Friday, December 21, 2012

How Much Is Enough?

Looking back on a year of big and not-so-big stories.

Posted By on Fri, Dec 21, 2012 at 1:22 PM

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!



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