Wednesday, December 21, 2011

2011 Year in Review

The good, the bad, the serious, the historic, and the weird.

Posted By on Wed, Dec 21, 2011 at 1:43 PM

This was the Year of the Big Idea in Action: The idea was consolidation of Memphis and Shelby County schools, a process that was set in motion a year ago by a 5-4 vote of the Memphis City Schools Board of Education to surrender its charter. That decision was reaffirmed by Memphis voters by a 68-32 margin in a referendum. The merger will take place in August of 2013, with or without suburban schools, which could become separate systems.

• School Choice by the Numbers: Charter schools have enrolled approximately 5,000 students in Memphis. The Memphis City Schools Optional Schools program has more than 13,000 students. Both charters and optional schools recruit students. But the most popular choice in Memphis City Schools is traditional schools, which have more than 80,000 students.

• The Most Eventful Weekend of the Year: It started on Friday the 13th of May, when the Memphis Grizzlies won Game Six against the Oklahoma Thunder. Two days later, President Barack Obama visited Memphis and Booker T. Washington High School for its graduation ceremony. In between, the Mississippi River rose to a near-record crest, drawing national news media and thousands of visitors.

• A Good Company: That's one that creates jobs, provides a useful service or product, and creates value for shareholders. That would be AutoZone. Its stock is up 20 percent this year and 100 percent in the last two years. Discount auto parts have been a recession fighter, and AutoZone's hundreds of employees in its corporate headquarters are crucial to the health of downtown, especially at a time when Morgan Keegan and Pinnacle are struggling.

• The Mystery Tax: In June, the Memphis City Council seemingly raised property taxes by 18 cents to pay for schools, but you won't find it on 2011 tax bills, which put the Memphis property tax rate at $3.18, a penny less than the 2010 rate. The tax rate includes what council members called a "one-time" levy of 18 cents for Memphis schools, which Superintendent Kriner Cash and board members threatened to keep closed in August if they didn't get their money. Will the "one-time" tax be back next year? Stay tuned.

• The Most Overpaid College Football Coach in America: It is Larry Porter, recently fired head coach at the University of Memphis, who will get $1.2 million per win in his two seasons.

• Surprise Story: The controversy over bike lanes. Bicycles are #61 in Christian Lander's book Stuff White People Like —between "Toyota Prius" and "Knowing What's Best for Poor People."

• Memphis Dubious Honors in 2011: Highest air fares (Bureau of Transportation Statistics); poorest urban area (U.S. Census Bureau); Top 20 in Fattest (Men's Health magazine); Top 10 in Most Dangerous (FBI crime statistics).

• Elvis Would Be Proud: The top-selling Krispy Kreme in America is on Elvis Presley Blvd. in Whitehaven.

• It Came From Memphis and Went Straight to Walmart: That would be bacon jerky from Memphis-based Monogram Food Solutions.

• Valentine's Day Special. The city, the governor, and the Greater Memphis Chamber of Commerce rolled out the red carpet for Mitsubishi Electric, which is coming to Memphis and bringing 275 jobs. Does anyone remember what Mitsubishi Electric makes? Answer: power transformers.

• Best Quotes: "When you shave that skanky face of yours in the morning, you need to say, 'Dude, you're gonna rock the world today.'" — motivational speaker James Smith at the "Get Motivated" business seminar at FedExForum in March.

"All people can do now is watch, wait, hope, and pray." — ABC's Diane Sawyer, reporting in fishing waders from Memphis as the river reached 47 feet in May.

"I want to say that Graceland is safe, and we would charge hell with water pistols to keep it that way." — emergency preparedness director Bob Nations at a press briefing as the river rose to 44 feet.

"The person introducing the keynote speaker usually has to give a lot of statistics about the speaker no one knows, like where he works — everyone knows that — or to whom he is married — everyone knows First Lady Michelle Obama — or where the speaker was born." — Booker T. Washington student Christopher Dean, introducing President Obama in May.

"It does." — federal judge Samuel H. Mays ruling in August that the lack of Memphis representation on the Shelby County Board of Education violates the one-person, one-vote principle.

• Waiting Game: 1,255 days since Beale Street Landing construction began. And 1,155 days since Bass Pro Shops signed a development agreement for the Pyramid.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Friending Charlotte, N.C.

Schools survived busing and city prospered, but all is not well.

Posted on Wed, Dec 14, 2011 at 1:58 PM

The last time that Memphis and Charlotte were mentioned in the local news together was 1993, when Charlotte and Jacksonville scored NFL expansion franchises and Memphis got snubbed.

This week, Memphis took another look at Charlotte, but the focus was schools, not sports. The new Memphis and Shelby County School Board and the Transition Planning Team met for two hours with emissaries from the Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) that made busing an American household word.

Coincidentally, it was almost one year from the day since the Memphis school board voted to surrender its charter, setting off the long march to merged schools in 2013. Since catching the consolidation bug in 2010, Memphis has friended Jacksonville, Louisville, Indianapolis, Nashville, and Chattanooga in search of Things That Might Work Here.

As such visits go, this one was pretty good. The four wise men from the East included a former superintendent, the current board chairman, a former school board member, and a former principal. CMS won a national award this year for excellence in urban education, but this was not a butt-patting session.

"Progress has been painfully slow, and at the rate we are moving in Charlotte, it will still be 15 years before the achievement gap is closed," said former Superintendent Pete Gorman, who resigned last summer after closing some schools, a job he said cannot be done well and was physically exhausting.

