Friday, July 29, 2011

State Seeks Waiver from "No Child Left Behind" Program

Posted By on Fri, Jul 29, 2011 at 1:04 PM

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In a conference call/press conference Friday with members of the Tennessee media, Governor Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman announced that the state has applied for a waiver from the NCLB standards for the coming year.

Amplifying on the decision, Huffman advanced the view that the federal program, created under former President George W. Bush, had “outlived its usefulness” and had not been subjected to a re-authorization vote since its creation in 2001.

Huffman was frank to add that, under newly toughened NCLB standards, a majority of Tennessee schools, some 800 of the 1750 or so in the state, have failed to meet AYP (Adequate Yearly Progress) guidelines.

An announcement of the waiver request posted on the Education Department’s website simultaneous with the conference call said this:

The law’s outdated regulations mean that virtually all schools in Tennessee (and the vast majority of schools nationwide) will soon not make “adequate yearly progress” (AYP) and will be considered failing under No Child Left Behind.

The law’s definition of adequate yearly progress no longer captures a nuanced view of which schools are in need of additional support and interventions from the state.

Huffman also asserted these points in the conference call and reiterated there the state’s intentions, if the waiver request is approved, to employ the standards of Tennessee's federally supported Race to the Top program “as the central reform model in the state.”

Asked if more Memphis schools, in addition to the four failing ones that were recently designated, would be absorbed by the state’s Achievement School District and co-managed by the state, Huffman confirmed that the list of Memphis Schools in that category was due to expand.

Huffman declined to comment on the ongoing funding dispute between Memphis City Schools and the City of Memphis other than to comment that it had no effect on determining which schools would be ASD-bound.

Haslam said he believed that Tennessee’s request for a waiver from No Child Left Behind oversight was the first by a state but suggested that similar requests would be forthcoming from other states.

The governor said he felt optimistic that the state’s request would be approved by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

MCS Board Votes Unanimous Aye for Deal with City to "Reinstate" School Year

Posted By on Tue, Jul 26, 2011 at 10:22 PM

Board members Kenneth Whalum and Stephanie Gatewood have a moment of solidarity Tuesday night.
  • JB
  • Board members Kenneth Whalum and Stephanie Gatewood have a moment of solidarity Tuesday night.

In the end, the Memphis City Schools board ratified its deal with the City of Memphis. The Board’s special meeting on Tuesday night was in marked contrast to the high-intensity session conducted a week ago Monday, when members voted 8-1 to demand $55 million from the City, with an “or else” being that they might cancel the school year otherwise.

The difference was spoken to by Board member Kenneth Whalum Jr., a dependable firebrand who was in the forefront of those insisting last week on presenting the City with a financial ultimatum. “Y’all supported me last time; so I’m with you on this tonight,’ Whalum told his colleagues, making the Board’s vote to approve a new arrangement with the City and to “reinstate” the school year, with the original opening day of August 8 restored.

But Whalum made his vote contingent on “four conditions” — that the City Council approve the MCS operating budget at its forthcoming August 2 meeting; that the Council approve the same agreement being considered Tuesday night by the school board; that the City keep to the payment schedule provided for in the agreement; and that, in particular, the first installment of $15 million ($3 million of which has already been paid) be made over by August 5 — three days before the scheduled start of school.

Otherwise, said, Whalum, he would vote to revoke the agreement and to cancel the opening of schools on August 8. He would also threaten to change his vote on the agreement Tuesday night to No if schools superintendent Kriner Cash, whom the Board consulted by speaker phone, could not agree that no programs would be slashed because of a concession to the City Council to accept a reduced annual payment for 2011-12. The ostensibly lower amount is $68.5 million, down from the $78 million figure customary for the City’s court-ordered “maintenance-of-effort” payment. The reduction is based on the fact of lower school enrollment.

Cash had earlier declined to guarantee that programs would not be cut because of the lesser amount but would alter his estimate in the direction of a guarantee, indicating that MCS might have to draw on its fund balance.

The fact is, however, that the City will end up paying the customary $78 million as usual (a fact noted out loud Tuesday night by Board member Jeff Warren). The odd ten million will merely be applied to what MCS considers an arrearage for the previous two fiscal years.

Though Board attorney Dorsey Hopson spoke of “kinks” still to be worked out, there was no controversy or debate about the essential terms, which require that the City pay 85 percent of this year’s full amount by October 7.

All in all, the Board conducted itself like a body which had played a game of high-stakes chicken and come out the winner. One by one, the Board members spoke in support of the agreement with the City, identical more or less to what was stipulated at the Council’s education committee meeting last week. There was little gloating over what seemed to some a cave-in by Mayor A C Wharton and the Council, although Board member Stephanie Gatewood pointedly wondered at one point what was stronger, “an agreement or a court order.”

In fact, the Board now has both. In the lexicon of the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, the other fellow had blinked.

On hand to witness the Board’s ratification rites were new interim city councilman Berlin Boyd, State Representative Mark White, and Shelby County Commissioner James Harvey, among others.

