John Aitken could be the most heavily recruited big guy from around here since Penny Hardaway, and the former Shelby County schools superintendent hasn't worn a basketball uniform in years.
We are in the era of free agency in primary and secondary education. Who could have predicted three years ago that Aitken and Kriner Cash would be out and Willie Herenton would be back in? Nobody, but with Aitken's buyout last week, Herenton, who will lead a group of charter schools, is the only person in this game with experience as a school superintendent.
And what a game it is, with the Unified School System, charter schools, private schools, the Achievement School District, and probable future municipal school districts. Conference realignment in college sports looks simple by comparison.
Tuesday's Unified School Board meeting was the first one Aitken has not attended since this saga began in 2010. If he decides to get back in the game, Aitken would be an attractive catch because of his experience as a coach, teacher, principal, and superintendent in the Shelby County system. It is hard to imagine anything anyone anywhere could throw at him that he hasn't seen.
Free agency used to refer to professional sports, when players finally got the right to negotiate contracts with any team. When I was a boy, my favorite pro athletes were bound to their Detroit masters. I remember when Al Kaline, a Hall of Fame baseball player, finally earned the headline-making sum of $100,000 a year. If he had been born 30 years later, he could have added two zeroes to that.
In college football and basketball, star coaches like John Calipari hop from school to school, players (excuse me, "student athletes") go pro after a year, and universities jump from one conference to another. The University of Memphis, which is leaving Conference USA, is reportedly willing to renegotiate its $800,000-a-year contract with Josh Pastner to keep him as basketball coach.
Free agency has come to private and public elementary and secondary schools, where the top salaries are lower but the stakes and budgets are higher. Tennessee is the national laboratory for school experimentation, and Memphis is the test kitchen.
This is the big churn. Teachers, principals, administrators, and students — especially talented minority students — will have more options than ever if there are municipal school systems and tuition vouchers for private schools. Some local private schools already pay more than $2 million a year in grants and scholarships. Charter schools and the Achievement School District are the sweet spot for hundreds of Teach For America teachers and alumni. Herenton, who predicted the break-up of the public school monopoly 20 years ago, will get his share of teachers and students.
Not everyone will get a better deal, of course. There will be some have-nots after the shakeout. Depending on how willing they are to raise taxes and how much they have to pay for their buildings, the chances of long-term survival for all six proposed Shelby County suburban school systems could be slim. Some of the charter start-ups will likely merge or fail. It took influential backers to save the Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering charter school this year, and that is one of the longer-running ones.
There was a time when public schools and private schools were separate realms for the most part. That is no longer so. Go to a game or concert at one of the private schools and you will see athletes and talented students who formerly went to city or county schools and either opted out or were recruited and given a scholarship. One of the most notable Memphis private school products is Michael Oher, the star football player and reclamation project in the movie The Blind Side. Oher graduated from Briarcrest Christian School. The Briarcrest principal, Steve Simpson, formerly worked for Memphis City Schools and in Hernando.
There are big bucks for public education from local and national foundations. And money usually comes with strings attached — a voice in policy. We are seeing that in Memphis with the Gates Foundation grants and the debate Tuesday over paying teachers based on student test performance or teacher experience and educational degrees.
The search is on for a new superintendent. If form holds, there will be a public hue and cry about the "six-figure salary package." Cash was making $290,479 a year. Principals in MCS make up to $112,000. "We may have to pay up," said board member David Pickler. "And include combat pay."
Jeff Speck, author of Walkable City: How Downtown Can Save America One Step at a Time, suggests six quick fixes for Memphis' riverfront.
As the title suggests, Speck has a bias toward pedestrian-friendly projects. At the request of Mayor A C Wharton, Speck reviewed some 20 Memphis riverfront plans dating back more than 30 years. That fact alone says a lot about riverfront development, but Speck gave it a good shot.
He gave a 90-minute talk to about 125 people at the Memphis Cook Convention Center Monday, showing familiarity with the past, present, and future of the riverfront. He was here for an extended visit in 2008, when he made "12 suggestions to make Memphis great." City of Memphis development czar Robert Lipscomb and Riverfront Development Corporation head Benny Lendermon were at Speck's presentation, but they did not speak.
"The last thing the city needs is another plan," Speck said.
He was generally positive in his presentation. He likes the Pyramid, predicted that Beale Street Landing "is going to be spectacular," and had nice things to say about the Harahan Bridge Project and Mud Island River Park. He passed on the current controversy over Confederate-themed park names and kept his criticisms gentle and impersonal.
