Thursday, May 29, 2008

Riverfront Rising

RDC soothes new council members at budget hearings.

Posted By on Thu, May 29, 2008 at 4:00 AM

"You will see a constant progression of things getting better."

That's how Benny Lendermon, executive director of the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC), summarized upcoming riverfront improvements for members of the Memphis City Council at budget hearings last week.

The riverfront that thousands of Memphians and visitors saw this month at Memphis In May will look significantly different two years from now, with the expansion of Tom Lee Park, the Beale Street Landing boat dock, an overhaul of the cobblestones, and the construction of the University of Memphis Law School at the old post office on Front Street.

Here's a summary of the changes.

What is Beale Street Landing? Located at the north end of Tom Lee Park, Beale Street Landing will include a boat landing, concrete islands for pedestrians to get close to the river, a parking lot, a restaurant, and a gift shop. Total project cost is about $30 million, including $19.5 million in city funds and $10.5 million in federal and state funds. There is no private funding so far.

Completion date is fall of 2010, but that could change based on weather and funding issues. Lendermon said the project has already come before the council seven or eight times and will doubtless come up several more times.

"That is just what happens on a multi-year, phased project," he said.

About $6 million already has been spent. The landing will take up six acres, including four acres being added to the current 25-acre Tom Lee Park. All permits have been obtained, and a wetlands mitigation plan for the half-acre of wetlands at the tip of the park is included. Lendermon said operating costs of the landing will be paid out of revenues.

What about the cobblestones? As an architect involved in the project says, the good news is Memphis has seven acres of cobblestones. And the bad news is Memphis has seven acres of cobblestones. The cost of repairing them and adding access points is approximately $7.2 million, including $6 million in federal funds. Improvements will include a sidewalk at the lower level, limited handicapped accessibility at Jefferson Davis Park, a retaining wall, new utility service, and walkways. There will be "some opportunity for floating restaurants," Lendermon said.

Will there be daily excursion boats? Yes, but possibly under a different operator. Presently, only two of the boats docked at the cobblestones are in use. Future passenger pick-up and drop-off will be at the new landing, but the RDC wants the excursion-boat operator to do a better job of maintenance. Wharfage fees are now only $1,500 a month. The overnight-cruising riverboat business is in flux, and it is unclear how many of them will use the landing. At one time, the RDC hoped to attract the corporate headquarters of a steamboat company, but that fell through.

What about the law school? The $40 million renovation is scheduled to be completed in the fall of 2009. It will basically turn the back of the building into the front of the building, with landscaping, elimination of parking, a plaza, and a connecting bridge to Confederate Park. The building overlooks the cobblestones.

What about Mud Island River Park? Don't expect any changes this year or next year, but the long-term future is likely to include a hard look at private development. Lendermon said "there is some opportunity" for that, but proposals should be part of a public process and not simply presented in take-it-or-leave-it fashion like the ill-fated theme park.

"No matter what you do, Mud Island is still going to be detached," said Lendermon in response to a question from Councilman Shea Flinn who asked why Beale Street Landing is a higher priority than Mud Island.

Is the City Council on board? Most members seem to be, including holdovers Myron Lowery and Barbara Ware, as well as newcomers Bill Boyd, Flinn, Wanda Halbert, and Jim Strickland. Doubters are confronted with the $6 million already spent, the lure of "free" federal funds, the commitments made by previous councils, and the permits already obtained.

Ware has a special interest in the old post office where she used to work. Strickland expressed doubts about the need for more parking at Tom Lee Park. And Flinn noted that the city could possibly have cut its operating losses at Mud Island by spending "half or less" of the $30 million going to Beale Street Landing. But the overall tone of the hearing was jovial.

Bottom line: All aboard.

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Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Deciders

Let's try this another way.

Posted By on Thu, May 22, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Let's call the superintendent of Memphis City Schools the decider.

Except the superintendent isn't really the decider. There are several deciders — the nine elected members of the school board, some elected from districts and some elected at-large. Five of them, in fact, are running for reelection this year. The superintendent decider works for the school board deciders.

But even these deciders can only decide some things, and approving the $900 million budget for Memphis City Schools is not one of them. Because the deciders at the Memphis City Council approve the budget and can withhold a lot of money and the deciders at the Shelby County Commission are ultimately the deciders on school funding matters for the whole county, Memphis included.

