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'Neighbors ... not residents': Annexation to be discussed Tuesday by Denton council

Denton City Council members Tuesday will vote on 11 items dealing with non-annexation agreements with property owners near the city’s borders.

The council has routinely made such agreements since 2010, with the most recent batch of agreements processed in 2016.

Property owners with some form of agricultural exemption essentially promise to abide by certain development standards, and in turn, the city agrees to not annex the property. Annexation comes with certain perks for property owners, and it brings in more tax revenue for municipalities.

Some property owners, however, aren’t keen on the prospect. Roughly 80% of the 156 property owners sent notice of the impending non-annexation agreements had signed onto the five-year compromise ahead of Tuesday’s council meeting. At least seven others had requested some change to their agreements.

Nathan Harvey, one of the property owners seeking changes to the non-annexation agreements, created the online group “City of Denton Forced Annexation” on Facebook.

He urged fellow property owners to contact him in a post made after an Aug. 4 City Council meeting.

“I believe the reality is property owners were told to sign this agreement within the next week, which allows us to annex you in 5 years, or be annexed now,” he wrote in part. “It’s like being told, ‘I’m going to chop your arm off now, or you can sign this agreement that you agree to me chopping it off in 5 years.’ That’s not really a choice.”

A bill signed into law in 2017 allows for property owners up to 45-year contracts, and some property owners previously asked council members for a longer term. Others also requested language be deleted from the contract to make it more difficult for the city to annex them.

Council members had a somewhat contentious discussion of the proposals during their Aug. 4 meeting, but a consensus eventually emerged in favor of keeping the five-year contracts.

Member Gerard Hudspeth said he didn’t feel the council had enough time to properly negotiate different terms, but he indicated he would like to see those talks take place over the next five years after contracts are signed.

Deb Armintor, another council member, was vocal about her desire for the city to accept the requests from some property owners granting them longer contracts with more privileges.

“We’ve never annexed someone that didn’t necessarily want to be annexed in, or if we have, it’s been with a lot of negotiation — a lot of forethought,” Mayor Chris Watts said during the Aug. 4 discussion.

Member Jesse Davis also spoke in favor of keeping the contracts free of changes proposed by property owners. He said the non-annexation agreements already represent a compromise.

“These are neighbors, but they’re not residents,” he said. “These are potentially adverse parties in some future annexation action.”

He also argued a lack of such agreements could create a situation in which substandard developments pop up around Denton’s city limits, the residents of which would eventually request annexation to receive city services, thus shackling the city with a costly list of projects to bring construction up to its standards.

UNT aims to grow support through young fans as pandemic threatens college athletics

Evan Frantum never paid a whole lot of attention to college sports growing up.

It wasn’t until the Frisco native enrolled at the University of North Texas that he decided to expand his horizons beyond pro sports and ventured to Apogee Stadium to watch the Mean Green.

Frantum didn’t realize it, but that decision helped transform him into an example of how UNT’s athletics department hopes to grow its fan and donor base. He quickly became a fan of UNT’s quarterback at the time, Mason Fine, then of the team and finally the school’s entire athletics program.

Frantum passed on claiming the two free football season tickets UNT offers to students who graduated the previous year to join the ranks of fans who pay to watch the Mean Green. He spent nearly $700 to claim two seats near the 50-yard line after graduating in May.

“My hobbies are UNT sports,” Frantum said. “It was a no-brainer on my part. I purchased tickets right in the middle of the COVID-19 lockdown because I want to be charitable to my school and the athletics program that I’m passionate about.”

Finding more fans like Frantum is vital for UNT in the wake of the pandemic.

Spring sports, the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments and UNT’s football game at Texas A&M this fall were all canceled due to the spread of COVID-19. UNT is looking at combined losses that could rise to $3.75 million due to those events being called off.

More cancellations could be on the way. The Mid-American Conference announced Saturday that it has postponed fall sports, prompting speculation that other leagues could soon follow. UNT is a member of Conference USA. The league said Friday that it plans to play all of its conference football games.

But Old Dominion, a member of C-USA, announced Monday that it has canceled fall sports, including football. The Mountain West Conference postponed fall sports later in the day.

The uncertainty the pandemic has caused makes a program’s foundation vital.

UNT listed 1,411 donors in its 2018-19 annual report. The school sold 7,885 football season tickets through all avenues, including corporate sponsorships, last fall.

UNT ranked third among C-USA’s 13 public schools with $40.8 million in revenue in 2018-19, according to USA Today’s database on finances in college athletics. That total included $1.8 million in ticket sales. The school brought in nearly $4.6 million in financial commitments from donors that same year, according to its annual report.

