Predicted response of school board: That's easy for you to say.
The planning commission knows this, because several of them are current or former Memphis City Schools board members, students, or staff. They can only plan; it is the school board that is empowered to make decisions, as the federal court ruled last year. So don't expect there to be 21 school closings before school starts in 2013.
Near the end of Friday's meeting, chairwoman Barbara Prescott, a former MCS board member, asked for a non-binding show of hands to signify general agreement or disagreement with the school closing recommendation. TPC members tentatively raised their arms like students hoping they would not be called upon in class.
The lack of enthusiasm was understandable.
"This will be a very difficult implementation process," said Prescott.
Closing schools, especially high schools, has "a tremendous negative effect" on the community, said Reginald Green.
The open secret is that underutilized schools (58 percent of capacity in the targeted areas of northwest and southwest Memphis) are a fact of life. In 2005, the Memphis school board closed four schools, and this year three more schools will be closed, but closing 21 at a time, including four high schools, would be unprecedented.
Right-sizing is a moment of truth. Former Memphis superintendent Johnnie B. Watson has said that closing schools was the hardest thing he had to do in his career. The bad news is usually buffered with hopeful comments about alternative uses such as charter schools or community centers that might or might not pan out. But Pete Gorman, the former superintendent of the award-winning Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system in North Carolina, admitted that "you can't close schools well" when he spoke to the TPC last year.
The TPC should ask its Boston consultants what alternatives are feasible and what impact they would have on the projected savings if the lights have to be turned on anyway and the buildings have to be ADA compliant. If school closings come to a vote, the school board will need all the evidence and support it can get.
There has never been a schools transition planning commission before, and there will probably never be another one. This is not a team, because that implies a common goal, but it is a diverse, experienced group. Look at these names and backgrounds on the TPC website. The report the TPC puts together in the next six weeks will be one of a kind. It won't be the last word. The school board rules. The state legislature and the Shelby County suburban mayors are moving full speed toward a vote on municipal schools this year, as Jackson Baker reported.
To borrow a favorite motivational line from coaches, the TPC must "leave everything on the field" if a unified system including the suburbs is to have a chance. Acknowledge the changes that have happened since the panel was created. Improvise. Everyone else is. If TPC members want to put some meat on the bones of a unified system, recommend that the board hire popular Shelby County Schools Superintendent John Aitken. And examine the claim that the municipalities should get their school buildings for free because they "have already paid for them." And put a dollar figure on the cost of new schools, and identify who will have the responsibility of paying for them. If there are going to be referendums this year, give the voters some names and numbers to weigh against the projections of the suburban school consultants.
In one of the first TPC meetings six months ago, members talked about their hopes in a get-to-know-you session. Louis Padgett, the principal at Northhaven Elementary School, urged everyone to "really go at each other really hard" and "take on our biases."
The schedule that Prescott outlined calls for some long meetings in May and June. It will be tempting to remain above the fray, bury some things under words and numbers, and just be done with it. The court-ordered and carefully chosen TPC, with all those consultants and staff its disposal, should go at it really hard and take on biases.
I know, easy for me to say.
Grab a camera and come down to the river to see the American Queen steamboat while it's docked at Beale Street Landing Thursday and Friday.
The christening by Priscilla Presley is Friday at 3 p.m. and the boat leaves at 5 p.m. Until then, visitors can see it from the walkway above the cobblestone landing or from inside Beale Street Landing from 8:30-2:30 Thursday and 2:30-4:30 Friday. There is a good vantage point from the grassy roof of the future restaurant. But visitors cannot board the boat due to Homeland Security restrictions.
The landing and cobblestones are still works in progress. The Riverfront Development Corporation has scheduled a presentation of its revised plan for the Cobblestone Landing to Memphis Landmarks Commission for Thursday at 5 p.m. at City Hall. A presentation of the cobblestones plan and the landscaping plan for Beale Street Landing is scheduled for May 2nd at the Downtown Memphis Commission Design Review Board meeting.
The 21-member commission is moving toward a report to be submitted in June to the unified Shelby County Board of Education, which has final authority. The school-closings recommendation is in the meeting agenda released by the TPC on Wednesday.
In March the school board voted to close three Memphis elementary schools that have each lost at least 40 percent of their enrollment since 2002-2003 — Lakeview, Graceland, and Georgia Avenue.
The document says there is an opportunity to close 10 elementary schools, 7 middle schools, and 4 high schools in northwest and southwest Memphis, but it does not name them. The committee considered utilization, academic performance, building condition and geographic proximity.
