Billions have been served but only dozens were chosen. And not all of them panned out.
The Memphis Kroc Community Center at the fairgrounds is one of 27 centers in the country that were inspired and funded in large part by a $1.5 billion gift from McDonald's founder Ray Kroc and his wife Joan to the Salvation Army. The grand opening is this Saturday and Sunday, and you really have to see it to appreciate it.
An indoor pool for swimmers and non-swimmers, with water cannons, depth charges, dump buckets, waterslide, basketball goals, and squirt stations, in addition to lap lanes. An outdoor splash park. A gym with basketball courts, stages for bands, and an artificial-turf-covered area for soccer and lacrosse. A high-tech "challenge center" with ropes course, zip-lines, lasers, and mental and physical challenges suitable for small groups and companies recovering from the trauma of bonding via paint ball and karaoke. Two outdoor soccer fields and indoor fitness areas with personal trainers, Zumba, muay thai kickboxing, and Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Concessions serving healthy food planned by a chef with dual degrees in Christian education and culinary arts. The words "burgers, fries, and shakes" do not appear in the program guide.
How will all of this play out? Too early to say. Each center tries to meet needs and fill in gaps in its host city. The only stipulation is that it be centrally located and strive to serve a diverse clientele. The Memphis Kroc is ambitious and different. That's the point.
There are scaled-down versions of the long-gone waterslides at Libertyland and Adventure River, the river model at Mud Island River Park, the environmentally friendly playground at Shelby Farms, and the row upon row of stationary bicycles and treadmills at Lifetime Fitness. There is serious attention to arts, special events, and worship.
"We're going to keep on doing what we've been doing," said Ellen Westbrook, spokeswoman for the Salvation Army in Memphis, which provides shelters for homeless men and women, disaster relief, and food for the hungry and always seems to be there when needed for the last 113 years.
The founder of the Salvation Army was General William Booth, a bearded evangelist who began his work in London in 1865, adopting the hymn "Onward Christian Soldiers." His words that inspired Ray and Joan Kroc bear repeating:
"While women weep, as they do now, I'll fight. While little children go hungry, as they do now, I'll fight. While men go to prison, in and out, as they do now, I'll fight. While there is a drunkard left, while there is a poor lost girl upon the streets, while there remains one dark soul without the light of God, I'll fight. I'll fight to the very end!"
The Kroc $60 million challenge grant, announced in 2005, was matched by $25 million raised locally over the next four years by the Salvation Army in Memphis, which purchased 15 acres along East Parkway at the Mid-South Fairgrounds in 2006. Groundbreaking was in 2010, but construction delays pushed the opening back to this year. The challenge now is to keep it going.
A single membership is $30 a month. A day pass is $5. There are specials for charter members who sign up before Saturday. The goal is to get members from all income groups and all of Shelby County.
Easier said than done. We live in a time of sports specialization and self-segregation. But Kroc signed up corporate sponsors, including FedEx, AutoZone, and Baptist Memorial Hospital. It has built a relationship with its neighbors in Cooper-Young and Christian Brothers University. And it has hired experienced club managers, instructors, camp directors, techies, and outside-the-box jocks like Ty Cobb, the Ole Miss cheerleader who became a basketball halftime celebrity with his Daredevils dunkers.
After a building binge for professional sports highlighted by AutoZone Park and FedExForum, Memphis government, corporations, and philanthropists turned their attention to sporty things ordinary Memphians can do, such as the Greenline, the skate park, bike lanes, Shelby Farms Park, and the overall fairgrounds redevelopment plan the Memphis City Council was talking about this week.
Whether that continues will depend on how well the Kroc Center is received. I think it's as carefully thought out and executed as any public facility I've seen. Check it out.
Let's leave schools, Rudy Gay, and Nathan Bedford Forrest aside for a minute and talk about money.
Sooner, if you're over 55, or later, if you're under 30, you're going to have to save some, live off someone else's, or scrape by on Social Security (good luck). If you are in the first category, you will probably eventually fall into the arms of a money manager by choice or because your company retirement plan makes you do so.
This is about Memphis money manager Southeastern Asset Management and its Longleaf Partners Fund, managed by Mason Hawkins and Staley Cates. Several years ago, I put my small treasure in this fund. Invest locally and you get to drive to the annual meeting, drink free wine, and hear the managers explain their hits and misses. It's easier to pay attention. And Longleaf has a good but not great track record.
The first sentence of Southeastern Asset Management's letter to shareholders in 2012: "Great corporate partners can mean the difference between a good investment return and a stellar one. Our investment criteria include having 'Good People' at the helm."
Bravo! You sure don't want Bad People at the helm. Look at Bernie Madoff or Allen Stanford. But sometimes Good People make bad decisions and lose lots of money for other Good People. Such as me. That's what happened to Longleaf investors in 2008 when the value of the fund fell 50 percent. It didn't help that Cates and Hawkins made big bets on two stocks that tanked: Dell, founded by Michael Dell, and Chesapeake Energy, run by Aubrey McClendon.
Cates and Hawkins generally keep a low profile, but for a year they have been making business headlines as activist investors. In 2012, they forced Chesapeake's board to make changes, and in January, McClendon announced he would resign as CEO. In February, Southeastern broke ranks with Dell over a buyout proposal they believe sells the company too cheap to private investors. Southeastern's trope is that "Mr. Market" undervalues stocks and creates buying opportunities for "value investors" to find great investment partners on the cheap.
"We use our vast network of clients, corporate managers, industry experts, and friends to find out everything we can about the CEO, including personal as well as professional insights," Cates and Hawkins said in their 2012 shareholder letter.
This runs contrary to the view that index funds perform as well or better and charge lower fees. As ballplayer Dizzy Dean once said, "If you can do it, it ain't bragging." The Partners Fund has an average annual return of 10.8 percent since its inception in 1987, winning some best-in-the-business recognition. But over the last five years, the annual return has averaged just .25 percent.
Dell was a hot stock when custom PCs came in shipping boxes the size of suitcases. Mr. Market has been over it for years, but not Longleaf. This was Southeastern's view last summer: "Michael Dell is one of the most vested and engaged CEOs we have as a partner."
And this was their view last week about a proposed buyout of Dell at $13.65 a share, well below Longleaf's valuation of $24 a share: "We are writing to express our extreme disappointment regarding the proposed go-private transaction, which we believe grossly undervalues the company. We intend to avail ourselves of all options at our disposal to oppose the proposed transaction."
