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Denton City Council delays decision on tax reimbursements for Rayzor Ranch south side

Denton City Council members pressed the pause button on the city’s reimbursements to the Rayzor Ranch developers after nearly two hours of discussion, half of which went on behind closed doors Tuesday afternoon.

Council members gave the developer and the city manager six months to reach a new agreement about the massive commercial development on the city’s west side. Rayzor Ranch is in the hands of its third developer and has changed considerably since it was first proposed in 2006, including the elimination of the eponymous Town Center.

Council members disagreed whether they had much leverage in the talks. Reimbursement agreements revised by the city in 2010 and the following years were assigned to Fidelis Realty Partners, the newest owners.

Mayor Chris Watts tried to underscore the economic realities for the project.

“I don’t know if we’re trying to use a leverage for something we’re not going to get anyways,” Watts said.

He cautioned fellow council members that the city couldn’t dictate which businesses would rent at the shopping center and that the overall relationship between the city and Fidelis is important, too.

Mayor Pro Tem Gerard Hudspeth said he wanted to side with the mayor in allowing the current reimbursement agreements to go forward, but he just couldn’t.

“I couldn’t support driving blind around that corner just because they [the developers] said it would be OK,” Hudspeth said.

In the end, four other council members joined him in delaying one type of reimbursements and restarting talks.

The opening of the Embassy Suites by Hilton Denton Convention Center was a game changer for the project, council member John Ryan said.

Before the hotel and convention center came in as an anchor, Ryan thought it would take 10-20 years for Rayzor Ranch to get built out. He noticed that construction had picked up speed since then and he thinks now it will take just five years, he said.

But the concept has also changed so much that the community has lost faith in what may be coming next, especially now that Fidelis announced the town center portion won’t be built and hasn’t really said what will take its place, he added.

“Not knowing that, I would prefer to give the developer and city manager time to make us and the public more comfortable,” Ryan said.

Council member Paul Meltzer agreed with the mayor that the city couldn’t dictate tenants.

“But I don’t think we can conclude, then, that no planning can occur,” Meltzer said, adding that he thought there was little to lose by having both sides come to the table again.

Council member Keely Briggs said that, at one point, council members thought they were obliged to approve a plan that would allow the additional tax assessments to landowners on the south side.

“I don’t feel obliged today,” Briggs said, adding that the project has been long and drawn out.

In an interview after the meeting, Rick Coe, president of Fidelis, said his company supported the overlay — the city’s special rules for how the property is developed. He said he could understand the council’s concerns with how the project concept changed.

His company’s plans for the mixed-use development remain Class A, he said.

“We’ve owned it for five months, but it’s been out there for 10 years,” Coe said. “We look forward to working with the city staff to outline the plans.”

Pizza is greater than the sum of its parts

Pizza, tamales and burgers are only a few of the items available to students across parts of Denton County, but each meal is more complicated than simple meal preparations.

Before the first square of casserole or scoop of vegetables can find their way to a student’s plate, schools must meet a stringent list of requirements provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

For example, federal regulators set standards for how many milligrams of sodium students can have based upon their grade level and whether they’re eating breakfast or lunch. Similar guidelines are in place for the availability of certain fruits, vegetables and more.

“You create your menu and make it as good as you can within their guidelines,” said Jeannie DeLange, child nutrition director for Ponder ISD.

Like some other school districts in the area, she has cafeteria menus rotating on a four-week cycle. A few new items a month will find their way to lunch trays for a trial run, but the most popular items remain as staples. Mondays bring pizza and Fridays bring cheeseburgers like clockwork, and chicken nuggets make appearances more than once a month.

“What the kids are used to eating at home is what they’d rather have here,” she said. “I’m not saying that’s a good thing, I’m just saying that’s a fact.”

In practice, that means that healthier foods are more often foreign and unappealing to students, especially those in the elementary schools. A cultural shift away from stay-at-home parents is at least partially to blame, in DeLange’s reckoning.

Beyond the food itself, districts have an additional set of headaches when it comes to pricing. While many local districts have breakfast and lunch available for a few dollars, many students won’t ever pay that price in full.

Students who are migratory, homeless or living in foster care are automatically eligible for free meals. Families who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, colloquially known as food stamps, are also eligible for free meals for their children.

Perhaps the most well-known avenue for eligibility in a federal free and reduced-price meal program looks toward household income. For example, a household of three people earning less than $39,461 would be eligible for reduced-price meals in Texas. A family of the same size earning less than $27,729 would qualify for free meals.

For comparison, federal guidelines set $21,330 as the poverty level for a family of three, and a full-time minimum-wage job in Texas would bring in about $15,000 before taxes.

Between 38% and 46% of students at each campus in Ponder ISD qualify for either free or reduced-price meals in the previous school year, DeLange said. In that same time period, the district served 100,945 meals. For comparison, the district had an average of less than 1,500 students, according to state data.

About 20 miles away, Denton ISD cafeterias were pumping out more than 35 times as many meals during the same time period. That data does not factor in students who don’t purchase a complete meal, such as students who buy only a slice of pizza or something to drink as a supplement to their meal.

Denton ISD has 46% of students eligible for either free or reduced-price meals, said Liz Raftery, assistant director of child nutrition in the district.

On the campus level, some schools have as little as 5% eligibility for the program and some have closer to 80% eligibility. Five campuses in the district — Hodge, Rivera, Ginnings, Borman and Evers Park elementary schools — have a high enough participation rate to qualify them for the universal free breakfast program through the USDA.

