Friday, November 30, 2012

Odd Couples on Unified School Board Get Along

Posted By on Fri, Nov 30, 2012 at 2:31 PM

Ernest Chism (left) and Kenneth Whalum Jr.
A couple of years ago it might have seemed like the Dinner Party from Hell. Gather the members of the Memphis and Shelby County school boards, throw in some fresh faces, bust up the alliances, and put them in a room together for hours at a time for a year or so.

At the center of table sit superintendents Kriner Cash and John Aitken, total strangers four years ago. Nearby, county schools champion David Pickler sits next to MCS charter surrender leader Martavius Jones. As much as anyone, these two set the tone for frank but civil discussions in a series of debates and joint public appearances in 2010-2011.

The unified school system may or may not work, but the unified school board — by design and circumstance — has the most interesting seating chart in town. It may not lead to a world-class unified school system, but it has probably done as much consciousness raising as any public undertaking in recent history.

Other seatmates include Memphis firebrand Dr. Kenneth Whalum Jr. and Germantown schools lion Ernest Chism; Dr. Snowden Carruthers of the old county board and Tomeka Hart, coauthor of the MCS charter surrender; and David Reaves, another suburbanite and one of the board's youngest members, and, a few seats away, Sara Lewis of Smokey City in North Memphis, one of the board's senior members. At various times during Thursday night's board meeting, they could be seen talking amiably and smiling and laughing together.

Not to attach too much significance to this or understate differences, but things could be worse. School board is the lowest-paying part-time public job, and probably the most demanding. Five-hour meetings are the norm. Members must have stamina as well as convictions. When the topic is closing schools, as it was Thursday, this is not a job for the faint of heart.

It is also old-school: the polar opposite of the Internet chat room or newspaper comment section. Anonymous online commenters of unknown expertise can post insults and opinions without ever having to face each other or the people they slam. Board members speak, opine, disagree, and vote in public, side by side, for all to see and hear, on issues that change people's lives.

Humes Middle School
Humes Middle School and Gordon Elementary School, two schools near north downtown that are on the chopping block or "repositioning" menu, are tough calls because they have customers, neighborhood ties, and attractive buildings that are not at all blighted.

Near the end of Thursday night's meeting on school closings in north and south Memphis, a somewhat exasperated Chism, former principal at Germantown High School, protested that he was elected to represent the people of Shelby County.

The spectators gave him a small ovation. Chism voted against the closings, as did Whalum on most of the votes.

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Little Tea Shop and Suhair Can Make Your Holiday Sides

Posted By on Fri, Nov 30, 2012 at 1:04 PM

Suhair Lauck
This was a hard year for Suhair Lauck and the hard-working staff of the Little Tea Shop, the downtown lunch place that is as famous for its hospitality as it is for its corn sticks, vegetables, and chicken dishes.

Suhair's husband Jimmy Lauck, owner of the Little Tea Shop since 1982, died in July, and the restaurant was closed for several weeks after that. A holiday business boost would help make up for lost earnings, and there's an easy and tasty way to help.

With 48 hours notice, Suhair will cook your side dishes to go with the turkey, ham, or wild game main dish you might be serving. She suggests you bring your own serving plates and she'll arrange the veggies to fit them. If you're lucky and extra nice, there might even be some corn sticks in the bargain, but don't try to pass them off as your own creation — as if anyone would believe you.

Downtown, Memphis, the Memphis Tigers basketball team, and the Memphis Grizzlies have no better ambassador than Suhair Lauck. Good time to show the love.

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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Blockbuster Plan for Downtown Would Declare it "Blighted Menace"

Posted By on Thu, Nov 29, 2012 at 3:25 PM

Downtown leaders and property owners are being asked to weigh in on a blockbuster 20-year redevelopment plan that would capture $100 million in taxes and spend it on a public housing project and "Heritage Trail" by declaring all of downtown a slum.

The Flyer obtained a copy of a previously unpublicized memo from the Downtown Memphis Commission that was sent to board members and, by them, to other downtowners this month. It discusses a proposed Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) under the control of the Memphis Housing Authority and the Division of Housing and Community Development, currently headed by Robert Lipscomb. The City administration wants the input of stakeholders before the City moves forward with this plan. The focus is redeveloping Cleaborn and Foote Homes, housing projects in the southeastern part of downtown.

From the memo:

"The CRA is established “to combat slum and blighted areas that constitute a serious and growing menace, injurious to the public health, safety, morals, and welfare of the residents of Shelby County.” To provide CRA with jurisdiction to adopt and implement the Master Plan, the CRA is considering declaring Downtown Memphis to be a slum, blighted, and a growing menace."

The proposed master plan, a 196-page document dated September 13, 2012, includes the entire downtown core, the Beale Street Entertainment District, the South Main District, the South End, Victorian Village, the Edge Neighborhood, and part of the Memphis Medical Center. It targets some 200 downtown parcels for CRA acquisition by purchase or, if necessary, eminent domain. A master developer would be hired by the CRA.