Boyd was the subject of accolades from Whalum, who went on to celebrate the fact that eight members of the Council had drawn opponents in this year’s election. White is a Republican whose 83rd House of Representatives district straddles East Memphis, Cordova, and Germantown, and who was a supporter of the suburban-friendly Norris-Todd bill on school merger. “Just staying informed,” he said of his attendance Tuesday night.

Harvey, a candidate himself for Memphis mayor, gave some such motive, as well, but he made it clear that he thought mistakes by Wharton, including that of allowing the current funding crisis to develop, would be issues in his mayoral campaign.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Mayor Opens Campaign, Promises to 'Kick Butt' and 'Wipe Out" Opponents

Posted By on Mon, Jul 25, 2011 at 12:37 AM


Mayor A C Wharton, who has had few opportunities for public exultation since his show of confidence at his filing at the Election Commission on Monday, got his glass of water at least half full again on Saturday, warning opponents at his campaign kick-off that “we’re gonna walk all over you because we are on our way!”

In 74 days, Wharton said, “you are wiped out, and Memphis is going to win! Don’t get in our way.”

Discarding his prepared text, Wharton took note of the 100-degree heat and recalled the similar "muggy, soggy" feeling of his campaign opening in 2009, when he launched his ultimately victorious special-election campaign to replace the retired Willie Herenton as mayor.

Besides the heat and humidity, Wharton recalled, “there was a hope in the air in 2009. There was a dream, a vision, a hope of unity that, as one Memphis, there was no stopping us now!” And in 2011 as was the case then, “there’s change in the air today, there’s hope in the air today, there’s unity in the air today. But there’s one more thing in the air today, 18 months of progress!”

The mayor claimed 2000 jobs, new industries, lower crime, and, by indirect reference, even the appearance of President Obama at Booker T. Washington as evidence of his success. “Heat in the air, humidity in the air, but progress in the air!”

Late in his brief remarks, Wharton mentioned the subject on everybody’s mind, the current showdown between the city and Memphis City Schools, whose board is still on record as threatening the cancellation of the 2011-12 school year until such time as the board can meet to ratify a compromise funding agreement reached last week with the Wharton and the City Council.

Mayor Wharton with supporter Kay Veazey
  • JB
  • Mayor Wharton with supporter Kay Veazey
MCS superintendent Kriner Cash kept suspense alive when he unexpectedly canceled a special board meeting, scheduled for Friday to approve the agreement.

“Somebody said to me now, ‘The school board has bluffed you.’ You can’t give in or look like you’re giving in,” Wharton said. “But you know what? I said, ‘It’s not about the school board. It’s not about me. It’s all about the children.”
As his several score supporters who braved the heat cheered, the mayor declared, “And I’ll tell you right now, the schools are going to start on time, because people are going to do the right thing.”

After leading a cheer for the City Council, which was represented by members Jim Strickland and Kemp Conrad, Wharton got another cheer when he asked rhetorically, “Do you still believe in Memphis?” And then he added, “Come on now, let’s kick some butt!”

In a talk with reporters afterward, the mayor declined to be suspicious about the last-minute cancellation of the MCS board meeting on Friday. “I’m going to accept the lawyer [Dorsey Hopson, who was cited by Cash] at his word that it was nothing more than getting [things] in writing.”

Wharton remained scornful about the Board’s demand last Monday that $55 million of this year’s maintenance-of-effort total of $78.5 million be paid immediately in order to keep the schools open. There was no way to do that since “people just don’t pay their taxes at that time,” the mayor said. The only place such a sum could be found would have been in the City’s reserves, and if the City should delete its reserve fund by that much, “our credit rating would drop like a rock.”

He compared the situation to developments elsewhere. “You see what they’re doing to the state of Tennessee. You see what they’re doing in the United States Congress.”

The mayor said again, “Every elected official in town came to me and said, ‘If you give in to them now, you’ll look like a coward.”

What he had in mind to feature in his reelection campaign, Wharton said, was “a style of governing with civility” a style he wanted to “embed forever in the political values of this city.”

Asked about a string of protesters who picketed the mayor's oversight of the City's Animal Shelter, Wharton said, "I'm glad the protesters are there." He professed to be enthusiastic about this sign of citizen participation and said, "I'd like to see more pickets. About the schools and about Who Killed Lorenzen Wright."

One of several protesters sounds a discordant note.
  • JB
  • One of several protesters sounds a discordant note.

Continue reading »

Friday, July 22, 2011

Berlin Boyd Named Interim District 7 Councilman; City Election Filing Ends

Posted By on Fri, Jul 22, 2011 at 11:05 AM

Two Boyds Better Than One? --Interim District 7 councilman Berlin Boyd (right) poses with Bill Boyd, the sitting councilman who nominated him.
  • JB
  • Two Boyds Better Than One? —Interim District 7 councilman Berlin Boyd (right) poses with Bill Boyd, the sitting councilman who nominated him.

Memphis got a new interim City Council member Friday morning, as the Council, meeting in special session, selected local businessman Berlin Boyd from among 12 applicants to succeed retired District 7 Council member Barbara Swearengen Ware.

Boyd won out on the third ballot by a vote of 7-5 over runner-up Novella Smith Arnold, a well-known local activist, after the field had been narrowed to those two. Previous to the voting, the applicants had taken turns answering questions about their views and background from Council members.

