Friday, September 30, 2011

The Benefits of a Big School System

Posted By on Fri, Sep 30, 2011 at 10:38 AM

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You work with what you have, and what the transition team and the citizens of Shelby County are going to have in 2013 is a big consolidated public school system — probably one of the ten biggest in the country for the first year or two.

The transition team has held its first of many meetings. There are so many big and small decisions to be made in the next two years by the transition team and the new school board, but bigness is a given. So what are the benefits? Here are a few that come to mind.

Marching bands. As Flyer editor Bruce VanWyngarden wrote this week, there is a lot of pride, excitement, talent and diversity in a high school band. Charter schools, which are proliferating, can't offer this.

Sports teams, gyms, and playing fields. One more reason why it is so important to try to persuade the suburbs that it is in their best interest to stay with the county system and not form their own districts. John Aitken and David Pickler are going to be key spokesmen.

Superior experienced teachers. The best Memphis and Shelby County schools are holding their own with private schools if the number of National Merit Scholars and the dollar amount of scholarship offers is any indication. In five years, the new Shelby County system could be competing with more than 50 charter schools, DeSoto County schools, private schools, and new suburban school systems. Good teachers, already a hot commodity, are only going to get hotter. The future Shelby County system must aggressively recruit and retain talent, and that will mean better pay, benefits, and fighting lies with facts and fire with fire when it comes to that.

Special programs. MCS spends nearly $11,000 per pupil because it serves so many students with special needs. And MCS, under Kriner Cash, has attracted hundreds of millions of dollars worth of foundation and philanthropic support. Can you "buy" college-bound students with programs such as the International Baccalaureate Program? We'll find out.

Structure. Starting a school, much less a school system, is not easy, as Memphians learned in the busing years in the 1970s and as they are learning today with charter schools. Money, buildings, maintenance, transportation, and leadership can all go haywire. Why take a chance on your child's education? Better to go with the established professional. At least that's the argument.

Tax money. By no means should the new county system let it leak away to breakaway systems. For the middle class families, if you're paying for Shelby County public schools anyway, you might as well use them. Why double-tax yourself?

Distinguished alumni. Thousands of them. If it worked for them, it can work for you.

Community spirit. New and different. Be a part of history. Move forward together. Pride in place. Idealism won't convince everyone by any means — not even everyone on the transition team — but this has to be the pitch. Don't underestimate the talent on the transition team or the willingness of people to give the big new system a shot for a variety of reasons.

Above all, compete, compete, compete. Everyone else is.

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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Herenton Portrait Unveiled as New Schools Era Begins

Posted By on Thu, Sep 29, 2011 at 8:16 PM

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Willie Herenton was back in the Hall of Mayors Thursday for the first time in more than two years.

Herenton, joined by his 90-year-old mother and hundreds of friends and past and present city employees, was there for the unveiling of his portrait. He served as mayor for 17 years, longer than anyone in Memphis history. Mayor A C Wharton introduced him with his usual graciousness. Herenton, who showed emotion and his famous feistiness, spoke for about 35 minutes, recalling his youth in segregated Memphis and his razor-thin election in 1991.

"History will be kind to me," he said, "because it will reveal the truth."

Herenton's portrait hangs next to those of his predecessors Dick Hackett, Wyeth Chandler, and Henry Loeb, among others. His is the only black face in the group. It was painted by artist Larry Walker and is inside an ebony frame, at the former mayor's request.

Samuel H. Mays
  • Samuel H. Mays
By coincidence, or perhaps not, the ceremony came during a momentous 24-hour period. Late Wednesday, federal judge Samuel Hardy Mays adopted the consent decree merging the city and county school systems, writing that "it prevents years of litigation and establishes the basis for cooperative solutions based on good public policy rather than legal solutions imposed by the court." On Thursday, the transition team for the school systems merger held its first meeting and the seven-member Shelby County Board of Education held its last meeting. Trite as it sounds, it really was the end of one era and the dawn of a new one.

Herenton will play a minor part in the brave new world of public education if his application for a charter school is accepted, and how could it not be? He is a child of Memphis, a Booker T. Washington High School graduate, and former teacher, administrator, and school superintendent. The proliferation of charter schools, possibly including one led by Herenton, strongly suggests that enrollment in the combined city and county system will decline and that there will be even more school choices than there are now. Suburban municipalities could also start their own systems after September 2013.