The savings is estimated at $19 million in the general fund and $2 million in the special fund. There would be a one-time cost of $1.3 million for relocation and decommissioning the buildings.
The Logistics Committee summary says there are 65 overcrowded schools (over 100 percent utilization), primarily in northeast and southeast Memphis. It says new construction already planned may not relieve overcrowding and there could be a need for enrollment shifts near Cordova and additional charter schools.
The committee recommends an annual review process because "declining enrollment trends will continue to change (the) landscape and may necessitate more closures in the future."
The full Transition Planning Commission meets at 5 p.m. Thursday at the Shelby County Code Enforcement Office in Shelby Farms.
Maybe you remember the scene in the movie where George C. Scott as Patton comes upon a bunch of trucks and tanks gridlocked in the mud, and he wades into the mess, directs traffic, and pretty soon we're back on the way to beating the Germans.
"I don't want to get any messages saying that we are holding our position. We're not holding anything. Let the Hun do that. We're gonna go through him like crap through a goose," Scott says in one of the great motivational speeches in moviedom.
Or maybe you've seen "Chopped," the Food Network program in which four chefs compete before a panel of judges that chops one of them after each course. The chopped chef smiles in resignation and goes home.
And if cooking shows are foreign to you, then watch this clip from YouTube of variations of "sit down and shut up" in 70 movies.
We don't need the menace or profanity, but the command and authority would be nice. This is not a drill. This is not a consultant's report that can be put on a shelf and ignored, thank you very much. There is no do-nothing option and no going back to 2010 and separate city and county school systems. This is about payroll, school lunches, school bus schedules, attendance zones, and all the minutia of running a system that could potentially have 150,000 students and maybe 25,000 employees and impact everyone in Memphis and Shelby County as much as anything since the court-ordered busing and subsequent white flight of 1973. This is a big deal.
If the Transition Planning Commission's plan isn't accepted, then the unified school board will have to come up with something else, and that is like saying the students will decide what they want to do for the rest of the year. The 23-member school board is unstable, not mentally but structurally. There will be an election for seven positions in August, and in 2013 the board will shrink to the newbies and then possibly expand to up to 13 members.
The Tennessee state attorney general? Just another lawyer with an opinion, in the minds of some legislators and TPC members.
The superintendents? Neither one has been promised the job, and Kriner Cash is on the move.
The state legislature? A majority would vote for Tennessee seceding from Shelby County.
The Shelby County Commission or Memphis City Council? Please.
Our best hope is the TPC, with fresh guidance and affirmation from U.S. District Judge Hardy Mays via appointment of a special master — someone who can say, politely but firmly, get these trucks moving, you've been chopped, or sit down and shut up.
The TPC is facing a bear of a month of meetings in May to come up with a plan for a unfied system in June.
Most of these good and smart folks are volunteering their time, or their employers are donating their time. But it is the unified school board, according to Judge Mays' ruling, that has the power for "making all transition decisions, operating the two separate school systems, and providing information to the Commissioner of Education."
So far the special master that Mays spoke of in last order has not been appointed, and the TPC does not have the power to ask for one. I won't pretend to understand the fine points of special masters, but it sounds to me like a good thing right now, or else we're stuck in the mud.
The spark, of course, was municipal school systems and their champion in the state legislature, Senator Mark Norris.
Some members of the TPC, including chairman Barbara Prescott and Jim Boyd, think Norris is undercutting their efforts to come up with a plan for a system , starting in August of 2013, that could serve 150,000 students — in other words, all the students currently in city or county public schools. Other members, notably Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald, say suburban municipalities should be allowed to vote this spring on starting their own systems, and if the vote is favorable, that will help the TPC plan for a smaller unified system. The timetable, as much as the outcome, is at issue.
Thursday's meeting featured two votes that divided the commission. The first was whether to consider a motion by Boyd to address the issue. It passed. The second was on whether to send Norris and his friends in Nashville a message to stop acting as if he speaks on their behalf and to let the TPC do its work. It failed, but partly because Prescott, who voted no, feared that a favorable vote would be misconstrued as the TPC opposing municipal school districts under any circumstances, which is not her view.
(If that sounds confusing, then you have not been following the schools saga for the last two years. And we're 15 months from August of 2013 . . .)
