Friday, May 27, 2005

Mixed Bag

A graduation ceremony shows what's right and wrong with public education.

Posted By on Fri, May 27, 2005 at 4:00 AM

As a parent of a member of White Station High School's Class of 2005, I was hoping for obvious reasons that Sunday's graduation ceremony would be orderly, at least until the roll call got through the B's.

It was, but barely. The announcement of at least a third of the subsequent graduates' names was met by a chorus of whoops, cheers, and even dancing in the aisles by pockets of -- what? -- friends and family members in the audience at the Mid-South Coliseum. One boisterous group sitting behind me must have an awfully big family, because they roared so many times I finally got tired of turning around.

The 400 graduates, who behaved well and whose class president and valedictorians spoke well, couldn't stop it by their example.

The pleas, letters, and annoucements from the principal couldn't stop it.

The teachers and assistant principals scattered throughout the crowd couldn't stop it.

The glares from the parents who couldn't hear through the din couldn't stop it.

Not even the presence of special guest Superintendent Carol Johnson, who sat on stage and shook every graduate's hand, could stop it.

It's easy to make too much of this. Fogeydom comes easily to some of us who are suddenly ex-public-school parents. There was a lot to admire at Sunday's ceremony. White Station grads, as speakers noted, were offered more than $17 million in college scholarships (projected over four years) to some of the best colleges in the country. The number is inflated because of Hope Scholarships from the Tennessee Lottery, but it still works out to better than $40,000 per graduate. For the second year in a row, White Station made Newsweek's list of the top 1,000 high schools in America.

It is no easy thing to get 400 people on and off a stage in 90 minutes. Nobody got hurt or left out. There were no fights or shouting matches in the stands, perhaps because the standard for crowd behavior at graduations has been lowered so much that it is no longer a problem to be fixed or fought. It is a simple fact of life. Schools have tried throwing people out and giving each graduate a limited number of tickets. It didn't work. The rowdiness is old hat. The acceptance of it is what's new.

So another little battle has been lost. That's one more small consideration to add to the list of pluses and minuses that parents and students consider when weighing their school options. Parent involvement, motivated students, advanced-placement classes, good teachers and principals, and a reasonable chance that your kid will get more good teachers than bad ones keep White Station in the nation's top schools. But after seven years as a White Station parent, I've seen that the best academic high school in Memphis is a mixed bag, and the scholarships and awards mask problems that are getting worse.

There is not enough innovation in the curriculum. Graduation requirements for college-bound students seem aimed mainly at producing high test scores. Calculus is important because that is what high school students do, never mind that the vast majority of them will never use it. Too many reading lists include the same "classics" that have bored students for generations and make them hate English.

Some sections of health, foreign language, and science are so hopelessly bad that even honor students routinely sleep through them or listen to music. They know after the first week of class that they are about to waste 180 hours of their life.

The high school building is attached to a converted elementary school to create a makeshift campus so crowded that hallways are an invitation to hassles and fights.

A fight during a basketball game at Ridgeway High School spilled out of the stands, marring what should be a classic rivalry.

School dances are out of the question, and all-school assemblies and programs are endangered because behavior is so hard to control. And if rude behavior bothers you, then bite your tongue at graduation.

If you have children, you add it all up and make your choice. You can get a free education and a chance at a college scholarship to Yale or Tulane or Vanderbilt or Tennessee or Memphis. Or you can opt out, knowing you might just be trading the ulcers you have for new ones.

When I read the thoughtful editorials and columns about improving public education in The Commercial Appeal on Sunday I just shook my head. For the first time in 15 years I was no longer a stakeholder in the Memphis public school system. And the only people who can improve the public schools are the parents and teachers and administrators of the 163,000 students in the city and county schools.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Official Misconduct

Media, prosecutors, and pols grope for fairness, consistency, and "the right thing."

Posted By on Fri, May 20, 2005 at 4:00 AM

The potential jurors, 150 of them, had been summoned to the Mid-South Coliseum to hear their orders. Most of them had made arrangements, at some hardship, to miss a week or more of work. A block of hotel rooms had been booked for the jurors and alternates who would be chosen from the jury pool and sequestered while they heard the case. The judge, Criminal Court judge Paula Skahan, had cleared her busy court calendar for trial. Defendants Shep Wilbun, Calvin Williams, and James Fellows and their attorneys were prepared to fight the charges of official misconduct.

