Thursday, June 25, 2009

The Mayor's General

Keith McGee talks about rumors, retirement, and politics

Posted By on Thu, Jun 25, 2009 at 4:00 AM

Keith McGee would like to set a few things straight about his retirement as chief administrative officer (CAO) for the city of Memphis.

He does not plan to manage Mayor Willie Herenton's campaign for the 9th congressional district seat in 2010.

He believes he "absolutely" got better at the job of CAO as he gained experience. He has been CAO for nearly six years. The job pays $151,900 a year. McGee, not yet 50, will be eligible for a pension in excess of $60,000 a year.

He started thinking about retiring last year and was not pushed out by Herenton, his boss, whom he calls "brilliant and very compassionate."

McGee succeeded Rick Masson, who had a background in public finance. McGee said he earned the CAO's job and is not a Herenton crony who was out of his depth. He was hired at the city of Memphis in 1993 by Westelle Florez to be her deputy director of human resources. Before that, he worked for Shelby County, starting out as a deputy jailer in the maximum security division in 1981. Sheriff's spokesman Steve Shular said he left as a manager of personnel training. McGee worked for four sheriffs during that time.

"I had reached the highest level on civil service and was already in senior management," he said.

He is not retiring because of a personal relationship with any other director or assistant director in city government under his supervision. Asked if he has such a relationship, he said "no," then drew the letters N O with his hand and repeated "no."

He is not retiring because of the controversy over the Memphis Sexual Assault Resource Center. McGee took the heat from the Memphis City Council two weeks ago while subordinates Ken Moody and Yolanda McFagdon declined to answer questions.

It was "divine intervention," McGee says, that his retirement was announced the day after the council finished working on the operating budget that set the tax rate at $3.19.

I interviewed McGee this week in his office in City Hall. We were joined briefly by finance director Roland McElrath and human resources director Lorene Essex. I had chided all of them in a column last week about not providing the number of city employees in a timely fashion. For the record, there are 8,227 regular and temporary city employees, 5,909 of whom are paid from the general fund operating budget that the council set last week.

When that business was done, Essex and McElrath left.

McGee was vague about what he will do next, saying only that it might involve "consulting." He has two children in high school. He has been pastor of a church in Tipton County for 17 years.

Asked if he would work on Herenton's campaign, he said, "I have not even talked with him about that."

I asked him if, as the mayor's CAO, he sees a side of Herenton in his daily contacts that outsiders are not aware of.

"He wakes up every day working hard," he said. "The less-than-positive vignettes are not reflective of the man, the working professional that I know."

His flattering view is no surprise to City Council members, who say McGee was above all a good soldier.

"He had the opportunity to be more effective than he was," said City Council chairman Myron Lowery. "He could have done a better job building relationships within city government. His style emulated that of his boss, the mayor. Keith was a good general following directions from his boss."

As an example, Lowery — who would become interim mayor if Herenton resigns before completing his term — said council members only learned about a church-based redevelopment plan for the Hickory Ridge Mall after a news story came out.

"He was behind on that issue," said Lowery. "As CAO, he should have known, and we should have been informed."

McGee worked with six council chairmen and says he tried to treat all of them and their colleagues with respect. Council fights, he noted, were not so bad, in the scheme of things. He brought out an old picture of himself as a 21-year-old jailer when he was breaking up fights in maximum security. Back then, his goal, he said, was to "leave work every day in safety and security."

At any rate, it's water under the bridge now. On July 4th, he's out of here.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

All in the Numbers

Hard times call for hard numbers.

Posted By on Thu, Jun 18, 2009 at 4:00 AM

The stakes are school funding, student performance, newspaper survival, the NCAA investigation of the University of Memphis, the local tax rate, and the viability of our sports facilities. In each case, a few simple numbers would tell us more than a stack of reports and position papers. But for various reasons, those numbers are hard to get.

• The Memphis City Schools system has been losing students for several years. The question is how many and how fast? The question matters because funding is based on average daily attendance.

