In The News

The Top 11 Stories to Watch in 2011

by User Not Found | Dec 31, 2010

Many of the top stories in 2010 will continue to make headlines this year. Here's a look at 11 events and issues we expect to be writing about in 2011.

1. Arlington's really big game

The yearlong drumbeat is reaching a crescendo with the final countdown to Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington on Feb. 6. This will be the biggest single event held in North Texas, with almost 300,000 visitors expected, half from outside the state. Out-of-town visitors are expected to create a sales tax bonanza for local merchants.

The National Football League has only praise for the work of the North Texas Super Bowl Host Committee, which has orchestrated this regional effort through unprecedented cooperation among the four major cities -- Fort Worth, Arlington, Irving and Dallas.

An allocation of $31.2 million from the state comptroller's Major Event Trust Fund is expected to ensure that taxpayers can enjoy all the worldwide attention created by the Super Bowl and not pay for any of it.

The only disappointing note is that the Cowboys won't be the first team to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium. They failed to make the playoffs.

2. Gas drilling concerns

The question of whether to impose stronger environmental regulations on natural gas drilling in the Barnett Shale -- to reduce air emissions and protect groundwater supplies from potential contamination -- is expected to be on the front burner again.

The Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the state's oil and gas industry, has scheduled a Jan. 10 hearing in Austin on an order that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency filed against Fort Worth-based Range Resources. The EPA contends that Range natural gas wells drilled in 2009 contaminated two residential water wells in far south Parker County.

Range has said it doesn't believe its wells are the source of the contamination.

Fort Worth will spend an additional $402,000 to complete a study on the effects of natural gas drilling on air quality.

The Arlington City Council will vote to strengthen the city's 7-year-old drilling ordinance, such as limiting the number of years drillers can tie up a piece of land and setting other requirements to minimize effects on infrastructure, the environment and residents.

And in Southlake, city leaders have yet to give XTO Energy the OK to drill the first well site in the city. Another vote is scheduled for this month.

3. Tea Party momentum builds

The first Tea Party rally in Tarrant County took place in 2009, but the movement showed its political clout in 2010.

Different activist groups played a role in several Republican primaries and general election races. Now comes the hard part. At the state level, lawmakers will tackle a budget shortfall likely to top $20 billion.

Activists are calling for cutting spending and keeping taxes low, which could affect a wide range of popular state services. Tea Party activists have promised to field primary opponents in 2012 for Republicans who don't act like "true conservatives." But it remains to be seen whether the disparate groups can stick to the same message once debates flare over where to cut and how much.

The drama will likely begin in earnest Jan. 11, when some conservative groups plan a rally at the Capitol to coincide with the first day of the legislative session.

4. Will the school finance system get fixed?

While redistricting and a multibillion-dollar shortfall will take center stage during the legislative session, local educators are calling on politicians to change the way public schools are financed.

Officials with the Carroll, Grapevine-Colleyville and Keller school districts plan to collect letters and deliver them in person to legislators. And dozens of other districts statewide have followed the lead of Aledo and joined the grassroots Make Education a Priority campaign.

School districts have slashed budgets for fiscal 2010-11, and many have had to dip into savings to cover shortfalls. Deeper cuts are expected for 2011-12.

5. Grapevine-Colleyville investigation continues

The Tarrant County district attorney's investigation into theft and mismanagement allegations in the Grapevine-Colleyville school district should conclude this year, according to David Lobingier, investigator with the district attorney's economic crimes unit.

"The investigation is ongoing, and we want to take our time with it and be thorough," Lobingier said.

The school district launched an internal investigation into misdeeds in its facilities services department in March, resulting in the resignations of Scott Monaghan, the department's director; and two departmental employees. The district's relationship with primary job-order contractor Paul Hamilton was also severed. The investigation involved about $10,000 in missing district equipment, mismanagement of job order contracts and payroll discrepancies.

