Which would you rather have?
Another nine-year run of NCAA Tournament appearances, Conference USA championships, arena sellouts, one-and-done stars, and nationally televised games against marquee opponents -- and the chance that there could be an NCAA infraction involving an SAT test.
A nine-year run of squeaky clean recruiting, middle-of-the-pack finishes, good but not great players, exemplary GPAs and graduation rates, a half-empty FedExForum, and occasional NIT/NCAA appearances.
What would you choose?
What was U.S. District Judge Bernice Donald thinking two years ago when she tried to put the Shelby County schools under a "special master" to oversee reassignment of students and staff?
Rarely has a federal judge's decision been as thoroughly trashed by the appellate court, plaintiffs, defendants, and the families that would have been affected by it.
The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 ruling against Donald's 2007 decision, said her court "abused its discretion" in rejecting "a reasonable and good faith joint motion" by the county board of education, the Justice Department, and the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund.
Richard Fields, who has been involved in the case since 1982 as attorney for the Legal Defense Fund, said he never understood the thinking of Donald, the only black federal judge in Memphis.
"I was very surprised at her ruling, and I don't know why she did it," he said.
In legal terms, the Shelby County school system has been granted "unitary status" and is out from under a 46-year-old desegregation order stemming from a lawsuit filed by a county schools student and supported by the federal government and the NAACP.
The appeals court smackdown means county schools won't have to reassign students in racially unbalanced schools. The county system is 53 percent white, 37 percent black, 4 percent Asian, and 4 percent Hispanic. Ten county schools are at least 80 percent white. Southwind High School, which opened two years ago, is 1.2 percent white.
If Memphis annexes Southwind and other schools in its reserve area, the county system's black enrollment will fall to 7.68 percent, according to Maura Black Sullivan of the Memphis and Shelby County Division of Planning and Development.
To which the appeals court said, so be it.
The judges said the school district has no duty to remedy imbalance caused by demographic factors, annexation, and "voluntary housing choices made by the public." Southwind's student body reflects the demographics of the neighborhoods in its attendance boundary, just as 75-percent white Arlington High School — Southwind's architectural twin in northeast Shelby County — reflects its residential areas.
Donald would have had each county school be more reflective of the overall county demographic mix, which would have meant busing students or drawing new attendance zones.
In effect, she overruled herself in her 2007 order because she had signed off, in "rubber stamp" fashion, on the county school system's plans several times before she apparently had second thoughts over the outcome.
We can only guess at her motivations and reaction to last week's overrule. Federal judges speak only from the bench and in their rulings. Fields, however, has quite a lot to say.
"Shelby County schools has some smart people, and they did what the court required them to do," he said. "Every time we had a boundary dispute, we resolved it because they had good people on the staff, school board, and in the superintendent's office. The students have had straight A's on the state report card for years. It was a situation where we had no choice but to grant unitary status."
The city of Memphis, he opined, would be "insane" to annex any more schools and territory because "without the help of the federal government, both the city and county would be bankrupt today."
Once a champion of then-superintendent Willie Herenton and the court-ordered desegregation of the Memphis City Schools, Fields has had a bitter falling out with the mayor during his last two terms. But he gives Herenton credit for trying to keep white students in the system and for closing underused schools during his years as superintendent.
"None of the MCS superintendents since Herenton have been interested in desegregation," he said. "The Legal Defense Fund basically laid off the school system to give them an opportunity to work on it, and they failed miserably. There could be more white kids if they tried to stabilize neighborhoods. Look at Idlewild, Grahamwood, and Richland. You have to provide a quality education, and Memphis, with some exceptions, has failed to do that. That's why I support charter schools and programs like Teach For America."
We spend years asking experts how to make our riverfront better. Then we spend more years arguing about it and millions of dollars building something. Meanwhile, the tourists go somewhere else, a recession hits, riverboat companies go out of business, and the concerts and teams move to FedExForum or Tunica.
