Geometry/Algebra II: Mrs Hammon: Hoover had a 'catch-up' math schedule for sophomores who wanted to take Calculus as seniors, but had not completed the advanced track in junior high. It meant taking double periods of math every day. She got the point across.

Trig: Coach Hamrick: Jim Hamrick was both the head football coach and the trig/calculus teacher. There was NO crap in his classroom, but it was out of respect rather than his insistence. We really wanted to have him for Calculus our senior year, but he got the job of principal at Clendenin Jr High.

P.E./Steve Kee: Just a good guy. PE was fun in high school (except when we had fitness tests).

English 10: Mrs Lepley: We were oil and water. I was a smartass, and she seemed to be after me. She gave me a D. Renee was a dear friend of Terry's mom, and we became friends after I grew up.

English 10/12: Mrs Koenig: A smart and very cute lady in a department filled with attractive ladies. Mrs Koenig came in the second half of the year after Mrs. Lepley started her maternity leave. I don't remember learning much, but remember having a lot of fun working on the school play when she was the director. Terry and I were even invited to her wedding (and we went!).

English 11: Miss Arthur: Because I had been such a bad boy in 10th grade English, and got a couple of D's, I was 'bumped down' a section, and was fortunate to have Mrs Arthur in the 11th grade. She was such a sweet lady that I got my act together and actually got good grades in English. I also got decent scores on the achievement tests, so my reward was that I was bumped back up to the top section and didn't get to have Miss Arthur for my senior year. But Mrs Koenig was a blast, and I got to have class with Terry again.

Physics: Charles Mate THIS is what college was all about. My first class ever in college was an 8am physics class. Dr Mate started his first lecture by pulling a bowling ball pendelum up to his nose while he stood in the corner, then letting it go. It was suspended two stories up, at the top of the main lecture hall in Smith Lab. The ball swung way out over the students, and came back within a millimeter of his nose. Then we started talking about the physics of motion, conservation of energy, etc. Every lecture was like that. Unfortunately, scheduling preventing me from having Dr Mate for the following quarter, and I ended up with a clown named Dr Karringa.

Naval Science/NROTC: LT Richard Smith. I attended OSU on a Naval ROTC scholarship, because it was the only way I could afford to get to Ohio State. But I loved the idea of being a naval officer as well. Mr Smith was an Annapolis grad, an A-4 pilot, and my freshman class instructor. Good teacher and a good mentor. Oddly enough, I met him again years later in Atlanta during a visit to a customer. He had resigned from the Navy soon after I resigned my scholarship, and decided to pursue a PhD. Honorable mention to Senior Chief Gunner's Mate (Guns) Thompson. He was the prototypical Chief Petty Officer, and a very effective leader. Told great sea stories. I remember him playing Spades every day with Andy, a one-armed deputy sheriff who had a neat trick of using a shoebox lid to hold his cards. Honorable mention to Major Williams, USMC. While I was never directly under his authority, he was a commanding positive presence in our NROTC unit. I've never lost my respect for Marine officers. Those guys have their shit together. His assistant was GySgt Bakta -- our very own DI. Special honorable mention to our CO, CAPT Mason. He was one of guys who interviewed me for my scholarship. We didn't have that much contact with him as midshipmen, but he seemed like a wise old grandpa to us. He was a destroyer squadron commander during WWII, and I think was one of those natural sailors and officers who deserved to be allowed to serve on a ship as long as he wanted. He was the real-life version of the character Rockwell Tory, played by John Wayne in 'In Harms Way.'

Linguistics: John Perkins: I met Dr Perkins during my second pass through Ohio State, when I was probably in my late 20s. Linguistics was facinating to me, and we ended up becoming friends, tossing down the occasional beer at Larry's after class (no, it is not a gay bar). I eventually hired John as a consultant to help us with a speech synthesis project at CompuServe.

Religion: Carl Skrade: I only had one professor worth mentioning at Capital - Carl Skrade. Capital is a Lutheran school, and as such requires all students to complete two courses in Religion. By this time, I was in my late 30s, the girls had arrived, and I was deep into my CompuServe career, so taking night and weekend classes was the only way I was going to finish my degree. Dr Skrade taught the Saturday morning, once/week Basic Religion class. As it turns out, I was at a period of searching in my life as well. Dr Skrade made us read and write more than I ever did for any other class. He debated with us in class (which was made up of other middle aged people like me), and challenged us to think in a way I had never been exposed to before. He changed my life.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Conflict with China

I was reading an article today about the debate over building the next-generation destroyer for the Navy, the DD(X). The writer spoke more about the potential of a future conflict with China which parallels what I've been thinking lately.

>> China will look to regain its place as one of the most, if not the most, powerful nations on the planet.

>> The US population will start to get annoyed at the transfer of high-paying jobs to China, and their increasng competition for scare resources, namely oil.

>> China will press things at some point by annexing Taiwan by force. The US will have to decide how to respond. We don't have many choices that don't end up with nuclear weapons.

I grew up during the period when World War III seemed inevitable. The Cuban Missile Crisis happened when I was in the 4th grade. My grandfather was an engineer on the Manhattan Project and my Dad was a B-29 crewman on Tinian during WWII when the A-bomb missions were flown (the attached picture of the Enola Gay was taken by Dad right after the mission). We knew people who built fallout shelters, and all public buildings had the signs telling you where you should go in the event of nuclear attack. Radios all had the Civil Defense CONLRAD frequency marked on them, which is where you were supposed to tune in the event of a nuclear attack. In school, we were taught what the warning sirens meant.

Funny story about those sirens. In the spring of 1972, I was a freshman at Ohio State and a Midshipman in the Navy ROTC program. Wednesday was our Drill Day, when everyone in the NROTC unit wore uniforms to class, and met for training at the end of the day. So at lunchtime one Wednesday early that Spring, I was walking, in uniform, across the Oval (a sort-of park in the center ofthe OSU campus), when the air raid sirens went off. Let me tell you, I about crapped my pants because I was sure those sirens meant someone had pushed The Button and we were about to get nuked. I was walking with a Navy buddy, and, in a state of some anxiety, asked him if he knew where the closest shelter was. He laughed and said, "oh, it's only a test." I asked him how he knew? He said "they always test the tornado sirens at noon on Wednesday during the Spring." Coming from the mountains, I had no idea that in the parts of the country prone to tornadoes, the air raid sirens were used to warn the public if a tornado was nearby. My buddy got a good laugh out this.