The Charlotte Observer said "the closings mostly affected low-income and minority students." Two blacks replaced two whites on the nine-member board after an election this year. The newspaper says only one member of the CMS board has more than two years' experience.

In public education, Charlotte Mecklenburg is famous as the school system that gave America busing for desegregation after a series of court cases culminating in a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1970. Today, the 136,000-student system has a diverse population that is 41 percent black, 33 percent white, and 16 percent Hispanic. Forty magnet schools attract 25,000 students, and the rest attend neighborhood schools, Gorman said. The graduation rate is 73 percent, about the same as Memphis.

As for the city of Charlotte, the grass really is greener. It is the home of Bank of America, the 2012 Democratic National Convention, and an NFL team. The population (731,424) grew 35 percent between 2000-2010; 40 percent of adults are college graduates; per-capita income is $31,839; and only 12 percent of the population is poor. Memphis lost population during that time, per-capita income is $21,293, and the poverty number is 24 percent.

Gorman and friends urged the Memphians to "build a bench" of future principals and assistant principals from among promising young teachers. Move good principals and assistants along with five teachers as a group to the toughest schools, but not against their will. Give them three years to turn around a school. Give affluent schools less money and poor schools more money — as much as $7,000 more per student. Make even top schools show year-over-year gains. Pick a superintendent for the consolidated district sooner rather than later. And expect to move on if you are the superintendent who has to close schools.

The overriding message was "freedom and flexibility with accountability."

Heads nodded at that something-for-everyone maxim, but in the question-and-answer session, the differences between Charlotte and Memphis became apparent, and so did some of the fault lines on the new Shelby County school board.

Charlotte's downtown is its biggest economic engine, much more than the suburbs. The North Carolina legislature blocked efforts of municipalities to set up separate school systems, and the number of school districts in the state has shrunk from 175 to 115. The cap on charter schools has been lifted. Twenty applications were approved, and Gorman expects "a glut of them" to come.

Joe Clayton, the senior member of the Shelby County board and a veteran of the busing years, said there is fear in the suburbs that "when the dust settles, the principal and the lead teachers will be moved to an inner-city school or some other school." Eric Davis, chairman of the CMS board, said working at tough schools and "playing the toughest opponents" can become "a point of pride." Brave words, but if you can imagine flight to Frayser, then you can do something I cannot.

Friending other cities is a good way to start a conversation and get some fresh perspective. But it's superficial. Every city is different. So go ahead and click "accept." But don't expect answers.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


On emails, links, ideas having sex, and the strength of weak ties.

Posted By on Thu, Dec 8, 2011 at 4:00 AM

Hurray for Atos, a company I never heard of until I read about it in The New York Times this week.

According to the Times, the international information technology services company is phasing out office emails because its chief executive, Thierry Breton, "considers 90 percent of them a waste of time." He suggests employees spend more time talking to each other in person or on the phone and switch to "real-time" messaging tools like text messages or social media. And they can start by limiting the use of the "reply all" option.

How welcome that would be. Few businesses benefit more from direct communication, either by phone or face-to-face, than journalism. But journalists are also surrounded by technological temptations to take shortcuts via email.

I was reminded of this last week when I interviewed Rajiv Grover, the dean of the Fogelman College of Business at the University of Memphis, for a future magazine article. Born and educated in Calcutta, he's a small volcano of interesting ideas on marketing, business education, Silicon Valley start-ups, Facebook (he's not on it), job readiness, and collegiate athletics, among other things. We spent a few hours talking in his office over two days. Had I opted to do the interviews by phone or email, I would not have gotten to know him nearly as well, and neither would our readers.

We talked a lot about diversity in India, in Memphis, and at universities. Two phrases Grover likes to use are "ideas having sex" and "the strength of weak ties." He is not the author of either of them. The former was coined by author Matt Ridley, the latter by a sociologist named Mark Granovetter. You can look them up on YouTube or Google. Grover provided links. I watched a few minutes, read a few entries, enough to get an attribution and a general sense that sameness can cause stagnation and redundancy.

But if I had spent a whole day reading their books and papers — which I did not — I would probably not have understood those concepts as well as I did after talking to a stranger from India for a couple of hours.

If you're a careful reader of newspapers either in print or online, you've noticed many of us are reporting more and more that so-and-so "wrote in an email response" or "replied by email" rather than simply "said" something, either in person or on the phone. It's part convenience, part management on the part of both parties. An email can be crafted, and spontaneity, candor, and context can be lost.

Whatever you may think of the Memphis City Council, the Shelby County Commission, and the new joint school board, there is something to be said for people of different colors, genders, ages, neighborhoods, and viewpoints hashing things out face-to-face. Ditto for public comments. Name and address, please; you have three minutes. It may be boring, maddening, or bizarre, but it's ideas having sex and the strength of weak ties in action. And it's usually more constructive, responsible, and civil than an anonymous Internet message board, where it's easy to hate or belittle someone you can't see.

An old friend and journalist, Michael Rubenstein, died last week. He was director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and former sports anchor for a Jackson television station, but he didn't have a cell phone because "nobody told me they can't find me." He was a face-to-face guy and probably knew as many newsmakers as anyone in Mississippi.

Very retro and dinosaur behavior and all that, but worth remembering.

The best advice to people in new media and old media is still some of the oldest advice. If you want to find out more about something, whether it's the city council, the new skate park, suburban sprawl, black churches, white churches, or Tiger basketball, or understand someone on the other side of the room or the other side of town, the best way is to get away from your desk, your phone, your computer, and talk to people face-to-face and go have a look.

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