Thursday, June 18, 2009

All in the Numbers

Hard times call for hard numbers.

Posted By on Thu, Jun 18, 2009 at 4:00 AM

The stakes are school funding, student performance, newspaper survival, the NCAA investigation of the University of Memphis, the local tax rate, and the viability of our sports facilities. In each case, a few simple numbers would tell us more than a stack of reports and position papers. But for various reasons, those numbers are hard to get.

• The Memphis City Schools system has been losing students for several years. The question is how many and how fast? The question matters because funding is based on average daily attendance.

The 2008-2009 enrollment was 103,000, according to Superintendent Kriner Cash and his deputy Irving Hamer. The MCS website says 105,000. The Tennessee Report Card says MCS enrollment was 107,314 in 2007-2008, 110,753 in 2006-2007, and 116,528 in 2005-2006. That's a decline of 13,528 students, or 9 percent, in four years. During that time, per-pupil spending increased from $8,708 to $10,366. No wonder some City Council members think the $948 million MCS budget could stand a $57 million cut.

• Last month, 35 Memphis high schools held graduation ceremonies. College-bound MCS students, we are told, were offered $94 million in scholarships. Congratulations, graduates. But it would be more helpful to know how many of you there were and where you came from — this year and last year. No complicated cohort graduation rates or percentages, thanks. Just a number.

In an open-enrollment system, there's no better indicator of who's attracting students, keeping them, and graduating them and who isn't. In previous years, numbers gathered from principals, board members, and MCS by this newspaper showed that a few city schools graduated nearly 400 students, while others graduated fewer than 100 students. MCS should provide that information each year by the end of May, at budget time.

• The city mayor and the Memphis City Council are trying to set an operating budget without any agreement on the number of city employees. I've seen numbers as low as 6,000 (Commercial Appeal editor Chris Peck's column last Sunday) and as high as 7,774 (the city of Memphis 2008 annual report's listing of "full-time equivalent government employees by function"). Somebody is way off. That's a difference of 1,774 employees, or 30 percent.

I called the offices of the city finance director, chief administrative officer, and human resources director but could not get an answer in two days. Before decisions are made about layoffs or 3 percent raises, it would be nice to know how many city employees there are and why their numbers are apparently growing faster than the city population.

• Speaking of The Commercial Appeal: What's a daily newspaper worth, and what are its prospects for survival? The CA's parent company, E.W. Scripps, does not release financials for its 15 newspapers. It closed the Rocky Mountain News in Denver earlier this year and has cut staff and salaries in Memphis. Collectively, the Scripps newspaper division earned $71 million in profit on $569 million of operating income in 2008.

The New York Times last week asked six experts what the Boston Globe (which is owned by the parent company of the Times) is worth. The answers ranged from negative $25 million (you read that right) to $1 (you read that right, too) to $10 to $20 million to the value of the underlying real estate to $350 million.

• Did Derrick Rose cheat on his college entrance exams? Rose's SAT and ACT college entrance exam scores are redacted in the U of M's response to NCAA allegations that someone else took the test. Rose says he took his own tests. The university says the findings of a forensic handwriting expert were inconclusive. Release the scores — both the ones that were too low and the one that made him eligible — and maybe we can decide.

• Will FedExForum need a bailout? How about AutoZone Park? How much improvement does Liberty Bowl Stadium need if there are 10,000 no-shows in the reported 24,000 average attendance? Would a campus stadium make more sense? It's time for some brutal honesty in reporting attendance at college and professional sports events. Turnstile clicks and butts in seats, not tickets sold or distributed. That goes for the Tigers, Grizzlies, and bowl games. A no-show doesn't buy snacks, souvenirs, hotel rooms, or a parking place, and those things contribute to the revenue stream.

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