Friday, June 29, 2012

Beale Street Landing Has a Problem (Again)

Posted By on Fri, Jun 29, 2012 at 12:44 PM

Beale Street Landing

American Queen

Sometimes a picture (two of them in this case) is worth 1,000 words. The pictures above were both taken Thursday afternoon. One of them shows Beale Street Landing absent the American Queen (that's a barge approaching it from the harbor). The other shows the American Queen, which was christened at Beale Street Landing in April but forced to dock this week at the north end of Mud Island because of low water.

This $40 million project simply cannot catch a break.

The Riverfront Development Corporation, which one year ago said in a statement about the timetable for completion of Beale Street Landing that "almost a decade of careful study and planning will soon pay off," said in another statement this week that "additional work must be completed to accept the American Queen at the lowest possible river stage."

At -5 feet on the Memphis gauge, the river is low but not as low (-10.7 feet) as it was in July, 1988, well within the memory of the staff and board members of the RDC. The flood of 2011 was a once-in-a-lifetime event, but this summer's drought is a several-times-in-a-lifetime event. In other words, it was foreseeable by the designers of Beale Street Landing. We can only wonder what the RDC means and what the cost will be of the "additional work" that is necessary.

This underscores two things, one of them good and one of them not so good.

The good is Greenbelt Park, the most popular, cost-efficient, user-friendly, and versatile park on the river. In June it was the site of the Outdoors Inc. Canoe and Kayak Race and the LUVMUD 5k obstacle course race. The American Queen was able to dock at the fishermen's boat ramp at the north end of the park and transport its passengers downtown by bus. The park is regularly used by walkers, bikers, and joggers who appreciate the shade, scenery, ease of access, and well-manicured sidewalk.

The not so good is the planned $6 million rehabilitation and development of Cobblestones Landing, which was put on hold because of Beale Street Landing. The river level fluctuation is an obvious engineering and design challenge at the cobblestones, which were underwater during the big flood of 2011 and are subject to erosion in low water.

The RDC and the City of Memphis secured approximately $6 million in local and other funds to preserve, restore and enhance the cobblestone landing. The process began in early 2008 but has stalled several times.

Still to be determined is the design and color scheme of the elevator enclosure that looks like a top hat on the grassy knoll at Beale Street Landing. An earlier rendering, now under reconsideration, is shown below.

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Thursday, June 28, 2012

Schools: Is It 1973 Again?

Posted By on Thu, Jun 28, 2012 at 12:34 PM

Samuel H. Mays Jr.
  • Samuel H. Mays Jr.

The short answer is "no" but there sure are some interesting parallels.

In 1973 and 1974, some 30,000 students left the Memphis public school system in white flight in reaction to court-ordered busing for integration. In 2013, some 30,000 students could leave the "unified" Shelby County schools to attend new municipal school systems, if the voters approve and the courts allow the establishment of such systems.

White flight cut the enrollment of MCS from 148,000 students to about 120,000 students. Five or six municipal school systems would cut the enrollment of the unified system from about 148,000 students to about 120,000 students.

A federal judge in Memphis is once again at the center of the story that is getting national as well as local attention. In 1973 it was Robert McRae — a Central High School graduate and Lyndon Johnson appointee who wore a red judicial robe and was capable of flashes of temper and impatience from the bench. In retirement, he joked that he was Central's most famous graduate since Machine Gun Kelly. Now the judge of the hour is Samuel H. Mays, a White Station High School graduate and George H. W. Bush appointee whose low-key courtroom mannerisms are often as folksy and wry as they are wise.

Mays wrote last year's order and consent decree on the schools merger and now faces a Shelby County Commission challenge to the scheduled August 2nd referendum on municipal schools. His ruling on "ripeness" last year invited such a challenge at a later date, and that time has come.

Mays, I believe, is the perfect person for the job. He graduated from White Station in 1966, smack in the middle of the one-grade-a-year desegregation plan that was scrapped in favor of busing. He is a graduate of Yale Law School in 1973, and had to have been aware of what was happening in his hometown and his high school alma mater. Most important, he has experience in the rough-and-tumble world of state politics as chief of staff for former Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist.

Robert McRae
  • Steve Davis
  • Robert McRae
McRae kept a box of hate mail that he drew upon when completing his nine-part oral history for the Mississippi Valley Collection at the University of Memphis. I don't know this for a fact, but I doubt that Mays gets much if any hate mail; he is rarely criticized in the thousands of online comments on schools stories I have seen.

I spent several hours interviewing McRae in his retirement. He was not a man to shirk a task, but he was a somewhat reluctant history maker and fully aware of the consequences of busing.

"I tried to stop with Plan A but the appeals court wouldn't allow that," he said in 1995. "I was disappointed in the reaction to Plan Z. But I had to keep a stiff upper lip because this [reaction] was an act of defiance. Still I was disappointed that we hadn't come up with something that worked.

"No, I wouldn't do it any other way. I am convinced there was nobody who could have settled this the way the parties were opposed. Somewhere along the line I became convinced that it was morally right to desegregate the schools."

