Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Transition Team Blues

Posted By on Thu, Oct 27, 2011 at 9:14 PM

Barbara Prescott
  • Barbara Prescott
No ropes course, no trust falls, no alcohol, and no precedents. Just 16 people in a big room sitting behind name tags trying to get to know one another a little bit and begin to get their arms around the challenge of merging the city and county schools.

The transition planning commission held its third meeting Thursday, and it was pretty much like the first day of class in college or the opening break-out session of a convention. There were some awkward pauses, but what do you expect when the topic for discussion is "your hopes and fears" for the schools merger? Members (minus five absentees, which could be a problem if it continues) soon got over it and, in voices that were often so soft they could barely be heard by one another much less the gallery, spoke up with some candor.

Katie Stanton said she already had someone tell her that all the kids in Bartlett are going to be bused to Melrose, which, of course, is not true. Joyce Avery wondered about tax increases, and members were in disagreement. David Pickler said public education is the foundation of America and the team should take a lesson from Steve Jobs and "think differently." Tommy Hart said people don't understand the difference between the transition team and the school board, but he hopes the transition team will be remembered 50 years from now for doing something good. Rickey Jeans said the system needs to keep sharp, smart kids from leaving the area. Jim Boyd said he is excited and "I don't work out of fear." Louis Padgett said the team needs to "go at each other really hard" and "take on our biases." Christine Richards said she fears that people will start leaving Shelby County in large numbers.
Barbara Prescott, the team facilitator, said she hopes every mother will feel good about where her kid goes to school.

There was a brief discussion of last week's meeting with Chattanooga and Hamilton County school merger veterans, but, as Pickler noted, that system is smaller than the current Shelby County system alone. And it is majority white.

The plain fact is that there are no comparables. The transition team is in the proverbial uncharted waters.

Jacksonville merged with Duval County in 1968. Louisville merged with Jefferson County in 2003 (going from majority white to whiter) but the school systems merged in 1975. Both were majority white. Indianapolis got consolidated by legislation in 1970 but schools remained separate. Nashville went for Metro government in 1962, schools included, but the system is half the size of Memphis and Shelby County. Atlanta and Fulton County have separate school systems. So do Birmingham and Jefferson County. Knoxville . . . get serious.

In their book "City-County Consolidation: Promises Made, Promises Kept?" Suzanne Leland and Kurt Thurmaier don't cite a single example of a majority-black city or school system consolidating with a majority-white county.

The transition team will take a look at Charlotte and Mecklenburg County next month. They merged in 1960 and became a landmark in school desegregation and busing in 1969. Today the system has 135,638 students in 178 schools and has kept 44,719 white kids in the system, along with 55,121 blacks, 21,214 Hispanics, and 6,488 Asians along with a sizable number of students listed as "other" or "mixed."

That meeting will be in mid-November, following next week's meeting when Kriner Cash is scheduled to make a presentation about school reform in Memphis City Schools.

Herenton Will Try, Try Again

Posted By on Thu, Oct 27, 2011 at 11:11 AM

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Willie Herenton's bid for nine charter schools was turned down by the joint school board this week but the former mayor and school superintendent says he will resubmit his application in November.

"I think the review process is a healthy one," he said. "It forced our team to be more specific in terms of our mission and instructional programs and curriculum design, which are all essential ingredients in quality schools. Overall, I feel that it is a fair process."

Herenton is in the odd position of being an applicant getting "needs improvement" marks after 30 years in executive positions that generally put him on the other end of the process. All of the board members are familiar with his career, and many of them have had personal experience dealing with him. Add to that, there may be some reluctance on the part of the school board to expand charter schools along with other "escape hatches" while the merger is in the works.

In conjunction with Harmony Public Schools in Texas and the Cosmos Foundation, Herenton has applied to run seven charter schools in the city of Memphis in 2012-2013 and two more in the county in 2013-2014.

"At this point the county is crowded and does not have excess space," he said. "In 2013 when the systems are merged there should be ample space."

That remains to be seen. It is unclear how the merger will play out and how much shuffling of student populations there will be. Ultimately, that will depend partly on policy and partly — probably moreso — on how parents vote with their feet. There is already surplus space in city schools, and three elementary schools are being targeted for closure due to low enrollment and the condition of the buildings. While not wishing to appear critical of the pace of closure, Herenton noted that he closed 15 schools early in his career as superintendent.