With so many deciders it is not surprising that the last four superintendent deciders have been more like contestants in a Miss Cogeniality contest than contestants in a Tough Man contest. That goes for two male deciders — Johnnie B. Watson and Dan Ward — and two female deciders — Gerry House and Carol Johnson. Four of the nicest, most soft-spoken, best-educated deciders you would ever want to meet. Even so, they had a hard time getting along with some of the school board deciders on certain decisions. There's even been some talk of letting the governor decider appoint the Memphis schools decider, except he decided that wouldn't be such a hot idea.

Willie Herenton is a mayor decider and former schools decider who would like to be a schools decider again if he could only make up his mind about his retirement and work with or, even better, without the deciders on the school board who will pick the next superintendent. Two finalists dropped out, rather late in the game it would seem. The 40 percent dropout rate among superintendent finalists is now uncomfortably close to the dropout rate among high school students in MCS.

One of the most important decisions that deciders have to make is whether or not to close schools that are less than 60 percent capacity. Memphis has several of them, because parents, who are also deciders, decided to move to other parts of town that had newer, better, or safer schools and neighborhoods. Closing schools, or "consolidating" them if you don't like blunt language, is the only way to save any big money, according to a study some consultants did for the school board deciders a few years ago.

Closing a school is about the toughest, most sleep-depriving thing a decider can do. It's easy for nondeciders like columnists and editorial writers and consultants and nonprofit organizations to recommend closing schools because they won the life lottery and don't live in those forlorn neighborhoods or have kids in Memphis City Schools.

But it's another thing for someone like Johnnie Watson, who was an assistant superintendent decider a long time ago when a bunch of schools were closed and some people with long memories never got over it, including Watson himself. Or Carol Johnson, who sort of recommended closing some schools but more than offset any savings by recommending building new schools and rebuilding some old ones and turning the "closed" ones into community centers ... and then she moved to Boston.

If you are a school board decider you won't be one for long if you decide to support closing a school, especially if it is in your district. So school board deciders spend their time on things like dress codes, corporal punishment, bus routes, food service, campaigning for school board or City Council, and even academics.

But when you get right down to it, the real deciders are the teachers and principals who have to enforce the discipline policies and improve those academics. Assuming, of course, that their students decide to come to school and pay attention. Which many of them don't. So the graduation rate takes a hit even if the teachers are dedicated.

What Memphis and the school board have to decide in the next 30 days is whether there should be a real superintendent decider or a bunch of deciders and whether, style-wise, that man or woman should be as nice as pie or rough as a cob when it comes to dealing with students who are not candidates for student council or homecoming court and teachers and principals who are not on anyone's short list.

Whether the next superintendent is Nicholas Gledich or Kriner Cash or someone else won't make much difference if he or she is not a real decider and leader with the know-how, command presence, and followers to back it up.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Twenty-two Questions

Suggestions for what to ask candidates for Memphis schools superintendent.

Posted By on Thu, May 15, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Three superintendent interviews down, two more interviews to go. So who should be the HNIC of the Memphis City Schools?

HNIC, as Mayor Willie Herenton and other fans of the 1989 movie Lean On Me know, stands for "head [N-word] in charge."

Don't worry. Nobody used those words this week in interviews for the best-paid government job in Memphis. They're taken from the movie about bat-wielding principal Joe Clark, played by actor Morgan Freeman. Herenton and some members of the Memphis City Council think a Clark-type is needed as the next school superintendent.

The school board and its search-team consultants have other ideas. The first round of interviews Monday and Tuesday consisted of a dainty game of "22 Questions" posed to each applicant, who had three minutes to respond to each question. Neither the applicants nor the board members had seen the questions prior to Monday afternoon.

This brings to mind a puzzle that ancient philosophers called the "Job Applicant's Dilemma": If the questions are secret and the interviews are seven days apart, should next week's job candidates Google the questions and look like a smartypants or not Google the questions and exhibit a stunning lack of curiosity and research skills?

Far be it from me to be a snitch, but here are 22 questions NOT on the list, which should give you some idea how the search is being conducted:

Should a fictionalized portrayal of a principal in a 20-year-old movie be the role model for the next superintendent?

Should a 6'-7" mayor and former superintendent be the role model?

Should an eighth-grader who is big, easily pissed off and has access to guns be paddled, suspended, or told to sit in the corner as punishment for bad behavior?

Should a first-grader who is shy, small, and gets smacked around at home be paddled for misbehaving in school?

