Newspaper work Life in ink

I’ve spent most my adult life (so far) in the choppy rhythm of a daily newspaper cycle. Fortunate to work under two strong managing editors when I began my career, I gained experience working crime scenes, capitols and everything in between.

I started out as a stringer at a tiny afternoon daily north of Austin, stopped by The Daily Texan to get an early taste of newsroom camaraderie and shoved my way into a summer internship at the Austin-American Statesman, where I landed on the front page of a metro newspaper for the first time. My career really began at The Facts, in Brazoria County, Texas, followed by a six-year tour at the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.

My most important work as a newspaper journalist was Hope Deferred, the story of Texas’s first posthumous exoneration. But the more typical job was to take something complex, both obvious and unseen, and translate it for readers. Newspapers at their best give readers what they need to improve their community. Stories busted up city budgets, set forth tough decisions on water supplies, brought readers into the homes of the working poor and introduced many to the agricultural engine surrounding them.

It’s a different discipline than wire work, and I’m glad to have been a part of it, even in its twilight.


Texas Tech provided a lot of fun stories soon after I arrived in Lubbock.

Accusers say A Plus fails legal, ethics test

Businessman denies buying stolen exams for use as study aids

Published: Sunday, May 28, 2006

Modern cheaters use gadgets such as cell phones, but his accusers said Shaik Ahmed’s sources kept it simple.

Take a seat. Grab a test. Run.

Texas Tech has accused Ahmed, the owner of A Plus Review and Tutoring, of offering students little academic guidance – but all the answers to the next day’s test.

Ahmed is scheduled to negotiate a plea in June for a charge of theft less than $50 after an exam that disappeared from a Rawls College of Business Administration class in November turned up in his business’s study materials the next day.

In what Tech investigators and academic ethics staff called an “unusual” case, an impromptu undercover sting run by business school faculty and students led to the school’s first criminal complaint about stolen tests.

Ahmed said he doesn’t steal exams or solicit pilfered ones. But Tech seemed exasperated by an academic gray area.

“This is a university-wide problem,” said Catherine Duran, business school assistant dean for undergraduate studies. “But our college is really getting hammered by this.”

Professor Phillip Flamm’s investigation began in November when a test-taker vanished with a copy of his exam.

A man came into Flamm’s business class, sat down at a desk, took a copy of the test and began to fill out an answer sheet.

He was gone before the classmate next to him could answer the first question.

“The guy just took the test, left the Scantron and walked out the door,” Flamm said.

So Flamm sent three students to find it. The professor had them study his exam and then the business school paid for a look at the test packet Ahmed’s business offered the day after the test disappeared.

Flamm’s tests are based on real-time business events, he said, so it would be impossible for an exam from a prior year to help any students.

The packet A Plus provided had the same questions in a different order, Flamm’s students reported.

“He told us he had the exact test we were to be taking and that we should call our family and all of our friends and tell them we were going to make A’s,” one student wrote in a witness affidavit.

A Plus Review’s Web site promises help for more than 230 classes at Tech, 65 courses at Lubbock Christian University, 64 courses at South Plains College and 24 courses at Wayland Baptist University.

About 100 students a semester seek A Plus for help, Ahmed said. The business offers help on grade levels from elementary school to college, he said.

A big part of his business are his test-prep packets, which he does not allow to be taken out of the business and cost $50 per hour spent with each packet. He pulls together materials based on course syllabi, textbooks and tests students bring in, he said.

Ahmed trades discounts on his study aids for the tests students hand over, he said. He does not ask the students where the exams came from, he said.

“Just like you go to a pawn shop or you go to a bookstore and sell your books back,” Ahmed said by telephone from Houston last week. “At the end of the semester I’ve got students who bring their tests back, also.”

Ahmed said he doesn’t remember the test or the discussion that the students in the witness affidavit wrote about. He tells customers whatever the person who traded in the test told him, he said.

But he laughed at the suggestion that he would pay people to steal tests. Nobody stole tests on his behalf, and he would not buy tests he knew to be stolen, he said.

“We cover about 200 sections and that’s impossible,” Ahmed said. “And besides, it’s unethical.”

Flamm never had someone walk off with a test before, he said, but it was not the first time business school faculty had trouble with A Plus.

