Thursday, March 31, 2011

New Federal Suit Seeks Judicial Mandate for Immediate All-County School Board.

In action filed Thursday, plaintiffs argue that Memphis City Schools is null and void, that Norris-Todd is inapplicable, and that the county commission should proceed with new county board on one person/one vote grounds.

Posted By on Thu, Mar 31, 2011 at 12:50 PM

lawsuit-723614.jpg
Coals-to-Newcastle Dept.: A new federal suit has been filed relative to the ongoing school merger controversy, and this one — aimed primarily at the current Shelby County Schools board and the General Assembly’s recently passed Norris-Todd bill — seeks to declare Memphis City Schools officially null and void and to facilitate the makeover of the SCS board as the governing agency for public schools throughout Memphis and Shelby County.

Styled a “complaint for declaratory judgment and permanent injunctive relief,” the suit, filed Thursday morning, could well end up being absorbed within the case now being adjudged by U.S. District Judge Samuel Hardy Mays, who is due to issue a ruling Monday on whether the Shelby County Commission should be enjoined from proceeding with its plan to appoint 25 members of an interim all-county school board.

The existing federal lawsuit was filed by Shelby County Schools, which was joined in the action by the state Department of Education.

Plaintiffs in the new suit, represented by Allan Wade (who doubles as the City Council's attorney in merger-related cases) are four Shelby County residents: Eddie Jones, Kathryn Leopard, Jason Pearson, and Regina Guy. As the suit notes, all but Leopard are African Americans. Jones, Leopard, and Pearson reside within the Memphis city limits; Guy lives in outer Shelby County.

Essentially, the suit maintains that MCS, as a special school district chartered in 1869, conclusively ceased to be, under terms of a 1961 Private Act, when the Memphis City Council voted to terminate it. The suit further disputes the former legality of MCS as a special school district on grounds that it did not possess taxing authority and maintains that any doubt as to its defunct status was resolved by the Council’s action on February 10 in formally dissolving it.

The suit alleges that the same facts make illegitimate the Norris-Todd bill of this year, which provides for the continuation of the temporary existence of MCS until 2012; the suit further alleges that state law makes the SCS board the proper governing authority for all public schools in Shelby County but that the board, unless reconstituted to reflect proportional representation for all citizens of Shelby County, including Memphis, is in violation of the Constutition’s “one person/one vote” provisions.

Efforts by the currently constituted SCS boad and its sympathizers In the legislature to maintain the existence of two side-by-side school boards and/or to allow the subsequent creation of new special school districts in Shelby county are attributed to “motives wholly unrelated to the best interests of the public school children of the City of Memphis, but rather...purposefully intended to maintain the current racial balance of the two (2) school systems.”

Formally, the Shelby County Commission is designated as a co-defendant (along with county mayor Mark Luttrell), but the suit essentially seeks a judicial mandate for the county commission to continue with actions it has already initiated under its proposed 25-district formula — in the language of the suit: “to adopt a plan establishing districts from which members the Board of Education of the Shelby County Schools can be elected that guarantees to all qualified voters of Shelby County one-man one vote guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

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Ford vs. Cohen: Again? This Time the Candidate's First Name Could be Justin

Posted By on Thu, Mar 31, 2011 at 10:36 AM

Justin Ford doing his morning shape-up
  • JB
  • Justin Ford doing his morning shape-up

Talk about following family tradition: Justin Ford, the first-term Shelby County commissioner and member of the well-known political clan, not only is involved in the family funeral-home business (and considering opening up his own independent establishment), he’s thinking of making a political race that would have him treading in the footsteps of other Fords.

That race? One for Congress, he confided while doing a daily morning workout Thursday on an elliptical cross trainer at ATC Fitness in Lakeland. Against Steve Cohen, a fellow Democrat and the incumbent congressman in the 9th District? “Against whoever,” Ford shrugged. (Inasmuch as he holds the Position 3, District 3 commission seat, which is well within the confines of the 9th Congressional District, both the question and the answer were more rhetorical than not.)

If the 25-year-old commissioner — elected last year to succeed his father, Joe Ford, who had gone on to serve as interim county mayor — really does end up making the congressional race, he will become the fourth member of the extended Ford family to compete against Cohen for the seat. Cousin Harold Ford Jr. won the Democratic primary against Cohen in 1996, and cousin Jake Ford, running as an independent, lost to Cohen, the Democratic nominee, in 2006. Also running in what had been a crowded Democratic primary that year was Justin Ford's brother, Joe Ford Jr.

Last year, running for a third term against former Mayor Willie Herenton, which he won easily, Cohen had the public support of former congressman Harold Ford Sr., the family patriarch, and the implied support of Harold Ford Jr.

If Justin Ford intends to become a congressman, he would be of age to do so as early as next year, but just barely. The Constitution requires that members of the U.S. House of Representatives be 26 years old.

The congressional balloon is not the only one being floated by Commissioner Ford. He acknowledges that he’s thought of challenging current Shelby County Democratic Chair Van Turner for the chairmanship of the local party, but he owns up to being unsure if he has the votes in hand or if that’s where his fancy really lies.

Ford’s experience so far on the commission seems to have whetted his appetite for taking public stands on hot-button issues, and he isn’t averse to crossing over to vote, as his father did, with the commission’s Republicans on issues that break along party lines. Ford’s answer to that one is simple: “There are a lot of Democrats, regular voters, who’ve sided with the Republicans recently.” He goes on to suggest that several public issues need to be re-evaluated in light of that fact.

