Saturday, January 28, 2012

Weekend Report: Florida, Delta, Tennis, Taxes, and Gary Oldman

Posted By on Sat, Jan 28, 2012 at 1:44 PM

Gary Oldman
  • Gary Oldman
Best line of the day: Wall Street Journal writer Tom Perrotta on Rafael Nadal’s ability to beat everyone except Novak Djokovic: “To lose so often to one player almost defies logic. It’s like Isaac Newton forgetting how to multiply.” After watching Djokovic beat Andy Murray in a little less than five hours, I think pro tennis players are the best-conditioned athletes on the planet. And the pro men and women are coming to the Racquet Club in February, minus the Big Four, but still a great field. This tournament won’t be here forever so go see it.

Lots of Memphis-related business news in the national press today. Delta Air Lines wants to buy US Airways, which would be its first acquisition since buying Northwest Airlines in 2008. US Airways offers a good deal of what little competition Delta has in Memphis.

The Wall Street Journal also has a story about St. Joe Co. scaling back its Florida Panhandle developments near Destin and Panama City, favorite destinations for Memphians. Anyone who has been down there and seen WaterSound at Santa Rosa Beach probably saw this coming. A successor to WaterColor which is a few miles to the west, the development’s empty lots and unoccupied houses in the midst of all that expensive infrastructure says it all. Some of us at Memphis magazine and The Flyer freelanced for a magazine underwritten by Joe, and we miss the assignments and the paychecks. Joe gave the land for the new airport in Panama City and is the largest landowner in northern Florida, with more than half a million acres.

If you're on Facebook prepare to be monetized. The Facebook IPO could come as early as next week. Once it’s priced, ordinary investors can own a piece of the company that boasts more than 800 million members. I predict a “hot” IPO that rises but then tapers off. Over time, I think privacy concerns will wear down Facebook and cut the number of members.

I saw the movie “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” last night on the recommendation of Flyer movie critic Greg Akers. No one in our group of six understood it very well. The next time I watch Gary Oldman will be in “Shaun of the Dead.” “Tinker etc.” should come with an introduction in which the actors tell us their movie names and identities. Or explanatory subtitles in addition to the Russian dialogue subtitles. Better than all those commercials you have to sit through.

To research the schools merger story, I dug out my old tax bills and looked up some old articles to put together this chronology, which I then ran past City Finance Director Roland McElrath to check the numbers. Tax bills should be as clear and easy to understand as restaurant checks.

2007. The Memphis property tax rate is $3.43. There is no breakout for schools on the tax bill.

2008: Mayor Willie Herenton proposes a 58-cent increase, which would push the rate over $4 — one of those milestone numbers, sort of like $4-a-gallon gas. The Memphis City Council cuts school funds from $93.7 million to approximately $27 million, against Herenton’s advice, in an effort to shift school funding to Shelby County. But other city government spending, including a 5-percent pay raise for employees, costs $42 million. The net result is an 18-cent tax decrease to $3.25.

2009: It is a reappraisal year, and there cannot, by law, be a windfall tax increase due to higher valuations, so the tax rate has to be adjusted. The council sets the rate at $3.19. The tax rate includes a breakout of $.1868 for “schools” on the bill. There is talk of a special tax bill for schools in addition to this but it does not happen. In the special election in October, A C Wharton is elected mayor with 60 percent of the vote.

2010: The rate is $3.19. Chancery Court rules against the City of Memphis and determines that the funding cut in 2008-9 is due back to Memphis City Schools. The city appeals (the appeal is still pending).

2011: Mayor Wharton proposes restoration of the 18 cents for schools. In June, the council puts in a “one-time assessment” of 18 cents for schools to be held in a separate bank account until lawsuits resolved. (McElrath said the funds can be used to pay for any education obligation city has, whether 2009 or any current obligation.) There is confusion in the council chambers. Some councilmen believe this amounts to a tax rate increase to $3.37. But the council sets the rate at $3.1889, virtually the same as the previous year, by taking out the .1868 for schools. Tax bills that go out in July include the “one time assessment” of 18 cents for schools and a disclaimer that any additional taxes approved by council will come in a separate bill. However there is, so far, no supplemental tax bill. In October, Wharton wins the mayoral election with 65 percent of the vote and council incumbents are reelected.