Plan Z, of course, was the "terminal" school desegregation plan, so named because McRae (who ate his own cooking by sending his children to Memphis public schools) didn't want a succession of plans "A" through "Y." But it was forever associated with one of its authors, MCS employee O.Z Stephens, who told me years later that "my identification with Plan Z killed me professionally in the school system." His son David works for Shelby County Schools and has attended all of the meetings of the transition team and school board.

The senior Stephens thought busing was a disaster and has predicted that MCS charter surrender could also have dire consequences, but he is anything but a suburban firebrand or hater. He gave his working life to MCS and greatly respected both McRae and Willie Herenton, the superintendent during much of his tenure. McRae, he said, was "as easy on the school system and the city as he could possibly have been" and a less courageous judge could have passed the whole mess on to the appeals court.

For these and other reasons I am still somewhat hopeful about the schools merger. Pure conjecture on my part, but I suspect Mays is exercising as much judicial restraint as possible and well knows the limitations of a court-ordered "solution" to school desegregation and school system unification. He will let the political process play out as long as he can.

My attention span is not long, and I would rather walk on hot coals than sit through a five-hour meeting. But there is something positive and substantial in the Transition Planning Commission and, especially, the unified 23-member school board, even though it is not long for this world. Old white folks from the 'burbs sit next to young black folks from Memphis, old black folks from the city sit next to young white folks from the suburbs; they look and listen, and speak their minds publicly. It's hard to hate someone you're sitting next to that long. John Aitken sits next to Kriner Cash and they occasionally share a private joke. Martavius Jones and David Pickler have probably spent more time together over the last two years than some spouses.

For this to transcend symbolism, both sides will have to compromise. The procedural shenanigans must end. We're on the clock. MCS gave up its charter. Actions have consequences. I'm an Aitken fan, but that may be too much to ask, as even he knows, and he says he would willingly serve as an assistant superintendent. If Cash gets the job and really wants it, then I'm a Cash fan because I live in Memphis and want the city to prosper and personal differences don't mean crap and I don't believe in miracle-worker superintendents or 11th-hour national searches and Cash has the benefit of experience and knows the lay of the land.

Segregation is not the right word for what the muni's are seeking. Legal segregation was the law in Robert McRae's youth. Integration was the driving national force in Hardy Mays' youth. Resegregation or de-facto segregation (and voluntary integration) is the driving force in Memphis (and many other big cities) in our time. But the suburban schools are not segregated in either a numerical way or a legal way, as the county commission's filing this week states. There are certainly all-black schools. Southwind High School, which is almost all black, is the one I keep coming back to in my columns because it was such a calculated move when it was approved by the city and county school boards as a joint project. Federal Judge Bernice Donald almost forced the issue five years ago but she was overruled on appeal.

The next thunderbolt from federal court will have to account for the underlying factors that gave us a Southwind High School as well as, potentially, municipal schools. I think it has to come sooner rather than later. Ripe.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

County Commissioners Say "Muni's" Issue is Now Ripe for Court Intervention

Posted By on Wed, Jun 27, 2012 at 11:50 AM

Walter Bailey
  • Walter Bailey
Shelby County Commissioner Walter Bailey says he and some of his fellow commissioners believe the issue of municipal school districts is ripe for judicial review and that is why they filed a petition in federal court this week.

Attorney Leo Bearman Jr. and others representing the commission filed documentsMotionforLeavetoFile.pdf ThirdPartyComplaint.pdf on Monday and they were widely publicized Tuesday.

"We have been in constant contact with counsel in reviewing and exploring avenues open to challenge the legislation enabling the municipalities to go ahead with a referendum," said Bailey. "Our case is grounded primarily on equal protection but also addresses the special legislation issue. Our contention is it is in conflict with the Tennessee Constitution and the state statute that prohibits special legislation.

"It seems to me that the approach the legislature took was a circumvention of both."

Bailey said "we" and "our" means the law firm and some members of the commission. He said he, Sidney Chism, Mike Ritz, and Steve Mulroy were "the most aggressive." The filings were discussed in an executive session Monday. Bailey said Chism, the commission chairman, called the session and that all members present were invited but not all of them attended.

In his orders last year, U.S. District Judge Samuel H. Mays said the issue of municipal school districts was not "ripe" for court action because "nothing in the record suggests that such an attempt has been made or will be made in the future" to start municipal school systems. The municipalities are scheduled to vote on August 2nd. The filing asks for an injunction to delay that.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Unified School Board Leaves Superintendent Question Hanging

Posted By on Tue, Jun 26, 2012 at 11:51 PM

The unified 23-member Shelby County Board of Education met for five hours and 15 minutes Tuesday but accomplished little if anything.

The board accepted — which is not the same as approved — the sweeping and potentially monumental 200-page report of the Transition Planning Commission for the 2013 merger of the Memphis and Shelby County school systems, the biggest school system merger in American history.

Following that, for the second week in a row, the board engaged in tedious, fruitless discussions of procedural details that gave strong evidence that this body is incapable of implementing any of the controversial recommendations in the TPC plan, including, most of all, the selection of a superintendent by this fall.

