School's out for summer, but the future-of-our-school-systems story is just getting warmed up and there will be no vacation for school board members, Transition Planning Commission members, and suburban elected officials and voters.
Here are some key dates to watch and some analysis of what will be known and unknown after each date.
On Tuesday, May 29th (after the deadline for this column), the elected boards in Germantown, Collierville, Arlington, Bartlett, Lakeland, and Millington will decide whether to hold referendums on August 2nd to establish and fund municipal school systems.
What will be known: whether there are any dissenters to what seems to be overwhelming support for "munis." If the boards approve, organized campaigns will begin to take shape. The specific language of the referendum will be drafted. And news media can stop talking about referendums as a hypothetical, as we have done for more than a year.
What won't be known: whether the funding, expected to be a 15-cent increase in property taxes and a half-cent increase in local sales tax, will be enough to fund the municipal system that may or may not have to pay a considerable sum for existing buildings.
On June 11th, the 23-member unified Shelby County school board meets in a specially called meeting to consider the employment contract of Memphis superintendent Kriner Cash and, possibly, Shelby County superintendent John Aitken. Billy Orgel, chairman of the unified board, called for the meeting last week. It immediately met with an objection from board member Martavius Jones, who said it was premature, but as of now the meeting is on.
What will be known: Cash has a contract until August 1, 2013. He opposed the merger and has applied for at least one other superintendent's job. The board could ask him to publicly state his intentions, invite him to apply for the job as leader of the unified system in 2013, tell him he has no chance, or invite him to leave early with a buyout.
What won't be known: who will lead the unified system as superintendent in 2013. Aitken is under contract until February 2015, but the current Shelby County system excludes 103,000 students in Memphis. The unified board could invite candidates other than Aitken and Cash to apply for what is sure to be one of the most unusual and scrutinized education jobs in the country.
By mid-June, the 21-member Transition Planning Commission (TPC) aims to have its full set of recommendations on a merger plan. The commission, which includes Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell, Bartlett mayor Keith McDonald, and some members of the unified school board, has been meeting for eight months.
What will be known: which suburbs are going to hold referendums in August, and after that it gets tricky. The TPC is planning for a unified system of up to 150,000 students while knowing full well that the suburbs may not become part of it.
What won't be known: whether the suburbs will break away, and whether the unified school board will accept the TPC recommendations, which are just that, on such controversial issues as closing schools and outsourcing. The TPC says the plan will "evolve" over the summer.
On August 2nd, there will be elections in Shelby County. Suburban voters will decide whether to establish separate school systems. And there will be a countywide election for seven spots on the unified school board. In September, the seven winners will replace seven people appointed as interim members by the Shelby County Commission. Some of the winners could be people already serving on the unified board. Calling this confusing would be an understatement.
What will be known: the willingness of suburban residents to tax themselves an unknown amount for a separate school system. This is the big one. If all six suburbs or even if only three of them go muni, it will be a devastating blow to the unified system.
Also known will be the names of the seven members of the unified school board that will govern a system that may or may not include suburbs. As of September 1, 2013, the terms of the 16 board members who formerly served on the Shelby County and Memphis school boards will expire. The seven members elected in August will constitute the Shelby County Board of Education and govern the combined school system. After September 1, 2013, the Shelby County Commission can expand and redistrict the school board so that it will consist of not more than 13 members.
Hey, no one said summer school was going to be easy.
At a time when everything from Facebook to Delta airfares is monetized to the max, one of the nicest stories to come out of Memphis is the popular free concert series at the Levitt Shell in Overton Park.
Last Saturday night, the grassy embankment in front of the Shell was packed with 4,800 people for a season-opening concert by the Wandering featuring acoustic music and singing with a regional flair by Luther Dickinson, Shannon McNally, Amy LaVere, Valerie June, and Sharde Thomas. It was especially nice to see LaVere, who has occasionally made ends meet by working part-time as a receptionist for the Flyer's parent company, Contemporary Media.
While I was praising the Wandering at work on Monday morning, two of my colleagues were raving about another concert the same night by Wilco at the Mud Island Amphitheater. But, they said, that venue was only a little more than half full. Granted that the barbecue contest was also going on downtown, the musical offerings were somewhat similar except that one was free and the other was $42 a ticket, plus service charges.
Was there any connection between the size of the two crowds? (Disclosure: The concept of "free" is something of an obsession to those of us in journalism.)