The 2008-2009 enrollment was 103,000, according to Superintendent Kriner Cash and his deputy Irving Hamer. The MCS website says 105,000. The Tennessee Report Card says MCS enrollment was 107,314 in 2007-2008, 110,753 in 2006-2007, and 116,528 in 2005-2006. That's a decline of 13,528 students, or 9 percent, in four years. During that time, per-pupil spending increased from $8,708 to $10,366. No wonder some City Council members think the $948 million MCS budget could stand a $57 million cut.

• Last month, 35 Memphis high schools held graduation ceremonies. College-bound MCS students, we are told, were offered $94 million in scholarships. Congratulations, graduates. But it would be more helpful to know how many of you there were and where you came from — this year and last year. No complicated cohort graduation rates or percentages, thanks. Just a number.

In an open-enrollment system, there's no better indicator of who's attracting students, keeping them, and graduating them and who isn't. In previous years, numbers gathered from principals, board members, and MCS by this newspaper showed that a few city schools graduated nearly 400 students, while others graduated fewer than 100 students. MCS should provide that information each year by the end of May, at budget time.

• The city mayor and the Memphis City Council are trying to set an operating budget without any agreement on the number of city employees. I've seen numbers as low as 6,000 (Commercial Appeal editor Chris Peck's column last Sunday) and as high as 7,774 (the city of Memphis 2008 annual report's listing of "full-time equivalent government employees by function"). Somebody is way off. That's a difference of 1,774 employees, or 30 percent.

I called the offices of the city finance director, chief administrative officer, and human resources director but could not get an answer in two days. Before decisions are made about layoffs or 3 percent raises, it would be nice to know how many city employees there are and why their numbers are apparently growing faster than the city population.

• Speaking of The Commercial Appeal: What's a daily newspaper worth, and what are its prospects for survival? The CA's parent company, E.W. Scripps, does not release financials for its 15 newspapers. It closed the Rocky Mountain News in Denver earlier this year and has cut staff and salaries in Memphis. Collectively, the Scripps newspaper division earned $71 million in profit on $569 million of operating income in 2008.

The New York Times last week asked six experts what the Boston Globe (which is owned by the parent company of the Times) is worth. The answers ranged from negative $25 million (you read that right) to $1 (you read that right, too) to $10 to $20 million to the value of the underlying real estate to $350 million.

• Did Derrick Rose cheat on his college entrance exams? Rose's SAT and ACT college entrance exam scores are redacted in the U of M's response to NCAA allegations that someone else took the test. Rose says he took his own tests. The university says the findings of a forensic handwriting expert were inconclusive. Release the scores — both the ones that were too low and the one that made him eligible — and maybe we can decide.

• Will FedExForum need a bailout? How about AutoZone Park? How much improvement does Liberty Bowl Stadium need if there are 10,000 no-shows in the reported 24,000 average attendance? Would a campus stadium make more sense? It's time for some brutal honesty in reporting attendance at college and professional sports events. Turnstile clicks and butts in seats, not tickets sold or distributed. That goes for the Tigers, Grizzlies, and bowl games. A no-show doesn't buy snacks, souvenirs, hotel rooms, or a parking place, and those things contribute to the revenue stream.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

No Harm, No Foul?

There are few consequences for SAT or ACT cheaters.

Posted By on Thu, Jun 11, 2009 at 4:00 AM

Cheating on an ACT or SAT college entrance examination, as former University of Memphis basketball star Derrick Rose is accused of doing, is extremely rare and has few consequences for the person taking the test.

Tom Ewing, spokesman for the Educational Testing Service, which administers the SAT for the College Board, said there are about 1,000 investigations a year, of which 500 are cleared. Close to 3 million SAT exams are taken each year.

Ed Colby, spokesman for the ACT, said about 2.5 million tests were administered this year, and only a small number were fishy enough to investigate. He would not be more specific.

"The more we talk about security, the less secure the test becomes," Colby said.