And on the second day of jury selection last week, the case suddenly and unexpectedly collapsed. You can all go home, jurors. You too, defendants. But don't say anything, because you're under a gag order until November.

No trial. No dismissal. No comment.

It was the latest in a series of cases involving allegations of corruption in Memphis, Shelby County, and state government that have raised more questions than answers.

The list includes Senator John Ford, under fire from state and federal investigators for business dealings and campaign contributions; former Shelby County medical examiner O.C. Smith, accused of staging an attack on himself but freed after a mistrial in federal court; former high school football coach Lynn Lang, who got no jail time after pleading guilty to selling a star player; former Juvenile Court employee Darrell Catron, who still has not been sentenced more than two years after pleading guilty to federal charges; the late Chancellor Floyd Peete, accused post-mortem of fixing a case; and day-care brokers WillieAnn and John Madison, whose 21-month sentence in March was deemed so light by U.S. attorney Terry Harris that the prosecutor made a rare public objection.

Wilbun, a former Memphis city councilman, Shelby County commissioner, and candidate for Memphis mayor, set the tone for his aborted trial when he held a brief mini-press conference outside the courtroom on the morning that jury selection began.

"Shep Wilbun is about doing the right thing," he said.

The problem is that no one -- including the media, prosecutors, and politicians and government employees themselves -- seems to know exactly what that is. Enforcement of laws against public corruption has, in several cases, been inconsistent, indecisive, and interminable. Overlapping state and federal investigations, recusals by Harris and Shelby County district attorney Bill Gibbons in some cases, and the media's thirst to get to the bottom of things have added to the confusion. Here's a closer look at the cases mentioned above and where they stand today.

· Despite the gag order, the Flyer was able to cobble together a reliable account of what happened in the Wilbun-Williams-Fellows case from interviews with various parties.

The accusation involved a $1,500 payment to the family of a female employee of the Juvenile Court clerk's office to hush up a sexual-assault complaint. Wilbun was clerk from 2000 until 2002, when he was defeated, 49 percent to 48 percent, by Steve Stamson following a mud-slinging campaign.

The accusation was investigated by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. Gibbons was briefed on the case and promptly recused himself because of a close friendship with Williams, the former chief administrator for the Shelby County Commission. Gibbons is a former commissioner and, like Williams, a Republican Party activist. Special prosecutor John Overton took the case and presented it to a Shelby County grand jury, which indicted Wilbun, Williams, and Fellows.

The defendants declined an offer of diversion, which would have amounted to dismissal of the charges if they stayed out of trouble. Almost a year later, the case came to trial. Meanwhile, the judge to whom it was assigned, Bernie Weinman, retired and was replaced by Skahan. The trial was first set for February 14th, which was the day Skahan was sworn in, so it was reset for May 9th.

Jury selection progressed slowly, with attorneys for the three defendants challenging several potential jurors and making the sort of arguments usually heard at trial. It became apparent, as one participant said, that "we could have been there forever" because each of the attorneys had multiple challenges, or opportunities, to strike jurors.

In the middle of the second day, Overton and defense attorneys made a deal similar to the diversion offer that had been on the table earlier: The case is officially continued for six months. The defendants will pay court costs and must obey the gag order. There will be no criminal charge on their record if the deal holds until November.

"It's unusual but it happens," said Overton, when asked about the timing. For his part, Gibbons said, "nobody in this office to my knowledge has had any contact with the special prosecutor."

Williams plans to write a book about his government adventures and settle some old scores. He and friends say he has a contract with Simon and Schuster to publish it. Gibbons said, "I guess I'll be in his book."

Burning question: Why didn't prosecutors ditch this case before taking it to the grand jury or bail out of it before starting jury selection?

· Darrell Catron pleaded guilty to federal charges of embezzlement while he was working for Wilbun in the Juvenile Court clerk's office. He made his plea in January 2003 and was a likely witness against Wilbun had he gone on trial.

Catron's sentencing has been set and reset four times and is now set again for July 26th.

Burning question: If there's a right to a speedy trial, how about a speedy sentence?

· Senator John Ford has taken the heat off Mayor Willie Herenton as the public's favorite whipping boy. The year's most popular wedding video shows Ford's wedding reception for his daughter at The Peabody, which was paid for in part with $15,000 of campaign funds. For this, the state Registry of Election Finance fined Ford $10,000 last month.

The line doesn't get much thinner than the one between proper and improper use of campaign funds. Three years ago, then Shelby County mayor Jim Rout's family used campaign funds for a Father's Day surprise party, but the registry and the local state prosecutor did nothing.