So far Commissioner Ford has more or less let his votes speak for him, keeping to a tradition of relative modesty that once characterized legislative first-termers and eschewing the kind of definitive speeches that characterize his more established colleagues (and several fellow newcomers on the commission, for that matter).

That reticence may change, however, as he finds his profile shaping up in the public mind. "The media ought to pay more attention to someone as young as I am doing what I'm doing," he says, indicating that he intends to offer more precise definitions of exactly what that is, or will be, in the very near future.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Mayor Says He and MCS' Cash Will Meet Again This Week on $57 Million Debt

Posted By on Tue, Mar 29, 2011 at 11:47 PM

Mayor A C Wharton at Tuesday press conference
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  • Mayor A C Wharton at Tuesday press conference
Although the public response from Memphis City Schools to his latest proposal for settling a $57 million debt dating from 2008 has been guarded at best, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton told reporters Tuesday afternoon that the City and MCS will “get around the table, and we’re not going to leave until we get it worked out.”

Wharton said his latest offer was in “good faith,” that he and MCS superintendent Kriner Cash were scheduled to meet again this Thursday, and that the relationship between the two was “still warm and positive.”

The new Wharton offer, contained in a supposedly “secret” letter to Cash dated March 25 and revealed by the news media this week, involves a trade whereby the city would complete payments on its annual $78 million obligation to MCS for the current year by mid-June if MCS would accept a five-year installment-plan arrangement for paying the reduced amount of $40.5 to discharge a $57 debt holdover from 2008.

The $57 figure is the court-ordered estimate of what was left unpaid to MCS under the state’s maintenance-of-effort formula in 2008 when a cash-strapped City Council gambled that county government would be held responsible as the appropriate body to make up the difference.

In his letter to Cash, Wharton proposed to deduct from the court-ordered $57 million the cost of what he said was $16.9 million in so far uncompensated services rendered to MCS by the City of Memphis. They included $12.5 for an “energy modification loan,” $2.4 million for a literacy program provided by the City, and $2 million for the costs of providing crossing guards and policemen in the Officers in the Schools (OIS) program.

The response from MCS has been lukewarm but not dismissive, with school board attorney Dorsey Hopson quoted as saying that MCS had “concerns” with the proposal but that the school administration intended to continue with negotiations.

Wharton’s attitude Tuesday afternoon was similar. He said, “It’s going to take compromise, regardless of who’s right and who’s wrong.” He said if agreement couldn’t be reached, “the only alternative is the courts.”

The mayor was clearly frustrated over the longstanding stalemate between the City and MCS. “Lawyers don’t come free, and we’re spending legal fees every day….We’re .spending money in 2011 about money that was supposed to be paid in 2008 and 2009.”

Meanwhile, said Wharton, the fact of the debt accounted “in large part” for the City’s difficult fiscal situation on the front end of preparing the coming fiscal year’s budget. “We’re looking at furloughs, pay cuts, on the maintenance side delaying fleet purchases, you name it.” Asked if layoffs were in the offing, the mayor said they were.

CLC's Stephens Still on the Steve Cooper Case

Posted By on Tue, Mar 29, 2011 at 9:59 PM

Brian Stephens
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  • Brian Stephens
Brian Stephens, a former Republican member of the Shelby County Election Commission and a founding member of the Cordova Leadership Council, is hoping that the same Republican majority in the current Tennessee General Assembly that made for quick passage of the Norris-Todd bill on local school merger will benefit a mission of his own to Nashville this week.

And Stephens, who maintains good relations with Democrats as well, will work both sides of the aisle.

Stephens and others involved with the Cordova Leadership Council have long been suspicious of the intentions of well-known strip-club owner Steve Cooper, whose Stella Marris restaurant in Cordova is closed for “remodeling” and for which Cooper is now seeking a “compensated dance permit” from the City Council.

Such a permit allows dancers in clubs to be paid and to receive tips for their dancing. But there are “loopholes” in current law that allow for activities bordering on sexual improprieties, or even crossing that border, says Stephens.

What he seeks to get from the legislature is enactment of stiffer penalties for abuses of a compensated dance permit. As of now, violations may range from $50 for a first-time offense to $1500 for consistent, repeated ones. “And that’s pocket change for these guys,” Stephens says. “I’d like to add to add some zeroes to the fine.”

He and other members of the CLC are also lobbying the City Council to clarify the restrictions involved in a compensated dance permit so as to rule out activities — including nudity and improper trafficking with customers — that are defined as violations under existing laws governing sexually-oriented businesses.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Commissioner Harvey's Hat in Mayoral Ring; Fundraiser Scheduled Next Week

Posted By on Fri, Mar 25, 2011 at 5:53 AM

Commissioner James Harvey
  • Commissioner James Harvey
The 2011 Memphis mayoral race is now officially on: Shelby County Commissioner James Harvey, who nearly made a run for city mayor in 2009 and has talked up a race against the winner of that special-election race, incumbent mayor A C Wharton, ever since, is now in it for real.

A “Campaign Kick-Off Fundraising Event” for Harvey, at a suggested contribution range of $250 to $1000, is scheduled for 5:30 to 7:30 Tuesday evening at the Blue Suede restaurant on Elvis Presley Boulevard.

Businessman Harvey has made it increasingly clear that he intends to make an issue of Wharton’s industrial recruitment policy — one that he regards as offering too many concessions at the expense of the city’s revenue base.

