Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Owed to West Memphis

The view from the other side of the future cross-river bike trail.

Posted By on Wed, Jun 27, 2012 at 2:09 PM

Nobody ever calls it our sister city, but the town on the other side of the river is a vital link in the "Main Street to Main Street" project connecting Memphis and West Memphis by a bicycle and pedestrian pathway on the Harahan Bridge.

The "Main Street" over there is actually Broadway Avenue, home (still) of Pancho's Mexican restaurant and (half a century ago) a dancing and watering hole called the Plantation Inn in better days. Younger Memphians know it as the hometown of former Tiger basketball star Keith Lee, the West Memphis Three, and a shootout that took the lives of two police officers in 2010. Not exactly fodder for historical markers and destination tourism.

The eastern end of Broadway, where the bike path will connect, is forlorn these days. You can walk or bike across the river now on a narrow sidewalk next to the Interstate 55 bridge just south of the Harahan, but it's a pretty long haul on a hot day and not recommended or promoted by anyone on either side.

And when you get there, what then? There are no bike shops in West Memphis, unless you count Wal-Mart, and no trendy cafes, unless you count McDonald's. There is, however, a car racetrack (Riverside Speedway) and a dog track (Southland Park). The plan is to connect the bike trail to the levee and go south to Horseshoe Lake, about a 25-minute ride from downtown Memphis. That would bypass downtown West Memphis and require the cooperation of the Levee Board. Arkansas state senator Keith Ingram, who was mayor of West Memphis from 1987-1995, is optimistic.

"We don't have to look very far back to see the importance of the levee," said Ingram, recalling the historic flood of 2011. "Because of the levee, we have not been able to use our river view as Memphis has. But hopefully, we can work with the Levee Board on this."

Lost in the local news last week was the fact that West Memphis, with the help of Ingram and U.S. senator Mark Pryor, got a second federal grant for $10.9 million to run a rail line to its port. The total take for West Memphis last week from the two federal grants: $26 million.

"It's been a great week to be in Shelby County and Crittenden County," said Ingram, who also worked with Memphis businessman and bicycle bridge backer Charlie McVean to get the cooperation of the Union Pacific Railroad to use the Harahan.

Trains will continue to cross the river on the Harahan, making the bike/pedestrian trail more exciting and adventurous than the pedestrian bridges in Nashville and Chattanooga.

"It will be a must-see, must-do, at least one-time attraction for everyone who lives in this area," predicted Abbott Widdecombe, owner of Tom Sawyer's R.V. Park on the river in West Memphis.

In Memphis, the project is being hyped for its benefits to South Main Street as well as bicycle tourism. Street improvements will be made along the trolley line, in front of the Chisca Hotel which is slated for renovation, and south of the train station where there will be a connection to the bridge.

If you had told me 10 or 20 years ago that Memphis would reinvent itself as a bicycle town I'd have thought you were touched. But last year Outside magazine put Chattanooga — a city once scorned as "America's dirtiest city" just as Memphis was dubbed "a Southern backwater — on its cover and called the river city "best town ever" because of its rock-climbing, hang-gliding, rafting, and bike riding. Never underestimate the power of social media, extreme sports, and creative marketing to attract the coveted creative class. And in The Wall Street Journal this week, an article by Thomas Campanella on New Yorker Robert Moses makes the case that the famous city planner was "a keen advocate of bicycling and built New York City's first true bicycle infrastructure" in the 1930s, including 50 miles of paved paths exclusively for bike riders.

It helped, the author says, that the Depression created a bike sales boom because people could no longer afford cars.

In our day and our town, the driving force is green. Green as in big money from the government and philanthropists and green as in environmentally friendly. It's too early to declare a bicycle boom, but in a couple of years you'll be able to walk and bike to West Memphis — and to the sights and sounds of Broadway.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Not All In This Together

The schools merger plan runs into reality this week.

Posted By on Wed, Jun 20, 2012 at 1:41 PM

One of the explanations journalists fall back on when we are criticized for being too negative is this: Our job is to write about the world the way it is, not the way it ought to be.

I thought of that last week when the Transition Planning Commission unveiled its plan to unify the Memphis and Shelby County school systems in 2013. Heavy on the way the world ought to be, light on the way it is. Trouble's coming.

For starters, one of the TPC's guiding principles is "We are all in this together." That is not so in any meaningful sense when it comes to school choice. Shelby County residents all pay county taxes, but we send our children, dollars, and teachers to private schools, Memphis schools, suburban schools that may soon become municipal schools, optional schools, and charter schools.

The future Shelby County school system will resemble the current Memphis City Schools (84 percent economically disadvantaged compared to 38 percent in Shelby County schools) unless it has schools that families that are not disadvantaged will support with their children, not their words.

