Saturday, February 23, 2008

Frisco School Board: Run for it!

Most Frisco residents wouldn’t have trouble picking Mayor Mike Simpson out of a crowd. A large number, I suspect, could also name and identify at least a couple of our city council members. These are high-profile positions, and most of the members do a great job of getting out in front of Frisco citizens at every opportunity.

Less visible, however, are the members of the Frisco Independent School District’s Board of Trustees. In a recent, very-unscientific poll, I found that most people couldn’t even name one board member. I did get a few near misses, but I have to set the record straight. That “Reedy guy” is actually District Superintendent Dr. Rick Reedy, who is not technically a member of the Board. Sadly, individuals like 10-year board member and current secretary Laura Ellison didn’t leap to mind. It’s curious that Board members aren’t better known, considering their average tenure is over 5 years.

Then again, perhaps it’s not surprising that residents aren’t familiar with our School Board members. Last year we didn’t even have a board election, as the two members who’s seats were up (Rene Ehmke and Dan Mossakowski) did not draw an opponent. The year before, Cindy DePaolantonio and Buddy Minnett also avoided an election, though there was a bond issue on the ballot. (It passed.) So it’s been almost three years since we’ve had a contested board election. Considering the population growth over that span, almost 20% of our residents have never voted for any member of the School Board!

Now, unless you have kids in the local school system, you probably don’t pay much attention to the School Board. But you should. One of their primary duties is to set the tax rate each year, which has a direct impact on your pocketbook regardless of your parental status. I know that the check I recently wrote to Frisco ISD was 50% larger than the one I sent to Collin County. Of course, along with setting the tax rate, the Board also lays out the annual budget. So they get to take your money and then spend it. I’m betting that now you’re a bit more interested in who these Board members are, huh?

On top of their fiscal duties, the Board wields a lot of other power. They are the body responsible for acquiring and holding school property. Look around Frisco and you’ll see just how much land that entails. Plus, the Board can exercise Eminent Domain rights in property acquisitions. This has certainly been one of the most hotly-debated civic powers in recent years. And naturally they have a large say in what gets taught in our schools.

So what qualifies someone to serve on the school board? On paper, not much. If you’re a US citizen, over 18, who is neither mentally incapacitated or a convicted felon, then congratulations! You can serve on the school board. In reality, it’s a bit trickier. Each Board member must be elected to their three-year term in office. So you’d have to convince a majority of voters that you have what it takes to serve. This may not be as hard as it sounds, though, as the last Trustee to win an election, Brenda Polk, needed only 900 votes to beat her opponent. (She actually received over 3300 votes, giving her a whopping 78% victory margin.)

Unlike many other civic boards, School Board members do require ongoing education. New members must take a 3 hour course on the Texas Education Code. And throughout their term, they must fulfill continuing education requirements. So if you’re going to serve on the board, you have to be a student as well. That’s fair. Given the critical – and powerful – nature of their duties, you’d think that more citizens would step forward to serve on the board. But as I’ve pointed out, this just isn’t the case. Perhaps it’s a matter of not knowing what’s required. Or maybe people just don’t have the time. But whatever the reason, it’s a sad statement on our sense of civic duty that so few candidates appear. This year, we’re guaranteed a contest, as at least one candidate has filed to run against incumbent Richard Beavers. Brenda Polk is up for re-election as well, though as of press time, no challenger has stepped forward. The filing period lasts through March 10th, so there’s still plenty of time to get in the race.

In most areas, School Board elections are some of the most contentious around. It is, perhaps, a testament to the efficiency of Frisco ISD, and Dr. Reedy’s leadership that so few residents feel the need to challenge the status-quo. And yet, I know there’s no shortage of strong opinions around when it comes to our schools. So the next time I hear someone complain about the new school zones, or the amount of taxes they’re paying, I’ve got a simple response. If you don’t like it, run for it!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Biking from Shawnee Trail to Frisco Commons

In my last post, I mentioned some creative route planning that let me ride from my home in Plantation Resort in southeast Frisco to Frisco Commons without risking my life on Preston Road or Main Street. Last weekend, I took advantage of the fabulous weather and dusted off the old Diamondback Topanga to retrace my steps.

What I thought would be a winding path through neighborhoods, however, became a true adventure when I was able to link in TWO wonderful trails on the way. First, the Caddo Hike and Bike trail is a gem of the Frisco park system. It winds its way from Wade Boulevard, north along Stewart Creek to just south of Stonebrook Parkway. Nestled among towering trees, this is a path that's going to be just as pleasant this summer as it was this weekend.

Next, I stumbled across Oakbrook Park, near Aker Elementary. It has a small path that winds it's way back toward Frisco High School. Sadly, this trail could use some maintenance, as it had several spots where glass and debris made riding a challenge.