Hour after hour, motion after motion, a handful of members led by Martavius Jones and Jeff Warren engaged in a baffling series of discussions. They were aimed not at selecting a superintendent, only at the nature of the selection process. Near the end of the meeting, members agreed to appoint a committee to work out details of the process. Meanwhile, superintendents John Aitken and Kriner Cash sat side-by-side watching the show, occasionally making what appeared to be friendly comments to each other. Cash also introduced several new principals for Memphis City Schools next year. Otherwise, they were spectators.

The do-nothing option appears to favor Aitken, who has a contract until 2015, over Cash, whose contract ends next year. But guesses are just that — guesses — where this board is concerned. If Aitken does get the job, it could just as likely be through board inaction as action.

At least half a dozen times during the session, members voted on procedural matters that served only to get them back to where they had been several minutes earlier. By the end of the evening, the board had essentially undone the work it had done in a similar marathon meeting last week that seemed to force the question. At one point, there was a long discussion, led by Jones, on whether the "ad hoc" committee to start the selection process (not MAKE the selection) should have 5 members or 23 members, which Jones favored. It only took five MCS members to surrender the MCS charter in 2010, but that point did not come up.

As it now stands, the board will do some sort of superintendent search ending some time later this year, but only if the committee can agree on the conditions of the search itself. Warren, author of one of the evening's motions to have such a search, lamented at one point that it could be January before a selection is made. Board member Betty Mallott, who had offered a resolution to begin the transfer of administration of the schools to Shelby County for the sake of expedience, withdrew her motion after the five-hour mark.

The show could run a while longer. The 23-member board will serve until August of 2013, when it will be replaced by a seven-member board elected this year but installed next year.

Bottom line: two superintendents, neither one out of the running, and still the possibility that neither one will get the job. As for the TPC plan, the recommendations for school closings and personnel cuts and privatization and overcoming a starting deficit of $57 million (assuming costs can be cut, which appears unlikely) appear to be lacking anything resembling consensus on a board that looks impossibly divided and at sea on matters both small and large.

UPDATED: Wednesday morning.
With a nod of gratitude to my former colleague Jimmie Covington, an elaboration on the move to the seven-member school board in 2013: The seven members who are elected Aug. 2 will take office after the election results are certified. A complicating factor is that four members of the old city and county boards are among the candidates, including David Pickler and Kenneth Whalum. If any of these old board members are elected to the new positions, vacancies will be created on the old boards on the 23-member board. The County Commission will fill those by appointment. Then on Sept. 1, 2013, the old board members will go away leaving the seven-member board. However, County Commission members have announced plans to create a 13-member board. They would do this by appointing six additional members, who would run for the posts either in November 2013 or in 2014.

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Friday, June 22, 2012

A Darn Good Week for Downtown

Posted By on Fri, Jun 22, 2012 at 3:17 PM

Wow. First the Harahan Bridge Project funding announcement Tuesday, then the Bass Pro Pyramid media event Thursday. Two projects that bookend a third project, Beale Street Landing and the steamboats, that is also changing the face of the riverfront. Over $300 million in public and private investment by my math. And a successful relaunch of the Outdoors Inc. Canoe and Kayak Race last Saturday.

At the Bass Pro deal, someone collared me to say "nanny nah-nah" in reference to some skepticism I expressed over the years, and someone else grabbed me to say how much she likes Bass Pro but the only problem is their clothes hardly ever wear out. A third person came over to reminisce about the Pyramid groundbreaking or "Big Dig" we both witnessed in 1989. It seems like it was only 20 years ago.

Sturdy footwear and garments, along with ammo and camo and Tracker boats and fishing rods and bait and stuffed animals and zip lines and big ole trees in a swamp and live demonstrations and restaurants serving fried catfish and hushpuppies. As the King and the Duke say of their tomfoolery in "Huckleberry Finn," if that don't fetch 'em then I don't know Arkansaw. Or Tennessee either.

Except that Bass Pro is putting another store in Little Rock at about the same time. The apologists who say no big deal are kidding themselves. I'll drop at least a couple hundred bucks a year at Bass Pro Pyramid and take every visitor there for the rest of my Memphis life. But that 4 million visitors estimate sounds high with so many outlets within 220 miles. I like the band of glass on the exterior of the building but was surprised to see such a major change in the renderings at such a late date in this deal that has been in the talking stages if not the doing stages for seven years. And the fate of the observation deck is still unknown. Sounds like someone hasn't decided where to spend those funds yet.

The $30 million Harahan Bridge Project, also known as "Main Street to Main Street" is a classic example of politics and creative draftsmanship. Get some repairs done on the mall in Memphis and on Broadway in West Memphis and a very cool but expensive bike and pedestrian bridge paid for in part with federal transportation and stimulus funds. As Bill Dries of the Daily News pointed out, Whitehaven and Graceland got screwed, if you will, on the TIGER funds allotment. Hats off to Charlie McVean, the driving force behind the bike deal. Others have talked and written about it for at least 40 years, but McVean, nothing if not determined, got it done. I agree that every able-bodied soul in this area with a bike will want to do it at least once.