Burning question: Can Rout continue to dodge bullets?

· The last chapter of the Lynn Lang and Logan Young football recruiting epic is scheduled to be written June 9th, when Young is sentenced in federal court. However, Young's health (kidney dialysis) makes that date uncertain. Lang, the government's star witness against Young, got a no-prison sentence from U.S. district judge Bernice Donald, based on erroneous information in his probation report, which said he had a job at a school in Michigan where he had actually been fired. Young will be sentenced by U.S. district judge Daniel Breen, who presided at his trial.

Burning question: Could Young mis-state his job/financial status or his much-reported drinking habits in his probation report and get away with it?

· Judge Donald handed out another light sentence in the day-care case against WillieAnn and John Madison, but this time federal prosecutors sent out a press release noting that "the court imposed sentences below the guideline ranges over the objection of the United States." The guideline sentencing range was 41-51 months incarceration. WillieAnn Madison got 21 months in prison and restitution of $751,832, while John Madison got 10 months in prison and $564,833 in restitution. Because of a change of federal policy, judges can override sentencing guidelines.

Burning question: Why is Donald such a light sentencer? And why do prosecutors selectively object to her sentences?

· O.C. Smith will not be retried on charges of staging his own bizarre attack with a bomb and barbed wire, despite the protests of the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms. A federal court jury was unable to reach a verdict in his case. Smith says the attacker is still out there.

Burning question: Why isn't anyone taking Smith seriously or, alternately, demanding that he be retried and, if convicted, forced to repay the substantial cost of investigating a bogus case, as in the "runaway bride" from Georgia, Jennifer Wilbanks?

· Floyd Peete is charged by association with conspiring with businessman William B. Tanner to fix a case in which Tanner was involved. Tanner's next report date is June 3rd, but his health -- he is battling cancer -- makes the trial date hard to peg. A key witness is Peete's former son-in-law. Peete died in Florida in 2002, and the investigation began after that.

Burning question: If a judge is the type who fixes cases, does he fix just one? ·

Friday, May 13, 2005

Burning Down the House

Former county insider Calvin Williams says he will dish dirt in upcoming book.

Posted By on Fri, May 13, 2005 at 4:00 AM

During the Watergate hearings more than 30 years ago, a senator told a story, probably apocryphal, about a man who was stopped by a cop for going 70 mph in a 65-mph zone while cars sped by at 80 or 90 mph.

"Why'd you stop me?" the driver wailed, motioning at the other cars. "Because you're the only one we could catch," said the officer.

Two former Shelby County employees, Calvin Williams and Shep Wilbun, were scheduled to go on trial this week for official misconduct, but the case was suddenly dropped Tuesday during the second day of jury selection. Defense attorneys and prosecutors concluded that a jury was likely to find a violation of county policy but no crime.

Williams says the worst offenders are going scot-free. He plans to name them in a tell-all book coming out in June. Its title: How I Sold My Soul to the Devil: Shelby County Politics and Its Unforgiving Sins.

Waiting for jury selection to begin Monday, Williams said the book is "not a joke" and he wrote it by himself based on personal experience and documented evidence. Chapter titles include "Drugs, Sex, and Deception," "The Wicked Witches of the Commission," "Justice Wasn't Blind," and "And They Call Themselves Mayors." The latter, he said, refers to Jim Rout, Willie Herenton, and A C Wharton.

Williams was chief administrator for the Shelby County Commission from 1998 to 2003. He started his government career in the circuit court clerk's office, ran unsuccessfully for clerk in 1994, and rode the Republican tide into the commission job, where his salary went from $39,504 to $101,800 in seven years. He couldn't have made it, of course, without a lot of help from commissioners and former commissioners such as Democrats Walter Bailey and Cleo Kirk and Republicans Buck Wellford and Bill Gibbons.

Williams was a black Republican activist. The County Commission has six black members who are Democrats and seven white members who are Republicans. By the political arithmetic of Shelby County, Williams split the difference and maintained the uneasy near-equilibrium. His official duties included doing personal favors for commissioners and helping them fill out expense forms. His unofficial duties apparently involved abetting official misconduct involving sex, drugs, and bribery.