He broke up the riverfront into six areas. Here are his suggestions, followed by my comments.
The Pyramid: Its connection should be to Main Street, not Front Street. The Pinch District should focus on attracting people from conventions, not travelers getting off the interstate. Bass Pro Shops "still has a long way to go" to understand the city. Speck suggests selling off four acres on Bass Pro Boulevard (the southern entryway next to the state visitors center) for private development and turning the boulevard into two or three lanes of car traffic and a lane for bikes and pedestrians.
I watched the Tunica casinos come out of the ground in 1994-1995. There was an incredible sense of urgency. The Bass Pro Pyramid does not have that. After all these years, I wonder if they really want to do this. The boulevard is small change.
Mud Island River Park: Still disconnected from the rest of downtown; needs stairs to the monorail from the visitor center. Speck suggests a water taxi from Beale Street to the tip of the island. He thinks the park should be open year-round.
Visiting experts often overestimate Mud Island River Park. Memphians are bored by it, and it attracts very few tourists. It is closed six months of the year for a reason.
Riverside Drive: Shrink it from four lanes to two or three lanes. Include a buffered bike lane and a lane for parallel parking. Take the parking lots out of Tom Lee Park. Keep Memphis in May in the park. Break the park up into small areas separated by trees.
A $42 million landing/restaurant and no parking lot? Yikes.
The Cobblestones: Speck said it is about impossible to make it usable and historically accurate at the same time, given the demands of accessibility and preservationists. He said the RDC should finish the project and add light structures "draping" it.
The man has done his homework.
The River Walk: By this he meant the sidewalks and Bluff Walk going from the Pyramid to Martyrs Park. It now leaves the riverfront and goes behind the law school and into South Bluffs residential development. Speck suggests making it more linear and extending it between the Church of the River and Channel 3's offices to the French Fort area south of the Harahan Bridge.
I like the dogleg through shady South Bluffs. Those who want to stay in sight of the river can take the 84 steps down from the Bluff Walk to Tom Lee Park at Huling or Butler and follow the sidewalk south to where it ends near the church.
Beale Street to Beale Street Landing: Needs "edging" — development along Beale Street by the parking lots near the river, once envisioned as the site of One Beale, a tall hotel and condo. The Harahan Project needs something on the West Memphis side in the floodplain, maybe just a loop trail and a pavilion, because Main Street West Memphis (the other half of the "Main Street to Main Street" idea) is pretty far away.
The fact that there is basically nothing on the bluff at the corner where Beale Street meets the Mississippi River, a pretty famous American intersection, is sad. Like the Pinch on the north end of downtown, this area actually had more activity 30 years ago when Captain Bilbo's and Number One Beale were around.
To learn more about Speck and his observations and proposals, visit the city of Memphis website.
Fifty years ago, Samuel H. Mays Jr., United States judge for the Western District of Tennessee, was a star student at all-white White Station High School during the years of token school desegregation. When he finished law school at Yale in 1973, Memphis was being torn apart by federal court-ordered busing and white flight.
Now Mays is overseeing the largest school system merger in U.S. history as the majority-black Memphis City Schools and the majority-white Shelby County School system become a unified system of 146,000 students in August. So far, it is unified in name only.
The merger is running out of time. The Memphis City Schools system officially goes out of existence July 1st. Concerned about the pace of the merger, Mays last week appointed Rick Masson, a former chief administrative officer for the city of Memphis, as special master with orders to get back to basics.
"The Court's purpose in entering this order is not to assume the management of the two school systems or to make decisions about the transition," Mays wrote, but he is "prepared to expand the duties of the special master and to make such decisions as may be necessary to enforce the Consent Decree."
Before August, "students will know the school they will attend and how they will get there, have a safe and clean place to learn, have teachers prepared to teach them, and have an established curriculum."
Known to friends as "Hardy," Mays has firsthand experience with the go-slow and go-fast approach to school desegregation ordered by his judicial predecessors. Public schools in Memphis were integrated in 1961, one grade at a time, starting with a dozen first-graders. In 1963, Mays was a freshman at White Station in a class that included actress Kathy Bates and writer Alan Lightman.
"He was always the smartest kid in the class," said classmate John Vergos, who has known Mays since seventh grade. "He was popular and interested in politics. If there was anyone I thought would become president, it was Hardy."
