From Moma to Mopa

Copyright 2010 Ben S. Pollock

DATELINE MIRTHOLOGY — My client Crystal Britches was sweltering in her plastic rain gear. It neared 90 this morning at the Fayetteville Farmers Market — nearly all the summer veggies were available but no musicians or sidewalk artists — but the forecast had projected rain.

“Hon’. I thought I’d find you here,” she said to me. “Let’s talk about the new art museum up the road. The name could be better.”

“Why wear that vinyl storm suit, Ms. Britches? It’s June 24th.”

“Hon’, you know to call me Crystal. The walkabout sauna helps me keep my figure. I’m the same size I was 40 years ago. And with my shorts, I can show off these old showgirl legs.”

We ran into one another on the Square. We usually do. A scheduled meeting wasn’t till the end of the week, but neither of us minded talking business casually, at a sleek conference table or on a shady bench tucked in a hosta bed.

What an awkward name for the very first world-class museum in Northwest Arkansas,” said Crystal. “It would be as bad as if I built one to show off my philanthropy. But if I had, it’d be simple. If it were me, Crystal Britches, Museum of American Art. That’s it. But it all boils down to being a Museum of Other People’s Art.

“But the set-up is by a foundation, and it’s one I don’t belong to, closely held. They’re listening to the Northwest Arkansas Council. They’re the sort that thinks of an acronym then the words for it. Mopa, Museum of Ozark Pride — and Academy.”

“Oh,” I said. “It’s like Moma, Continue reading

Welcome, Fair Shareholders

Copyright 2009 Ben S. Pollock

DATELINE MIRTHOLOGY — Dear Wal-Mart shareholders and employees, oops, I mean “associates.” And the former, you smart happy investors.

If you’ve come to Northwest Arkansas before, we’re glad to have you back, and that means you don’t need to trouble yourself further in the reading this letter of welcome. So leave them for the others. The rest of you, W-M F-Ts (first-timers) will find this introduction helpful.

The plan was for this to be in each of your Welcome Y’all Packets, but I had ran into some roadblocks, literal roadblocks, then burly security guards, I mean Inventory Control Associates, who are getting time-and-a-half working the sites of the meetings and entertainment. So thank you for walking past me here in the parking lot and accepting this document:

Razorback — This refers to the friendly creatures you see in the turf near the sidewalks and parking lots. The ridge along the spine is not razor-sharp, that’s just hillbilly talk. It’s fur. You may have heard that the Arkansas Razorback is a large, wild pig. We’re all mistaken. Since the University of Arkansas has been losing so many games in so many sports for too many years, the mascot was re-examined and found to be much smaller and surprisingly docile. It’s really a marsupial, not a rodent, with something of a ferret in the torso. You can see aspects of the legendary snipe about its snout.

Razorbacks make excellent pets, and you’re welcome to take home with you a pair. For heavens sake, don’t buy them, just pull them out of the ditch. Don’t take one because they mate for life and the other will die of heartache. This way, your home town can become a birthplace. Being marsupials, related to the opossum and kangaroo, you’ll soon see they carry their young in a pouch, but before you leave you may want to buy an Ozark handcrafted miniature stroller, as young Razorbacks love their four-wheelers.

In the Chamber of Commerce guides you’ll see that two Target stores have opened in recent years. Don’t believe it. You think the cities and counties here would zone for competition on the Wal-Mart backyard much less the frontyard? What you behold are fake buildings, like Hollywood back lot setups. The sight of them from Interstate 540 and U.S. 71 Business keeps Wal-Mart home-office homebodies thinking more sharply. What about the cars parked around the Targets? That’s unsold inventory from Continue reading

Three School Monte

Copyright 2008 Ben S. Pollock

DATELINE MIRTHOLOGY — With a maneuver some describe as canny, the Greenland School District annexed Fayetteville Public Schools, officials with both announced Wednesday morning.

The new body will be called the Greater Greenland School District and will use the facilities and personnel of both. Thus, three high schools will educate teens and entertain athletics-loving voters for at least the rest of the decade.

The Arkansas Department of Education had the Greenland district on its short list to be dissolved, with its 930 students to start attending schools in adjacent districts, of which Fayetteville’s is the largest. The state was to issue specifics later in July.

“Numbers, schmumbers,” said state Education Commissioner Ken James. “However you guys bring in the money and bring up the scores, we’re in business. I don’t want to know how.”

The state steps in when districts are unable to budget enough resources, particularly money, to properly educate students according to state and federal standards. Greenland’s troubles mainly are financial, yet its voters approving a property tax increase in June was found by the Education Department to be likely too little, too late. Neither was the agency impressed that the Greenland School Board fired Ronald Brawner as superintendent that same month.

Fayetteville Public Schools is fine financially — it desperately wants to build a new high school to replace its current one, which is merely overcrowded. The state has no plans to shut down this district, although the home of the flagship campus of the University of Arkansas is facing a bureaucrat shortage. Superintendent Bobby New is retiring in a year, and recruiting a replacement has stalled. Assistant Superintendent Randy Willison just resigned, to take the top job at nearby Prairie Grove. School Board member John Delap is resigning. Also, teachers are fleeing Fayetteville.

Greenland is a small district in otherwise fairly well-to-do Washington County (by Arkansas standards). The Fayetteville district has been seen as most likely to acquire most or all of its students. In a statement of solidarity with Greenland, its board resolved to oppose annexation. Critics said, however, that urban Fayetteville thinks it has enough problems without adding the commuter town’s to it, implying the lone high school renovation or relocation project.