From the memo:

"To begin funding implementation of the Master Plan, the CRA would establish a Downtown tax-increment-financing (TIF) District that would redirect future property tax revenue growth generated Downtown over the next twenty years from the city and county to the CRA. It is projected that over twenty years the TIF would redirect $102,751,238 of city and county property taxes to the CRA. The bulk of this revenue would be generated in the out years, with the first five years generating less than 1.5% of the projected revenue.

"It is projected that 98.7% of this future, incremental TIF revenue will be generated by private properties primarily in the Downtown core outside the Focus Area of the planned improvements. The Cleaborn and Foote Homes redevelopments are expected to generate 1.3% of the TIF revenue over twenty years. PILOT roll-offs are expected to generate 44.5% of the TIF revenue, and general property value inflation is projected to generate 47.5% of the TIF revenue."

The Master Plan includes 27 miles of streetscape improvements, 6 miles of new streets, and 17 acres of new parks. The TIF funds along with federal grant money would help support the public housing redevelopment in the southeastern section of Downtown, but the source of funding for improvements throughout the remainder of downtown is not identified, nor is a budget or schedule provided for such improvements.

An earlier plan in the Herenton mayoral era dubbed Triangle Noir focused on a much narrower area around Cleaborn and Foote Homes.

The memo asks several questions, including:

How will needed improvements in the rest of Downtown be paid for?

What happens to ongoing private development initiatives if the CRA officially adopt this new, largely unfunded Master Plan for Downtown?

What are the lost opportunity costs of borrowing against and spending twenty years of property tax growth in Downtown Memphis?

If the next twenty years of property tax growth in Downtown Memphis is pledged to pay for the public housing redevelopment project in the southeast corner of Downtown, then how do other important Downtown plans and projects get funded over the next twenty years?

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Why Suburbs Will Eventually Win on Schools

Posted By on Thu, Nov 29, 2012 at 1:57 PM

Where there's a will there's a way, and there are more ways than ever when it comes to school choice in public education.

First, there is plenty of will, as evidenced by the smashingly successful suburban referendums earlier this year. The strongest force in the universe is a parent determined to get his or her child into a good public school. The current Shelby County school system is essentially what the Memphis optional schools were a few decades ago: the public school option of choice for middle-class families and some affluent families.

The courtroom setback was a gimme for the Shelby County Commission and federal judge Samuel H. Mays. The 'burbs were sunk in the opening minutes of the trial in September when commission attorney Leo Bearman played the videotape of that legislative exchange about "Shelby County only." Attorneys for the defendants promptly objected, but the damage was done. The suburban champions were caught on tape and on Rep. G. A. Hardaway's clever hook. This was bad law, pure and simple. Mays let the defense team run on for a while about the rural county cover story, but the tape was devastating. Plain words mean what they say. His citation was the dictionary.

The pending segregation claim won't be so easy. Common sense and mathematics could doom it. There aren't enough white students in the public schools to integrate all of them. Ninety percent of Memphis public school students attend de-facto segregated schools. That won't change with unification. Most county schools have diverse student bodies. The exception is Southwind High School, with 12 white students in a student body of 1,653, and its feeder schools. That has the ingredients for an interesting segregation claim, but the federal appeals court has already overruled a Memphis federal court ruling that would have racially balanced the county schools.

The merger of Memphis and Shelby County schools is by all accounts unique in size and scale. It goes against the grain. The trend is smaller, fragmented school systems. I was surprised at just how small some big-city school systems are relative to Memphis. Nashville/Davidson County has 74,680 students. Atlanta has 59,000. Detroit has 51,674. New Orleans had 65,000 pre-Katrina and is a melting pot of charter schools and traditional schools today. St. Louis, taken over by the state five years ago and the subject of a glowing report in The Wall Street Journal this week, has just over 24,000 students.

Nashville, with the blessing of Mayor Karl Dean and Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, is pushing for charter school expansion to the middle class over the opposition of the local school board. The state-run Achievement School District for failing schools is slated to grow in Memphis. The Republican-dominated state legislature is sympathetic to charters as are private donors such as the Gates Foundation. Vouchers have support. Most important, alternative schools have support from teachers and parents who are the ultimate deciders.

Finally, the dysfunctional unified school board with its core of MCS charter surrender proponents is its own worst enemy. The board, which meets Thursday, is likely to close only a handful of schools instead of the 21 closings recommended by the Transition Planning Commission. (There are 45 Memphis schools and 10 Shelby County schools with under 65 percent utilization, according to the TPC.) This will throw the budget out of whack, condemn the half-empty schools to failure or mediocrity, reduced course offerings, and limited extracurricular activities.

My sympathies and my treasure are with Memphis, but my gut tells me suburbs will get their own autonomous school systems within a few years and that this week's federal court ruling was a temporary setback. It is as inevitable as conference realignment in college sports.