The one sense in which we really are all in this together is our declining tax base, which is predicted to be down 10 to 20 percent or more in the upcoming reappraisal. Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell, a TPC member, was adamant that his colleagues should not expect any increase in county funding for schools. Bartlett mayor Keith McDonald, also a TPC member, expects a decline of 8 to 10 percent in his suburb. Memphis can also expect a decline.

Whether it's Bartlett, Midtown, Germantown, or Mud Island, the name of the game is creating value in communities where people want to live. That means coming to grips with sensitive parts of the report that have to do with optional schools, college-prep schools, neighborhood schools, underutilized schools, and teacher recruitment.

Memphis needs neighborhood schools such as Peabody and Idlewild elementary schools in Midtown. It needs all-optional schools like John P. Freeman elementary school in Whitehaven, instead of optional schools within schools. Memphis surrendered its place on the most recent lists of the best high schools in America to Collierville and Houston high schools in Shelby County and all-optional high schools in Nashville, even though White Station High School had 18 National Merit semifinalists this year. Everyone knows about the White Station magnet effect. Its alumni include U.S. district judge Samuel H. Mays, Commercial Appeal columnist Wendi Thomas, and the children of TPC chairman Barbara Prescott, and my own children.

But the TPC report doesn't address it head on. It recommends that the lineup for optional school spaces be replaced with a lottery. It notes that in 2011, only 10 percent of students in Memphis and Shelby County met the ACT's college readiness benchmark but says the ultimate goal of a merged system is that every student graduates ready for success in college and career. There is nothing about vocational schools. That is not real.

The report recommends that teacher compensation "be redesigned to better attract and retain effective teachers." But compensation for starting teachers in Memphis is pretty good. Teachers bail out of teaching for lots of other reasons. I recently had dinner with some 170 members of the entering teacher corps of Teach For America. The organization has done a fine job of keeping 60 percent of its members in Memphis after they fulfill their two-year commitment. But only a small minority of them work more than three years as classroom teachers in traditional Memphis schools, as opposed to working in charter schools or with some education-related organization.

This is not the way the world ought to be; it is the way it is.

The merged system faces a starting deficit of $160 million. To close it, the plan recommends that the school board "vigorously pursue" additional funds and close 21 schools by August 2013. Luttrell said county government won't help much. And MCS superintendent Kriner Cash has countered that only 12 schools should be closed over several years. It is time for school board members Martavius Jones and Tomeka Hart, who recommended the surrender of the MCS charter and loss of city funding, to step up on school closings.

The school board met Tuesday night to talk about superintendent contracts. The merger is 14 months away, so the TPC recommends naming a superintendent to lead the merger effort by the end of September. They may not be everyone's favorites, but in reality that means Cash or Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Going to Extremes

Fearful and frustrated, school boards and politicians get creative.

Posted By on Wed, Jun 13, 2012 at 1:38 PM

We will have suburban votes this summer on municipal school systems. We might have a Memphis vote this fall on a sales tax increase. And we should have a countywide debate like the one in New York City over jumbo soft drinks and obesity.

We are fed up with the intractable problems of failing schools, falling property values, and fat kids and parents, so we are going to extremes that were once considered unthinkable. "Do something!" is the new imperative, because what we've been doing isn't working.

First, the latest on the schools.

A thunderstorm Monday afternoon knocked the power out in parts of Midtown, including several buildings on Union Avenue. At the Teaching and Learning Academy on Union, the lights stayed on, but there was a power failure of a different kind.

The unified school board met to take up a single item: the contract of Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash. But after going into closed session, the board promptly adjourned and rescheduled the discussion for next week, adding the contract of Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken into the mix.

Aitken was there. Cash was not. He sent word, via his attorney via the MCS communications office, that he would not attend. No word on whether he will come to the festivities on June 19th.

So the unified school board met under a big-screen video display of four smiling children and a reminder that it's all about "the children." Except, for now at least, it's all about the adults, specifically Cash and Aitken and the board members, who, while still operating separately, extended the contracts in anticipation of the 2013 merger.

Chairman Billy Orgel, a newcomer to the school board, got schooled by MCS holdover Martavius Jones. Orgel, whose comment that he had just been out of the country for 12 days won him no slack, tried to use the chairman's power to force Cash's hand. There was a "heated" discussion last December. But Jones, the leading voice for charter surrender, got wind of it and won both a one-week delay and inclusion of Aitken's contract in the next meeting.

The unified board deserves some patience. Some of them are relatively new to the job and to each other. A 23-member board is also new. There is a big difference between school reform in theory and in practice. In a few weeks, the unified board will get its first look at the Transition Planning Commission's merger plan with all of its recommended contracts, cuts, and closings that will result in winners and losers. Dealing with the superintendents will be good practice.

Give the board members this: They showed up Monday for the meeting. Without their personal lawyers. Ready to work. More than some people can say.

