On the books 

For the past two years, I’ve chronicled the San Antonio arts scene. I’ve documented the ongoing proliferation of visual artists and art movements, and the ups and downs of art institutions, evaluated gallery and museum shows, and discussed the growing theater options in town.

But I’ve only written one book review (for Barbara Renaud Gonzalez’s Golondrina, Why Did You Leave Me), and I’ve rarely spoken to writers.

I’m not proud of this. It’s not like nothing’s happening — just that the visual arts in San Antonio are the proverbial squeakiest wheel, while San Antonio writing and literature, comparatively, are more like a smaller, quieter wheel — or a duck in a jumpsuit who… see. Writing is hard. I totally should have nailed that analogy.

Our city needs writing, and writers, and writing education: writing and reading helps you think way more better. Very lots more! Quite seriously: A great city deserves and produces great writing, should focus on it and support it. So this four-part article series, “On the books,” explores SATX’s literary landscape. Let’s get our arms around who’s writing, who’s reading, who’s teaching, who’s learning, and if San Anto could become a more bookish city. It all starts with education.

People of San Antonio! We rank high on a lot of lists, in case you didn’t know. We’re America’s second-most recession-proof metropolis, according to a Forbes study. We made the Forbes round-up of the Top 40 safest American cities, too (at #22, but still safer than, say, Oakland.) Our Spurs regularly win, place, or show in ESPN The Magazine’s fan satisfaction poll, and a feature on the Today show ranked us as America’s Friendliest City in 2008 (I don’t think we’ve gotten grouchier, since). We’re #5 in North America’s Best Gay-Friendly Bargain Cities on About.com, too. Huh. And perhaps most awesomely, we’re the fourth most sexually active city in the U.S, according to the Medical Advisory Board at qualityhealth.com. Booyah!

Y’all may be aware that we rank high on some not-so-hot rolls, too: We’re #7 on the 2010 Men’s Health list of Americas Fattest Cities (we’re down from #3 in 2009, though!). Men’s Health also tags us as Americas seventh drunkest city, and we regularly make the grade in teenage pregnancy, auto fatalities, children living in poverty, and just this week freaking DailyBeast.com named San Antonio #54 in its list of America’s Smartest Cities … out of #55. Last year, we were #53. Now only Las Vegas is dumber. Dailybeast based its computation on number of educational institutions, percentage of citizens with advanced degrees, and book sales. This is pretty demoralizing. It’s making local news. Our position reflects (and might actually deepen) our deep inferiority complex, a complex that in many indices of civic wellness acts as a self-fulfilling prohecy.

My theory: We’re a helluva lot more intellectually gifted than we look. San Antonio might not boast as many bookstores as Seattle, but hell, that’s not because we’re dumb. IT’S BECAUSE WE’RE POOR. We don’t have the income or educational resources we need, and it’s getting dangerous. A central and very concerning problem: If we stay at 25 percent illiteracy in English, the world’s increasingly verbal-based opportunities will not only pass us by, but they won’t even know we’re down here, dammit. We allocate our resources wrongly.

In 1990, we even became nationally notorious in journalist Jonathan Kozol’s book Savage Inequalities. Background info: About 46 percent of public elementary and secondary school budgets derive from local government, and the disparity of tax bases in San Antonio is one reason for our huge disparity in funding. For comparison’s sake, Kozol noted that New Jersey’s public school districts spent an average of $5000-$8,000 for each student in 1989. Our 1989 district spending? It ranged from $2,112 to $19,333. The richest district drew property taxes on wealth totalling $14 million per student, and the poorest district drew property taxes on wealth totalling $20,000 per student.

Remember Edgewood vs Kirby? In a landmark case led by the mighty Norma V. Cantú, the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) represented the poorly-apportioned Edgewood ISD in a lawsuit against then-state Commissioner of Education William Kirby. The case came before the Texas Supreme Court, which voted unanimously for Edgewood ISD. This prompted the Texas legislature to mandate reform in school-funding laws and to reallocate close to $1 billion to property-poor school districts in a bill passed into law by then-governor Ann Richards. However, the Texas Legislature determined that what’s been called the “Robin Hood Plan” serves as a form of statewide property tax, and as such is forbidden by the Lone Star State’s Constitution.

Dominic Giarratani, governmental relations assistant director for the Texas Association of School Boards, calls out House Bill 1, passed during a third special legislative session of the 79th Legislature in 2006, as the anti-Robin Hood Plan. While “the Robin Hood plan is still, officially, in effect,” HB1 compressed all local property taxes to $1.33 per $100 property value, with a mandate to reduce the taxes to $1 in 2007-2008. With leveled property taxes, the notion of recapturing “surplus” tax funds to aid poorer schools was rendered moot.

Today, local school boards may individually increase local property tax rates, HB1 allowed, but only by four cents per $100 without a public vote. Worse, so-called “golden pennies,” or the first six cents levied above a district’s compressed rate, are equalized according to a formula that favors wealthier districts. “On average, districts at the top end of the wealth spectrum have lower compressed rates than less wealthy districts,” state Legislative Budget Board staff wrote in 2009.

Or as Giarratani puts it: “‘Golden pennies’ in the wealthier districts are 24–karat gold, `whereas` in the poorer districts, it’s just 14 karat.” And what does this mean, in practicable terms? “There’s very little new money coming into `the poorer districts`, meaning that they can’t afford special programs or have had to cut them. Arts budgets, writing programs — they’re all affected by that.”

One friend, already tired of teaching to the TAKS test rather than, you know, educating, received $100 in her budget for arts education. For the whole school year.

This is the kind of thing dailybeast.com is dinging us on. But! I’d like to see those snooty types from Cambridge, Mass., say, assemble a Fiesta float out of detergent bottles, tissue paper, and white-out. Or throw an entire kid’s birthday party for under 50 bucks. Is dailybeast.com aware of our highly accomplished drag scene? Or our endless love for all things Ronnie James Dio? (Wait. That last one doesn’t help.) But for real: rasquache — making something beautiful out of what you’ve got on hand — is an exalted form of genius, and our city’s creative specialty. Start from where you are, don’t despair about where you aren’t. Can’t our rasquachismo extend to wordsmithery? What the hell are we up to out there, besides being friendly, getting drunk, impregnating teens, and not surviving auto accidents? •



On the Books: Part Two

When One Cultura isn't Enough: A Love Story

On the Books: Part 3

How a local poet found art (and the rosary) can heal and restore lives



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