Dell defended the proposal, saying it "offers an attractive and immediate premium for stockholders." This is hogwash that raises doubts about Mr. Dell's "Good Person" credentials. The statement is only true for investors whose cost basis is below $13. Anyone who bought the stock from 1998 to 2008, when the price ranged from $20 to $59, has earned a huge loss. That includes Southeastern, which owns 8.5 percent of the available shares.
Good People, Part Two: This was Southeastern last year on the "controversial" McClendon, part owner of the Oklahoma City Thunder: "Through our multiple industry, client, professional, and personal contacts, we gained insight about McClendon and arrived at a different conclusion than the image currently portrayed by Chesapeake short sellers and much of the media."
Mr. Market meets Mr. Media. The media bashing was a sorry excuse for analysis. The reports about McClendon's personal investment conflicts were right on target. He's out in April.
There's an old saying about investing that "the stock doesn't know you own it." But the CEO knows you own it if you're one of his top shareholders, and that presents a whole range of issues when "Good People" make bad decisions. Go get 'em, Staley and Mason.
Small paper this week and lots to write about, so three columns in one space.
I think Clarence Mumford made a gutsy move when he turned down the original offer from federal prosecutors and got a better deal. Mumford is the confessed "ringleader" in a scheme to hire test-fakers to stand in for test-takers on teacher certification tests in West Tennessee, Mississippi, and Arkansas for more than 15 years.
I don't think Mumford, 59, is a "good guy" by any means, but I don't buy him as Public Enemy Number One in education either. Now, he's looking at a possible seven-year sentence, but U.S. district judge John Fowlkes, a newcomer to the federal bench, will make the call in May. Mumford's case got national attention.
There is so much cheating in education at all levels that it boggles the mind: graduation rates and TCAP scores rigged in Memphis schools, teachers in Atlanta holding parties to rig student test scores, college athletes getting stand-ins to take their entrance exams and write their papers, students at elite schools cheating on entrance exams. Very little of this results in criminal prosecution.
Mumford's clients were twice dumb. They feared they would fail or actually did fail the PRAXIS exam to get certification — some multiple times — and they paid Mumford $1,000 or more to hire a test-faker. Test monitors became suspicious when they saw blatantly fake IDs and the same test-faker at two sessions in the same day at the same place.
Mumford made some money. Using government figures, it works out to less than $10,000 a year if you prorate it. He corrupted at least one young teacher he was supposed to mentor. The children in classes taught by unqualified teachers suffered.
If Mumford had exercised his right to a trial and lost, he could have gotten, in effect, a life sentence. Tough call for Fowlkes.
I think the phrase "school choice" resonates more with parents than "world-class school system."
The optional schools lineup and lottery process are being sorted out by Memphis City Schools, which won't have numbers to analyze until later this week. What we know is that at least 2,000 parents applied, including hundreds who camped out for one or more nights to assure their spots in the most desirable schools.
Memphis is not the only urban district that lets parents take matters into their own hands to some extent when it comes to securing spots in magnet schools. Newspapers in Cincinnati and Dallas report parent campouts. In Nashville, spots are determined by a lottery among applicants who meet rigorous academic requirements. Memphis uses a lottery for only 20 percent of its spots in optional schools within schools.
Legislators in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi are dealing with the issues of charter schools, and federal courts in Memphis, Nashville, and Little Rock have school desegregation cases on their dockets. Our merger is unique, but not the underlying issues.
The Unified Shelby County School Board has an impossible task. Unity and world-class are lofty ideals, but the reality is fragmentation, more school choices than ever, and a scramble.
If you're a frequent flyer and a member of the Airport Authority like my friend Jack Sammons, then maybe this week's announcement of four more AirTran flights is "a home run." I see it as a single.
The news is certainly welcome in the sense that it reverses the trend of declining passenger service at Memphis International Airport. But if this is a homer, then what would we call restoration of the Amsterdam flight or even a fraction of the flights Delta has taken away from Memphis in recent years?
Memphians fall into three categories when it comes to flying: time-is-money business travelers and frequent flyers at the mercy of Delta, recreational travelers who can cherry-pick their destinations and dates, and a lot of people who fly rarely, if ever.
One Southwest Airlines executive supposedly said, "The more flights we take, the more we get." As if plane tickets are movies.
They're not. Even "cheap" tickets are expensive, and flights are full, attendants scarce, seats cramped, delays likely, fees mount up, and hub connections can be a hassle. Glamorous it ain't.
The Little Rock and Nashville alternatives have never made any sense to me, but I guess it looks different to a family of four. If it comes, the salvation of the underused Memphis airport and airports such as Baltimore-Washington International and Midway in Chicago will be their convenience and a drastic reduction in the cost of jet fuel.
A little more than a year after it opened, the Memphis Skate Park in Tobey Park is fulfilling the dream of its driving force, Aaron Shafer.
"This feels good," said Shafer, as he surveyed the scene Sunday afternoon when some 70 people — all of them male and most of them teenagers or younger — enjoyed the park that opened in November 2011. Shafer, a California transplant, pitched the idea to city officials and anyone else who would listen, including skeptical journalists and sports traditionalists.
The newest attraction is "the wave," a curling silver ramp 20 feet high in the shape of a breaking wave. Daredevils slap stickers on the highest points of the curve before pivoting midair and coasting back down.
I did not visit the skate park to play cop or scold. I was doing an interview at the school board on the other side of the parking lot when I saw the crowd and walked over. The polite, friendly kids whose picture I took should be in a skateboard video celebrating the sport's ethnic diversity.
Skateboarding suits my libertarian preferences. I often bike without a helmet and slam a small rubber ball around an indoor court without wearing safety glasses. And, let's face it, doing tricks in midair over a bowl of concrete is risky any way you look at it. The more extreme stunts call to mind Jerry Seinfeld's joke about skydiving — "the helmet is wearing you."
But the skate park is in plain view, and the only thing scarcer than helmets was girls. (Shafer and his son wore helmets.) Shortly after the park opened in 2011, a 12-year-old kid was handcuffed by a cop and put in a squad car for not wearing a helmet. After that, the Memphis City Council passed a helmet ordinance that subjects violators to a $50 fine. A sign says so, just as another says skate and bike at your own risk. This legalistic straddle is confusing at best and negligent at worst.
"It's definitely common sense to wear a helmet for those of us with common sense, but teenagers don't have that," said Derek Kelly, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Campbell Clinic and Le Bonheur Children's Hospital. "The simple stuff we can treat pretty successfully, but head injuries are permanent. I hate to shed a bad light on this, but at the same time we've got to protect kids."
