In his book about the making of the modern Middle East, Six Days of War, Michael Oren records a Jewish leader's devastating putdown of the Israeli diplomat Abba Eban: "He doesn't live in reality; he never gives the right solution, only the right speech."
So, to localize that, what about our own seemingly unsolvable problem of public schools? Suddenly, it seems that everyone wants a solution, and they want it now.
The order of the day is DO SOMETHING.
Enough Memphis Board of Education meetings that last six hours, as the one Monday night did. Enough $575,000 studies and blueprints for action. Enough task forces and special committees on education. Enough on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand editorials and reports. Enough legal opinions and polls of public opinion. Enough report cards with the same glum news. Enough of the city and county mayors not being on the same page. Enough portable classrooms at crowded suburban schools.
The immediate cause of all this urgency is two schools that could not be more atypical of the Memphis and Shelby County public schools. One is a proposed new high school in Arlington, a municipality in northeast Shelby County where it is a good bet that 90 percent of the citizens of Memphis have never set foot. The other is an expansion of Houston High School, which has by far the highest family income in the county.
The political leadership of Shelby County is determined to start building those schools this year and to do it without raising an additional $3 for city schools for every $1 it spends at Arlington and Houston.
Memphis mayor Willie Herenton is determined that this "piecemeal" solution will not happen without fundamental changes in city/county school funding and organization. If he can't tie the city's problem school system to the county's crowded school system at this critical time, then he will have to hear people say for the rest of his administration that yes, Memphis and Mayor Herenton have done some good things but they didn't do anything about the bad schools.
"There is enormous waste of valuable resources within the board of education," he told Shelby County state lawmakers at a meeting at the University of Memphis Tuesday. At the same time, he said, "Achievement levels are getting worse. We're spending more, but our children are not getting an increase in their academic performance."
Herenton has rarely seemed so determined. For all his reputation as a fighter, his three terms as mayor have been marked mainly by compromises and patience on the schools issue. He kept quiet during the tenure of his successor, Gerry House. He gave her successor, Johnny Watson, two years and installed his finance director, Roland McElrath, as Watson's assistant. He compromised with former Shelby County mayor Jim Rout on Cordova High School and the Grey's Creek Sewer extension which opened up development east of Cordova. He gave the leaders of the Memphis Regional Chamber of Commerce three years to try to work something out in both public and private meetings.
Now he sees county leaders and suburban mayors trying to piece together a solution to their debt problem without addressing the underlying issue of two governments and two school systems.
One way or another, Herenton is determined to force the issue and make the city schools the county's problem. The opinion poll showing support for an appointed school board that was released Tuesday was supposed to turn up the pressure, even if polls are often wrong.
"Let the people vote!" Herenton told lawmakers, the media, and several county and suburban officials attending the meeting.
The people, of course, already have the right to vote for an elected school board, thanks to some hard work by state lawmakers some 10 years ago. In a referendum, people would in effect be voting to give up the right to vote.
"The appointed school board is just not going to happen," said Rep. Ulysses Jones after Herenton made his remarks.
Alternately, Herenton believes the city school board could dissolve itself and achieve a unified school system that way. But some board members are not inclined to bump themselves off.
Michael Hooks Jr., chairman of the MCS board, said he would only support a unified school system if it was part of a unified city and county government.
"A lot of what's going on is left over from his administration as superintendent but he wants to point the finger at the board of education," Hooks said. "We're getting distracted. Let's focus on the 64 low-performing schools."
Herenton's unified school system would lower property taxes in the city of Memphis by 86 cents and raise them 51 cents in the county, for a net savings for city taxpayers of 35 cents. No county elected official has endorsed it.
If the county wants new schools, Herenton has said, let them pay for them.
He is through giving the right speech and is ready for a solution to what he sees as the biggest blot on his own record as mayor and the city's image. If he has to take on his old rivals, the suburban mayors, and his old friend, county mayor A C Wharton, in the process, he gives the impression that he will do that.
A couple of bizarre stories with Memphis angles involving an AutoZone kidnapping hoax and a big investment scam are making regional and national news.
As the Flyer reported last week, at least 16 wealthy Memphis and Crittenden County, Arkansas, investors are suing the estate of former Arkansas banker Mace David Howell over millions of dollars lost in what they claim was a commodities trading scam.