The muni-issue first came up in an executive session and then took up more than an hour of the general session until members voted and abruptly left. There were no insults and no shouting, but the rifts were plain to see. In previous meetings, members have been bending over backwards to find some common ground on non-muni items and behaving in the manner of ambassadors. But the hard work starts in May, when weekly meetings are expected to last two to four hours or longer, according to committee chairs. The goal is to have a plan by mid-June.
The soft-spoken Boyd, leader of the nonprofit Bridges for 16 years until stepping down last year, first drew attention to the elephant in the room at an otherwise ho-hum executive session. Coincidentally, neither suburban champion David Pickler (at a convention) or McDonald (last-minute arrival) were there when he did it, but McDonald figured out what was up in short order.
"The same people who wrote that (Norris-Todd bill) legislation have changed the rules of the game," Boyd said. He said he took the job to create a unified system, and to not speak out against what he perceives as shenanigans in Nashville "is to forsake the responsibility that was originally given to us."
The legislature intends to act this session, Boyd said, so "we either act now or it's law."
McDonald first objected to adding Boyd's motion to the agenda of the general meeting, but Prescott allowed it. McDonald then said that Boyd's motion would be an attempt to kill what was merely "clarification" of the Norris-Todd bill. Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell suggested deferring the item until a future meeting
"For us to go out on a limb and take a position against municipal districts is beyond our mandate," Luttrell said.
Boyd tried to explain that was not his intent, but one way or another, Luttrell had made a point that seemed to influence Prescott and other members to back off, while expressing appreciation to Boyd. Prescott added that she had personally notified Norris that she resented him, in her view, presuming to speak or act on behalf of the TPC.
"We're not blind to the fact that our plan might not serve 150,000 students," she said, but she thinks it is best to prepare for that number in case the muni's don't come to pass for whatever reason.
Members, some of whom had been in TPC meetings for five hours Thursday, quit for the day shortly after 7 p.m. They have to be wondering if the herculean task ahead of them is worth it without fresh judicial intervention or a commitment from Luttrell and other moderates to hold the line on muni's until August of 2013 as the original bill said. The muni's and the uni's sharply disagree about the significance of a go-slow opinion by the state attorney general earlier this month. McDonald called it "one lawyer's opinion." If the suburbs form their own systems and the "unified" system starts with, say, 100,000-120,000 students, their plans and calculations based on 150,000 students won't be worth much if anything.
Cash, who was given a one-year extension of his contract until the start of the school year in 2013, visited Charlotte last week and met with various groups. He reportedly withdrew from consideration shortly before the selection of Heath Morrison was announced.
In December, former Charlotte-Mecklenburg superintendent Pete Gorman and three other representatives of the community came to Memphis to meet with the Transition Planning Commission and members of the unified school board.
So how does the unthinkable become thinkable? I've been thinking about that in light of a new book by a 93-year-old Memphian, a 36-year-old issue of our company's monthly magazine, and the upcoming debate over the City of Memphis budget and various proposals to avoid a property tax increase. Sometimes the unthinkable is doable, sometimes it isn't, and sometimes it just take a lot of patience. Here are three examples.
NO WAY: STATE INCOME TAX
Tennessee is one of a handful of states that does not tax earned income. Every once in a while, a maverick comes along and points out the inequity of the state tax structure that relies on the highest sales tax (even on groceries) in the country. I have been reading "Lewie," an autobiography by the esteemed lawyer and Republican blueblood Lewis Donelson.
In the early 1960s, Donelson was named to a "Committee of 100" to plan the future of Tennessee.
"I had gotten interested in Tennessee's financial structures, especially the pernicious aspects of the state's heavy general sales tax," he wrote. "This resulted in lower-income citizens being taxed a much higher percentage of income than upper-income individuals." Then as now, the state tax structure did not grow as rapidly as inflation, and there were frequent increases in the sales tax. Donelson argued for a state income tax.
"I made a motion and the committee adopted a resolution recommending an income tax. The only result of this resolution: the death of the Committee of 100."
Donelson was anything but a screaming radical, but he was an excellent lawyer and a good enough politician to serve a term on the Memphis City Council and stints as an aide to two Tennessee governors, neither of whom was crazy enough to propose a state income tax while in office. That kamikaze mission was undertaken by another Republican governor, Don Sundquist. His eternal reward was to be shunned by his party and shouted at by crowds of angry protesters at the Capitol for supporting an income tax that, once again, went nowhere.