And "once" may be the operative word. It's no greenline, people. While you're waiting for the completion of the Harahan Project, which is a couple years away, here are two things to try: bike to Mud Island park on the walkway above the monorail, envisioned as a dramatic sky train 30 years ago. And, for the adventurous, drive to Crump Park next to the National Ornamental Metals Museum, park your car, jump on your bike or put on your Bass Pro sturdy boots, and climb the embankment to the narrow walkway on the south side of the Interstate 55 bridge just south of the Harahan. There is absolutely nothing stopping you. Step out on it and head for "the other side of the river" which can be as much as a mile or more away depending on the river level. You can hear the roar and feel the wind as trucks speed past so close you could reach out and touch them.

It shakes. It shakes a lot. There is a 30-inch concrete wall on one side and a 40-inch railing on the other side. Scary. And hot on a day like today. Nice view, and about the same one you can get from Martyr's Park or the metals museum. I know there will be all sorts of safety features on the Harahan bike and pedestrian walkway, but that's the point. This stuff is expensive. It takes maintenance. I can't remember a day in the last few years when I did not see workmen working on the pilings under the interstate ramps near Riverside Drive and the Pyramid. I wonder how many people have thought this through.

Once it is completed, I hope the Harahan path connects to the levee in Arkansas and a true bike trail on the Tennessee side to make a national destination worthy of attention from Adventure Cycling Association, this Missoula, Montana outfit.

The key to both deals (and Beale Street Landing), says downtown visionary Henry Turley, is leveraging them into lasting broad benefits to downtown and Memphis in general. The Downtown Memphis Commission and the Riverfront Development Corporation have their charge. Whatever mistakes they may have made in the past don't matter now. That was yesterday, we move on. We bought it, we got it. Now get the cobblestones done, figure out Front Street and Memphis in May and Mud Island Park and the Pinch. Then we'll really have something to celebrate. We better do this, because a bike bridge, a boat dock, steamboat cruises for $3000, and tax money for a retailer sure doesn't sound like government belt-tightening or a city and a country supposedly in the throes of a great recession.

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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Johnny Morris on Pyramid and Bass Pro

Posted By on Thu, Jun 21, 2012 at 2:02 PM

Johnny Morris looks and talks like a regular guy you might see shopping at Bass Pro Shops. And the pyramid will look very different both inside and out when Bass Pro opens in it in October of 2013.

Morris, the founder of the hunting and fishing retailer, met with local politicians and members of the media inside the pyramid Thursday. He praised Mayor A C Wharton, the City Council and County Commission, and Robert Lipscomb for their help in a project that began some seven years ago as a wild idea to fill a big empty building.

As pro fisherman Bill Dance told it, Morris asked him, "Should we put a Bass Pro in the Pyramid?"

"Are y'all crazy?" Dance replied.

After thinking about it for a few days, Dance still could not quite commit.

"I was as nervous as a cricket swimmin' across a bluegill bed," Dance said.

The deal was sealed, the course was set, and a legend was born on a fishing trip when they agreed that if one of them caught a catfish weighing at least 30 pounds, Bass Pro in Memphis was a go.


Johnny Morris
Accompanied by bursts of fire into a Bass Pro hot-air balloon — no wisecracks, readers — Dance and Wharton did most of the hype in the half-hour ceremony inside the pyramid, which will feature a swamp, a 210-room hotel, restaurants, bowling, and of course a retail store in a couple of years.

"It's going to be one of the biggest tourist attractions Memphis has ever seen," said Dance.

The low-key Morris patiently answered questions, bowled one ball (knocking down four pins), then moved over to a table where he huddled with architects and partners over some blueprints. He has apparently been visiting Memphis unannounced several times a month for the last year. He envisions not only a hotel but also an R.V. campground, launch ramps, and connecting features to the harbor and river.

"It's a big sheet of paper to work with," Morris said.

As for an observation deck, "That hasn't been worked out yet."

The store and restaurants are scheduled to open in October of 2013, with the hotel to follow some months later. Asked what he would like to see on the other side of Front Street in the Pinch District, Morris said more retail "could be good" and he would not see it as competition.

One of the biggest changes unveiled Thursday was a new look for the exterior of the pyramid that adds a band of glass midway up the four sides under the Bass Pro signs.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Harahan Bridge Bike Route Gets $15 million Grant

Posted By on Tue, Jun 19, 2012 at 1:30 PM

  • Downtown Memphis Commission
Biggest story since the Resurrection? Not quite, but you might have thought so by the reaction to the news out of Washington today about the Harahan Bridge Project.

Congressman Steve Cohen announced that Memphis has received a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) IV Discretionary Grant worth $14,939,000 for the Main Street to Main Street Multi-Modal Connector Project — "the region’s most ambitious and impressive bicycle/pedestrian project to date."

Also one of the longest project titles ever. The two Main Streets are in downtown Memphis and West Memphis, Arkansas.

“I’m elated" said Cohen. “These new federal funds will help improve livability in downtown Memphis, will increase tourism, will drive economic development and create jobs, make our city more attractive to young people, and enable people to bike over the historic, scenic Mississippi River.”

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton said the bike project is “an absolutely critical asset in the continuing revitalization of the core of our city connecting the south part of downtown to the north and Shelby farms to West Memphis.”

