The vote was 14 to 6, with one abstention. It came near the end of a five-hour meeting during which the board also voted 15-6 to conduct a national search for a superintendent.
The majority of board members felt that the sales tax increase, while regressive, would raise $62 million, of which $31 million would go to schools.
"This benefits all children regardless of where they live," said Martavius Jones.
The superintendent search vote came after an amendment changing the search from national to local (effectively handing the job to John Aitken, superintendent of the current Shelby County school system) failed.
"I'm sitting here wondering how anyone in their right mind would want to come to work for us 23 board members," said David Reaves. He noted that the board took 90 minutes to approve a resolution on merger strategy and timeline after questioning whether it gave the administration too much power.
The timeline calls for a key meeting on November 15th about Transition Planning Commission recommendations. Additional meetings will be held in November, and members predicted they will last several hours and possibly draw thousands of spectators.
"This is a whole lot of work," said MCS Superintendent Kriner Cash. "There's never been a merger like this in the history of anything."
Cash also said, "We are going to have to get down and dirty with this, and that dirt is coming real soon."
The basic problem is that the board is divided between urban and suburban interests, the suburban representatives don't trust the Shelby County Commission, several board members don't trust the administration, and several more members from both camps don't trust the Transition Planning Commission and the outside interests working behind the scene through foundations, nonprofits, the state Department of Education, and the group Stand For Children.
In a sign of divisions and votes to come, the auditorium was filled with members of AFSCME, the Memphis Education Association, and supporters of the CLUE program in MCS for "gifted" children. They carried signs saying "Keep CLUE," "No Lottery For Optional Schools," and "Stop Rich Folks making $ from public education and creating low-wage workers." Among the TPC recommendations is a lottery for some spaces in optional schools. Slots now go on a first-come, first-served basis. CLUE, heavily supported by parents from Grahamwood Elementary School and a few of their children who also spoke, is often under the gun at budget time. The "rich folks" reference was apparently to operators of charter schools.
Memphis City Councilman Edmund Ford Jr. says the "minimal tax" will "help some of the city's most vulnerable citizens maintain their independence and provide access to much needed jobs throughout the community."
The Sierra Club and Livable Memphis are among the groups supporting the referendum and rallying Friday afternoon at the bus station at the north end of downtown.
If successful, MATA will use the funds to increase frequency on eight major bus routes around the area and on the downtown trolley.
A penny-a-gallon increase would add up to $5 for a person driving 10,000 miles a year and getting 20 miles per gallon on his or her vehicle. The price of gas has fallen since it topped $4 a gallon this summer. With the current price varying from $3.09 to $3.40 or more in the Memphis area, it is possible to save $5 on a single fill-up by shopping around.
But no tax increase is a cinch. MATA, some voters will remember, is the agency responsible for the Midtown trolley extension via Madison Avenue and a proposed $400 million light rail line to Memphis International Airport.
Atlanta-area voters in July defeated a proposed 1-cent sales tax that would have raised an estimated $7.2 billion for transportation projects. Voters in St. Louis in 2010 approved a half-cent sales tax increase to help fund the regional transit agency after defeating it in earlier votes.
The gas tax referendum is one of two tax referendums on the ballot in Memphis. The other is a proposed countywide half-cent increase in the sales tax.
Ford said he is unaware of any organized opposition to the gas tax. The sales tax has caused some grumbling from suburban residents who are not allowed to vote on it because they previously approved a sales tax increase for suburban school systems.
On my way home earlier this week I stopped for a few minutes to watch three men and a woman chip mortar off of old bricks at the site of a demolished building on Front Street. It was a hot day and it looked like hard work. A brick hammer is a nasty tool, with a business end that can take off a finger as easily as a piece of dried concrete. A foreman told me brick cleaners are paid by the pallet, and a good cleaner can do five pallets a day. One pallet has ten layers of bricks, 50 bricks to a layer, or 500 bricks in all. So a day's work could be 2,500 bricks. The foreman and the brick cleaners didn't tell me how much they make, but one pallet, cleaned and wrapped in plastic, would cost me $175-$250, I was told. For whatever reason, I noticed that the brick cleaners did not come back the next day or the next although there was still a big pile of bricks to be turned into cash.