Continue reading »

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Meeting Thursday about Possible Tear-downs in Midtown

Posted By on Thu, Sep 29, 2011 at 12:46 PM

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There will be a meeting Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at Snowden School to discuss the city's plans to possibly tear down some houses in the Evergreen Historic District because of flooding problems.

The district's newsletter says "The City of Memphis Engineering approached EHDA late last week with potential plans to tear down houses in the middle of Evergreen. The city may be proposing this to solve some flash flooding issues that have happened prior to storm water improvements on Overton Park Avenue."

This is a hot-button issue with Midtowners and Evergreeners in particular who still remember the houses that were torn down more than 40 years ago for the aborted Interstate 40 leg through Overton Park and Midtown.

Among those who are supposed to be at the meeting are Mayor A C Wharton Jr., and City Council members Jim Strickland, Kemp Conrad, Shea Flinn, and Reid Hedgepeth, along with the Lick Creek Storm Water Coalition.

Quoting from the newsletter, "It is EHDA's belief that the resolution to this problem is not tearing down historic homes in the middle of our neighborhood, but actually addressing the infrastructure problems in the neighborhood as well as the influx of water from upstream which is the source. If you would like to hear the city's plans or voice your opinion, please show up at tonight's meeting."

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Bike Striping of North Parkway Is Underway

Posted By on Tue, Sep 27, 2011 at 3:49 PM

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Paint crews were putting in white stripes and markers for a bike lane on North Parkway Tuesday.

They were working on the eastbound lanes between Manassas (a block east of Danny Thomas) and the overpass at Watkins. The finished product will include bike lanes on both sides from Danny Thomas to Rhodes College east of McLean.

In a couple of other bike notes, I like the idea of closing Riverside Drive now and then for bike events like the charity ride for St. Jude last weekend. The hills and scenery are great this time of year. A couple of Sunday "Riverside Drive Rides" each month might generate more interest in biking in general and the Harahan Project in particular.

This Saturday there will be a 100-mile Blues City Blues ride to Tipton County starting at the Pyramid for the benefit of the Greenline.

Finally, I was really impressed by all the bikes in Missoula, Montana when I visited there last week. The campus bike racks were jammed, as were the racks and lightposts and just about anything else to lock on to downtown. Great network of paths to near and far, campus and town, factory and farms. I don't know how cities reach critical mass but I suspect it starts with students. I'm always surprised by how few bikes I see at Rhodes or U. of Memphis.

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Wednesday, September 14, 2011

How Memphis Should Play the Rankings Game

Posted By on Wed, Sep 14, 2011 at 1:24 PM

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As even their creators and honorees will admit, most of the lists that purport to rank cities are horse crap. But once in a while, one of them comes along that, like a seven-car crash, demands your attention.

Case in point: Outside magazine has named Chattanooga "the best Outside town in America" and one of the "Best Towns Ever." Chattanooga! The decaying railroad town in the shadow of Lookout Mountain and Rock City. I have been there dozens of times over more than 50 years and was moved to congratulate Candace Davis of the Chattanooga Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"Thank you John," she replied in an email. "I typically don’t send out mag ranks either, but we do have a list of them compiled. With this being such a great publication with national and international recognition, we thought it was definitely appropriate. I mean how often do you get to be the Best EVER??"

If you are not familiar with it, Outside features extreme sports and doesn't give a damn about football, baseball, or golf. I like to look at the nice pictures and read the articles which remind me of so many things I either cannot or would not do, like rock climbing, hang gliding, or paddling a surfboard from a standing position like I saw people doing this year in Florida and California and Shelby Farms.

The press release says "Outside scoured the nation to find dream cities that offered a balance of great culture, perfect scenery, stress-free and reasonable cost of living, and, of course, easy access to the outdoors." Finalists included Charleston, SC; Madison, WI; Portland, OR; Portland, ME; Santa Fe, NM; Ashland, OR; Boulder, CO; Burlington, VT; Tucson, AZ. A Facebook poll put our Tennessee neighbor over the top.

While I'm sure researchers put in long hours weighing "stress-free and reasonable cost of living" factors, the emphasis was on the visuals, just as Miss Universe must have, oh, never mind. Chattanooga, if you expand its radius 75 miles, has the goods from whitewater to mountain bluffs to the downtown river walk.

Memphis can play this game. Many of us have seen the warts in Chattanooga and the other finalists, and they are glossed over in such contests. If Shelby Farms, the riverfront, the Harahan Project, the Kroc Center, and Bass Pro work out as hoped, Memphis could and should be on someone's list of best outdoor places.