Although no formal policy had been established barring candidates for the District 7 seat on the October ballot from the interim appointment, it was clear that a majority of the Council preferred to appoint someone who was not seeking election to the post.

Talking with the press over his selection, Boyd said job creation and crime would be primary concerns of his, and he said he would pay special attention to the needs of downtown, much of which lies in District 7.

There remain 14 candidates who qualified for the October ballot and hope to succeed Boyd. The District 7 race, in all probability, will be one of the few that will be fully competitive, in that Council incumbents, all of whom filed for reelection, will be heavily favored in the other 12 districts.

Four Council incumbents — Harold Collins in District 3, Jim Strickland in District 5, Myron Lowery in Super District 8, Position 3, and Reid Hedgepeth Super District 9, Position 3 — are unopposed.

Mayor A C Wharton drew 9 opponents, of whom three — Shelby County Commissioner James Harvey, former City Council member Edmund Ford Sr., and former Shelby County Commissioner John Willingham — have previous political and governmental experience.

Withdrawal deadline for city positions is Thursday, July 28.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

City, MCS Appear to Reach Tentative Agreement, Allowing Schools to Open Normally

Posted By on Thu, Jul 21, 2011 at 11:00 PM

MCS Board member Tomeka Hart and Council member Shea Flinn exchange views.
  • JB
  • MCS Board member Tomeka Hart and Council member Shea Flinn exchange views.
So it looks like we’ve got a deal to avert any hitch in beginning the 2011-12 school year — a tentative one, mind you, inasmuch as it still has to be formally approved by the full City Council, sitting as such, and the Memphis City Schools board.

But the ingredients of the deal, however masked in obfuscatory language, are clear enough: The city school board, which had threatened to cancel out the coming academic year if the City didn’t pony up in full on its court-ordered debt to MCS, has basically agreed to shave the debt down if the City agrees to pay up right away.

There were several phases to the Thursday afternoon showdown meeting that yielded this result.

Phase One was a presentation of the schools’ case, introduced by MCS board chairman Martavius Jones, in the presence of a majority of his Board members. Dr. Alfred Hall, MCS Chief of Staff, repeated the substance of the Board’s shocking Tuesday night resolution, asking the Council for immediate “full funding” of the $78.5 million which the courts have affirmed as the City’s maintenance-of-effort obligation to the city schools. The resolution had insisted on immediate payment of a $55 million installment.

Then MCS administrator Pam Anstey presented a detailed prospectus outlining the school system’s obligations, as well as its layoffs and other retrenchments, and the apparent fact of a remaining $160 million “budget gap” which — given what Jones contends is the depletion of the MCS reserve fund — had made it impossible to begin regular school operations this fall. Hence, the resolution passed 8-1 Tuesday night demanding an immediate $55 million payment from the city to avert a shutdown.

(And Jones, who had been the sole holdout on that night’s vote, said Thursday he would vote with the majority on the basis of what he has since learned.)

Phase Two, after a solicitation of audience input from Council education committee chair Wanda Halbert, who presided over the meeting, consisted of several orations on behalf of the schools.

The first of these, from Memphis Education Association Keith Williams, was a paean to the plight of teachers and students cruelly kept from their annual back-to-school rites by a heedless city government. Expressed in high-decibel rhetoric, it might as well have been, and maybe was, designed for CNN, one of the several news organizations, national and even international, which had delved into the Memphis situation once the prospect of canceling out a school year became public on Tuesday.

The final audience speech, though equally impassioned and a good deal more open-ended, came from one Chris Lareau of Stand for Children, and it concluded with Lareau’s plea that Jones and Council chairman Myron Lowery carve out a compromise and shake hands on it that very night. The progression from Williams’ seeming intractability through an intervening parent’s plea for reasonableness to Lareau’s call for a handshake deal was striking, and it suggested that an agreement might indeed be in the works.

But first the two sides staked out their opposing positions, including the MCS board’s fear, articulated by board attorney Dorsey Hopson, that the City was waiting out a ruling by federal judge Hardy Mays on city/county school-merger litigation that might result in the immediate liquidation of MCS as a governing unit and, with it, the erasure of the Board as a formal creditor.

That was balanced by Council attorney Allan Wade’s concern that, if Mays should so rule, any commitment in the meantime by the City to continued maintenance-of-effort payments now could be legally insisted on in the future by Shelby County Schools as a successor organization.

Then came a period when Council members extracted admissions from the MCS contingent that city school enrollment had fallen off, potentially justifying a reduction in the amount of the Council’s annual M.O.E. payments.

After several back-room conferences involving Jones, Hopson, Memphis Mayor A C Wharton, Councilman Shea Flinn, city finance director Roland McElrath, and others, the slipping enrollment became the basis for a formal resolution, introduced by Flinn and unanimously approved, that in determining the amount it owed MCS the City should resort to a “Test Two” formula, taking into account changing school-enrollment figures.

Further questioning by Council members established the likelihood that such a gauge might shave as much as $10 million off the current flat sum of $78.5 paid annually to MCS. A precise sum of $68,407,336 finally emerged somehow.