So much for the lecture. The skate park is everything Little League baseball is not — no uniforms, coaches, teams, rules, or overprotective parents hanging around. These are break-the-rules sports that scream "Mine!" and "Bug off!" And, yes, "Death wish." The demographic and the rebel spirit have caught the attention of commercial sponsors and the Olympics, which had BMX racing in 2012 and is considering skateboarding in 2016.
The skate park was not an instant success, and there is no guarantee that its popularity will last or grow. But it's a nice addition to a budding Midtown sports complex that includes Tobey Fields, a rugby field, and the Fairgrounds within half a mile. Former Memphian and ex-big-league ballplayer Tim McCarver, 71, has pledged a donation for a baseball field or fields at the Fairgrounds.
His heart is in the right place, but the problem with inner-city baseball is not so much a lack of facilities as a lack of interest. The next sports wave could be the one old guys didn't see coming.
Jimmy Ogle is chairman of the Shelby County Historical Commission and a Memphis history buff. He has led thousands of visitors on walking tours of downtown and provides commentary on riverboat sightseeing trips. So he has a keen interest in the controversy over Forrest Park that flared up again this year.
What grates Ogle almost as much as the frequent theft of historical markers is the amount of myth and misinformation about not just the park but downtown history in general, particularly in regard to the Civil War and civil rights. With his help, I compiled this list of the Top 10 Myths about downtown history.
1. There is a granite block from which slaves were auctioned in Auction Park near the bridge to Mud Island: Ogle says trolley drivers, carriage drivers, and motor coach tour operators help perpetuate this myth. Auction Avenue, renamed A.W. Willis Avenue, does indeed have a granite marker, but it was not placed there until 1924 by the Colonial Dames. "I do not think that Memphis was active in slave trading in that year, do you?" Ogle said.
2. Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest was originally buried in Forrest Park: He was buried in Elmwood Cemetery in 1877 and moved to the park in 1904, along with his wife. Moving him back to Elmwood would be problematic, Ogle says, because the family plot has no space. It is crowded by a large magnolia tree and the burial place of Memphis historian Shelby Foote.
3. Forrest is the most prominent Southerner from the Civil War so honored in downtown: Arguably, the statue of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, is more prominent, as it stands on Front Street in Confederate Park in the heart of downtown. Another city park, Jefferson Davis Park, is just below that on Riverside Drive. Davis, who lived in Memphis after the war, has somehow remained largely unscathed in recent monument controversies.
4. Confederate Park has an identity crisis: This one is true but still confusing. Civil War cannons were removed from the park during a scrap effort during World War II. In 1947, they were replaced with World War II cannons. Those cannons were replaced with Civil War replicas during the sesquicentennial commemoration last year for the Naval Battle of Memphis.
5. Memphis was a Southern stronghold during the Civil War: In fact, Memphis was occupied by the Union Army for most of the war and served as a strategic outpost for generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman.
6. Union Avenue gets its name from the Civil War: This is an Ogle favorite. "The name had nothing to do with the Civil War Union occupation nor the merger with South Memphis in 1850," he said. Our city's original street names, including Union, are on the original survey and map of 1819 — more than 40 years before the onset of the Civil War. The main east-west streets honor the first five presidents and Memphis founders Andrew Jackson, James Winchester, and John Overton.
7. Forrest and Davis are the only segregationists with a prominent public landmark named for them: The Clifford Davis Federal Building is named for KKK-member Davis, a city judge from 1923 to 1927, vice mayor 1928-1940, and congressman 1940-1962. The building was co-named for African-American federal judge Odell Horton in 2007.
8. Clayborn Temple across from FedExForum was the site of Martin Luther King's "I've Been to the Mountain Top" speech: King gave that speech at Mason Temple, which is about a mile south of Clayborn Temple. King led a march in 1968 from Clayborn Temple. In 2012, a segment of Linden Avenue was renamed to honor King.
9. The Pyramid was Sidney Shlenker's idea and he sold it to Memphis "hook, line, and Shlenker": The Texas promoter came on the scene to try, unsuccessfully, to develop the Pyramid after it was built. Memphis businessman John Tigrett was the driving force behind the Pyramid.
10. Hernando DeSoto discovered the Mississippi River in Memphis: A plaque in Chickasaw Heritage Park next to the National Ornamental Metal Museum says DeSoto "viewed" the river "in the area" in 1541. Note the careful hedging. Historians believe the more likely point of discovery was about 100 miles south, in Mississippi.
Now you know. What's more, Mud Island is not an island, the Pinch was first settled by "pinched-gut" Irish refugees from the potato famine, and downtown Memphis was not flooded in 2011, unless you count Riverside Drive. As ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer said then, all we can do is pray.
Scary story last Sunday on 60 Minutes about all the things robots can do in manufacturing plants.
The little buggers were scooting like cockroaches all over the floor of a warehouse, faultlessly navigating traffic while carrying racks of stuff to humans who packed it into boxes to be shipped who knows where, maybe through Memphis.
A couple of smart guys from MIT and the head of the company that makes the robots told reporter Steve Kroft this could bring manufacturing back to the United States from overseas, because the robots "make" about $3.40 an hour, comparable to workers in Asia. A robot, one of them noted, has already kicked some Harvard and MIT ass on Jeopardy.
Great. Just when Memphis joins the manufacturing party, humanoid employees take it on the chin from C-3PO. Tuesday was the media event at the new Electrolux plant on Presidents Island. Good news, for now at least: The humans are winning, but Nike and FedEx and Electrolux and all those warehouses off Lamar are the stage for this battle of the 21st century. I worked in warehouses for a couple weeks several years ago and can't remember a thing I did that could not have been done just as well by a machine.
The road from downtown and Interstate 55 to Electrolux takes you past the smokestacks of the steam plant, the signs for "Project 21," which is Mitsubishi Electric's future local offering, the fart smell of Ensley Bottoms, the yeasty olfactory relief of the grain operations, more smokestacks, then the gates of the Electrolux plant. The sprawling, low-slung buildings and parking lots (humans!) will be home to hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars in investment.
Product starts rolling out in May. About 90 employees are already working, with 160 more to come later this year. Many of them came to the ceremony in their blue shirts and khakis to hear the good news. Something was cooking in the Electrolux ovens — rolls and sausages maybe? Anyway, it was the best-smelling media event of the year.
There were the obligatory introductions and remarks by politicos, including Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey from distant Bristol. The similarity to the automobile manufacturing process — a Southern business and manufacturing party at which Memphis and Shelby County are conspicuously absent — was mentioned at least half a dozen times. Then Jack Truong, CEO of Electrolux Major Appliances North America, and plant manager George Robbins took over for the tour.
