Thursday, July 29, 2010

Before "Memphis As a Model"

Posted By on Thu, Jul 29, 2010 at 2:05 PM

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Memphis City Schools' Teacher Effectiveness Initiative and what it could mean for both the city and the state of Tennessee.

But, b/c of scheduling conflicts, one thing that was never included in the story was how Memphis came to be awarded more than $90 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

About a year and a half ago, the foundation began a request for proposals from certain school systems among the nation's roughly 15,000.


"We decided we wouldn't go with the very largest systems and we wouldn't go with the smallest systems," says Colleen Oliver, senior program officer for the foundation.

Because of the foundation's focus on issues of poverty and access, they also wanted school systems with a certain level of poverty, and in states where student growth could be used to measure teacher effectiveness.

The end result was about 22 school systems, of which MCS was one, that Gates approached about the idea of partnering with them.

Continue reading »

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Being The Best

Posted By on Wed, Jul 28, 2010 at 12:39 PM

With only two days left to vote for the Best of Memphis, I'd like to remind everyone to vote for me for Best Memphian.

Why, you ask?

I've been posting some of my reasons on Facebook, but here's a larger list:

1. I am not former Memphis mayor Willie Herenton.

Willie Herenton
  • Willie Herenton

2. I can name all the City Council members off the top off my head: Harold Collins, Janis Fullilove, Wanda Halbert, Jim Strickland, Bill Boyd, BSW, Bill Morrison, Shea Flinn, Kemp Conrad, Reid Hedgepeth, Edmund Ford, Joe Brown, Myron Lowery. (You'll have to take my word for it.)

3. I'm a ref for the Memphis Roller Derby. If that wasn't enough — though it should be — recruiters have been trying to get me to go ref for Miami, but I've said no.

4. I wear high heels pretty much all the time. When I'm not wearing skates (please see above.)

5. I wrote this. And this. That is what they call range.

6. I've never bought a big screen TV and charged it to the city's general services division.

7. I know Huffington Post model Kerry Crawford Trisler and historian Vance Lauderdale personally. And lots of other cool people, too.

  • KCT

8. I don't moonlight as an Elvis cover artist.

9. The "Best Columnist" category is too crowded. And you know Geoff Calkins is going to win, anyway.

10. I've never called Islam a cult.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Teaching to the Test

Posted By on Tue, Jul 27, 2010 at 11:09 AM

[Here's something of a sneak peek for this week's upcoming In the Bluff column on the new educational standards for Tennessee students.]

The NYT reported last week that roughly 40 states have aligned (or are in the process of aligning) their state educational standards with national standards:

The quick adoption of common standards for what students should learn in English and math each year from kindergarten through high school is attributable in part to the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competition. States that adopt the standards by Aug. 2 win points in the competition for a share of the $3.4 billion to be awarded in September.

“I’m ecstatic,” said Arne Duncan, the secretary of education. “This has been the third rail of education, and the fact that you’re now seeing half the nation decide that it’s the right thing to do is a game-changer.”

Phil Bredesen
  • Phil Bredesen
Locally, Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen and former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist were in town last week to warn parents and community members that new state standards could have a drastic impact on student proficiency levels.

"No one is against high standards," Bredesen said. "Where the rubber meets the road is when you have to live up to them."

But they hope that the new expectations will lead to higher levels of student achievement and, in the future, economic growth.

"The issue itself is education, but taking a step back," Frist said, "it's a huge social issue. It's a huge economic issue."

Friday, July 23, 2010

Shelby County's Carbon Footprint

Posted By on Fri, Jul 23, 2010 at 2:57 PM

Shelby County has a large footprint ... and now it knows how big its carbon footprint is, too.

Data presented at a meeting between Shelby County mayor Joe Ford and local activists Wednesday showed that Shelby County government emitted a total of 102,174 tons of CO2 during the 2008 - 2009 fiscal year.

Joe Ford
  • JB
  • Joe Ford

Shelby County Schools had a total carbon footprint of 89,668 tons for the same year.

In total, almost 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions came from government buildings and facilities. Twenty-one percent was from employee commutes.

"The mayor wants to do some sort of energy efficiency program," says John Freeman with the mayor's office.

The program, which would begin in mid-August, will draw directly from employee suggestions solicited by survey earlier this year.

Freeman says they could include encouraging employees to bike to work or ride public transportation, to carpool with other employees, or to take advantage of a four-day work week.