For purposes of comparison, the total proposed MCS budget for 2011-12, drawing on state and federal monies, and a variety of other sources, is $884,738,673 — a disproportion that had caused some to question the claim of the MCS board that it could not open the schools without full payment now from the City.

In the end, Wharton came to the well of the Council to announce a commitment by the City to pay $15 million by August 15, and further sums in installments through the autumn months according to the average rate of City payments to MCS from 2000 through 2011. Since the two sides had already stipulated that, on average, some 82 percent of the M.O.E. total usually got paid through October, that commitment became one of the legs of an apparent deal.

The other leg, provided that the MCS board confirms the arrangement at a special meeting on Friday evening, is based on the Council’s “Test Two” resolution, giving the Council the “option” of paying a sum based on reduced enrollment rather than on a full flat $78.5 million annual sum. The proposition is a little like one man’s owing another $25 but having the option, with the creditor’s consent, of repaying only $20.

To put the proposed deal in simplest terms, the City has to pay up $15 million by August 15th instead of $55 million as the School Board had wanted, and it can, with MCS acquiescence, knock a little off the top of the final sum.

If the Board says yes on Friday night and the Council okays the full MCS annual budget at its forthcoming August 2 meeting, the schools will open as usual. Keep in mind that this newly bartered agreement governs only the maintenance-of-effort sums called for in the 2011-12 school year.

Precise arrangements have not yet been made for repayment to MCS of the $58 million still owed by the City from the year of 2008-9 when the Council withheld that much from its M.O.E obligation, gambling that the courts would designate Shelby County government as the sole local funding source for all public schools.

That state of affairs, coupled with court orders, is what has endowed MCS spokespersons with debt-collector rhetoric, able to treat the City, in the words of Hopson Thursday night, as an entity always "in arrears."

UPDATE: Early Friday afternoon, Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash notified Memphis City Council chairman Myron Lowery and others of the cancellation of Friday evening’s scheduled meeting of the MCS board, called to ratify the tentative serttlement reached Thursday night with the Council.

Here is Cash’s explanation of the cancellation:

Dear Memphis City Schools Family,

On the advice of legal counsel, the Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioners have postponed their Special Called Board Meeting that was scheduled to take place this evening, (Friday, July 22, 2011) at 6:45 p.m.

Attorneys for Memphis City Schools and the Memphis City Council are in the process of working out the details of a potential agreement in order for us to open school on time. Once all of the details have been worked out and mutually agreed upon, a legally binding contract will be presented to both legislative bodies for their respective consideration.

The MCS Board of Commissioners will meet to discuss and possibly take action on said legally binding contract at the appropriate time. It must be emphasized that there is no binding agreement until both governing bodies have taken public action, approved the agreement, and officially signed off on same. Parents, students, employees, and the general public will be properly notified once a meeting has been scheduled. It remains this Board's and Administration's expectation that school will begin on its originally scheduled date of August 8, 2011. All preparation and planning work to accomplish this will continue as scheduled.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

MCS Decision to Postpone Classes “Indefinitely” Casts Shadow on City Election

Posted By on Wed, Jul 20, 2011 at 6:46 AM

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Even as the Memphis City Council was concluding a meeting whose major item — approval of new district lines in time for the 2011 election season — went through routinely, a fateful decision taken by the Council three years earlier, to cut back on its annual allotment to Memphis City Schools, was producing a truly seismic disturbance elsewhere in the city.

Several blocks away, the still very much alive MCS board, which had shaken the entire political infrastructure of Memphis and Shelby County by voting to dissolve itself just seven months ago, created new drama with an 8-1 vote to delay the opening of fall classes “indefinitely” until it receives $55 million owed it by Memphis city government under court order.

Unforeseen as it was, and drastic as its consequences could be, the MCS board’s action highlighted several other ongoing circumstances and seemed likely to cast some of them — notably a rumored effort on the City Council to restore pay and benefit cuts for city employees — aside, at least for the time being. Even before news of the MCS action got around, the Council had voted Tuesday night to defer action for two weeks on the employee-pay matter, and the new claim by MCS clearly threatens to make the matter moot.

The MCS move also puts front and center what has been considered an imminent ruling by U.S. District Judge Hardy Mays on consolidated litigation regarding the disposition of pending merger between MCS and Shelby County Schools. Judge Mays, who had indicated that July might be the time frame of his ruling, will decide how and when that merger — necessitated by the MCS charter surrender of last December — goes through.

Both MCS and Memphis city government, which have interests that are at once congruent and conflicting, are represented in that legal proceeding, the outcome of which could quickly become entangled with the settling of accounts between the city and MCS.

On the matter of redistricting, City Council attorney Allan Wade, who also represents the Council in the federal merger suit, fairly effectively dealt with it Tuesday evening, disputing press reports and blogger claims regarding possible hidden agendas and political motives in the reshuffling of district lines. Council members all seemed satisfied with Wade’s explanations of how the lines had been altered to accommodate population shifts reflected in the 2010 census while maintaining the same approximate racial and ethnic balances as before.