City taxes for schools are small compared to county taxes. On the 2011 Shelby County tax bill, of the $4.02 tax rate, $1.30 goes to city schools and 60 cents goes to county schools. The tax impact hits all property owners while the school organization issues mainly impact people with school-age children in or about to be in public schools.

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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Confusion on Taxes and a CFO at City Hall

Posted By on Wed, Jan 25, 2012 at 4:21 PM

George Little
  • George Little
Property tax bills are confusing enough, but the city of Memphis has outdone itself this year with not one but two disclaimers.

In another sign of a city administration that looks disturbingly erratic and half-cocked on finances, the 2011 Memphis property tax bills include a “GF (general fund) one-time assessment” of 18 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. That goes with the “general fund” tax rate of $2.2917 and the debt service rate of 71 cents and the CIP fund rate of .0031 (translation: a couple bucks or so on your bill). Total: $3.1889.

The bottom of the bill says “Any subsequent special school tax approved by the Memphis City Council will be mailed separately,” which suggests there’s more to come.

Continue reading »

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Monday, January 23, 2012

Mayor Mixes Show Biz and 100-Days-Plan in State of City

Posted By on Mon, Jan 23, 2012 at 1:32 PM

With shout-outs from special guests representing "Memphis The Musical," St. Jude's, the Memphis Grizzlies, and celebrity chefs Patrick and Gina Neely, Mayor A C Wharton delivered a 40-minute State of the City speech Monday that sounded like it had been assembled by a committee.

Wharton said he had spoken to every member of the Memphis City Council and it showed. There were nods to such pet projects and issues as Elvis Presley Boulevard (Harold Collins), gun violence (Myron Lowery), flood control (Jim Strickland), minority contracting (Janis Fullilove), and pension reform and managed competition (Kemp Conrad) as well old stand-bys such as crime and early childhood education.

On the sober side, there was the announcement that with the next property reappraisal, Memphis' total assessments will decline for the first time in modern history at the same time the city faces a major increase in bond payments. The mayor did not go into detail about foreclosures, the schools merger, or the tax rate.

Wharton is creating a three-person leadership team of CAO George Little, housing and development specialist Robert Lipscomb, and an as yet unnamed chief finance officer "to analyze, plan, and implement the strategies for these priorities that propel us forward."

"I acknowledge that our agenda will not be completed in 100 days or in 1,000 days or perhaps not even during this term," Wharton said. "Memphis' structural challenges are long-standing and will not be solved without sustained work."

The four priorities are safe and vibrant neighborhoods, prosperity and opportunity for all, invest in young people, and advance a culture of excellence in city government.

The next 100 days will include announcements of new investments in neighborhoods, an inventory of every park in Memphis, bringing competitive baseball back to neighborhoods, a seven-acre park at the site of the Lonestar concrete plant downtown near the interstate ramps, a new task force on early childhood development, a system called "3.1.1." to centralize non-emergency calls to city government, and a "Blueprint For Prosperity Plan."

Wharton said he was motivated to accelerate his plans by events during a 48-hour period last week that included the fatal shooting of a 17-year-old boy at a basketball game, disclosure of corruption by "just a tiny group of those who work for us" in city government, and the chamber of commerce announcement of more than $1 billion in investment in Memphis last year.

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Friday, January 20, 2012

What's Your Price? Half a Cent?

Posted By on Fri, Jan 20, 2012 at 12:27 PM

Some end-of-the week thoughts about municipal school districts, paying for them, and the psychology of savings.