Faculty members pick up the service’s fliers left around campus, find advertisements written on chalkboards and occasionally chase away people promising students study help on an upcoming test, professors said.

“This could be a real service, if they really offered tutoring,” Flamm said. “But they don’t.”

A teaching assistant tackled a student trying to flee with a test in another class, Duran said. Accounting professor Roberta Allen remembers a student bolting out of a large lecture hall class a few years ago with a copy of her exam.

“I chased him pretty far, but I couldn’t catch him,” she said, laughing. “He was a lot faster than me.”

Selling the exams without the permission of the test author is a violation of copyright law, but that’s a hard violation to prosecute, Duran said. The tests aren’t considered very valuable, so a theft charge is a misdemeanor offense.

Students who are stealing the tests are hard to track down for officials who might press student code of conduct violations, she said.

“So it’s been a very difficult problem to solve, because it’s an ethical issue, an integrity issue, more than it is a legal issue,” Duran said.

And faculty and administrators aren’t sure what to make of students who use the service. Students are cheating if they know the questions they study are on the next day’s test, Allen said.

But Duran, who also chairs the university’s committee on academic integrity, hesitated to say using the service was cheating.

“We don’t have a good idea of how widespread its use is,” Duran said. “I don’t know if we can officially call it cheating. We don’t like it and it’s not fair.”

To Ahmed, it’s just business. Other groups provide the same services – his are just better advertised, he said. Some students can afford to skip class and use his study guides, and that probably makes other students a little green, he said.

“You could see how somebody could be jealous or upset or angry,” Ahmed said. “I know when I was in college, I couldn’t afford a $50 test packet.”


 

Most of my work in Lubbock, in one way or another, traced its way back to the vanishing aquifer beneath the region.

Keep on the Sunny Side: Lubbock area farmers turn to sunflowers to save water, money

Published: Sunday, September 07, 2008
ELLIOTT BLACKBURN

OLTON – Bright arcs of gold interrupt the cash-crop green surrounding this small farming town, welcomed by a handful of growers pushed into the unthinkable.

Farmers here have covered thousands of acres with sunflowers, a gangly intruder for years best known for harassing the region’s dominant crops.

Few Panhandle growers would consider sunflowers a savior. The wild strays towering awkwardly over farm road ditches and fields remain, for most, a deep-rooted weed robbing potential profit.

But some South Plains growers now wonder whether the flower’s same frustrating qualities could extend the lives of their farms.

“It’s a glorified weed that has a purpose,” said Billy Tiller, longtime dryland farmer outside of Littlefield who planted 1,000 acres of oil sunflowers this summer.

The Ogallala Aquifer, sustainer of all irrigated agriculture and a drinking supply for Lubbock and other cities, has shrunk beneath Olton under the strain of cotton and corn.

Water levels at an observation well southwest of town have dropped more than 35 feet during the last decade, according to records kept by the High Plains Underground Water Conservation District. Growers around the small community 60 miles northwest of Lubbock must reach deeper for irrigation than all but four other monitored sites the district tracks inside Lamb County.

“It’s getting to where you can’t hardly keep the pressure up in the sprinklers,” said Ken Gallaway, a grain and cotton farmer who seeded a fifth of his 500 acres with sunflowers in late June. “The formation’s not giving up the water like it did years ago.”

Gallaway, an easygoing former accountant, left office life more than a decade ago for the freedom of setting his own working hours outdoors.

The numbers don’t work for the acres of corn separated from his sunflowers by a narrow dirt road, he said.

High corn prices sparked a rural renaissance as ethanol brewers, cattle feeders, grocers and food processors seemed to add up to an insatiable demand. Corn prices doubled, tripled, and any land that had water to handle it – quite a bit that didn’t, too – chased the new gold.

As corn raced up, so did much of the materials needed to grow it. Corn guzzles irrigation water and demands an array of chemicals and pricey seed. Fertilizer alone doubled in price from last year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and energy prices climbed 50 percent.

Gallaway can’t even find the most common name-brand weed killer anymore. He couldn’t afford it if he did, he said.

But those sputtering center pivots raised the biggest fears, he said. He didn’t expect to see corn, depending on the commodities market, beyond three to five years.