Harvey has been especially critical of the $20 million incentive offered by the city (and matched by the county) in order to attract a large new Electrolux plant from Canada. And he insists that elected officials should be actively involved in recruitment efforts and kept informed about the nature of incentives being offered.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Mays, Attorneys Set Ground Rules; Hearing on Injunction Set for April 4 as Commission Postpones Appointing Board Members

Posted By on Thu, Mar 24, 2011 at 4:44 PM

Commission attorney Leo Bearman with media after hearing
  • JB
  • Commission attorney Leo Bearman with media after hearing

Round One of what will be many legal encounters to come on the issue of local school-system merger took place Thursday in the federal building as U.S. District Judge Samuel Hardy Mays conducted a status conference with lawyers representing parties to one aspect of the dispute.

The specific issue is whether the Shelby County Commission, which has created 25 provisional districts for a unified all-county school board and interviewed almost 200 candidates for them on Wednesday is legally entitled to continue with that process.

The Shelby County Schools board has sued the county commission, as well as Memphis City Schools and the Memphis City Council in an effort to block the committee process, citing what it sees as an overriding formula for MCS-SCS merger specified under the terms of the Norris-Todd bill, recently passed by the legislature and signed into law by Governor Haslam. The state Education Department has joined into that suit, and the various affected entities, including the federal government itself, were all represented.

Judge Mays’ courtroom often resembled a game of whack-a-mole, with one attorney rising as another one sat down, the process continuing in rapid sequence until all six or seven had been heard from in answer to one of Mays’ interrogatories.

The most immediate question was whether to grant the injunction sought by SCS and the state against further action by the commission. The matter was timely, in that the commission had planned to make its appointments on Monday. After considerable back-and-forth between Mays and the various lawyers, two alternative dates were agreed on as possible times for him to rule on the injunction request — 9:30 a.m. Monday, immediately before the planned commission appointments, or 9:30 the following Monday, providing that the commission was willing to postpone its appointments until then.

Judge Mays made it clear that he preferred having more time to sift through the evidence and issues and that he wanted to rule on a possible injunction before the appointments got made. “Once it’s done, how do you undo it?” he said.

Leo Bearman, the attorney engaged by the commission specifically to deal with legal questions relating to the merger issue, agreed to consult his clients, who agreed to postpone making any appointments before Monday, April 4, giving Mays a chance to rule on the requested injunction earlier that morning. (There will apparently still be a convening of the lawyers with Judge Mays next Monday, March 28, but the judge's ruling will not occur on that date.)

A variety of dates were agreed upon during the hearing, including the key one of April 25, set as the deadline for ruling on dispositive motions — i.e., on the matter of which legal basis, the Norris-Todd law or the private act under which the commission is proceeding, should prevail. If the answer to that basic question is conclusive, the matter of a trial, provisionally set for September, could be rendered moot.

Given the gravity of the issues involved, Judge Mays maintained a light, if business-like, mood. The multiplicity of lawyers was a godsend for Mays, who has a penchant for delivering quips in a Southern drawl which has become ever more molassified during his tenure on the bench.

Typical of the judge’s many jests was his remark to one of the attorneys, as another possible hearing date got added to the provisional calendar, “There you go. You get to collect an even bigger fee.”

The levity was catching. At one point Bearman made a mock-complaint about a “facetious” remark made by a lawyer for SCS, to which Judge Mays replied, “The only thing worse is a facetious judge, but we won’t go there.”

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In 12 Hours of Interviews, County Commission Picks Some Favorites for a Unified School Board

The plan is to appoint a 25-member interim board on Monday, but that could be up to U.S. District Judge Samuel Hardy Mays, who can say yes or no on Thursday.

Posted By on Thu, Mar 24, 2011 at 12:10 AM

One candidate whiles away the wait as a spectator makes her feelings known
  • JB
  • One candidate whiles away the wait as a spectator makes her feelings known

It took all day and into the night, but the Shelby County Commission managed on Wednesday to interview almost 200 candidates, eager to serve in positions that may never materialize, on a unified all-county school board that may or may not come to pass in something like the foreseeable future.

Beginning at 8 a.m. and continuing until almost 8 p.m., assorted commissioners manned their seats on the raised stage of the county building auditorium, hearing out a field of aspirants that included unknowns and the well-known and members of both extant school boards, the one representing Shelby County Schools and the one representing Memphis City Schools. For each of 25 positions, commissioners voted to single out a maximum of three candidates for non-binding recommendation.

The full commission — minus, presumably, the three holdouts from District 4, the county’s suburban rim, who boycotted the process on Wednesday — will select 25 appointees on Monday. Maybe.

The validity of the process happens to be under challenge — from the state Department of Education as well as the SCS board, both of which are seeking an injunction against the appointments from U.S. District Judge Samuel Hardy Mays, who had a status hearing on the case scheduled for Thursday.

The three suburban holdouts from District 4 — Terry Roland, Chris Thomas, and Wyatt Bunker — have maintained all along that the process is illegal and that no appointments to a unified board can be made outside a different formula prescribed by the Norris-Todd bill, now a state law after its fast-track passage by the Republican-dominated Tennessee General Assembly in January.

A commission majority has maintained that it, and only it, has the authority to make appointments — and its calendar calls for an active board by August 2012, a full year earlier than Norris-Todd envisions.

A united SCS front against the commission’s action was broken Wednesday when Ernest Chism, a senior SCS board member, allowed himself to be interviewed for Position #7. The commission’s grateful acceptance of Chism’s acquiescence, culminating in his inclusion on the list of recommendees, was in contrast to the treatment given MSC board president Freda Williams, an outspoken merger opponent who was denied the commission’s recommendation for District 25.

Three other MSC board members, Betty Mallott, Stephanie Gatewood, and Martavius Jones, were recommended; all were part of the MSC majority favoring merger — though Mallott had not initially been a supporter of the charter surrender that, approved by Memphis voters on March 8, was the necessary prelude to consolidation of the two extant school systems.