Williams has a temper and got into some well-publicized spats with circuit court clerk Jimmy Moore and assessor Rita Clark. He once said of Moore, "He wouldn't spit on me if I was on fire, and I wouldn't ask him to." In a memo to commissioners at the time he was forced out in 2003, he vowed to "retaliate to the fullest." It is widely known that he has written a book, and he says he has been threatened.

"I'm the only one who can pull the plug on it," he said. "Not even death can stop it."

We'll see. Whatever he does, Williams has probably made some people wet their pants. A volcano has been bubbling under county government since at least 2000, when the county's former finance director went to prison for embezzlement. Auditors, state and federal prosecutors, and grand juries have looked at credit-card and expense-account abuse. The key witness against Williams and Wilbun is Darrell Catron, who pleaded guilty in January 2003 to federal charges of embezzlement while he was working for Wilbun in the Shelby County Juvenile Court clerk's office. The questionable acts took place in 2000 and 2001.

Williams, Wilbun, and James Sellers were charged with being partners in a scheme to buy the silence of a female employee in Wilbun's office about a sexual assault by Catron. They were being prosecuted by special prosecutor John Overton because Gibbons recused himself. Wilbun professed his innocence Monday in a brief meeting with reporters and blamed his troubles on an unnamed "someone with political motives."

Wilbun got the Juvenile Court clerk job in 2000, thanks to Shelby County's byzantine politics. He is a former Memphis City Council member and Shelby County commissioner who twice sought to become city mayor. He was appointed clerk by getting one white Republican vote -- from then Commissioner Clair VanderSchaaf -- in addition to the six black Democratic commissioners. In exchange, Tom Moss, a white Republican, was appointed to the County Commission.

It sounds like so much inside-baseball, but this is the way county government operates and one of the things that is the matter with it. Sex and drugs have always been off-limits to reporters unless someone makes a public confession or files a lawsuit. Much is rumored, some is known, little is reported. If Williams has more than gossip and if it involves criminal activity, then his book will be a bigger deal than his trial. •

Friday, May 6, 2005

Marketing Memphis

New York City's bike tour could be a model for Memphis.

Posted By on Fri, May 6, 2005 at 4:00 AM

Mmphis isn't known as a particularly bicycle-friendly city, but a little marketing and a few fairly simple additions to the riverfront could change that. The model could be New York City's Five Boro Bike Tour, which was held last Sunday.

Twelve Memphians, including myself, were among the 30,000 riders who pedaled from Battery Park to Central Park, across various bridges, and through five boroughs, ending on Staten Island four to eight hours later. It was the 28th time for the tour, and the actual number of participants is anyone's guess. It would have taken a helicopter to see the beginning and the end.

A tour is not a race. Serious bikers in Memphis showed no interest in the e-mail invitation from Memphis organizer Bill Stegall. Kids and out-of-shape folks pedaled along at a leisurely pace, and speedsters were few and, fortunately, far between. The weather was chilly and wet at the start, sunny and warm at the end. There is an invisible pull in riding with a huge crowd that seems to make covering 42 miles and several bridges easier on the pulse than a shorter, more vigorous ride.

If there is any problem with the Five Boro Bike Tour it is that it is simply too big. If 10 percent of the participants send an e-mail with a generally positive review to 10 of their friends, as they surely do, then the growth must be exponential. The wait to get moving from Ground Zero was 33 minutes, and there was a sea of bikes behind us as far as the eye could see. If there was an official start or a starting line, none of us saw it. We moved up the Avenue of the Americas in fits and starts, never more than about 10 miles an hour, then came to a long halt half a mile or so from Central Park, where a wide street funneled into two narrow streets through the park. The wait was about half an hour, but the rain had stopped and no one seemed to mind. After Central Park, the choke points were few and not long.

The scarcity of bathrooms was a big problem. Rest stops every eight miles were nearly overwhelmed by the horde, and they quickly ran out of bananas and snacks. In the scheme of things, that was nothing. The city's gift was itself, along with the closing of streets to cars by the NYPD for one day. It was a New York City reality tour, not a travelogue of the prettiest sights and most famous places, and that is the charm of such events. Spectators, ranging from inner-city kids playing basketball in Queens to Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn to pedestrians patiently negotiating their way across the street, watched without interest or maybe a little curiosity about what would make so many people do such a thing on this day.