Should the MCS dress code be strictly enforced? Define "strictly enforced."

Should the MCS mission statement, "Every Child. Every Day. College Bound.," be kept, modified, or abandoned?

Should every child pass through a metal detector every day?

Should the Memphis City Council withhold all, some, or none of the $93 million city contribution to schools this year, as has been proposed?

If your answer is "none," then should there be a 58-cent city property tax increase, as has been proposed?

Should the city and county school systems, which are both funded in large part by the county, be merged or kept separate? You have three minutes to answer.

Should city schools get $3 for building or renovating schools for every $1 the county schools get for construction?

Should the governor of Tennessee take over the Memphis City Schools this year or next year if they don't improve? By the way, name the governor. If you don't know, why are you here?

The Memphis Education Association has 6,350 members. Would you like to say a few words to them?

Within 10 percent, what are the annual operating budgets of the city of Memphis and Memphis City Schools? If you don't know, why are you here?

If the optimum size of a high school is 1,200 students, how many students should graduate each year? Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings wants to know.

If your answer to the above question is equal to or more than 125, what would you do about nine high schools that graduated fewer than 125 students in 2007?

Explain why Memphis rebuilt Manassas High School, which graduated 38 students in 2007, for $30 million.

Should Southwind High School, opened in 2007, be a city or county school?

Should the city school board, county school board, or developers with a vested interest choose new school sites in unannexed areas that are growing?

Should the school board get a raise, and should there be a school board at all?

Why are there no mayors among your references?

Are you sure you really want this job?

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Thursday, May 8, 2008

Food Pantry, Redux

With prices up and employment down, MIFA gets twice as many visits.

Posted By on Thu, May 8, 2008 at 4:00 AM

A year ago, my colleague Mary Cashiola and I took the "Food Stamp Challenge" and tried to eat for one week on $22.47 worth of groceries, which was the average food-stamp benefit for a Tennessean.

What's happened one year later? Food prices have gone up, especially milk and meat, but not as much as you might think from listening to news reports. The federal government has raised the minimum benefit for an individual recipient from $10 to $14 per month. Enjoy that extra cup of coffee! There has been a 5 percent increase in the number of food-stamp recipients in Tennessee. And more than twice as many Memphians are visiting MIFA to pick up food vouchers that entitle them to get a five-day supply of groceries four times a year from one of MIFA's food pantries.

Mary and I did our little experiment in response to congressional consideration of legislation raising food-stamp benefits. Richard Dobbs, head of the food-stamp program in Tennessee for the Department of Human Services, said the average weekly benefit for an individual was raised last fall to $23.72 in response to the higher cost of living. The number of recipients in Tennessee is 407,000 households and 901,818 individuals.

"That number is continuing to creep up," particularly among the elderly, Dobbs said.

The food-stamp program is available to families and individuals with incomes up to 30 percent above the poverty rate. A family of four with up to $20,600 in annual income — about what a single wage-earner making $10 an hour would make — could qualify.

MIFA, which works with individuals, and the Memphis Food Bank, which supplies churches and organizations, provide emergency assistance. A person can get both food stamps and a MIFA voucher.

Ida Lang, food pantry coordinator for MIFA, said 1,487 families received assistance in March and April this year compared to 614 families in the same months last year.

"More people are out of work, and more people are coming here for assistance with rent and utilities," Lang said.

The Flyer's experiment, which we copied from members of Congress who took the Food Stamp Challenge, was an attempt to personalize a story that tends to dissolve in a mixture of statistics, government reports, and official sources. We had no illusions that eating for one week on $22.47 worth of groceries would give us and our readers more than the barest hint of what it is like to be poor and hungry.

We found ourselves pressed to make unhealthy choices about fatty cuts of meat and canned rather than fresh fruits and vegetables. We learned to shop on the bottom shelves in grocery stores, where the generic brands are. We stopped eating out, even at fast-food restaurants, because a sandwich and drink can bust the budget. We cadged free snacks when and where we could, gaining an appreciation for, on the one hand, freeloading, and, on the other hand, restaurants that are cutting back on free condiments. We lost a little weight. And we were glad when it was over.

My one-week supply last year actually cost $23.63, slightly more than the average benefit because I started with an empty pantry with no leftovers. This week, the same grocery list and the same brands cost $24.30, an increase of about 3 percent. While that might be hard to absorb year after year, it isn't the budget buster that is ruining transportation companies dealing with $120-a-barrel oil.