While he was in high school in Chicago, Rose took the ACT at least twice before taking the SAT prior to his entrance to the U of M in 2007. Prospective students can take both tests. Rose was admitted and declared eligible based on his SAT score, which is blacked out in documents released last week by the U of M. His SAT score was invalidated in May 2008. The university says it was not notified until after the basketball season was over.

If your SAT test is canceled, you can take it again with impunity.

"The only thing we do is cancel tests," Ewing said. "We don't implement any punishment. We figure that's pretty much up to the colleges or whomever."

Colby said ACT policy is similar.

"You can take it again," he said. "The only consequence is that your test was canceled."

Suspected cheaters are notified by certified letter and have 14 days to respond. At least two notices are sent. On the SAT, they can clear up the suspicions, retake the test, or allow the college or an arbitration panel to make a ruling. The ACT offers a retest at the agency's expense at a mutually agreed upon time and place.

"Whether the student responds or not, we will conduct the review," said Colby. "If the score is canceled, that would be the first time any college that received the score would be notified. Up until that point the only person made aware of the review would be the student."

Anyone who takes the entrance exams must present a photo ID on test day. According to the U of M's response to the NCAA allegations, Rose was suspected by officials of the Chicago public schools of having someone else take both his ACT and his SAT in 2007. The U of M investigated the allegations in October and November 2007 but found "insufficient evidence" of cheating. Rose himself, in an interview with U of M officials, "when asked directly about the tests he was reported to have taken responded that he took each of them himself," according to the university's response to the NCAA allegations.

The Educational Testing Service, however, wasn't convinced. It continued to investigate Rose's score on the SAT in 2008 while Rose was in school. There is no statute of limitations on score reviews. It is not clear exactly what caused their suspicions to linger after Rose had already entered college and been NCAA-certified as eligible to play basketball.

A handwriting analyst hired by the testing service said Rose "probably" did not write the cursive writing on the exam form. Rose either did not receive his notices about the investigation or did not acknowledge them, in effect running out the clock while playing in the 2008 NCAA tournament.

Both Ewing and Colby said test takers under suspicion are notified before the school is notified in case the student is cleared. That could be important in the U of M's defense that it should not be penalized for an infraction it did not know about until May 2008.

The last date to take the entrance exams is in early June before the fall semester begins. Ewing said it would be "extremely unusual" for a student to be notified of cheating allegations after he had been admitted to college and was participating in sports, as Rose was.

"Probably less than a month is usual," he said. "We try to be thorough, but we don't dawdle."

It is also rare for a test to be validated and later invalidated, as was the case with Rose. The SAT is scored on a scale from 200 to 800 on math and verbal components. Retaking a test, on average, increases the score by about 40 points, although about one third of retesters fail to raise their scores.

The fine art of cheating by proxy means making sure the score improvement is high enough to achieve eligibility without setting off alarms. That is not easy. The Educational Testing Service administers millions of tests each year in addition to the SAT and publishes a fat manual on everything from normal score variance to setting "cut scores" to distinguish passing and failing grades.

A big discrepancy in test scores from the same person can create suspicion. Last week, reported that Rose's U of M teammate Robert Dozier made a 1260 on the SAT on his first attempt in 2003. That was way out of line with his below-average classroom performance and score on the SAT preparatory exam. The Educational Testing Service investigated Dozier's score in 2004. He agreed to take the test again and scored 720. On that basis, the University of Georgia denied Dozier's admission, and he enrolled at the U of M instead.

The NCAA sets eligibility standards for athletes using a sliding scale that accounts for both the student's test score and grade-point average in core courses. For example, a student with a 2.0 GPA needs a 1010 on the SAT, while a student with a 3.0 GPA needs a 620. That would seem to be an invitation to inflate high school grades for star athletes, which is far less risky than cheating on an entrance exam.

An ACT score below 19 can result in a student-athlete being required to take remedial courses before being allowed to take credit courses. The national average on the ACT in 2008 was 21.1.

Dozier has graduated and is not part of the current investigation of the U of M, but his case could come up later in a separate investigation. And it sheds more light on the basketball program at Memphis under former head coach John Calipari. Coaches and athletic officials at the U of M would almost certainly have been aware of Dozier's test background. He was a star recruit who initially committed to Memphis, then signed with Georgia, and then signed with Memphis. Coaches who were in daily contact with star recruits would know why Dozier kept changing his mind in 2004.