When the Soviet Union fell in the 1980s, I felt great relief that my kids could grow up in a world where there was no risk of the Russkies raining down nukes on our country. Sure, there were lots of other countries with nukes, but none of them seemed to be our enemies, even if they weren't the best of friends. The world seemed to be moving to a state of intertwined economic markets, where conquest by war was less important than making a profit.

But at the same time, the US started down a path of corrosion. No, I didn't mean to say "corruption." I used corrosion on purpose: you know, Rust. Rust is what you get if you fail to take proper care of your things that are made out of iron and steel. You also get rust if the product was made cheaply, or sloppily. It's what you get if you are greedy and lazy.

Our heavy industry is all but gone because the business owners were more interested in a quick profit than a sustainable business. But it wasn't just the owners: the workers demanded higher and higher wages and more benefits, and caused the cost of production to climb astronomically. Then the government opened up our borders for trade, allowing oversea manufacturers to bring in products made with cheap labor and less regulation (e.g. environmental protection). And finally, our consumers voted with their wallets by buying cheaper foreign-made goods. "Buy American" was a good thing if it meant saving their own jobs, but not when it came to buying a cheap TV.

We've gotten lazy with our educational system too. There continues to be a set of very smart motivated kids who get excellent educations and do remarkable things with their lives. But when we had all the heavy industry in this country, the less brainy and the lazy could still find high-paying jobs in the manufacturing sector. When the economy is good, we can afford to create entitlement programs so that the poorest of our society can have a safety net, and their kids have a chance to climb out of the ghettos and the hollers (WV talk).

As manufacturing jobs have gone offshore, we've lost that whole sector of high paying jobs for folks without much education. You're either a highly educated profession, or a lowly service worker. Not much in the middle any more. We've gotten so used to thumbing our noses at the low-paying jobs that we're letting waves of immigrants pour into our country and take these jobs. So now we have a huge population of minimally educated, specially skilled, but unemployed former factory workers.

Meanwhile China has been steadily climbing back to power. In prior centuries, China was a dominating powerhouse in their part of the world. They had a sophisticated society, and great wealth. But when the West entered the Industrial Age, China was still agricultural and fuedal. In WWII, the Japanese took China down another couple of notches. In what had to be a disappointment to our government, our former allies decided to follow the path of Communism under the leadership of Mao Tse Tung.

We Americans have an imbred hate of Communism. At least more people my age or older do. My contemporaries who put on the uniform of our armed services knew that their mission was to protect our country and halt the spread of Communism. We got into Vietnam on exactly that excuse.

Communism isn't philosophically a bad thing. The notion of no private property and shared wealth is very noble and, one could argue, very Christian ("they sold everything and shared whatever they had."). We applaud the Israelis who live a kibbutz. The same kind of community in the Soviet Union was called a "commune." Many Americans thing "communism" is the opposite of "democracy." It's not. You can have a communist democracy, although I can't think of a real world example. The opposite of "communism" is "capitalism." We have a democratic-capitalistic society in America.

Most communist societies have not been democratic -- they've been ruled by a dictator (e.g. North Korea) or a small ruling party (the USSR and China). The people in power stay in power until they are overthrown.

The Chinese seem to have something else going. Maybe they were lucky that Mao Tse Tung came to power. I'm sure he did some things which we would call monsterous, but his motivations seemed to be about making the country strong again. They made tough decisions and tradeoffs -- choices I don't see our country having the guts to make anymore.

So we find ourselves in the position of being the wealthiest country on the planet, but living mostly on past glory. We still do some great things occasionally. It's the everyday stuff we've gotten lazy about (rust). We want cheap goods, and have opened up our borders to let everyone have a shot at selling their stuff to us. We're consuming our savings account and even our borrowing capacity.

Meanwhile, the Chinese have spent decades preparing themselves for this opportunity. They've controlled their population so that they don't need to spend too much of their resources just keeping people clothed and fed. They've sent their brightest folks to western universities and beefed up their own education system to crank out armies of engineers and skilled workers...

... and they have nukes. Nukes are interesting things. We probably have enough nukes stockpiled to turn every decent sized town in China into radioactive smudges. They probably have only enough to wipe out New York, Washington and LA. What relative position does that put us in? It means that if we both fire everything we have at the same time, they'd be completely destroyed and we'd only lose our three biggest cities. Does that feel like a victory? Don't think so. Only the truly crazy amongst us would start this war.

When my Dad was waiting to come home after the Japanese surrender of WWII, he got assigned to be an MP (Military Policeman) on one of the islands. He said things were pretty rough. Thousands of GIs with nothing to do but celebrate -- hard. In some places, the MPs would walk around with grenades with the pins pulled. If you were dumb enough to knock down an MP, both of you would likely get killed. Kinda of an individual Doomsday weapon I suppose.

That's what nukes are. Rational people won't use them in an act of aggression, but they will keep the other guy from making the fight too serious. Maybe some kicked shins and bloody noses, but not much more than that. So China has nukes, which keeps them from being pushed around. It gives them a chair at the big table when it comes to settling international disputes.

So why haven't they just grabbed Taiwan to see how we would respond? I think the answer there is simple: they haven't gotten enough of our blood (cash) yet. They know that if they do something we HAVE to respond to, that the first response with be economic sanctions. If you're playing the game for a 1,000 year victory, as they are, there's no sense pissing off the goose while golden eggs are still popping out.

One day, maybe we'll get a President and Congress who want to, and will do something about the Rusting of America. They'll impose big tariffs on Chinese goods, cut off immigration, and endevour to put Americans back to work. Maybe the Chinese will have developed markets outside the US which are so lucrative that losing access to the US isn't that big a deal (or maybe because the US no longer has much money to spend). At that point, you could expect them to annex Taiwan and ignore our sabre-rattling. If no one else cares, maybe they'll annex Korea too. Then Southeast Asia. They'll do a deal with India to see how they'll split up Asia. Might as well take back Siberia while they're on a roll. How about Africa?

I guess somewhere along the way, we would tell China that we aren't going to honor all those Treasury bonds they've bought over the years. But I don't think anyone will care. The Chinese don't really need the money, and we weren't going to pay it back in our lifetimes anyway.

If they feel truly threatened by being cut off from our spending, maybe they'll hit us with something more serious just to let us know they aren't taking things lying down, like maybe sinking one of our ships they think is too close to their territorial waters. One analysis of the bombing on Pearl Harbor was that the Japanese didn't want us to enter the war, they wanted us to stay out and thought that hitting a forward base was a way to send that message. This kind of conflict is much more common in nature than all out war. Unless the immediate need is food, or the advantage is overwhelming, the aggressor and the defender just take a few whacks to see who might be more capable and motivated. Before any mortal harm is done, one of the two back down. That's what the Japanese hoped we would do after Pearl Harbor. They miscalculated. Good thing they were occupied by the US and not the Soviets.