MAYBE A WAY: TAX ALTERNATIVES
Some members of the Memphis City Council suggested bringing the income tax up again if for no other reason than to stir things up in Nashville. Other members suggested a payroll tax to get revenue from people who work in Memphis or its suburbs but live outside of Shelby County. That idea isn't going anywhere either as long as the city's biggest employer — FedEx — opposes it. FedEx CEO Fred Smith has said publicly many times, "if you want less of something, tax it." End of story.
A more promising longshot was proposed by Council member Janis Fullilove. She said nonprofits and companies that have received PILOTs or payment-in-lieu-of-taxes tax breaks should pay more because they own so much property. It's not like nobody else at City Hall knows the score. On the contrary, everyone knows the score. At a retreat for the council and administration earlier this year, Housing and Community Development Director Robert Lipscomb handed out charts showing how little taxable property there is in Memphis relative to the full size of the city.
To take one example, the nonprofit hospital giants have big salaries and lots of free cash. Here's a column from a couple of years ago. Blogger Tom Jones has been a bulldog on the issue of PILOTs for several years. Here is one particularly informative post on how PILOTs became contagious in Memphis and Shelby County. But voices in the wind are easily ignored or dismissed. The same goes for another study of PILOTs or a blue-ribbon committee, a typical Mayor A C Wharton "solution." What is needed is more spark and some fire.
At least three things would have to happen for Fullilove's proposal to get anywhere. One, Wharton would have to embrace it, as the mayor of Boston did last year. Two, some key nonprofits would have to break ranks and agree to voluntarily increase their payments to local government, putting pressure on others to follow suit. And, three, The Commercial Appeal would have to use some of its reporting clout to investigate nonprofits (as the Boston Globe did), and influential organizations such as Memphis Tomorrow and the Chamber of Commerce would have to lend support.
YES WAY: BIKE LANES AND THE HARAHAN BRIDGE
In 1976, "city of memphis" magazine, the forerunner of Memphis magazine, ran an article by Max Heine entitled "Bicycling Memphis." It is uncanny how it foreshadows developments 35 years later.
The author argued that there were 283,000 (!!!) "admitted pedallers" in Shelby County and that bike lanes should be installed on streets "separated from traffic by a stripe or curb, with signs designating the route." A planner with the Memphis and Shelby County Planning Commission mapped out 25 routes, including one from Overton Park and Overton Square to downtown and and another connecting the fairgrounds and the the city's three colleges. The cost of the three main routes was estimated at $25,000-$30,000. The chairman of the City Council "was not familiar with the proposed routes but pointed out that the city had replaced many of the curbside sewer covers" that could obstruct riders.
Then there was this bit of blue-sky thinking:
"One exciting proposal calls for a pedestrian/bike crossing on one of the abandoned car lanes of the Harahan railroad bridge . . . About $6 million in federal funds is available through the Urban Bikeway Demonstration Act."
The article said "bikommuting" was an emerging issue, and noted that the second annual Bicycle Commuter Day was scheduled for May 28, 1976.
Fast forward to 2012. The Harahan Project is alive and well, and May 18th is officially Bike to Work day.
Calling it a "gap" budget, Mayor A C Wharton proposed a $628.3 million 2013 budget with a one-time 47-cent property tax increase to fund Memphis City Schools for the last year of the city's obligation before unification with the county school system. The current rate of $3.19 would rise to $3.66. After this fiscal year, Wharton said the city would transition into a five-year strategic planning process that would supposedly avoid annual budget battles.
That increase would translate to about $120 per $100,000 of property appraisal. But it might not be the last word on city school taxes because a 2009 payment to MCS is still at issue in the courts.
Wharton said city property tax revenue has decreased by $17 million annually since 2009 because of declining appraisals. His proposed budget cuts $24 million from day-to-day operating expenses. But none of the cuts are in the police or fire departments which account for 4,519 of the 5,834 general fund employees. There are no layoffs of police officers or fire fighters in the proposed budget.
Council members had other ideas.
Janis Fullilove suggested getting more money out of nonprofits such as hospitals and universities and from businesses that make payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs). As she noted, this idea has gotten mainstream support in other cities including Boston, with this nod from the Boston Globe.
Jim Strickland said Memphis is losing population, a statement supported by the last Census. Councilman Joe Brown said property taxes are lower in neighboring counties because there are fewer services and amenities, and disputed Strickland's claim.
"Nobody's leaving Memphis, that's just a myth," Brown said.