Old Dominion’s $47 million in revenue led C-USA and was bolstered by $3.8 million in ticket sales, according to USA Today.

UNT officials say the school has plenty of growth potential as it looks to close that gap. The school has yet to sell out Apogee, which seats 30,850. The venue opened in 2011.

UNT’s best hope to build its fan base is to hook people like Frantum when they are students and convert them into season ticket holders and donors.

The school will give students and season ticket holders the first opportunity to claim seats in Apogee this fall, when capacity likely will be limited due to the pandemic. UNT also launched a ticket assurance program this summer to address fans’ concerns about the status of the football season. Fans will now be able to ask for refunds, use the funds from unused tickets to pay for future tickets or convert payments to donations to the Mean Green Scholarship Fund if the season is canceled or altered.

UNT’s hope is those measures will help it continue growing its fan and donor base, especially among young people.

“We are seeing an increase in every level of donor,” UNT athletic director Wren Baker said. “Our fans are gaining trust in the program. They are starting out small and are getting to the point where they can give more. It’s like any other relationship. You don’t go from zero to 100. We are matriculating donors through those levels.”

Brett Vito / Courtesy photo  

Recent UNT graduate Evan Frantum, right, stands outside the gates of Apogee Stadium with his cousin Brynson Harmon. Frantum passed on two free season football tickets the school offers to people the year after they graduate, instead opting to purchase tickets near the 50-yard line for $700. The 2020 graduate wanted to invest in the program because of his passion for UNT athletics.

Courting the next generation

UNT has made a concerted effort to get young fans like Frantum into the pipeline. The school hosts events for freshmen pushing school spirit, promotes games on campus and, most importantly, makes attending games inexpensive.

UNT’s students get into games for free.

In 2017, the school began offering two free tickets to alumni the year after they graduate. Those graduates then can purchase tickets for $55 per season for the next four years in a section of the stadium reserved for young alumni.

Add it all up, and a UNT graduate could attend every home game for five seasons for $220.

UNT adjusted its ticket pricing structure as part of a series of changes over the past four years that included renaming its donor-supported fund that was known as the Mean Green Club. It is now known as the Mean Green Scholarship Fund, a name that more clearly states its purpose.

“When we rebranded our scholarship fund, we created a couple of lower levels,” Baker said. “We wanted to increase widespread participation. That has been effective.”

Shea Sengelmann graduated from UNT in 2016 and is finishing up his master’s degree at the school. His wife is also a UNT graduate.

“Inexpensive tickets were a big draw for sure when we first graduated,” Sengelmann said. “It’s a big help for people just getting started in their careers.”

Inexpensive tickets help UNT officials combat the entrenched loyalties many students have when they arrive on campus.

Sengelmann’s family purchased University of Texas football season tickets when he was young. Ryan Munthe, a 2015 UNT graduate, grew up as an Ohio State University fan. They are both UNT supporters now, largely because of their experiences cheering on the Mean Green.

Munthe was in the stands for UNT’s win over the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in the Heart of Dallas Bowl at the end of the 2013 season.

“At the end of the day, I’m a North Texas fan now,” Munthe said. “I dropped Ohio State after the Heart of Dallas Bowl.”

The numbers are on UNT’s side, even if the school converts only a small percentage of its students into long-term fans. UNT has an enrollment well over 30,000.

The problem over the years is that not enough of those students were drawn in by winning teams.

UNT has posted just three winning seasons in football over the past 15 years. Too often those rare winning campaigns have been capped by disheartening bowl losses or been followed by down years.

UNT followed up a nine-win 2013 campaign capped by its Heart of Dallas Bowl win with three straight losing seasons.

The Mean Green cruised to a 9-4 regular season in 2017 but were hammered 50-30 by Troy University in the New Orleans Bowl.

UNT beat the University of Arkansas in 2018, when the Mean Green started 4-0. UNT drew 30,105 fans for a game against Louisiana Tech University, its first at home following its win over the Razorbacks.

The Bulldogs beat the Mean Green 29-27 when Amik Robertson blocked a UNT field goal attempt in the closing seconds. The Mean Green rebounded to win nine games but were trounced 52-13 by Utah State University in the New Mexico Bowl.

“For a lot of young grads, there is a frustration with the fact we have hit a ceiling,” Munthe said.

Brett Vito / Courtesy photos  

Alex Harlow, a 2018 North Texas graduate, center right, poses for a photo with men’s basketball coach Grant McCasland, left, athletic director Wren Baker and football coach Seth Littrell. UNT is making a concerted effort to attract and retain young fans like Harlow.

Hope for the future

UNT officials are quick to point out that while the school has missed out on opportunities to build support, the overall trajectory of its athletics program is encouraging.