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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Bravo! Judge Mays Gets It Right on Municipal Schools

Posted By on Tue, Nov 27, 2012 at 10:06 PM

Judge Samuel H. Mays was not fooled by the preposterous. Instead, he let the obvious, in the form of a damning videotape that was played in his courtroom in September, speak for itself. And a state law that was clearly aimed at Shelby County to allow suburbs to form their own school systems was found unconstitutional.

"The legislative history of Public Chapter 905, taken as a whole and fairly considered, firmly establishes that Chapter 905 was designed to apply only to Shelby County," Mays wrote. "That design is not dispositive, but it supports the conclusion, derived from an examination of potentially comparable counties, that Chapter 905 applies to a particular county.

"One example among many occurred on April 27, 2012. When discussing House Bill 1105 (“HB 1105”), which became Chapter 905, two legislators explained why the bill that came from the Conference Committee differed from the bill in its original form:
Rep. Hardaway: [T]his is different from the original Bill in that it only, this is different from the original Bill in that it only pertains to Shelby County?
Rep. Montgomery: That is what it does. What they did here is by stating what I read there, if a municipality is located within a county in which a transition planning commission has been developed, and that is the only county in the State of Tennessee that has that, so it limits it to Shelby. You are right."

Mays wrote that "This and similar exchanges reinforce Chapter 905‟s limited application to Shelby County."

Before reaching the conclusion of his 65-page ruling, Mays established the "ripeness" of the issue.

"The contingencies of August 8, 2011, have become reality. Chapter 905 provides the procedural mechanism for creating municipal school districts . . . Withholding a determination until a later date would cause uncertainty about the validity of municipal school systems that would create a hardship to the Commissioners and to the Municipalities."

Mays spent several pages of his ruling dealing with the contention that the state law could possibly apply to other small counties in West Tennessee, notably Gibson County, which was the subject of two days of tedious courtroom hearings this summer. He concluded that plain words mean what they say.

He wrote: "In other words, courts must “interpret constitutional provisions in a principled way that attributes plain and ordinary meaning to their words and that takes into account the history, structure, and underlying values of the entire document.”

He relied on Black's Law Dictionary and the Oxford English Dictionary to make his points.

“Reasonable” is a common legal term that means “[f]air [or] proper . . . under the circumstances.” Black‟s Law Dictionary 1272 (Bryan A. Garner ed. 7th ed. 1999). “Rational” is defined as “[h]aving sound judgment; sensible.” XIII Oxford English Dictionary, at 291. “Pragmatic” means “practical; dealing with a practice; matter-of-fact.” XII Oxford English Dictionary, at 278. Together, these terms require courts to apply fair, sensible, and matter-of-fact readings to statutes."

"Theoretical, illusory, or merely possible considerations are distinguishable. See Farris, Theoretical is defined as “existing only in theory, ideal, or hypothetical.” XVII Oxford English Dictionary, at 901. “Illusory” means having “the quality of . . . tending to deceive by unreal prospects.” VII Oxford English Dictionary, at 662. “Possible” refers to that “which may come about or take place without prevention by serious obstacles.” XII Oxford English Dictionary, at 175. Together, these terms suggest that courts must refrain from statutory interpretations that are hypothetical, unreal, or face serious obstacles."

And finally, Mays wrote: "Applying reasonable, rational, and pragmatic rules, Chapter 905 does not and will not apply to Gibson County."

A former chief of aide to former Tennessee governor Don Sundquist, Mays was not fooled by the elaborate burlesque of the municipalities and their lawyers.

"There is in the history a sense of a wink and a nod, a candid discussion of the bill‟s purpose occasionally blurred by a third-party correction. The history is clear, however, that the bill never would have passed had it not been intended to apply only to Shelby County.

"Only Shelby County has undertaken the process set forth in Chapter 1. Chapter 905 establishes a series of conditions that have no reasonable application, present or potential, to any other county.

"Although general in form, Public Chapter 905 is local in effect. Because it does not include a provision for local approval, Chapter 905 is VOID under Article 11, Section 9 of the Tennessee Constitution. All actions taken under the authority of Chapter 905 are VOID. The Municipalities are enjoined from proceeding under Chapter 905 to establish municipal school districts."

Related story: A Judicial Joke

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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Closing Schools, Building Parking Garages, and Fixing Stadiums

Posted By on Wed, Nov 21, 2012 at 1:59 PM

For a city that is losing population, jobs, and taxpayers, Memphis is sure doing a lot of new government-funded building.

New high schools, a massive parking garage at the airport, a parking garage at Overton Square, a boat landing, and now $12 million more in renovations and handicapped seating at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, which needs more seats of any kind like it needs a tornado or a power failure. There are two games left on the schedule in 2012 — the University of Memphis season-ender against Southern Mississippi Saturday and the AutoZone Liberty Bowl in December. Take those two games, add the "crowds" at three or four more games, and you might, just might, fill the 61,000-seat stadium. Fudging attendance numbers is standard practice, but I was a bit shocked last year to see the full extent of the charade after the Division of Parks coughed up the numbers, which were barely half the "announced" figures.