Howell, 54, was found dead in a hotel room in Beverly Hills, California, in October. The Los Angeles County Coroner's Office ruled this week that he committed suicide. David Campbell, spokesman for the coroner's office, said Howell died from acute hydrocodone intoxication. Hydrocodone is a drug typically found in Vicodin and other painkillers. Campbell said the "sudden and intense" nature of the dosage left no doubt that the cause of death was suicide.
Meanwhile, the Flyer has learned that Howell apparently also mixed gambling with his drug use and high-flying investment schemes. Memphis attorney Bobby Leatherman, whose family sold some of its farm property to the casinos when Tunica was getting off the ground, said Howell had two accidents involving small planes at the Tunica airport. On two occasions in the last three years, Howell was at the controls of small planes that ran into other planes on the ground, one of them owned by Leatherman's father. Not long after that, Howell was involved in yet another small-plane crash in North Little Rock.
Lawsuits were filed this month against Howell's estate and other defendants in Marion and Little Rock. West Memphis attorney Kent Rubens represents several Memphis-area investors, including Logan Young, Frank Barton, and Shelby County Commissioner Bruce Thompson. Their claims range from $4.74 million for Young and $5 million for Barton to $300,000 for Thompson. The lawsuit names the administrator of Howell's estate, Linda Bailey of Memphis, and three trading firms: Refco, Merrill Lynch, and Goldman Sachs.
Several claims have been made against Howell's estate in Pulaski County probate court and more are expected. The deadline for filing claims against the estate is February 14th. Sources told the Flyer that claims may eventually exceed $100 million. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported that Jerry Jones, a native of Arkansas and owner of the Dallas Cowboys football team, was an investor.
Howell owned or ran banks in Arkansas in the Seventies and Eighties, according to Flyer sources and Arkansas newspaper reports. He apparently used his personal salesmanship, country club connections, and contacts he made through Young and Hot Springs, Arkansas, bank owner Richard T. Smith to recruit investors even though he was not a registered broker-dealer himself. He signed at least 33 unregistered promissory notes, some co-signed by Smith, which eventually attracted the attention of the Arkansas Securities Department.
Young declined to comment other than to confirm his participation in the lawsuit.
Howell died on October 24th. The week before his death the regulators issued a cease-and-desist order against him.
The lawsuit filed by Rubens says Howell claimed to have devised a way to make 90 percent returns in the commodities market and bond futures market. The promissory notes carried interest rates of 10-50 percent. The lawsuit says Howell paid interest to one investment group from money he got from another investment group until the scheme came undone last August or September.
Howell disappeared until his body was found in his room at the Peninsula Hotel. The coroner's office said it was reported to them that he had a history of alcohol and drug use and had been treated at the Betty Ford Clinic.
Meanwhile, in an unrelated but even more bizarre story, AutoZone officials say the kidnapping of the company's largest investor was real enough but the murder-for-hire story one of the abductors told the victim was a hoax.
Edward S. Lampert, the subject of a Flyer story a year ago in which it was suggested that the new Memphis arena be named for him because of his wealth creation, was kidnapped January 10th in Greenwich, Connecticut. Lampert's ESL Investments owns roughly 25 percent of AutoZone's stock, and he is a director of the company. He helped engineer the overthrow of the company's previous management team and the installation of Steve Odland as CEO. After Odland took over, AutoZone's stock price shot up 250 percent in roughly one year.
"We're grateful Mr. Lampert was returned unharmed," said AutoZone spokesman Ray Pohlman. "Other than that we have no comment," adding only that the murder-for-hire story was a hoax.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Lampert was abducted by four men and taken to a Days Inn motel in Connecticut. Kidnapping suspect Renaldo Rose, a 23-year-old former Marine who has been arrested, told Lampert that unnamed AutoZone officials had put out a contract on Lampert's life and that the hit men were to be paid $3 million. Rose had apparently boned up on Lampert and AutoZone on the Internet, the newspaper said.
Lampert negotiated his own release by offering his kidnappers $5 million. He was driven back to Greenwich and freed two days after he was abducted. The suspects were all arrested within a week.
Lampert attended the last AutoZone shareholders' annual meeting that was held in Memphis in December 2001. At that time, he owned 30 percent of the company, worth $2.25 billion. The stock rose from $24 a share to more than $80 a share after ESL Investments started acquiring it.
An Arkansas banker who died mysteriously in October is accused of defrauding a group of wealthy Mem-phians of several million dollars since 2000.