That's been the formula at Tom Lee Park, which is getting a $33 million Beale Street Landing; the Pyramid, which is being given to Bass Pro Shops, along with $35 million; the cobblestones, slated for $7 million; and Mud Island River Park, where the makeover might include a skate park, carousel, and/or aquarium.
But one of the most popular riverfront attractions in Memphis is also the most economical. Greenbelt Park on Mud Island is a mile-long swath of green grass and cottonwood trees. Its featured attraction is the Mississippi River, now covering about half of the park's acreage. Unlike Beale Street Landing, Greenbelt Park's only capital improvements are a lighted sidewalk and a small plaza with a water fountain, bike rack, bench, and a piece of outdoor art. The only structure is a purple martin house, which is low-maintenance. The bright idea was cutting down some trees that blocked the view.
How does this park get it right? Let me count the ways.
Touch the water. The Riverfront Development Corporation says Beale Street Landing will provide a "touch the water" experience, but visitors to Greenbelt Park can already do that, even though most of them seem to prefer to just look at it. In the movie Atlantic City, an old man played by Burt Lancaster laments that the ocean isn't what it used to be. But the river really isn't what it used to be — ever. Not two months ago, before the Arkansas fields flooded, or two months from now, when barges will be navigating around exposed dikes and sandbars.
Accessibility. Free parking in three lots. No admission charge, ever. BYO food and drink, but there is a pizza parlor, grocery store, deli, and restaurant within walking distance.
It never closes. Put up a nice building and pretty soon you have a staff, an entrance gate, operating hours, concession stands that have to charge high prices to survive, an off-season, and debt. Welcome to $63 million Mud Island River Park, closed from November to April. Tom Lee Park is taken over by Memphis in May and out of commission for part of April and June too. How Beale Street Landing will co-exist with Memphis in May remains to be seen.
People and pet-friendly. Greenbelt Park is a melting pot, due to its proximity to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and Harbor Town. It has more pets, kite flyers, bikers, kids, runners, and baby strollers per acre than any downtown park.
Cheap thrills. Local outdoorsman Joe Royer's annual canoe/kayak race and Cyclocross bike race are held on or next to Greenbelt Park. They entertain and market Memphis by using what's already there, with no capital improvements budget. The running track is a trail, now under water. Hardcores use the sidewalks on the Auction Street Bridge. Boaters use the north ramp.
So much potential: a splash park in Tom Lee Park; Ultimate Frisbee in Greenbelt Park; a cleaner harbor; a playground on Mud Island River Park; skating in the Pyramid parking lot; a five-park bike ride. All at a fraction of the cost of Beale Street Landing.
The boat dock and future gathering place at the north end of the park, a pet project of the Riverfront Development Corporation and Mayor Willie Herenton, will now cost $33 million, according to the estimate provided to the Memphis City Council by RDC President Benny Lendermon this week.
Like river stages in May, the cost keeps going up. When a South American architectural firm was chosen to design the fancy boat dock and gathering place in 2003, the cost estimate was $20 million. By 2005, the cost of "River Outlook" had risen to $27.5 million. In 2007, the number was $29.4 million.
The $33 million includes $11.5 million in state and federal funds and about $22 million in local funds. Approximately $11 million has already been spent, which helped persuade some first-term council members to keep on funding the project that was approved by their predecessors.
The cost of steel is one of the things driving up the price. When councilman Bill Boyd asked where the steel would come from, Lendermon said "maybe in Argentina." The architectural firm, RTN Architects from Buenos Aires, is being paid $2 million. Beale Street Landing is shaping up as a nice little stimulus for one recession-ravaged economy. Shovels ready, amigos!
The landing will include, among other things, "floating" docks that will allow visitors to get finger-dipping close to Old Man River. In RDC mythology, this "touch the water" experience is not presently possible.
Leaving aside the question of how many people actually want to do this and whether it is worth $33 million, the fact is that the partially submerged cobblestones landing and Greenbelt Park across from HarborTown are currently suitable for water-touching, fishing or full-immersion baptisms 30 yards from the sidewalk.