Can hunters occasionally patrol my street and alley in Midtown, bagging aluminum cans from the recycling bin and dumpster that would otherwise be emptied by the city. It's small change, at best. Iskiwitz Metals Recycling pays 52 cents a pound, and it takes about 30 cans to make a pound. So to earn five bucks for a meal at McDonald's, you need 300 cans. Still, people do it.
Old tires can be turned into cash at a slightly better exchange, but this requires a vehicle to haul them. The going rate is 50 cents a tire. But City Councilman Harold Collins tells me the city only has $61,000 in its tire recycling program that began a few years ago and the county is not on board.
Old computers, phones, and iPads can be sold on Craigslist or websites such as Gazelle, but now we're talking about a different class of consumer, even if some computers occasionally show up on the sidewalk for the overnight scavengers. A few weeks ago I was reliving the days of Tennessee Waltz with a federal prosecutor. The undercover operation was based on a phony company called E-Cycle Management that acquired used computers and supposedly sent them overseas to be reconditioned and sold. The business model was not as far fetched as the feds thought at the time because I have since seen stories about real companies doing this.
One of the most creative recycling ventures I have seen recently involved the bundles of Memphis Flyers on the loading dock on the north side of our building next to the parking lot. An unfortunate occupant of one of the condos upstairs parked his sports car near the dock and came out the next morning to find his wheels missing. The car was propped up on, you guessed it, bundles of Flyers.
I was curious about container recyling on a large scale, and called Marge Davis of Scenic Tennessee, which produces a bottle bill resource guide. Proponents of a bottle and can deposit bill took this year off after failing to get a bill to the floor in previous years, but plan to introduce a new bill in 2013 if they can find sponsors. Senate sponsor Beverly Marrero of Memphis was not reelected.
Davis believes a bill would pass if it could get to the floor. Ten states have a cash deposit on plastic and aluminum drink containers, ranging from a nickel to ten cents. Michigan, where the deposit is a dime, claimed a 97-percent return rate. Tennessee, without a bottle bill, has a 10 percent recycling rate, Davis said.
All three came to mind Saturday when I drove to the Memphis Board of Education for a parents and staff meeting on sex ed or family life curriculum as it is also called. The target audience was parents, and the letter to them on the handout table began thus:
"Your child is about to begin, or may have already begun, a period of rapid growth called puberty."
It continued, "By teaching children about the wonderful ways they are maturing, adults can promote a positive attitude toward sexuality that helps children grown into healthy, responsible adults."
Puberty was not much on my mind on this beautiful October morning, possibly because my children are, thank goodness, well past it. But I expected to see at least a modestly energetic turnout of parents at a meeting to explain the new "opt in" as opposed to the old "opt out" policy for students entering those wonderful years of hair, breasts, zits, muscles, Tampax, and dirty jokes among other things. Instead, there was no crowd at all, unless you count the handful of presenters and MCS staff.
There was however, a turnout of about 40-50 people outside the Planned Parenthood office on Poplar Avenue near East Parkway that I drove past on my way to the meeting. They were mostly students from St. Benedict High School carrying anti-abortion signs. Their sponsor, Sharon Masterson, said they were members of Teens For Life and "October is the month when we focus on right-to-life issues."
At the meeting, Planned Parenthood representative Barry Chase told me opt-in, opt-out "is my personal big issue." The Society for Sex Education, he said, "says the opt-in policy presents a barrier that opt-out does not."
"We have a real problem with parental participation," Chase said. "Why require more of it when you don't have enough now?"
Witness, he said, the tiny turnout.
Cassandra Turner, speaking for MCS on the issue, said the non-turnout was not surprising considering that it was a beautiful Saturday morning with lots of other things going on.
"We want the parents involved," she said. "But parents feel more comfortable in their school."