Warning: This post contains mathematical calculations. One of the ways consultants say suburban municipalities could pay for their proposed school systems is a half-cent increase in the local sales tax. This would push the total tax from 9.25 cents to 9.75 cents. It would require a referendum and majority approval by the voters.

Some merchants don't like this idea because it could put them at a competitive disadvantage on, say, Stage Road in Bartlett versus Stage Road in Memphis, where the sales tax would be half a cent less. This tested my mathematical skills to their limit, so I confirmed the numbers with our company accountant, who lives in Mississippi, where the sales tax is 7 percent.

On $1,000 worth of retail purchases, which is a pretty big buy in one lump but not so much over a year or so, the sales tax at a rate of 9.25 percent is $92.50, and at a rate of 9.75 percent the sales tax is $97.50, a difference of $5. Let's call that a "sandwich" worth of savings. At a tax rate of 7 percent, the sales tax is $70, or a savings of $22.50 compared to shopping in Memphis. Let's call that a "dinner" worth of savings. Our accountant says this is why she buys all her groceries in Mississippi, and sees lots of Shelby County license tags in the parking lot.

I get it but I also don't get it. Like most people, I probably have $22.50 in change in various mason jars and cans on my dresser. And I could save $22.50 cents in one weekend by not going out to dinner or to the movies. Why someone would drive out of their way to save sandwich money or dinner money is beyond me, except that I do it myself every week when I scout out the cheapest gas stations or use my Kroger card to save a whopping 3 cents a gallon. Rational creatures we are not.

If we were driven simply by the forces of taxes, I suppose we would all live in Lakeland, which has no property taxes, or in the ritzy Southwind gated community which pays no city property taxes, versus the $3.19 rate in Memphis and the $1.48 rate in Germantown. Or at least we would all heed the signs like the ones on Shelby Drive that say "no city taxes" and separate the annexed from the not-annexed. At the varying tax rates, we are talking about hundreds or thousands of dollars a year. Let's call that a "refrigerator" worth of savings.

My point, and I do have one, is that municipal school district decisions will be driven a lot more by neighborhoods, friends, teachers, school buildings, safety perceptions, test scores, and annexation prospects than by dollars and cents. Especially the sandwich savings and dinner savings of the sales tax.

The property tax is different, but not so much at the lowball rate of 15 cents that the consultants are talking about. I think that is overly optimistic, but we are at the early stage of posturing and negotiations and bluster in this process. Even if a more realistic estimate is an additional 50 cents, suburbs might well decide it is worth it. I have several friends who live in unannexed areas within shouting distance of their annexed neighbors, but they have stayed put. And Memphis, with a combined property tax rate of $7.21 plus a "one-time assessment" last year still has 650,000 residents.

Yes, I know the population trend is not good, but those of us who live in Memphis have our loyalties and our reasons, and they transcend sandwiches, dinners, and refrigerators.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Bartlett Leaders Ready to Go Muni

Posted By on Wed, Jan 18, 2012 at 9:35 PM

Keith McDonald
  • Keith McDonald
As expected, Bartlett leaders Wednesday eagerly accepted a consultant's study saying the suburb can feasibly start a municipal school system in 2013. Then Mayor Keith McDonald upped the "ask" to include not just existing buildings at no charge but also a new $26.5 million high school.

The mayor acknowledged that the current one is about 500 students below its capacity of 2,100 students. And only 7,428 students who live in Bartlett attend county schools, which is about 1700 short of the projected enrollment of the prospective municipal system in 2013, according to the study. In Bartlett, as in Germantown and Collierville, students don't necessarily go to the nearest school or the school in the suburb in which they reside. Some Bartlett students go to high school at Arlington and Bolton. Also, all three suburbs also draw students from unincorporated areas of Shelby County.

In some ways Bartlett might be better able to sustain a municipal system than Germantown. According to the latest census, Bartlett is bigger than Germantown, younger, and grew faster but is not as wealthy. Germantown, however, sends more children to private schools and fills its public schools with thousands of children from unincorporated areas near Southwind and from Collierville.

