Time to Take a Hard Look at Utility Companies – Again!

STILL BURNING: The coal-fired power plant near Independence, Ark.
STILL BURNING: The coal-fired power plant near Independence, Ark.

New Orleans   The other day I was talking to an archivist as part of an oral history project about ACORN, and we were covering the early 1970s, and as we got ready to march forward to the 20/80 campaign, she stopped me and said, “What about the utility campaigns?” Good point, and that’s where we will start next time we meet, but it also was a wakeup call and a reminder that gas, electric, and water utilities need to be front-and-center organizing targets once again just as they were in the 1970s for both the same and different reasons.

The responsibility of utilities for clean water is obviously front page news these days, underlining the lack of infrastructure investment and, sadly, the willingness to inflict damage to citizens, especially minority and low-and-moderate income families with lead and an array of poisons. Environmentalists have been hammering on power generating companies for some of the same problems as well as trying to wean them from coal burning plants and towards more alternative fuels. The cheapness of oil and gas right now makes that push a little easier, but it’s a fight.

The battles of the 70s certainly included the issues of coal and the famous fight of ACORN in Arkansas to downsize the plans for what would have been at that time the worlds’ largest coal burning plant on White Bluff on the Arkansas River between Little Rock and Pine Bluff proposed by Arkansas Power & Light part of Middle South Utilities, now Entergy, but the fights were also over pricing. The costs were escalating for consumers, while businesses and heavy users in industry were paying pennies for power and being subsidized by the small customer or the “biscuit cookers,” as gas mogul, Witt Stephens used to refer to all of us. Investor owned utilities, as public utilities, are regulated by public authorities either elected or appointed depending on the state, but that also means that legislators are always open season for utility lobbyists so guaranteed rates of return and paddy cake handling is all too common.

Maybe we’re about to go to war again though as indicated by a huge dispute in central Louisiana with CLECO, an investor owned operation headquartered in the middle of the state and serves only Louisiana residential customers, almost 200,000 of them, and wholesale customers in Mississippi as well. CLECO has the highest rates in the state, and that along with its monopoly position drew the interest of a private vulture firm that specializes in operating huge infrastructure projects. Macquarie Infrastructure and Real Assets is named after an Australian bank, but it’s a US-based operation with offices all around the world and big time assets as well. It specializes in monopoly products that are essential services like ports, airports, and of course utilities. One of its recent properties is the Hawaii Gas company. There can’t be a more captive consumer base that being the sole gas provider on the islands!

Macquarie is trying to buy CLECO to keep singing that song, and CLECO’s board was good to go, but the Public Service Commission is elected in Louisiana and so far has refused to approve the merger. Most interestingly they are standing in the way over the very issue that makes CLECO so attractive to Macquarie, the exorbitant utility rates. Macquarie is trying to sweeten the pot by offering consumers a couple of months of free power. Several of the commissioners aren’t fooled though and are demanding that the rates be reduced by 20% or more before they’ll vote yes.

Who knows if they’ll stand pat or fold, but it’s worth starting to look at utilities again. Gas prices are going up. Coal is on the ropes, but utility bills are continuing to rise, so it may be time to dust off some of the old strategies and tactics and take a hard look at these companies again and suit up for battle.

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A+ Schools Could be the Tool to Save Public Schools, Students & Teachers

New Orleans     A+ Arkansas, initiated by the Thea Foundation and its director, Paul Leopoulos, may be proving that there are some real tools for improving public schools, the educational grasp and performance of students, regardless of race and income, and salvage the careers and idealism of teachers while doing so.  How do they pull off this hat trick?  It’s all in the methodology.  Rather than giving up on the kids, blaming the teachers and the union, or claiming that it’s about school governance and bureaucracy, they actually have developed a radical methodology that makes children an active part of learning, rather than passive sponges, bored to distraction.

In a fascinating and important article in the Arkansas  the reporter Leslie Newell Peacock describes the trick as putting “…the art in math, the drama in literature, the song in history…” which sounds like suddenly school might be a great place to go.  Importantly, the Thea Foundation which is promoting the A+ method in Arkansas and other states is in serious discussions with the state education department to expand past the 12 Arkansas schools taking the plunge with them and expand their methodology to the other 46 failing and 109 “focus” schools in the state.

The model was initially developed in North Carolina and has been embraced by 70 schools in Oklahoma.  The success stories in Arkansas are almost unbelievable in places like El Dorado in the southwestern part of the state and Helena in the Delta.

Besides the methodology, the big difference may be that instead of arguing for a revolution and a “throw the bums out” approach which is the default position of the blaming rightwing and charter movement,  A+ is a “whole school reform initiative” in the words of the Walton (Walton = Walmart which = big stick in Arkansas!) Foundation, a general in the blaming, charter army.  For A+ to work it “requires whole-school buy-in” with “summer and monthly training and more preparation.”  There’s no free lunch, but compared to the charter mess, the price for the training package seems very reasonable with each school program’s price tag only “$60,000 for three years of training for up to 30 teachers….”

The Thea Foundation, unlike so many of the self-aggrandizing empire builders in the for profit and nonprofit charter operations, is not just a nonprofit, but a mission driven, life consuming, legacy building testament to Thea, the now deceased daughter of the founders.  Paul and Linda Leopoulos had seen a dramatic turnaround for their daughter when her work with art gave her the confidence to learn in many subjects.  They only want people to drink the magic potent that they have now worked into the fabric of their methodology.

A high point for me was seeing that the George Rodrigue Foundation had also stumbled onto the Thea Foundation’s A+ work and even in the Arkansas Times while reading the article I had immediately spotted one of Rodrigue’s blue dog pictures on the wall behind Paul Leopoulos.  There is now a Louisiana A+ Network in the process of formation  headed by Bethany France.  Living here, I know their task is difficult in the face of the radical charter machinery that is bulldozing the state educational system as part of Louisiana’s Governor Jindal’s ill-advised 2016 Presidential pipedream, but just knowing they are here and in New Orleans, finally gives me hope.

Nothing about A+ is easy obviously, but the price is right, and the results are spectacular, so there ought to be long line in front of their door.  I’m ready to join that line, and I am already wondering why more states and school districts have not already beaten me to the door?

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