She said opt-in as opposed to opt-out is "only a big deal to people who don't have faith in parents."
The so-called Michigan Model Family Life Curriculum has been adopted by MCS as part of its curriculum in grades 4-9. It will, according to the handout, "promote appreciation and respect for the amazing changes experienced by self and others" as well as "equip children with the skills they need to postpone sexual intercourse."
I was educated in public schools in Michigan long before AIDS and oral sex and Roe v. Wade entered the national vocabulary. As I remember the Michigan model in that era, in sixth-grade the boys were herded into one classroom and the girls another for separate sessions with gym coaches that proved to be disappointing on the sex front as far as pictures, stories, and specific information. I can't speak for the girls, of course.
As a parent, I wound up in the libertarian, we-will-take-care-of-this-at-home camp. I recall my MCS-educated children taking a Health class they considered an immense bore some time around ninth grade. A woman promoting abstinence came to a PTA meeting and told her personal story of unwanted pregnancy and later enlightenment, which was later shared with students, possibly on an opt-in basis but I can't say for sure.
Faced with writing an essay on, say, condoms as homework and sharing it with my parents, I would have felt strange as either a student or a parent. But that is the new world in which we live. I am well aware of the personal and social costs of unwanted pregnancy and am a strong proponent of family planning, etc. But it's Saturday. Now I am going into the other room to watch football.
Fuel-conscious FedEx is committed to electric vehicles as part of its strategy to lower costs and decrease reliance on fossil fuel. Last week during a question-and-answer session with analysts, David Bronczek, CEO of FedEx Express, said all-electric rather than hybrid electric vehicles "may be the best choice for us." The company is interested in both, along with vehicles powered by natural gas as it strives to increase fuel efficiency.
The buying public is not very interested yet. That goes for drivers in Memphis, which was chosen in 2011 as one of the key sites for charging stations, and car buyers in general. Nissan moved manufacturing of the Nissan Leaf from Japan to Smyrna, Tennessee starting this year. The goal is 150,000 vehicles a year. The Chevy Volt runs on a battery made at a reopened GM plant in Detroit. Both electric cars can be purchased in Memphis for prices in the $30,000s for the 2012 model and more than $40,000 before rebates for the 2013 model.
Detroit newspapers (Go Tigers!) this week have been reporting the big flop by makers of electric vehicles and their batteries. Sales for all makers have been anemic, according to a story in the Detroit News. In the debates, presidential and vice-presidential candidates, while against high gas prices and for alternative energy sources, differed on the merits of grants for makers of electric cars and how whether subsidies went to a company in China.
There is nothing ambiguous about investor interest in electric cars. It has just about hit rock bottom. ECOtality, the publicly-traded (NASDAQ: ECTY) California-based company behind "The EV Project" in Memphis and other cities, is barely hanging on. Five years ago it was selling for $22 and in 2009, after it received a federal stimulus grant of $114.8 million, the price was $17. When ECOtality made its announcement in February of 2011 that it was expanding to Memphis, the stock was $4. Today it is 45 cents.
As described by The Tennessean, Huffman made good on a pledge to withhold $3.4 million in funding from Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools because the school board would not allow Great Hearts Academies to open a charter school in prosperous West Nashville. Charter schools typically serve low-income and minority students in urban areas. Memphis is the state's leading charter school incubator.
The ongoing story of charter school diversity and expansion is likely to spread to Shelby County and school restructuring. The Nashville news has been picked up by, among others, The Wall Street Journal, one of the nation's leading champions of charter schools and bashers of teachers' unions.
Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, whose son taught in Memphis public schools as a member of Teach For America, sided with Huffman.
So said FedEx founder Fred Smith in May in a speech to the Wings Club in New York City titled "Air Cargo: Back to the Future" that played off the 1985 movie with Michael J. Fox as time traveler Marty McFly. Someone thought enough of the speech to put it in a hardcover book distributed at the 2012 Investors and Lenders Meeting at the Hilton this week. Only 16 pages, including pictures and charts, it gives as concise a history of the forces that drove the growth of FedEx (and therefore Memphis indirectly) as you will find.