District 2 Council member Bill Boyd provided some insight into how redistricting was carried out when he confided to the Flyer that Wade had offered him four different scenarios for redesigning his district, which had become relatively overpopulated since district lines were fixed a decade earlier in response to the census of 2000. “I took the first plan he showed me,” said Boyd, who would relinquish a largely white precinct in the north to District 1, now represented by Bill Morrison, and two largely African American precincts in the south to District 3, whose council member is Harold Collins.

Blogger Steve Ross, whose “Vibinc” blog had repeatedly called for more public deliberations and more timely conclusions on Council redistricting, professed himself dissatisfied with Wade’s claim that there had not been inappropriate delays in announcing district lines. He noted that Nashville’s City Council had managed to resolve its own redistricting plan weeks ago, in ample time for potential candidates to consider their potential constituencies and to make plans. By contrast, he said, Wade had made the new Memphis lines known only a little more than a week ago, and they had not become formal until Tuesday night, two days before the filing deadline for Council positions on Thursday.

In any case, the new Council elected this year may represent slightly amended constituencies but, in the wake of Tuesday night’s actions by the MCS board, will be facing the same problems as its predecessor, only in amplified form.

See also John Branston's take on the MCS-City government conflict.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Wharton Files for Reelection as Memphis Mayor

Posted By on Tue, Jul 19, 2011 at 7:20 AM

Untitled from Jackson Baker on Vimeo.

Describing himself as “a tenant who has improved the property” during his 18 months so far at the helm of Memphis government, Mayor A C Wharton filed for reelection Monday at the Election Commission downtown.

And a day later, two local politicians with at least some name I.D. allowed as how they wanted to evict the current occupant and take over the property themselves. These were former city councilman Edmund Ford Sr. (whose son and namesake, current councilman Ed Ford Jr., is a candidate for reelection to his father’s old District 6 seat) and Shelby County Commissioner James Harvey, who plans to conduct what he calls a “people’s campaign.”

Both Ford and Harvey made appearances at the Election Commission on Tuesday, the former to file quietly, the latter appearing at the Commission’s downtown office with a group of supporters in tow but somewhat in advance of his “paperwork,” which, he said, would be forthcoming later in the day.

Speaking to the media after his own filing at the Election Commission, Wharton, who won the mayor’s office in a special election in 2009 after the retirement of former mayor Willie Herenton, boasted that in the short period he has been office, his tenure has resulted in “thousands of jobs, acres and acres cleaned up….We are bucking the national trend.”

What he has endeavored to do, said the mayor, who has made a point of industrial recruitment, was to see that there are jobs for people, “make the streets safe so they can get to the job. And when they earn a little money, make sure that that the air is clean, make sure there’s a playground nearby….Most people I know say, ‘I want a job. I want a safe community, I want the community cleaned up, I want to be able to relax. I want to have a sense of peace.’”

With a large crowd of supporters arrayed around him and with his wife Ruby, an attorney, at his side, Wharton said that, before deciding to file again for reelection, “I talked to the Man Upstairs first, then talked to my mother, and this lady right here.” (When the mayor was told he could not pay his filing fee by check, Mrs. Wharton had found the right amount of cash in her purse.)

“I’ve learned you cannot be all things to all people,” Wharton said. “Maybe I do try. If I had to rate myself, that would be a weakness.”

He proclaimed his continued zest for his job. “I’m up every morning at 4:30, in the gym at 5:30, can’t wait to get down here and stay until 10 at night. I enjoy my job…..You can’t whine. If you’re going to be a city mayor anywhere in the United States of America, they didn’t elect a whiner, and I ain’t going to whine, because I’m doing what I like to do.”

Monday, July 18, 2011

Mayor, Challenger Schedule Formal Filings

Posted By on Mon, Jul 18, 2011 at 8:07 AM

Mayor Wharton (left); Commissioner Harvey
  • Mayor Wharton (left); Commissioner Harvey
Mayor A C Wharton officially becomes a candidate for reelection Monday at noon when he files his petition at the Shelby County Election Commission downtown. Wharton will follow up Monday’s event with the opening of his headquarters at 1460 Union Avenue on Saturday.

Meanwhile, one of the mayor’s opponents, Shelby County Commissioner James Harvey, will also be holding a “campaign rally and petition filing” from 9 to 11 a.m. on Tuesday.

Filing deadline for mayor and other city offices, including the 13 City Council positions, is Thursday at noon at the Election Commission.

The Council will meet on Tuesday to approve new district lines in the wake of the 2012 Census and will meet again on Friday to name an interim Council member for District 7, the seat formerly occupied by Barbara Swearengen Ware, who has resigned.

Kristol, Shields, State Govt. Leaders Highlight Southern Legislative Conference Here

Posted By on Mon, Jul 18, 2011 at 7:36 AM

Kristol; Shields
  • Kristol; Shields
Well-known national pundits William Kristol, editoi of the Weekly Standard and Fox News Sunday panelist, and Mark Shields, columnist and panelist on the ABC/PBS show Inside Washington, are speakers at Monday morning’s opening plenary session of the annual Southern Legislative Conference, which is meeting this year at The Peabody in Memphis.

The conference — which began over the weekend with workshop meetings and social get-togethers, including a Saturday night visit to Graceland — will continue through Tuesday, with speaking appearances by Governor Bill Haslam, state Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, and state House Speaker Beth Harwell, and a final banquet.