Throughout the route, I only crossed three major streets. Due to construction, the corner of Wade and Preston certainly provided a challenge. But the other two (Stonebrook and Main) were far easier. I wonder if the city would consider putting crosswalks at those two crossings?

If you'd like to follow my trail, click here for a map with milestones.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Honey, They Shrunk our Bike Lane

Frisco is blessed with an abundance of open space… for now. But as we continue to grow, that open land is being gobbled up by new homes, strip malls and schools faster than Homer at a donut buffet. Even relative newcomers to our sleepy berg can wax rhapsodic about the “old days” when there was “nothing in that field but a bunch of cows.”

Luckily, our elected officials – both past and present – have made recreation areas a priority. Just in the last 10 years, we’ve seen the development of parks like the Frisco Commons, Harold Bacchus Park and countless neighborhood parks. Residents on the rapidly-expanding west side of town can look forward to B.F. Phillips Park in the near future. And if you haven’t seen the plans for Grand Park, you really should take a look (Park Master Plan; Lake View; Overall View).

These parks offer a wide variety of recreation opportunities. Baseball, football and soccer fields abound for the team-sport minded. Trails wind through several parks, for those interested in a nice hike or run. And there are ample wide open fields to just run and play.

Getting to the parks, however, can be tricky. Sure you can load up the kids in the SUV and cart them across town. But some of us prefer to get exercise going to and from the park as well. With the skyrocketing prices at the gas pumps, bicycles are becoming an appealing alternative. Sadly, getting around Frisco on a bike often means harrowing encounters with high-speed traffic. Given the challenge of riding a bike from my home in Plantation Resort to my favorite park - the Frisco Commons- I discovered that the choice came down to risking a ride along Preston, or taking my life in my hands on Hwy720 (Main street, east of Preston). Neither was an appealing proposition. With some careful planning, and an adventurous spirit, however, I ultimately found a path that kept my exposure to a minimum.

As a youth, and before I hit that magic age of 16 and got my driver’s license, I loved riding my bike to school. It offered the perfect alternative to a school bus fraught with spit-wads, while avoiding the embarrassment of waiting for my mom to pick me up in our stylish, green Ford Gran Torino station wagon. But scoping out the path for my son to get from home to Wester Middle School became another exercise in creative, suburban cartography.

In 2002, Frisco’s Parks and Recreation board published the city’s first “Hike and Bicycle Trail Master Plan.” This 55-page volume starts with the ambitious aim of making “Frisco a bicycle and pedestrian friendly community by determining how and where to provide safe trail linkages to schools, businesses, parks and open space.” The plan outlined three kinds of trails: open space hike and bike trails, trail connections and on-street bicycle routes. For on-street routes, the plan recommended widened lanes, as opposed to dedicated, striped bike lanes, and mapped out several routes throughout town, including north/south routes on Teel Parkway, Hillcrest, Coit, Independence and Custer. Travelling east and west, bicyclists could use Rolater/Stonebrook, El Dorado, Panther Creek and Virginia Parkway.

Sadly, plans for a bike trail along Panther Creek had to be scrapped due to right-of-way issues and a need to provide immediate traffic relief in the northern part of the city. As City Councilman Jim Joyner points out, only a small section of the street would accommodate the trail, leaving it isolated. And meetings with the “cycling community” indicated that many of them don’t care for the debris-strewn lane along major thoroughfares anyhow.

This leaves us to consider how to provide the kind of bicycle routes through Frisco that will help achieve the vaunted goal stated in the original master plan. If on-street routes are cost-prohibitive and undesirable, that leaves us with off-street or open space trails along the natural creeks which wind through town. Unfortunately, many of these are locked up in private property tracts that show no indication of near-term development. So our elected leaders are left with the challenge of crafting zoning and development ordinances that require developers to provide access to existing parks and trails. Both of our announced mayoral candidates, Matt Lafata and Maher Maso, have expressed a dedication to developing the trails system, with an eye toward joining it with the larger Collin County trail plan. But when the all-terrain rubber hits the road, it will be interesting to see what concrete plans they can put forward to achieve these goals.

In the meantime, the Parks and Recreation department has already begun revamping the Hike and Bike Trail master plan. A couple of town hall meetings have been held, and another is planned for later this month or early in March. If this is an issue that’s near to your heart, I encourage you to participate in this meeting. Let your voice be heard to ensure that our city continues to make bicycle trails a core part of our city-wide development, even if it costs a little more to build or slows down a new road by a few months. In the meantime, grab a city map and pedal on over to your favorite park this weekend.

Don’t forget your helmet!