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Sept. 11 – A look back locally

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Sept11 lookback 1000

By Emily Banks Wooten
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Following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, that occurred at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field near Shanksville, Pa., flags throughout Polk County could be seen flying at half-staff.

Stunned office workers all over town huddled around televisions and radios to hear updates on the catastrophe. Although it was occurring thousands of miles away, it may as well have been here, as one could feel the quite pall that fell over everyone as shock and disbelief gave way to tears and anger.

Some may think that Polk Countians had nothing to worry about in conjunction with the attacks, but regardless, numerous precautions were underway locally that fateful Tuesday.

Although none of the school districts in Polk County closed or dismissed early that day, several campuses in the Livingston ISD were under a self-imposed lockdown.

Prayer vigils open to the public were held at Central Baptist Church, Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church and First United Methodist Church.

 As the Polk County Commissioners Court convened to hold a public hearing on its proposed budget, many people felt helpless and somewhat silly continuing to go through the motions as if it was an ordinary day

“The importance of this budget somewhat pales compared to what’s going on with our country right now,” John Thompson, then county judge, said.

Area law enforcement agencies were on alert and based on recommendations by the county’s Office of Emergency Management, extra units patrolled the courthouse area that day.

The Polk County Sheriff’s Office patrolled area schools and monitored local price gouging in the days that followed.

The Trinity River Authority and Lake Livingston Dam took precautions as well, by increasing the number of security personnel, including security personnel in boats on Lake Livingston.

“We had no indication to think we were under threat, but wanted to do this as a precaution,” Bill Holder, then project manager, said. “At that time, we didn’t know if it might spread across the nation.”

The local hospital, then called Memorial Medical Center Livingston, and the Polk County Red Cross co-sponsored a blood drive to benefit the victims of the terroristic attacks.

“The Red Cross office, the sheriff’s department, the hospital and the county judge were receiving so many calls from people wanting to give blood, so Jay (Jay Dickson, then hospital director) and I got together and contacted Stewart Regional Blood Center to host it and they agreed to,” Dick Cooley, then the branch manager of the Polk County Red Cross, said.

An estimated 2,000 people decked out in red, white and blue turned out for Polk County’s “Proud to be an American” rally and candlelight service at Lions Stadium on Sept. 30. The event included a community choir, an essay contest, a tribute to citizens, a tribute to fire/rescue/law enforcement/military, prayer and a fireworks display.

In the days and weeks that followed, the Polk County Enterprise was tipped off to numerous local connections and managed to provide very localized coverage of the aftermath of the attacks.

Karen Burks Alexander, a 1987 graduate of Big Sandy High School and a member of the U.S. Army, was a staff sergeant assigned to the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and Plans at the Pentagon. Were it not for a shift change, she would have been there when the attack occurred. She later told her mother, Earline Burks, that if she’d been sitting at her desk, the plan would have been in her lap.

Kelly Kohrman Fahel, a 1996 graduate of Livingston High School, lived in Northern Virginia at the time and worked for one of the federal government agencies right outside of Washington, D.C. She was flooded with calls and emails that day from people from her hometown who were worried about her and inquiring as to her welfare. Every day going and coming from work she drove by the Pentagon, the road she traveled being on the side where the attack occurred.

R. Keith Bullock, an Alabama-Coushatta tribal member, lived in New York at the time and worked on 46th Street. He contacted his parents, G. Wayne and Genny Bullock, that morning to report his safety and later followed up with an extensive email detailing what he saw that morning. “I walked in amazement at what was unfolding, but the worst sight was yet to come. I was heading in the south direction and I could see the building (about three miles in the distance) with the smoke just billowing out of it. At that time, I didn’t know that the first tower had already fallen. Then, before my very eyes at 10:28 a.m., I saw the second tower collapse. It was a sight that is imprinted in my memory and part of the New York skyline just disappeared.”

Travis and Gladys Jane Helpenstell were relieved when they received an email from their nephew, Lt. Col. Alan Maitland, who worked in the Pentagon, that he was okay. “I was on Corridor C showing another LTC where somebody was located when the building rocked and black smoke was seen from the window. I could not return to my office due to smoke and others saying the ceiling had collapsed. I returned (later) to offer assistance and was amazed at the damage … no evidence of a plane since it appeared to have either burned completely up and/or was under all of the rubble.”

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Arrest made in baby’s death

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Thomas Allen JanczakThomas Allen JanczakFrom Enterprise Staff

Detectives with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office arrested Thomas Allen Janczak, 22, of Livingston, Thursday night. Janczak was charged with capital murder and is being held in the Polk County Jail under a $1 million bond. The arrest was made in conjunction with the death of Janczak’s one-month-old child.

Polk County Detectives received information of the infant arriving at the Texas Children’s Hospital in The Woodlands in November of 2020. After doctors determined the severity of the injuries the infant was transported to Texas Children’s Hospital Downtown where he died from blunt force trauma 12 days later.