The Mean Green have played in 11 bowl games in program history — four of them since 2013. The school’s men’s basketball team won the C-USA regular season title last spring.

Fans turn out in droves when UNT’s teams are winning or hosting high-profile opponents, particularly in football.

UNT set an attendance record of 30,123 last season for a loss to the University of Houston. The top three most-attended games in program history have been played since 2018.

Those crowds have corresponded with UNT’s rise under football coach Seth Littrell, who had the Mean Green on a roll with three straight bowl appearances before a down season last fall, when they went 4-8.

“There is more competition for younger people,” Munthe said. “Fans will show up if you win. That’s how you create die-hards.”

Some of the young fans who have joined those ranks credit Baker and his staff for fostering their love of the program.

Alex Harlow, a 2018 UNT graduate, contacted the athletic department to see if Baker and Littrell would pose for a photo with him as a graduation gift. When he arrived for the shoot, men’s basketball coach Grant McCasland was there to jump in front of the camera as well.

“That’s the one thing that I really like about UNT,” Harlow said. “You can have those types of experiences.”

UNT’s approach with fans also made an impression on Gavin Doolittle, a 2015 graduate.

“Baker has reached out and been open and honest,” Doolittle said. “His approach resonates. He treats the guy who gives $20 a year like the donors who give $1 million.”

The question now is if that approach will translate into a growing fan and donor base that will help UNT’s athletic department cope with the financial stress the pandemic has caused.

Frantum set an example when he invested in the program and hopes other young fans will do the same.

“North Texas sports can be something special if people buy in and trust the process as well as the people in charge,” Frantum said. “I encourage everyone to take the same position I did. Come out, support and scream for the team. It makes a difference to the people around you, the coaches and the student-athletes. You can get a lot out of it if you find ways to align with your school.”

Coronavirus testing in Texas plummets as schools prepare to reopen

The number of Texans being tested for the coronavirus has fallen sharply in recent weeks, a trend that has worried public health experts as officials consider sending children back to school while thousands more Texans are infected each day.

In the week ending Aug. 8, an average 36,255 coronavirus tests were administered in Texas each day — a drop of about 42% from two weeks earlier, when the average number of daily tests was 62,516.

At the same time, the percentage of tests yielding positive results has climbed, up to 20% on average in the week ending Aug. 8. Two weeks earlier, the average positivity rate was around 14%.

On Saturday, the state set a record for its positivity rate, with more than half of that day’s roughly 14,000 viral tests indicating an infection.

Taken together, the low number of tests and the large percentage of positive results suggest inadequacies in the state’s public health surveillance effort at a time when school reopenings are certain to increase viral spread, health experts said.

“Opening the schools is a really complicated problem, and the best thing we can do is get the number of cases down so kids can go back to school safely,” said Catherine Troisi, an infectious disease epidemiologist at UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston. “There are so many reasons why kids need to be in school, particularly younger kids, but we’re finding out more and more they can get infected, and the concern is them bringing it home and spreading in the community and spreading to teachers.

“I think the worst thing would be for schools to open, then close,” she said. “That really makes it hard on parents, that unpredictability, and there’s a lot of costs associated with opening the schools safely.”

The decline in tests may be driven in at least some places by a drop in demand. In Austin, health officials say fewer people are seeking tests through the city’s online portal and at local events. Local officials had been forced in late June to limit testing only to people who were showing symptoms of the coronavirus. Now, they are opening it back up to asymptomatic people.

And at sites in Dallas, testing numbers have been declining over the past few weeks as locals utilize less of the city’s capacity.

The number of tests performed in Texas has “never been great,” said Vivian Ho, a health economist at Rice University and Baylor College of Medicine, but “it’s extremely troubling” that the numbers have dipped since last month.

“It’s troubling because we can guess at some of the reasons, but we’re not sure,” she said.

She suggested that some people may have been discouraged by long wait times for test results, or less concerned about the virus’s toll in Texas after a frightening peak in July began to flatten out.

A declining number of tests is a particularly thorny issue for schools, Ho said. ”No public school has the resources to do testing under the current circumstances. There are huge class sizes and crowded hallways,” she said.

Researchers estimate that the true number of coronavirus cases could be more than 10 times the number of positive tests. As many as half of the people who contract the virus may never experience symptoms.

State data shows coronavirus hospitalizations declining in Texas, with some 7,500 coronavirus patients reported in Texas hospitals on Sunday. That’s down from a late July peak of about 11,000 — but remains well above Texas’ levels in the spring, when daily hospitalizations plateaued below 2,000.

In San Antonio, health officials last week said that a return to school would lead to new viral transmission, and a growing body of evidence shows racial disparities in children’s susceptibility to severe illness from the virus.

