An important subject seriously discussed, good audience participation, and a school board and superintendent who were, with a couple of exceptions, on their game.
Asked by school board member (and Cash nemesis) Rev. Kenneth Whalum Jr. to weigh in on the charter surrender debate Monday night, Cash delivered a passionate defense of a compromise agreement the board rejected 5-4 and a blast at certain board members, the media, and Shelby County schools leadership and made a veiled threat to resign.
The special school district for Shelby County is basically about getting divorced from Memphis. The charter surrender for Memphis City Schools is about getting married to Shelby County schools. My gut feeling is that the Memphis board of education should vote for this on Monday night and that Memphis voters should approve it if it comes to a referendum next year.
Jones, a financial adviser, evaluates risk and reward on a daily basis. In an interview Thursday at his office next to FedEx Forum — four days before the scheduled December 20th vote on charter surrender — he talked about his reasons.
The nine members of the Memphis City Schools Board of Education, barring a surprise development, will vote December 20th on whether to abolish the city school system's charter, effectively merging it with the Shelby County school system. Approval would be subject to a Memphis referendum in 2011.
The implications are far-reaching, which is another way of saying that nobody, definitely including me, knows exactly what they are. My best guess is the answer will involve lawyers. The author of the surrender resolution, Martavius Jones, says it is too close to call at this point.
So who are these board members? Well, they're six women and three men with a lot of higher education and deep roots in Memphis and the city school system as students, parents, and employees. Some have political aspirations, some don't. They earn $5,000 a year plus $1,499 in expenses, or about one-fifth as much as members of the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission. Their only employee is Superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash. They meet every other week and the meetings sometimes last five hours. They don't have funding authority — that's the city council's job — but they do present a budget.
Here's a closer look.
The issues: special school district status for Shelby County schools and, the counterstrike (or preemptive strike), taking a vote at the Memphis City Schools board meeting next week to clear the way to dissolve the city school system charter, subject to a referendum.
Speakers on both sides used the "nuclear" rhetoric, and by the end of the two-and-one half hour meeting, they were speaking directly to the audience in passionate tones.
On the keep-talking side were Memphis Mayor A C Wharton, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell, Memphis school board president Freda Williams, Shelby County board president David Pickler, Shelby County Superintendent John Aitken, Memphis school board member Dr. Jeff Warren, City Councilman Jim Strickland, and state Rep. Brian Kelsey.
"I'm not here today to speak for or against," said Wharton.
"Give us some time," said Luttrell.
The general sentiment of this group was "trust the mayors" and representatives from the city and county school systems to work it out during a one-year ceasefire.
Inclined toward action were Rep. G. A. Hardaway, Memphis school board members Tomeka Hart and Martavius Jones, Shelby County commissioners Steve Mulroy and Sidney Chism, and City Councilmen Wanda Halbert and Harold Collins.
The general sentiment of this group was "don't trust the Republican-controlled state legislature" which can turn on a dime and pass a local and private bill creating a special Shelby school district in the 2011 session. Memphis, this side said, has a "window of opportunity" to gain the upper hand in this debate or else face the prospect of being double-crossed later. The specifics, it was admitted, will have to be worked out later, but that might never happen if voters don't approve. In other words, arm the weapon and fire it, knowing that it can be called back by city voters.
"I just can't trust right now," said Hardaway after several speakers pleaded for more talks. He said only the efforts of a single Memphis lawmaker kept a special district bill from coming to a vote in previous years.
Jones said the city school board was forced into taking action by the county board's longstanding interest in special district status and a political shift to a Republican-controlled legislature. Unless Memphis acts, it will be negotiating from a position of weakness on this issue, he said.
Mulroy agreed. "I do think there is a window here," he said.
The city school board was meeting Monday evening to talk more about this. The vote is scheduled for December 20th.
Pontius, treasurer of the Memphis Redbirds Baseball Foundation, said there is no ownership change on the horizon, the bondholders are content with the restructuring 18 months ago, and the affiliation with the St. Louis Cardinals is "solidly in place."
Cherry Davis, a promising political newcomer and Memphis school board candidate, lost the runoff election Tuesday to Sara Lewis, an unpromising political veteran and former school board member with a demonstrated flair for bullying and histrionics. If there was ever a choice, not an echo, this was it.
And it was a very winnable election. The upside of a runoff election with a 2.6 percent turnout is that an underdog candidate can win. Davis got 781 votes to 900 for Lewis. There are more than 60,000 registered voters in the district.
This is where the vaunted creative class comes in. New Path hit up a friend of mine who owns a downtown business for a political contribution which it used to buy an ad. What a waste. What a superficial political gesture.
What supporters of Davis should have done was raise money to "Beat Sara Lewis" by paying people $20 an hour to drive District 6 voters to the polls yesterday and listen, enroute, to a sales pitch that left no doubt about who they were supposed to vote for. Davis could easily have garnered 120 more votes and won the election by smart spending of $1,000 in contributions.
Take a lesson from the Ford machine of yore. Elections are won by people who try hard to win, play rough, and are not afraid to get in the dirt and use their elbows and their motor vehicles. And policy is made and Memphis is defined by Sara Lewis and others who know that.
A new study by the Tennessee State Board of Education measures the effectiveness or "T-Value" of 41 of the state's teacher preparation programs. The T-Value can be statistically insignificant, positive, or negative, based on how well students perform — and how much improvement they make — on standardized tests.