"Electrolux is leading the revolution toward manufacturing in Memphis," Robbins said.
The equipment is highly automated, high-tech, and highly monitored to assure a level of consistency and reliability that is as desirable in your household appliances as it is in your car.
At Stops One and Two, the giant yellow robotic arms and hands put on a little show for us.
"You can see them running through their paces," Robbins said.
At Stop Three, more yellow robot arms were doing their thing in a cage. A humanoid with a pole was standing outside the cage. If that thing escapes, I thought, you're gonna need a bigger pole, buddy.
Stop Four, the assembly line, is not yet operational. The massive space is where most of the 1,200 U.S. employees will work when the plant reaches full production in five years. It is lit by skylights for their good health. So are the cafeteria, meeting rooms, and offices. The robots presumably couldn't care less.
I asked Robbins how many robots will be working on the line.
"None," he said. "The products are put together by people. We don't rule out robotics in the future, in sub-assembly especially."
Stop Five was quality control, where a sample of finished products will be put through hundreds of tests to make sure humans and robots have performed their tasks well.
Excellent news all around. Jobs and return on investment coming our way. If we can keep the robots from taking over our factories and warehouses, maybe we enlist a few of them to invade Nashville and bring us some more business.
When I visited him in his office this week, Dr. James Eason was dressed all in black, which pretty much matched his mood.
His holidays were fine. What had him down was the news he got in December that the Methodist University Transplant Institute had lost another and probably final round to Nashville and Vanderbilt University over an organ-sharing agreement.
"This is very disappointing," he said. "Now people in Memphis and the Mid-South have access to only 25 percent of the organs from the state of Tennessee. We had been able to save an average of 11 patients a month through liver transplants because of the statewide agreement. Since December 5th we have been limited to four donors. That's what we're going to be dealing with."
Eason, director of the center, did a life-saving liver transplant for Apple co-founder Steve Jobs in 2009 that extended his life two-and-a-half years. It was one of roughly 120 such transplants the center did each year under the old statewide organ-sharing agreement. When the Jobs story finally trickled out, it gave Methodist, the transplant center, and Memphis some bragging rights, especially against Nashville, which happens about as often as the University of Memphis rules the state in football.
In December, however, Eason was notified that the new sharing agreement, supported by the Department of Health and Human Services, Vanderbilt, and the Memphis-based Mid-South Transplant Foundation, was final.
"I believe a political decision was made, not an evidence-based decision," he said.
Meaning what? I asked.
"I will leave it at that. People in Nashville won at the expense of people in Memphis and West Tennessee. There was misinformation that confused and prevented the groundswell of community support."
Eason estimates that the number of liver transplants performed here each year will fall to 60 or less. Methodist and affiliated Le Bonheur Children's Hospital have been one of the top 10 transplant programs in the country for 40 years. That status, Eason says, is likely to end. The December fall-off is likely to continue. Meanwhile, Tennessee Donor Services based in Nashville had 14 liver donors. Nine of those went to Vanderbilt and five went out of state. In the past, Methodist would have split those with Vanderbilt.
"We have a young man, an adolescent, waiting at Le Bonheur since December 13th with the highest [eligibility] score in the state, but he can't get access to those organs unless they are turned down by Vanderbilt, which does not have a pediatric liver transplant program."
Eason was born at Baptist Memorial Hospital in downtown Memphis and grew up in Jackson, Tennessee. He looks like an actor that television producers would cast in the role of the chief doctor in a hospital drama. As the public face of the transplant center, he is not a self-promoter. I (and others) have tried for more than a year to get him to tell the Steve Jobs story in depth, but he won't do it.
Looking back on it, Eason said the Jobs story had mixed consequences because of perceptions that the wealthy Californian jumped the line.
"We are a center of excellence, and people who have a choice choose excellence," Eason said. "I think his transplant was used by some people to overshadow the fact that over 90 percent of our patients are from the Mid-South."
The doctor and his famous patient, whose stay in Memphis was cloaked in secrecy, formed an unusual bond. After the operation, Eason bought the house in Midtown where Jobs stayed.
"That's an old story," he said. "I still live there. I bought that house."
I asked him if he plans to stay in Memphis. Overachievers, whether they be entrepreneurs, doctors, or coaches, tend to go where the most action is.
"I have been approached by other programs," he said. "I am a native West Tennessean, but I also have to look at every option and opportunity where I can do the most good. Right now, my main consideration is providing transplants to the people we have here."
The Memphis center does liver, kidney, and pancreas transplants. The team includes five surgeons and 10 doctors in all, as well as support personnel.
"Everybody in the center is more experienced, from surgeons to nurses to allied health providers," he said. "And it is easier to recruit the best and brightest to a program that is doing a lot of transplants."
First, the misses. I missed by a mile on the sales tax increase referendum, which I said “has a real chance this year.” It lost 69-31 after it went from Memphis-only to countywide, but would have lost anyway.
I jumped on the Big East bandwagon in February. “Better late than never,” I reasoned. Maybe not, as the conference crumbles.
I thought and still think “able and willing” John Aitken, who is under contract until February 2015, would be a good choice for superintendent of the Unified School System, but the school board launched a search instead. And I praised board members for getting along even if they could not reach agreement on big decisions, singling out Martavius Jones and David Pickler, “who set the tone for frank but civil discussion.” A couple of weeks later, Jones submitted a resolution calling for the immediate resignation of Pickler “for failure to publicly disclose an apparent conflict of interest.”
A year ago, I wrote that “the city of Memphis is not going to get out of a court-ordered $57 million payment to Memphis City Schools.” Maybe not, but delay is a viable strategy, and MCS is still waiting for full payment of the old debt.
On the biggest story of the year, I wrote that “it could be that Judge Hardy Mays knows exactly what the legislature was up to but thinks it unwise to overrule the wishes of 85 percent of suburbanites” on municipal school systems. He left the ’burbs some wiggle room but he delivered a stinging rebuke.
I called the sexual orientation anti-discrimination ordinance “a media attention grabber” and “a solution in search of a problem.” The Memphis City Council passed it without much fuss.
As for bike lanes, I said, “If you had told me 10 or 20 years ago that Memphis would reinvent itself as a bicycle town I’d have thought you were touched.” A few days ago, The New York Times ran a story about Memphis headlined “Sprawling Memphis Aims to Be a Friendlier Place for Cyclists.” Sometimes national attention is its own reward.
I thought the powers that be in Big Medicine would listen to transplant surgeon James Eason and Methodist University Hospital and help Memphis become a national center of excellence on liver and kidney transplants with “bragging rights” over Nashville and Vanderbilt for a change. No sale. Their pleas were rebuffed again this month, and their Transplant Institute is in jeopardy.