As I wrote in this blog last week, I would pair that brag with a not-too-subtle reminder that Memphis is pretty much disaster free at a time when the rest of the country is reeling from floods, droughts, hurricanes, blizzards, forest fires, and monumental traffic jams. In today's Wall Street Journal there is a story about a bridge closing on Interstate 64 in Louisville (one of our peer cities) that has "doubled commuting times for thousands" and backed up traffic for six miles in Indiana. UPS, Humana, and the University of Louisville are in scramble mode. Sorry, guys, FedEx is running like clockwork.

In the same newspaper, I read that Texas set a record as the temperature hit 100 degrees for the 70th day this year. The state is parched. Tennessee, and Memphis, are mostly green, and we are the Saudi princes of water.

If I were selling Memphis I would point that out. If it's good enough for FedEx, maybe it's good enough for you, etc. etc. If you like to bike, skate, run, fish, or paddle, come check us out.

Nobody said contests were fair and balanced.

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Saturday, September 10, 2011

Canoeing the Mississippi from Shelby Forest to Mud Island

Posted By on Sat, Sep 10, 2011 at 2:28 PM

Kevin Adams
  • Kevin Adams
A happy accident had me canoeing the Mississippi River Saturday morning from Shelby Forest to Mud Island on a perfect late summer day.

Kevin Adams supplied the canoe and the expertise. In March he took a solo trip in a kayak from Memphis to New Orleans. So this was nothing. It took us about four hours, including two short stops on sandy beaches to stretch our legs. It was my first time on the river in about five years and only my second time on the river in a canoe.

We saw a dozen upstream barges but none going downstream. Kevin says the downstream make bigger waves. The river was surprisingly clean as far as large trash and debris, a big change from March when the river was much higher and Kevin had to constantly be on the watch for floating trees and junk.

We still had to be alert. The river rocks and rolls from the wake of barges and the movement of water around dikes and underwater changes in depth and crosscurrents. There were a few tricky eddies and rough patches but nothing like the "death holes" Keven encountered on his solo trip when he could actually see the vortex of a whirlpool.

Other than the barges and a few fishermen we had the river to ourselves. From the boat ramp at Shelby Forest to a few miles above downtown there is nothing but sandbars and beaches marked by deer and turkey tracks and tree lines on both banks that were totally or partially submerged back in May. Too bad more people can't experience it.

The 20-mile or so trip is not especially strenuous or dangerous unless, of course, you tip over. Getting back in the canoe, assuming you can get it upright and floating, would be a huge challenge, and currents can pull you away if not under. Fortunately, we didn't experience that and our Saturday morning was damn near perfect.

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Friday, September 9, 2011

Where Memphis Leads the Pack

Posted By on Fri, Sep 9, 2011 at 1:25 PM

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Not to be crass or insensitive to the suffering of others, but is there not a marketing opportunity for Memphis as a disaster play?

Texas is parched, as it seemingly is every summer. The West Coast and, now, the East Coast have earthquakes. The Gulf Coast has hurricanes or is on the watch for them. The Northeast has floods. The Southwest and Northwest have fires. San Francisco, which I visited recently, is picture pretty but awfully crowded and expensive and the week I was there protesters all but shut down the BART train.

Memphis has abundant pure water for drinking, bathing, making beer, and watering lawns. At least this summer, our grass is green from riverfront to suburbs even though it has been hot as blazes.

The last big quake was nearly 200 years ago.

Hurricanes are spent by the time they hit the Tennessee line and dump a few inches of rain.

Our record-breaking flood this year was 90 percent family-friendly photo op. It was downtown Nashville that got the serious flood damage in 2010, and the Cumberland River, not the Mississippi, was the culprit.

I suppose we could have a forest fire in Shelby Forest but it hasn't happened in my memory.

Our protests lately have run to animal shelters and bike lanes.

Our airport is eerily quiet, inside and out, except when the FedEx and Delta fleets land, and even then it is eminently manageable. We have an unused airport in Millington. When President Obama made his speech last night, I kept saying to myself "Got that" as in airport infrastructure (check), highways (check), and new schools (check).