The Conference is sponsored by the Southern Office of The Council of State Governments and comprises the states of Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, George, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi,Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and West Virginia.

During the four days of the conference, attendees will have dealt with a variety of topical subjects, including Agriculture and Rural Development, Energy and Environment, the 2011 Census, Education, a Human Services and Public Safety, and Hunger in the South.

The Peabody was the first venue for the Southern Legislative Conference, when it convened in 1947 as the Southern Regional Conference.

Chairman for this week's event is State Senator Mark Norris (R-Collierville), majority leader of the state Senate.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Corker Slams Impasse on Debt Ceiling, Says Colleagues are "Two-Bit Pawns" in Election Scenarios

Posted By on Thu, Jul 14, 2011 at 10:48 PM

Corker on the Senate floor Thursday
  • Corker on the Senate floor Thursday

U.S. Senator Bob Corker (R-TN) has fairly consistently demonstrated during his five years in Washington thus far that he is not bashful about taking the lead in controversial matters — be they foreign or domestic.

An example of the former is his aggressive insistence, early on, that the United States distance itself from involvement with Pakistan and begin to disengage from Afghanistan. An example of the latter is his sponsorshi9p of the CAP bill to impose a statutory annual limit on federal spending.

And, while he is generally content to work within the context of Republican Party guidelines, Corker had evinced a willingness to break with his party’s leadership if he feels strongly about an issue.

Such an issue, evidently, is the current game of chicken going on in Congress regarding the pending vote over increased the nation’s debt ceiling. With time running out before August 2, which Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner regards as a drop-dead date for the debt-ceiling vote, the GOP leadership has made it clear that it doesn’t intend to relent on voting to raise the ceiling without specific major concessions on spending (sans taxes) from the White House.

In a speech on the Senate floor Thursday, Corker took issue with this strategy. “Maybe the debt ceiling was the wrong place to pick a fight, as it related to trying to get our country's house in order,” Corker said. "Maybe that was the wrong place to do it.”

And the Senator used unusually tough words to describe his frustration with the senators in both parties who are locked into intractable positions. “Basically, most senators in this body are nothing but two-bit pawns, two-bit pawns, as a political fight is under way, basically, to lay out the groundwork, if you will, for 2012 elections. I mean that’s what really happening in this body right now, and I think we all know that.”

Corker blamed the current predicament on the fact that “this body hasn’t passed a budget in 806 or -7 days, “ adding, “And I credit both sides for that….Yesterday, we voted to move to a spending bill, where we are in essence acting as accomplices to this…Anybody who votes to go to a spending bill without forcing the United State Senate to come to terms with a budget is in essence an accomplice to allowing the shenanigans that are taking place right now to continue.”

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Chism Reelected County Commission Chair; Bunker to be New Vice Chair

Posted By on Tue, Jul 12, 2011 at 1:17 AM

A happy Chism accepts congratulations from audience members after the vote.
  • JB
  • A happy Chism accepts congratulations from audience members after the vote.
As expected, Democrat Sidney Chism got his second consecutive term as chairman of the Shelby County Commission on Monday, over what amounted to nominal, but symbolic, opposition from Republican commissioner Mike Ritz.

Chism had already lined up enough votes from both Democrats and Republicans to prevail on the first ballot of voting by commissioners, and he was aided in his effort to break with tradition by what amounted to a payback effort mounted by commission Republicans against one of their own, current vice chair and chairman pro tem Mike Carpenter.

Carpenter has frequently angered other GOP members by his willingness to vote with Democrats on key issues, and he withdraw from the chairman’s race last week in recognition of the fact that he lacked enough votes to ascend to the chairmanship for 2011-12, as would normally have been the case for a vice chair.

Chism said after the vote that he had wanted the second term because questions regarding the form of a pending merger between Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools, including a commission plan to appoint a new all-county school board, remain unresolved. U.S. District Judge Samuel Hardy Mays has said he will rule soon on litigation regarding the matter.

“And there’s another reason,” said Chism. That was to dispel the habits of partisanship which he said had damaged the commission and which, according to him, were embedded I the now broken tradition of alternating chairmen by person and by party each year.

Interestingly, though, Chism consistently cast his votes for Republican candidates in the several ballots taken by the commission to elect a vice chair. The two original candidates were Democrat Henri Brooks and Republican Chris Thomas, but neither could muster the seven votes necessary to prevail.

Subsequently the vice chairman’s race became a contest between Democrat Steve Mulroy and Republican Terry Roland, and, when neither of them could gain a majority, either, eventually GOP member Wyatt Bunker was nominated, and, with help from votes by Chism and Democrat Justin Ford, finally got elected.

It remains to be seen whether Bunker is able to restore the former tradition and gain elevation to the chairmanship next year. Chism has said he will not seek a third straight term as chairman.

City Charged with Union-Busting Efforts as Federal Suit is Filed

Posted By on Tue, Jul 12, 2011 at 12:17 AM

Union representatives meet the media.
  • JB
  • Union representatives meet the media.

It is no secret that long-standing relationships between public employees’ unions and governmental units are in jeopardy.