The justification for spending another $12 million is the federal government's Justice Department and the enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Having researched the subject five years ago when it came up in the last years of the Herenton administration, I was under the impression that additional seats had been added or were then in the process of being added, and the problem was no more. Several users of the handicapped seats told me as much. Either my sample was flawed or things have changed, because 288 seats and companion seats are on order.

In e-mails, Mayor A C Wharton and Housing and Community Development director Robert Lipscomb told me they cut the best deal they could with Justice, which initially recommended $40 million in improvements. Wharton did not dispute the fact that the stadium usually has thousands of empty seats, including many in the special sections, but figured he had to deal or risk litigation that would stall (as if it has not been stalled already) redevelopment of the Fairgrounds. Lipscomb cautioned that the enforcers at Justice are not to be taken lightly lest they decide to look askance at other proposals from Memphis.

"I am comfortable with the number we have reached," said Wharton. "By settling we control the number. Litigation would have been a costly crap shoot."

Added Lipscomb, "This brings to closure an argument that has gone on since 2005, dramatically improves our relationship and perception of the city from the perspective of the DOJ and other federal agencies with grant dollars, saves legal fees that have been accumulating over seven years, and allows the city to move forward with the Fairgrounds Plan."

What is missing in this account are the voices of the football fans using and not using the handicapped seats at the stadium. Are the improvements so far insufficient? In what way? Are there too few seats? Have people been turned away because of a seating shortage or an access problem? If so can it be remedied with something other than 280 new seats? It defies common sense that there is a seat shortage of any kind in a stadium that, on most of its nine event dates a year, has tens of thousands of empty seats. The biggest crowd last year, remember, was the Mississippi State game, which drew only 33,990. The season-ender barely drew 3,000. There isn't enough fabric to mask the empty seats and sections at a game like that.

The local government refrain is that the federal government is unyielding on this subject, so move on. Strange to hear that coming from career government employees. Why not invite Justice to send a team of lawyers to the Southern Miss game or the Liberty Bowl and see for themselves? A little PR never hurt. Put a name and a face and a comment for attribution on the person or people at DOJ who insist the funds must be spent, and make them explain why. The federal government, last time I read a newspaper, was in something of a budget crisis itself and throwing its weight around on empty football stadiums in Memphis and bullying public servants hardly seems a priority.

UTILIZATION. Remember that word. It's the key to the closing-schools story, the baffling airport expansion in the midst of Delta's contraction, and the threats to close libraries and golf courses. A public facility that is not being used to anywhere near its capacity but remains open in light of maintenance and staffing and ADA obligations is an expensive proposition for this city and its shrinking number of individual and corporate taxpayers. If you don't say "no more" here, where DO you say it? If you don't take this crap shoot, when do you take it? And if you pour another $12 million into a stadium that is barely used nine times a year, how do you tell the school board to close 21 schools that are used 180 days a year?

Whoa there, schools and stadiums are different budgets, some will say, apples and oranges. Actually, from a taxpayer's point of view it is all the same and the distinctions are lost.

Related story: Taking Liberty

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Thursday, November 15, 2012

Book Review: "All In", by Paula Broadwell

Posted By on Thu, Nov 15, 2012 at 12:46 PM

What about the book "All In: The Education of General David Petraeus"? After reading scores of newspaper stories about the Petraeus affair with "All In" author Paula Broadwell, I felt like I ought to try to read it. Duty calling.

At the Cossitt Library downtown, "All In" has already been moved from the prime space of new releases to the well-deserved obscurity of the stacks. Ms. Broadwell should be thankful. Her book, which had been plugged on The Daily Show and other programs, and her career as an author are among the casualties.

It is hard not to cringe when reading the likes of this:

"She (Holly Petraeus, wife of David Petraeus) is a symbol of the strength and dedication of families around the globe who wait at home for their loved ones . . . she has hung tough while I have been deployed for over five and a half years."

Or this, from the scant seven pages about the general's boyhood and years at West Point: "The preternaturally gifted young David Petraeus delivered." He married Holly Knowlton, the daughter of West Point's superintendent. She was "a beautiful, smart, and witty young woman."

Or this, in the acknowledgments: "special thanks go to Holly Petraeus."

I doubt the feeling is mutual. Ms. Broadwell better hope Ms. Petraeus isn't armed if they ever meet again.

Or this, from the Notes section: "I embedded with various units in the field; in all these locations I was able to view (limited) unclassified reports, cables, calendars, transcripts, and various PowerPoint briefings." According to several news accounts this week, classified documents were found on Broadwell's computer.