Mace David Howell Jr. of Little Rock was found dead in October in a room at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills, California. The week before his death, the Arkansas Securities Department had issued a cease-and-desist order against Howell for selling unregistered securities and for not being registered as a broker-dealer.
Last week, a group of investors filed a complaint in Marion, Arkansas, in Crittenden County Circuit Court against Howell's estate and three trading firms: Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, and Refco.
The Memphis and Shelby County investors include Alabama football booster Logan Young, Shelby County Commissioner Bruce Thompson, former car dealer Tommy Keesee, cotton man Frank Barton Jr., Walter Edge, James H. Barton, Erskin and Jane Hubbard, Rex Jones, David Pearson, Sherry Pearson, Gary Prosterman, Harry L. Smith, and Herbert Thomas. According to documents filed in probate court in Little Rock, their investments ranged from $50,000 to $5 million apiece. Seven more claims totaling $1.8 million were filed this week, and more are expected.
Other investors not named in the lawsuit reportedly included Arkansas native and Dallas Cowboys team owner Jerry Jones, according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Howell, who was 54 when he died, claimed he had devised a system of investing in bond and commodity futures that yielded returns of 90 percent, the Crittenden County complaint says. Howell gave investors promissory notes with annual interest payments of 10 to 40 percent and also told them they could get all their money back any time they wanted it on 30 days' notice. Such returns would beat the single-digit returns of legitimate bond funds over the last two years and the losses of the stock market since 2000. The best commodity traders have gotten 20 percent returns over time.
"If you are going to claim you are infinitely smarter than the average manager out there, then you are taking speculative risks," said Charles McVean of McVean Trading and Investments. "You can marginally beat the averages over time by being smarter."
With the notes now worthless, investors have their sights on Howell's family trust, insurance proceeds, and the trading firms. Court filings say Howell was actually broke and unable to meet demands from the trading firms to put up cash when the leveraged bets he made on the futures markets -- essentially a gamble on the direction of interest rates or commodity prices -- began going against him. (Hillary Clinton's successful foray into commodity futures trading in Arkansas was a Whitewater subchapter.) The heaviest losses were sustained by Frank Barton, who invested $5 million, and Young, who put up $4.74 million individually and through various trusts, according to probate court filings.
Howell traded on his Arkansas and Memphis connections with the country club set as well as his background as a banker. His sister, Linda Bailey, named a defendant in the complaint as trustee of the family trust, is head of the civic group Goals for Memphis.
Howell told investors, according to the complaint, that he could not "pull the trigger" on their investment but would "borrow" their funds and pay them a share of the returns providing they understood "that he, Howell, was earning far more in investment profits than he was paying them."
The lead plaintiff, William B. Benton of Horseshoe, Arkansas, could not be reached for comment. The attorney who filed the lawsuit, Kent Rubens of West Memphis, declined comment. Other investors declined to comment or referred questions to Rubens. Linda Bailey could not be reached for comment.
Investors were still giving Howell millions of dollars as recently as last August. Shortly after that, Howell disappeared. Lawsuits indicate that Howell wrote checks to some of his investors in early October, but the checks bounced. The Arkansas Securities Department announced its investigation on October 15th. The next day, Bank of America sued Howell in Pulaski County Circuit Court over approximately $2 million in bad checks.
Howell's body was found by paramedics in the hotel room in Beverly Hills on October 23rd. David Campbell, spokesman for the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office, said the cause of death still has not been officially determined, pending receipt of medical records and toxicological tests. Campbell said it was reported to the coroner's office that Howell had a history of alcohol and prescription drug use and had been treated at the Betty Ford Clinic.
Howell was the former president or part-owner of several banks in Arkansas, according to Arkansas Business, a weekly newspaper in Little Rock. Some of his biggest Arkansas investors were bankers and fellow members of Pleasant Valley Country Club in Little Rock.
Flyer sources say there were Memphis investors not named in the Crittenden County lawsuit. Word of Howell's "system" apparently got around, with big investors getting notes with the highest interest rates of 25 to 50 percent, while the small fry settled for 10 percent. The lawsuit says Howell kept the money coming by falsely overstating his net worth, assuring investors he had millions of his own funds invested, and paying out "profits" that were in fact funds that belonged to other investors.
"He had a track record of paying 32 percent a year," said a source familiar with the case. "No one had any reason to believe it wasn't working."