“Due to the severity of the crime of capital murder, these investigations require months of detectives conducting interviews, gathering evidence and consultations with professionals in the medical field, to obtain concrete evidence for prosecution. There is no way to predict how much time a police investigation will take,” Captain David Sottosanti, an investigator with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office, said.                                                                         

Detectives conducted a full investigation, with assistance from the CPS Special Investigator’s Office, the Polk County District Attorney’s Office, the Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office and the Texas Rangers Office.

“The hard work of all the agencies involved led detectives in obtaining an arrest warrant. I greatly appreciate the patience it took from the family and friends of the victim to see justice prevail and this case brought to an arrest and prosecution,” Polk County Sheriff Byron Lyons said.

Other possible criminal charges are being investigated and considered at this time, according to Sottosanti.  

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LISD tax rate, budget approved

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Ben Davidson LISD CFOBen Davidson LISD CFOThe Livingston Board of Trustees approved the budget, tax rate and additional leave for Covid-19 in a meeting Monday evening at Creekside Elementary.

The 2021-2022 proposed budget was presented by Livingston ISD Chief Financial Officer Ben Davidson. General fund revenues for 2021-2022 are projected at $40,207,901. Expenses are expected at $39,018,461 and LISD is anticipating a budget surplus at the end of the year. 

The funds are to be rolled into fund balance and earmarked for use to extend the initiatives funded by the ESSER program. Food service revenues are projected at $2,940,750 with expenses budgeted at $2,739,134. Debt service revenues and expenses are thought to be at $4,490,000, while instruction is budgeted at $22,174,705 with a 2% midpoint raise for all staff. The overall budget decreased from last year, as certain expenditures will be paid from federal ESSER funds. 

Dr. Brent Hawkins SuperintendentDr. Brent Hawkins SuperintendentDavidson also presented the LISD tax rate history, current rate and proposed tax rate for 2021-2022. The tax rate is currently 1.0545 for maintenance and operations and .255 for debt service, for a total of 1.3097 per $100 valuation. The tax rate proposed is 1.2369 per $100 valuation for the 2021-2022 budget cycle, which the board approved. The new rate is a drop of 5.5% from last year and the third consecutive year LISD has lowered the tax rate.

LISD Superintendent Dr. Brent Hawkins presented Covid-19 leave plan for staff that would add three days for those who need the time. 

“Our school district was very successful last year in combating COVID in that there was no confirmed school spread,” Hawkins said. “Little did we know what blocks the Delta variant would put in the way. The Delta variant is four times more contagious than the Alpha variant. This has been the most trying time, it is extremely difficult to keep the doors open to school. 

“The challenge with this phase of the virus is (that) the change in health guidance from the state prohibits the district from using the plan that was so successful last school year. We have a low substitute pool and it has left us very shorthanded and it’s been very tedious to keep moving forward. We have to control the things we can control as a district. The district has implemented every part of last year’s plan that is not prohibited from the state and stood up more safeguards this year as well. We have to continue to be flexible and look at our data. As I said earlier in our Facebook Live Hawk’s Talk, we are in dire times and cannot sustain this trajectory as a district or as a state public education community. It is important that our staff, students, and community work together to mitigate the virus, as the doors being open to our school are at risk.” 

All employees receive five state days and two district days off. The resolution, which was approved, provides three additional district days for staff to help employees who need to be isolated. The resolution is retroactive back to the first day of school for anyone who has been affected by the virus. 

The board accepted the recommendation designating Leslie Jones-Burks, Polk County Tax Assessor-Collector to collect property taxes for the LISD and to submit updated electronic data to Polk Central Appraisal District as required by the property tax code. Among the approved items under the consent agenda were personal property donations, a budget amendment, and overnight travel.

After reconvening from closed session, the board approved the superintendent’s recommendation to file a complaint with the State Board for Educator Certification on LISD teachers Megan Wood and Christi Cox.

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LISD to close for four days

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Livingston Logo

From Enterprise Staff

Livingston ISD will close the week of Labor Day, Superintendent Dr. Brent Hawkins announced via email Wednesday.

“The trajectory of the COVID-19 virus-positive cases has caused teacher staffing issues for our district. Monday, Sept. 6, is Labor Day and is an LISD school holiday.

Livingston ISD will be closed Tuesday, Sept. 7 through Friday, Sept. 10, due to the staffing shortage from COVID-19 positive cases,” Hawkins said. “There will not be regular instruction on any campuses or remote conferencing instruction for COVID-19 positive students during the closure.”

All district instructional facilities will be closed Sept. 6-10. Angelina College dual credit classes will be held online during the LISD closure. LHS extracurricular activities will continue as long as they can be sustained by non-COVID positive staff.

A free COVID-19 testing clinic will be available on the Livingston High School campus for staff and students from 8 a.m. to noon Tuesday through Friday. The high school campus will be available by telephone at 936-328-8600 during this time.

“We encourage everyone to stay home, wash their hands often and practice social distancing during this closure. It is crucial that staff and students protect themselves and continue to watch for symptoms of the virus,” Hawkins said. “We further ask that all staff and students continue to follow our strong recommendation to wear face coverings when involved in any indoor activities. Please consider vaccination if you are eligible and have not already done so.