In light of the latest news, the most relevant part of the book is the preface, which describes how Broadwell met Petraeus in 2006 when she was a graduate student at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. One West Point graduate to another, she e-mailed him and "he immediately responded to the e-mail, inviting me to bounce ideas off him. I took full advantage of his open-door policy to seek insight and share perspectives."

A Ph.D. dissertation turned into a book, after they shared a run along the Potomac River during one of his visits to Washington. The rest is now old news, if not history. Broadwell cowrote the book with Vernon Loeb. It is not clear who did what. Loeb, metro editor at The Washington Post, said in a story in the Post that he was unaware of Broadwell’s romantic relationship with Petraeus.

"All In" says Major General Jack Galvin was Petraeus's most important mentor and gave him this advice: "When the going gets hard, we need a leader to pull us together. Through your mythology, people create you. Set the example. It doesn't have to be flamboyant . . . Live up to it all with the highest standards of integrity. You become part of the legend."

The book leaves some of the rough stuff to other authors, notably Bob Woodward and his book "Obama's Wars" which includes an unattributed comment from Petraeus about the Obama administration, "They're fucking with the wrong guy."

"When the comment turned up in Woodward's book, Petraeus, known for his accessibility and skillful press relations, felt himself pulling back. As he counseled subordinates in subsequent talks on leadership, someone is always watching. As had long ago become clear to him, very little was private in his life anymore. The scrutiny was enormous, and Petraeus tightened the mask of command further."

And on Woodward's remark on Petraeus's "endless campaign of self-promotion," Broadwell adds that "Even detractors generally conceded that Petraeus's ability was off the charts."

The book does not purport to be a biography but rather an examination of the field education of the commander responsible for "the surge" of 33,000 troops in Afghanistan in 2010 and the strategy of counterinsurgency. "I decided to meld my research with an on-the-ground account of his command in Kabul — his last military command, as it turned out," before Petraeus became CIA director. He resigned that position last Friday.

The tragedy, of course, is that Petraeus has led a full, honorable, and heroic life of service to his country, including three tours of Iraq. And Broadwell was on her way to stardom in the military and/or authorship. Her book has blurbs of praise from Tom Brokaw, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Thomas Ricks, and "Black Hawk Down" author Mark Bowden.

Its credibility simply falls apart, however, in light of the latest news. Irrelevant details substitute for relevant details. Petraeus, as everyone now knows, runs a lot and e-mails a lot, often, Broadwell writes, "maintaining simultaneous e-mail conversations from his laptops in the backseat of his black GMC Yukon. He maintained his poker face, even on e-mail with trusted confidants."

She ought to know.

As a general, Petraeus was hardly a household name. A long magazine article on him or a piece on "60 Minutes" would have done the job. Plus, the effectiveness of his military strategy is far from clear as Broadwell noted: "As the war rages on, it remains difficult to make a conclusive judgment about the outcome."

Authorized biographies of living people might make money in some cases, but are not likely to be as critical of their subjects as, say, Michael Korda is in his contribution to the Eminent Lives series on a more famous general, "Ulysses S. Grant, The Unlikely Hero". Here he is on Mrs. Grant: "Indeed, 'plain' seems like a generous description." A biographer who said that to Grant's face or commented on his drinking or his generalship at Cold Harbor or Shiloh might have gotten punched out.

Paula Broadwell, David Petraeus, their spouses and families, and the American public would all have been better off if Broadwell had not gone all in and, instead, stuck to writing a Ph.D. dissertation.

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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Brunette is the New Blonde

Posted By on Wed, Nov 14, 2012 at 3:02 PM

The Tampa socialite Linda Kelley and her twin sister. The Kardashians.
Kalinda on "The Good Wife." Turkia Mullin, at the center of a controversy at the airport in Detroit, my second-favorite sports city.

Separated at birth? Coincidence, or a KGB plot to bring down America, one powerful person at a time? Your call.

Turkia Mullin
  • Turkia Mullin

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Little Rock's River Trail and Big Dam Bridge Worth a Trip

Posted By on Sun, Nov 11, 2012 at 8:29 PM

Nice river trail they have in Little Rock, and November is the month to see it. The 15-mile loop follows both sides of the Arkansas River through downtown Little Rock and North Little Rock from the Clinton Museum to the spectacular Big Dam Bridge, the world's longest pedestrian/bicycle bridge. If Memphis can create something like this with the Harahan Project, we will have a winner.

I had seen that Arkansas The Natural State television commercial and the Arkansas tourism ads in our publications lots of times but had never been in Little Rock in the fall when the colors are at their peak. The Big Dam Bridge, completed in 2006, sounded like a bike magnet. Little Rock is close (two hours in the truck convoy on Interstate 40) and cheap (about $200 for the weekend including bike rental, meals, gas, and a room at the Wyndham Riverfront in North Little Rock).