Paul Morris, head of the Downtown Memphis Commission, said “This is huge for Memphis.”

Memphis philanthropist and businessman Charles McVean, who was one of the first proponents of the project, said this grant is “iconic” and “a game-changer” and “one of the biggest things that has ever happened to Memphis.” McVean has invested in a hybrid bike called the Aerobic Cruiser that is designed for long rides and people seeking an assist to pedal power.

The project also will make repairs and improvements to the Main Street Trolley and the Central Station rail (Amtrak) and bus terminal. Eventually it will connect to Shelby Farms by bike.

"I am beyond excited," said Greg Maxted, executive director of the Harahan Bridge Project. "It's gonna be fun."

No one was more excited, however, than Abbott Widdecombe, owner of Tom Sawyer's R.V. Park on the Mississippi River in West Memphis, and the only person I know who has residences in both Memphis and West Memphis.

"This could change the entire dynamic of the river and eastern Arkansas. It will be a must-see, must-do at least one time attraction for everyone who lives in this area," he predicted.

Widdecombe's R.V. park was flooded last year so this is welcome news. He was planning on putting in a restaurant anyway, and, depending on whether the bike trail can be extended to the levee system, he could benefit directly from the Harahan Project.

His grandfather, George T. Kendal, was a timber cruiser for a paper company and he used to travel across the river on the planks of the Harahan on horseback. He bought two sections of land in Crittenden County and filed for the first subdivision in West Memphis.

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Sunday, June 17, 2012

At The CA, the News Could Have Been a Lot Worse

Posted By on Sun, Jun 17, 2012 at 6:51 PM

Employees of the Commercial Appeal were told last week that parent company E.W. Scripps has no plans to cut back on seven-days-a-week circulation or lay off more people in the newsroom even though publisher Joe Pepe and Karl Wurzbach were let go.

In an off-the-record meeting Friday, employees learned that the newspaper that was once the cash cow of the Scripps chain is now the peer of the Knoxville New-Sentinel, which has a smaller staff and serves a market with a smaller population.

But employees were relieved to learn that there are no plans, for now at least, for The Commercial Appeal to follow the lead of the New Orleans Time Picayune, Ann Arbor News, Mobile Press-Register and other papers that have stopped printing a daily paper although they still publish three days a week.

Editor Chris Peck sent the staff an email Thursday that announced that there would be a series of meetings the following day with employees and Tim Stautberg, senior vice-president of newspapers for Scripps in the home office in Cincinnati. The words "contingency plans" made some employees fearful that bad news was imminent. Earlier last week, hundreds of employees were fired at papers in Alabama and New Orleans.

But when the for-the-record announcement Friday morning only mentioned that Pepe and Wurzbach had "left the company", employees were relieved.

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Saturday, June 16, 2012

Way to Go, Joe

Posted By on Sat, Jun 16, 2012 at 2:11 PM

Joe Royer decided to move the annual Outdoors Inc. Canoe and Kayak race on the Mississippi River from May to June this year, and Saturday's weather cooperated to make it a big success.

Hundreds of paddlers in kayaks, canoes, and war canoes took part in the race the length of Mud Island. The last two years' events were cancelled due to bad weather and flooding. The river is 45 feet lower this year than it was at race time last year.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

12 Hot Buttons in the Schools Merger Report

Posted By on Thu, Jun 14, 2012 at 2:29 PM

The Transition Planning Commission released a first draft of its transition plan for the merger of the Memphis and Shelby County schools in 2013. Members were discussing the 198-page report Thursday and scheduled a press conference for Friday morning. Copies of the plan were distributed to the media Thursday morning at the start of what is likely to be an all-day meeting.

Here are a dozen likely hot buttons when the report gets to the public and unfied county school board, which must implement the merger one way or another.

1. “The likelihood of of municipal districts.” This language first appears on page 190. Arguably, it should be in the first paragraph of the executive summary. As the report says, “Enrollment projections will be particularly challenging given school closures, the growth of ASD (Achievement School District) and charter schools, and the potential for municipal school districts.” That and every other projection for a unfied system that could have some 150,000 students if the muni's don't start their own systems, or something closer to 100,000 students if they do.

2. “In 2011, 10 percent of students met the ACT's college readiness benchmark, and 25% scored 21 or better.” The ultimate goal of the plan for a merged system is that every student graduates ready for success in college and career. Ambitious, to put it mildly.

3. “A district wide school transfer policy on a space available basis. The district will continue to support the Optional Programs that exist in the current MCS, as well as unique offerings such as the International Baccalaureate programs in the both school districts.” Holding high-achieving students has been an issue since busing in the 1970s. The optional program accounts for about six percent of MCS enrollment. The schools-within-schools model contrasts with the entrance-by-test-score model for the top public schools in Nashville and other cities.

4. “The TPC recommends that teacher compensation be redesigned to better attract and retain effective teachers.” In other words, no automatic raises for seniority or picking up an advanced degree in summer school.