Asked by commissioners about the frequently heard challenge, mainly from the boycotting District 4 commission members, that members of the MCS majority that voted for charter surrender had in effect jumped ship and should not be reappointed, Gatewood responded, "Are they here? They're not part of the process anyhow."

As Wednesday’s interviewing process wore on, commissioners came and went in shifts as their itineraries permitted — though a hard core, including Commissioner Mike Carpenter, who chaired the event, and commission chairman Sidney Chism, stayed at the task throughout. At several points, commissioners expressed appreciation at a candidate field so good that it seemed to them an embarrassment of riches.

Not every interviewee had smooth sailing, however. Even some of those whose credentials sparkled got snagged on a checklist of delinquent or overdue property taxes kept by Commissioner Mike Ritz. And there were some whose eagerness to appear distinctive backfired — like the youthful Nicholas Pegues, who in defense of his candidacy read aloud a politely worded form letter from a representative of the Queen of England, acknowledging receipt of an unsolicited letter from Pegues to Her Majesty.

Although Judge Mays has indicated he will not entertain specific motions on Thursday, he could conceivably avail himself of the opportunity to offer the commission a green light for Monday or to brake it with a red light.

Four District 12 candidates on their Ps and Qs
  • JB
  • Four District 12 candidates on their P's and Q's

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

MAD AS HELL: This Party Ain't About Jobs!

Posted By on Wed, Mar 23, 2011 at 7:58 AM

Mad_as_Hell_Tea_Party_3.jpg

What did you think the 2010 elections were about? If you listened to John Boehner in the weeks prior to the election, you might have thought the midterms were about jobs. When it came to mentioning jobs, he sounded like a veritable Mynah bird with Tourette’s Syndrome. “The American people are asking ‘Where are the jobs?’” “This election will be about jobs.”Jobs, jobs, jobs! Here-a job. There-a job. Everywhere a job-job.

But the self-proclaimed “small government”majority in the House have already made one thing crystal clear. Since taking over in January, the pursuit of creating and finding jobs for millions of unemployed Americans is no where to be found on their radar screen. If you were actually thinking jobs were going to trump The Great Culture Wars —well, consider yourself punk’d. It just doesn’t work that way in Tea-publican Land.

Tea Party Republicans who got elected in such overwhelming numbers have demonstrated they don’t think job creation was the reason they were elected at all. They have devoted their time to arguing, debating, giving speeches and writing bills on the subjects they believe are the most pressing issues facing the country: the defunding National Public Radio, which required an “emergency” meeting by House members; the declaring of English to be the country’s official language; and investigations of whether or not American Muslims are being “radicalized.”

The Defense of Marriage Act has been up for discussion, and later this week, the House of Representatives will vote on the very urgent crisis of whether or not to reaffirm the motto of “In God We Trust”!

But the one concern that reigns supreme, that is paramount in importance above all others is — are you ready? — the monitoring of every last pregnancy in America. From the bunch who claimed to be in such a rush to work on job creation, Tea-publicans have spent most of their time for the last three months focusing on human creation. Obviously, instead of studying economic incentives, wage rates, and manufacturing proposals, they have been devoting their hours on The Hill to studying wombs, ovaries, and fallopian tubes.

The amount of time invested by Republicans on women’s reproductive rights is so obsessive, it appears they may have established a new congressional tradition of writing an “Anti-Abortion Bill-of-the-Month”—— for in their three shorts months of governance they have drafted the same number of anti-abortion bills.

Although the Hyde Amendment, which barred the use of any federal funds for abortion, was passed in 1976, the GOP has written The“Protect Life Act” (HR 358) which would basically seek to doubly, triply, quadruply reaffirm the Hyde Amendment. The bill would also offer protection for anti-abortion healthcare workers who choose, on religious grounds, to refuse reproductive healthcare to women — including filling prescriptions for contraceptives.

Although the majority of families seeking the services of Planned Parenthood are there for birth control counseling, which actually prevents unplanned pregnancies that could lead to abortion, the Boehner led House has spent weeks drafting the Title X Abortion Provider Prohibition Act (HR 217) which will cut all funding to Planned Parenthood for family planning services.

But the Motherlode of all anti-abortion legislation is the recently written No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act (HR-3). It is yet another declaration of the denial of federal funding for abortion services, but this bill would require IRS agents to ask citizens undergoing a tax audit whether or not any woman in their family had been raped or had suffered incest which could have resulted in an abortion. Think about that for a second. Wrap your mind around the idea of having to describe your rape or a family member’s incest or an abortion to an IRS auditor.

Still thinking the election back in November was about jobs? Still thinking there is going to be “smaller government”?

Wherever they have taken over — whether in statehouses or in our nation’s Capitol — Tea Party Republicans have made it clear their concern is not jobs. They haven’t spent a single moment on one piece of legislation regarding jobs. To no one’s surprise, the Tea Party is not in power to fulfill voter mandates. They are in power to fulfill their mandate. And their mission. From God.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Memphis Demonstrators Get Thumbs Down from GOP Legislators, Are Extolled as “Patriots” by Democrats

Posted on Thu, Mar 17, 2011 at 12:36 PM

from left: Turner, Fitzhugh, Naifeh - JB
  • JB
  • from left: Turner, Fitzhugh, Naifeh

NASHVILLE -- The demonstators from the University of Memphis and the Memphis College of Art who were carried away bodily by state troopers Tuesday after staging a protest and refusing to leave a Senate Commerce Committee hearing picked up both supporters and detractors Thursday on Capitol Hill.