Whichever level of conflict we reach with the Chinese, I feel some conflict is highly probable. The only way to avoid it is for more Americans to really think about the situation, and be willing to entrust noble leaders who have a plan for a gradual and negotiated ending of the trade imbalance with China. If we give them a chance to slowly wean themselves off our money, we for us to wean ourselves off their products, maybe we can work ourselves into a world of tolerant equals.

I hope so.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Developers are Like Locusts

Our home is in a rural township on the outskirts of a reasonably large metro area. We moved here with hopes of enjoying the kind of neighborhood I grew up in. We found a 5 acre lot that was part of a little 7 lot parcel a family sold off from a larger farm. It was in the same school district our kids were already attending, only about eight miles from my office, and about the same distance for the wife to her place of business. There was a interstate highway exit about 3 miles away, giving quick access to the city center, airport and other places we might want to get to. But the thing we really enjoyed was that there was about four miles of pure farmland between our property and the outerbelt highway.

Relatively suddenly, that changed. The intersection closest to the freeway exit turned into a major retail development. It used to be that this intersection was just a four-way stop sign with cornfields all around. Now there is a Wal-Mart SuperCenter, Sam's Club, Meijers, a Ford Dealer, lots of strip-mall retails, four motel chains, and just about every chain food establishment you can think of at this intersection. At each exit of the beltway, a similar retail development has emerged. At the same time, thousands of single-family and multi-family residential developments have been constructed. This is where the problem begins.

Our metro region doesn't really have an over-arching government entity that coordinates planning and development for the whole area. There are agencies which have names that imply that they might have that authority (e.g. Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission), but they don't really. What we have is a bunch of independent municipalities and school systems which compete with one another for resources. But the point of this article is to say that it's not really the municipal governments or the school systems which are controlling things -- it's the residential developers.

When we first moved to Columbus in the 1970s (while attending college at Ohio State), the 'metro' area had a population of about a half-million. The population was mostly White with a significant African-American component. While there was some amount of manufacturing in the community, the major employers were the state government, the university, banks and insurance companies. Because Columbus is the state capital, there are also many lobbyist groups and associations with headquarters here. One interesting point about Columbus being the capital of Ohio: like Washington DC, Columbus did not exist as a city until the state government decided to build the capital city here in the early 1800s. There is no significant geographic reason, or wealth of natural resources, which would cause a major city to develop in this particular place. It's a big hunk of mostly flat land with an inconsequential river running through it. Much of the land around Hilliard was a swamp until drained with extensive systems of field tiles and trenches.

For reasons I don't fully understand, Columbus began to grow in the 1970s, and today the regional population is about 1.5 million. The racial and ethnic mix is richer, with much of the growth coming from Latin American (primarily Mexican) and African (primarily Somali) cultures. While I applaud the diversity in our community, the rapid growth -- regardless of the cultural makeup -- is NOT being managed well by the governments of our region. I fear that if we don't get ahead of this problem, it will develop into serious conflict, culminating in economic failure and increased violence. (update: notice what has been happening in France in the fall of 2005 – communities of immigrants segregated economically burst into riots and civil unrest. Could we see this here?)

One consequence worth talking about: the increasing polarization of the residential nature of the central city:

In the 1970s, before we had kids, the Columbus City Schools were required, by order of the court, to bus kids from poorer (mostly African American) neighborhoods to schools in more affluent (mostly White) neighborhoods. The reasoning was that the kids who lived in the black neighborhoods were getting a different and less comprehensive education that the kids in the white neighborhoods, and that race and affluence were an important reason for that difference. I guess the theory was that the presence of white and affluent kids in the classroom caused the teachers to teach better, the students to behave better, and it would influence the school board to allocate more resources -- like furniture, books and equipment -- to the schools in black neighborhoods, since there were going to be white kids there now. The desired result was to expose all kids, black and white, poor and affluent, to the same educational opportunities so that each kid gets the chance to develop their potential without a built-in handicap.

In theory, I can agree with this being a potential solution. But like all forced solutions, the people affected will try to find a way around a situation they don't like. The answer they chose in this case was obvious: those who could afford it moved out of the attendance area of the Columbus City Schools. The consequence was that the demographics of the Columbus City Schools became blacker and poorer.

If you want to move out of the Columbus City Schools, you need to either: a) find an existing house in a suburban school district, or, b) build a new house in a suburban school district. Finding an existing house is a good solution, but there is a limited supply of those for sale, and only a fraction of those would be desirable to an upper-middle class family moving out to have a better life. So one direct impact of the busing decision for Columbus City Schools was to create the demand for new housing in the suburban school districts.

At this point, another piece of the Columbus political environment comes into play: The City of Columbus has exclusive control of the regional water and sewer system. For a developer to build a new subdivision, he must have access to water and sewer. The suburban municipalities get access to the water/sewer system by signing contracts with the City of Columbus. These contracts specify the exact boundaries to which the suburb us allowed to annex and extend the water/sewer pipes. The City of Columbus would ensure that it retained corridors of expansion between the suburbs so that it could continue to grow through its own annexation. Ohio law does not allow "islands" of land to be annexed -- each newly annexed parcel must be adjacent to parcels already part of the annexing municipality.

At first, each of the suburbs had enough developable land specified in their water/sewer agreements to allow a fair amount of expansion through annexation. Residential developers certainly took the opportunity to fill the demand for housing creating by the "white flight" from Columbus City Schools, and new suburban developments sprang up all over. But what the developers really wanted to do was get to the large parcels of township farmland around the beltway where they could build developments of hundreds of homes (it is much more profitable to develop one community of 1,000 homes than 50 communities of 200 homes). Because most of these parcels were outside the areas specified in the suburban water contracts, it would mean that for the developer to get water/sewer service, the parcel would need to be annexed into the City of Columbus. This situation is exactly what Columbus wanted, and many such developments appeared around the beltway. We built our first house in one called Golfview Woods. Our lot was within the boundaries of the City of Columbus and in the attendance area of the Hilliard City Schools. We had no kids at the time, so the school boundaries weren't all that important anyway.