The predictions I got right were, honestly, pretty easy.
“Trouble’s coming,” I said about the appointed-not-elected Transition Planning Commission when it unveiled its plan last summer to unify the city and county school system. It still is.
The most obvious miscalculation was the recommendation to close 21 schools. Four or five is more like it. The lame-duck 23-member school board is built to fail because it will shrink to seven members this September.
Despite various public and private efforts, blight remains a huge problem for Memphis. “Blight gets a nice seat at the table and just sits there,” and so it will be in 2013.
The suburbs easily passed referendums on partially funding their dream of municipal school systems even though the issues of legality and cost of buildings are unresolved.
The concerts at the Levitt Shell are great, but free music comes with a price, and closing a venue such as the Hi-Tone Café is part of the price.
Facebook is no fad, but the privacy concerns are real and the price of the initial public stock offering was way too high. Not buying it was indeed “priceless.”
When the city and county gave tax incentives to lure Electrolux and Mitsubishi Electric, it was only a matter of time before current corporate residents such as too-big-to-lose International Paper made their own value proposition and got more tax breaks.
The local tax structure based on Tourism Development Zones (TDZ) and Tax Increment Financing (TIF) didn’t go off the rails in 2012, but it got the scrutiny and resistance it deserves, as downtowners said “not so fast” to a grand scheme called Heritage Trail.
Finally, really big deals take a really long time. It has been 1,630 days since construction began on Beale Street Landing and 1,530 days since Bass Pro Shops signed a development agreement for the Pyramid. Both projects are supposed to open in 2013.
The headlines of 2012 would have been thrilling and exciting and heartening if only they had come, oh, about four years earlier.
Such as, "So Long, Suckers! U of M Leaving Conference USA for Big East."
And, "Taking Flight: Airport Expansion Adds Huge Garage to Accommodate All Those Delta Flights and Passengers."
And, "Bass Pro Founder Says Pyramid to Reopen Next Year."
And, "Calipari Captures Elusive National Title."
And, "New Football Coach Has Tigers Moving in Right Direction."
And, "Memphians Party at Opening of Beale Street Landing."
And, "School Leaders Say Unified System Eight Months Away."
And, "States and Congress Agree on Need for Stricter Gun Control to Avoid Mass Shootings at Schools."
Instead we got, well, you know what we got.
Many of my working hours this year, maybe too many, were spent in public meetings. The ongoing schools story was the main culprit, with the city council running second.
Looking back, I see a common theme: How much is enough?
That goes for big stuff like schools, police and fire stations, pre-kindergarten programs, and Liberty Bowl Stadium improvements as well as little stuff like bike lanes and public golf courses.
A routine year-end meeting of the parks committee of the Memphis City Council last week showed how controversial even seemingly minor decisions can be — which does not bode well for big decisions on budgets, the Unified School System, school superintendents, and school closings in 2013.
Council members spent nearly an hour rehashing golf courses. Earlier this year, the council agreed to close three money-losing courses for the winter months. The discussion, accompanied by spreadsheets and some hard questioning of parks director Janet Hooks, was about whether a fourth course in Whitehaven was going to be closed permanently.
"We're not going to close any golf courses," said Councilman Joe Brown, with the emphasis on "any."
If you play golf or live in Whitehaven, this might interest you. If you play golf and live in Whitehaven, it might interest you a lot. Otherwise, not so much.
Next, council members turned to Liberty Bowl Stadium and the number of wheelchair-accessible seats. The city administration has made a deal with the U.S. Department of Justice to spend $12 million to increase the number of such seats to 564, to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations. City officials said that, otherwise, DOJ "could shut the stadium down." Such a deal. When this job is finished, the Liberty Bowl will have roughly as many ADA seats as 109,901-seat Michigan Stadium, the largest in the country and usually sold out.
The night before the council met, I attended a community meeting about closing Humes Middle School, which is using only 17 percent of its capacity. Enrollment has fallen from 900 to 190 in a decade. School officials recommend "closing" the school next year and reopening it (also next year) as a music and arts optional school.
The next night, the Unified School Board met. One of the things on its wish list is pre-kindergarten classes. How much pre-K is enough? Universal pre-K is, of course, the most popular recommendation.
How about those bike lanes on city streets? Memphis suddenly has miles of them, and some advocates want to add lots more even though many of the ones we have are lightly used. How much is enough?
"If you build it, they will come." That's often the rationale and a cliché from a movie, Field of Dreams, that was new 23 years ago. Or this will make Memphis "a world-class city" or "a model for the nation." Or "the business community is solidly behind this." And if we don't do it, Memphis "will lose federal matching funds."
Except they might not come. And keeping pace with Nashville and Louisville, much less the world, is hard enough. And International Paper and Electrolux expect tax breaks to stay here or come here. And a charter school dedicated to science and engineering and located in what used to be the medical center has such a poor record after 10 years that it might be closed, because what really counts is on-site leadership and teaching. And federal funds come with strings attached and the feds play rough.
So it went in 2012. Wait until next year!
Humes Middle School, it is safe to say, is the only school in America with an Elvis Room. It is on the first floor of the three-story building in a poor neighborhood on the north side of downtown. There are photographs of Elvis Aron Presley and the Humes High Class of 1953, Elvis buttons, copies of his diploma, the graduation program, yearbook, and some cheesy wall hangings and posters. In one corner, there is an old metal locker with a pair of retro football hip pads, shoulder pads, and shoes. In fact, Elvis played sandlot football but was not on the varsity team, and his yearbook entry says his main extracurricular activity was shop.
No matter. When legend clashes with fact, go with the legend.
Elvis became famous in 1956. He died in 1977. But Memphis City Schools hopes some Elvis luster will help save Humes Middle School and give it a new life. The Transition Planning Commission recommended closing 21 schools, and at a glance Humes looks like a prime candidate. It was built in 1925 for grades 7-12, with a capacity of 1,500 students. Many Humes families, including the Presleys, lived in nearby housing projects and worked at factories, now closed, in North Memphis. By 2002, its enrollment had shrunk to 900, and this year it has about 190 students who share the building with a charter school. The building needs at least $9 million in repairs, according to MCS.
"It is as beautiful a middle-school structure as there is anywhere," said Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash at a community meeting at Humes this week, where about a dozen parents, students, and staff met in the cafeteria. Joining them were supporters who hope to "repurpose" Humes as an all-optional school focused on arts and music and, in Cash's words, "recapture market share."
