Thursday, July 28, 2011

Nashville Visits Memphis

Karl Dean gets a first-hand look at Memphis.

Posted By on Thu, Jul 28, 2011 at 4:00 AM

Nashville mayor Karl Dean, who is up for reelection August 4th, and his wife Anne Davis, an instructor at Vanderbilt's law school, met with a small group of Memphians, including Mayor A C Wharton, at the Arcade for breakfast Tuesday. Dean was also the lunch speaker at Rotary.

The Deans' son Rascoe is a second-year Teach For America English teacher in the Memphis City Schools who learned last week that his job at East High is uncertain. It's a common predicament for young teachers in MCS because of an unstable population, declining enrollment, and the ongoing funding donnybrook. The president of the Memphis Education Association, Keith Williams, told the Memphis City Council last week that his son, a recent University of Tennessee graduate, lost his teaching job this year too.

Hard times, it seems, know no favorites in MCS.

Dean, like Wharton, is an attorney and former public defender. His city, I have to say after staying there last weekend, has an embarrassment of riches.

Dean said that funding for the consolidated Nashville/Davidson County public school system has increased 12 percent in the last four years, without a property tax increase. It has 71,700 students (about 32,000 fewer than Memphis) and a bigger tax base. Like Memphis, however, it is battling flight to neighboring counties and fast-growing cities such as Franklin and Murfreesboro.

Downtown Nashville is booming. The new $600 million convention center is taking shape and scheduled to open in 2013. It dwarfs both the Bridgestone Arena and Country Music Hall of Fame, which are immediately north and east of it. Upon seeing it, my first thought was that this is not a convention center, this is a Kennedy Center, and Nashville is competing not with Memphis but with Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, and Miami. A privately financed $260 million, 800-room Omni Hotel will complete the redevelopment package south of Broadway, with its country music bars.

"I knew we couldn't do a publicly financed hotel," said Dean, who has to contend with a 40-member metro council.

Cry him a river. Last week, the city learned that it lost a lawsuit over eminent domain and the land for the convention center, which will bump the cost considerably. That's a manageable problem in a city that's flush. At $7 to $10, downtown parking — if you can find it — costs more than the $6 "Stimulus Special" of a hot dog, can of Pabst, chips, and a Moon Pie at Roberts Western World honky-tonk.

Dean said Nashville is promoting bikes and walking and planning some kind of mass transit along the West End, Music City's version of Union Avenue. But bikes and shuttle buses were scarce last weekend, and light rail is years away.

Traffic in and out of Nashville can be a pain. The next time I want to explore downtown, I'll take Dean's advice and park next to the Titans' stadium in East Nashville and take one of the pedestrian bridges over the river.

Karl Dean
  • Karl Dean
Dean complimented Memphis on its downtown trolley, residential communities, riverfront, and sports teams, noting that the Grizzlies and Nashville Predators were both featured in the same issue of Sports Illustrated this spring. He and Wharton are Democrats with similar professional backgrounds and seem to be of the same mind on public education, the merits of charter schools, Republican governor Bill Haslam, and supporters and confidants such as Memphians Pitt and Barbara Hyde.

According to Nashville City Paper, Dean has "no serious opposition" for reelection for another four-year term. Victories by Dean in August and Wharton in October would give red-state Tennessee Democratic mayors in its two biggest cities.

Dean and Nashville hold the stronger hand and most of the high cards. If he wants to do something nice for Memphis, he could send us another thousand or so young college graduates like his son. If only we could find jobs for them.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Path to Bike Lanes

Other transportation battles suggest how to get there from here.

Posted By on Wed, Jul 20, 2011 at 12:26 PM

Who knew that bike lanes could be so controversial?

The proposal to revamp Madison Avenue in Midtown to accommodate bike lanes has had its nasty moments. A viewpoint column in the Flyer last week by Eric Vernon of the Bar-B-Q Shop prompted some angry comments and renewed threats to boycott businesses on Madison that are seen as bike-unfriendly.

After a series of public meetings where alternatives were presented, the Madison Avenue project is in the hands of Mayor A C Wharton and bike coordinator Kyle Wagenschutz, who was unavailable for comment Tuesday. It's not the war in Afghanistan or the debt limit or entitlement programs or even Southeastern Conference football, but it sure has some people wound up. Can this adversarial relationship be resolved?

I asked Memphians with inside experience in other controversial transportation projects ranging from interstate highways to pedestrian paths to bike paths.

The granddaddy of Memphis road wars was the battle over running Interstate 40 through Midtown and Overton Park, which spanned 25 years and reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1971. Attorney Charles Newman helped save the park and is now working on the Harahan Bridge Project bike trail over the Mississippi River.

"On the expressway, the city business leaders, government, and the major newspaper all got locked into a position and became too confident that they would prevail," Newman said. "If they had done an honest study of alternative routes, it would have been hard for us to be successful."