The busing policy for Columbus City Schools was eventually abandoned, presumably because everyone saw the folly of it. But rather than halting the flight from the City, this had little effect. Folks saw that the courts, with a stroke of the pen, could screw up their lives, so the flight continued. The buildings of the Columbus City Schools continued to empty, and eventually they had to shut down even their most visible building -- Central High School, right in the heart of downtown. But the Columbus City Schools still had some cards to play...

The School Board of the Columbus City Schools went to the State Board of Education and made the argument that this white flight was endangering the viability of the Columbus Schools by taking away students and tax revenue and leaving their buildings empty, while at the same time the suburbs were having to furiously build new schools to absorb the thousands of new kids showing up as new homes were being built. Wouldn't it make more sense, they argued, to allow the attendance area of the Columbus City Schools to automatically move with the boundaries of the City of Columbus? The suburbs could take in all they could within their existing water/sewer service boundaries, but that space was limited, and Columbus -- City and Schools -- would get everything else. The most radical part of the proposal was that it be made retroactive: if a parcel of land had been annexed into Columbus to gain water/sewer for development, the students living in that annexed area would be required to leave their current suburban schools and transfer to the Columbus City Schools.

This argument was viewed favorably by the State Board of Education. If this became policy, it would eliminate most of the reasons people had for moving out of the City of Columbus into the suburbs. There was an uproar in the suburbs from the parents of those kids. It would also significantly curtain the demand for new homes. Not good news for those wanting to flee the city, those living in the contested neighborhoods, or, most significantly, the residential developers. So a thing called the "Win-Win Agreement" was crafted. Its major provisions are these:

All existing developments within the City of Columbus but suburban school districts would be left in the suburban school district. However, a portion of the property taxes collected on these parcels would be paid to the Columbus City Schools anyway.

Any undeveloped parcel in a suburban school district which is annexed into a suburb under the existing water/sewer service agreements would be allowed to stay in the suburban school district.
Any undeveloped parcel in a suburban school district which is annexed into the City of Columbus would automatically shift to Columbus City Schools

The local school districts and municipalities have operated under this treaty for over 20 years at this point, including at least one renewal cycle. It must be good for someone, but I'm not sure who. Certainly it affects the homeowners addressed in point #1 above. In the case of point #2, there are no homeowners. However, the owners of large parcels of farmland (who these days are often absentee owners who rent the land to local farmers) like this provision because it makes their land worth more to residential developers. Of course, the residential developers like this provision because it’s easier to sell homes when they fall into a suburban school district. Case #2 is even good for the Columbus City Schools at it allows them to collect incremental tax revenue without having to educate any incremental kids. From their standpoint, it's more like a piece of commercial property, which is the best kind of property use of all from the perspective of the municipal government and the schools (more on this later).

As for case #3, this would seem to be no good for anyone. The current landowner would have few if any developers interested in buying the land. Without a developer, there would be no one to seek water/sewer service and hence no reason to request annexation into the City of Columbus. That means no new affluent homeowners and their kids for the Columbus City Schools. Nonetheless, there is now at least one massive housing development in its first stages of construction which exactly fits this situation. What's going on? I have my theory, but first some more (excruciating) background.

Over the past couple of decades, there have been several lawsuits heard in the state courts regarding the constitutionality of the current process for funding schools in Ohio. By law, school districts have very few options relative to mechanisms for generating funds. The universal approach taken is to collect property taxes, both residential and commercial. This approach has some political problems. In the case of rural school districts, most of the property is in use as farmland. Farmers have enough of a problem making a living without being taxed out of existence by the schools. So it's very hard to get a tax levy passed in the farmlands, and it’s very hard to get the State Legislature to increase the burden on the farmers since so many of the representatives come from rural districts.

In the urban districts, the residential property base continues to erode as dwellings are abandoned by their owners and taken over by the slumlords that let the values continue to slide. In Columbus, a particularly difficult problem is erupting: many of these low rent properties are being occupied by new immigrant families who have children with limited English proficiency. So not only is the tax base eroding, but the difficulty and cost of educating the kids is escalating dramatically.

If there is commercial development in the urban district, the property taxes are often been abated as part of the deal to attract the corporation buying or upgrading the property. While these abatement deals might have provisions to provide replacement school funding, such is not always the case.

Prior to the 1970s, there was no state income tax in Ohio. But when the tax was enacted, a primary use of the funding was to provide aid to the poorer school districts in the state, predominately in the urban and rural districts. This is clearly a classic "Robin Hood" program, taking money from the wealthier districts to help support the poorer districts. In principal, I have no problems with this. But on many occasions, lawsuits have been brought by individuals and school districts in the state courts claiming that the current funding system is failing to ensure that all children get a good education, and consequently violates the state constitution. On four occasions, the Ohio Supreme Court has agreed, but not offered any remedies.

Lots of people are confused on this point. They think it is the system which the Supreme Court says is unconstitutional, and that something radical needs to be done to change the way it works. In truth, the issue is not that the algorithms are wrong (although they certainly cater to regional issues); it's that the state legislature fails to allocate enough money to fund the program to levels which the algorithms specify.

Here's a synopsis of the way the Ohio School Aid program is supposed to work:

An assessment is made of the performance of all public schools in the state. This is akin to the "report card" process, in which school systems are ranked Excellent, Continuous Improvement, Academic Emergency, etc, but is of course a little different.

The set of schools who are rated in the highest performing category are sorted by the amount of money the system spends per student each year. The N systems (I forget the number) which spend the least have their per student spending averaged together, and this number is declared to be the minimum amount that a school system needs to spend to achieve the standard of excellence required by the state Constitution. So if there are 20 school systems in the state that achieve the highest performance rating, and N is set to 5, and the 5 lowest schools spend $8000, $8100, $8200, $8300 and $8400 per student per year, then the declared minimum funding is set to $8200.

Local school districts are expected to take responsibility for taxing themselves at least to a minimum standard, which I believe is 17 mils ($0.017 per dollar of assessed property value). Let's pick an example district where these 17 mils would raise $6000 per student (from residential and commercial property taxes). This is called the "charge-off," and is deducted from the State Aid regardless of whether the local district is actually raising the 17 mils locally.So if the school district does actually raise the 17 mils, which generates $6000 per student, the state would add the other $2200 as State Aid, and the district would have $8200 per student to spend. The theory is that there are other districts which achieve excellence for this amount of money, so this school district should too.What if a school district raises more than the minimum? Let's say another school district has great support, and the community has voted to pay 50 mils in levies, which generate $9000 per student per year in funding?

