Helping Hands

Year End Report: The trend-lines for the year look pretty damn ugly Click Here.

What's former HISD superintendent Rod Paige -- the man who became, as Education Secretary, the poster boy for the No Child Left Behind Act -- doing these days?

Getting every last dollar he can out of his reputation, thanks to the largesse of his old friends in the Bush family.

The incredible spin surrounding the dubious advances HISD allegedly made under him helped his pal George W. Bush get elected and get NCLB passed. Now Paige has teamed with former HISD executive Susan Sclafani to form a group that consults with school districts and other educational institutions on how to adapt to NCLB.

Where did they get the start-up funding for their group? From a little-noticed investment by the retirement system for Florida state employees, headed by Gov. Jeb Bush. Which means that members of the Florida teachers' union -- affiliated with the national union that Paige once labeled a "terrorist organization" -- are paying for Paige to exploit his influence.

It's not something that makes the Florida union happy, says spokesman Mark Pudlow, but they're used to it -- a few years ago Bush had the retirement fund invest in a floundering company that was leading the fight to privatize education and put the teachers' union out of business.

How much has been invested is hard to tell, Pudlow says. "They've been operating under tremendous secrecy here in Florida for eight years," he says.

More help for Paige may be coming from Texas. The state retirement fund has just announced it is exploring ways to invest its $23 billion in ways beyond stocks and bonds, such as real estate and private-equity opportunities that would include companies such as Paige's.

So should Paige get ready to cash another big check? Not so fast. "We're just laying the groundwork now. It will take a while before we make any investments," says spokeswoman Mary Jane Wardlow.

But when they're ready, we're sure Paige will be too.

Their Mistake, Your Problem

There's been a lot of a grumbling about the entrance ramps from downtown to the Southwest Freeway since they opened a little over a year ago. The semi-suicidal merge lanes and the thrill-inducing, poorly designated ramps have led to fender benders and stressed drivers.

They've also led to the Houston police handing out a bunch of tickets, even though at least some officers don't seem happy about it.

A Hair Balls correspondent got ticketed last week as she drove on Smith near the entrance ramps, an area with a confusing array of mandatory exit and turn lanes. Two HPD officers were on the street flagging cars over, targeting one within seconds of finishing up with another.

The cop who pulled our correspondent over was sympathetic. "It's a civil-engineering problem. Then they tell us we gotta do this," he shrugged. "There's been several wrecks here."

The officer "looked very apologetic, like he knew it was stupid and they were making busy work," the ticketed driver says.

All of which will be a big comfort as she forks over $195, we're sure.

Creating Buzz

The madness that was Texas Bowl Fever has finally died down. In case you missed it, and chances are you did, Rutgers played Kansas State December 28 in an inaugural bowl game that attracted minimal attention.

Rutgers had one of its best years ever this season, though, so its trip from New Jersey attracted reporters from several newspapers. A ripe opportunity for Houston to get some great publicity as a tourist destination in the New York-area media, right? Not exactly.

An item in the Bergen Record had this little nugget, featuring Rutgers fullback Brian Leonard: "Rutgers's hotel is in a somewhat isolated part of Houston, prompting Leonard to ask, 'How can this be the fourth-largest city in America?'"

Oh, Christ -- where did those inept Texas Bowl planners stick the Scarlet Knights? In Westpark? League City? Jersey Village? Maybe Pasadena, the most Jersey-like section of town?

Not exactly. The "somewhat isolated part of Houston" wasdowntown. The Downtown Hyatt, to be exact.

But, as the Rutgers players discovered, Christmas Eve in Downtown Houston is not exactly a happening place to be.

"Yeah, they were all going, 'What's going on around here?'" says Texas Bowl spokeswoman Heather Houston. "And we explained to them, you know, Houston's a great family city, and six o'clock Christmas Eve until six o'clock Christmas Day, no one's out there, they're with their familiesI'm sure it was pretty dead."

Between that and the visit to the George Ranch to take part in rodeo stuff, we're sure the Rutgers players took home to New Jersey a perfectly accurate impression of life in Houston.

The Fine Print Taketh Away

The Memorial Hermann system has opened two new facilities, in Katy and Sugar Land, and it sent out a press release to trumpet just how luxurious the new places are.

"What's out," the release said, were such annoying things as bland food, "poster-size shower stalls" and "rubbing alcohol and disinfectant." What was in, it said, was stuff like gourmet chefs, marble Jacuzzi tubs and aromatherapy.

Also out were "open-back hospital gowns," replaced instead by "Betsey Johnson PJs."

What? You go in for surgery or hit the emergency room and you get complimentary (and no doubt overpriced) pajamas from a famous designer?

Well, maybe not. We asked Memorial Hermann spokeswoman Ann Brimberry about it.

Hair Balls: Where do the Betsey Johnson pajamas come from?

Brimberry: Well, that's if you bring your own, if that's what you have. You can wear your own pajamas.

HB: That's it?

Brimberry: Yes. So if you're hip and trendy then you, too, will have your own Betsey Johnson pajamas and you can wear them.

HB: But if you just wear gym shorts and a T-shirt --

Brimberry: That's okay, too. It can be from Wal-Mart, it doesn't matter. Whatever is comfortable for you.

HB: It sounds a little bait-and-switch to me. I thought you go in there, you get some Betsey Johnson PJs.

Brimberry: Oh, I wish. If that were the case, I'd be there.

Brimberry did say, however, that you don't have to bring your own gourmet chef or aromatherapy specialist. Those come free with your visit.

It all sounds like money that could better be spent serving indigent patients, but she insists that's not the case.

"I don't think that has anything to do with it because even if you came in and were non-managed care, you would have the same amenities as a patient," she says.

Just don't expect any designer PJs out of the deal, you indigents. Unless you come with your own.

Year End Report

The holidays are said to increase depression among some folks, and thats especially true for Houston sports fans. Everywhere you look, the local teams are a disaster (with the exception of the Dynamo, who are national champs, we guess), and 2006 has been harrowing. The trend-lines for the year look pretty damn ugly Click Here.

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