In an interview, Herenton seemed upbeat and eager to continue the process.

"I may not be the best application writer but I know how to run good schools and get good results," he said.

He agreed that his intial application should have been more specific.

"Their application process is highly technical," he said. "They place a lot of value on format whereas I place value on substance of how you are going to improve academic achievement in the midst of poverty. We commenced putting our team together on the same night as the school board meeting. When we picked up the evaluation, we went to work that night with assistance from my strategic partner, Harmony Schools."

The merger is going forward on two tracks. While the merged school board addresses charter school applications and other nuts-and-bolts matters, the separate transition team is doing research on other cities and taking a big-picture approach. The transition team meets Thursday at 4:30 p.m.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Encouraging News for Memphis and Bass Pro

Posted By on Wed, Oct 26, 2011 at 11:42 AM

The Bass Pro Shops in the Pyramid could be on the leading edge of a retail trend in shopping malls.

A story in Wednesday's Wall Street Journal says that shopping centers are drawing visitors by turning to unusual tenants like gun ranges and special features such as aquariums. Malls are suffering from online shopping and stores that have lost their mojo or gone out of business.

The Bass Pro Pyramid, scheduled to open in 2013, will have an indoor swamp and lots of demonstration areas. Whatever your opinion of the chase and financing for this downtown deal, Bass Pro stores are fun to visit. But I wonder if it will attract many female shoppers.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Steve Jobs and Sun Records Studio

Posted By on Mon, Oct 24, 2011 at 12:52 PM

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The new biography "Steve Jobs" by Walter Isaacson includes more details of his stay in Memphis including a visit to Sun Studio that resulted in an employee being hired by Apple.

The book came out Monday and was the subject of a piece on CBS "60 Minutes" Sunday. Isaacson had 40 interviews with Jobs after the Apple cofounder was diagnosed with cancer. In both the book and "60 Minutes" segment, Issacson discusses the life-saving liver transplant that Jobs received in Memphis in 2009. Some of the story, including details of the house where Jobs lived in Midtown, was previously reported in The Memphis Flyer and in an interview with Dr. James Eason, who did the liver transplant, conducted by reporter Marilyn Sadler for Memphis magazine this summer.

New details in the book:

As Eason and officials at Methodist Hospital have maintained all along, Isaacson says that Jobs did not "jump the line" to get a transplant. He did, however, register in both California and Tennessee to improve his chances. The donor was a car-accident victim in his mid-20s. As the Flyer reported, Apple attorney George Riley, a former Memphian, made the connection and helped Jobs settle into the house he bought on Morningside Place.

Jobs was cared for at Methodist by two nurses from Mississippi. They were not awed by him and Jobs liked that.

Jobs and his wife and others made a secret visit to Sun Studio, where Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash and others recorded. Jobs was so emaciated that the staff did not recognize him, but the tour guide did such a good job that Jobs offered him to hire him.

Jobs' wife took responsibility for getting him a liver transplant and monitored his position in the Model for End-Stage Liver Disease system (MELD). While the book insists that Jobs did not buy his way to the top of the list, the "60 Minutes" segment has Isaacson recounting how Jobs drove a Mercedes sports car with no license plate and "felt like the normal rules just didn't apply to him."

On the liver transplant, at least, this authorized biography may not be the last word.

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Good News From FedEx

Posted By on Mon, Oct 24, 2011 at 10:51 AM

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FedEx is expecting its busiest holiday shipping season ever and will hire 20,000 seasonal employees.

The announcement Monday sent the stock price up more than $2 to $82 at mid-morning.

The company usually hires about 17,000 seasonal employees, but will boost that to 20,000 this year to help handle the surge in holiday shipments at FedEx Ground, FedEx Home Delivery and FedEx SmartPost. Spokesman Jess Bunn said the company does not break out where the hiring will be "but I expect some of that would be in Memphis."

The busiest day will be December 12 when the company will move an estimated 17 million shipments through its global network. The Memphis Super Hub handles express shipments. FedEx SmartPost is an arrangement with the United States Postal Service where FedEx does the line haul and USPS does the last-mile delivery to the customer's residence. Bunn said "that business is growing like a weed for us."

