Saturday, April 30, 2011

With Failure of Mediation Process, Merger Case May Get Ruling

Posted By on Sat, Apr 30, 2011 at 5:30 PM

Judge Mays on break from courtroom during case
  • Judge Mays on break from courtroom during case
The attempt at mediating a settlement to the city/county school-merger case now being heard by U.S. District Judge Samuel Hardy Mays seems to have failed. When the attorneys for the various sides confer with Judge Mays on Monday in his chambers, they will tell him just that. And on Tuesday, when the next public hearing on the matter occurs in his 11th floor courtroom, Mays may issue his first ruling.

The question then will be whether to issue an injunction against the Shelby County Commission’s plans, dormant for the last month, to appoint the 25 members of an interim all-county school board for which the commission, back in March, interviewed some 200 applicants.

Shelby County Schools — backed by the state Education Department, which is committed to the merger formula spelled out in the legislatively enacted Norris-Todd bill — had requested the injunction. After a March 24 status conference on the showdown case involving multiple plaintiffs and multiple defendants, Mays had requested the parties to attempt to reach a settlement. Two weeks later, on April 4, he decreed mediation, and the parties agreed on retired state Criminal Court Appeals Judge Joe Riley of Dyersburg as a mediator.

The second of two sessions presided over by Riley came and went Thursday without result. Though participants in the sessions were obliged to public silence, enough has leaked out to make it obvious that at no point were the parties remotely close to a settlement of the issues — which, at root, involved a choice between the county commission’s plans for a fast-track merger of Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools, on the one hand, and the more deliberate formula of Norris-Todd, which allows an eventual special-school-district option for Shelby County’s suburban schools.

The merger crisis had been prompted by the MCS board’s post-election fears last November that SCS would seek special-school-district status. It continued with a vote by that board to surrender its charter and a subsequent vote by Memphis residents to approve de facto consolidation via a transfer of MCS charter authority to SCS.

The MCS board and the Memphis City Council, which in the wake of Norris-Todd voted to certify the charter surrender, were the original defendants in the federal suit by SCS; when the county commission launched its own initiative to complete the merger, it was added to the suit and became the de facto principal defendant.

Kelsey Cites Mediation to Stop Bill Modifying Norris-Todd

Despite the conspicuous lack of movement toward an agreement during the court-mandated month-long settlement effort, a Shelby County legislator succeeded this month in turning back a modest amendment to Norris-Todd by claiming that an accord was at hand.

This was state Senator Brian Kelsey, who, in a meeting of the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday, April 20, managed to bring about a reconsideration of Senate Bill 1594 by state Senator Beverly Marrero (D-Memphis), the House version of which was HB 1807, sponsored by Rep. Jeanne Richardson (D-Memphis).

The bill had only one provision, relating to the 21-member “planning commission” established by Norris-Todd:

“In implementing this subdivision (b)(2)(B), the respective appointing authorities shall aggressively seek racial, gender and ethnic diversity on the transition planning commission by enlisting ethnic, minority and female participation that reflects the racial, gender and ethnic diversity of the county as a whole. No person shall be excluded from participation on the transition planning commission on grounds of race, ethnicity, color or gender.”

As state Senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) prepared to call for the vote, Kelsey objected that the various sides in the case being heard by Judge Mays were “very close to a negotiated settlement” and that passage of SB 1594 “could potentially upset the negotiated settlement.”

State Senator Jim Kyle (D-Memphis), the Democrats’ Senate leader, who was presenting the bill in the absence of Senator Marrerro (indisposed due to illness), disputed Kelsey’s interpretation and said that, in any case, the bill could be re-evaluated before a vote of the full Senate and could be withheld if there were real evidence that it might impact a settlement.

That seemed to settle the issue, and both Gresham and Senator Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City) voted with Democratic members of the Committee to put it over.

But an hour and a half later, Kyle, who is not a committee member, stopped back by the committee hearing room in Legislative Plaza to inquire of Senator Andy Berke (D-Chattanooga) if he wanted to go to dinner. (It was 7:30 p.m.; the committee was keeping late hours in order to finish its work for the year, and the current session was the last one planned.)