“We’re just losing our water,” Gallaway said. “So we’ve got to

come up with a profitable alternative to corn.”

The vanishing water began to form clouds over morning coffee chatter at the Olton Farm Supply. Though there are many across Texas like Tiller who rely on the whims of the weather to sustain their crops, switching to dryland can be a tough adjustment.

Randy Redinger, manager of the supply store and a former seed salesman with Triumph who is familiar with sunflowers, pitched the oddball crop to his regulars.

A few Panhandle farms have grown sunflowers that produce edible seeds for years, but those plants required more work and care.

High Plains Oilseed in Dumas needed oil sunflowers, and contracts fetched nearly triple what a farmer could expect a few years ago.

Competition became fierce for sunflower acreage in traditional areas such as Kansas, said Phil Haaland, a contracting agent for High Plains.

His company began to look south of Amarillo for farmers in low water situations who could easily pick up sunflowers, setting up local drop-off points and pushing for acreage.

For farmers such as Gallaway, it was a question of business – how to responsibly make the most of their land for as long as possible. The sunflowers he planted in June used half the water corn demanded and about a quarter less than he put on his cotton, he said.

The crop grows so fast that farmers can plant nearly anytime through the spring or early summer. Those weedy qualities meant the plants scoured the soil for nutrients by themselves and didn’t need big fertilizer investments.

He needed fewer chemical treatments, too, to knock out a roving moth that dines exclusively on the big flowers.

It meant farmers did not have to take such a big gamble, grower Preston Huguley said. He could make a sunflower crop spending half the money per acre that cotton or corn may require. The processing plant contracted for him to plant a certain number of acres, rather than deliver a set number of pounds, which meant he did not gamble having to make up the difference if his acreage fared poorly.

“You’re risking less money out there all year,” said Huguley, who planted more than 100 acres on land he’s farmed for 18 years. “It’s an extremely scary risk to put that money out there.”

Growers such as Huguley felt a more personal pressure, too. How could he preserve the lifestyle he loved for his 4-year-old son?

Plots around Olton tend to cover hundreds of acres, not thousands, and Huguley said there was little opportunity for growers to expand. Only if fewer farmers worked bigger plots of land could the area remain profitable without water, he said.

“In 15 to 20 years, we could need half the farmers in Olton that we have now,” he said.

Huguley’s flowers came up to his shoulder, aside from a few wild flowers that shot above their conventional brethren. The crop remained weeks away from harvest, but the bright yellow petals had begun to fall. Their heads nodded under the weight of the seed. Sunflowers will turn dark and bow to the east by the time a combine moves through the field.

Harvesters will need special equipment or modifications to collect the sunflower heads without rattling their valuable seeds all over the soil. Farmers must be careful choosing whichever crop will follow their sunflowers, Tiller warned – stragglers almost always popped up in his fields. Gallaway wondered how much fertilizer the field would need following his flowers.

“The dealbreaker for me, whether I do this again, is what happens to the crop after this,” Gallaway said.

But ahead of harvest, the growers seemed optimistic about their first go with the crop.

“They’re a pretty crop,” Gallaway said, looking at a field of young flowers staring back at him. “It’s amazing.”


 

But I spent most my time in Lubbock in political chambers and buried in technical papers.

Council to review plan; benefits to customers unclear Atmos pitches one-of-a-kind rate structure

Published: Sunday, October 21, 2007 ELLIOTT BLACKBURN AVALANCHE-JOURNAL

Atmos Energy wants Lubbock residential customers to pay rates like no one else in the state.

The City Council will consider Thursday a new rate structure utility officials touted last week as fairer and more conservation-minded.

The plan’s direct benefits to customers were unclear last week. Some will pay less, some more, though officials said the changes are not an overall rate increase or reduction. City and utility officials believe the new system will cut legal costs and make rates easier to set.

The proposal frees the company to encourage and invest in conservation programs for its customers, spokesman Dan Alderson said. The proposal also frees Atmos from what national trends and the company’s own annual reports call a revenue loser, shifting Lubbock customers out of one unpopular rate system and into a pilot program that could become a model for other markets in the state.