Early in the day, Republican state senators Jack Johnson of Franklin and Randy McNally of Oak Ridge suggested to reporters that the students, who chanted slogans against anti-union legislation and then went limp before being carried out of the hearing room, should be dealt with administratively by officials at their universities.

Johnson, a sponsor of the proposed bill being protested, which in his version would prohibit collective bargaining by teachers, said he thought suspension and expulsion were suitable remedies.

Three leading Democratic legislators did not agree. Asked about the matter after they had presided over an end-of-the-week press availability were state Reps. Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley, the Democrats’ House leader; Mike Turner of Nashville, Democratic caucus chairman; and Jimmy Naifeh of Covington, House Speaker emeritus.

"I thought those were 'nomadic tribesmen,'" Fitzhugh said, scornfully playing off a negative description of the protesters on Tuesday by Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville).

Turner was more direct: "This is still America. Those people had every right to protest what they did."

Naifeh, who presided over the House 9 years ago when there were mass anti-income-tax protests at the Capitol which resulted in physical damage to the Capitol, said, "In 2002 all the protesters were called patriots. These folks were patriots yesterday."

And Turner continued: "Those people lay down. They didn’t fight the police. It was akin to a Civil Rights protest. They weren’t trying to beat anybody up or anything like that. You know, we had windows knocked out, horns were honked, there were phone calls at night threatening people. This country was founded on protest. This is still America."

County Commission Approves Backup Plan, Moves Forward on Naming All-County School Board

Posted By on Thu, Mar 17, 2011 at 4:38 AM

Chairman Chism with media after committee meeting
  • JB
  • Chairman Chism with media after committee meeting

Toward the end of an Education Committee discussion Wednesday about a back-up redistricting plan for what will ultimately be a new all-county unified school board, Shelby County Commissioner Henri Brooks observed, “We’re having the same debate that we’ve had for the last three weeks. We just need to move forward.”

It was hard to dispute the commissioner’s observation about the fact of redundancy.

Wednesday’s committee session concerned whether or not the commission, which had previously approved a provisional 25-member school board, should also prepare a contingency plan for a reapportioned board of seven (the same number as the current Shelby County Schools board) in case the courts should require one.

But the discussion Wednesday had less to do with that legal possibility than with the continuing reluctance of a commission minority to endorse a plan that might conflict with the Norris-Todd bill, recently enacted by the state legislature.

As Wyatt Bunker, one of three representatives from District 4, which serves the outer county, put it, “We’re throwing bunch of stuff on the wall and seeing what sticks…It’s like elementary school….It seems like desperate grasps at trying to redistrict, trying to gain power, when we know that there’s a law in place….” That view was repeated, with variations, by Terry Roland, another District 4 commissioner, and by Heidi Shafer, whose District 1 constituency contains an overlap of city and suburban populations.

Mike Ritz, who also represents District 1, contended that commission’s proceeding with a transition plan, including provisions for new school board districts, is in no “inherent conflict” with Norris-Todd, though he argued that the later “was prepared to stall the merger of the two school systems” and to open up the possibility of new suburban special districts at the end of its prescribed 2 ½-year planning period.

Shafer’s tack was that there was indeed an inherent conflict, that the commission’s action and those prescribed by Norris-Todd “can’t exist in the same sphere,” and that if the commission just waited until a legal ruling could clarify the matter. Otherwise, the commission would be doing “twice as much work” needlessly.

“We can walk and chew gum at the same time. It’s better for us to have a [contingency] plan and not need one than to need a plan and not have one,” countered District 5 commissioner Steve Mulroy. And committee chairman Walter Bailey pointed out that a lengthy appellate process would follow in the wake of any forthcoming legal judgment. “We need to have positions in place. Otherwise we’ll just be at a standstill,” Bailey said.

As has often been the case in debates on the matter of the commission’s involvement in moving forward with a merger plan, Roland insisted on having the last word: “This is a back door deal,” he maintained, an attempt by consolidation advocates to achieve an end “they couldn’t win that the ballot box.”

Roland wondered: “How come, if you are fighting for something in Memphis, you’re an activist, but if you’re fighting for something outside in the county, you’re considered a racist? ...We’re not all white. We will fight this to the bitter end, tooth and nail.”

At the end of the committee hearing Wednesday, the backup plan passed by an 8 -2-1 — Bunker and Roland voting no, Shafer abstaining.

“We can agree to disagree. Let the courts decide,” said District 3 member Sidney Chism, the current commission chairman, who has pushed for expedited action on creating a unified school board under commission auspices. He told reporters after the meeting that the commission would keep to its schedule, which includes interviews with prospective members of a 25-member interim School Board on Wednesday, March 23, with appointments made on Monday, March 28.

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House Subcommittee Amends Education Bill, Allowing Collective Bargaining to Survive

Posted By on Thu, Mar 17, 2011 at 4:37 AM

Rep. Maggart listens as Rep. Dunn offers the compromise version.
  • JB
  • Rep. Maggart listens as Rep. Dunn offers the compromise version.
NASHVILLE — Against all expectations, compromise is alive and well in the Tennessee General Assembly — though getting anybody to admit it is a semantic issue.

When Jerry Winters, executive director of the Tennessee Education Association, was questioned by reporters Wednesday following the passage of an amended SB113/HB130 through a state House education subcommittee, he described the bill, which gives the TEA and its affiliates a fighting chance to maintain their collective bargaining rights, as representing “progress, though not a victory.”