Along with funding, voter approval, and court challenges, one of the biggest uncertainties about the rush to municipal school systems is students, who might be walking around with bounties on their chests in 2013 as schools scramble to fill their classrooms and secure the state and local funding that follows the students and, in turn, pays the staff and the bills.

Consultant Jim Mitchell, a former Shelby County Schools superintendent, made the pitch to Bartlett, and it was similar to the one he made in Germantown 24 hours earlier. Consultants project that a Bartlett municipal system would have 9029 students, 886 employees, $69 million in revenue and $68.2 million in expenses. The system would be approximately 31 percent black, 59 percent white, and the rest other ethnic groups. As in Germantown, there were no questions or comments from spectators. More than 100 people filled the auditorium however, and many of them applauded at the end of the meeting.

The Bartlett Board of Mayor and Aldermen asked several questions, and McDonald, a member of the transition planning team, was one of the most enthusiastic backers of a municipal school system. He said the requisite 15 cents on the local property tax would add only $66 to the tax bill on a $175,000 home. And Bartlett also has a commercial base that would yield roughly $3.5 million a year if the community were to opt for a half-cent increase in the local option sales tax.

McDonald suggested Bartlett hold a public hearing on February 6th, a referendum on May 24th, and a school board election in November. He said "it's possible" lawsuits could delay the start of the muni in 2013, but he said he would urge residents to push for a new high school "on day one." One alderman suggested the cost should be covered by the citizens of Shelby County at large, not Bartlett, but Mitchell said Bartlett would have "first responsibility for your capital program."

In one scenario, Shelby County could have one large county school system and perhaps five municipal school systems, each with their own school board determined to get its existing buildings for nothing and pass its capital spending bills on to the unified school board. At 9,000 students, Bartlett would be the biggest municipal school system in the state.

No one on the board spoke favorably about or even mentioned the future unified school district or the transition planning team which, judging by recent suburban meetings, might as well be selling "Herenton For Mayor" t-shirts.

"I probably didn't think Memphis City Schools would give up their charter. They did," said McDonald. "They probably didn't think we would start our municipal school system. We might."

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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Revenge of the 'Burbs

Posted By on Tue, Jan 17, 2012 at 8:49 PM

Sharon Goldsworthy
  • Sharon Goldsworthy
The votes have not yet been taken, but the road map is pretty clear. Barring court intervention, Shelby County suburbs including Germantown, Bartlett, Arlington, and Collierville aim to have their own municipal school systems in place by 2013 and will stake a claim on their current buildings and sports facilities lock stock and barrel at no charge.

On Tuesday the Germantown Board of Mayor and Aldermen (BMA) met to receive a feasibility study in a one-hour meeting that drew a small crowd of about 40 people. There was no public comment and no vote by the board. There will be a public meeting on February 1st at the Germantown Performing Arts Center that is likely to draw hundreds of residents. After that, the BMA will go on a two-day retreat to decide its next move.

Which, Mayor Sharon Goldsworthy indicated, is apt to be this: A referendum in May and, assuming a "go-for-it" vote, a school board election in November and employment of a superintendent next January. That person would hire everyone else, which consultants estimated at 776 other certified and classified employees.

Total projected enrollment: 8,142 students in eight schools. Projected expenditures, $60,921,144 from projected revenues of $62,483,135. The revenue would come from several sources including at least 15 cents on the municipal tax rate — either a new levy or an equal sum taken from the current rate of $1.48. Alternately, the city could levy an extra half cent on the sales tax, which, of course, is paid by locals and non-locals alike.

A similar proposal was unveiled in Bartlett on Monday, and Collierville is on deck for Wednesday.