“We know that children are less likely to be sick, but not immune,” said Dr. Junda Woo, medical director for San Antonio’s Metropolitan Health District, who said that on Wednesday there were about 80 children with coronavirus in local hospitals.

The role of children as disease vectors is less clear, Woo said. Studies show that children are less likely than adults to have infections severe enough to require hospitalization, but a recent report published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that Hispanic and Black children were much more likely to be hospitalized.

Hispanic children were about eight times as likely as white children to be hospitalized, while Black children were five times as likely, researchers found. In Texas, about 53% of public school students are Hispanic, and about 13% are Black.

“Outbreaks will happen” in schools, Woo said. She likened schools to other group settings that have seen significant clusters of infection, such as nursing homes and day cares. “It’s going to seep in from the community as a whole.”

Gov. Greg Abbott said on July 31 that local health officials could not issue blanket orders that preemptively blocked schools in their jurisdictions from opening their classrooms for in-person instruction. That statement, which followed similar guidance from Attorney General Ken Paxton, came after about 18 local health authorities had issued such orders.

The move frustrated some superintendents, who said they were hamstrung in their ability to respond to the pandemic.

Abbott has said that local health officials could shut down schools that have COVID-19 outbreaks after they reopen.

Abbott also said school districts could ask for more time to limit the number of students learning in classrooms, on a case-by-case basis, beyond the current eight-week maximum set by the Texas Education Agency. And he told school officials that they could move their start dates later in the year with a school board vote, as long as they make up the time.

The Texas Education Agency has not yet released any specifics on which districts will be able to receive waivers to limit in-person instruction beyond eight weeks or under what circumstances. But it said it will penalize school districts for unlawful school closures, worrying superintendents who want more certainty of state support while handling an unpredictable pandemic.

Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told reporters last week that communities with high levels of viral spread may be better off not reopening schools for in-person instruction.

“There are some areas, like we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks … of very significant viral activity,” Fauci said during an Aug. 6 briefing with journalists hosted by the Alliance for Health Policy. “Under those circumstances, you’ve got to use common sense. … It may not be prudent to get the children back to school in those areas. So, you got to say, ‘Try as best as you can to get the children back to school, but one size does not fit all.’”

Online classes and new campuses on Denton ISD Tuesday agenda

A majority of Denton ISD students have expressed an interest in virtual learning for the coming school year ahead of Tuesday’s school board meeting.

According to information posted in the board’s agenda online, right around 62% of all enrolled students seem interested.

All parts of the district showed interest at levels between 64% and 67% except for Guyer High School and surrounding schools, which totaled just 49% interest in online learning.

The total number of registrations so far accounts for only 25,069 students — several thousand shy of enrollment numbers for the previous school year. Denton ISD previously asked parents to commit their students to either in-person or remote learning by this Wednesday, Aug. 12. However, all students are expected to learn remotely until in-person classes start Sept. 8.

Aug. 26 is the first scheduled day of classes for the district, but teachers have already headed back to campuses to prepare.

Board members are also likely to approve a waiver available through the Texas Education Agency allowing the district to offer high schoolers the chance to attend in-person classes on some days and online classes on others.

The waiver would allow students the option so long as they attend at least 40% of classes in-person. The district had not decided by Monday afternoon whether to offer the alternative model, but access to the opportunity would be needed in advance of its implementation.

“The decision to offer a hybrid schedule has not been made, however in the event we need to consider a hybrid schedule to accommodate social distancing guidelines in order to address student and staff safety, this waiver request provides the flexibility to do so,” according to an item included in the board’s Tuesday agenda.

The waiver request is included in the board’s consent agenda, which means members might not necessarily discuss it before passing it in a vote alongside various other items.

Board members are still forced to look ahead to years when classes can resume normally. That means building more schools for a fast-growing district like Denton ISD.

One of the first presentations they’re scheduled to receive Tuesday will give the public an early look at what the district’s ninth middle school might look like.

The two-story campus will be located between Noles and Fishtrap roads near Prosper in the district’s Braswell High School attendance zone.

Board members also likely will approve a contract with Pfluger Architects for the design of the district’s 25th elementary school. The elementary will be located within the Sandbrock Ranch development east of Krugerville, and it is planned as a redesign of Union Park Elementary School.

The contract set to be approved Tuesday includes an architect’s fee of $1.3 million for basic services.

A link to watch Tuesday’s board meeting remotely will likely go live on the district’s website shortly before it starts at 6 p.m. Tuesday. Those wishing to address the board must fill out a public comment form at www.dentonisd.org/trustees by 4 p.m. Tuesday.