The company said retail inventory such as apparel, personal consumer electronics and luxury goods as well as books and other items from large, internet retailers will account for a large portion of its holiday volumes.

“As e-commerce continues to grow and demand increases with more customers shopping and conducting their business online, FedEx SmartPost is poised to handle the increase in shipments,” said Frederick W. Smith, chairman, president and CEO of FedEx Corp.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Up in the Air: New Control Tower at Memphis International Airport

Posted By on Wed, Oct 19, 2011 at 11:57 PM

Air traffic controllers like it when they're busy, and the rest of us should like it when they're busy too because planes equals dollars in our struggling aerotropolis.

On Thursday, the new 336-foot-tall, $72 million Memphis air traffic control tower will be dedicated. The Flyer got a sneak peak on Wednesday, and the first thing that struck me was (duh) how much taller the new one is than the old one right next to it.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Bike Lanes Touch a Nerve at City Council

Posted By on Tue, Oct 18, 2011 at 12:14 PM

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The Memphis City Council is taking up the controversial bike lanes and repaving of Madison Avenue Tuesday. Members weighed in at a committee meeting this morning that featured lots of television cameras and dozens of bike-supporters sitting on the floor (due to lack of space) and a couple of mild outbursts met with "you're out of order" warnings from the committee.

The repaving of Madison got underway last week, and the bike lanes appeared to be a done deal. But businesses opposed to the dedicated lanes have a champion in councilwoman Janis Fullilove and other supporters on the council as well. Fullilove said a compromise involving shared lines for bikes and cars is still possible, but the bikers in attendance don't like that idea.

"The full council needs to have their say," said Fullilove, who tends to oppose projects backed by Mayor A C Wharton, who supported another candidate running against her in the recent election. Getting the issue "downstairs" in front of the full council will, if nothing else, provide more media opportunities even if, as council attorney Allan Wade has opined, the deal is done and Fullilove is sticking her nose into administrative business as opposed to legislative business. Moreover, Wade said, "the horse is so far out of the barn" anyway.

Why such a fuss about bike lanes? Well, this is Memphis, and just as "Footloose" is about more than line dancing and "Memphis" the musical is about more than the blues, bike lanes are about more than white lines on asphalt.

Chief administrative officer George Little, himself an occasional bike commuter, said the administration fully vetted the issue in public hearings. He estimated that the bike lanes only slow traffic on Madison by about 20 seconds.

Councilwoman Wanda Halbert countered that more hearings were held and attention given to bike lanes on Madison than to bike lanes in "our community."

"We woke up one morning and found bike lanes in our neighborhood like it or not," she said.

Councilman Joe Brown, another Wharton foe, questioned the expenditure of city funds for bike lanes instead of paving streets in other neighborhoods.

"How much revenue have you spent on the bike lanes to this point?" he asked Little, who said he would find out.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Former Prosecutor Tim Discenza Revisits Memphis

Posted By on Mon, Oct 17, 2011 at 10:45 AM

Tim Discenza
  • Steven Sondheim
  • Tim Discenza
Former Assistant U.S. Atty. Tim Discenza, who prosecuted John Ford and Roscoe Dixon in Operation Tennessee Waltz, was back in Memphis Sunday to talk about his new job investigating ethical complaints against judges.

Discenza now lives in Nashville where he is chief disciplinary council for the Court of the Judiciary. He was on a panel on conflicts of interest hosted by the Public Interest Forum at the main library, along with state senator Beverly Marrero and state representative Mike Kernell.

Discenza said the greatest number of complaints that come to him involve domestic cases, usually divorces or child custody.

"I have never seen such bitterness," said the former federal prosecutor for 30 years.

He said those making the complaints "are mad at me, the spouse, and the judge" and that security of court officers is a big concern.

The second greatest number of complaints come from prisoners, many of whom mistakenly believe that the Court of the Judiciary has the powers of the state Court of Appeals.

Discenza knew as much about the down and dirty of politics and government as anyone, but he shakes his head over the current political climate in Nashville.

"When you see what has happened to state government, it's scary," he said.

He says he is neither a Democrat nor a Republican partisan, but he has been struck by the willingness of the supposedly anti-government Tea Partiers to try to override local ordinances they don't like. And he sympathized with Marrero's complaint that lawmakers are inundated with bills filed late in the session and often drafted by lobbyists.