The Big Change ("a really big deal," Smith said) coming up is the company's plan to achieve $1.7 billion in annual profit improvement by the end of fiscal year 2016. The shareholders' gain will, to some extent, be Memphis's loss. A salaried FedEx employee who takes a voluntary buyout is probably a Shelby County resident with a six-figure family income, a house, maybe kids in private schools, possibly a Grizzlies season-ticket buyer, a leader in his or her community, a donor to charities, and someone with the mobility to move somewhere else. Multiply by several hundred and it's a big ripple effect. More jobs at the SuperHub won't offset that.
How big? Imagine if the news had been of a different nature. Substitute thousands of "hires" for "voluntary buyouts" and "expansion" for "cost reductions". Keep the focus on Tennessee, and leave in the uncertainty about the timing and extent of the change if you like. Now imagine the reaction of local politicians and a chamber of commerce that was ready to break out the sombreros and the mariachi band for an expansion of air service to Mexico that never happened. Cartwheels, anyone?
If Memphis was a stock its price would be down today. How much? I'd say about five percent, which was roughly the increase in the price of FedEx stock on Wednesday after the opening salvos of the upbeat two-day conference for investors and lenders. Stock price, of course, reflects current and future earnings.
This week showed Fred Smith as salesman and head coach as well as CEO. He gave the keynote speech Tuesday night and moderated Wednesday's closing panel discussion and Q & A with analysts. It was the founder of a great company giving his vision and putting his heart into it, like Steve Jobs at Apple or Bill Gates at Microsoft. There were Power Points for sure, but there were also flashes of humor, as when he said "Raymond who" to Raymond James analyst Art Hatfield, formerly of Morgan Keegan. There was testiness, as when, with eyes blazing like coals above a frown, he chided a questioner about his characterization of "decline, decline, decline" in one segment of FedEx's business. But mostly there was confidence and an air of command on display before a group of analysts, many of whom looked like they weren't born when Federal Express was founded in 1970.
"I don't have any plans to retire at the moment, and I certainly want to see this plan through," Smith said in response to a question Wednesday.
The stock market is about telling stories to analysts and lenders who can in turn tell them to brokers, investors and other lenders. FedEx top brass gave them a compelling story at a time when the domestic economy and its own stock is in a funk, and was rewarded with an immediate boost in its stock price and a spike in those fanciful but irresistible long-range "price targets" up to $150. FedEx breached $100 a share in 2006 and 2007 and has not crossed that milestone since. In 2009 you could have had it for $42. If you bought then, you've doubled your money, but if you're a long time buy-and-hold investor the stock delivered modest returns.
For context, here are a few excerpts from Smith's "Back to the Future" speech:
"The 747 air freighter gave air cargo a starring role in the air transportation system, instead of its being an after-thought in the underbellies of passenger planes. Now, finally, you had the plane to carry computers, electronics, and other high value perishables such as flowers across vast distances."
"As the 747 began to dominate long-haul services, an upstart network called Federal Express began flying from Memphis in spring 1973 with less than 200 packages rattling around in 14 small Dassault Falcons going to 25 cities on its first day."
"We understood at FedEx that information about the package is as important as the package itself, so we also originated the first tracking system."
"There's a cloud hanging over today's industrial horizon — the high price of oil. I'll never forget the effect of 1973's embargo on a fledgling FedEx. We almost went under before we'd barely begun . . . In 1999 oil was $16 a barrel. In 2008 it was $147 a barrel — a 900% increase."
"Let's compare a 747 and a large container ship. For the ship it takes one ton of fuel to move 330 tons of cargo. For the plane, it takes about 330 tons of fuel to move the same amount of cargo . . . All those big ships are nibbling away at the air cargo business, and those bites will become bigger when the Panama Canal expansion is completed in 2014."