The 15 cents on the tax rate, said consultant Jim Mitchell — a former Shelby County Schools superintendent — is required by state law. Muni's must spend it, but they don't necessarily have to raise it in the form of additional taxes. Even if they do, the gap between the Memphis tax rate of $3.19 and the suburban rates of $1.43 to $1.49 is so wide that 15 cents seems a pittance by comparison. All Shelby County property owners also pay $4.02 in county taxes. School board member David Pickler said the referendum might not be a lay-down because many of Germantown's young folk go to private schools and the general population is aging into the golden years. But noone on the BMA appeared alarmed in the least at the consultants' recipe.

The sweetest caramel in Mitchell's box was the opinion that the 'burbs can get their schools at no charge. Precedent, he said, dictates as much. He said that Shelby County since 1965 has given 44 schools to Memphis City Schools, via annexation, at no charge. The reasonableness, much less the legality of this charming argument, will certainly be tested.

Board members asked if Germantown could perhaps partner with its wealthy neighbor to the east, Collierville, in a common school system. No, said Mitchell. Each must go its own way, although they can "cooperate" all they want.

"You're going to have to create your own district," he said.

Mitchell was among friends. At one point, he reminded alderman Ernest Chism that they go way back and invited him to call him with any questions. The meeting was business-like all the way, with no citizen input this time around. Mitchell noted that Germantown's school population is 25 percent black, but there are no blacks on the BMA. Nor were there any on the 2011 edition of the Shelby County school board which has merged with the Memphis board. The Shelby County system did not elect board members until 1998.

The full consultants' report can be seen on the Germantown web site. Check page 122 for a summary.

A picture is emerging. The picture looks like this: As many as half a dozen municipal school districts, the strongest of which would have 8,000-10,000 students. And a county system of roughly 110,000 students that would look a lot like the current MCS system with a new name, new board, and different boundaries. Many's the slip, but that's the outline.

Mitchell's final word of advice: This will not be easy, but should Germantown decide on such a course of separation, "you've got adequate time."

Some years ago I was an MCS parent, and my children competed against Germantown and Collierville in soccer and baseball. We were pretty good but simply could not beat them, ever, in those sports. Basketball, the city game, was another story, thanks to the likes of Dane Bradshaw and J.P. Prince. But soccer and baseball, no way, although there were a couple of close calls with overwhelming evidence of divine intervention. My young athletes would go off to college and become teammates and friends with their former rivals, but to this parent, at least, the takeway was: We ain't gonna beat the 'burbs at their own game. I haven't forgotten it.

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Thursday, January 12, 2012

About You and Your Dog

Posted By on Thu, Jan 12, 2012 at 10:50 AM

Mr. Cranky has really stepped in it this time. Not bike lanes or old buildings or racial politics. I am talking about dog shit, and I don't mean s***, doo-doo, poop, excrement, or mess. The right word matters sometimes.

The scene of the crime was the Overton Park playing field, which has over the years become an unofficial dog park. I was walking toward Rainbow Lake when I got distracted by — what else? — a dog running toward me, stepped carelessly, and, bingo.

This is not the crime of the century. That would be when your dog shits in my yard and you don't clean it up. And I admit I once owned large dogs that ran free when they escaped or I let them off the leash.

But times change. We used to have unprotected sex with strangers, smoke unfiltered Camels in indoor public places, drive without seatbelts, and double-size our fries.


Dog parks like the ones at Shelby Farms and behind the board of education are wonderful things. So are bags and the stations that provide them in places like the Bluffwalk and Greenbelt Park, although plastic bags do present another set of problems. Otherwise public playing fields like the one at Overton Park become practically useless for Ultimate, catch, flag football, or walking unless you don't mind close encounters with dog shit.

So clean up. Don't shout "it's ok, he's friendly" or "Gee, he's never been a fighter/biter before" or pretend you didn't see it. Walk over and bag it. Or go to a dog park. Which the Overton Park Conservancy should put on its "to do" list.

I feel better now, and am going to clean my shoe.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Midtown: More on Overton Square and Sears

Posted By on Wed, Jan 11, 2012 at 3:17 PM

  • Friends for our Riverfront
  • Bob Loeb
Bob Loeb says don't expect a return to the days of sex, drugs, and rock and roll at Overton Square when Loeb Properties gets done with its renovations.