The meaning of the landing part of Beale Street Landing has been revised. The overnight river cruise lines that used to dock at Memphis -- Delta Steamship and Majestic America -- have gone out of business. Lendermon now says the "world-class" landing was designed for the homemade vessels of the Memphis Queen Line. "The use of facility, for boating side, has always been the local excursion boats," he told council members. That does not include canoes and kayaks.
So where did anyone get the idea that the landing was for big, overnight cruising boats? From the RDC, actually.
The riverfront master plan approved by the council in 2002 specifies "a landing designed to accommodate the largest commercial riverboats and facilities for passengers with luggage."
In an interview in 2005, Lendermon said the landing was needed because "the Delta Steamship Company is close to refusing to dock at Mud Island."
The RDC website says a modern docking facility is needed because "approximately 50 stops are made by three major vessels each year, and this does not include local excursion boats." It also says "the Delta Steamship Company has increased its dockings in Memphis by 40 percent. They are trying to build their market here in anticipation of the new docking facility."
Finally, the budget summary given to the council this week calls for "a docking facility for touring and excursion boats."
The next phase of Beale Street Landing will be bid May 27th. The project, which will add four acres to the park, is supposed to be completed in the spring of 2011. The full council still has to approve continued funding, but a halt to Beale Street Landing at this stage of the game seems unlikely.
After serving a stint as president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association (DNA), Tommy Volinchak has had a bellyful of cliques, preservationists, bake sales, and delayed projects.
"Downtown is a white, cliquey suburb," says Volinchak, 54, a native of Youngstown, Ohio, whose father worked in the steel mills all his life. He and his fiancée are moving to East Memphis when he sells his house on Mud Island.
Dressed in jeans and a black bowling shirt with "Tommy" stitched on the front — one of several in his collection — Volinchak sipped a cup of hot chocolate at an outdoor café in Harbor Town this week and discussed his downtown disillusionment. A frequent letter writer and e-mailer, whose pronouncements range from caustic to bombastic, he is mellower in person, even to a reporter who has been on the receiving end of his missives and hails from the dreaded state of Michigan.
"I never hold back," he says. "When the people you're leading and you don't see eye to eye, then you're beating your head against a brick wall. The DNA was a bit of a social clique. You saw the same people, and they all seemed to look alike."
Volinchak stands out in a Memphis crowd. He is the size of a football lineman. He is of Ukrainian heritage. He plays the accordion, guitar, and several other instruments. He hopes to make the senior bowling tour. A self-described bull, his heroes "are guys like Patton, Noah, and Moses." He has a college degree in biology and a water purification business and is writing a book on contemporary music for the accordion.
"I had a lot of support and a lot of detractors," he says of his tenure as head of the 500-member DNA. "You're either going to love me or hate me."
Volinchak came to Memphis in 2001 from Ohio, drawn by the music scene and positive reviews of downtown from his friend Carol Coletta, a former downtowner who is now head of the group CEOs for Cities in Chicago. He joined the DNA, which he thought spent too much time on home tours and not enough time on political nitty-gritty and establishing its clout in support of big-ticket projects such as Beale Street Landing and Bass Pro in the Pyramid. His views, he says, were formed by seeing the deterioration of towns like Youngstown in industrial Ohio. He has served on the board of the Riverfront Development Corporation and Mayor Herenton's convention center advisory committee.
As a resident for eight years, he found downtown more effete than melting pot.
"I used to go to the movies at Peabody Place three to five times a week," he says. "I could count on my hands the DNA members supporting that venue. Crazy kids with their hats on sideways ... to me, that is life. People my age are not the future of downtown."
As a DNA officer, he quickly ran out of patience with town hall meetings, which he calls "mental masturbation" in which opposing sides often "came together to make new enemies." Preservationists, cobblestones proponents, reporters, politicians opposing the Bass Pro/Pyramid deal, and the group Friends For Our Riverfront often drew his fire.
"Memphians spend an enormous amount of time cherishing, protecting, and fondling what Memphis once was," he says, mentioning the cobblestones and the Front Street cotton business as examples. "There is no good outcome for that mentality."