“While this is our first closure due to staffing shortages caused by COVID-19 positive cases, more closures may be necessary if we cannot work to mitigate viral spread in our community,” Hawkins said.

“We encourage everyone in the community to help mitigate the virus by hand washing often with soap and water, wearing a mask, avoiding crowds and practicing social distancing and getting vaccinated, if eligible,” Hawkins said, adding, “We look forward to resuming regular class schedules on Monday, Sept. 13. My thoughts and prayers are with everyone and wish each of you health and safety during this closure.”

The district will be using the four days set aside on the school calendar as “bad weather days” for the replacement of the lost instructional time.

Symptoms of the virus may be checked at http://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/symptoms-testing/symptoms.html.

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East Texas Tribe Wins Major Victory in Federal Court

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Judge rules in support of Naskila Gaming, against state’s effort to shut facility down.

Press Release

alabama coushatta logo(Livingston, TX) – After five years of litigation, the United States District Court in Beaumont ruled this week that the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas may legally operate its Naskila Gaming electronic bingo facility near Livingston, saying that such gaming is permissible under the Tribe’s 1987 Restoration Act.

The ruling from U.S. District Judge Keith Giblin is a major victory for the future of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe, the hundreds of people employed at Naskila, and the economic stability of the East Texas region.

For years, the State of Texas has worked in court to close Naskila Gaming, even as tens of thousands of Texans, dozens of civic groups, and elected leaders from both parties have expressed strong support for allowing the Tribe to operate the facility.

“This ruling affirms that we have a legally sound right to support our Tribe by operating Naskila Gaming,” said Nita Battise, Chairperson of the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas Tribal Council. “This is not only a win for the citizens of our Tribe, but also for the hundreds of families who depend on Naskila Gaming for their livelihood and for the economic health of East Texas. The continued operation of Naskila Gaming is vital to the economic success of the community we proudly call home.”

In 2015, the National Indian Gaming Commission (“NIGC”) approved the Tribe’s Class II Bingo Gaming Ordinance and found that the Tribe was eligible to game under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (“IGRA”), the federal law governing tribal gaming throughout the United States. Based on that approval, the Tribe opened Naskila Gaming in May 2016. A month later, the State of Texas filed a lawsuit seeking to shut Naskila Gaming down.  

The Tribe fought back on two grounds. First, the Tribe argued that the decision of the NIGC to approve the Tribe’s gaming ordinance was entitled to deference by the courts and superseded a 1994 decision by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals that the Tribe’s right to game was not covered under IGRA but, rather, the Tribe’s Restoration Act. Second, the Tribe asserted that even if it was not covered under IGRA, the gaming being offered at Naskila was permitted under the Restoration Act.

In 2019, the Fifth Circuit agreed with the District Court’s opinion that the NIGC’s decision to approve the Tribe’s gaming ordinance was not entitled to deference and the ability of the Tribe to offer gaming is controlled by the Restoration Act. In May of this year, Judge Giblin heard testimony and legal arguments on why the Tribe’s electronic bingo was permissible under its Restoration Act.  

On Tuesday, Judge Giblin found that the Restoration Act allows the Tribe to offer gaming that is not otherwise prohibited under Texas law and, further, the Restoration Act precludes Texas from exercising civil or criminal regulatory jurisdiction.  Because bingo is regulated, not prohibited, in Texas, Judge Giblin ruled that the electronic bingo at Naskila Gaming is legal under the Restoration Act and not subject to the laws of Texas.  

Naskila Gaming is the second-largest employer in Polk County. Some 700 jobs are tied directly or indirectly to Naskila Gaming, as well as over $170 million in annual economic stimulus, making its long-term stability essential to the economic future of East Texas.

Even as the legal process has played out, a bipartisan coalition of congressional representatives has been working in Washington to ensure Naskila Gaming can stay open. In May, the U.S. House of Representatives approved H.R. 2208, the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo and Alabama-Coushatta Tribe of Texas Fair Opportunity Act. The legislation ensures that these two federally recognized Texas tribes are allowed to offer electronic bingo under IGRA.

The U.S. Senate has not acted upon H.R. 2208 and did not act upon similar legislation that the House approved two years ago. Over the last year, members of the public have sent more than 25,000 letters in support of Naskila Gaming to key statewide elected officials, including the state’s two U.S. Senators and Gov. Greg Abbott, who has repeatedly spoken out against legislation to keep Naskila Gaming open.

“It remains critical for Congress to take action and make clear that our Tribe is governed by IGRA,” Chairperson Battise said. “While we expect the state to appeal the decision from Judge Giblin, congressional action can provide the swift and definitive resolution needed to provide stability for our Tribe and the communities throughout East Texas.”

Chairperson Battise added, “The Alabama-Coushatta’s Tribe has a rich history in the state of Texas and Naskila plays a critical role in the cultural and economic life of Deep East Texas.  We are grateful for the many community and civic organizations who have stepped forward to support the Tribe and protect the jobs Naskila provides."

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