One person who thinks so is Bruce Newman, a Memphis attorney specializing in clients in the music and entertainment business. Newman, who moved to Memphis from New York in 1989, is also a songwriter, guitar player, humor blogger (thetwobruces.com), and host of "Folksong Fiesta" on WEVL Memphis 89.9 FM.
Newman is a big fan of the Levitt Shell and its 50 free concerts each year, which are supported by major grants from the Mortimer Levitt Foundation, the Plough Foundation, and the Assisi Foundation of Memphis. But he is wary of the power of "free" in music, books, and intellectual property.
"The Internet has given us the mindset that everything should be free or discounted," he said. "Free downloading of music in the early days gave people the expectation that they should not have to pay. There are more opportunities to have intellectual property heard or seen, but in essence, everybody is making less money."
Newman and his partner, tax expert Peter DeCoster, have worked with most all of the local nonprofits, artists, record companies, and producers, so he has a pretty good sense of the economics of the market.
"If Wilco, a national act, is doing half the amphitheater at Mud Island, I can't imagine the band is going to want to come back or that the promoter will want it to come back," he said. "That's why a lot of acts don't pass through here, because it's not profitable."
Simply put, free concerts impact the local concert scene and venues that have a cover charge.
"People should pay for live entertainment," Newman said. "If you want quality, you've got to pay for it. When you have too many free venues, it certainly will reduce the revenues at some of the struggling venues. That may be just healthy economics. But if you kill off venues, you have less opportunity for acts to come through. That's why some good musicians have left Memphis."
Anne Pitts, executive director of the Levitt Shell, said it's a rare occasion when the Shell hurts another venue, because the acts are family oriented and usually end by 9 p.m. "so you can still go out on the town."
It costs about $8,000 to put on each concert, including production, hospitality, and performance fees. Donations collected at the concerts go toward expenses.
"We negotiate," she said. "Every artist is different. Performers get a guarantee based on what we feel the crowd and donations will be. We have a long wish list and a long waiting list."
She said the Wandering drew the largest crowd in the history of the concert series. The show ended at 10 p.m. but was not as loud as the Stooges Brass Band on Thursday night, which shut down at 9 p.m.
"It was a mellow crowd, and we didn't have any problems," Pitts said. "There was some hesitation on the part of neighbors in the beginning years, but people have seen the benefits now."
If you want to support Memphis music, keep those donations — and cover charges — coming.
Face it, Memphis doesn't get statewide bragging rights that often — FedEx, the river, Elvis, St. Jude, the Grizzlies, a few others. So when I heard in 2009 that Apple founder Steve Jobs came to Methodist University Hospital for a life-saving liver transplant, I thought it was pretty cool.
It was an example of the positive effect that universities and hospitals — eds and meds — have on a community. And it was a good story, with a rich celebrity, a dynamic company (Apple's stock market value increased $300 billion between the surgery and Jobs' death last year), a skillful surgeon, a mystery about Jobs' whereabouts, and an underlying ethical question about who gets a liver when there is a waiting list for donors.
I could imagine John Grisham writing about it in a novel called The Transplant or a movie with Ryan Gosling as Jobs. But that didn't happen. Instead, the back story is about turf wars, and the scriptwriters are federal bureaucrats. Methodist University Hospital is at odds with Vanderbilt, and, in an odd twist, a Memphis nonprofit that procures organs for transplants is criticizing Methodist University, while a similar nonprofit in Nashville is sympathetic. In condensed form, here's the deal:
In 2008, a contractor that runs the federal organ procurement and transplant network revisited the 20-year-old organ-sharing agreement, resulting in a change in the area from which organs are drawn for local transplants. It doesn't take effect until the end of this year, which is an indication of the sensitivity and complexity of this issue. Presently, Memphis is part of a donor area that includes all of Tennessee. The change, upheld by the Department of Health and Human Services, puts Memphis in a Mid-South region that includes West Tennessee, plus part of Arkansas and Mississippi.
"There are basically two major transplant programs in Tennessee, one in Memphis and one in Nashville," said James Eason, medical director of the Methodist University Transplant Institute and the surgeon who performed the liver transplant on Steve Jobs. "Starting in 2008, Vanderbilt did not agree to the sharing agreement. Under the new plan, we will only have access to our area and Nashville has access to their area, which has 75 percent of the donors. At the end of the year, we will be looking at a 75 percent reduction in transplant access.