Theoretically, they would receive no State Aid at all. In fact, there are no districts in Ohio which collect so much local property tax that they receive no State Aid. But some are close.You see, the money that funds the State Aid is our income taxes. In wealthy districts, which are typically the suburbs of large cities, the residents pay much more income tax than they get back in school funding. The rest of their money goes to support the urban and rural schools. In very real terms, the cost suburban residents bear for having their kids in nice schools is that they get to pay for the urban schools anyway.

Each year, the State Legislature must pass a budget which funds the State Aid for schools, plus all the other programs and obligations of the state government. This is where the Supreme Court decision comes into play: the state has been consistently failing to fund the State Aid program to the degree specified by the funding formula. In our example above, the school district is doing its duty to tax itself the 17 mils, but the state isn't holding up its end with the $2200 in aid. Maybe the state only provides $1500 in aid. Now the district only has $7500 per student to spend. If there are 1,000 students in the district, this is $700,000 less per year, and in a small district this is a meaningful amount of money (maybe 20 teachers for example).

There are a couple of 'adjustments' which make things a little weirder. Many years ago, the legislature passed a law that said when the county assessor raised the value of a piece of property, that reassessment could not automatically cause the tax burden for the homeowner. This was passed at a time when some areas of the state had a hot real estate market, and some homeowners, notably the elderly, were being taxed out of homes they had lived in for years. The mechanism of this law is that if the assessed property value increases, the millage rate applied to that property would be decreased by an amount equal to keep the dollar amount of the tax bill the same.

For example: a house had been appraised at $100,000 and taxed at 17 mils. This would generate $1700 per year in property taxes. A couple of years later, the property is reappraised at $120,000. The law requires that the $1700 tax bill not change, so the assessor would be required to adjust the effective millage rate on that property to $1700/$120000 or 14.167 mils.The weirdness is a thing which has been called "Phantom Revenue." It's just an inconsistency between the funding formula and the constant tax mechanism described in the prior paragraph. What happens is that for purposes of calculating the 17 mil charge-off, the full assessed value is used. The effect on our example house above is that the state aid formula would deduct $120,000 * 17 mils = $2040 from the aid necessary, while only $1700 in actual taxes would be collected. The difference of $340 is the Phantom Revenue. It causes a noticeable reduction in aid, but is NOT the key problem in the suburban districts.

There are other miscellaneous adjustments made to the basic funding formula to account for disproportional costs a district might have for educating kids with physical, behavioral and learning disabilities. Transportation costs can be supplemented with State Aid as well.

School funding comes from three primary sources: 1) State Aid (which we just discussed); 2) residential property taxes; and, 3) commercial property taxes. In our school district, it costs about $9000/yr to educate a kid, and currently about one third comes from each source. So what's the problem?
When a new house is built, the experience in our district is that around one school-age kid comes with it. That means $9000 in incremental cost. The house the kid lives in generates about $3000 in incremental residential property tax revenue. The state will kick in another $3000 in State Aid. BUT NO NEW COMMERCIAL PROPERTY TAX REVENUE HAS BEEN GENERATED!! This is the key to the funding shortfall, and why rapidly-growing school districts have to keep going back to the voters to increase taxes.

Folks move into the rural areas and suburbs because they like the residential nature of the area, and often resist the creation of commercial developments, especially those which can generate high tax revenues in small land parcels (e.g. multi-story buildings, or manufacturing operations). They're okay with doctor's offices and the occasional convenience store, but please nothing that looks too industrial or draws outsiders into their neighborhoods. Folks just don't understand that a residential-only community is very expensive to live in if they want all the trappings of an upper-middle class neighborhood too. Things like great schools, attractive public facilities (parks, community centers), low densities, and responsive police and fire services. The cost of having these things is lessened by designing integrated communities which have an appropriate balance of residential, commercial and public development.

One would think the municipal governments would use their power to manage this balance. As servants of the citizens of the community, their job would be to provide the services required and desired by the citizens using as few of the citizens' tax dollars as possible. The best way to do that is to attract desirable businesses that will pay substantial taxes without putting a commensurate burden on the infrastructure of the community. Certainly, a business does not add children to the school system. Mayors and City Councils who fail to attract such businesses need to be held accountable for their (lack of) performance, and replaced with competent leadership. But we also have to empower the Mayors and City Councils to limit the pace of residential development when it threatens the economic viability of the municipality AND the school system.

For whatever reason, the suburban municipal governments around here seem to have little power, or perhaps desire, when it comes to controlling residential development. I understand the point that the large landowners around the perimeter of the city want to cash in on the development value of their land, and that the large residential developers need to acquire that land and build houses on it to keep their profits flowing. But what's good for those individuals and corporations is not necessarily good for the community. Balancing that tension is not easy, and it takes leadership with guts, business acumen and great communications skills to pull it off.

But you know what the REAL problem is? It's that most of our fellow citizens won't invest the time and intellect to understand all this. While I admit that this essay is long and a bit tedious, trust me when I say it is the very much condensed version of the whole situation. Nonetheless, few of my fellow citizens will take the time to read something like this essay, or sit through a 30 minute presentation to get educated on these matters. If your point cannot be reduced to a sound bite or a couple of pictures, it's just blah-blah-blah to most folks...

... And the developers are counting on this situation. You ever hear the joke about the college professor who noticed that one of his students sat through every class with a blank stare? He asked the student if he was ignorant or apathetic. The student answered that he didn't know and he didn't care. That what Americans have become. We react to sound bites and video clips pretty much at an emotional level, forming opinions based on how much we were entertained or annoyed by the style rather than the substance.

Politicians get elected on the same basis. Once in office, the citizens are an annoyance, not the people you serve. The real customer is the residential real estate developer. No other entity stands to harvest more profits in a suburb than these guys. I'm not saying our politicians take direct bribes, but there's definitely something in it for them. Otherwise, why would they let the schools and the city government get in such financial trouble without making these developers share the burden?

There's an easy answer: Impact Fees. Remember from the analysis above that when a new house is built, there is a $3000 shortfall in funding for the school district. In the past, the only way they get fixed is to raise the property taxes on everyone in the district. So in a very direct way, everyone else in the community subsidizes the funding shortfall created every time a house is built. The great way to change this is to impose an up-front, one-time fee on the homebuyer that is their "buy-in" into the community. The fee should be the cost to build a new high school building divided by the fully-utilized population of that building. Right now that number is about $10,000. In exchange, there would be no new taxes raised to build schools. Residential property taxes would be used to fund operations, but not construct school buildings.