For much of the spring, national attention was fixated on efforts by Wisconsin state government to disenfranchise teachers’ unions, and the abolition of bargaining rights for the Tennessee Education Association and its affiliates was arguably the most dramatic single event to emerge from the 2011 session of the Tennessee General Assembly.

Now the battle is being joined between the City of Memphis and 13 local unions. At a press conference held by union representatives on Government Plaza Monday morning, Mike Williams, vice president of the Memphis Police Association, charged that union-busting and not money was the key issue in the unions’ dispute with the City, one which was now been formalized in a class action suit against the City Council and the administration of Mayor A C Wharton.

“That’s exactly what it is,” Williams answered when asked by a reporter if anti-union sentiment was involved when cuts in pay and benefits were included in the final city budget approved by the Council on June 21.

“This is not about money,” he said. “It’s about trying to do away with the viability of union contracts. If they’re able to take away money this time, they’re going to come back next time and do something else.”

The suit filed in Federal court seeks to invalidate the City’s action in imposing on city employees a 4.5 percent pay cut which, Essica Little Littlejohn of the Police Association said in an opening statement, is at variance with agreements reached earlier in formal impasse talks between the unions and city government.

“A deal is a deal,” Littlejohn said. “Once you’ve signed a contract you have to stick to the terms.”

The suit seeks a preliminary injunction and a permanent injunction later against both the pay cuts and execution of a planned buyout procedure for city sanitation workers.

Williams said that the setting aside of $13 million from the City’s reserves as a buyout fund for sanitation workers, “which they didn’t even ask for,” was a preliminary move toward privatization. “They want to draw down sanitation workers, and then they will say, ‘We don’t have enough sanitation workers.’” Then would come an overt move to privatize, Williams said.

Meanwhile, rumors abound that there will be efforts at the next Council meeting of July 29 to alter last month’s budget agreement and to rescind the cuts in pay and benefits for city employees. But various council members privately express skepticism that seven votes can be found to support such a move, which would cost a total of $17 million, money that presumably would have to come from the $76 million reserve fund.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Can the City Council Draw on "Found Money" to Restore Employee Pay?

Posted By on Fri, Jul 8, 2011 at 12:30 AM

found_money_3.jpg
Yogi Berra had it wrong. It ain’t over ‘til it’s over, true enough, but even then it ain’t over! That is the apparent predicament of the Memphis City Council after Tuesday’s meeting at which budget issues relating to the pay of city employees came unsettled after apparently being settled two weeks ago.

By now it is well known that Councilman Joe Brown, among others, has expressed confusion concerning what he voted for in his vote to approve the fiscal 2011-2012 budget. What Brown et al. said Tuesday was that they hadn’t realized they had approved a 4.6 percent pay cut for city employees when they voted on a package lopping off 12 paid holidays.

Mayor A C Wharton would later restore the paid holidays in favor of an out-and-out open and declared pay cut. That was the shift which occasioned all of the pain and denial expressed at the Council meeting Tuesday.

But various Council members say there was no question that, whatever they said this week, every member of the Council was fully aware two weeks ago that, whether by dropping paid holidays or by imposing a simple percentage cut, city employees’ salaries were to be cut by 4.6 percent. That was always a part of the final package.

The immediate occasion of revisionist thinking on the Council, of course, was the tragic killing over the weekend of Officer Timothy Warren — a circumstance which, in the eyes of many, on and off the Council, made the timing of the scheduled pay cut appear questionable, at best.

Hence, the prospect of restoring some or all of the pay cuts at the Council meeting of July 19.
Administration spokespersons, notably city CAO George Little, have responded to that possibility by saying, in effect, it’s a matter of squeezing blood from a turnip, that there is no money left to draw upon other than the city’s perilously low $76 million in reserves.

But, in fact, Councilman Jim Strickland, who does not favor restoring the pay cuts, did some arithmetic this week, observing that Mayor Wharton had brought to the table two weeks ago a budget proposal totaling $671 million — only $668 ½ of which was approved, a fact leading to the prolonged Council stalemate that was finally resolved with the revocation of the 2008 property tax cut of 18 cents.

According to Strickland’s count, the roughly $20 million gained from the tax increase should have put the final budget figure in the neighborhood of $690 million, but the final released budget figure was closer to $680 million, suggesting that the $20 million add-on had been applied against a base of $661 million, not the original $671 million.

Where, Strickland wondered, was the odd $10 million that seemed to have disappeared from the total? And could this amount turn up on July 19 as potential collateral for at least a partial turnaround on employee pay cuts?

Budget chairman Shea Flinn, who had moved for the 18-cent tax-cut restoration on budget night, acknowledged that “the special assessment obviously impacts the budget in some ways, freeing up money.” But, said Flinn, he believed anything gained would be held in reserve for the $57 million debt still owed Memphis City Schools. Rather famously, MCS had sued for and was granted a $57 million court judgment after the Council voted to withhold that amount from the city schools in the wake of the 2008 tax cut.

Flinn was adamant that no money had been secreted away and that, consequently, there was no money to be "found," that all funds had been accounted for by the time of the June 21 budget vote.

Any attempt by the Council to tap into what might superficially appear to be available funds would likely run into the same liability issues that it incurred with its ill-fated vote of 2008, Flinn said. Moreover, he noted, an increase in debt service expense next year would further offset any imagined gain.