Other topics at the meeting included the county's recycling program, ground water and environmental infrastructure, and the possibility of becoming one of 15 deployment communities nationally for a new electric vehicle program.

Neighborhood Canvas

Posted By on Fri, Jul 23, 2010 at 8:45 AM

[Part of this week's focus on foreclosures ... ]

A few years ago, as part of an annual clean up in Orange Mound, MIFA's Handyman volunteers noticed a vacant shotgun house.

"It had been boarded up before, but it never stayed," says Mary Claire Borys, manager of the Handyman program. "It kept getting broken into; people were setting fires in it. ... We thought we'd give it a shot at boarding it up."

Instead of putting a piece of blank plywood over the windows, the volunteers decided to experiment with an "artistic board-up," painting a mural on the plywood.

MIFAs artistic board-up in Orange Mound.
  • Mary Wilder
  • MIFA's artistic board-up in Orange Mound.
"For 19 months, no one touched it until the city came to tear it down," Borys says.

It's something that groups all over the country are experimenting with, either by painting murals or painting the plywood to look like windows or doors. They say it makes vacant properties less likely to be broken into.

"You can drive by these places and not even notice it," Borys says. "It helps lessen the effect of vacant property on communities."

The Mid-South Peace & Justice Center also has estimated that, b/c of the prevalence of fires in vacant and abandoned homes, it's more cost effective to board up the properties. A board-up costs the city about $600 while each fire costs the city about $17,500.

Though boarding up is mostly the purview of property owners, Blue Crush, and the city, MIFA is looking for public or private grant money to help them paint the plywood for those groups.

"We're hoping to get something started by this fall, even if it's just a bundle of houses to show what it would look like," Borys says.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

City Confidence

Posted By on Thu, Jul 22, 2010 at 3:37 PM

It was storytime at the Center City Commission's annual luncheon, today at the Peabody Hotel.

Former Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin told attendees about "The Little Engine That Could," relating it to how "small and insignificant" Atlanta started.

Shirley Franklin
  • Shirley Franklin
"Memphis and Atlanta can because they think they can," she said. "We just have to believe in ourselves."

Franklin said the first step was knowing who you are as a city, knowing your history, and knowing what works for you and what doesn't.

"In order to be successful, you have to brand yourself. You have to decide who you want to be," she said.

She also urged city leaders to think in the long-term, because the successes of today are built on the decisions made several generations ago.

"How will cities be successful, not in the next two or three years, but the next 50 or 100 years?"

For me, the lesson that Memphis can learn from Atlanta is about self-confidence, maybe even about moxie, chutzpah, cojones.

I mean, they won the 1996 Olympics — the ones that Athens really wanted because it was the modern games' 100th anniversary — at a time when they were considered a long-shot. But they tried for it anyway.

Take Franklin herself. Before she became mayor, Franklin had been Atlanta's CAO and City Manager, but she had never run for office. She was also a woman — and no woman had ever been mayor of Atlanta before. She was the first black woman to become mayor of a major Southern city.

It's hard to say "have confidence" to a city that doesn't. And as someone in the media, I'm often accused of hurting Memphis' self-image.

But I've seen some things recently that suggest the city is slowly moving in the right direction. Maybe we just have to remember to think we can.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Road to Foreclosures

Posted By on Wed, Jul 21, 2010 at 12:05 PM

Or "How Transportation Costs Affect Foreclosure Rates."

I've referenced Chicago's Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) here before. I think I may have even posted some maps of their Housing + Transportation Affordability Index.

Under the conventional formula, affordable housing is 30 percent of median income. CNT says the true costs of housing should include transportation costs, and they defined an affordable range as consuming no more than 48 percent of median income.

More recently, they looked at weekly and monthly trends in foreclosure filings and compared them with the weekly change in gas prices from 2000 to 2010.

"We found that whenever gas prices spiked, foreclosures typically followed within six to nine months," CNT president Scott Bernstein testified at the U.S. House of Representatives Judiciary subcommittee meeting in Memphis Monday.

CNT found that, in Memphis, the average cost of housing is about 27 percent of household income, but, combined with transportation, comes to 52 percent of are area median household income.

For households earning 80 percent of median income, the costs rose to 33 percent for housing and 63 percent for housing plus transportation.