A disbelieving Kyle is informed of bills reconsideration
  • A disbelieving Kyle is informed of bill's reconsideration
Senator Gresham, who in the meantime had been involved in further conversations with Kelsey, noted Kyle’s presence and announced that she intended, as a member of the prevailing side on the earlier vote, to invoke her privilege to call for a reconsideration of SB 1594.

Stunned, Kyle responded that he “wouldn’t have walked in here” if he’d sensed such an effort afoot and expressed disbelief that asking that the proposed planning commission be “inclusive on race and gender” could possibly interfere with a settlement.

Senator Kelsey then responded: “I have just made a phone call, and I have spoken to one of the attorneys in this case, and I now feel even more strongly now than I had expressed earlier that, yes, this bill could potentially harm the settlement of an issue that is being mediated right now. And I am told it’s very close to settlement.”

To that Kyle had a retort: “Senator, your actions tonight are damaging the chances for that settlement, and you know it.”

But in the resultant vote to reconsider, both Gresham and Crowe changed their votes, and, the second time around, the bill was defeated.

A visibly angry Kyle prepared to leave, but not without a parting shot: “I’ll not present this bill. Y’all have a Merry Christmas!”

With that episode in the Senate Education Committee last week vanished the one opportunity Memphis legislators appeared to have had in the current session to modify the Norris-Todd bill, passed by both chambers in January and signed into law by Governor Haslam.

Left unexplained were two aspects of the affair. Senator Kelsey referred to having a phone call with one of the attorneys in the case, all of whom were supposedly bound by an agreement not to discuss the ongoing mediation with anyone. The other puzzling fact was that the senator’s statement, suggesting that an agreement was near, was made two days before the first of two actual mediation sessions.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

MAD AS HELL: No Comet He, Haley Barbour Plunges Back to Earth

Posted By on Wed, Apr 27, 2011 at 9:22 AM

Hale No, He Cain’t! Haley Barbour is out of the presidential race? Oh sure, the current governor of Mississippi could never have been elected, but I’m pretty bummed about Ol' Haley's taking the quitter's path of Palin. I was looking forward to showing up at a campaign event and asking the Don Corleone of the Confederacy for the million dollars he owes me.

Let me explain about Haley Barbour's “Million Dollar Medicare Challenge.” Like most Republican plans, it was a grand hoax. Back in December 1995, congressional Republicans, who had gained a majority in the mid-terms, were locked in a nasty political battle with Bill Clinton. Newt Gingrich was Speaker and was having a fine time throwing his weight around in legendary Napoleonic fashion.

Cheri DelBrocco
  • Cheri DelBrocco
The GOP had already enacted one governmental shutdown, and they’d soon force another. But Clinton and the Democrats were giving them a pounding for a budget proposal that called for $270 million in cuts to Medicare over seven years. Compared to the medeival Ryan budget plan of today, which would put Medicare on the scrap heap, that '95 proposal now seems downright quaint. Nevertheless, the public had begun to figure out that the GOP's real game plan back then was to cut and gut Medicare and Social Security, which, in Newt's candid if artless phrase, would then “wither on the vine.”

During the lull between the two shutdowns, Republican National Committee chair Barbour, schemed up a gimmick so stupid and full of hokum that after it became public, he was branded the“Yahoo of Yazoo City”.

Splashed across a full-page newspaper ad in USA Today was Ol' Haley’s round face and a toothy grin holding a promotional, over-sized check for $1 million, made out to “the first American” who could prove false the GOP claim that its 1996 budget actually increased Medicare spending by more than 50 percent.

“Your Name Here.”was on the giant check by Barbour’s mug. Chairman Haley exuded the graceand savoir-faire of a used-car huckster. “Heard the one about Republicans ‘cutting’ Medicare?”the ad said. “The fact is Republicans are increasing Medicare by more than half. I’m Haley Barbour, and I’m so sure of that fact I’m willing to give you this check for a million dollars if you can prove me wrong.”

Reading the ad as I sipped my morning coffee, I immediately decided to take Barbour up on his offer. A chance to make a million dollars? I thought that was worth the price of a stamp, so later in the day I stopped by the public library to do a little research, (this pre-dated Google) and then mailed in my “Million Dollar Medicare Challenge.” After weeks went by without a response, I forgot about it.

