Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Memphis on Cover of Scientific Journal

Posted By on Wed, Feb 29, 2012 at 10:31 AM

It is rare for a scientific journal to put the Memphis skyline on its cover, but here it is.

Cancer Cell this week has a major paper from St. Jude Children's Research Hospital on brain tumor research, and the authors sent in a photo of Memphis with an image of tumor cells that appear as either the moon or fireworks over the skyline.

Here's the technical information and photo credit: The cover shows a red neurosphere of the MYC-subgroup medulloblastoma representing the moon over the lit Memphis Bridge on the Mississippi and the Memphis downtown skyline. Image from Betsy Williford (Department of Biomedical Communications, St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital) and Martine F. Roussel. The photo was taken by Ann-Margaret Hedges.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Attention Passengers on The Good Ship Memphis: Icebergs Ahead

Posted By on Sat, Feb 25, 2012 at 12:15 PM

Mayor A C Wharton and the Memphis City Council held a retreat Saturday morning to step back and take a look at the big picture of city finances.

The good news: Memphis has a AA bond rating and some untapped or lightly tapped financing sources I'll get to in a minute. The bad news: Population and property tax assessments are both going in the wrong direction at the same time Memphis is growing in land area, which stretches the cost of providing services.

In what was either the most apt or alarming symbolic moment of the three-hour session at the FedEx Family House across from Methodist LeBonheur Hospital, city development czar Robert Lipscomb displayed a slide with a graphic of the Titanic going down amidst a field of icebergs. It was meant as a metaphor for various financial perils on the horizon or not yet seen. While the order to abandon ship has not been given, lifeboats have been sighted in Germantown, Collierville, and DeSoto County and other safe harbors.

Because of its declining tax base, "Memphis has no margin for error," Lipscomb said. "I would suggest that you have a business model which is not sustainable."

Wharton decried the need to provide city services to untaxed nonprofits and businesses within Memphis and citizens of Shelby County outside of Memphis. Because of tax breaks, about 30 percent of the property in Memphis is exempt from standard city property taxes. Left unsaid was the fact that those tax breaks were given and are still being given with the approval of the people at the retreat or by agencies such as the Industrial Development Board of Center City Commission. On top of that, Tourism Development Zones and Tax Increment Financing districts have dedicated revenue streams that keep money out of the general fund. How to put all that together in one picture?

"That is the crux," said Wharton.

City finance officials are forecasting a deficit of about $17 million this year. Sharp-eyed observers, however, will see different figures depending on which year or city fund is under discussion. The general trend is this: Local property tax revenues continue to decline, sales tax revenues is recovering slowly, and fines and fees have fallen short of expectations. A property tax increase of 18 cents that was approved but not imposed last year is one possibility.

Council members had a few gripes.

"Where was the big picture" last year when the city supposedly had a $6 million surplus, wondered Myron Lowery.

"There are people in this room who were here five years ago," said Wanda Halbert, adding "I'm seeing some of my colleagues get major money and my district is not getting anything."

Janis Fullilove inquired about a payroll tax on non-residents who work in Memphis or a state income tax. Those prospects, history has shown, are unlikely. She noted that while the players on the Memphis Grizzlies and the Nashville Predators hockey team pay a privilege tax, the Tennessee Titans do not. In the current shortened NBA season, the Grizz tax only nets a bit less than $1 million, finance officials said.

Finance director Roland McElrath said bond debt payments will get priority over other expenses, and the administration will present the council with a balanced budget in April. Wharton said "there will be some pressure regardless of what we do" on the city's bond rating because of the ripple effect from a big bond default in Jefferson County (Birmingham) Alabama.

Retreats are a near-annual event, and this one was more focused — and shorter — than several I have witnessed. A low point came one year in the Herenton administration when the gang traveled all the way to Jackson, Tennessee for such a session. Finishing the job in under three hours is progress of a sort. And so was the setting, on a stretch of Poplar Avenue between Midtown and downtown that used to be lined with public housing projects and now has a hospital tower and attractive housing.

To belabor the metaphor one more time, it takes time to turn around a big ship in the water, especially in a field of icebergs.


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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A School Choice Quiz

Posted By on Wed, Feb 22, 2012 at 12:17 PM

The big-picture discussion of the school systems merger has become tiresome and complicated and somewhat removed from real-world decision making. So let's have a little pop quiz. These questions are purely hypothetical, of course.