Given that the original version of the bill, as proposed by state Rep. Debra Maggart (R-Hendersonville), amounted to an absolute abolishment of bargaining rights for teachers’ unions and the amended bill would restore those rights, merely raising the voting threshold by which individual unions — oops, teachers’ associations — could gain the right to represent teachers, wouldn’t that be a compromise?

Well, no, explained Winters, because the TEA itself was never invited to supply any input during direct negotiations with the ruling GOP majority — nor, so far as he knew, were members of the General Assembly’s Democratic contingent.

Pressed again after the reporters’ queue had broken up, Winters was asked: If, from Maggart’s point of view, the original version of the bill was a 10, and from his own a 0, what number would he now assign it? The low-key but very focused TEA head furrowed his brow a bit and finally said, “5” — which number, it will be noted, is exactly equidistant between his own original estimate of its impact and that of the bill’s sponsor.

As for Maggart, the GOP House caucus chair, who, in her introductory remarks before a packed hearing room Wednesday, had excoriated teachers’ unions mercilessly, calling them “political” and blaming them for every possible shortcoming on the part of Tennessee public school students, wouldn’t she acknowledge that the amended bill had considerably weakened her original intent?

“No,” she said, though the new version of the bill would no longer outlaw teachers’ unions as bargaining units for teachers’ rights, wages, and other benefits, as her original version did. “Because it allows other professional organizations that want to represent teachers a fair chance to do so.”

And, when asked, state Rep. Lois DeBerry of Memphis, a subcommittee member, stood by a statement made in debate by Democratic colleague Jimmy Naifeh of Covington that the amended bill represented no compromise at all. Apprised of Winters’ more lenient estimate, she opined that the amended version had been sprung on subcommittee members too soon before Wednesday’s meeting to permit a full appraisal.

Indeed, the amended version had come late in the day — brokered, it was reliably said, by Governor Bill Haslam and by House Speaker Beth Harwell of Nashville. (Both these ranking Republicans are, by the standards of the many GOP fire-eaters who now occupy seats in the legislature, bona fide moderates, though both would doubtless prefer walking barefoot over hot coals to admitting such a thing.)

Technically, the amended version of the bill offered Wednesday came from state Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville), who reflected the more relaxed, less polarized complexion of things by assuring the teacher-heavy audience, which had groaned audibly upon hearing that union dues check-offs would, as before, be prohibited, that he, and the full Education Committee, would be happy to hear out teachers’ views on the issue before full passage.

As Harwell pointed out in her own availability with reporters, the amended bill excludes from collective bargaining certain issues — merit pay for exceptional teachers, for instance — and certain personnel, notably school principals, who could no longer be represented by the unions.

And the established teachers’ unions not only would have to compete with rival organizations of whatever sort to represent teachers, their threshold for acquiring representation rights was considerably raised. Henceforth, a petition for an election to represent teachers in a given locality would require the signature of “a majority of the professional employees” instead of the 30 percent required at present. Moreover, a full majority of those eligible to vote — not just those casting ballots — would have to approve the union’s bid.

On the whole, the amended bill would seem to leave some of the traditional public-school scaffolding in place while making room for some modish management-minded changes. The exclusion of principals from representation, for example, reflects a view in certain education circles that principals should not be primus inter pares vis-à-vis with their schools’ teachers but de facto straw bosses, representing a central ruling authority.

There are numerous other provisions of the hastily amended bill that, as Rep. DeBerry pointed out, will require some serious parsing to ascertain their full effect on the status quo regarding teachers and collective bargaining rights.

And Susanne Jackson of Memphis, one of numerous Memphis Education Association representatives who made the trip to Nashville to lobby against SB113/HB130, said the bill remained unsatisfactory and would need further amendment, either next week, when the amended version will doubtless come up for floor passage in both Senate and House, or, more likely, in future legislative sessions down the road, when the composition of both chambers might no longer feature such stout Republican majorities.

That day would seem to be pretty far down the road, however. For now, adjustments to this or any other measure would seem to depend on negotiations among the ruling Republicans. Difference of opinion among House Republicans was generally conceded to have been the key to the changes in the bill — along with, to be sure, the show of force made by teachers themselves in a series of private communications and public demonstrations.

As for Democrats, who are outnumbered 20 to 13 in the Senate and 65-34 in the House, they are, more or less, in the position of spectators. Wednesday’s developments indicated that compromise is alive and well in the General Assembly — just not of the bipartisan sort.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Memphians in the Spotlight During Pro-Union Protests in Nashville and Memphis

Gibbons and Flowers on opposite sides of Legislative Plaza drama involving disruption of committee hearing by college students from Memphis; MoveOn.org stages rally at MEA headquarters.

Posted By on Tue, Mar 15, 2011 at 10:12 PM

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Several Memphians figured in news coverage of dramatic protests of anti-union legislation in Nashville’s Legislative Plaza Tuesday as another, less noticed rally in support of such protests went on in the headquarters building of the Memphis Education Association."

In video footage shot by WTVF-TV, News Channel 5, in Nashville, Jacob Flowers, executive director of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, is interviewed following the arrest and physical removal of seven demonstrators, students from the Univesity of Memphis and Memphis College of Art, from a room where the state Senate’s Commerce Committee was conducting a hearing.

The demonstrators had been part of a crowd of nearly 1,000 union sympathizers who had protested in the outdoor mall of Legislative Plaza what they called “union-busting” legislation under way in the General Assembly.

After the rally concluded, several crowd members made their way into Legislative Plaza. A group of them entered the Commerce Committee hearing room and began to chant “Shame, Shame, Shame!” and other slogans about the offending legislation. State troopers were ultimately called in to remove the seven who refused to leave the room.