"We're not bringing Billy Joel back," Loeb told the Memphis Rotary Club Tuesday. "Our plans are relatively modest. We're rehabbers. We love old buildings."

He gave an overview of the project that managed to whet appetites for a revived Overton Square while tamping down expectations a bit. The space, he noted, is "not that big" but the project seems bigger and more expensive — pushing $20 million — because of the partnership with the city on a floodwater detention basin and parking garage. Developers believe $4 a gallon gas will lead to inward migration and a more vibrant Midtown.

Loeb praised ongoing improvements at Overton Park and along Broad Street and said there is hope for Crosstown and for Washington Bottoms (a leveled tract south of Poplar east of Cleveland) acquired by Lehman Brothers.

"It's back in play," he said.

The new Overton Square "will not be Beale Street Two" but will be "a lot more local" and will not compete, Loeb says, with Cooper-Young bars and restaurants. The Overton Square theater district theme was downtown developer Henry Turley's idea, Loeb said, and seconded by Jackie Nichols. Construction will begin this spring or early summer, but we'll have to wait and see who goes first, Loeb or the city. Who needs a big new parking garage for a space that isn't fully developed or is half occupied?

More on the wait and see front . . .

Mea culpa. I got ahead of things in an earlier blog post as far as Yates Construction and Sears Crosstown. Blame it on impatience and too much caffeine. My bad, anyway.

A Yates spokesman who asked me not to use his name said the company is doing due diligence on Sears, is tracking it on the radar, and has its finger on the pulse and is "very interested."

"This is a project well within our means," he said.

As for the readers who noted the building's survival as a distribution facility until 1993, ten years after the retail part closed, so be it, and thanks for the correction.

I think Sears is a blighted, ugly, dated behemoth that is too expensive to tear down and too expensive to redevelop. This week I ran it past developers Jason Wexler of Henry Turley Company, Josh Poag of Poag & McEwen, and John Elkington of Beale Street and they all said it's a whopper and a long shot. Wexler had an interesting idea: put MLGW's administrative headquarters in it as the city's contribution, then put out requests for proposals for the current MLGW headquarters downtown west of FedEx Forum. The utility building, he said, separates Beale Street and FedEx Forum from The Orpheum and the riverfront.

As a Sears neighbor since 1984, I have long since run out of patience and gone all NIMBY. I don't believe this building in its blighted condition would be tolerated in Collierville, Bartlett, Germantown, or the commercial parts of East Memphis. And if it was in a warehouse district or industrial area it would have been forgotten long ago. Its location gives it such value and interest as it has. Responsible residential and commercial neighbors on all sides of Sears have indirectly borne the carrying costs of this mess and whatever hope it has for redevelopment. You own a building, small or large, and say you love its future potential, then you take care of it today, and that goes for everyone.

My suggestion is to photoshop Sears Crosstown. Not with light shows or painted plywood in the windows, like the Chisca Hotel downtown. Put in real windows, a little landscaping, paint it, tear down the fire escapes, put a faux entrance on Cleveland, demolish the parking garage, and replace the fence with something that doesn't scream maximum security prison. Then lock it up and hide the keys. Wexler said former New York Mayor Ed Koch did something like that with blighted housing projects years ago. It wouldn't be cheap and it wouldn't be a beauty, but it would also not be the eyesore and drag on the neighborhoods it has been for decades. I nominate it for Mayor Wharton's Next 100 Days project.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Concerns Trump Hopes at Transition Team Meeting

Posted By on Tue, Jan 10, 2012 at 11:08 PM

Again and again Transition Planning Team chairwoman Barbara Prescott urged speakers to express their hopes for the merger of the Memphis and Shelby County school systems.

And again and again speakers ignored her and politely but firmly told the planning team they do not want changes in the Collierville schools and fear that the merger will harm them.