Here’s another oddity of school funding in Ohio: When a district puts a bond levy on the ballot to construct new school buildings, what it is actually doing is asking the community to agree to make the principal and interest payments on bonds the district will sell to raise the cash to build the buildings. Essentially, the district is taking out a mortgage on the new buildings and asking the taxpayers to make the payments.

So when a bond levy passes, the voters are agreeing to pay off that particular debt. It's a fixed amount, paying interest only during the life the bonds, then repaying the principal when the bonds mature -- just like an interest-only mortgage. Let's fantasize and say that the bonds carried zero% interest. If there are 10,000 residential parcels in a school district, and a $30 million high school is going to be built. The bond levy would specify that each of the 10,000 parcels would be taxed $100 additionally per year for 30 years to pay off the bonds. But what happens if another 200 houses are built? The answer is NOT that those folks are also taxed $100 each per year, putting $20,000 per year away in a future building fund. Instead, the same payments on the original bonds are spread out over 10,200 people, dropping the tax burden to $98 per year.

So this seems like it's a good thing when more houses are built, at least in terms of paying of the building bonds. But if the district is growing rapidly, it won't be long until other building needs to be built. Then ALL the homeowners in the district will have to sign up to pay a new bond levy, even though they have been paying off bonds for the existing schools (which their kids attended) all long.

Of course, the developers hate the idea of impact fees. They can make a lot of money in suburban areas with thousands of acres of developable land, and these fees seem like nothing more than a substantial price increase for their buyers, and they don't get any of the money!

There is another solution, which I first heard from State Rep. Larry Wolpert: An earned-income tax. Currently schools can assess an income tax if approved by voters, but the definition of income for these taxes causes our senior citizens on pensions and social security to be drawn into the net. Larry wants to find a way to let those folks live out their senior years without getting taxed into poverty while the community around them expands. Larry's proposal would place a tax only on earned income, which excludes things like pension and social security income. The thing I like about it is that once implemented, each new resident has to pay it without having to go back to the voters for approval. If property taxes are lowered commensurate with the new income tax, then current residents see little change in their tax burden, and new residents automatically get assessed their fair share. It can work.

Oh, and the line about "Developers are like Locusts." I think that neither locusts nor developers are evil. They are simply organisms which seek to maximize their own lives. They aren't out to do us harm, but they don't care if they do either. Developers, like locusts, cause damage when they aren't controlled.

That's the point.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Going Out Gracefully

Twelve years ago, when our kids were little, an attractive, injured, and very friendly calico cat came wandering by our home in the farmland. The kids already had a pet cat, Peaches, that their babysitter had given us. I'm not a fan of cats, and even sent one to cat heaven with an arrow as a teenager when I caught it digging baby bluebirds out of a birdhouse my Dad and I had built. But Peaches was a nice cat who was very interactive and very little trouble. So when this beat up stray showed up, it didn't take a lot of convincing for me to agree to take it in.

So the wife hauled the cat off to the vet to get it patched up, and we were informed that it was pregnant (after one additional experience like this, I've come to believe that ALL friendly stray cats are pregnant). The kids wanted the whole experience of her having the kittens, and I thought it was a good thing too. So some weeks later, she blessed us with a litter of eight kittens as I recall. Then she promptly got nasty -- towards both the humans and Peaches, who by this time was a much loved member of the household. The kittens were a nice variety of colors and patterns. We told the kids they could keep one kitten, but the rest, including the turncoat mother, had to go. A few were adopted by friends, and the rest ended up on the farm of the babysitter's sister. I hope that nasty mother cat enjoyed eating farm rats the rest of her life.

The kids picked a long-haired black kitten with a white underbelly, naming him 'Oreo.' It wasn't the color that attracted the kids to him, it was his goofy behavior. As he grew into a mature cat, we became convinced that his goofiness was due in large part because he was missing something upstairs. He pretty much kept to himself for ten years, responding to attempts to pick him up or pet him with growls and bites. During that period, Peaches died (and was bured in a sunny place in our back yard), and not long after we took in another stray. This new cat, Dusty, was really nice and has stayed that way. So we remained a two cat household, but Oreo was mostly an invisible entity, making his presence known primarily through his prodigious production of hairballs.

Then suddenly a couple of years ago, Oreo started getting more social. It was like someone flipped a switch, and we've never understood the cause. Maybe something in his brain just changed. Whatever the reason, he became a good, if somewhat eccentric, member of the household.

One day about a year ago, I noticed that his pupils were dialated and that he was walking into things. He always kind of slinked around, but this behavior seemed weird even for Oreo. With a few experiments, I concluded that he was blind. Through some quick web research, I found that this kind of sudden onset blindness could be caused by hypertension, and that sight could be restored if treated quickly. So I ran him over to our vet, and a $100 or so later found out that it was indeed severe hypertension, and that he also was moderately diabetic. So the vet prescribed medicines for each malady, and now we have to get him to take two pills every day. The wife has figured out a technique for burying the pills in treats, so he takes them pretty well. His eyesight was restored and all seems normal. Except he added one more behavior to his repertoir: he now crawls up next to me every evening, and rolls over to have his belly scratched.

Over the last few months, he's been losing weight. It wasn't apparent because of all the hair, but one day when I was petting him, I noticed that he had gone from a large 15lb cat to skin and bones (and hair). Another trip to the vet and $200 in tests indicated that his diabetes had become uncontrolled, and he was going to need to go on injected insulin to thrive.

The wife and I had a discussion before we took him to the vet. The question was, "what if the vet says the cat needs a level of care which is annoying to the cat (like daily injections), intrusive on our lifestyle (with the kids out on their own, we are spending more time traveling), and expensive?" Our answer was that we would allow the cat to enjoy whatever comfortable life he had left, and either die a natural death in our home, or if in pain, to be euthanized by the vet (we had euthanized Peaches when the pain of her cancer became too much -- you could see it in her eyes).

Interestingly, at least to me, when the vet said the insulin would only cost about $40 for a three month supply, I backtracked and said we should at least see how the cat tolerates the shots.Maybe he'll do okay, or maybe he'll go berzerk every time. If that the case, then I'll feel like he's voted -- no shots -- and he can live with the consequences. If we're going to be gone for a week, he'll have to do without. This may cause a permanent degrading of his health, but he's living on borrowed time anyway as far as I'm concerned.

This isn't really an essay about cats. While everything I've said is true and factual, the more important conversation is what we as humans should do when our life reaches the place where Oreo is right now.