Flowers told WTVF, “These are citizens who came to Nashville to express their beliefs to their elected representatives. They were not being heard, so they raised their voices even louder. When they did that, they were forcibly ejected fro the chamber.”

Gibbons, the former District Attorney General for Memphis who now serves as state Safety Commissioner told the station, “The committees have a right to proceed with their business, and if people disrupt that and don’t allow committees to go forward, then they should be arrested and properly prosecuted.”

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey of Blountville issued a statement: "The right of all citizens to protest and assemble peacefully is sacred in the State of Tennessee. However, this General Assembly will not be intimidated by nomadic bands of professional agitators on spring break bent on disruption. We talk through our differences here. Tennessee is not Wisconsin."

(The WTVF coverage can be seen here.)

Later Tuesday afternoon in Memphis, a modestly-sized crowd of some 50 gathered at MEA headquarters to protest anti-union legislation in Tennessee, Wisconsin, and other national sites. The rally was billed as the first in a series organized by the left-leaning activist group moveon.org.

Among the speakers at the Memphis rally were Lexie Carter, one of the organizers; Keith Williams, local MEA president; Deidre Malone, former county commissioner, owner of a P.R. company, and Democratic activist; local Democratic chairman Van Turner; and Randy Wade, field representative for 9th Distict congressman Steve Cohen.

“The middle class has been targeted, and we can’t stand for it,” Malone told the crowd. “I’ve been through one war, and I’m ready to go through another,” said Wade at the close of an impassioned oration on behalf of teachers and other union employees. “When they start with TEA or NEA, they’re going to come after IBEW, they’re going to come after the Teamsters….This is just th e beginning. We have to stop them right now,” warned Turner.

Speakers and crowd at MEA Headquarters Tuesday
  • JB
  • Speakers and crowd at MEA Headquarters Tuesday

Monday, March 14, 2011

Luttrell Says He Won't Sign On to Commission Plans for New School Board.

Commission chair Chism says package is veto-proof and will be implemented; Mike Ritz agrees, says schedule will be kept, predicts Pickler won't be reappointed.

Posted By on Mon, Mar 14, 2011 at 10:08 PM

Mayor Luttrell
  • Mayor Luttrell
As it turned out, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell supplied one of the first in what will undoubtedly turn out to be a series of complications arising in the aftermath of last week’s citywide referendum on transfer of authority for Memphis City Schools to Shelby County Schools.

In a letter dated Monday and dispatched to Shelby County Commission chairman Sidney Chism and the rest of the county commission, Luttrell advised that with “great deliberation” he had chosen not to sign the package, which included an ordinance and two resolutions, that the commission recently passed in order to begin its own plan of transition to an expanded all-county school board.

Luttrell’s stated reason was that the measures — which increased the number of current SCS board members and provided for interviewing, then appointing candidates to fill the new seats — conflict with the Norris-Todd bill, passed by the General Assembly on February 11. That bill, later signed into law by Governor Haslam, provided for a 2 ½-year itinerary toward merger and prescribed a planning commission to which Luttrell and others were to make appointments.

In line with a prior advisory from Kelly Rayne, his appointee as county attorney, Luttrell described Norris-Todd as “the prevailing authority…presumed constitutional until such time that it is successfully challenged.” Luttrell said the commission’s package might also conflict with the county charter and with 1923 private acts that govern the county school board.

Informed of the letter’s contents, Chism said, “It’s political. Obviously I don’t agree. It’s obvious, too, that the bill {Norris-Todd] is unconstitutional, and it’s hard to imagine that a judge would ignore the will of the people who voted on March 8.” Chism also noted that Luttrell had not attempted to veto the commission package. “His signature doesn’t matter. He knows we would override a veto. We’re going straight ahead with our plans.”

Another commissioner who supports the commission’s merger package is Mike Ritz, a Republican like Luttrell (and like state Senator Mark Norris and state Representative Curry Todd, authors of the Norris-Todd bill). Ritz said of Luttrell, “Maybe he expects us to use the attorney we hired [Leo Bearman] to sue him. We haven’t considered anything like that yet.” Like Chism, Ritz said he doubted any additional actions were required to implement the commission’s package.

“We’re going to follow our schedule — interviewing candidates on March 23rd and appointing members on the 28th.” Ritz said that, in addition to 18 new members representing city districts, the commission would probably reappoint six of the seven current members of the county school board for the remaining seven seats.

“I doubt that [current SCS board chairman] David Pickler could get seven votes,” said Ritz, noting that three commissioners representing District 4, the outer county, had chosen to boycott the commission’s appointment procedures.

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GADFLY: 'Nuclear' Should Not Be an Option

Nothing else -- no accident, screw-up, terrorist plot or military misadventure -- has the potential to sicken or kill as many people as nuclear radiation does.

Posted By on Mon, Mar 14, 2011 at 7:56 AM

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We interrupt this column to bring you the following bulletin: Along with the terms “jumbo shrimp,” “legal brief” and “military intelligence” as noteworthy oxymorons, we can now, once and for all, add the term “safe nukes” in reference to nuclear power plants. Once again, the world is witnessing the dangers these powder kegs pose with the threatened meltdown of several of them in Japan following the recent earthquake and tsunami that have struck there.

We've always known, intuitively, that living anywhere in the vicinity of a factory that generates electricity essentially by means of a controlled chemical reaction of the kind that killed upwards of 300,000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was, at best, an iffy proposition, a fact that's been brought home to the roughly 200,000 people who have had to be evacuated from the vicinity of the Japanese plants.