"If we don't take gas prices into account, the next time energy costs spike, we're likely to run into this again," Bernstein said.

Bankruptcy Courts and Foreclosures

Posted By on Wed, Jul 21, 2010 at 10:08 AM

Every time I write about foreclosures and the mortgage crisis, I feel like I have to leave a bunch of stuff out. This week was no exception.

Last Thursday, the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center held a summit about combating blight in local neighborhoods as part of its Issues First campaign. Then Monday, U.S. Congressman Steve Cohen hosted a subcommittee meeting about foreclosures at the U of M law school.

One thing panelists talked about were proposed changes to the federal bankruptcy code that would allow judges to modify mortgage loans. Currently, filing Chapter 13 allows for the adjustment of debts, with the exception of a mortgage loan for the debtor's primary residence.

There’s some concern that that would mean more bankruptcy filings, but David Kennedy, chief judge of the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Western District of Tennessee, testified that wasn’t the case.

“People in mortgage trouble are already in bankruptcy court. They will give up their cars, their pets, they’ll forgo buying medicine. They will do anything to be able to keep their homes,” Kennedy said. “I don’t believe there will be a flood of new filings, because these people are already in the courts. We just can’t help them.”

Continue reading »

Friday, July 16, 2010

Tunica Transit

Posted By on Fri, Jul 16, 2010 at 9:39 AM

Planners for the Mississippi Department of Transportation are exploring whether a high speed bus from Tunica to Downtown Memphis is feasible.

"This is something that's been talked about as early as 1996," said John Houghton, senior planner with Gresham Smith and Partners. "Including east/west routes, we estimate it would have about 1,700 riders a day."

Potential users are tourists traveling from downtown Memphis to Tunica, as well as people who fly in or out of Memphis International, and Tunica casino workers.

Houghton also cited DeSoto County's rapid population growth. From 1990 to 2010, the county gained 100,000 residents.

Planners considered light rail, commuter rail, and high speed bus service but, with signal prioritization, the buses are similar to trains but at a fraction of the cost.

Continue reading »

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Bike Action at City Hall Tomorrow/City Pledges 55 Miles of Bike Lanes and Facilities

Posted By on Thu, Jul 15, 2010 at 2:55 PM

After all the uncertainty over the city's bikes lanes — they were going to create more when they repaved; then they weren't; now they are again — and the controversy that created, local bicycle advocates are asking Memphis mayor A C Wharton and the City Council to ensure that all future paving projects using federal dollars include bicycle facilities.

Off topic: I like this girls shoes.
  • Off topic: I like this girl's shoes.
Last month, more than 30 miles of federally funded bicycles lanes were excluded from the city's repaving plans.

In response to a public outcry, the city has decided install 55 miles of new bike lanes and facilities, much of it funded through the city engineer's budget.

Bicycle advocates, who plan to meet at City Hall Friday, July 16th, at 12:30 p.m., initially wanted Wharton to send plans for the 30 miles back to the city engineer's office and include the lanes.

"While the Shelby Farms Greenline, the Wolf River Greenway, and bike lanes on Shady Grove show some movement in the area of Green infrastructure in Memphis, our city remains ashamedly behind the curve in promoting human powered transportation options," says a letter addressed to Wharton and the council.

"Investing in such infrastructure is not merely an appeasement to cyclists and outdoor enthusiasts; it is an investment in our community and the public realm. Investing in infrastructure that promotes biking and walking has been shown to stimulate new business, attract talented workers, lower public health costs, stimulate tourism, increase property values, and raise tax revenues. In short, Memphis stands to gain an overall quality of life increase by investing in infrastructure that enables more bicycling and walking."

Continue reading »

Model of Education?

Posted By on Thu, Jul 15, 2010 at 9:17 AM

For all the crap that Memphis City Schools takes — and I'm not saying they don't deserve at least part of the reputation they have — recent events have transformed them into a model of national education reform.

I know what you're thinking: MCS a model? Please, they have a graduation rate of 62 percent. That's hardly a model of education.

But with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as the federal Race to the Top challenge, Memphis' educational system is on the cusp.

Seriously. I wrote about it this week for our paper edition.

[And if you don't believe me, you can read this story from The Washington Post: Gates Foundation playing pivotal role in changes for education system.]

Education reform has taken many forms in the last few decades. Optional schools, charter schools, smaller schools. All of these things have worked ... marginally. Smaller schools, for instance, have helped reduce school violence, but didn't do all that much for student achievement.