You can see the same sense of desperation in the Memphis City Council's willingness to consider increasing the once-taboo local property tax by half a cent. Councilman Shea Flinn says it's either that or raise property taxes or cut core services.

Flinn was met with predictable objections that sales taxes unfairly impact poor people. He conceded that the tax is regressive. He should have added that so is the Tennessee Lottery. A lottery is a sucker's game, blessed by state government, and some of the biggest ticket sellers are convenience stores and gas stations in poor neighborhoods. You don't hear many objections to that.

Finally, what this town needs is more controversy. What if superfit Mayor A C Wharton followed the lead of New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg in the fight against fat and diabetes by proposing to ban supersized sodas and sugary drinks? Here's The New York Times on the ineffectiveness of health fairs and such noncontroversial measures:

"But if anything, this battery of efforts points to how intractable the obesity problem has become. The number of overweight and obese continues to grow faster in the Bronx than anywhere else in the city."

Health fairs and bike lanes and skate parks are preaching to the choir. As he knew he would, Bloomberg got everyone's attention. Memphis City Schools got on the right track when it hired "Cafeteria Man" Tony Geraci as health-minded director of food services. Take the bull by the horns here in one of the fattest cities in America. People will understand. Or not.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Easiest Tax

Increasing the sales tax may be an idea whose time has come.

Posted By on Wed, Jun 6, 2012 at 8:58 AM

Tennessee has the highest sales tax in the country.

The sales tax is widely regarded as regressive, because it hits poor people disproportionately.

Yet Memphis and its suburbs are all seriously considering increasing the local-option part of the sales tax from 2.25 percent to 2.75 percent, bringing the total tax to 9.75 percent.

It is a measure of either hard times or hard hearts that a subject once considered taboo is now in fashion.

What gives?

For starters, some of the stigma has been removed, because everyone's doing it or at least talking about it. The state legislature provided the half-cent cushion, and so many cities in Tennessee have already maxed out their local-option sales tax on top of the 7 percent state sales tax that the statewide average combined tax is 9.43 percent.

In Memphis, with an average household income of $36,437 compared to the Tennessee average of $43,314, the sales tax increase is supported by Councilman Shea Flinn and Mayor A C Wharton. The proposal came up Tuesday in the council's executive session.

"We have three options," Flinn said. "Increase the sales tax, increase the property tax, or cut services."

Six suburbs in Shelby County are considering a sales tax increase of one-half percent to fund municipal school systems if voters approve them. Southern Education Strategies, the consulting firm advising the suburbs, says "a one-half cent local-option sales tax rate increase could reduce or eliminate the need" for any increase in property taxes.

In Memphis, a half-cent increase would raise an estimated $47 million and go a long way toward closing the city's budget deficit. Some council members want to offset it with a property tax cut. If the sales tax increase gets out of city council, it would have to be approved by a simple majority of voters in a referendum in November.

"This has nothing to do with this year's budget," Flinn said. "This is about planning for the future."

Wharton said the sales tax increase is a reasonable alternative to a property tax increase. "I support it wholeheartedly," he said.

One council member who supports the increase admitted to me that it is "chicken," because it puts the responsibility on the voters to make the call. Flinn and Wharton said a referendum is the only option that gives the public a direct voice.

There are several reasons why a sales tax increase in Memphis would have a chance, especially with Wharton supporting it.

The other options are just as unattractive. Memphis has the highest property taxes in Tennessee, with a rate of $3.19, which is more than twice as high as Bartlett, Collierville, or Germantown.

Higher "sin taxes" on cigarettes and alcohol don't raise as much revenue, and states set them, not local governments. The hotel-motel tax increase is opposed by the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau. A "soda tax" on sugary drinks is surefire debate fodder, but no one in local government has proposed it.

Tennessee does not tax wages and is one of only a handful of states that can say that. But a Memphis payroll tax is not going to happen, in the opinion of Flinn and other council members.

The sales tax is sometimes called the most transparent tax, although untaxed online purchases have clouded the picture. It is paid a little bit at a time. Consumers have some control over how much sales tax they pay.

One half of one cent doesn't seem like much. On a $1,000 purchase, the difference between 9.25 percent and 9.75 percent is $5. On a $100 grocery bill, the difference is 50 cents. On a $10 meal, it's a nickel.

The argument will be made that "everyone" pays the sales tax, including visitors. If the suburbs take the plunge, Memphis would just be leveling the playing field. Yes, Mississippi and DeSoto County could brag about lower sales taxes, but Mississippi has a state income tax.

People in the South take the sales tax for granted. To find a state without any sales tax, you have to travel to Alaska, Montana, Oregon, New Hampshire, or Delaware.

For all of these reasons, the admittedly regressive sales tax hike has a real chance this year.

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