I don't want to wish any bad luck on our fellow Americans, but on a day like today you can't help but feel that Memphis has it pretty good in some ways. And as things get worse, Memphis could look better.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

The Problem with Kriner Cash

Posted By on Thu, Sep 8, 2011 at 11:32 AM

Kriner Cash
  • Kriner Cash
Kudos to The Commercial Appeal and reporter Jane Roberts for getting MCS to release records of Booker T. Washington principal Alisha Kiner's 2009 suspension, but it should not have taken such unusual effort to get the information.

Unfortunately it is characteristic of the tenure of Kriner Cash as superintendent. Media requests for such basic information as enrollment are met with instructions to file a Freedom of Information request. That is what The CA did to get Kiner's records. Releasing that information a year ago might have scuttled BTW's chances of winning a shout-out and visit from President Barack Obama this year, but the fortress mentality at MCS precedes that event.

BTW's outlier graduation rate caught my attention last year and I wrote about it in February, arguing that it was not replicable due to a significant enrollment decline in one year. The column drew a rebuke in a signed comment from Alisha Kiner. At a school board meeting, Cash singled out BTW for praise and compared its performance to optional schools White Station and Central, which I thought was unfair to BTW, misleading on the part of Cash, and inaccurate. A couple of months later the stakes were raised when BTW became a finalist for the Obama visit.

As The CA reported, there were people in MCS who knew about Kiner's suspension and there was even a petition. I heard from some of them and encouraged them to come forward. I assumed, wrongly, that internal pressure would force MCS to divulge any potentially embarrassing information before Obama's visit. An education blogger also wrote about the BTW graduation rate. And my former colleague Mary Cashiola, who is now spokeswoman for Mayor A C Wharton, wrote about her problems getting public information from MCS on enrollment that might influence school-closing decisions.

School board members apparently did not know about the suspension. Dr. Jeff Warren said disciplinary issues involving teachers and principals are for management to handle, while the board deals with policy.

"That typically won't come to us," he said.

Warren is sympathetic to Kiner. He believes she was new to BTW and made a mistake for which she has paid the price. "She has become an exemplary principal," he said.

Board member Kenneth Whalum Jr. said he did not know about the suspension until reading about it Thursday.

"Institutionally, the board knew - or should have known - about it as a function of our oversight responsibilities, even if that knowledge was very general in nature," he said.

Like most Memphians, I was moved by the televised BTW graduation and Obama's visit. I later met some of the graduates at a civic club luncheon and was very impressed by them. There are apparently some positive things going on at BTW under Kiner's leadership.

But the end doesn't justify the means, whether it's college sports programs chasing national championships or public school systems under pressure to increase test scores and graduation rates. The good work of many can be tainted by the cheating of a few.

I don't happen to think that Kiner's suspension is as big a deal as, say, the lawsuit last week against First Horizon over $883 million of its mortgages, which the CA ignored for four days. But that's not the issue. The Kiner suspension was news because of BTW's remarkable improvement in graduation in one year and moreso when the school was singled out for national acclaim.

In education, big improvements are hard to make in a year or two. That is not to say they don't happen, but the underlying facts must be known before a super teacher or super principal is hailed. Many outstanding teachers and principals labor in anonymity and achieve slow, steady progress. Happily, some of them are getting recognition, like the math teacher at Whitehaven High School who was the subject of a story in The Commercial Appeal earlier this year. A friend of mine whose wife is a standout advanced calculus teacher is trying to get the College Board to identify extraordinary AP teachers. I hope they do.

Honest data and prompt, full disclosure are crucial as the Memphis and Shelby County school systems move toward a merger. Spin and stonewalling won't work. Trite as it sounds, that's the main thing.

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Saturday, September 3, 2011

Memphis Cracks Global Top 17 in Financial Shenanigans

Posted By on Sat, Sep 3, 2011 at 3:00 PM

Jerry Baker
  • Jerry Baker
We may not have a pro or BCS-league football team, but when it comes to financial shenanigans Memphis is in the big time, at least in the eyes of federal regulators.

For the second time in a year, a Memphis financial firm has earned national attention if not a national rating for its prowess in the once wildly popular mortgage-backed securities industry. First it was Morgan Keegan, which settled with the Securities Exchange Commission for $200 million. Now First Horizon has been named a world-class miscreant by the federal housing regulator known to none-and-all as the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA).

Eat your hearts out, Nashville and St. Louis. In a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal Saturday, Memphis-based First Horizon is among the chosen in lawsuits against "17 of the world's biggest financial institutions." Also on the elite list are Bank of America (assets of $2.5 trillion), Citigroup ($1.9 trillion in assets), Goldman Sachs, and J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. First Horizon is the plucky underdog in the group, with just $25 billion in assets.