I believe we, as a society, need to develop the guts to accept when the final illness is upon us, and be willing to take the journey to our mortal end without selfishly -- yes, I said selfishly -- consuming resources that will benefit others much more. A friend who is a nationally known expert on health care economics recently told me that something like 80% of the total lifetime spending on healthcare takes place during the final illness.

This is a major contributor to our escalating healthcare costs. What gives us the right to consume all those resources which could otherwise be used by our children, or our neighbors? Legend has it that the custom of the Native Americans was for the old people, when they began consuming more than they contributed, to walk off into the woods and relieve the tribe of the burden of caring for them. It makes sense that such a custom would develop -- it certainly would improve the survival chances for the community. Most animal species allow their old and weak to be captured and eaten by predators. In some species, the predator may be another animal of the same species. Sounds grotesque, but it is better for one of the same species to make use of the protein than let another species have it. I'd like to think the old Indians die peacefully in their sleep, dreaming of past glories and eternal grace.

I'm not proposing that sick or old people be required to commit suicide, as in the movie "Logan's Run", or that we recycle human protein, as was the case in "Soylent Green." But when the doctors say, "you're gonna die in 5 years with expensive and debillitating treatment, or 2 years without", isn't the 2 year option the right one?

I hope I don't need to make this decision anytime soon...

Update: In February 2007, Oreo began to act weak and sluggish. We noticed that he had been losing weight, and guessed that his diabetes was out of control and his insulin dosage needed to be adjusted. He had also developed a raspy cough. So we took him to the vet, who took x-rays and blood tests to find out what was going on. The x-rays showed that he had advanced lung cancer, with a tumor is his right lung about the size of an apple. I think they expected us to euthanize him immediately, but he didn't seem to be telling us that he was suffering. So we brought him home for his last days. When he could no longer get up, and was struggling for breath, we took him to the vet and ended his suffering. He is buried next to Peaches. Thanks for sharing your life with us Oreo.

Friday, July 8, 2005


I like London, and have had a chance to be there many times both on business and for pleasure. The news of the terrorist bombings there is very sad. I had responsibility for a computer center about a block from the Kings Cross tube station, and used those trains often.

So I ask myself, if I were still doing business in London, and it's six months from now and there have been no further bombings in London, would I just shrug today off and go back to riding the Tube as part of my daily commute? I'd like to think the answer would be 'yes,' because I've decided not let the terrorists win by causing me to make my life less convenient as a result of this one event. But I think the answer would be 'yes,' instead because I would no longer feel threatened, and riding the Tube is just the most sensible way to get around.

Let's create a Risk/Reward Ratio using the following anchor points:

1 = I feel completely safe. I would feel okay if my kid were in this situation
10 = bad things have happened here, but it's rare, and I can control how much risk I take
100 = bad things have happened here recently, and the victim was powerless to prevent or stop it
1 = The outcome for me is meaningless, regardless of whether I had any influence over the result
10 = if it didn't take too much sacrifice (time, money, effort, annoyance), I would seek this outcome
100 = I would make considerable effort to experience this outcome

Here's some thought experiements:

Getting to ride in a nuclear submarine: 10/100 = 0.10. Maybe a little cheat because I can't really do much to control the risk, but this would be about 1000 on the reward scale for me.

Riding my motorcycle a long distance to visit, or ride with, a good friend: 10/10 = 1.0. I have done and continue to do this regularly. It's fun, not worth too much effort or sacrifice.

Bungee jumping from the New River Gorge Bridge: 10/1 = 10.0. There's just no way I would do this.

This calibration says that the larger the ratio, the less likely I am to undertake the activity; while the closer to zero it gets the more likely I am. So if I were in London today, how would I score the ratio in respect to deciding whether I get on the Tube or not. I think it would be 100/10 = 10.0 and that I would be about as likely to get on the Tube today as jumping from the
New River Gorge Bridge with elastic ropes tied to my ankle.

Let's say that one year from now, there have been no further attacks in London. What's my score on the same question? I think it would be back to the blase 10/10 = 1.0. I'd get on the train without much regard to the events of July 7, 2005. This is the mode the governments of the US and the UK want us to return to as soon as possible. It won't take all that long -- just a few days for most folks.

The truly brave and defiant folks would also have a Risk/Reward result of 1.0. But for them, the calculation is 100/100 = 1.0. They want to get on a train on the exact route and the same time and thumb their noses at the terrorists.

What's sad is that I think there's a large portion of 1/1 = 1.0 folks out there. They don't feel any risk, and aren't getting much of kick from life either. Their lives are lived in little boxes of their own making. I'd rather be a little scared of bombs than live like that...

Thursday, July 7, 2005

America the Feudal

Rich vs Poor is not the same thing as Republican vs Democrat or Conservative vs Liberal or Red vs Blue. The political labels aren't anything more than the name of the team and the color of the jersey. I personally have changed my party affiliation at least once (from WV Democrat to OH Republican), and have voted for as many 3rd Party Presidential candidates as anything else. By the way, did you know that in Ohio, you can change your party affiliation when you go to the polls to vote? I work as a Presiding Judge in a local precinct. This past May, the only thing on our ballot was the Republican Primary for local City Council. That means you should get to vote only if you are registered as a Republican, right? Nope, you can walk in, check the box for Republican in the poll signature book and go vote. Until you change it again, you're a Republican. A number of folks registered as Democrats did exactly this so they could have a say in the primary, mainly because the Democrats were going to let all the Republicans run unopposed, so the Republican primary was the same thing as a general election in this case. I don't think this system is wrong, but it is a little disturbing.

But the point is that the game is about power and money, not political ideology. Only idealists think it's about ideology. I think what we have in America is a good old feudal system with a twist -- at regular intervals, the public can change out the Sheriffs, but the Lords stay the same. That's annoying to the Lords, but not the end of their world. They still like our game better than any other alternative.

These Are the Good Ole Days

...In response to Mark Cuban's "These are the good ole days"

I agree with your observation that customers rarely tell you what your future products should be. Christensen talks about this in "Innovator's Dilemma" Doesn't mean you don't have to listen to your customers, but as you say, they're going to tell you what needs to be fixed in the current offerings. Every once in a while you are blessed with a customer or an employee who sees things in a radically different way.