Tennessee Waltz was founded on a bogus computer recycling company set up by the FBI. Investigators introduced bills "that made no sense" (and withdrew them before action could be taken) and found that "good honest lawmakers" signed on without reading them because they were swamped.

I always disagreed with Discenza on the believability of the bogus company. I thought the idea of a computer-recycling company that shipped high-tech junk to a Far Eastern site for salvage was very believable and, in fact, it was more or less the business model for some going concerns including one that made The Wall Street Journal during the Dixon trial. As a columnist, I have learned that humor and satire must be broad, not subtle, because people tend to take reporters seriously (I know what you may be thinking). And I suspect that goes for legislation too.

Anyway, I'm glad Discenza is on the job in any capacity. Can't see much going on in the federal prosecutor's office these days in the way of corruption investigations.

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Friday, October 14, 2011

Ode to Justin Canale: A Gentle Giant of Sport is Dead

Posted By on Fri, Oct 14, 2011 at 2:51 PM

Justin Canale (far left)
  • Justin Canale (far left)
Justin Canale, a former college and professional football player and icon to an older generation of Memphians, died this week. He was 68 years old.

Justin and his five brothers, all of whom would play football at Tennessee or Mississippi State, were the subject of a story in Sports Illustrated in 1964 that compared the family farm to a gladiatorial training ground. Whit Canale, Justin's older brother, died three weeks ago.

Justin played offensive guard and kicker for Mississippi State in the Joe Namath years of the Southeastern Conference. From 1965-1975, he played for the Boston Patriots of the AFL, the Cincinnati Bengals of the NFL, the Memphis Southmen of the World Football League, and three different pro teams in Canada. He kicked straight on, old-school style, and could make them from 50 yards. He underwent 20 operations for football injuries, some performed by his cousin, Dr. Terry Canale of the Campbell Clinic.

A Paul Bunyanesque character said to be able to pop a basketball by squeezing it in his hands, Justin Canale was known for both his physical strength and his gentle disposition. As high school and college stars in Memphis and at rival colleges, the games where Whit and Justin squared off were legendary. They were a newspaper photographer's dream as they posed in a three-point stance or with their mother kissing one or the other of them on the cheek. Justin also starred in track and once tossed the shot put 58 feet to win the SEC meet.

Every 98-pound-weakling in Memphis in the early Sixties would have given his Converse All-Stars, Superman comics collection, and allowance to look like Justin and Whit Canale in blues jeans and t-shirts.

"I remember him as being like a Greek god," said his cousin, Drew Canale. "He and Whit were huge men. As a little boy, they scared me to death. Justin was probably the best known of all the Canales. He was a gentle giant."

Another cousin, Billy Tagg, said the Canales "were the politest people. Everything was yes ma'am and yes sir. Their mantra was 'say what you mean and mean what you say.' I never saw them bullshit anyone."

The Tagg clan also included some robust lads who probably could have combined with the Canales to field a football team that would have whipped Ole Miss without going outside the family gene pool.

I got to know Justin several years ago while doing research for a magazine article. He insisted on calling me "Mr. Branston" although I was several years his junior, and if he was behind the register at the family grocery store in Eads, I had as much chance of paying for a ham sandwich as I did of beating him at arm wrestling. Even in the age of weight training, he was one of the most massive men I have ever seen, with forearms and shoulders built up by farm work and hefting axles long ago at the family's Sinclair Station on Union Avenue.

The funeral is Saturday at 11 a.m. at Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church in Germantown.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Loeb Plan for Overton Square is Warmly Received

Posted By on Wed, Oct 12, 2011 at 9:47 PM

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It was a one-night presentation of "The Future of Overton Square" by Loeb Properties at Playhouse on the Square Wednesday and the crowd pretty much said "Bravo!"

Bob Loeb said his company will invest $19 million in the square and hopes the city will spend another $12 million for infrastructure, a parking garage, a water-detention facility, and a new site for the Hattiloo theater, a black repertory theater now located in a 75-seat building on Marshall near Sun Studio. The "theater district" would have four playhouses and a Malco four-screen movie theater plus new stores and restaurants.