Shea Flinn said property taxes are probably going to go up by some amount and that members must compromise. Kemp Conrad said the council should avoid a repeat of last year's budget sessions when "at the last meeting in June we cobble something together." Ed Ford Jr. suggested taxing the (his estimate) 90,000 people who work in Memphis but don't live here.
After listening to the suggestions, Wharton said Memphis is not alone in struggling to balance its budget, which he called a nationwide problem. He noted the city has added 10,000 jobs and $1 billion in investment and was favorably mentioned in a recent Gallup Poll of cities and hiring.
The community survey was done by telephone and got 1,218 responses. The staff survey was done by email and got 2,213 replies. Both of them are detailed and, therefore, hard to summarize. But readers willing to look at them will find a somewhat more sympathetic view of unification than is typically presented in public forums and news media comment sections, which can be dominated by anonymous individuals with a strong point of view, usually anti-Memphis City Schools.
"The majority of citizens are not pessimistic about the merger," says the introduction to the community survey. Having said that, 30-40 percent of respondents said they would either move away from a unified district after August, 2013, or are "not sure" if they would stay or move.
In the staff survey, MCS employees (1,224 of the total) and Shelby County Schools employees (984 of the total) differed starkly in their evaluations of the two systems. Only 31 percent of MCS employees rated their system good to excellent, and 7 percent rated it failed/poor. In the county school system, 95 percent rated SCS good to excellent and not a single respondent gave the system a failing grade.
MCS superintendent Kriner Cash was rated good to excellent by 17 percent of respondents, while SCS superintendent John Aitken got those marks from 43 percent of respondents.
In defense of professional commenters and reporters, we base our work on multiple interviews, personal experience and observation, readings, and attendance at schools meetings around the community over the last two years or longer. Reporting on public meetings presents a problem if one side or the other dominates the comment period. These Yacoubian surveys are a much bigger sample and worth a look. As a reader, the choice is yours.
Final observation: the term "failing schools," as this piece in the American Journalism Review notes, is carelessly overused and, according to these surveys, inaccurate to the extent it suggests that all public schools in Memphis or other urban areas are failing.
The Charlotte Observer editorialized against secession Monday. It's reminiscent of the "tiny towns" story in Memphis and Shelby County some 15 years ago.
Cash and the other two finalists were interviewed last week. Representatives of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools met with the Transition Planning Commission in December.
Sports Business Journal is reporting that the Regions Morgan Keegan Championship and the WTA women's pro tournament have been sold to IMG Worldwide and will move to Rio.
The Regions Morgan Keegan Championships, the men's ATP pro tournament, has been in Memphis since 1976 and has featured nearly all of the world's number-one players until the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic era. The WTA women's tournament is a relatively recent addition and did not have a title sponsor this year.
Crowds have been so-so in recent years, but the tournament is a rarity in that it features events for both men and women, and the men's event is a high-level event on the ATP scoring system. It gives Memphis an international event and some worldwide television exposure, but after 36 years it has lost its newness and some of its sizzle.
Sharks Sports & Entertainment is the parent company of the San Jose Sharks of the National Hockey League. The firm was formerly known as Silicon Valley Sports & Entertainment. Sharks Sports & Entertainment also owns the SAP Open in San Jose, the men's pro tournament that precedes the Memphis event on the winter schedule. It bought the Racquet Club and the tournaments in 2008.
The club has 11 indoor courts and 16 outdoor courts used by members and the University of Memphis tennis teams. Membership has been declining as corporate memberships become more scarce and team tennis matches and leagues move to public courts, private schools, and other clubs. There are also three racquetball courts at the club, but the professional tournament moved away a few years ago. The club has undergone an extensive renovation of the restaurant, lobby, hallways, and locker rooms under the new ownership.
The North Carolina school district with 138,000 students hopes to have a final choice by May. Cash is the only black finalist. The district population is 42 percent black and majority-minority overall.
The other finalists are the current superintendent in Reno, Nevada, and the chief academic officer for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg district. The job has been vacant since June of last year.
Ann Doss Helms, a reporter covering the story for the Charlotte Observer, said there were 89 applicants. The field was narrowed to 8-12 finalists who were secretly interviewed at the Charlotte airport.
"I think the internal candidate has a chance," she said.
Gorman, she said, was initially popular and considered something of a "rock star" superintendent, but became less popular toward the end of his tenure. Gorman and three other representatives of the district visited Memphis to advise the Transition Planning Commission in December.