The challenge is to know when you're hearing a good idea and taking action.Toffler speaks about the widening gulf between the Haves and HaveNots, and twenty years ago I heard him say that gulf was going to be defined by access to technology. As Deanna reminded us in post #21, it would be nice to have a time when we didn't need money or lawyers (or a police force or a military). For that to happen, we have to figure out how give everyone a fair shot at the brass ring.I'm not talking about a socialist utopia. But I am talking about effective programs to ensure that every kid can have a decent education and good shot at a job which is meaningful and pays well. This isn't a liberal position. I want those kids to grow up to be my customers, not my tax burden -- that's all.

It's not gonna happen until we get our population under control. "An education is the best birth control," said a friend recently. In societies where women have equal opportunity and equal respect, the birth rates are much lower than in the "barefoot and pregnant" cultures (a phrase from my WV roots).American cannot be the land that sucks up all the poor immigrants -- at least not if we're also exporting all of our high wage jobs overseas. It's getting to be the point that those of us who are working are supporting ourselves, our families, a couple of retirees on Social Security, a kid in the ghetto and a few refugees.20 years from now, America will be a second-class country, cowering in the shadow of the Asian powerhouses -- if we don't get our act together soon.

Tuesday, July 5, 2005

The Future of Triangle Fraternity at Ohio State

I was disconnected from my home chapter -- Ohio State -- all through the 1980s and 1990s. I live within a 20 min drive of the very chapter house I lived in during college thirty years ago, and can see the taller buildings of the university from my back deck. Why did I lose my connection?

I think the answer is obvious, but not necessarily simple: our chapter has never had a tradition of keeping up the connections with our alumni. For a while, there were a couple of local guys from my era who made a point of having get togethers around one of the football games in the fall (and football is THE happening at Ohio State). Over time, one by one, these guys moved away, the rest of us started having families, and the relationships gradually died. I think there are clusters of alumni who still get together around football games, but it tends to be the recent grads whose bonds are still strong, and for whom a little hard partying is still fun.

You walk around our chapter house, and there are composite photos hanging on the walls of past classes going back nearly 100 years (OSU organized in 1911). It's a shame that in all that time, we never developed (or have let die) a multi-generational program to connect the Active chapter to the generations of Brothers before them. Think about what a blessing it would be to a student engineer to have a relationship with a Brother who is a recent graduate who has just survived the interview process and is getting his career started. Or a 40 year old alumni who is in mid-career, and learning not only to be a competent engineer, but also an effective leader. And then maybe a Brother who has retired from a distinguished career, and has great stories about the interesting stuff he worked on.

Organizations thrive or die because of two key elements: leadership and relationships. In the case of our chapter, every once in a while the stars would align where an extraordinary Active leadership group emerged and enough alumni were involved that the chapter bloomed. Again you can see this by walking the halls and seeing how many faces are on each composite. But most of the time, the leadership of both the Active and alumni chapter were ineffective (not because they were bad guys, they just had no training or role models), and we ended up producing little pods of alumni who maybe kept touch with each other, but had little relationship with anyone else. Gradually each one of those pods would dissipate as its members moved away, engaged in careers, started families -- same old story. Once the critical mass of relationships come apart, they are very hard to re-establish.

Ownership of a chapter house plays a part here at Ohio State as well. Our chapter has expended a huge amount of money over the years trying to keep a house going, and it still wasn't enough to keep up with all the repairs and upgrades necessary to make the house a nice place to live. It also became a depressing place to visit as an alumni. Right now, I would place it just a notch or two above slum housing. The kitchen is disgusting, the bathrooms look like they belong in a ratty gas station and the house is generally a mess. I'm told some Greek houses at OSU are worse, but that's hardly a standard to be proud of. We are hanging just at the point of survival. The current team of Actives are trying hard, and making good progress. But we have lost our ability to sustain a chapter house -- there's not enough money to pay current expenses, our Treasury is about depleted, and there is virtually no hope of raising enough money to restore the building to what I consider decent living conditions. The 2005-2006 class will likely be the last to live in a Triangle house at Ohio State.

But there are other houses on our campus that were mansions when I was in school, and remain beautiful buildings today. What is different about those chapters? Simply put, they have a tradition of keeping the relationships with the alumni alive, and that means a constant flow of emotional and financial support. Some might say that it starts with being more selective when recruiting pledges. There's something there too -- but who really knows if a 19 year old kid is a future Bill Gates or Unibomber? A good friend of mine is an alumni of one of these powerful chapters, and he says they have six figures each year flowing into their coffers just from planned giving programs. They are what I would call a "winning" organization in that they have a tradition of excellence, their alumni members are proud to be a part of it, and they generate strong enough relationships that their alumni that they support the active chapter with both time and talent. Winners want to play with winners and be a part of winning organizations. It's a circular thing.

I'm deeply involved in a turnaround situation in our church. While there are many things different about the two situations, there are also many parallels. I'd be happy to discuss details if anyone wants, but one thing that happened which has application here. We found a regional executive named Dr. Paul Borden ( who was turning things around in a big way in his part of the country, and got him to come train us in his approach (or "system" if you prefer). His key points are this: a) the membership of a congregation exists to serve, not to be served; b) you have to let the leaders lead and not "committee" them to mediocrity; c) you have to put people in positions where you can use their strengths, not expose their shortcomings; d) you don't get anywhere trying to solve all the problems at once -- pick one, or a few at most, and focus your energy on them until you either fix the problem or discontinue the program.

One of the most important steps Dr Borden took in his organization was to change the mission of his direct reports. Instead of being counselors and sympathizers with the scores of pastors in their territories, Dr. Borden made each of his direct reports responsible for specific growth goals in only 5 congregations each year. His leaders got to choose which 5 congregations they wanted to work with, but the leaders also knew that their performance would be evaluated based on very clear, quantitative goals. Some of those leaders succeeded, while others couldn't make the paradigm shift and were helped in finding new positions. But Borden has held steadfast to his vision, and has built an organization that does exactly what a Christian community is supposed to do: teach, serve and grow.

I think the parallel here is that we should charge Paul and Scott with a similar mission. For example, each of them would be responsible for achieving growth of 10 members or 10% , whichever is greater, in 5 chapters each year. They get to pick which chapters they work with, but during that year, they concentrate all their energy on just those chapters. Then we should base their compensation and continued employment on achieving these goals. Forget about the Triangle Foundation for now. Scott is a great guy, but he's been beating his head against the wall trying to get alumni connected with their money when they aren't connected with their heads. This is a long term program I'm talking about, and will take years to pay off. But the situation has been decades in the making. Eventually, success with this program will show up in cash flows back to the Foundation, but if we don’t fix what needs fixing now, Scott is simply raising money for the funeral.

Hope this gets some juices flowing....

Paul Lambert