Members of the planning team went to Collierville United Methodist Church Tuesday night, where several hundred people filled the sanctuary and part of the balcony for a two-hour meeting. They came from Memphis and other parts of Shelby County as well as Collierville, but the dominant sentiment of the 41 speakers was anti-merger and pro status quo.

The listening tour is supposed to do two things: gather suggestions about hopes and concerns that are within the planning team's charge and demonstrate that the appointed group is open-minded and not imposing a preordained agenda, although the pro-merger and anti-merger views of some individual members are well known. Likewise, the names and views of some speakers are by now familiar. Self-styled Memphis government watchdog Joe Saino, merger opponent Ken Hoover, a student reading a prepared text and wearing a Stand For Children t-shirt, and a Memphis Education Association official spoke. Other speakers live in Memphis and work in Collierville or vice versa, and several of the speakers said they were teachers and/or parents of school-age children.

Speakers, most of whom gave their names but could not always be heard clearly or left before they could be interviewed, said the merger is "doomed to failure" and "we have a really wonderful thing going" and "smaller is better" and "it seems like there is more parent involvement in Shelby County schools" and "face the truth about what is wrong with all the issues facing urban school systems" and "if it's not broken don't fix it" and "if you don't have a system you can respect and get behind then you're lost" and "I'm concerned that my kids will be bussed downtown" and "my hope is that this plan does not succeed" and "there will be flight to private schools" and "Memphis proves that spending more money isn't the answer" and "we need a school system that dos not exclude prayer or God."

There were also speakers who favor the merger or at least favor giving the planning team a fair shot, but not as many as the opponents. This, of course, was no surprise. Collierville boasts some of the highest-performing public schools in the state. But county residents did not get to vote in the Memphis referendum that approved the charter surrender of Memphis City Schools. School system consolidation was considered so unpopular that the earlier dual referendum on general government consolidation made a point of excluding the school systems and still failed overwhelmingly in the county outside of Memphis.

Summarizing, Prescott said the speakers' hopes reflect the guiding principles of the transition team, including high academic standards, a world-class school system, and community schools. It was a game effort, but called to mind that high school favorite poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade" and the lines about "cannons to the right of them, cannons to the left of them" and "someone had blundered." On this night, the anti-merger sentiment was clear. It could surely not be called a wake-up call because it was so predictable.

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Monday, January 9, 2012

Something's Up at Sears Crosstown

Posted By on Mon, Jan 9, 2012 at 2:01 PM

Friends and neighbors in Midtown tell me something may be getting ready to happen at the long-closed Sears Crosstown building, the massive empty relic at Cleveland and North Parkway.

I'm hearing that Yates Construction may have the job, and that the working drawings include partial demolition, an arts center, apartments, food courts, a boutique hotel, health care offices, and half a dozen major investors in lieu of one anchor tenant. The ballpark price I heard was well over $100 million, but numbers are pretty meaningless at this point. Sears Crosstown has been vacant for 29 years. It is both impossibly large — ten stories of "tail" west of a 17-story tower — and badly blighted, with broken windows on the outside and god-knows-what-all on the inside.

Flyer readers may know the property as the site of the 2011 "Best Of" party held on the roof of the parking garage. Crosstown Arts put on a nice light show on the main building and is one of the proponents of renovation.

Disclosure: I live in the Evergreen Historic District a few blocks from Sears. As a neighbor, I would like to see something good happen on Cleveland, our neighborhood's main commercial street along with Poplar Avenue. I have no idea what it would cost, but demolition seems like an idea worth considering given that no one would construct such a building from scratch these days. Cleveland and Poplar have some good ethnic restaurants and markets, a few auto-parts stores, other small businesses, a flea market, and a Jehovah's Witnesses assembly hall. The Evergreen District includes several houses that are nearly 100 years old and some new ones built primarily in the 1990s in the aborted Interstate 40 corridor. The corridor west of Cleveland is empty.