"We are committed to doing our part regardless," Loeb told the crowd that nearly filled the theater. Details of the plan will be on the company's website on Thursday.

Loeb, architect Frank Ricks, Hattiloo theater founder Ekundayo Bandele, and Playhouse founder Jackie Nichols spoke for about 30 minutes.

"We're been waiting for the next shoe to drop and it finally has," said Nichols, who founded Playhouse in 1975.

Questions were generally friendly in contrast to the criticism that earlier plans for Overton Square ran into from preservationists and others. Loeb's plan does not include a grocery store, but the parking garage, now three stories and 450 spots, could be a financial sticking point because the price has gone up to nearly double what the City Council approved earlier this year. Councilmen Jim Strickland and Shea Flinn urged Midtowners to show their support to the mayor and council. The crowd seemed in a welcoming mood, responding warmly to both the Midtown design overlay and the announcement of a new Five Guys hamburger joint on Union near the square. There was one question about cannibalizing downtown and Cooper-Young and other parts of Memphis. Loeb said that is possible (Paulette's moved to HarborTown and Hattiloo will leave a vacancy on Marshall), but he hopes to create a "rising tide" that does more than redistribute business.

"We recognize that it is a lot of money in tough economic times," Loeb said. He added that the garage and theater district will require private security because "crime will kill this thing faster than any single item."

The plan is to create pedestrian-friendly density by adding a revitalized Overton Square to other Midtown projects including the fairgrounds, Cooper-Young, Overton Park, Broad Street, and Madison Avenue. On Union Avenue, there are plans to move the police station, which would open up another site for development. And the original developer of the French Quarter Inn next to Overton Square said he plans to spend $12 million on renovations and reopen it as a "four-star" hotel if Loeb follows through. The hotel, a one-star at best when it closed, looks like it needs at least that much.

Other eyesores to be replaced include Yosemite Sam's and the old Chicago Pizza on Madison. Ricks said the design preserves many of the existing features including the curved building at the southwest corner of Cooper and Madison but it eliminates the "speed lane" to slow down traffic. The reopening is scheduled for 2013.

Loeb said the city can expect about $2.8 million in new tax revenue annually from sales and property taxes.
He said the mulitplier effect will be positive if the development works and negative if Overton Square continues to decline.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Memphis and Detroit: The Upside

Posted By on Tue, Oct 11, 2011 at 1:13 PM

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For the first time in a long time, I hope the frequent and usually snarky comparisons of Memphis to Detroit are on target.

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Detroit is on a roll in sports, business, and favorable national attention. I grew up in Michigan and still follow the Detroit newspapers and pro sports teams. The Lions are unbeaten, three years after going 0-16, and the Tigers are in the American League championship series. Ford and General Motors are making cars and money and restarting idled manufacturing plants. Detroit has a popular mayor, Dave Bing, who replaced a corrupt mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick. It has the legacy of Motown and, more recently, a proud and defiant voice in Eminem.

Detroit News columnist Daniel Howes has a nice column suggesting that the improvements are based on a solid foundation and might be lasting. It will never be the Midwestern industrial titan it was 50 years ago because it has lost more than half of its population. The car business has come South. But Detroit's days as a national joke seem to be over, at least for a while.

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Monday, October 10, 2011

Jack Reacher Comes to Memphis

Posted By on Mon, Oct 10, 2011 at 3:15 PM

Lee Child
  • Lee Child
Jack Reacher, author Lee Child's fictional tough guy, shows up in Memphis in the latest Reacher installment called "The Affair."

If you don't know who Jack Reacher is, then read no further. If you do, you have probably already read most of the Reacher series except for "The Affair," which I grabbed from the library a week ago and returned today. Previous Reacher novels have been set in Georgia, Indiana, Texas, and Montana among other states.

This time the main setting is a small town next to an Army Ranger base in northeast Mississippi in 1997. The town sounds a little like Corinth. A railroad and a nightly train play a big part in the plot. The book explains, more or less, why Reacher the wandering ex-MP is the way he is.

There are the now familiar head butts, one-on-six fistfights, broken necks, shots to the head, sex scenes, and a few references to Reacher's brother and other characters who show up in other books. He only passes through Germantown and Memphis a couple of times, and the descriptions are minimal.

That's all I'm telling.

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