In a similar vein, districts with enough students enrolled in federal assistance programs, including SNAP benefits, can apply for the Community Eligibility Provision, which provides compensation for free meals for all students. The eligibility requirements for CEP are not the same for the traditional free and reduced-price program signed into law by President Harry Truman in 1946.

North Texas Collegiate Academy, a district with three local charter schools, is currently obtaining CEP benefits for the second year. Lilli Tolley, child nutrition director for NTCA, said the district’s Denton, Lewisville and Little Elm campuses are able to provide free meals to all students, regardless of socioeconomic status, and each campus will receive full federal reimbursement for the program.

Raftery said Denton ISD has looked at the program but hasn’t seriously considered applying because not enough campuses would qualify.

With additional federal dollars come additional federal guidelines. Tolley said the increased requirements practically force the district to serve each student an identical meal. Sometimes calorie counts are so close, she said, that adding just one ketchup packet to the serving would push the meal over the line.

“It’s a pretty fascinating puzzle to put the meals together,” she said.

When put into context with the school uniform policy, Tolley said having identical meals is also a way to remove socioeconomic pressures from students, allowing them to focus more on learning and less on status.

Storms cause some damage, usher in cooler weather

When Christina Bayer’s son left to catch his school bus Wednesday morning, he left the family’s apartment and saw several tree branches on their second-floor balcony.

As he opened the door again to yell inside and let her know, the two large limbs from the tree collapsed next to the door, partially blocking the stairs to the apartment.

“I was frantic because I thought my child was hurt, then I walked outside and it nearly poked me in the eye,” she said. “If he would have been standing two steps to the right, it would have crashed right into him.”

While only 0.45 inches of rainfall fell in Denton, the storm’s heavy winds caused some damage in the area early Monday morning. There was also a structure fire near Oak Point in unincorporated territory, where lightning struck the roof and sparked an attic fire, said Jody Gonzalez, the county’s fire marshal and emergency management coordinator.

The rainfall over Denton County stopped county commissioners from ordering a burn ban Tuesday. Denton County Emergency Services had requested the commissioners approve the burn ban Tuesday, but Gonzalez said in Tuesday’s meeting that the rain has temporarily eliminated the need for the ban. He said the rain will keep Denton County out of a ban for at least a couple weeks.

While the morning storms brought some damage to Denton County, it also brought a cool front a day after temperatures reached 103 degrees — Monday was the hottest day recorded this year — with a heat index approaching 115.

Air conditioning problems troubled some Denton ISD campuses Monday, including Calhoun and Crownover middle schools.

Since school started, there have been roughly 300 air conditioning complaints filed by school personnel across the district, up about 50% from last August, said Julie Zwahr, spokeswoman for Denton ISD.

She said she couldn’t provide a list of impacted campuses because problems at the schools differ day-by-day. There are 16 schools slated to have their air conditioning systems replaced or renovated in the next year to 18 months, she said, which will help alleviate the problems.

Until then, the maintenance staff is dealing with issues as they arise and has added four additional technicians to help fix problems.

“The bottom line is if you’re uncomfortable in your classroom, we sincerely apologize and we’re trying to fix the problems — we’ve even brought in more help to try and address it,” she said. “We have a plan in place to make it happen.”

Cooler temperatures will continue over the next few days, according to the National Weather Service, with Wednesday seeing a high of 88 and a 60% percent chance of showers and thunderstorms. The rest of the week will see highs in the upper 80s to low 90s, with rain chances back in the forecast both Friday and Saturday.

County leaders pick committee to make crucial decisions on Confederate monument

This story has been updated with additional information.

Denton County leaders on Tuesday appointed a committee tasked with a job that is about a century in the making.

After an executive session discussion sealed from the public, Denton County commissioners voted to appoint five citizens and two commissioners to the committee. The committee will take one of the final steps to add more accurate context about the racist origins of the Confederate soldier monument that stands so divisively in downtown Denton.

County Judge Andy Eads picked John Baines, Commissioner Hugh Coleman chose Zenobia Hutton, Commissioner Ron Marchant chose Dwayne Edwards, Commissioner Bobbie Mitchell picked Donna Hernandez and Commissioner Dianne Edmondson chose Bill Lawrence.

The court nominated Mitchell and Eads to the committee as well.

Bobbie Mitchell

Those seven will be responsible for a big job. They will somehow choose the right words to fill in missing pieces of a story that has played out in Denton County since before 1918, when the monument was erected in downtown Denton.

Critics of the monument say it has always stood to intimidate black people who live in Denton County. Proponents say it memorializes only the Confederate soldiers of the Civil War but not what they fought for, which, according to the breadth and depth of American history, was to preserve slavery.

Andy Eads

In February 2018, a committee appointed by the commissioners recommended the county should not remove the statue but instead add historical context about its racist origins, add a bronze statue devoted to black people in Denton County and add a structure denouncing slavery.

The plan also includes turning back on the two water fountains on the Confederate statue that are said to have once been segregated.

More than a year later, county officials approved the plan last week. The next step after that approval was to appoint a new committee, officially titled the Denton County Courthouse on the Square Art Committee.

Three people who were on the committee that made the recommendations — Baines, Hutton and Hernandez — are also on the new committee to fulfill those recommendations.

John Baines

Dawn Cobb, spokeswoman for the county judge’s office, wrote in an email the following about the new committee:

“The committee will be tasked with soliciting a request for qualifications for artists across the nation, reviewing responses and narrowing to 3 to 5 finalists, receiving tabletop renderings of proposed selections, seeking public input in the artist selection, drafting an inscription for the granite piece and making a recommendation to Commissioners Court.”