The principal of an elementary school has instituted a no-talking policy during lunch. No more controlled chaos. But some parents say their kids are going bonkers and the policy is an overreaction. Your call?

A formerly downtrodden inner-city high school gets a new building, but needs an enrollment boost. It hires a charismatic football coach who lets it be known that the team is going to be good, and pretty soon athletes from nearby schools start changing teams. Good thing?

An elementary school makes the highest test scores in the system year after year. The catch is, the school is an optional school, and there is a cut score to get in and stay in. The neighborhood and school building are unremarkable, but the academics are top of the class. Should this model be replicated?

The standout school is all black. Is that a problem?

If the school was mostly white would it be a problem?

A public elementary school in a racially diverse neighborhood populated by young couples and professionals is experiencing a modest surge in white enrollment. But the parents want their kids to be in the same class. It is white flight in reverse, on a very small scale. They all stay or they all go. OK with that?

An optional public school has some accelerated classes and some traditional classes. The only time the kids mix is in homeroom and in the corridors and at ballgames. There is a limited number of slots in the accelerated classes. How should they be allotted?

A well-known former educator and politician wants to start some charter schools. Charter schools are popular and are drawing lots of funding. The applicant is capable but highly controversial. Should the applications be approved?

A high school attracts a disproportionate number of National Merit Scholars, who become magnets for other academically motivated students. But classes are jammed, and the school is overcrowded. What should be done?

A highly motivated principal is determined to raise the test scores at her school. She lets it be known that on test day teachers should encourage some low achievers to stay home. And teachers are instructed to teach to the test, and shown how they can do this. In fact, they are required to do this. Would you send your kid there?

A large group of public school parents believe that the joint school board will not represent their interests. They don't want to pay more than they are now paying for education. So they propose a coalition of charter schools with a separate board. Good idea?

You have ten minutes to complete the quiz. No cheating.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Million-Dollar Weekend for Downtown Memphis

Posted By on Mon, Feb 20, 2012 at 1:34 PM

Author Shelby Foote wrote in his novel "September September" that the three hardest dates in show business were "Christmas, Easter, and Memphis."

Good line, but Foote's novel was set in Memphis in the 1950s, and Memphis has earned a different reputation. Last weekend, the Memphis Grizzlies played at FedEx Forum Friday night and Saturday night, sandwiched around a Memphis Tigers basketball game Saturday afternoon. All of the games reported ticket sales of over 15,000, and Flyer writers who covered the games said the arena looked nearly full.

And on Sunday, "Million Dollar Quartet" played two shows at the Orpheum, closing out a six-day run of sellouts. Pat Halloran said total attendance was around 17,000.

The recession may not be over but Memphians and visitors are coming downtown and spending money. At the Majestic Grille on South Main Sunday night, people were waiting for tables or walking away when they saw the crowd, so I assume it was a good night in general for restaurants and bars.

I thought "Million Dollar Quartet" took off after the midway point when the blow-up of the famous black-and-white photo dropped down from the ceiling and the actors recreated the pose around the piano and the audience collectively thought, "Hey, it all happened about a mile away at Sun Studio."

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Saturday, February 18, 2012

School Sports and Home Schooling

Posted By on Sat, Feb 18, 2012 at 9:40 AM

Jonathan Loe, with trophy
  • Jonathan Loe, with trophy
Here's a good column by reporter Preston Williams in the Washington Post that highlights the schools issues we are debating in Memphis and Shelby County.

It's about home schooling, but it goes to the heart of the underlying issue: schools and sports teams as vital parts of communities and the passion that parents and students feel for them.

As Williams writes, there is a Tennessee angle in the story because home schooling came up last year in the state legislature. There are some 6,000 home-schooled children in Tennessee.

"But according to Bernard Childress, executive director of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association, just a few students have been denied spots on their schools’ teams. “It really hasn’t been a big issue,” Childress said. “This is what we were told by some of the states that we surveyed prior to our implementation.”

In 2001, Bartlett High School won the state AAA basketball championship with star player Jonathan Loe, who was home schooled in Mississippi but came to Bartlett for his senior year before going to Ole Miss. Loe attended classes. In Virginia, the focus of Williams' story, the issue is home schoolers who play for a school they do not attend.

