City Reporter 

City Reporter

Dropping Out

Watson steps down as city schools superintendent.

By Mary Cashiola

After a two-week vacation from the school district, the Memphis City Schools superintendent announced Monday he would be stepping down from his post later this year. But he may not be the only district leader who goes.

Johnnie B. Watson distributed a short press release Monday morning, telling for the second time of his decision to retire from the school district. And, although recent weeks have seen the superintendent's relationship with the board erode into a harassment complaint against board member Sara Lewis, the superintendent says that the board -- or their view of his performance -- has nothing to do with his decision.

"I knew when I accepted the job that I didn't want to work much longer than three years, and I think the timing is right," he said.

Watson's contract is up in November. But if neither the board nor Watson said otherwise, it would automatically renew for another year. Since taking the job, he says there were times when he wanted to stay longer than his contract but has since changed his mind.

"By making my announcement at this time, it will allow the board to conduct a national search to find the best possible superintendent they can find," he said. "It will also allow the new superintendent to be a part of the 2003-2004 budget discussion."

But while those things are true, the superintendent's decision also coincides with the release of his long-awaited formal evaluation and the preliminary findings of the district-encompassing MGT study. He says neither is a factor in his decision. At press time, he said he hadn't read MGT's preliminary finding on the district, saying he didn't want the board to think he had any more involvement than they did.

"The evaluation has just not been a factor with me," he said. "I don't come to work every day to keep a job. I come to work every day to do a good job. Keeping a job was never a top priority for me. Certainly nobody wants to get fired, but at no time was I going to do anything to warrant my termination. We can have differences of opinion, but that's okay."

Watson, a Memphis native, was hired officially in October 2000 but started as interim superintendent in April of that year. Over the past three years, his vision has not always coincided with those of all the commissioners.

"We thought Johnnie Watson was the key to turning things around in the district," said board commissioner Wanda Halbert. "But I feel that his hands-off approach is not what we need right now."

Over the next year, Watson says it's important to him to continue working on his strategic plan, improving student achievement, and gaining both the support and respect of all nine board members.

Depending on their relationships with other elected officials, however, Watson may last longer at the district than any of them. Mayor Willie Herenton said this week he would ask the Tennessee General Assembly to pass legislation enabling Memphis to have an appointed, rather than an elected, school board. Assuming the legislature does that, Herenton said he would personally lead a push for school-funding reform that would set boundaries for the city and county school systems and provide for single-source funding.

But Watson said it's just time for him to go. "Nobody's run me away; my evaluation is good," he said. "As far as I'm concerned I'm going out on top."


Ho Ho Ho?

D.A.'s office targets Whitehaven motels.

By Mary Cashiola

With action taken against the Graceland Inn and Casey's Motel in recent months, a spokesperson for District Attorney General Bill Gibbons says other motels could be sanctioned.

Since May 1st, police have been called to the Graceland Inn 133 times and made 18 prostitution arrests. Casey's Motel had 33 prostitution arrests on the premises last year. The Graceland Inn was shut down last month by the district attorney's office and the owners were ordered to appear before Environmental Court Judge Larry Potter. It was allowed to open December 20th after a consent order was signed saying the owners would take steps to prevent illegal activity.

The D.A.'s office hasn't started an official initiative on prostitution, but "it's a crime that Gibbons feels very strongly about," said spokesperson Jennifer Zunk. "There are four basic areas of crime we're targeting: gangs, guns, drugs, and what Gibbons calls 'broken windows.'"

"Expect to see more of this type of operation happen again," said Zunk. "An assistant prosecutor went through lots of paperwork, and we were able to file a nuisance complaint."

Neither business faced criminal charges, and both businesses signed consent orders allowing them to reopen. If the owners disobey the court order, however, they could face criminal charges.

"If there are more businesses with a large number of complaints, then they are at risk of being closed because of a nuisance order," said Zunk.


All's Well, Says Honeywell

Company officials defend cost of school HVAC project.