Why anyone would take a bank's asset valuation seriously these days is one for Ripleys. Investors apparently don't. First Horizon's stock value peaked at $40 a share in 2007 and has fallen to about $6 a share. And if you don't understand banking and collateralized debt obligations, don't worry. Regulators and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac apparently don't either, or at least the lawsuit says they didn't figure it out for years until it was too late.

The charge: First Horizon and its subsidiaries were on an expansion kick in 2005-2007 and packaged mortgages into sellable securities without divulging the crummy credit quality of some of them. Not unlike the rap against Morgan Keegan and its so-called Kelsoe funds.

"Defendants falsely represented that the underlying mortgage loans complied with certain underwriting guidelines and standards, including representations that significantly overstated the ability of the borrowers to repay their mortgage loans," says the FHNA lawsuit.

"The Registration Statement contained statements about the characteristics and credit quality of the mortgage loans underlying the Securitizations, the creditworthiness of the borrowers of those underlying mortgage loans, and the origination and underwriting practices used to make and approve the loans. Such statements were material to a reasonable investor’s decision to invest in mortgage-backed securities by purchasing the Certificates. Unbeknownst to
Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, these statements were materially false."

Named in the lawsuit are Gerald 'Jerry' Baker, CEO of First Horizon from 2007-2008 when he retired after a quarter in which the company lost $19 million, and Charles Burkett, who retired in June 2011 as president of banking at First Tennessee.

First Horizon, once known as First Tennessee, has had a succession of leaders since Ron Terry was CEO from 1973-1995. They include Ralph Horn, 1994-2002; Ken Glass, 2003-2007, Baker from 2007-2008; and Bryan Jordan, 2008-present. It is the last home grown "Big Three" Memphis bank since Union Planters and National Bank of Commerce were acquired by other companies.

The 77-page lawsuit is dense but includes some interesting details suitable for Labor Day weekend reading.

Continue reading »

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Friday, September 2, 2011

First Horizon Sued for $880 million

Posted By on Fri, Sep 2, 2011 at 6:46 PM

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Memphis-based First Horizon, which has seen its stock price crater in the last four years, is in some fast company this week, but not the kind that stockholders or bank executives will welcome.

First Horizon is among 17 banks being sued by federal regulators for overstating the value of mortgage-backed assets it assembled during the housing boom and sold to taxpayer-backed Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. First Horizon, better known in Memphis by its old name First Tennessee, was a high-flier during the housing boom when its stock rose to $37 a share. It crashed in 2007, however, and has struggled to stay above $10 since then. It closed Friday at $6.31.

First Horizon is the second downtown Memphis bank facing a big financial hit this year. Regions Financial, whose stock price has fallen below $5 a share, is the parent of Morgan Keegan, which settled with the SEC earlier this year for $200 million over its mortgage-backed bond funds.

The story was reported Friday in the New York Times and other major newspapers. First Horizon is a pygmy among banking giants on the list which includes names like Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, and Citigroup.

The lawsuits were brought by the Federal Housing Finance Agency, which oversees the agencies known as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac which finance mortgages.

According to the New York Times story, "The legal action opens a broad front in a rapidly growing attempt to force the banks to pay tens of billions of dollars for helping stoke the housing bubble . . . The litigation also marks a more intense effort by the federal government to go after the financial services industry for its alleged mortgage misdeeds. The Obama administration as well as regulators like the Federal Reserve have been criticized for going too easy on the banks, which benefited from a $700 billion bailout package shortly after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in the fall of 2008."

Here is the list of banks being sued, as reported by The Washington Post. The number is the amount in billions that the FHFA says the overstated mortgage-backed assets were worth.

Ally Financial, formerly GMAC 6
Bank of America 6
Barclays Bank 4.9
Citigroup 3.5
Countrywide Financial 26.6
Credit Suisse Holdings 14.1
Deutsche Bank 14.2
First Horizon National Corporation 0.883
General Electric Company 0.549
Goldman Sachs 11.1
HSBC North America Holdings 6.2
JPMorgan Chase 33
Merrill Lynch 24.853
Morgan Stanley 10.58
Nomura Holding America 2
The Royal Bank of Scotland 30.4
Société Générale 1.3
Total 196.165

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Flyer Flashback

Looking Back at the “Best Of Memphis” List That Started It All

Tidbits from the 1994 "Best of Memphis" list.

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