Williams has some thought-provoking comments: "And if high school fields and gyms are extensions of the classroom, a home-schooled student has no more right to elbow Johnny off of a team’s roster than he does to kick him out of his seat in history class."

In Memphis, we're talking about merging city and county school systems and the possible establishment of municipal school districts in the suburbs. But the issue is really bigger than that because of the thousands of children who attend private schools, charter schools, or are home schooled. And those numbers are likely to grow as the deregulation of public education picks up steam in Nashville.

I believe there's a case to be made for a merged school system and traditional public schools, but backers must emphasize the benefits of such things as teams, tradition, and marching bands. There is a lot of movement — and some recruiting and cherry picking — between schools as parents, coaches, and motivated students zero in on a particular team, special academic offering, or talent.

For a longer take on the schools merger story from an outside perspective, check this article in the Atlantic Monthly magazine. Thanks to Tom Guleff for sending it over.

Finally, the documentary film "Undefeated" about the 2009 Manassas High School football team, is getting wide release and a lot of good publicity since it was nominated for an Oscar. Here's a review by John Anderson in the Wall Street Journal which, unfortunately, puts the school in "West Memphis, Tennessee." Manassas has come a long way since 2003 when it was barely able to field a team and lost to Mitchell 81-0.

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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Kirk Whalum Remembers Whitney Houston: "She went for the wall every time."

Posted By on Wed, Feb 15, 2012 at 2:07 PM

Memphis Grammy-winning saxophonist Kirk Whalum and Whitney Houston will be forever tied in musical history for her voice and his memorable solo on her hit song "I Will Always Love You" in the movie "The Bodyguard."

While on the road in Portland, he spoke with the Flyer Wednesday. The two of them met for the first time in 1989 when Houston was a star and Whalum was an established jazz musician.

"I opened for her for about six months. She was such a sweetheart. Frankly, it did not work out that well. The demographics tend to be pretty split between pop and jazz."

He said Houston never held back, even in rehearsal, so much that he feared she would lose her voice. "She went for the wall every time," he said. And she was loyal to him and the members of his band during filming of "The Bodyguard," insisting that they not be replaced. "She said you can do whatever you want but if I sing it this is the way we are going to do it."

He has been told that his saxophone solo has been heard by more people than any other sax solo in history.

Whalum saw the vulnerable side of Houston when they toured together.

"When we toured together, my nickname was 'Bishop' because I did Bible studies. I remember one Bible study we did in Barcelona in my room. This particular time, we didn't have a lesson, because the Holy Spirit visited. I remember her sitting in a chair with her head in her hands just weeping. It was like she was purging the hurt and pain of riches. It was the soft underbelly of fame that most people will never know."

They lost touch and had not seen each other for about four years.

"I regret that, and it is not insignificant in the trajectory of her life. There was this kind of wall with her and me to keep out certain people and keep in certain people. Some of the people kept in were the wrong people."

Whalum said that sometimes it can be a blessing to be in a supporting role while the spotlight shines on someone else as you help them look good.

"She was one of the greatest singers of all time," he said.

Whalum will be back in Memphis at Stax this week for the local release of his new CD "Romance Language."

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Friday, February 10, 2012

Weekend Report: Barbecue Makeover, Big East, Big Bluff

Posted By on Fri, Feb 10, 2012 at 2:07 PM

Best line of the week: "It was a bluff they hoped would be called," by Jackson Baker, on the annexation moves and counter-moves by Sen. Mark Norris and the Memphis City Council.

A picture worth a thousand words: Memphis Tigers in Times Square, as noted by my colleague Frank Murtaugh, who got this comment from Big East associate commissioner John Paquette on how it happened: "This is a terrific benefit of a deal we have with American Eagle Outfitters. The sign is at their Times Square store. AEG is the presenting sponsor of our men’s and women’s basketball tournaments. They also sponsor our academic awards. We also are able to use it for acknowledging conference champions after we conduct one of our championships. We welcomed our other new members in a similar way."