There were no black students in the graduating class of 1966, and the school's sports teams did not play black schools. In Memphis, racial tensions would boil over in 1968 with the strike by sanitation workers and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
"We were the last of a generation that was pretty isolated," Vergos said.
Memphis was torn apart by busing in 1973, when some 30,000 white students fled the system for private schools or the separate Shelby County school system. The federal judge who ordered the busing plan, Robert McRae, said in retirement that he was the most famous graduate of Central High School since the gangster Machine Gun Kelly.
Mays joined the Memphis law firm now known as Baker Donelson after its two eminent Republican partners, former U.S. senator Howard Baker and Lewis Donelson. From 1995 to 2000, he was legal counsel and chief of staff to Tennessee's Republican governor Don Sundquist. Mays was appointed to the federal bench in 2002.
"He came from a totally political background and never lost his Ivy League accent," said former federal prosecutor Tim DiScenza. "Yet, I don't think I've ever seen a judge with so much sense of what the common citizen goes through every day. He brings common sense to very complicated matters."
In his ruling on the constitutionality of 2012 state legislation on the creation of new municipal school systems, Mays wrote that lawmakers acted with "a wink and a nod" to target Shelby County and Memphis. Again and again, he has tried to get the parties in the lawsuits to resolve things through negotiation. Naming a special master is the last card. The 23-member school board, he said, must not be political as it picks a superintendent, closes schools, trims budgets, and outsources jobs.
It is not known whether he said that with a wink and a nod.
White Station is the only Memphis public high school that sustained its academic excellence after the Isolated Class of 1966 graduated. Last year, it had 22 National Merit Semifinalists, but as an optional school it cannibalizes other schools, and, partly because of that, its success has not been replicated.
Friends describe Mays as an intellectual. He is taking an adult education course at Rhodes College this spring called "Constitutional Controversies." Among the topics are "the problem of diversity, elitism, and representation" and "the threat of judicial imperialism in power of judicial review."
If you only get one chance to make a first impression, then the $42.5 million Beale Street Landing could be in a tough spot this Saturday, when the American Queen steamboat with 430 passengers aboard visits Memphis from New Orleans.
They might need to be issued mud boots and blinders. The project, which the Riverfront Development Corporation says on its website (a response to its critics called "The Truth About Beale Street Landing") was supposed to be finished in the summer of 2011, is far from finished today.
The gift shop and main building opened last Friday, and the steamboat is scheduled to make its first visit of the 2013 season Saturday. Barring a massive cleanup, passengers will step on to the new floating dock and see several months' accumulation of trash trapped in the backwater around the dock and cylindrical ramp.
Jimmy Ogle, newly appointed general manager for Beale Street Landing, was at the park Sunday and Monday when I visited it and said he hopes at least some of the trash can be removed before the boat lands. His first thought was using john boats, but he says "we can't get them in there," so he hopes that long rakes might work instead.
The big logs that washed up on the banks will remain there for a while, said Ogle and Benny Lendermon, director of the Riverfront Development Corporation, who was also at the site Monday morning. Lendermon said the new completion date is November or December of this year, with a grand opening next spring.
An eddy in the river at the southern tip of Mud Island forces water and debris back toward the dock and ramp. Lendermon said the long-range solution is a screen or boom to block debris from reaching the landing. The former director of the city's division of public works has reminded Memphis City Council members, RDC board members, and the general public many times about the difficulty of building anything on a river with a rise and fall of 50 feet.
But the floating dock and cylindrical ramp aren't the only pieces of the project with problems. The restaurant is not open, and a walkway from the ramp to Riverside Drive that is supposed to have decorative tile is covered in plywood. The giant "pods" north of the building are under construction. And rebuilding of the cobblestones landing on the harbor appears to be at least a year or two away. The Memphis Queen line tour boats still tie up at the cobblestones, but they move to the new dock for boarding.
Appointing Ogle was a good move. He is as pleasant, resourceful, and knowledgeable an ambassador as any city could have. When he wasn't cutting up logs with a chain saw last week he was stocking up on square Kleenex boxes that resemble Beale Street Landing's multicolored, "pixilated-sunset" elevator shaft.
If you think anyone at the RDC was held accountable for the mess, think again. According to latest tax filings, Lendermon earns $230,549, up from $221,562 the previous year, and Dorchelle Spence was making $121,502 before her promotion from spokeswoman to vice president of the RDC two weeks ago. The RDC plans to hire an events coordinator to assist Ogle and Spence. Beale Street Landing is a tax-funded project, most of it approved by the council.