Teach For America (TFA), the widely publicized program that came to Memphis five years ago and to Nashville two years ago, got the best scores in math, reading, science, and social studies. But TFA and Vanderbilt University also had the lowest retention rate, losing the majority of their teachers after their second or third year.
The colleges and universities that produce the most Tennessee teachers are the University of Memphis, Middle Tennessee State, the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, and the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. The majority of their education graduates who went to work in 2006 were still teaching after four years. For TFA and Vandy, the number is under 10 percent.
Athena Turner, executive director of TFA in Memphis, said retention rates have been improving since the first "corps" of 45 teachers came to Memphis. It doubled in the second year of the program, but that still means that a large majority of TFA teachers left the classroom after serving their two-year hitch. Turner said nearly two-thirds of them, however, are still working with children in disadvantaged areas in some capacity including nonprofits and social service agencies. More than 250 TFA teachers have taught or are teaching in Memphis.
As someone who taught for five years after graduating from college, I would say there is a big difference between teaching in a large public school and working indirectly with children or teaching in a small charter school with a low student-teacher ratio. Somebody has to face those classrooms of 20-30 kids in Memphis City Schools on Monday morning, and my sympathies and respect are with the teachers who do that year after year.
One interesting detail of the study is that almost nobody fails the state licensing exam on professional knowledge and content areas. The pass rate for every school was over 90 percent, and several schools made a 100. Maybe the test is too easy.
Here is a sampling of the schools included in the study, using the class of 2006-2007.
Teach For America: 9% of 45 teachers stayed four years. T-Value positive all areas.
University of Memphis: 53% of 527 teachers stayed four years. T-Value insignificant or negative
Vanderbilt: 7% of 129 teachers stayed four years. T-Value positive in math and social studies.
UT-Knoxville: 55% of 303 teachers stayed four years. T-Value insignificant or negative.
UT-Martin: 55% of 119 teachers stayed four years. T-Value negative.
UT-Chattanooga: 35% of 185 teachers stayed four years. T-Value positive in social studies.
Middle Tennessee State: 63% of 333 teachers stayed four years. T-Value negative.
Austin Peay: 54% of 147 teachers stayed four years. T-Value negative or insignificant.
Victory University: 41% of 29 teachers stayed four years. T-Value negative.
Union University: 56% of 132 teachers stayed four years. T-Value insignificant or negative.
Christian Brothers: 36% of 73 teachers stayed four years. T-Value positive in math, negative in reading and social studies.
LeMoyne Owen: 71% of 14 teachers stayed four years. Insignificant data.
So said the auctioneer's assistant to the auctioneer at Thursday's fire sale of 11 condos across the street from the Pyramid for prices as low as $57,000.
Well hell, we'll have mobile home retail when Bass Pro moves in.
Sorry. Low blow. Bass Pro Shops is a good operator. I just wonder if it can justify $125 million in tax-subsidized financing. That's the new new price after this week's financial switcheroo that sends $42 million in federal stimulus bonds and a player to be named later from the Pyramid/Pinch project to the Shelby County Industrial Development board to squander — scratch that — spend on some other big deal swathed in soft bandages of illusion.
It would seem so after the retailer indicated that it will not finalize its financing for The Pyramid and Pinch District project in December as scheduled. The upshot is that financing will rise from $110 million to $125 million.
The City Council was supposed to take up the financing package on November 23rd but the item was never set on the agenda. Instead, a council notice Thursday says $42 million in interest rate-subsidized Build American Bonds that was part of the package is being shifted to the Industrial Development Board and, potentially, to other projects. Or the bonds could go unused given the late change. The federal Build America Bonds program expires this year.
That item is scheduled for a hearing in a council committee December 7th. The council has only two more meetings this year. It's rare for much to get done in the final sessions because actions have to be approved on three readings, which usually means multiple meetings.
When Bass Pro took its financing package to the Center City Revenue Finance Corporation last month, it contemplated the possibility of not using the Build American Bonds. The application said that would raise the total financing needed to $125 million from $110 million.
City Councilman Bill Morrison and City Finance Director Roland McElrath discussed the matter Thursday afternoon.
"All this does is give the IDB the ability to issue the bonds if the projects pass scrutiny," Morrison said.
Two projects under consideration are Poag & McEwen's Highland Row development near the University of Memphis and a hotel at Fourth and Linden.
Morrison said Bass Pro is still a go, and that the financing will be completed by February 7th, albeit at a higher cost if the subsidized bond program expires. The money is supposed to come from tax rebates within a tourism development zone.
"We fuly expect this project to hit the ground running," Morrison said. "We just didn't want to lose $42 million."
In an indication of either lukewarm interest or uncertainty about the long-range prospects for The Pyramid, five new condos across Front Street in the Harbor Lights building sold Thursday afternoon at auction for prices ranging from $57,000 plus commission for a one-bedroom unit to $137,500 for a three-bedroom unit.
"You know what's possibly going in across the road," said auctioneer Benny Taylor. "I can't commit to it but I can tell you it's smellin' real good."
"We got mobile home prices here Benny," said one of his assistants.
The crowd of 50 or so did not seem overly impressed.
Read the Flyer's recent cover story on the Bass Pro project here.