5. “The analysis indicated an opportunity to close 21 schools for a savings of about $21 million a year.” The schools are mainly in “Western Memphis” but they are not identified. That will be up to the unified school board. For perspective, there are 89 schools with under 80 percent utilization, and 70 of them are in Memphis.The plan recommends doing the deed before school starts in 2013. Never has MCS/SCS closed so many schools at once.

6. “Overall Shelby County public school enrollment is projected to decline 3 percent from FY 2012 to FY2016, resulting in approximately 147,400.” This estimate could be wildly optimistic depending on what happens on August 2nd.

7. “Independent of the merger, the district is projected to face a deficit of $73 million in FY 2014 . . . The merger increased the deficit by $72 million, with the TPC recommending an additional $15 million in investments, leaving the merged system with a starting gap of $160 million.” To close it, the plan recommends $93 million in “net efficiencies” by cuts, closings, outsourcing, and combining functions and “vigorously pursue” additional sources of funds, notably the city of Memphis repayment of $55 million withheld in 2009 and currently in legal dispute.

8. “In recent years, MCS has had large surpluses: 296 teachers in 2010-11 and 621 teachers in 2011-12.” Under the MEA agreement, MCS teachers are currently surplussed in seniority order without consideration of effectiveness. The plan recommends that the district “no longer guarantee jobs to surplussed teachers” and fire them if they are rated “significantly below expectations.” Improving the teacher talent pool is on of the main goals of the plan.

9. “Migrate to the Shelby County Schools model of outsourced custodial services.” Estimated savings: $22-$25 million.

10. Security officers. Currently, MCS spends $13.5 million per year and SCS spends $1 million. The plan recommends continuing to use district-funded security officers and local law enforcement, but raises the prospect of somehow replacing or eliminating 211 crossing guards, which, of course, is one of the primary contact points for public school parents.

11. Both districts have a surplus in their school nutrition departments. In MCS, it has ranged from 6 to 9 percent over the last three years. In other words, the free lunch program, which includes 85 percent of MCS students and 38 percent of SCS students, is a profit center.

12. “The transition office will first need a superintendent named for the 2013-14 school year to manage and lead the merger effort.” At one point in the report, it is suggested that this take place by October 1, 2012, but in another part of the report the superintendent selection is recommended before the fall of 2013. Whatever — “The most important milestone in the implementation of the merger is the first activity listed, the naming of the 2013-14 superintendent.” As of mid-Thursday afternoon, the TPC members were having a vigorous debate about this. More to come in later Flyer reports and blogs.

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Sunday, June 10, 2012

Megabus: Nashville on the Cheap

Posted By on Sun, Jun 10, 2012 at 9:34 PM

I took the Megabus home from Nashville Sunday afternoon for $19.50. The non-stop trip took three hours and 20 minutes, from the Ramada Inn next to the Titans stadium in Nashville to the MATA bus terminal at the north end of downtown, a five-minute drive from my house.

Obviously, Delta Airlines this is not. Delta caters to a different crowd and charges $641 or $787 for a round trip ticket to Nashville at the end of June that you can book on Megabus for $10. That's right, $10 round trip if you book in advance. Book in advance with Delta and it's $641 and takes one hour, unless you go through Atlanta, in which case it takes as little as three and a half hours or as long as six hours.

Normally the Megabus picks up and drops off at Nashville's downtown bus station which is within walking distance of Lower Broadway, the Country Music Hall of Fame, and Nashville's stunning new convention center that will open in 2013. Because of the Country Music Association festival downtown this weekend, the drop point was the Ramada on the other side of the Cumberland River.

The good: the trip to Memphis was non-stop Sunday, apparently because the bus was 10 minutes later departing. Passengers who had taken it before said it normally stops in Dickson, 45 miles from Nashville, and the schedule says the trip takes four hours and 30 minutes. The bus was half full. The seats were clean and the ride was smooth. The operation was so informal it made me shake my head, possibly due to the unusual schedule to accomodate the music festival. The driver opened the luggage door, the passenger door, and everyone climbed in without even showing our tickets or receipts. Carry on anything and everything was the rule of the day.

The bad: Not much. The trip was shorter than advertised, which I suppose could have been a problem for people who could not arrange an earlier pick-up in Memphis. The toilet did not flush. Someone had been smoking in the bathroom. The wireless, as advertised, was spotty. I could not get connected anywhere enroute.

It's a nice little addition to the transit scene. Greyhound also has a $20 fare to Nashville, if you book in advance. The same-day fare is $57. And the terminal is out by the airport, which may or may not make it more convenient depending on where you are headed.

I would recommend Megabus to anyone going to Nashville, Knoxville, or Atlanta.

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Saturday, June 9, 2012

"Holy Crud:" U of M Academics, Athletics in National Spotlight

Posted By on Sat, Jun 9, 2012 at 7:50 AM

Dasmine Cathey
  • Dasmine Cathey
A University of Memphis football player with poor reading skills is in the national spotlight in stories in the Chronicle of Higher Education and The New York Times this week.

Dasmine Cathey, a fifth-year senior from Ridgeway High School, is the focus of the story by Brad Wolverton and the Times column by Joe Nocera.