Nostalgia aside, market share is a problem for several schools in North Memphis. Northside High School is at 24 percent capacity, Frayser High School at 54 percent, and Manassas High School — built seven years ago at a cost of some $30 million — is at 78 percent. Humes is a feeder school that was supposed to help fill Manassas, but Cash said "that hasn't happened as fast or as quickly as city planners and maybe some business investors hoped it would."
So while the Unified School Board contemplates school closings, MCS is scrambling to save Humes by "closing" it and immediately reopening it with a new mission. The cause has enlisted some standout music teachers from other Memphis schools as well as artists, architects, and people in the music business from Ardent, Delta Arts, Arts Memphis, Memphis College of Art, and churches. Ken Greene, a music teacher who worked for eight years at Ridgeway Middle School, is now at Humes and spoke at the meeting. He described a vision of studios in the school and a curriculum based on the arts that goes against the grain of test-oriented instruction in reading, writing, and math.
Regional superintendent Catherine Battle, a former principal at Snowden Elementary and Middle School in Midtown, said potential community partners "are coming out of the woodwork." Humes would not have athletics. It would be open to any child in the unified system. Admission would require a minimum score on the TCAP exam. The school would be all-optional, unlike arts and music-oriented optional schools within schools at Overton High School and Colonial Middle School. Some current employees would stay. The school would need custodians and cafeteria workers. Federal grants might pay for some improvements.
It was a blue-sky scenario in a blue-sky presentation. A "Hail Elvis" version of football's last-minute "Hail Mary." The school board, if it is in a mood to make them when it meets next year, will have some hard choices. It is one thing to volunteer at a school, another thing to staff it seven hours a day for 180 days a year. The projected student-teacher ratio at the new Humes would be as low as 12-to-1 and even 8-to-1 at a time when crowded high schools such as White Station and Germantown are cramming 35 or more students into science classes and labs.
As for Elvis, his name is not always magic, as Beale Street, the Pyramid, and Whitehaven have learned. If Humes is "repurposed" then, the Elvis Room will be a casualty. Plans call for moving it to a separate building across the street.
You're welcome, Nick Saban and Les Miles, the highest-paid football coaches in the South. Glad to help you out with that move from Wisconsin to Arkansas, Bret Bielema, and welcome to the Southeastern Conference. No need to thank me, Tommy Tuberville, now that you got that new job and fat paycheck at Cincinnati. And it was really nothing, Derek Dooley, to make a small contribution to your buyout.
College football may be crazy and salaries for head coaches stratospheric, but we have no one to blame but ourselves. I did my part to support this All-American enterprise, because I subscribe to ESPN in my telecom package from AT&T. I get the mid-priced 270-channel television package for $79 a month, the cheapest package that includes ESPN. The "family" package would save me $20 a month and the "basic" package of local channels only, guaranteed to shame you before your friends and family, costs $26, or $53 a month less than I now pay.
The must-have channel in the $79 package is ESPN, because I'm hooked on sports although far from a fanatic. There are at least 200 channels in that 270-channel package that I never watch, and there are probably only 20 channels I watch more than once a week. But I pay for all of them, because that's the only way to get ESPN. Sorry, Giada and Guy and the rest of the stars of the Food Network, I'm just being honest here.
College football, as ESPN freely admits, is a gold mine. We watch it in real time instead of recording it and viewing it later. That means we even watch the commercials instead of fast-forwarding through them. We watch games on the West Coast and the East Coast, because they have implications for the national rankings and the bowl games and the future playoff system to determine the national championship. And for this privilege we pay.
"Because of college football's widespread popularity and the incredible passion of its fans, few events are more meaningful than these games," said ESPN president John Skipper in a recent announcement about a 12-year championship games rights deal for $470 million a year. "We are ecstatic at the opportunity to continue to crown a college football champion on ESPN's outlets for years to come, the perfect finale to our year-round commitment to the sport."
The $636 a year I pay for ESPN instead of "basic" is not chump change. It's more than the failed half-cent increase in the local sales tax would have cost me. It's more than the city property tax reduction I'm getting due to the surrender of the Memphis City Schools charter and merger with Shelby County Schools. And it would buy me good seats at 10 Grizzlies games.
It has been said many times that television rules sports — that television is driving the break-up of conferences like Conference USA and the Big East and the formation of super-conferences such as the Big Ten and SEC. The University of Memphis and its struggling football program are caught in the middle of this. Television made the Big East less relevant if not irrelevant, which makes spending money on Liberty Bowl Stadium a dubious proposition and the celebration over Memphis joining the conference look silly.
It is also true, however, that sports rules television. An episode of The Good Wife or CSI loses nothing whether it is watched now or later. But a football game on tape, when you more than likely know the outcome, is another matter.
When I signed up for AT&T U-verse last year, my monthly bill for television, internet, and a telephone land line was $120. Pegging the monthly cost of bundled services is like trying to predict the weather or the stock market. A fee here, an equipment charge there, and 16 months later my bill is $158 a month and going up next year.
I have cut my phone service to the bone and settled for the less-than-optimum $49 wireless internet package. The biggest component of the bill is television, and the driver of television, as AT&T well knows, is ESPN. I expect to hit $200 a month next year.
When that happens, I hope I have the intestinal fortitude to cut the cord. It's not like there's no college football on the local stations. And I have a feeling that Nick, Les, Tommy, Bret, and the rest would be just fine without me.
A downtown resident with some experience in local politics once told me "A C is the second mayor to work for Robert."
"A C", of course, is Memphis mayor A C Wharton. "Robert" is Robert Lipscomb, the director of the division of Housing and Community Development and executive director of the Memphis Housing Authority. The other mayor is Willie Herenton, who made Lipscomb a division director 20 years ago, fell out with him for a while, then rehired him and gave him some new duties.
Longevity, ambition, and know-how make Lipscomb the man to see. Downtown is Mr. Robert's neighborhood, from the Bass Pro pyramid to the housing projects south of FedExForum. The Heritage Trail redevelopment plan is a proposed 20-year plan for downtown including the Beale Street Entertainment District, the South Main District, the downtown core, and the Foote Homes and Cleaborn Homes housing projects.
The master plan would have a master developer. This does not sit well with some downtowners of the let-a-thousand-flowers-bloom school.
"Downtown Memphis is known for its diversity, and if they do this then I can see development coming to a crawl," says Terry Woodard, a past president of the Downtown Neighborhood Association and, with her husband Phil, owner of a company that has been developing in downtown since 1996. The Woodard's home, with its glass walls, high roof like a ship's prow, and contemporary architecture, is something of a landmark on the South Bluff.