The increases in food prices were lower than I expected them to be after reading story after story about hoarding, shortages at Sam's Club, and "sky-high" prices. Squishy bread ($1.19 a loaf compared to $1.49 a loaf) and a one-pound bag of rice (69 cents compared to $1) were actually cheaper, as were canned beans and tomatoes. Milk was $3.62 a gallon compared to $3.33 a year ago, and two pounds of hamburger cost $5.56, up from $4.90. Eggs, supposedly a benchmark for food inflation, were 79 cents for a half-dozen a year ago and 99 cents for a package of eight this week.

The organic eggs were over $3 a dozen, but who, besides the hen, can tell the difference?

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Wednesday, May 7, 2008

How the Final Five for Memphis Schools Superintendent Stack Up

Posted By on Wed, May 7, 2008 at 4:00 AM

The superintendent search isn't over.

And don't count out the leading non-candidate, Mayor Willie Herenton.

As of today, the Final Five candidates are flesh-and-blood people, not an abstraction. Even a cursory check of their resumes and responses to questions posed by search team consultants shows that all five have strengths and vulnerabilities -- just like Herenton.

For starters, the finalists include three men and two women. Four of them are black and one is white. All of them have doctorates in education. None of them is from Memphis. Three are from districts much smaller than Memphis. Two are from much larger districts. Three are currently applying for other jobs in addition to Memphis.

The winner needs six votes, or two-thirds of the members of the Memphis City Schools Board of Education. The deadline is June 30th.

Race, age, gender, and experience will be factors.

Race because MCS is over 90 percent minority.

Gender because, for what it's worth, in his speech Tuesday Herenton said the job needs a man in the mold of tough guy Joe Clark of Lean On Me fame. Let's assume that even a politically wounded mayor still speaks for at least some Memphians. Plus, two of the last three superintendents -- Carol Johnson and Gerry House -- were women. Both left.

Age and experience, because Herenton, even as a non-candidate, has an excess of both, and that will make it one of the benchmarks for the Final Five. And Memphis wants and needs a quick turnaround, not another four-year plan.

On the other hand, Herenton was 39 when he became superintendent. The school board's first choice at the time was a white man from Michigan.

Here's an overview of the Final Five":

Tiffany Anderson is superintendent of Montgomery County Schools in Christiansburg, Va. The district has 9,700 students. Memphis has 113,000 students. Anderson, who is black, received her education and early experience in St. Louis. She has applied for another job in Alexandria, Va. Her husband is a former Memphian. She wrote a book entitled Closing the Achievement Gap: Reaching and Teaching High Poverty Learners. She told consultants she and her husband, a physician, would put their children in MCS if she gets the job here.

Yvonne Brandon is deputy superintendent of Richmond City Schools in Virginia. The district has 24,000 students and is 92 percent black. Brandon, who is black, has held three central office positions. She is not seeking any other jobs. In her interview with consultants, she touted her success meeting the goals of No Child Left Behind, her science background, and her "no-nonsense" approach.

Kriner Cash is chief of accountability for the Miami-Dade County Public Schools. The district has 353,216 students and is 61 percent Hispanic and 28 percent black. Cash, who is black, has degrees from Princeton and Stanford and the University of Massachusetts. "He's a motivator," said consultant Al Johnson. He has applied for jobs in Cincinnati, Hartford, Springfield, and Waltham, Mass. He said he is interested in leaving his present job because Florida funding is pinched by state revenue shortfalls.

Nicholas Gledich is chief operations officer for the Orange County Schools in Orlando. The district has 176,000 students and is 64-percent minority. "This guy is a problem solver," said consultant Johnson. He is a finalist for another job in Osceola County Florida. Gledich, who is white, is a back-office specialist who touts his expertise in overseeing building and renovation programs.

James Williams is superintendent of schools in Buffalo. The district has 37,000 students. Williams, who is black, formerly was superintendent in Dayton, Ohio, where he told consultants he left "by mutual agreement" after 19 years. He was nominated for the Memphis job by "someone in the district who might be able to have a positive impact," according to his paperwork. He advocates hiring a financial officer from the private sector and merit pay for teachers. According to newspaper reports, he is known for standing up to teachers’ unions. He was in a news story last week along with a city council member who alleged that Williams got his job because he is black. He told consultants he "doesn't believe in the term reform as he feels buzzwords only cause excitement."