"Bigger commodity consignments are increasingly moving by sea, and dedicated express networks and underbellies are capturing more urgent, lighter shipments. So in many ways the future of air cargo is akin to the early days of the industry."
"The takeaway from this evolution of the air cargo industry is that the air express sector will continue to grown long-term as the integration of the world's economies generate more small shipments moving directly from point of production to the end user."
Shortly after the stock market opened on Wednesday, FedEx stock was up $4.50, or 5 percent, while UPS had barely budged and the Dow was down 45 points. If you're an investor, you're happy. If you're a Memphian or a local FedEx employee, however, you might still be wondering what the impact of the announced "voluntary buyouts" and plan to "reduce fixed headcount by several thousand people," as CEO Fred Smith said Tuesday, will be closer to home.
We'll have to wait to find out. David Bronczek, president and CEO of FedEx Express, said Wednesday the buyouts will be offered to certain U.S. employees but details won't be spelled out until the second half of the 2013 fiscal year.
"The overall U.S. domestic market has matured," said Bronczek.
He said the company is already reducing flight hours and the number of full-time hourly employees in the U.S. by 3 percent. He gave two examples — Houston, where FedEx closed five stations and replaced them with two, and Atlanta, where some service was rerouted to the two FedEx national hubs, one of which, of course, is Memphis. So call it a mixed message. But anyone who has heard the word "voluntary buyout" in the last four years — let's say, oh, in the newspaper business — might get a little fearful about what happens if there aren't enough volunteers in the Volunteer State.
Questions about staffing in a follow-up session didn't pry out any more information. The analysts and investors, of course, have a different focus than Memphians. FedEx, which will mark its 40th anniversary next year, has some 30,000 employees in the area (an estimate that gets no quarrel from the public relations department) including a big share of its 4,300 pilots, is a corporate angel, and dominates the airport. We get a disproportionate benefit from growth, and, possibly, a bigger hit from contraction.
Like Mitt Romney pounding Barack Obama in the first debate, FedEx top brass went after UPS. The message: FedEx is faster, smarter, greener, leaner, and more reliable in each of its five divisions and grabbing market share from the guys in brown.
"The key to success if putting the right products in the right networks," said Michael Glenn, president and CEO of FedEx Services. And more than once he emphasized that "not all freight is good freight" and FedEx will let some accounts walk if they are unprofitable.
On Tuesday, Smith announced plans targeting annual profitability improvement of $1.7 billion during the next three years, with a significant part of that coming by fiscal 2015. He also said the company plans to increase its dividends in years to come, but with a payout of a fraction of 1 percent FedEx is not really a dividend play. Its appeal is its global story and its swagger.
Walking into a FedEx Investors and Lenders meeting, where some 200 guests dined on barbecue and beer at the Hilton Hotel Tuesday night, is a little like that dream where you have a big exam in ten minutes and haven't cracked a book. One of the presentations Tuesday evening was titled "Four Horsemen of Dominant Design." Delivered without notes by chief information officer Robert Carter, it was a 25-minute dazzler about innovations from the gauge of railroads to cloud computing and online music.
I'm glad I won't be quizzed. One of the most interesting parts was when Carter posed what he called a child's riddle: would you rather have a penny that doubled every day for a month or $1 million right away?
Taking the easy cash is a sucker play because by the 30th day you're collecting over $5 million (I had a friend who teaches math at MUS verify this). The growth curve of that penny stays flat for the first few weeks then bends upward like the letter "J." The point being that fabulous riches await those with patience and a dominant design after the big shakeout. Or something like that.
Anyway, for all the corporate-speak about new verticals, yield curves, global trade, value propositions and "triple sevens" (777 aircraft), I would bet a penny that this little fable, along with the old Smith magic, had as much as anything to do with that $4.50 bump in the stock price.
And my earthshaking thought is . . . debating is hard. Few people are good at it, and Barack Obama is not one of them. He's lucky Sarah Palin was on the GOP ticket in 2008. And Mitt Romney, celebrated by Republicans today who scorned him a month ago, is more actor than debater, and, gets the benefit of looking presidential.