He is a staunch proponent of Bass Pro because "big projects make small projects possible," and he laments the criticism of its fish-on-a-hook sign and proposed Pyramid redesign. A registered Democrat, he says he is on good terms with Mayor Herenton and has thought of getting into politics himself but only "in a position that would allow me to lead and cause a ruckus." Youngstown, he scoffs, "makes Memphis look like Romper Room. When we had a sting, we netted congressmen, judges, and gangland hits."
He makes no apologies for the caustic tone of his writing.
"America has grown complacent," he says. "Hypocrisy is rampant. I don't write anything I wouldn't say to your face. Bipartisanship and compromise is a sign of a man who's not firm in his convictions."
Two of the most successful professional investors in Memphis took a crack at those questions Thursday night in front of a room full of uneasy customers. Mason Hawkins and Staley Cates, the CEO and president of Southeastern Asset Management, said they expect their Longleaf Partners mutual funds to recover their "horrible" 2008 losses and then some in the next five years.
"We've never owned better companies at cheaper prices across our three funds" said Hawkins, who started the Partners fund in 1987. "Longleaf's future returns should be special. We're acutely aware that they need to be to make up for 2008."
The Partners fund lost over 50 percent of its value last year, compared to about 35 percent for the market averages. The fund is up 23 percent this year. Longleaf has about $22 billion in assets under management compared to $43 billion in 2007. Managers and employees are required to eat their own cooking, and they have suffered along with investors.
The annual meeting of shareholders (of which I am one) was held at Bridges, an architecturally striking building north of downtown. There was an outdoor reception with drinks and appetizers. A row of long black sedans manned by chauffeurs lined the street in front of the entrance. I thought the crowd of perhaps 500 people was smaller than previous meetings at the Memphis Botanic Gardens.
The dark interior fit the market mood. Hawkins and Cates spoke -- too rapidly and too softly for those in the back to hear well -- in front of a gray climbing wall. There wasn't a light on in the place. It was like they were speaking from the mouth of a cave. Employees or hired help recorded it. Yes, there were slides, but someone should tell the bosses that while shunning the spotlight, figuratively, is one thing, speaking to a crowd is another.
Hawkins and Cates and legendary investor Warren Buffett, "the oracle of Omaha," share some of the same beliefs in straight talk and buy-and-hold investing and have sort of a mutual admiration society. Earlier this year, Longleaf made its first investment in Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway company. It has gone up.
The questioning was gentle and some of it was necessarily technical. It seemed strangely detached from current events. I didn't hear the name "Obama" mentioned and there was only one specific reference to the stimulus package in the 75-minute meeting. Much of the discussion was about Longleaf's discarded losers, including General Motors, UBS, Saks, and Office Depot. While the meeting was going on, the nightly news was reporting that GM lost $6 billion in the first quarter. Longleaf finally sold its GM stock and bonds after taking big losses. Cates called it a "screw-up."
"We should have been more rigorous in running our worst case" for both GM's car business and financing arm, GMAC, he said. Better days are ahead for Longleaf and its investors, Cates said, but it could be a while. The funds still hold such battered stocks as Dell, eBay, Sun Microsystems and FedEx.
"Where we've earned our spurs is coming out of bear markets," Cates said.
If it takes about 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill, then 18-year-old drummer Kelvin Broadnax is well on his way. But some of his teachers might wish he'd ease up a bit.
"When I wake up, I do my double-strokes. And when I go to bed, I might do a couple of triplets and double-strokes on my pillow until my wrists hurt," says the senior at White Station High School. "At school I break out my sticks when we're not doing anything in class and beat on my leg and get on people's nerves. They don't understand that I have to get better. I can't tell you how many times I got in trouble in school for beatin' on stuff or how many times I have had my sticks taken up."
Broadnax, known as "TK" to his friends and teachers, is also a fourth-year student at the Stax Music Academy's after-school program and a member of the drum line. He and his classmates will perform with professional jazz musicians Kirk Whalum and Cyrus Chestnut in the "SOULed on Jazz" concert at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre Saturday night. The drum line's entrance to a crescendo of bass drums, snares, and cymbals is one of the highlights of the spring concert for both students and audience.