"A liver in Jackson, Tennessee, can go to the least sick person in Nashville while our sickest person with a few days to live on life support won't be able to access that. This also affects kidneys. We have the largest African-American population in the state, and 80 percent of our kidney recipients are African-American."
Failing to get HHS to reconsider, Methodist University went to Plan B, which was to recommend a merger of donor nonprofit organizations in Memphis and Nashville. No sale.
"The statement that more patients will die, we just don't believe to be true," said Kim Van Frank, executive director of the Mid-South Transplant Foundation in Memphis, which has a $11.7 million budget and recovers some 220 organs a year. "The current system gives Methodist an advantage, and their patients don't have to wait as long, which is why individuals outside the Mid-South are coming here. They are cutting in line, make no mistake."
Nashville-based Tennessee Donor Services, with a $41.7 million budget, is pro-merger.
"We would not object at all," said executive director Jill Grandas. "Many states already have organ procurement organizations that cover the entire state."
To an outsider, this is where the story gets baffling. Both organizations are well funded. Public documents show that Van Frank made $169,000 in 2010 and Grandas $264,000. Can't nonprofits with a similar mission merge? No. Martin Croce is director of the Elvis Presley Trauma Center at the Med. He used to be chairman of the board at Mid-South Transplant Foundation.
"I made it clear I thought the best thing for our organization was to merge," he said. "I wanted everyone on the board to know my position, and, after that, I was not reelected or reappointed to the board. Mid-South Transplant is a well-performing organization, but they just don't have the numbers."
The decision to change Tennessee's transplant territory predates it, but the Jobs transplant has had a lingering impact. Van Frank said "it brought forth a lot of those myths we try to dispel." Eason said Jobs and Methodist went strictly by the rules.
They agree that any publicity that encourages more donors is good. If you are so inclined, consult the nonprofits for the how-tos.
"You're the only person I know who takes a weekend vacation to Detroit," a friend said to me last week before I boarded a Delta jet for an 80-minute, hub-to-hub flight to Motown for $420.
Detroit and Memphis have a lot in common — populations around 700,000, white flight, urban blight, the music of Motown and Stax, the riots of the late 1960s, recent federal investigations of corruption, popular mayors trying to clean up the mess, and a belief in the magical power of the words "grit" and "aerotropolis." Detroit's loss of population and auto industry jobs has been Tennessee's gain, even though Memphis missed the party. If you Google "Detroit and Memphis and worst cities," you get 278,000 results.
Detroit is a historical novel that I've been reading for 50 years. I'm from Michigan and hadn't seen Detroit in decades, even though I still follow the pro teams, writers like Mitch Albom and Elmore Leonard, and The Detroit News and Detroit Free Press. The hook was a new exhibit called "Driving America" at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn and a Ford Rouge Factory Tour. The package price was $24. Getting around downtown Detroit on foot isn't that hard and it's cheap. The Tigers were in town. All that and Coney Island hot dogs with chili made from cow hearts. Such a deal.
Besides, reality tours are growing in popularity. People pay good money to take a boat from Fisherman's Wharf to Alcatraz. There are slum-dog tours in India and guided tours of the state prison in Jackson, Michigan. The media bombard us with the word "reality." In Memphis, Jimmy Ogle has found a niche as a tour guide taking people to the Harahan Bridge, underground bayous, and downtown alleys.
"When I did the walk across the bridge, 146 people showed up," Ogle said. "And I had 85 people for my alley tour that twists and turns 17 blocks and lasted three hours. It's not the most scenic view, but you get the real history and fabric of the city."
Exactly. In Detroit, I walked from a friend's office in a specialty food warehouse in the Eastern Market to Zeff's Coney Island Hot Dogs, then hoofed it a couple of miles past vacant lots and abandoned high-rise housing projects to the Music Hall, Comerica Park (home of the Tigers), and Ford Field (home of the Lions). A sign between them marked a long-gone black neighborhood called Paradise Valley. The African-American population of Detroit increased from 5,000 in 1910 to 300,000 in 1950, thanks to the Great Migration and war production, swelling the population of Detroit to 1.8 million. Mississippi and Memphis sent their share.