It sounds like an ambitious project and I will post more as I learn more about it. If this is a real deal, that makes four Midtown deals by my count, counting Sears, Overton Park Conservancy, Overton Square revival by Loeb Properties, and the Kroc Center at the fairgrounds.

Herenton Charter Applications Get Slow Walked

Posted By on Mon, Jan 9, 2012 at 11:34 AM

He won't say it himself, but former Memphis mayor Willie Herenton is getting the stall treatment on his application to start seven charter schools in Memphis this year.

"I am waiting to receive whatever questions the state treasurer is going to raise," Herenton said Monday. "I assume we will get them today. I am curious to know the questions."

In October, the unified city and county school board denied applications for 17 new charter schools, including several from Herenton and his partners Harmony Public Schools and the Cosmos Foundation. Herenton's group wants to start seven schools in Memphis in 2012 and two more in Shelby County outside of Memphis in 2013.

His fate as an educator is now in the hands of state officials in Nashville, including Treasurer David Lillard, a former Republican member of the Shelby County Commission. As Jane Roberts wrote in The Commercial Appeal Monday, Lillard may have follow-up questions once the responses are received.

"This could go back and forth for a awhile," state spokesman Blake Fontenay told Roberts.

I bet it could.

Fontenay is a former CA reporter and commenter who covered the mayor and City Hall during Herenton's tempestuous last two terms. Herenton and Fontenay were not mutual admirers.

The rejection of the applications in October combined with the delay that could last several more weeks means it is unlikely that applicants will be able to recruit students and secure buildings in time to open in August.

That's too bad because Herenton deserves a shot. To suggest he is not as qualified as any of the current charter school operators is absurd. He attended city schools, graduated from one of them, taught in them, and was a principal, superintendent, and mayor. He may have been unpopular in his last two mayoral terms, but many a fallen urban school superintendent, football coach, or politician has picked up the pieces and moved on to a second, third, or fourth act. The former school officials from Chattanooga and Charlotte who met with the Transition Planning Team admitted as much.

I don't think he is doing this for the money. He has two pensions that pay him more than his former mayoral salary.

Is he a front for Texas-based Harmony Schools and the Cosmos Foundation? Probably in a way he is. But every charter school in Memphis that I have seen has a hidden hand behind it. Applicants should be accepted or rejected on the merits of their proposals and their track records.

Memphis has the majority of the charter schools in Tennessee, and the largest number of poor children and failing schools. State funding follows students who transfer to charter schools. School boards can reject charter school applications because the loss of state funding imposes a financial hardship. In that case, why have any charter schools? And why merge the city and county school systems, which could result in the loss of thousands of students in 2013 to flight or establishment of separate suburban school systems?

We have fought those wars and made those decisions. The deregulation door has been opened. Everyone is a school reform advocate now. The question is whose idea of reform? Herenton and the other charter applicants deserve a response, yes or no, on the merits. It's probably too late for 2012, but some of them could be in the mix in 2013, the Year of the Big Change.

I would like to see Herenton in the picture, assuming his team can recruit enough students, staff, and suitable buildings, which charter school veterans tell me is a lot harder than you might think. There are few if any universally popular school figures. Michelle Rhee, Kriner Cash, David Pickler, Teach For America, KIPP schools — all have their fans and foes.

My Herenton bias comes partly from personal experience. In the 1970s I taught for three years in an alternative school in Nashville for kids who weren't cutting it. I was, like the current TFA corps, earnest but young and inexperienced. Such modest success as I had was due to small class sizes and a dozen paperback copies of a book called "Manchild in the Promised Land" by Claude Brown that we read aloud, often painfully slow at a rate of five or ten minutes a page, week after week to teach remedial reading. It was about growing up tough and dirty in Harlem, and it spoke to many of my students in a way I could not. I would not have lasted a year under the current teaching standards, but several students learned to read at a sixth or seventh-grade level thanks to Claude Brown. Herenton has lived that story, and I think he can reach some urban students who are not making it in the present system.


Speaking of School Consolidation

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