In short, the money, more or less in the amount Strickland suggested, might indeed exist, at least as a theoretical sum, but could not be committed, and basically had not, in any true sense, been freed up.

That may not be enough to keep it from being the subject of debate on Tuesday, July 19, however.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Commissioner Carpenter Bows Out of Chairmanship Race

Posted By on Thu, Jul 7, 2011 at 5:21 PM

Shelby County Commissioner Mike Carpenter
  • JB
  • Shelby County Commissioner Mike Carpenter

In a letter to his colleagues Thursday, Shelby County Commissioner Mike Carpenter, the independent-minded Republican who has served for the last year as commission vice-chair and chairman pro tem, announced that he has bowed out of the race for commission chair.

Carpenter thereby recognized that, between the open disaffection of his GOP colleagues and the desire by current chair Sidney Chism, a Democrat, for another term, his hopes of acceding to the chairmanship had evaporated. The commission is scheduled to select its new officers in a vote next Monday.

In his letter, Carpenter focused on the break with longstanding tradition that his failure to advance would betoken:

"I am writing to inform you that I am withdrawing from the race for Chairman of the County Commission. It has become apparent over the last few months that the majority of commissioners desire to end the 17-year tradition of rotating the chairmanship between the political parties, as well as do away with the 14-year tradition of elevating the Pro Tempore of the Commission to the position of Chair. In my tenure on the Commission I have supported this tradition voting for Democrats Joe Ford and Deidre Malone and Republicans David Lillard and Joyce Avery — all of whom served as Pro Tempore the year prior to being elected Chair of the Commission.

"Obviously, I am disappointed, but understand that times change and that every Commission rule, tradition or preference is subject to the will of the body. I appreciate the consideration you have given to me and the opportunity to serve you as Pro Tempore over the last year. I also look forward to a new election process, beginning next week, that will allow each of us the freedom to choose our leadership based on a wide-array of factors, rather than on time-honored traditions."

Carpenter’s withdrawal will doubtless open the way for an easy victory by Chism, who presumably can count on the votes of most of his fellow commission Democrats as well as assorted Republicans, one of whom, Terry Roland, has already committed himself to Chism. Democrat Steve Mulroy, who had been pledged to Carpenter, said Thursday he was not sure how he would vote. And Republican Mike Ritz had earlier indicated he was available to serve as chairman if circumstances were conducive to that end.

Over the years of his commission service since he was first elected in 2006, Carpenter, a longtime GOP activist who formerly held paid positions with the state Republican Party, had largely avoided the party line in casting his votes.

Though he consistently sided with his Republican colleagues in fiscal matters like reducing the tax rate and actually led the drive to readjust county pensions downward, Carpenter sided with the commission Democrats on several key votes — among them, to add a second Juvenile Court judge, to sustain Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell’s desire to consolidate county IT functions, and to continue funding the Office of Early Childhood and Youth.

Carpenter himself has resisted prior efforts to break with the commission’s traditions regarding parity in matters involving party affiliation, voting in 2009 against Democrat Deidre Malone’s attempts to gain a second term, as well as against successful Democratic efforts that year to replace Republican David Lillard, who had become state treasurer, with Democrat Matt Kuhn.

Though Carpenter's service during the past year as vice-chair had been consistent with the party-alternation system whereby chairs of one party have served with vice chairs of the other, he had in fact gained the office a year ago with his own vote coupled with those of the commission Democrats.

At present, there are seven Democrats on the commission and six Republicans — a reflection of the demographic facts of life in the county. Those facts are likely to be re-emphasized in any redistricting process in conformity with the census of 2010. If the tradition of alternating chairmanships by party is sundered, Republicans will be at a consistent disadvantage in all subsequent internal elections.

Mulroy Acts Out Again

Posted By on Thu, Jul 7, 2011 at 4:01 AM

Now, which founding father would this be?
  • Now, which founding father would this be?

We'll let this one speak for itself, as distributed by the designated comimissioner, a sometime thespian:

COUNTY COMMISSIONER STEVE MULROY TAKES STAGE AGAIN FOR CIVIC EDUCATION


As part of a patriotic, educational skit to emphasize the need for civic engagement, County Commissioner Steve Mulroy will portray a Founding Father in a skit to publicize the efforts of the Public Issues Forum, a local nonprofit organization committed to educating citizens about the issues of the day.

This Friday, July 8, the Public Issues Forum will host a special Reception For Elected Officials from 4 to 7 p.m. in the Hall of Mayors at Memphis City Hall. Refreshments will be served. Coming on the heels of the Fourth of July, the event will have a patriotic theme, with a suitable 5 minute skit scheduled for 5:30 p.m.

The skit is the brainchild of former City Councilwoman Carol Chumney, a Public Issues Forum board member who wanted to do something different for the annual event. Chumney called Mulroy, a Shelby County Commissioner who sometimes acts in community theater and has penned scripts for the local satiric “Gridiron” revue. Chumney asked Mulroy to write and perform in a short skit to dramatize the importance of getting the public educated and engaged in public issues, and Mulroy agreed. Some audience participation is expected.

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