It’s been widely reported that Obama was a real tiger on the campaign trail the day after the debate, which only highlighted his shortcomings the night before. Debating is not the same as making a speech, with or without a teleprompter, before a friendly audience or even a hostile one. It is not making a witty comment in a roundtable discussion on a television talk show. It certainly isn’t like writing commentaries or blogging to a computer screen.
And it isn’t reciting deficit numbers or Simpson-Bowles and Dodd-Frank Act to a nation coping with unemployment, pissed off at banks, Wall Street, and each other, and partisans hungry for blood and red meat. In journalism we call that inside baseball, or casting your remarks for insiders and advisers instead of viewers and readers at large. Both Obama and Romney played inside baseball.
My nominations for best Memphis debaters are school board members David Pickler and Martavius Jones. They squared off dozens of times before and after the consolidation vote, sometimes in the suburbs, sometimes in the inner city, and many times in public meetings when the television cameras were on, the stakes were high, and the comments of their fellow school board members competed for attention.
Pickler and Jones stayed on point, knew their stuff, stuck to their guns, did not personally insult each other, and kept coming back for more. Repeated practice made them better, which is something that hurt Obama, as Dana Milbank of the Washington Post noted.
Tomeka Hart is a good debater too, but she didn’t make her case well when she ran against Steve Cohen for Congress. Cohen is a bulldog of a debater, loves a scrap, has encyclopedic political knowledge, and swamped her.
On the Memphis City Council, Shea Flinn and Myron Lowery get my top marks. Lowery has gotten better with age and benefits from his television journalism background. Flinn is a natural with a background in acting. Both use their skills with the knowledge that seven votes carries the day on the council, and, while they're capable of it, pandering to the crowd is done better by others on the council.
On the Shelby County Commission I like Walter Bailey’s elder statesman appearance and the way he picks his spots. Nobody says more in fewer words or uses the long pause better. Often a maverick, Bailey was on the commission, off the commission, and on again. He has heard and seen it all. Steve Mulroy, also an attorney, is an eager and articulate combatant but spreads himself thin. Terry Roland has aw-shucks appeal when not tossing insults. Good debaters are often not likable but they keep some decorum.
Courtroom lawyers can be good debaters but rarely venture into politics. They play to the jury, and their foes are hostile witnesses and opposing counsel, but that is different than a debate format where each person has two minutes at a time. Former federal prosecutor Tim DiScenza, who did the Tennessee Waltz cases, would have made a terrific debater — plain-spoken, go-for-the-jugular, versed in the facts, and about half mean.
One of the disappointments of the ongoing schools case is the likely lack of a full-blown debate by top lawyers of the underlying issues in school consolidation and resegregation.
That would be worth a ticket.
U.S. Attorney Edward Stanton III announced the pleas Thursday of Carlos Shaw, 37, and Shantell Shaw, 40, both of Memphis. They are not related. Since July, a total of 15 people have been indicted or pleaded guilty in the teacher certification scam allegedly orchestrated by Clarence Mumford Sr., 59, of Memphis, a former assistant principal and guidance counselor in MCS.
According to Stanton, Mumford was a mentor to Shantell Shaw in 2008 when she was a new teacher at Trezevant High School.
"Mumford eventually approached Shaw and asked her to take a biology certification examination on
behalf of a teacher who had failed the test eleven times and was in danger of losing her job. Shaw initially declined but, after meeting the teacher who needed the test taken, agreed to take the test for $1000. Shaw took approximately twelve to fifteen tests and was paid approximately $8,000," according to a statement issued by Stanton's office.
Carlos Shaw was an assistant principal at Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering and also taught at Carver High School and Booker T. Washington High School. He was approached by Mumford approximately ten years ago when he and Mumford taught summer school together.
"Mumford repeatedly asked Shaw to take examinations for teachers needing passing scores, and Shaw eventually agreed. He admitted to being paid by Mumford to take 10 to 15 tests for payment ranging from $200 to $700," the statement said.