Customers pay Atmos for the fuel they use, but that’s not where Texas gas utilities earn their money. Companies are not allowed to make a profit purchasing gas at one price and selling it to customers at a higher price.

Atmos instead attaches a delivery fee per unit of gas sold to its customers. Residents who use more gas pay more to Atmos, compensating the utility for delivering all that fuel and tying utility profits to the amount of the commodity sold.

Current trends show it’s a losing relationship. Customers began moving into newer, better-insulated homes and adopting more-efficient appliances that need less gas. High cost for the fuel can further discourage its use, according to the federal Energy Information Administration, which projects residential natural gas consumption to drop through the next 10 to 15 years.

A decade of annual shareholder reports describing residential volumes in West Texas show similar trends. Atmos as a whole has increased total residential use since 1997, but home consumption in the region that includes Lubbock has fallen steadily.

Utility operations that once accounted for 65 to 85 percent of Atmos’ consolidated net income accounted for just 36 percent in 2006, according to that year’s annual report.

Untying revenue from the amount of gas the company sells makes the utility’s income more stable. Atmos would “be absolutely where we need to be, from a revenue standpoint,” if all its customers moved into the flat-rate proposed in Lubbock, said Gary Gregory, Atmos West Texas division president.

“We’re still able to make the money we need to operate and encourage our customers to continue to save,” Gregory said.

The system proposed by Atmos and city staff changes what individual customers pay but does not raise any more money than the utility can make today, both sides said. Rates do not change for commercial or industrial customers.

An estimated 48,000 customers in January would begin paying a lower customer fee and a higher rate per unit of gas the customer uses, according to Atmos. Another 18,000 would pay a new flat rate to the company and pay no delivery fee for the amount of gas they purchase. The utility would recommend to each customer what it considers the best plan, but residents could choose and change which option they want once a year.

Benefits for customers were hazy last week. Some customers will pay more and others less. Customers under plan B, supporters argued, can more easily plan their bills, while customers under plan A pay smaller flat fees and are encouraged to cut down on the amount of gas they use. But the program runs counter to traditional conservation rate plans, which charge customers who use the most of a commodity higher rates. The plan insulates high-use customers with a flat fee and puts the conservation encouragement on bills that are already low.

Under the proposal, Atmos secures a stable stream of revenue and replaces a rate called the Gas Reliability Infrastructure Program that proved unpopular throughout the state.

The company caught a black eye during a recent requested increase after administrative-law judges found Atmos included improper expenses – including thousands of dollars of expensive hotel stays and luxury goods – in its justification for an increase from Dallas-area customers.

Hearings on proposed GRIP payments from 66 West Texas cities will move forward before the state’s Railroad Commission next month, but Lubbock vanished off that list earlier this fall. Instead, the company and the city wrote to commissioners. Both sides sought more time to negotiate an arrangement that would “establish new GRIP benchmarks and … negate the necessity of filing the 2006 GRIP filing.”

Both city and utility officials felt the plan avoided expensive litigation in Austin before the commission if the proposed system works as intended, a cost that ratepayers and taxpayers cover. City staff instead would review Atmos ledgers each year to ensure the company is not earning more than it should.

That element piqued the interest of the city of Amarillo, which backed out of informal talks with the utility on a similar rate program during the legislative session but continues to follow the proposal, city finance director Dan Frigo said.

“The cost of the case has almost been as much as the rate increase,” Frigo said. “I don’t think that anybody’s doing anybody any favors with something like that.”

Lubbock also would receive a $43,000 direct contribution to a city program that better insulates older, less-efficient homes for lower-income families, an expense that, for the first time, would not affect the utility’s long-term bottom line.

“I’m really positive on it,” said Mayor David Miller. “We’ve been working on this for almost a year now to literally revolutionize the rate structure for natural gas in Lubbock and perhaps the state.”

Mayor Pro Tem Jim Gilbreath and Councilman Floyd Price had no opinion on the program last week. Councilman John Leonard wasn’t sold – remaining council members could not be reached for comment.

The program does not provide enough benefits to residents, Leonard said, and he considered the plan an attempt to circumvent local control and allow Atmos to pass through more costs.

“I just think it’s something that only benefits their company,” Leonard said. “I need to see more benefit to the user as well as the benefits it’s going to give Atmos.”