He thinks the Madison Avenue flap reflects "a sort of irrational predisposition" in favor of car traffic.

"I'm not in the restaurant business, but I think Madison is sort of neglected and bike lanes will be beneficial in tangible and intangible ways," Newman said. "I suspect the opponents are underestimating the benefits and exaggerating the potential hazards. I think it will have minimal impact on cars and their ability to get to those businesses."

Greg Maxted is executive director for the Harahan Bridge Project, which aims to connect the bridge with North Parkway, Broad Avenue, and the Shelby Farms Greenline.

"On the Greenline, there was opposition at the first meetings," Maxted said. "People were afraid it would bring crime to their neighborhoods, but as the project moved forward, those people got less outspoken. The leaders spoke to each of them individually. I don't see the criticism any more."

He has not been involved with the Madison Avenue project.

"Both sides seem pretty entrenched, and I don't know if there is a way to get them to agree," he said. "The city might want to find a bike road where there is no opposition."

He said there has been less opposition at public meetings to bike lanes on North Parkway, which he sees as a vital link.

"We need citywide connectivity," Maxted said.

Twenty years ago, the proposed bluffwalk on the South Bluffs was opposed by some property owners and developer Henry Turley. Ritchie Smith Associates came up with a design that cut the sidewalk into the bluff, buffered it with shrubbery, and diverted part of it into the South Bluffs neighborhood.

"There were some really heated meetings at the time," said Lissa Thompson, landscape architect at the firm. "We learned never to have a public meeting at a place that serves alcohol."

One rejected compromise would have diverted part of the bluffwalk eastward, with no view of the river.

"People were apprehensive," Thompson said. "It was a whole different time in our history. At the time, Memphis didn't have any of those kind of amenities. After it was completed, some of the same people came forward to say what a great asset it was. Over time it got to be an attraction that raised the appeal and value of those properties."

Thompson said "there is probably a solution" to the bike lanes that will resolve the issues of route and design. Like the Greenline, the idea is somewhat novel here but "we are a bit behind the curve."

"When people work together you can usually work those things out," she said. "Reality is much different than what some people fear."

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Math Problem

Designing the Memphis City Council in black and white.

Posted By on Wed, Jul 13, 2011 at 12:32 PM

Redistricting, now in season, is all about racial politics. In one of the great ironies of our time, political and judicial decisions made in the last 20 years aimed at helping black politicians have instead helped white politicians. Nowhere is that more evident than on the Memphis City Council.

Memphis has a population of 646,889. There are 13 council members. Seven of them come from district seats, and six of them come from "super districts" which are combinations of three or more smaller districts. Over a decade, some districts gain population while others lose it. In the proposed redistricting, which the council will take up on July 19th, each regular district has about 92,000 people, plus or minus 5 percent. Each super district has about 323,000 people.

There are 409,818 blacks, 190,141 whites, 42,020 Hispanics, 10,193 Asians, and 26,178 "other" in Memphis. Since 2000, the population of Memphis remained fairly steady but the white population decreased from 34 percent to 29 percent and the black population increased from 61 percent to 63 percent.

The present council has 12 members because the 13th member, Barbara Swearengen Ware, resigned. Six members are black and six are white. In other words, whites are overrepresented.

City Council attorney Allan Wade was in charge of redistricting. Wade got raw data from the Office of Planning and Development and input from all seven district council members and most of the super-district members.

"Politics was not involved at all," said Wade, although that could change next week. Wade was guided by the principle of one man, one vote to make districts roughly the same size and by the dictates of the 1995 Voting Rights Decree to remedy past discrimination by creating districts with "substantial black majorities." Four of the seven districts and one super district are at least 75 percent black.

The district that gained the most population between 2000 and 2010 was District 2, represented by Bill Boyd. It includes most of East Memphis and Cordova and is 52 percent white and 39 percent black in the proposal. The other district that gained population was District 1, represented by Bill Morrison. It includes Raleigh, Frayser, and other areas and is 36 percent white and 54 percent black in the proposal.

The districts that lost the most people were District 6, represented by Ed Ford, and District 4, represented by Wanda Halbert. In the proposed redistricting, District 6 is 89 percent black and District 4 is 78 percent black.

The whitest district is District 5, represented by Jim Strickland. It includes a lot of Midtown and is 67 percent white in the proposal. The blackest district is District 6 in South Memphis and downtown.

The super districts were created by the council in 1995 and racially rigged due to lawsuits that said blacks could not be elected at large. Myron Lowery, a council member since 1991, opposed that because he thought demographic changes meant blacks could win at-large races, as he himself had done.

"But people didn't believe that," he said.

Super District 8, represented by Joe Brown, Janis Fullilove, and Lowery, is 85 percent black in the proposal. Super District 9, represented by Reid Hedgepeth, Shea Flinn, and Kemp Conrad, is 48 percent white and 41 percent black.