The Food Network is coming to Memphis next week to Pollards Bar-B-Q in Whitehaven. Robert Irvine, the muscular take-charge host of "Restaurant: Impossible" will bring in his crew to do a makeover of the restaurant at 4560 Elvis Presley Boulevard, about a mile south of Graceland. The gimmick is that the crew spends $10,000 on design and Irvine whips the staff into shape. I had lunch there Friday with Memphis City Councilman Harold Collins, who represents Whitehaven. "No worse than an 8" on a scale of 1 to 10, was our evaluation of the food and the premises. Our sandwiches were so so big we had to eat them with a fork, the meat was lean, the fries crisp, the beans not bad, the vinyl booths clean. There were only a couple of other customers, however, and the orange/mustard colored cinder block interior decor needs work, but this one looks like a lay down for Irvine and company. Tenesia Pollard, who was at the counter, said the show contacted her two days after she contacted them. Filming is next week, with the show scheduled to air in May.

It's always something at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. With the Big East news came the predictable cry for public funds to fix the turf, press box (cry me a river), big-screen, and they'll think of something else. If there was ever a case for user fees, this is it. College football is a big-bucks goldmine, even for lower tier bowls, as I have reported. Let them pay to play. And put on a ticket surcharge. Attendance can't get much worse than it has been for the last two or three years, so there is huge upside when Memphis joins the Big East and upgrades its schedule in 2013. As for the media, give 'em a Pollards barbecue sandwich and a free beer. Works for me.

The Racquet Club is installing the Hawk-Eye System for the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships February 17-26. The system lets players challenge calls and fans see how close the ball was to the line. Tournament Director Peter Lebedevs said it will be used on all main-draw matches on the Stadium Court.

Attorney Webb Brewer said the mortgage settlement between 49 states and big lenders does not put an end to the city of Memphis lawsuit against Wells Fargo. tn incl. "It is not identical to the issues in our lawsuit," he said. "Ours had more to do with the making of the loans and discrimination targeting minorities for bad loans, which resulted in foreclosures." The federal lawsuit, he said, survived a motion to dismiss and is in the discovery phase.

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Friday, February 3, 2012

Weekend Report: Egypt, International Paper, FedEx, and Susan Komen

Posted By on Fri, Feb 3, 2012 at 2:41 PM

Best line of the week: "Burger King," by developer Henry Turley to the ambulance crew member who asked which hospital he wanted to be taken to after he passed out while chairing a board meeting for Sun Trust Bank this week. He blamed his fall on cold medications and a lack of breakfast and declined an overnight stay in the hospital. He is doing fine.

The CEOs of two of our biggest companies were in the news Thursday. On CNBC, FedEx CEO Fred Smith said the U.S. economy is growing but not at a rate high enough to absorb the increase in population. He recommended that the government enhance capital investment, keep exploring fuel sources not dependent on Middle Eastern nations, and change the tax code provisions that penalize profits made abroad. Smith said 43 percent of FedEx world management team is minorities and women. And he said the Post Office "is run by a very competent man who was in Memphis last week to talk to our managers." That would be Patrick Donahoe.

An hour later, International Paper CEO John Faraci was on a web conference for IP's fourth-quarter and annual financial report. He said IP had its "best financial results in almost two decades." The company, which has some 2,400 employees in the Memphis area, transformed itself in 2010, selling its land portfolio, cutting costs, and preparing the way for $1.5 billion in capital investments in 2012. I interviewed Faraci later that day for an upcoming story in our MBQ magazine. Things I didn't know until this week: IP's North American mills get 73 percent of their energy from renewable sources and IP is the recycler of 12 percent of all paper that is recycled.

Egypt has raised the standard for violence at sporting events with a riot that killed 74 people. My friend Mohamad Elmeliegy, who came to Memphis from Cairo, told me he was saddened but not surprised by the bad news. In a column in September he said Egypt is new to democracy and "has been governed by the military since the pharaohs."

Don't put your sponsors in the position of having to talk about abortion. That's the lesson of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure turnabout this week, according to a colleague in our marketing department who is familiar with the Memphis Race for the Cure in Germantown every year. Komen had said earlier this week it would cease to fund grants for breast cancer screening to Planned Parenthood under new rules to tighten eligibility. "We want to apologize to the American public for recent decisions that cast doubt upon our commitment to our mission of saving women's lives," Komen said in a statement on Friday signed by its board of directors and its founder Nancy Brinker.

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