The new national thinking — and the research behind it — puts a renewed emphasis on the teacher.

Continue reading »

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Gaile Owens Sentenced Commuted

Posted By on Wed, Jul 14, 2010 at 12:01 PM

Gaile Owens
  • Gaile Owens
Tennessee governor Phil Bredesen has commuted the death sentence of former Bartlett housewife Gaile Owens to life in prison.

Owens was convicted in 1986 of hiring a Memphis man to kill her husband.

Owens' defense team argued the fact that Owens agreed to a plea bargain that was later rescinded — because the co-defendant in her case did not agree — and that Owens was a victim of domestic violence.

Foreclosure Summit Today

Posted By on Wed, Jul 14, 2010 at 10:38 AM

As part of the Mid-South Peace & Justice Center Issues First campaign, they will host a neighborhood and community action summit tonight at 6:30 p.m. at the First Congregational Church to talk about how the community can combat blight in a comprehensive manner.

Memphis has been hit hard by foreclosures, especially in traditional African-American neighborhoods.

"Not only will reducing blight improve the quality of life of thousands within our community but can also save tax payers millions of dollars," says Brad Watkins, organizing coordinator of the summit.

A Peace & Justice Center study has found that fires in vacant homes cost the city anywhere from $1.3 million to $6.8 million in fire suppression, investigation, and property maintenance and demolition.

Many are set by squatters.

About 1,300 vacant homes have been boarded up, at a cost of $600 per property. By contrast, a fire in that same property (that hasn't been boarded up) can cost the city $17,500.

map courtesy Mid-South Peace & Justice
  • map courtesy Mid-South Peace & Justice

They expect 2010 county mayoral candidates Joe Ford and Mark Luttrell to attend, as well as sheriff candidate Randy Wade, county commissioners Steve Mulroy and Henri Brooks, and other elected officials.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Location, Location, Location

Posted By on Tue, Jul 13, 2010 at 2:09 PM

The Wall Street Journal has a story today on how walkability is an amenity that more homebuyers are looking for.

(It even namechecks a CEOs for Cities study of 90,000 homes in which amenities within walking distance of neighborhoods were shown to boost home values.)

"For a lot of Americans, the whole problem of traffic congestion and having to drive everywhere to do almost anything has made other choices more attractive," says Kaid Benfield, director of the Washington-based Natural Resources Defense Council's Smart Growth Program. Urban planners say it's also a matter of demographics: Baby boomers are coming of empty-nest retirement age, and at the same time their children are buying their first homes, and neither group wants large lots in remote places where little is going on. Fear about future oil prices is also increasing the attractiveness of walkable neighborhoods.

Another study released in January by the Natural Resources Defense Council found that the measure of transportation costs in a given area affect the number of foreclosures.

With Walk Score, which the article references, a potential homebuyer can easily find how a place rates re: walkability.

The site acknowledges its limitations: It doesn't take sidewalks, street design, topography, or traffic into account. And after playing with it a little bit, it's clear there are some deficiencies (nearby movie theaters cited the Orpheum, which does show movies, but ...) but an interesting tool nonetheless.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

No Prescription for CVS

Posted By on Thu, Jul 8, 2010 at 2:26 PM

The proposal for a CVS pharmacy at the corner of Cooper and Union — where the former Union Avenue Methodist Church sits — failed at the Land Use Control Board earlier today.

Staff from the Office of Planning and Development recommended rejecting the proposal, citing issues with the site plan — both the placement of the building, as well as the amount of windows — the demolition of the historic Union Avenue Methodist Church building, and the fact that the proposal does not meet the standards of the yet-to-be-approved Midtown zoning overlay. OPD said the plan “reflects a typical suburban retail development form.”


Attorney Ricky Wilkins, representing CVS, said the company spends a great deal of time studying each of their sites before designing a site plan.

“If the data supports an urban design, that’s what CVS builds. If the data indicates that a suburban design as described — we don’t believe ours is that — is needed then that is what our site plan reflects,” Wilkins said. “Union Avenue is a state highway. Our pedestrian counts indicate that 40,000 more cars to every 100 pedestrians that travel up and down Union and Cooper.”

Opponents of the plan were out in full-force, filling the council chambers. They cited many of the same reasons why OPD staff recommended against approval.

Continue reading »

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