Then a local patron of the community saw the annexation, actually a reverse-merger, would solve the high school issue. Continue reading

Hog in a Poke

Copyright 2008 Ben S. Pollock

DATELINE MIRTHOLOGY — “So Crystal, you were there in Morrilton this morning?

“Looking for a good price on Petit Jean ham, but all I could find were University of Arkansas trustees. Saw them going for the poke as well as the pig.”

“That may have been the sale of the century,” I said, “the 21st century, and we have 92 years to go.”

The famous Fayetteville philanthropist Crystal Britches flew her helicopter to the west-central Arkansas town where UA System trustees were holding a regularly scheduled meeting, to which this week was added the Fayetteville School District’s offer of its high school for $59 million. The forecast threatened storms so she wore her eponymous rain gear, but over khaki shorts and a BBBBQ T-shirt due to the June heat.

Today, the UA System countered at $50 million. In a season of budget crunches, this is a lot of money, but UA-Fayetteville suggested paying for the 56-year-old building sitting on 40 acres with student fees.

And also by leasing the property back to the district.

Crystal Britches, unlike most of the area’s other royalty, is honest about the price her infrequent but sizable donations carry: her opinion. The more famous ones — your Waltons, Hunts, Walkers, Blairs — have the organizations figure out what’s in their best interest, perhaps reserving a seat on the board, being on the quick-dial of the executive director, and naming privileges — but Britches drops her name from the deal in exchange for outspokenness. Nonprofits have to be pretty desperate Continue reading

Schools Daze

Copyright 2008 Ben S. Pollock

DATELINE MIRTHOLOGY — Fayetteville philanthropist Crystal Britches didn’t understand. Not my newspaper nor the other one nor any TV station quoted her remarks at a public hearing held a month ago by the Future of Fayetteville High School Select Committee II. Maybe she showed up at the wrong meeting — was it the Future of Fayetteville High School Select Committee I? Maybe the Deselected Committee, or the alumni’s Fayetteville High School Any Old Goat Committee, but that one is up to CXXXIV.

The school’s current building, adjacent to the University of Arkansas, is overcrowded with some 1,900 students. Crystal, and perhaps other people, thought the solution was obvious, build a second high school. North Little Rock, population 58,896 (U.S. Census, 2006) has two, and for 40 years so has Fort Smith, 83,461. If you’re wondering, Rogers has 52,181 people and Bentonville 32,049.

“Rival Springdale just added a second high school,” Crystal reminded me. She waited a month before contacting Brick, hoping her speech would by now have shown up on the cable local channel. “Springdale’s population is 63,082. The Rogers and Bentonville school districts have been reported to be studying the construction of second secondary schools. These three communities are not talking about any apparent loss of academic quality or sport conference rank, from halving the student body. And you know how rivalrous they are.”

“Fayetteville, though no precise poll has been conducted, is said to want only one high school, a mega one,” I told her. She knew this of course. It’s reported over and over again; any Internet news search using “Fayetteville AR high school” will give you lots of copy. Only a reporter for a non-local weekly has asked the two-campus question. Crystal and I sat on a bench at the downtown Square. It was a Tuesday, and the Farmers Market had few booths and few customers, because of the earliness of the season (few crops yet ripe) and all the rain. Ms. Britches had walked here, and due to the threatening weather wore the clear-plastic rain gear that provides her name.

The one-school concept for the teenage children of Fayetteville’s 68,726 overall population has two sides. Incredibly, each includes some of the city’s and university’s best. Each has Web sites. The build-from-scratch group is Students First. The other wants to renovate and expand on or near the current campus, Build Smart.

“I must’ve been at the wrong sessions. They were old goats like me, and these two organizations’ members are mostly parent age. They can move and shake. Want to hear what I said?” Continue reading

Dentist Examines Gift Horse

Copyright 2008 Ben S. Pollock

DATELINE MIRTHOLOGY — That would be me, a metaphorical dentist, just for the morning. Even though as a journalist, ethics forbids me from volunteering in politics I have over the years taken on other tasks outside the newsroom. It’s a nice way to meet interesting people, and one actually gets to be creative and help others. I’ve been a stagehand and musician for amateur theater, played in community bands, been a web master for a couple of groups. I’ve ushered and manned concession stands at any number of fundraisers and also big-name concerts where such actions get you in free.

These have been fun, but there is a dark side. It might as well be politics. I helped one weekend afternoon — 20 years ago but I’ll never forget — at a volunteer telemarketing event. The group was phoning to ask for donations, very direct. I was at a low spot financially and made my time my contribution. In between calls these people would compare notes. Everyone knew everyone and would be unbelievably nasty that so-and-so only pledged X, when everyone knows the spouse made a killing on Y deal last month. Then the next volunteer would top that with her report. All they knew was the couple’s public story or perhaps mere gossip. I grew up in a small city and learned from listening to compassionate grown-ups like my parents that you don’t know if someone leases that fancy car, is in unbelievable debt, is faking a stable marriage. These phoners were hostile, which was more pronounced as I recalled seeing them act like dear friends to the people they jeered. I never volunteered for this group again, nor ever gave them a nickel. But I have to suspect most groups I’ve helped over the years must have an element of this.

To give non-profits their due, sometimes their leaders have to be diplomats. I know two feature journalists — give me an hour and I’ll think of others — who report or review community productions (from fine art to music to drama) but also act in their productions or edit their newsletters or fulfill other tasks. Behind their backs the others are vocally resentful. I don’t believe the two I’m thinking of have much clue how universally they’re despised. They must suspect but believe it’s only a few people and then it must be something like professional jealousy.

My understanding of this is how I have come to represent Crystal Britches in some pieces here. She doesn’t want love or people to change their minds about her necessarily. She just wants to be understood. Continue reading