But, of course, living in the vicinity of any plant that handles or manufactures toxic substances isn't likely to increase your longevity. Just ask the folks who lived in Bhopal, India or near the Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York about that. Oh sure, nuclear power plants are full of structural and technological fail-safes that are supposed to prevent meltdowns and the release of radioactivity that follows them, but what comfort is that now to the residents of the Fukushima Prefecture in Japan, or was it to residents of the towns adjacent to Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania in 1979 or Chernobyl in the USSR in 1986.

“Supposed to” is never much comfort in the aftermath of “didn't,” is it? Just ask shrimpers in the Gulf of Mexico how much comfort it is to them now that BP's deep water oil well in the Gulf was “supposed to” prevent the kind of spill that will likely affect their livelihoods for the next 20 years. Or ask the thousands of folks who lost their life savings at the hands of Bernie Madoff how much comfort it was to them that his Ponzi scheme was “supposed to” be discovered by the regulators.

Energy, and its generation, is a troublesome business. No matter what the source of the juice civilization relies on to power its cars, factories and homes, trouble always seems to follow. The main sources of energy in this country are oil and coal, both of which are fraught with perilous side-effects, whether geopolitical, environmental or both. Accidents happen in and around oil wells and their transmission and storage facilities, as they do in and around coal mines. And, let's not forget that wars are instigated over petroleum or that climate change is accelerated by burning coal.

But, there's something qualitatively different about nuclear energy. Maybe it's because nothing else—-no accident, screw-up, terrorist plot or military misadventure—-has the potential to sicken or kill as many people as nuclear radiation does. It's no accident, then, that the term “nuclear option” has come to mean what it has when used as a bargaining chip, whether in the context of the school systems in Shelby County, Tennessee or the passage of controversial legislation in Washington, D.C. or Madison, Wisconsin.

No one uses the term “petroleum option” or “bituminous option” to convey the same sense of brinkmanship the threat of unleashing atomic radiation, literally or figuratively, does. And nothing has the potential to wreak its havoc like substances that can linger for decades, as many radioactive substances can. The effects of Chernobyl, for example, are still being felt, 25 years later. And, the Fukishima incident doesn't even deal with the other dangers raised by atomic energy, like the disposal of spent nuclear fuel. Very few things (well, maybe other than the bitterness of a scorned spouse) take 200,000 years or more to dissipate, like many atomic substances do.

So, the question becomes, are the benefits of nuclear power generation worth the risks attendant to it? The Japanese incident is causing a re-examination of that question by politicians who may have been, until now, a bit blithe in their support for nuclear power as the solution to this country's reliance on fossil fuel, and particularly the Middle Eastern kind. The ground under the push for nuclear energy has suddenly shifted, dramatically.

If the example of the Fukushima plants serves any useful purpose, it will be, first, to cause a rigorous re-inspection of the nuclear power plants that already exist in the U.S. (and maybe even to re-think bringing new ones, like the Clinch River plant in East Tennessee, on line), and strengthen the existing safeguards against any of them leading to another Fukushima incident, and second, to make solar, wind, geothermal, and other, non-nuclear, sources of energy a whole lot more attractive, maybe enough so that “safe energy” won't become a contradiction in terms.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

BULLETIN: Lt. Gov. Ramsey Threatens State Takeover of MCS

Posted By on Thu, Mar 10, 2011 at 2:30 PM

See videos below

NASHVILLE — Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, in the course of his usual Thursday afternoon session with Capitol Hill reporters, summed up what he regarded as a successful week — especially in the advancement of Governor Haslam's tenure bill and other legislation to transform public education.

Ramsey, who doubles as Speaker of the Senate, then threw a bombshell, taking notice of Tuesday's passage in Memphis of a citywide referendum to transfer authority for Memphis City Schools to Shelby County Schools.

"I think that's going to present a challenge to us here in the General Assembly," Ramsey said, and he went on to characterize the moment as "an opportunity."

The Memphis school system was one that "by anybody's measure is failing," he said, contending that MCS owned 500 automobiles and employed "more people that don't teach than do teach."

The Norris-Todd bill, passed earlier in the session and designed to structure the forthcoming merger, was a step in the right direction, he said. "If we hadn't passed that bill, we'd be in limbo right now...I'd like to see us go further than that and see if we can take over that school system, certain schools down there, and see if we can't turn that around."

Ramsey said the mechanism for such a takeover would be legislation passed last year activating a provision of the 1993 law which created the state's Basic Education Program. The legislation allows for the creation of state Achievement School Districts in the case of academically failing school systems.

"We've never used that before. We now have a mechanism to do that, and I hope we take advantage of it in this situation."

Ramsey said one course might be to "scour the country" to find an administrator capable of taking over and redirecting the Memphis school system or at least some of its units. "We should try that for a while before we just merge the school systems."

Legislation to that end might not be immediately forthcoming in the current session but should be seriously considered during the 2 1/2-year period before MCS-SCS merger could be implemented under Norris-Todd, Ramsey said.

He said that he hopes relatively soon to make the appointment which he is entitled to make to the planning commission created by Norris-Todd.

VIDEO: See and hear for yourself what the lieutenant governor's plans for MCS are, in these excerpts:

RON RAMSEY ON A STATE TAKEOVER OF MEMPHIS CITY SCHOOLS (EXCERPT ONE):

RON RAMSEY ON A STATE TAKEOVER OF MEMPHIS CITY SCHOOLS (EXCERPT TWO):

RON RAMSEY ON A STATE TAKEOVER OF MEMPHIS CITY SCHOOLS (EXCERPT THREE): >

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