I started in North Little Rock at River Trail Bike Rentals, where owner David Fike rented me a hybrid for $16 for half a day. The shop is next to a park inside the floodwall near the landing for the Arkansas Queen and the U.S.S. Razorback World War II submarine. There's a big parking lot, historic murals on the floodwall, a public restroom (open and clean) and a water fountain (cold and working). The riverbank is crushed rock with a concrete pathway to the boats. I bet it didn't cost $42 million.

On the north side, the trail passes Verizon Arena, the minor-league baseball park, Big Rock Quarry, high bluffs, the Burns Park golf course, Centennial Park soccer fields, and a wetlands. On the south side (downtown Little Rock) it passes The Peabody, River Market, a sketchy section of downtown where the trail is incomplete, Rebsamen Golf Course, and a suburban office center that includes the headquarters of Dillard's and Verizon.

On Saturday, the north entrance to the Big Dam Bridge was closed for some minor repairs. Some walkers and a few bicyclists were scaling the fence, but I decided to ride back downtown, cross over on the Presidential Bridge, and repeat the trip on the south side. The damn bridge was open on that side, and the view to the west toward volcano-like Pinnacle Mountain was worth it. You get a sense of Little Rock and the Arkansas River as a Gateway to the West, like St. Louis. The Chickasaw Indians were force-marched and transported on barges from Tennessee to Oklahoma in the 1840s. The map says Pinnacle Mountain is eight miles away, but the river trail only goes part way, so I decided to drive to it on Sunday. The climb to the top and back is pegged at two hours on the sign in the parking lot. Sure . . . I can do this in an hour, maybe a little more. Two hours later I was back at my car, sore-kneed from scrambling up and down rocks and soaked in sweat.

Like the Cumberland in Nashville and the Tennessee in Chattanooga, the Arkansas is a manageable river that lends itself to recreation and riverside development. Little Rock and North Little Rock have clustered their hotels, corporate buildings, sports facilities, and tourist attractions. The Clinton Museum was a big boost, as was the Big Dam Bridge. But the cities do the little things right, too. The 15-mile River Trail loop is one of them.

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Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Memphis is a Patch of Blue in a Red Sea

Posted By on Wed, Nov 7, 2012 at 12:39 PM

Memphis is squeezed, or maybe screwed is a better word.

The sales tax referendum got slaughtered 69-31, the gas tax one-penny-a-gallon hike fell by a similar margin, and Memphis as a sort of 51st blue state was further marginalized in the Republican-dominated legislature. To use a popular term from Election Day, Republicans have a firewall in Nashville, and with super majorities in both chambers just think of the fun they can have with Memphis. In the state and national picture, Memphis may never matter again like it did before 2000 when it could deliver the state for Bill Clinton and Al Gore and other Democratic hopefuls. We're a patch of blue in a sea of red and, Steve Cohen excepted, the white Democrat is a vanishing breed.

I thought the sales tax would get at least 40-percent support because it would equalize sales taxes across Shelby County. And the gas tax works out to $5 or so a year, but I guess "MATA" and "new tax" are poison, whether apart or in combo. There's no blaming the suburbs for this one. Most of them could not vote on the sales tax referendum, and the measure was soundly defeated in Memphis precincts.

City Councilman Shea Flinn, a proponent of a Memphis sales tax bump before the Shelby County Commission preempted that gambit, says "it's going to be a fairly big hurdle to overcome but I would not rule out bringing it up again" as a Memphis referendum in a special election in 2013. He thinks it would raise $47 million, the uses would be easier to pinpoint, and the turnout would be lower.

"If you put raising taxes on the ballot you are already way behind when you start," he said. And unlikely to catch up, I would add after yesterday's wipe-out.

Here's what's off the table: consolidation, payroll tax, city employees required to live in city limits, "taxing" nonprofits, reining in PILOTs and tax incentives, and now increasing the sales tax and gas tax. That leaves the property tax, which is likely to go up anyway next year to equalize falling valuations, and when that happens the differential between Memphis and the suburbs will drive more people away. So cut services and employees, you say? Check out a City Council meeting when cuts are on the agenda or a school board meeting when cuts or school closings are on the agenda.

Related Story: On Vanishing White Southern Democrats

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Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Going to Eddie Vedder at Orpheum? Beware Scalpers

Posted By on Tue, Nov 6, 2012 at 1:51 PM

Consider the scalper, a guy standing outside FedEx Forum waving his arms, maybe holding a sign, and hollering "who needs (or has) extra tickets?"

A hustling street-level entrepreneur exploiting market inefficiencies, serving willing customers, and establishing a secondary-market price, like his well-dressed counterparts on Wall Street pricing the Facebook IPO or the computers at Delta Airlines that change ticket prices minute by minute?

Or a scourge rigging the game and jumping the line and creating bogus prices, like his well-dressed counterparts on Wall Street pricing the Facebook IPO or the computers at Delta Airlines that change ticket prices minute by minute?

Or a relic of an innocent age before paperless tickets and smart phones and a bit player in a bigger battle between corporate giants StubHub (owned by eBay) and Ticketmaster?