Thirteen months later, having just returned from President Clinton’s second inauguration on a freezing January afternoon in 1997, my doorbell rang and the postman handed me a big, yellow envelope and asked for my signature. “Watkins & Eager/ Attorneys-at-Law/ Jackson, Mississipp”i was the return address. I didn’t know a soul in Jackson and had absolutely no idea who Watkins and Eager were or why they would be sending me certified mail. Obviously, there was some mistake.

After reading the 28-page summons naming me and 79 others as defendants in a lawsuit by Haley Barbour and the Republican National Committee, I was both stunned and amused. I contacted my lawyer who assured me that the whole thing was totally bogus.

A lawyer who represented one of the other defendants put it this way , “Haley Barbour asked Americans whether they agreed or disagreed with him and then sued everyone who wrote in to say they disagreed.” By pre-emptively suing all of us (in a courtroom with a judge who just happened to also be named Barbour), Ol' Haley and the RNC were denying their obligation to pay any of the claimants the $1 million. It was typical Republican bullying and scare tactics.

Ridiculous pranks like the Million Dollar Medicare Challenge are still being played by the Republicans. Lying about their true intentions comes as easily as breathing to them. When it comes to underhanded deception, they can be counted on to bring home the Mirror Ball Trophy every single time.

Like flatulent Keebler Elves popping out of a Hollow Tree Factory to announce some magical new name for the exact, same cookie they’ve been selling for forty years, the Republicans have some sparkly, spangled new name for their same old stale recipe for privatizing the government.

In the Clinton years, it was Haley Barbour who took on the role of creative director for all the toxic lies and stupid publicity stunts in the GOP's efforts to put a wrecking ball to all domestic programs. Today, Congressman Paul Ryan has assumed the mantle of The Flim Flam man. In typical fashion, Republicans are putting the hoodoo on America by claiming the Republican Party is going to create jobs by cutting taxes on the rich. Then, they plan to save Medicare by turning it into an ineffective, undesirable, underfunded voucher program.

The lawsuits against the 80 “challengers” were quickly forgotten, but that same year, Haley Barbour received his own summons. He was called to testify before the Senate Government Affairs Committee regarding fund-raising practices that focused on a possible indictment for perjury and money laundering. Barbour testified that he never intended to funnel $1.6 million in Hong Kong funds to the RNC through the National Policy Forum, a GOP think tank. “Everything the National Policy Forum did was legal and proper,” drawled Barbour during the Senate hearings.

About as proper as suing people for producing the proof that your words were nothing more than big, fat lies.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Lester, Monger Replace Democratic Incumbents on Election Commission

Posted By on Tue, Apr 26, 2011 at 10:39 AM

Norma Lester; George Monger
  • Norma Lester; George Monger
The other shoe has finally dropped in the aftermath of last year’s Democratic wipeout in the Shelby County general election. Two sets of shoes, actually.

Norma Lester and George Monger, the former a longtime Democratic activist, the latter a rising young star in party ranks, have been nominated by the Democratic members of the General Assembly to become the party’s two designated members on the Shelby County Election Commission. They replace Myra Stiles and James Johnson, both of whom had been frequent targets of criticism in party ranks for what many Democratic activists saw as insufficient vigilance in relation to the 2010 election results.

The entire Democratic slate of countywide candidates was defeated in the August general election, despite the party’s having an apparent preponderance of registered voters. Various alleged irregularities, plus a certifiable election-day glitch that temporarily caused an indeterminate number of potential voters to be turned away on grounds they had already early-voted, prompted party activists to bring suit against the Election Commission in an effort to void the election results.

Both Stiles, the longest-serving commission member, and Johnson, the commission’s former executive director, had joined in certifying the election outcome, and Stiles would issue a public statement endorsing the bona fides of her three Republican colleagues and the commission’s administration.

Chancellor Arnold Goldin would ultimately dismiss the legal complaint, but the feeling grew in Democratic ranks that the party needed new blood on the commission, and numerous Democrats lobbied for that point of view with members of the party’s legislative delegation, which was charged with making nominations to the state Election Commission.

The state Commission will meet on May 4 to confirm the various appointments by both parties to the various county election commissions.