It was a sweet piece of America, and Memphis could start its own version. Maybe a "Bike the River Parks," from Meeman-Shelby Forest to the National Ornamental Metal Museum. Diversions could be made past Elvis' former home in Lauderdale Courts, Sun Studio, the National Civil Rights Museum, and The Peabody like the Memphis marathon for runners. Those sights are as iconic as the Brooklyn Bridge or the Empire State Building. It is rare that a month goes by without Memphis or a famous Memphian being the subject of a story in the national media, such as the one Monday in The New York Times about Elvis Week and an upcoming CBS mini-series on Elvis this month.

A marketing expert quoted in the story called it "the re-emergence of Elvis as a brand" now that 85 percent of Elvis Presley Enterprises has been bought by Robert Sillerman and his entertainment firm CKX.

The things that sometimes make Memphis exasperating to Memphians, like the things that make New York City exasperating to New Yorkers, don't matter much to a visitor riding a bicycle. Who knows the state of the school system, or the tax rate, or even the name of the mayor? The point is to watch where you're going, see the big picture, smile at strangers and helpful cops, and celebrate America from the vantage point of a bike. Memphis is as good a place as any to do that. n

CITY BEAT by JOHN BRANSTON

Thursday, May 5, 2005

Marketing Memphis

New York City's bike tour could be a model for Memphis.

Posted on Thu, May 5, 2005 at 4:00 AM

Memphis isn't known as a particularly bicycle-friendly city, but a little marketing and a few fairly simple additions to the riverfront could change that. The model could be New York City's Five Boro Bike Tour, which was held last Sunday.

Twelve Memphians, including myself, were among the 30,000 riders who pedaled from Battery Park to Central Park, across various bridges, and through five boroughs, ending on Staten Island four to eight hours later. It was the 28th time for the tour, and the actual number of participants is anyone's guess. It would have taken a helicopter to see the beginning and the end.

A tour is not a race. Serious bikers in Memphis showed no interest in the e-mail invitation from Memphis organizer Bill Stegall. Kids and out-of-shape folks pedaled along at a leisurely pace, and speedsters were few and, fortunately, far between. The weather was chilly and wet at the start, sunny and warm at the end. There is an invisible pull in riding with a huge crowd that seems to make covering 42 miles and several bridges easier on the pulse than a shorter, more vigorous ride.

If there is any problem with the Five Boro Bike Tour it is that it is simply too big. If 10 percent of the participants send an e-mail with a generally positive review to 10 of their friends, as they surely do, then the growth must be exponential. The wait to get moving from Ground Zero was 33 minutes, and there was a sea of bikes behind us as far as the eye could see. If there was an official start or a starting line, none of us saw it. We moved up the Avenue of the Americas in fits and starts, never more than about 10 miles an hour, then came to a long halt half a mile or so from Central Park, where a wide street funneled into two narrow streets through the park. The wait was about half an hour, but the rain had stopped and no one seemed to mind. After Central Park, the choke points were few and not long.

The scarcity of bathrooms was a big problem. Rest stops every eight miles were nearly overwhelmed by the horde, and they quickly ran out of bananas and snacks. In the scheme of things, that was nothing. The city's gift was itself, along with the closing of streets to cars by the NYPD for one day. It was a New York City reality tour, not a travelogue of the prettiest sights and most famous places, and that is the charm of such events. Spectators, ranging from inner-city kids playing basketball in Queens to Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn to pedestrians patiently negotiating their way across the street, watched without interest or maybe a little curiosity about what would make so many people do such a thing on this day.

It was a sweet piece of America, and Memphis could start its own version. Maybe a "Bike the River Parks," from Meeman-Shelby Forest to the National Ornamental Metal Museum. Diversions could be made past Elvis' former home in Lauderdale Courts, Sun Studio, the National Civil Rights Museum, and The Peabody like the Memphis marathon for runners. Those sights are as iconic as the Brooklyn Bridge or the Empire State Building. It is rare that a month goes by without Memphis or a famous Memphian being the subject of a story in the national media, such as the one Monday in The New York Times about Elvis Week and an upcoming CBS mini-series on Elvis this month.

A marketing expert quoted in the story called it "the re-emergence of Elvis as a brand" now that 85 percent of Elvis Presley Enterprises has been bought by Robert Sillerman and his entertainment firm CKX.

The things that sometimes make Memphis exasperating to Memphians, like the things that make New York City exasperating to New Yorkers, don't matter much to a visitor riding a bicycle. Who knows the state of the school system, or the tax rate, or even the name of the mayor? The point is to watch where you're going, see the big picture, smile at strangers and helpful cops, and celebrate America from the vantage point of a bike. Memphis is as good a place as any to do that.

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