Nocera writes: "As an incoming freshman, Cathey could barely read, and academics remain a chore. His papers — a handful of which are posted on the Chronicle’s Web site — seem more like the work of a seventh grader than a college student. Among the courses he has failed are Family Communication and Yoga. His major is called “interdisciplinary studies.” As the article ends, the athletic department’s academic advisers are desperately trying to get him to go to class so he can graduate."

Wolverton's story quotes the assistant athletic director for academic services, Joseph Luckey: "I was like, 'Holy crud, I can't believe how many kids are reading below a seventh-grade level,'" he says. For Mr. Luckey, the question is how many of those students to let in. "What we've all got to decide," he says, "is what's our breaking point?"

Outgoing University of Memphis Athletic Director R. C. Johnson is interviewed in the Flyer this week. On the subject of academics, he tells Flyer writer Frank Murtaugh: "When I got here, the NCAA didn't publish graduation rates. But our rate [for athletes] was in the low 30 percent. Now, we're in the 60 percent range. I feel good about where we are. The NCAA has raised the bar. We've gone from two to seven full-time academic employees. Bottom line: You've got to go to class. When you have to ask someone for a dollar, it's a lot easier when you're graduating your athletes."

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Thursday, June 7, 2012

The Next Superintendent

Posted By on Thu, Jun 7, 2012 at 12:50 PM

Prediction: Those who think a national search for a superintendent for the unified Shelby County school system will find a superstar, rock star, wow candidate, knock-your-socks-off candidate, or an oh-my-God candidate are going to be disappointed.

Let's look at the record. Charlotte-Mecklenburg, a system with 140,000 students, just did a national search. One of the three finalists was a gentleman you may have heard of, one Kriner Cash. The winner was Heath Morrison, a white guy from Reno, Nevada. All those who think Mr. Morrison could have gotten the job in "unified" Memphis and Shelby County raise your hands.

The former superintendent in Charlotte was described by a local newspaper reporter as being something of a "rock star" when he took the job, but when Peter Gorman came to Memphis last year, he sounded like anything but a rock star. In fact, he cautioned against setting such unrealistic expectations, and told the Transition Planning Commission that one task in particular — closing schools — is impossible to do well.

The current superintendent in Nashville Davidson County, a pretty happening and prosperous place compared to Memphis and Shelby County, is Jesse Register, the former superintendent in Chattanooga and Hamilton County.

The last three national searches by MCS netted Gerry House, Carol Johnson, and Cash.

Finally, Cash got the Memphis job a few years ago over one Nick Gledich, a white guy who, like Cash, was also from Florida. Gledich is now the superintendent in Colorado Springs. Someone is definitely watching over this guy.

I don't know any more about the next superintendent than anyone else, but I think John Aitken should get serious consideration so long as we're still giving a unified system the old college try. If the burbs bolt, all bets are off. Bottom line: I don't see how a superintendent search can even begin until after the August 2 votes are counted. But it's not a bad idea to go ahead with the scheduled school board meeting next Monday and bring in Cash and Aitken to clarify their intentions.

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Monday, June 4, 2012

Can Schools Fail their Way to Success?

Posted By on Mon, Jun 4, 2012 at 12:36 PM

ASD Supt. Chris Barbic and Gov. Bill Haslam
  • ASD Supt. Chris Barbic and Gov. Bill Haslam
Tennessee's Achievement School District is in the news today. In Nashville, there was a press conference Monday to announce that seven charter school organizations plan to open nine new schools in the ASD in Memphis and Nashville in 2013, the year of the big change.

Is the Achievement School District like the NBA Lottery? Can you fail your way to success?

In the NBA, if a team is mediocre it winds up with a low-to-middling draft pick, but if it is really bad, it is rewarded by making the lottery and has a chance (but not a certainty) for the number-one pick that can turn the team around in a year or two.

In schools, it seems that if a public school is mediocre it stays that way and remains part of the parent system (let's say Memphis City Schools). But if it is deemed a failure year after year by state standards, then it becomes part of the charterized Achievement School District and gets an infusion of special attention and new leadership.

And some of the individual teachers and principals at the failing school can also get new life in what purports to be a "worst to first (top 25 percent)" program.

I've read a bunch of articles and comments on this, but would welcome your thoughts. As I wrote on this blog last week, I have doubts about "miracle schools" being able to replicate their success on a system-wide scale. And the goal of "100 percent go to college" is a notable achievement, but it might be better if some of those graduates went to trade school, work, or the military.

If you have a connection to either a "failing" school or the ASD and don't mind identifying yourself, that could be helpful.

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Friday, June 1, 2012

Summer Special on Special School Districts

Posted By on Fri, Jun 1, 2012 at 11:05 AM

A dispute among the parties
  • A dispute among the parties
Must Improvise.

Good advice for anyone involved with or following the school systems merger story. Going into the home stretch, here’s what I think.