State Rep. Larry Miller, who serves as chairman of the Democratic caucus within the Shelby County legislative delegation, presided over a meeting of the caucus on Monday, just before the House convened for a floor session. “I had passed out some forms and was still giving out instructions for what we needed to do when they started giving me back the forms with names already on them,” said a surprised Miller.

The names of Lester, a nurse, and Monger, a youthful mortgage broker who was active in the post-election legal contest, predominated. Johnson had received a modest number of mentions, but Stiles was omitted altogether, having not been included on a preliminary list of candidates prepared the preceding week.

Meanwhile, Shelby County Republicans have their own decision to make about local Election Commission membership. A vacancy opened up this week with the announcement by Election Commission chairman Bill Giannini that he is resigning to accept appointment as assistant Commissioner of the state Commerce and Insurance Department.

Longtime Republican member Robert Meyers will succeed to the Election Commission chairmanship. And activist Dee Nollner and former Memphis city councilman Brent Taylor have both expressed an interest in serving on the commission, joining Meyers and fellow GOP holdover Steve Stamson. The names of former Shelby County commissioners George Flinn and Joyce Avery have also received some mention.

The GOP legislative caucus is expected to make a decision on the vacancy this week in Nashville.

Monday, April 25, 2011

SCEC Chairman Giannini to Resign, Enter Haslam Cabinet

Posted By on Mon, Apr 25, 2011 at 2:56 PM

Bill Giannini
  • JB
  • Bill Giannini
Bill Giannini, the oft-beleaguered chairman of the Shelby County Election Commission, has been named by Julie McPeak, the Commissioner of the state Department of Commerce and Insurance, to become assistant commissioner of the department, responsible for the oversight of Tennessee's 25 regulatory boards and commissions.

Giannini, a former Shelby County Republican chairman and a member of Governor Bill Haslam's 2010 campaign team, will be succeeded as head of the five-member Election Commission by longtime Republican member Robert Myers, who will thereby become only the second Republican chairman in the Commission's history.

Giannini had assumed the office after Republican victories in the 2008 statewide election gave the GOP majorities in both of the state's legislative chambers. He had weathered several storms at the helm of SCEC, including the prolonged Democratic protest against alleged irreularities following the GOP sweep of countywide offices in 2010.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

State GOP Opts to Keep Open Primaries

Memphian Ryder one of those on prevailing side, along with Governor Haslam.

Posted By on Wed, Apr 20, 2011 at 7:21 AM

John Ryder
  • JB
  • John Ryder
Much media attention has been focused on what has often seemed an undeclared power struggle between Governor Bill Haslam and Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey, the Senate Speaker who has differed with the governor on numerous issues — including collective bargaining for teachers, with Ramsey apparently on his way to achieving his goal of outright abolition.

Ramsey, a Haslam opponent in last year’s Republican gubernatorial primary, has disclaimed an interest in challenging Haslam again in 2012 — perhaps because, as Tennessee Conservative Union head Lloyd Daughterty recently opined, the position of lieutenant governor is arguably “just as powerful if not more powerful.” As Daughterty argued, "Governors are going to come and go, but there's no term limits on the speaker, the lieutenant governor."

It was Haslam's view that prevailed, however, not Ramsey's, when the state Republican committee voted last weekend in Nashville not to require party registration for participation in GOP primaries. Among those resisting closed primaries was Memphian John Ryder, who said "inclusiveness" is just what has allowed the state GOP to grow.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Judge Mays Approves Two-Week Mediation Process in School Merger Case

Posted By on Mon, Apr 18, 2011 at 4:30 PM

Leo Bearman, attorney for the Shelby County Commission, and one of the lawyers who must now agree on a mediator in the school-merger case
  • JB
  • Leo Bearman, attorney for the Shelby County Commission, and one of the lawyers who must now agree on a mediator in the school-merger case
After conferring with U.S. District Judge Samuel Hardy Mays, who is hearing the consolidated case involving rival plans for consolidating Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools, the various attorneys in the case have agreed to the appointment of a mediator in a last attempt to resolve the dispute prior to judgment on an injunction sought by the plaintiffs.