The Woodards and other downtowners plan to meet Thursday with the Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA), a city-county board that is the funding gateway for Heritage Trail. By the magic of tax-increment financing (TIF), the CRA could capture sales and property taxes downtown as well as federal funds.
The catch is that in order to do that, downtown would be declared a slum, blighted, and a growing menace. The best of downtown, of course, is no such thing as evidenced by some favorable recent publicity in National Geographic Traveler, but in the wacky world of federal funding, sometimes it pays to look poor. Think "a wink and a nod," as Judge Hardy Mays recently described another gambit in the schools case.
"It makes no sense," said Woodard, a founding member of the South Main Association and the Art Trolley Tour. "It is only to get money from the federal government."
This power struggle won't go away anytime soon. Everyone who does downtown development has some kind of deal going — usually a PILOT, or payment in lieu of taxes for a certain number of years, or some smaller version of the incentives package given to Bass Pro. Beale Street and FedExForum generate millions of dollars a year in sales taxes. A TIF is a way to capture the cash for a specific area as opposed to general city and county uses.
The Downtown Memphis Commission is not taking sides but is serving as a conduit for gripes and information. A memo it sent out in November gives the main one:
"It is projected that 98.7 percent of this future, incremental TIF revenue will be generated by private properties primarily in the downtown core outside the Focus Area of the planned improvements. The Cleaborn and Foote Homes redevelopments are expected to generate 1.3 percent of the TIF revenue over 20 years.
"To pay now for the Cleaborn and Foote Homes redevelopments, the CRA would borrow money against the future projected downtown TIF revenue by issuing revenue bonds."
Woodard says she's not to trying to pit the haves against the have-nots of Foote and Cleaborn Homes.
"I believe that they deserve better housing and I also believe they need to remain in the area so that they can continue to be connected to the people and programs that can help them," she said in a letter to CRA board members.
Whether the remaining buildings are demolished and the residents relocated, as other public housing residents have been, is an open question. A group called the Vance Avenue Collaborative, with support from planners at the University of Memphis, is pressing that issue with the Memphis City Council.
The underlying issue is Lipscomb and his growing empire, which extends to the Fairgrounds and another TIF encompassing Overton Square and much of Midtown. One would-be developer sees him as a combination of Godzilla and Robert Moses, the master builder of New York City in the mid-20th century.
Adds another source who has watched Lipscomb operate inside City Hall: "Generally, when Robert has swung for something big he's gotten it."
It's no mystery why building new public buildings is easier than closing them. Construction means jobs, and closings mean lost jobs. What's surprising is the willingness of Memphis to continue to spend tens of millions of dollars to fix up old buildings and build new ones with no realistic possibility that they will be fully used.
The Unified School Board is meeting this week to consider closing six schools instead of the 21 closings recommended by the Transition Planning Commission. Memphis International Airport boasts a new seven-story parking garage even though Delta announced another cut in local service this week that will reduce daily departures from 115 to just 94 next year.
And last week the city of Memphis announced that it has agreed with the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division to spend $12 million on Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, including the addition of 288 handicapped seats in the 61,000-seat stadium.
Justice is blind, really blind. Its standard for ADA compliance is 1 percent of the seating capacity, or nearly 600 seats and companion seats. Never mind that the stadium hasn't sold out since 1996, that the biggest crowd last year was 31,578 for the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, that the current allotment of handicapped seats is way underused, and that the University of Memphis Tigers averaged slightly over 10,000 per game in actual attendance in 2011.
Actual attendance should not be confused with announced attendance, although it often is, because it makes coaches, athletic directors and bowl promoters look good. In 2011, the announced attendance (including tickets sold, discounted, and distributed but unused) for eight games at the stadium was 221,002, but the actual butts-in-seats attendance was 120,300. In 2012, the University of Memphis announced total attendance of 146,227 for six games, an average of 24,371. The U of M announced-attendance record, set in 2003, is 284,352, or 40,622 per game.
My efforts to get the actual 2012 attendance from the city or the stadium operators before our deadline were unsuccessful. But does anyone seriously believe that the opener against UT-Martin drew 39,076 fans?
The Tigers have a new football coach, new athletic director, new big-screen television scoreboard, a three-game winning streak, Tiger Lane, and a new conference affiliation starting in 2013. An attendance bump next year is quite possible. But the Big East is looking awfully similar to Conference USA with this week's addition of Tulane and East Carolina and the likely departure of Louisville and Connecticut. The 2013 Memphis football schedule has not been announced. It is likely to be short on marquee names and long on air travel.
In e-mails, Mayor A C Wharton and Housing and Community Development director Robert Lipscomb told me they cut the best deal they could with Justice, which they said initially recommended $40 million in improvements. Wharton did not dispute the fact that the stadium usually has thousands of empty seats, including many in the special sections, but figured he had to deal or risk litigation that would stall (as if it has not been stalled already) redevelopment of the Fairgrounds. Lipscomb cautioned that the enforcers at Justice are not to be taken lightly lest they decide to look askance at other proposals from Memphis.
"I am comfortable with the number we have reached," Wharton said. "By settling, we control the number. Litigation would have been a costly crap shoot."
Added Lipscomb, "This brings to closure an argument that has gone on since 2005, dramatically improves our relationship and perception of the city from the perspective of the DOJ and other federal agencies with grant dollars, saves legal fees that have been accumulating over seven years, and allows the city to move forward with the Fairgrounds Plan."
What is missing in this account are the voices of the football fans using and not using the handicapped seats at the stadium. Are the improvements so far insufficient? In what way? Are there too few seats? Have people been turned away because of a seating shortage or an access problem? If so, can it be remedied with something other than 288 new seats?
No wonder some Memphis state legislators, members of the school board, and neighborhood leaders are so opposed to closing 21 schools. In light of the charade of denial going on at the stadium and the airport, who's to say that a school that is half empty is not, instead, half full and, moreover, used 180 days a year?
This is the season when blockbuster movies are released, and movies based on actual events are among the most popular.
There's The Sessions, about a man in an iron lung's encounters with a sex therapist. Watching other people have therapeutic sex in this film is not to be confused with watching other people have sex for prurient reasons.
There's Argo, about Hollywood's semi-comic caper to get some Americans out of Iran right under the noses of the bamboozled Iranians, who were holding 52 other Americans hostage for 444 days. I knew nothing about this historical footnote until I saw the movie, although CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite ended each broadcast in 1980-1981 with "And that's the way it is, the [whatever] day of captivity for Americans in Iran."