Kriner Cash. Usually there is a hard way and a less hard way. Am I the only one who thinks he is making this really hard? He had a contract that ended this summer. In 2011, after the charter surrender (which he opposed), Cash got an extension from a lame-duck school board that keeps him around until August of 2013 when MCS ceases to exist. But only if he chooses to stay. Which he seems disinclined to do considering that he applied for a superintendent job in North Carolina and, for all we know, some other places. His right-hand man, Irving Hamer, shot himself in the, uh, foot and had to leave. That falls mainly on Hamer but also partly on Cash. Cash does not pander to the media, which is his right, but his communications policies and his aloofness won him few friends, at a time when MCS needs all the friends it can get. Apathy is the enemy when your budget is bigger than the city's but only directly serves part of the population. His report card in a Yacoubian Research survey of MCS folks was not good. He played hardball with the Memphis City Council and Mayor Wharton during budget hearings, threatening to delay the start of the school year and getting national attention for it. In a grit and grind town, he has the trappings of celebrity. He is being credited with Gates Foundation money, but that is a bit disingenuous. I think Mr. and Mrs. Gates and some of their Memphis friends had more to do with that. Finally, why do superintendent contracts have to be as full of buyout clauses and loopholes as star coaches' contracts? Why is it so yesterday to fulfill a contract without complaint, no more no less? There is nothing stopping Cash from sending out a press release or calling a meeting to state his intentions about Memphis. If his views have changed or are evolving, so what? Who would not understand? Just tell us what you want. Or the Unified School Board calls a meeting June 11th and it comes out then.

Martavius Jones. Always thoughtful, always available, always on the job. Those of us who blew our horns for MCS charter surrender and unity with the Shelby County system have an obligation to play out the hand, bad as it looks. We knew it was risky. There’s no going back in the face of suburban sentiment to have their own school systems. Make the positive case for a unified, inclusive system and make compromises if necessary to see that it has a chance. If you invite white suburbanites to your party, don't be surprised when they act like white suburbanites.

Rev. LaSimba Gray and the black preachers. Several years ago, before this current fuss began, I was at a Shelby County school board meeting when the board was all white. Mr. Gray was there to discuss the black population in southeast Shelby County and its lack of representation on the school board. He left the meeting in a huff, muttering about “an all-white board.” Man’s got a point, I thought. But if you are doing a television interview about John Aitken, give him the courtesy of pronouncing his name right. (No s in it.)

Willie Herenton. Watching and waiting and biding his time. He will be heard from again. Twenty years ago, he saw the coming dissolution of Memphis schools as we know them, and he also saw and stated publicly the importance of keeping white people in the city.

John Aitken. The opposite of Cash in some respects as far as openness. Attends all the meetings, gets there on time, no bodyguards or driver, speaks to anyone and everyone. Sometimes it makes sense to hire the white person, and sometimes it makes sense to hire the black person. If the goal is a system with some sort of unity, Aitken would be a good hire, assuming he wants the job and can assure board members that he is his own man, not David Pickler's go-to guy. I don’t think this job needs – or would attract – a super-superintendent if a search were to be undertaken. Too much money and pull from education think tanks and consulting. MCS has had three outsiders – Kriner Cash, Carol Johnson, and Gerry House – as superintendents in the last 15 years. Good time to give an insider a shot. I like the idea of taking up Aitken's contract along with Cash's contract. The old county school board gave Aitken a two-year extension in 2011; otherwise his contract would have expired in 2013. Like the city school board, the county board was jockeying for position. If Aitken doesn't get the job, he gets paid through 2015. Question: would he want the job if the suburbs and their schools, including Houston High School where he was once principal, broke away? No harm in asking.

U.S. District Judge Samuel H. Mays. In his ruling on September 28, 2011, eight months he wrote, "The Court will appoint a special master to assist in implementing the Consent Decree and to resolve disputes among the parties." I don't really know what a special master does or if one would do any good, but why bring it up if you're not going to do it?

Charter schools. The basic impulse of proponents of charter schools and suburban school systems is similar. Both want independence from the mother ship, and both want to poach some of the students, funding, and teaching talent working for same. If charter surrender had not broken up MCS, charter schools would have done it eventually.

Teacher options and mobility. There is soon to be a bull market for good teachers, especially in math and science, and for principals. For years some of them have gone from MCS to private schools and DeSoto County to pick up a second pension and leave some of their ulcers behind. Now they can go to charter schools, especially if they are young Teach For America alums. In 2013, imagine the opportunities if Bartlett, Germantown, Collierville, Lakeland, Arlington, and Millington and the Achievement School District are all gearing up new systems and looking for a few good men and women to build around. No matter how many ‘burbs vote for muni’s, it’s hard for me to see anything but competition for students, funding, and teachers/principals where the rich get richer and the losers get left behind. Sharing? I don't think so. At some point this gets to be every system for itself.

Fred Smith on liberal arts degrees. The chief executive of our biggest employer is in Fortune magazine this week talking about lots of things, including college education and, by extension, high school and community colleges. "I personally think that the federal government — and you're talking to a liberal arts major here — should restrict its funding of higher-education grants and loans to science, math, and engineering because that's where most of the value added comes," he says. Chaucer and "The Canterbury Tales" or mechanical engineering? The choice is yours, college students. I'm pretty sure Smith has no plans to become a superintendent or a college president, but when a liberal arts graduate (Yale) disses liberal arts and praises a community college in West Memphis, it might be a good idea to pay attention.

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