The Stax after-school program, called SNAP!, mentors students primarily from the Soulsville neighborhood near LeMoyne-Owen College through music education. Instructors include artist-in-residence Whalum and other professional musicians. Every graduate of the program this year is headed for college.
Not all of the students aspire to become full-time musicians, but the program emphasizes the daily "purposeful practice" that has been popularized in recent books such as Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers and Geoff Colvin's Talent Is Overrated. One of their tenets is that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice, or three to five hours a day for at least 10 years, to master any skill, from playing the sax like Whalum to swinging a golf club like Tiger Woods or hitting a tennis ball like Venus Williams.
Broadnax, who is headed to Tennessee State University in Nashville or Jackson State University in Mississippi, wants to go to seminary eventually. He got his license to preach in April.
"God called me," he says. "It wasn't like He whispered in my ear. It was a feeling that I always knew I wanted to do it, but I was too afraid. I had just turned 18, just got my driver's license, just able to go out with my friends and go to clubs and have fun. Now you want me to be a pastor, and I got to turn into a 40-year-old man?"
The "SOULed on Jazz" concert will feature songs by the Isley Brothers, Chaka Khan, and Duke Ellington, among others.
Ricardo Canady, a senior at Central High School who hopes to attend the Berklee College of Music in Boston, has gotten a chance to play saxophone with Whalum, his idol, in live performances.
"Stax has made me come out of my shell," says Canady, who was born in South Africa. "When I came here, I was really shy. I'm more friendly and outgoing, and I get along with people."
"Shy" is only a problem for Broadnax if someone calls his name when the drum line is performing. "Being a section leader, you have to let other people shine," he says.
When the crowd gets into it, watch out.
"That gets us hyped, so we just kill it. We're the best group out there. They can't stop us."
This week, eight employees of the Shelby County Clerk's office were indicted for bribery involving motor vehicle registrations.
I wasn't able to muster one-tenth as much outrage over this betrayal of the public trust as I did the last time I couldn’t get one of my clunker cars through the inspection station. Now that was an outrage. Cost me several hours and a couple hundred bucks, more than once.
I confess that I would gladly have paid an inspector $20 to overlook the balky wipers ("please, please, work just this once"), faulty emergency brake (covered up, I think, by holding my right foot on the brake and the accelerator at the same time), broken tail light (a red plastic reflector and some duct tape did the job and won the grudging admiration of the inspector), and the dreaded rod-up-the-tailpipe emissions test (introducing thousands of Memphis car owners to the term "O-2 sensor").
No, I didn't bribe an inspector, but I sure tried to fool them. And I suspect I may have enriched an inspector or two who got a cut from the garage conveniently located right across the street from the downtown inspection station on Washington, where I got that emissions problem fixed for about $230.
What's worse, only Memphis residents have to go through inspection. Those living in the county or in Mississippi are exempt even though they use the same roads and pollute the same air. And, of course, scofflaws drive some of the most smoke-belching clunkers around and don't bother registering them at all. One of those emits more pollutants than a dozen "failed-O-2-inspection" cars.
Selling a used car is another opportunity for petty crime. Say, hypothetically of course, I sell my neighbor my old car for $5,000. On the back of the title, he records the sale price as $3,000, which is close enough to the Edmonds or Kelley blue book value to ward off suspicion in the clerk's office. It's no skin off my nose, and the buyer saves a few hundred bucks in taxes. Let's assume that employees in the clerk's office see this stuff go on every day.
Finally, there's the issue of inflating a misdemeanor charge to a felony in order to squeeze someone to squeal on someone else. I suspect that is what is going to happen to City Councilwoman Barbara Swearengen Ware, named but not indicted last week. Better that the charge should fit the crime.
Someone said "I wouldn't want to live in a town where you couldn't get a parking ticket fixed." Sometimes I feel that way myself, especially when I get a ticket. But I guess we don't live in such a town. I’m not losing any sleep over it.