There is no runoff in super district races, but there is a runoff in district races between the top two candidates if no candidate gets a majority of the vote. That's how Morrison won his seat in 2007. It is highly unlikely that a white candidate could win in Super District 8, but a well-financed black candidate could win in Super District 9.

The best way to get on the council is to run for an open seat. Nine of the current council members were elected for their first terms in 2007. So far, nobody on the council except for Ware has said they do not plan to seek reelection.

District campaigns are different from super-district campaigns. "I don't think anyone has knocked on more doors than me," said Strickland. "In a district race I can outwork everyone."

Advertising and $1,000 contributions, the maximum allowed, are mandatory in Super District 9. Campaign financial disclosures filed this week show that Flinn, Hedgepeth, and Conrad have the biggest war chests on the council.

The filing deadline is July 21st. The election is October 6th.

Prediction: The next council will be the same as the current council, with a new black member replacing Ware and every big vote a potential cliffhanger.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Man and the Moment

An old hand at politics and tough issues has the schools case now.

Posted By on Wed, Jul 6, 2011 at 1:40 PM

The most important federal court case in Memphis in decades is in the hands of U.S. district judge Samuel H. Mays.

All of the parties in the schools merger case filed their final briefs last week, setting the stage for Mays to decide when and how the Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools will be consolidated. Everyone agrees it's going to happen sooner or later.

But what would it look like? How many superintendents? How many districts? New municipal school systems in Bartlett or Germantown? The briefs don't say, and no one can predict how parents and politicians will react to consolidation.

At stake is the future of two school systems with roughly 150,000 students. Memphis City Schools has 96 percent Title 1 schools, an average ACT score of 16.6, and per-pupil spending of $10,767. Shelby County Schools has 16 percent Title 1 schools, an average ACT score of 21, and per-pupil spending of $8,439.

Mays is a 1966 graduate of White Station High School in the pre-busing, pre-optional schools era. He is no stranger to controversial decisions and local and state politics. He was legal counsel and chief of staff to former Governor Don Sundquist when Sundquist proposed an ill-fated state income tax.

Here is a summary of the briefs. The underlying financial issue is who gets the bill for MCS, which has a 2011 budget of $1,196,364,127. Presently, 6 percent comes from the city of Memphis, 30 percent from Shelby County, 38 percent from the state, 21 percent from federal government, and 5 percent from other local sources. The city council wants to shed the financial obligation but has booked an 18-cent property tax hike just in case.

State of Tennessee: The Norris-Todd bill passed by the General Assembly and signed by Governor Bill Haslam rules. It provides for a transition team and a planning period, with consolidation in 2013-14. Memphis City Schools is a special school district. The transition will be "an immensely complex undertaking." The transition committee rules, not some creation of the Shelby County Commission. Memphis is "adequately represented" on the transition committee. The MCS and SCS boards stay in business for now.

Shelby County Schools: The Norris-Todd bill is binding. The hasty actions of the MCS board and city council created "the appearance of a chaotic, dangerous vacuum." The MCS board has continued to operate this year, post-surrender. It should exist during an orderly transition. MCS is a special school district. The Shelby County Commission can't legally make a new board.

Five members of the Shelby County Schools board, including Chairman David Pickler: The Shelby County Commission's plan to reconstruct the board with either 25 members or seven members from redrawn districts is "illegal." The current members should finish their terms. The commission must amend the county charter and hold a referendum to expand the board or redraw the districts.

Memphis City Schools: "MCS simply seeks direction from the court as to how and when it will cease to operate schools." MCS does not answer to the Memphis City Council and does not accept its resolution accepting surrender of the charter by the city school board in December. The court must say if "maintenance of effort" funding should continue. MCS is a special school district. MCS is entitled to $57 million in back funding for 2008-09 and $78 million for 2011-12, but the recently passed budget is "vague."

Memphis City Council: The charter surrender was approved by MCS, the council, and the voters. "MCS is not a weird, funny, or unique special school district. It is not a special school district at all." MCS is not a taxing district, and all the special school districts in Tennessee are taxing districts. Memphis citizens don't have proportional representation on the transition committee. "MCS administration is fighting to delay the inevitable consolidation as long as possible for its own self-serving interests."

City of Memphis: The city sides with the Memphis City Council. MCS no longer exists. The Norris-Todd bill is unconstitutional. The Shelby County Commission has the authority to make a new school board. "A new governing body is necessary to that transition."

Shelby County Commission: The county school board must be rebuilt, and soon. Otherwise Memphis residents will not have representation, because the current county board is elected outside of Memphis and its members are hostile to consolidation. "The single most important decision this court must make is how to provide immediate representation to the citizens of Memphis on the Shelby County school board." The options are a new 25-member board including the existing members or a new seven-member board from countywide redrawn districts.

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