Some 60 Tennessee sports and entertainment organizations, including the Memphis Grizzlies, FedEx Forum, Beale Street Music Festival, Live at the Garden, and The Orpheum, have banded together "to stop the rampant problems caused by deceptive, professional scalpers" according to a news release this week.

The Tennessee Sports & Entertainment Industry Coalition (TSEIC) is calling on the Tennessee General Assembly to do something next year. The proposed legislation, called the Fairness in Ticketing Act, "will strengthen the free market by empowering fans to make informed decisions when they purchase tickets for sports, musical, and other performance events held in Tennessee."

Its sponsor, Rep. Ryan Haynes of Knoxville, introduced a similar bill in the last session. One of the coalition members is country singer Eric Church, the subject of an investigative report by Phil Williams in Nashville earlier this year.

Coalition members include major sports and music venues in Memphis, Nashville, and Knoxville. "These are the organizations that have an investment, employ people, pay taxes, entertain, and help drive tourism for Tennessee as opposed to out-of-state scalpers who do not contribute to the growth of Tennessee."

The pressing issue appears to be the Internet and paperless tickets more than people standing outside stadiums and arenas hawking a pair of tickets. An impresario in the tickets game told me scalping, also known as "dynamic pricing," is one facet of a battle between StubHub and Ticketmaster that is playing out in Tennessee and other states. The issues include consumer fairness and how and through what channels tickets are transferable on the resale market.

From the news release: "The unscrupulous scalpers ruin the ticket market for fans," said Sean Henry, president and chief operating officer of the Bridgestone Arena and Nashville Predators. "The bad actors do not participate in a free market; they manipulate a black market that raises prices for everyone. They cut ahead of fans during internet onsales with sophisticated and often illegal software. They drive a wedge between fans and artists, teams and venues. They hike up prices. They refuse to disclose who they are, where they operate and if they actually have the tickets they claim to sell. They create an environment rife with counterfeits and fraud and fans are left disappointed and cheated. The Fairness in Ticketing Act is a consumer protection bill. It would restore the free market and protect fans that spend their hard-earned dollars on live entertainment."

Scalpers purchase some of the best seats as soon as they go on sale. By using bots, scalpers cut in line ahead of customers buying through official channels.

Counterfeit tickets are one risk of buying from scalpers. Scalpers use websites that masquerade as being affiliated with venues, sports teams, or recording artists to mislead fans into purchasing tickets on the resale market, often for prices well above face value. This deceiving tactic is often used when face-value tickets are still available through primary ticket sellers and the box office.

Teresa Ward of the Orpheum Theater told me there have been many times when she has seen patrons in tears who were misled by online brokers or copycat sites similar to the historic theater's official site. Some tickets have been sold multiple times, and only the first customer showing that ticket gets the seat. An upcoming show stars Eddie Vedder. Ward said 46 percent of the available tickets sold within seconds to organized scalpers in Connecticut, Las Vegas, and Florida.

Eric Granger, vice president of arena operations for FedEx Forum, said copycat sites are a chronic problem "on the availability of what you can get at what price." Some fans found out too late that they had illegitimate tickets for the Justin Bieber concert last week, he said. FedEx Forum has an exclusive contract with Ticketmaster.

The Fairness in Ticketing Act will be filed in the 2013 session of the Tennessee General Assembly. The act proposes consumer protections for the online ticket resale market for Tennessee events. Provisions include requiring resellers to disclose original face value, seat location, and whether the reseller actually has the tickets they are selling in hand and explaining to consumers the differences in non-sanctioned and unofficial resale sites.

For more information on the Fairness in Ticketing Act, go here.

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Sunday, November 4, 2012

Could Abraham Lincoln Be Elected?

Posted By on Sun, Nov 4, 2012 at 1:20 PM

There's a new movie coming out starring Daniel Day Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, so I went looking for a quick read on Lincoln and checked out "Lincoln at Gettysburg" by Garry Wills.

I had forgotten most of the 272-word speech I memorized long ago that Lincoln delivered in three minutes. The main speaker that day, Edward Everett, spoke for two hours.

Wills goes into the making of the man and the making of the Gettysburg Address, which does not directly address slavery. "Lincoln was accused during his lifetime of clever evasions and key silences," Wills writes. "He was especially indirect and hard to interpret on the subject of slavery."

Lincoln dodged the subject in his 1858 debate with Senate candidate Stephen Douglas, and delivered some campaign speeches that would get him branded as a racist today. Here is one Wills quotes:

"I will say then that I am not nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races — that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor of intermarrying with white people. And I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will for ever forbid the two races living together on terms of political and social equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race."

Wills writes that Lincoln's political base, Illinois, had a case of "Negrophobia" and in 1848 amended the state constitution to deny freed blacks the right to enter the state.

"Lincoln knew the racial geography of his own state well, and calibrated what he had to say about slavery according to his audience."

The movie "Lincoln" directed by Steven Spielberg, comes out November 9th and focuses on the year 1865.