General Motors now occupies the towering glass-enclosed Renaissance Center on the river that Henry Ford II envisioned in the 1970s as the savior for downtown after the 1967 riot. It was doomed by cars, crime, and suburban flight. The fourth generation of the Ford family has taken up the torch. "Driving America" and the tour of "the Rouge" blew me away. Democracy's arsenal during World War II is an industrial complex that stretches as far as the eye can see from the third-floor observation room. The tours do not airbrush the facts. The Edsel and the Corvair get equal space with the Mustang and Kemmons Wilson's early Holiday Inn. There's documentary footage of labor leader Walter Reuther getting beaten up by Ford's thugs in 1937 and of Detroit's failure to meet the Japanese challenge that would eventually put Nissan's North American headquarters and an assembly plant in Middle Tennessee.
My companion worked in the car factories in Dearborn and Willow Run after college in 1972 and 1973. He joined the United Auto Workers and worked seven days a week, 10 hours a day, for seven straight weeks one summer. His earnings paid for his first year of law school, just as Michigan's middle-class prosperity made it possible for me to go to college for $500 a year in tuition. The men and women putting together the F-150 trucks in the final assembly plant glanced up at us now and then through the glass ceiling, as robotic arms lifted cabs on to chassis. Everyone ought to see this and punch a time clock some time in their life.
Skylines look best across a body of water such as the Mississippi River or the surprisingly clear Detroit River, which is connected to Lake Huron. Up close, the abandoned buildings stand out like bad teeth. Reality tours. That's the ticket.
This is national signing week, in a way that has nothing to do with the vertical jump, bench press, or 40-yard dash. This is the week when high school seniors send in their enrollment deposits for college. At $400 or so a pop, it's a pretty big bet that is forfeited when academic stars decide on, say, Vanderbilt instead of Rhodes, Ole Miss, or SMU after getting accepted by all of them.
For some reason, it is acceptable to talk about desirable "top schools" and less desirable "lower-ranked schools" when the subject is colleges, but we get squeamish when the subject is public elementary and high schools. The politically correct thing to say is that all schools in Memphis and Shelby County should strive for excellence, or something like that.
We're not going to get to a unified school system that way. And a system that does not include the suburbs is not a unified system. We might not get there no way no how, but since we've gone to so much trouble already, we ought to give it our best shot.
It is not pandering or groveling to the suburbs to make practical compromises on attendance zones and personnel. It is not a desire for segregation or apartheid that is driving the 'burbs. Legal segregation and apartheid were enforced by courts, cops, and White Citizen's Councils. Bartlett High School is 46 percent minority, Germantown High School is 56 percent minority, Houston High School is 32 percent minority, and Collierville High School is 20 percent minority. There are only 33,000 white students in the current Memphis and Shelby County systems combined. It is not pre-Civil Rights Act 1964 or pre-busing 1972.
Louis Padgett, principal at Northaven Elementary and member of the transition team, made a good suggestion a few months ago. Members should "really go at each other really hard" and "take on our biases."
What is driving the push for municipal school systems more than race is the desire to protect the status of the top public schools and the property values of the neighborhoods around them. That is what motivated me to choose the top Memphis optional schools when I had school-age children in Memphis. I want those schools to survive. I want people who can afford to send their children to the top public and private schools to choose to live in Memphis.
I want the empty and foreclosed houses on my street to have people in them who pay their taxes, keep up their property, and compliment my wife on her garden. Darn right I want suburbanites in the same boat. Because I'm afraid that with four or five small boats and one big boat, the big boat will sink. If you're not rich and you have school-age children, why buy 2,500 square feet of Memphis property taxes if you won't send them to public school?
Here's the problem for the Transition Planning Commission. It can only make recommendations. And if the suburbs form their own school systems, their report will be moot. So it should compromise to try to save the union.
Here's the problem for the unified school board. It has a responsibility to the future but also to the present. It's the board of education, not the board of civic betterment. The main obligation of the Memphis members on it is to the people who come, not the ones who don't come.
The task force recommends closing 21 unnamed schools. That's a lot relative to the three closed this year and the four closed in 2005 but not so many relative to the 90 underutilized schools in all. The school board must not only name them but also pull the trigger before the 2013 school year to save $20 million a year. Easy to say, huh?
And here's the problem for U.S. district judge Samuel H. Mays, if I can be so presumptuous. In his 146-page ruling last year, Mays had a whole section on "ripeness." A case is ripe for a judge in "a dispute that is likely to come to pass." Ripeness would not happen until "an attempt was made to create a municipal school district or special school district. Nothing in the record suggests that such an attempt has been made or will be made in the future."