But until last week, there was no publicity about Dozier's entrance exam scores. Three years after Dozier came to Memphis, Rose, who was even more highly touted than Dozier, entered the U of M. He had the skills that would take the basketball team to a 38-2 record and the NCAA championship game and the test scores that have put the university at the center of an NCAA investigation and those 38 wins in jeopardy.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

"Inconclusive Evidence"

University says Rose denied faking SAT and was in good standing.

Posted By on Thu, Jun 4, 2009 at 4:00 AM

The University of Memphis will tell the NCAA on Saturday that it could not have known that basketball player Derrick Rose was ineligible in the 2007-2008 season for faking an entrance exam.

"Certainly, the University of Memphis should not suffer a financial penalty or vacation of records for the 2008 NCAA tournament as a result of this allegation," the university says, in records it released to the media Tuesday morning.

The meeting in Indianapolis Saturday will include U of M president Shirley Raines, athletic director R.C. Johnson, legal counsel, and — via teleconference — former head coach John Calipari. Rose and current head coach Josh Pastner will not attend. University legal counsel Sheri Lipman said it could be six to eight weeks before there is a decision. In the worst case, Memphis would forfeit games in which Rose appeared.

The 63-page "Response to NCAA Notice of Allegations" doesn't clear up the mystery of Rose and the SAT entrance exam. In fact, only about a fourth of it deals with Rose; half of it is about women's golf coach Jenny Bruun, who was fired for giving illegal gifts to student athletes. The university also admits to an "administrative error" in allowing a friend of Rose to travel with the team without paying some bills.

The report says there were rumors about Rose getting someone to take his ACT or SAT test in 2007, but the unnamed female accuser changed her story. Another rumor that Rose got a grade changed in one course was also investigated by the Chicago schools and the University of Memphis but was deemed irrelevant to his admission.

The ACT and SAT — Rose apparently took both — is relevant. The NCAA, relying on a forensic document examiner as well as allegations, concluded that Rose probably did not take his own SAT, but the university did not know that while Rose was playing ball.

Rose, according to the report, said he did take his own tests when he was asked about that before the 2008 NCAA tournament, but he "has declined to participate further in the investigation of his ineligibility." He now plays for the Chicago Bulls of the NBA.

Calipari's name appears only twice in the report — once in regard to Rose and once in regard to games passes for Calipari's "friend" William Wesley. The university investigated and concluded there wasn't sufficient evidence of an NCAA violation on the games passes.

The U of M says Calipari was told to cooperate in the Rose matter.

"The consistent response received by the university is that [Rose] took the test at issue [and] has answered questions about this already in the fall of 2007 interview with the university."

The university interviewed Rose about possible grade changes and test fakery in 2007. The basketball coaches didn't know when he took the tests or what his scores were.

"In fact, [Rose] testified that his mother would not even tell him what his scores were after he took the test, but instead would only say whether he passed it or needed to take it again. He took the standardized test several times," the report says.

The evidence on the SAT test on which Rose was admitted was considered insufficient to keep him out of school. He led the team to a 38-2 record and second place in the NCAA tournament in April 2008. Meanwhile, he was either dodging or not receiving query letters from testing organizations about possible problems. In May 2008, the U of M and the NCAA got a letter from Educational Testing Service saying that Rose's test score had been invalidated. The season was already over, as was Rose's life as a student athlete.

The bottom line:

"The university does not have sufficient information to conclude that [redacted] engaged in unethical conduct in regard to [redacted] taking of the SAT. Specifically, the university has no knowledge that [Rose] did not complete the SAT. Accordingly, the university does not know whether the information included in the allegation is substantially correct and is unable to conclude whether a violation of the cited NCAA regulations has occurred."

The university got a notice of allegations on January 16, 2009, but did not disclose it until a Commercial Appeal reporter forced it to last week.

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