By Mary Cashiola

With city school board members scheduled to appear before the Memphis City Council on January 21st, members of Honeywell International are in town to speak to the board's construction committee this Thursday.

"I'm here to move forward," said Kevin Madden, vice president of North American Technical Services for Honeywell International. "We're moving to a critical phase. We've been selected on the project through a very competitive process. The window of opportunity is starting to shut. ... If we move beyond the January time frame before we get started, that puts at risk the fact that when these children return to [Longview Middle and Whitney Elementary] in August, they will have air conditioning."

Last month, the school board held off transferring funds to cover the $14.8 million needed for the extensive HVAC project for the two schools. The project has been criticized for being at least, if not more than, $1 million over other estimates.

But Madden, who will spend the week meeting with city council members and community leaders, says the price is fair and reasonable. He cites the maximum price guarantee, the millions needed in renovations to meet city codes, and the fact that most of the work will have to be done at night and on weekends (to avoid disruptions to classes) as driving up the cost of the project.

"It's kind of like changing the tires on a car while you're going 60 miles per hour," he said.

Honeywell was one of four companies that initially participated in the district's request for proposals, but was the only firm that bid. The project was approved by the board last October but then faced a repeal by outgoing board member Barbara Prescott. The Commercial Appeal also published figures putting their own consultant's cost estimate at about half of Honeywell's figure.

"When you compare the 5,000-plus man-hours that we dedicated to understanding the needs of Longview and Whitney with a 30-hour take-off on a drawing, frankly, I would be concerned letting my team credibly stand behind those numbers," said Madden. Although the CA has been asked for their information, it has not been released and Honeywell says it does not know where the numbers came from.

"I think one thing you have to look at is that we went through the competitive process," said Madden. "Where were these organizations on bid day?"

Much has been made of Honeywell's sole bid, but Madden said the company fully expected healthy competition on the bid. "I don't think there's been a lot of objectivity out there to date," he said. "The feedback that we've gotten is that it's time to tell the other side of the story. We've held off based on the competitive process that's taken place, but we're starting to speak out to move the project forward."


B-17 Salutes Another B-17

Airport gate pays tribute to famed

Memphis Belle.

By Bianca Phillips

It was the first B-17 bomber to complete 25 European bombing missions during World War II, and now the Memphis Belle will be memorialized at Gate B-17 at Memphis International Airport.

On December 6th, Shelby County mayor A C Wharton presented the bomber's pilot, Colonel Robert Morgan, with a plaque commemorating the gate's dedication to the famous plane. Plans were also announced for a memorial wall at the airport, telling the story of the Belle, along with photos and reprints of posters from the 1944 documentary and 1990 movie about the plane. The wall should be complete within the next few months.

"She was a great airplane. History has shown that it was an indestructible plane that could take damage that the Boeing aircraft people couldn't believe," said Morgan. "At one time, we had six feet of the right wing shot off, and we once had four-and-a-half feet of the left wing shot off, but we could still fly it home. She was a great gal."

Work has also begun on a World War II museum that will feature the Belle as its centerpiece. The Memphis Belle War Memorial Park would allow the plane to be housed indoors after more than 50 years of exposure to the elements. The Belle has been on display under a plastic canopy at Mud Island since 1987.

"Until we get the plane inside and dried out, it will not be protected. I think the birds are doing more damage than the Nazis ever did," said Brent Perkins, executive director of the Memphis Belle War Memorial Foundation.

The museum, to be located at Nonconnah Parkway and Forest Hill-Irene Road, will also feature a virtual bomber gallery, displays of the homefront during the war, and a tribute to the Tuskeegee airmen. It is estimated to cost $10 million, which is being raised through public and private donations and fund-raisers. The ribbon-cutting is planned for Memorial Day 2004.

"The Memphis Belle got a lot of publicity, but it's just a symbol of all the bombers that flew during World War II, those that didn't come back as well as those that did," said Morgan. "We weren't any better than they were, just more fortunate."

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