The Final Five will be invited to come to Memphis next Monday and Tuesday for interviews with board members and meetings with the community. Against the advice of consultants from Ray and Associates, the board scheduled three interviews for Tuesday, which consultant Gary Ray said was probably one too many. All three interviews will have to be conducted after 4 p.m., board members said, meaning the process could last until late at night. If an interview has to be rescheduled, board members noted that it could conflict with graduation ceremonies or City Council budget hearings. Hastiness already cost the search consultants credibility when they held community meetings during spring break and attracted only four or five people at each site.

Board members and Herenton agree on one thing. The selection of a superintendent is the most important decision the board will make. Herenton has set the bar and presented his "Blueprint For School Reform." Memphians have not heard the last from him on the superintendent search.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Party City

Wanted: office buildings and stores to subsidize a "world-class riverfront."

Posted By on Thu, May 1, 2008 at 4:00 AM

If only it was as easy to recruit blue-chip companies to downtown Memphis as it is to recruit blue-chip board members.

John Calipari joined the board of the Riverfront Development Corporation this week, filling the Celebrity Basketball Guy chair formerly occupied by Jerry West.

No offense to Calipari, whose charisma and salesmanship are unmatched, but what downtown and the riverfront really need are a few more Ron Terrys and First Tennessee Banks.

Terry is the former longtime chairman of the bank, back when it was the biggest downtown private employer and known for its stability, corporate citizenship, and 400 consecutive quarterly cash dividends instead of its sinking stock price, bad mortgage loans, layoffs, and diluted stock dividends that will be as worthless as Confederate States of America scrip if trends continue.

Terry's name came up at the RDC meeting Monday. Ron Terry Plaza, funded with $400,000 from Terry and First Tennessee, was supposed to overlook the cobblestones next to Riverside Drive. Then the RDC and the grand Riverfront Master Plan came along in 2000, and the relatively modest plaza got put on hold. Benny Lendermon, head of the RDC, said this week that it might be modified or moved to make way for a $6 million overhaul of the cobblestones.

Corporations and private development are the key to the RDC's goal of a "world-class riverfront." The RDC and its consultants expect three to four times as much private investment as public investment.

"The estimated $292 million public cost of the plan will spur $1.3 billion in private investment in real estate alone," says the master plan, which anticipates four million square feet of new office space and 21,000 new downtown jobs.

The time frame is 50 years, which, of course, makes accountability impossible. But it took less than six years for the plan to become irrelevant. Four things happened that planners didn't anticipate. The Grizzlies came to town, and The Pyramid was abandoned. The proposed Mud Island land bridge and lake that are the plan's centerpiece were scrapped by the RDC board in 2005. The heirs and defenders of the public promenade on Front Street are as opposed to private development as ever. And the low interest rates and residential building boom of a few years ago became today's overbuilt condo market and mortgage crisis.

The land bridge and the promenade were supposed to provide the choice waterfront building sites for the ground leases to private developers who would build the offices and stores that would pay the property and sales taxes to fund the public improvements. Greg Ericson's proposed theme park and a Bass Pro store in The Pyramid are not exactly what the planners had in mind.

You might call the new plan for downtown Memphis Party City or New Orleans North. Its elements will include Memphis In May, Beale Street, Mud Island River Park, Beale Street Landing at Tom Lee Park, residential development, the convention center, FedExForum, AutoZone Park, the University of Memphis law school, and maybe Bass Pro and developer Gene Carlisle's hotel at Beale and Riverside Drive.

It is a nice enough place to entertain, play, live, and visit. But most of it is publicly funded, and without more offices and businesses it seems artificial. Projects seem driven by the RDC's skill in acquiring public funding instead of demand and common sense. How many Memphians would choose to spend $6 million on cobblestones and another $29 million on a boat dock while closing neighborhood libraries and community centers and cutting summer jobs programs for kids?

One of the selling points of having an RDC with a leader who makes more money than the mayor was that its nonprofit structure would enable it to raise private money, leverage public money, and eventually generate a surplus. But the most recent financial report shows that the RDC gets $480,000 from foundations, $1.5 million from park operations, and $2.3 million from the city to manage and maintain 11 parks.

If I'm a City Council member in budget talks, I want to know when to expect that surplus. If I'm Director of Parks Services Cindy Buchanan with 167 parks, 34 community centers, 25 summer camps, and Liberty Bowl Stadium to worry about, I want a raise. And if I'm Ron Terry, I want my plaza or my money back.

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