And there's Lincoln, by director Steven Spielberg, which raised my appreciation for the 1990 Ken Burns documentary, The Civil War, and the helpful commentary of historian Shelby Foote. Lincoln deserves an "R" rating for "Restricted: Under 17 not allowed without parent, tutor, and copy of the U.S. Constitution."
Actual quote from a review in The Boston Globe: "It's possible you may think Lincoln is too talky — too full of characters and ideas, too taxing to our Twitter-pated attention spans. Consider, then, that it may not be the movie that's unworthy of your time. You may not be worthy of it."
Well, excuse me for feeling confused and clueless.
Here are some other movie concepts "based on actual events" that should soon be in production.
The Moviegoer: a fresh take on the 1961 Walker Percy novel of the same title. This one's about a man with no discernible talent, training, or aptitude for, like, actual work, who finds employment going to movies and writing about them.
The Secessions: historical docu-drama, filled with political intrigue, about suburbanites in a Southern town who take matters into their own hands when a lame-duck school board surrenders its charter and consolidates school systems.
Denial: a political consultant, trailed by reporters and camera crews from Fox News, storms state capitals on December 17th, the day the Electoral College ratifies the results of the 2012 presidential election, and urges electors to go rogue. He insists that the results from Florida are not conclusive, Phythagoras only had a theory, math is suspect, and the shortest distance between two points is not a straight line.
The Good Husband: a spinoff from the television series The Good Wife, this one's about a man married to a politician who has affairs with David Petraeus, John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, Mark Sanford, Bill Clinton, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Dallas Cowboys. Kim Kardashian stars as a Tampa socialite.
Requiem for a Heavyweight, II: The 1962 original starred Anthony Quinn as an aging and overweight boxer who takes up wrestling. The remake is about an aging and overweight football coach in a Southern state who is forced to resign, then rehired after the two pretty boys who succeed him flop. Filmed in Knoxville.
Black Like Me, Too: Reporter John Howard Griffin wrote the original in 1959 about his adventures as a white man disguised to look like a black man. This adaptation, heavy on cutting-edge medical advancements and neurology, features a Southern congressman who one-ups Griffin and undergoes the first-ever racial transplant to become an African-American.
Bovina: Taking its cue from head-scratching one-word titles such as Avatar, this surefire smash is about a perky actress and the hardships she suffers as a flying nun, union organizer, wife of cross-dressing comedian, and neurotic first lady to find fulfillment as television spokeswoman for the poor, put-upon, and misunderstood pharmaceuticals industry.
The Hangover Four: A straight-arrow college basketball coach goes a little crazy and indulges in a super-sized Coke and an order of fries after winning the national championship over his former mentor, the evil Coach Caligula, and cannot remember a gosh darn thing the next day.
Cupcake: a nostalgic musical about America through the eyes of a worker at a bakery that makes sugary treats. When evil bosses threaten to close the factory, a divided town finds something everyone loves and rallies around the Twinkies.
Elvis, the Golden Years: Based on a 2007 Flyer story by Greg Akers and Chris Herrington, a cheeky look at the King and what might have been if he had survived to his 77th birthday this year.
The Club From Hell: I am not making this up. Ten squash players, including me, team up to write a group novel. Sex, athletes, athletic sex, exotic locations, and more loose ends than a cheap mohair sweater. You may not be worthy of it.
So much for the world-class unified school system.
By a 69-31 margin, voters put the final nail in that DOA concept last week, defeating a referendum that would have increased the sales tax to provide more money for schools.
Just over 250,000 votes were cast on the referendum, and Memphis was disproportionately represented, because suburban municipalities that approved a sales tax increase in November were excluded. The margin was all the more telling when you consider that Germantown, Collierville, Arlington, and Bartlett passed their tax bump in August by margins of at least 75-25.
Another half-penny on the sales tax, by itself, won't pay for new suburban systems or universal pre-kindergarten. But those things won't happen without additional revenue. The suburbs acknowledged that, and the majority of Memphis voters did not. In a sales campaign, backers of the countywide increase, including Memphis mayor A C Wharton and the NAACP (but not Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell), pitched half of it as a way to fund pre-K programs. Without breaking down the math, this was, in other words, spun as a vote for more funding for public schools. Voters did not say "no." They said "hell no."
One of the backers, city councilman Shea Flinn, said he would not rule out pushing for a Memphis-only referendum in 2013. Better focus, better sales pitch, bigger alliance, yadda yadda. More to the point, special elections get a tiny turnout compared to a presidential election, so, in effect, another referendum would be gaming the system.
Instead, backers of the failed referendum, myself included, have to acknowledge the obvious. A broad sampling of Memphians, in addition to that huge majority of suburbanites, don't buy the notion of a world-class Memphis public school system, much less a unified Memphis and Shelby County school system. A world-class crack-up is more like it. Consider what has happened in the last year or two.
The suburbs want separate school systems and school boards, if not in 2013 then in 2014. Most of the suburban members of the joint city and county school board have no intention of remaining in a unified system.
The Memphis members of the unified school board and the leaders of the Memphis Education Association (MEA) want all the autonomy, perks, power, and jobs they had before the 2011 merger, plus universal pre-K. At the last school board meeting, MEA passed out an 11-page, point-by-point critique of the TPC recommendations. The groups are miles apart.
Among other things, the union says "MCS has a school closing policy that has worked effectively," and it opposes displacing current teachers with newcomers, giving principals the power to fire tenured teachers, and basing teacher pay on merit instead of academic degrees and experience.
The Transition Planning Commission recommended that a superintendent for the future unified system be hired this fall. The school board cannot even agree on where or how to search for one.
The Tennessee Department of Education and Commissioner Kevin Huffman want to expand charter schools and the Alternative School District, which operate apart from the current Memphis system and unified school board. The vast majority of the young college graduates who came to Memphis with Teach For America as change agents and stayed in public education in Memphis after their two-year commitment are working in charter schools or the Achievement School District.
Parents of students in Memphis optional schools and the CLUE program have made it clear at school board meetings that they will only stay in the system if those programs are preserved.
Depending on how the federal court decides the constitutional questions about municipal school systems, by the start of the 2013 or 2014 school year this is what we are looking at: a unified system with fewer than 100,000 students; an expanding state-run Achievement School District with its own superintendent and 15 or more schools; an expanding charter school network with 30 or more schools; and five or six suburban systems with their own school boards and superintendents and 20,000 or more students in all.
There may be some world-class schools in that mix, but to call it a world-class system is delusional. My guess is that if a referendum were held to undo the 2011 MCS charter surrender and put the toothpaste back in the tube, it would pass in both the county and the city, by a margin of about 69-31.