6. Pension changes loom in Fort Worth

At some point this year, the Fort Worth City Council will act to save the city's troubled retirement system from insolvency by voting on modifications to the pension formula for new general-fund employees. The vote could become the basis for the city's position when contract negotiations with police officers begin in late 2011. The Fort Worth Police Officers Association has vowed that it would never accept a two-tier retirement system for the force.

Two systems would divide the police force, said Rick Van Houten, president of the police association, and be demoralizing. "That's not good for my officers, and that's not good for our citizens," Van Houten said.

7. Be prepared to stop

Tarrant and Johnson county motorists will be dodging a lot of orange barrels in 2011 and beyond.

The $1.6 billion Southwest Parkway/Chisholm Trail Parkway toll road gets under way from downtown Fort Worth to Cleburne. The road is expected to open in the second half of 2013.

In Northeast Tarrant County, the $3.3 billion North Tarrant Express project -- including the revamping of Loop 820, Texas 121/183 and Interstate 35W -- starts this year and is scheduled to be complete in 2017.

And in Grapevine, the $1.02 billion DFW Connector project, which began in early 2010 on the Texas 114/121 corridor, is expected to take four years to complete.

8. Arlington Heights scandal lingers

There were allegations of students cleaning and doing work at the school for class credit, record tampering, an improper sexual relationship between a teacher and an assistant principal, unreported thefts and racial tensions.

All came to light last year during an investigation at Arlington Heights High School, which resulted in the resignations of Principal Neta Alexander and Assistant Superintendent Chuck Boyd.

The Tarrant County district attorney's office is investigating the use of booster club funds at the school, and the Texas Education Agency is conducting an attendance audit.

Meanwhile, Joseph Palazzolo, a former assistant principal, has filed a whistle-blower lawsuit against the district, saying he was fired for alerting officials to the wrongdoings.

Stayed tuned -- this one is far from over.

9. Reshaping downtown, Trinity River

More than four years after construction began, classes will begin this fall at Tarrant County College's Trinity River East Campus. The striking downtown facility, which features an outdoor classroom, will allow students to enjoy downtown and river views as they move through the campus.

Despite cost overruns and design changes, TCC officials have promised that the project will be completed under the $203 million that has been budgeted.

The campus will include a sunken plaza and a water feature that stretches from Weatherford Street toward the Trinity River.

And by the end of the year, just to the west, one of the first visible signs of the Trinity River Project, the Henderson Street bridge, is scheduled to begin.

This bridge will not replace the existing bridge over the Trinity River. Instead, it is being built to span the flood control and economic development project's bypass channel, which is projected to start construction in 2013.

10. M.D. program needs approval

Money has been raised and regents have approved a proposed M.D. program at the University of North Texas Health Science Center.

All that's left is an OK from the Texas Legislature, which convenes this month.

UNT regents voted to proceed with plans for the program in August. The project has received many financial commitments, including $2.5 million from the JPS Health Network. About $25 million had been raised for startup costs by the fall, according to the health science center.

Despite that support, the M.D. program has also drawn critics who say it will detract from the Texas College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Classes are expected to begin in 2013.

11. Legislative redistricting

When Texas legislators return to work Jan. 11, one of their main tasks will be redrawing congressional boundaries to add four districts based on population growth registered in the latest U.S. census.

State lawmakers must determine where those new districts go and configure other districts to make sure that each has at least the required 710,767 constituents.

Many believe that at least one new district will wind up in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

State representatives and senators will also redraw their own district boundary lines and those of the Board of Education. The Democratic-appointed Justice Department must review and sign off on the new maps. The new districts will be in place for the 2012 elections.

Staff writers Pete Alfano, Eva-Marie Ayala, Aman Batheja, Jessamy Brown, Gordon Dickson, Bill Hanna, John Henry, Shirley Jinkins, Susan Schrock, Jack Z. Smith and Anna M. Tinsley contributed to this report.