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Friday, November 2, 2012

Words of the Week from Fred Smith, Freda Williams, Kriner Cash

Posted By on Fri, Nov 2, 2012 at 11:14 AM

A summary of notable comments from Memphians at various events last week:

"Research Says Closing a School Won't Fix It." Sign carried by spectator at school board meeting Tuesday night. The Transition Planning Commission recommends closing 21 schools in Memphis next year.

"It's a big factor in determining where to send our children to school." Peter Winterburn, Memphis parent of an MCS student, speaking to the Unified School Board about the CLUE program designed to meet the needs of academically talented and gifted students in MCS.

"I read 'Beowulf' in third grade." White Station Middle School student, speaking to the school board in support of the CLUE program.

"We are being used as a guinea pig for other people's agenda." School board member Dr. Jeff Warren.

"If there are expectations, this board needs to know what they are." School board member Martavius Jones on $4 million in private funding for the merger and whether there are strings attached.

"It is within the purview of this board to decide and apply the 172 recommendations." School board member Freda Williams, suggesting substitute language for a resolution that said the merger recommendations are "within the purview of district administration."

"We are going to have to get down and dirty with this and that dirt is coming real soon."
MCS Superintendent Kriner Cash at board meeting Tuesday.

"It's the largest transfer of wealth in the history of humankind." FedEx CEO Fred Smith on the OPEC nations in a speech at Rhodes College Thursday night.

"There are 40,000 products of small business in a FedEx 777." Fred Smith on the importance of corporate "gazelles" to supply the investment capital that supports small business.

"The United States is a disaster in K-12 but in higher ed we are the India of the world." Fred Smith at Rhodes.

"There are going to be some hard choices." Smith, a liberal arts graduate of Yale, to the audience at Rhodes, a liberal arts college, on the need for government to put more grants and incentives in science and technology higher education versus liberal arts.

"Five “Straight-A” schools on Achievement: Campus School, Grahamwood Elementary, John P. Freeman Optional School, Richland Elementary, and White Station Middle. Each of these schools is a repeat recipient of straight A’s in Math, Reading/Language, Social Studies, and Science." Press release on the Tennessee Department of Education 2012 Report Card.

"Fourteen schools ( as compared to four in 2011) received A’s in Math and Reading/Language Value-Added results, signaling continued outstanding growth in student performance: Alton Elementary, Florida-Kansas Elementary, Freedom Prep Academy, Germanshire Elementary, KIPP Academy, Oakhaven Elementary, Peabody Elementary, Power Center Academy, Promise Academy, Raineshaven Elementary, Shannon Elementary, Sharpe Elementary, Sherwood Elementary, and Vollentine Elementary." Tennessee Department of Education Report Card, highlights from Memphis City Schools.

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Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Rubik's Cube on Top of Beale Street Landing

Posted By on Thu, Nov 1, 2012 at 1:09 PM

I have written enough about Beale Street Landing. Like Chief Joseph, I will fight no more forever. In May, when the "colorful topper" was in its infancy, I collected renderings from the Riverfront Development Corporation and Friends For Our Riverfront. An RDC spokesperson said colors in the final product might be "more muted."

Is this muted?
Is this good urban design for a prominent public space?
Does this make the widely-mocked-as-inappropriate Bass Pro "bait shop" logo look like the Mona Lisa?
Was this created by a child with a box of LEGOs?

You make the call.



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Report Cards Are Out for Memphis, Shelby County Schools

Posted By on Thu, Nov 1, 2012 at 12:14 PM

Here are some first-glance observations about the Tennessee Department of Education report cards for Memphis and Shelby County school systems released Thursday.

Memphis is losing students. The system has 101,696 students this year, down from 110,753 in 2007. Memphis is losing white students — down from 10,345 in 2007 to 7,928 (7 percent) this year.

Memphis has more teachers and administrators today although it has fewer students than it did five years ago. There are 464 administrators and 6,755 teachers today compared to 359 administrators and 6,438 teachers in 2007.

Shelby County has also lost students. The system has 45,050 today compared to 45,897 in 2007. The county system is also losing white students. It has 23,916 today and had 28,290 (60 percent) in 2007.

Shelby County has more teachers and administrators too. There are 169 administrators and 2,742 teachers, compared to 153 administrators and 2,588 teachers in 2007.

There is a continuing "flight to quality" to high-performing city optional schools like Richland, John P. Freeman, Grahamwood Elementary, and White Station High School (22.9 ACT composite score). In the county, the beneficiaries include Houston High School (24.1 ACT) and Collierville High School (23.9 ACT). The state average ACT composite is 19.6.

As I have written many times before, I believe the report cards contribute to the data-driven schools culture, the flight to quality, and the fail-your-way-to-success model of the Achievement School District, which means the state takes over the worst performers and brings in hard-chargers from outside.

There's plenty of data for one and all in the report cards. Let the comments begin.

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