As a result of the new postponement, Tuesday morning’s scheduled hearing on the case in Judge Mays’ court has been rescheduled for May 3, the same date by which an appointed mediator would attempt to arrange a resolution of the case.

This is the second consecutive two-week delay mandated by Judge Mays prior to issuing a ruling.

The lawyers — representing MCS, SCS, the City of Memphis, the City Council, the Shelby County Commission, and other entities — will have their own meeting at 10 a.m. Tuesday in the Baker, Donelson legal offices, in an effort to agree on the identity of a mediator. If they do not agree, Judge Mays will appoint one himself.

The core of the case is a suit by Shelby County Schools, with the state of Tennessee as an associated party, against the Memphis City Council, MCS, and the Shelby County Commission, asking for a declaratory judgment against an ongoing effort to proceed with MCS-SCS consolidation.

By implication, the status of the Norris-Todd bill, passed by the legislature in January and signed into law by Governor Bill Haslam, is also at stake, as the plaintiffs’ preferred method of completing the merger that was approved by Memphis voters in a March 8th referendum.

Pending is Judge Mays' action on an request by the primary litigants for an injunction preventing the Shelby County Commission from proceeding on its own merger plan, which involves the appointment of members to an interim all-county school board.

Mays will decide on the injunction by May 3 if mediation has been unsuccessful.

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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Kelsey Voucher Bill Advances in State Senate

Posted By on Thu, Apr 14, 2011 at 1:00 PM

Sen. Brian Kelsey in Education Committee
  • Sen. Brian Kelsey in Education Committee
NASHVILLE -- A bill to provide state tuition grants for use in private schools received an OK from the state Senate Education Committee Wednesday and now goes to the Senate Calendar Committee for scheduling.

The bill, SB0485, styled the “Equal Opportunity Scholarship Act,” is sponsored by state Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) and numbers among its co-sponsors two other state senators from Shelby County — Majority Leader Mark Norris (R-Collierville) and Ophelia Ford (D-Memphis).

The bill:

*Provides for state tuition grants to low-income public school students in districts with A.D.A.(Average Daily Attendance) of at least 38,000 students.

*Applies therefore only to Shelby County (Memphis); Davidson County (Nashville); Knox County (Knoxville); Hamilton County (Chattanooga).

The tuition grants could be equal to as much as “half the amount spent on each child by the local school system,” Kelsey explained to the committee. The grants could be applied by recipient students to public schools in other districts, to public charter schools, or to participating private schools, including religious institutions.

Testifying on the bill’s behalf before the committee were two parents — one with a child in a Catholic parochial school in Memphis and another who wished to be able to enroll her child in such a school — and Henry Littleton, administrator for Our Lady of Sorrows parochial school in Memphis.

Testifying against the bill was Jerry Winters, executive director of the Tennessee Education Association (TEA), who said, “We can call this all kinds of fancy names….This is just a very blatant voucher bill….This is public money going to religious schools. That is a door, if you open it here today, or whenever you might open it, you will never get it closed….If there’s not a constitutional issue here, there’s not a constitutional issue anywhere.”

After brief discussion, the bill passed the Senate Education Committee on party-line vote — 5 ayes, 2 nays (from Sens. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga,and Charlotte Burks, D-Montery) 1 not-voting (by Sen. Reginald Tate, D-Memphis) — and was sent on to Senate Calendar Committee.

Meanwhile, the state House version of the bill, HB0388, will be considered by the House Education Subcommittee next Wednesday.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

How McWherter Faced Death: His Physician Recalls

Posted By on Tue, Apr 12, 2011 at 10:28 PM

Two funeral services — one in Nashville on Saturday and another in Dresden on Sunday — marked the passing of former Governor Ned McWherter, who was quietly buried in between the two observances, both attended by crowds in the thousands.

The Nashville service, held in the War Memorial Auditorium on Capitol Hill, was addressed by former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore, among others.

Gore described McWherter, who died the previous week after a long battle with cancer, as the greatest governor in Tennessee history. In a speech replete with humorous recollections, Clinton recalled appearing with McWherter at an outdoor Memphis event in 1993 when a stiff wind came up, causing one or two of the other dignitaries sharing the stage to move away from the president himself to get to the other side of the large-framed McWherter for protection.

The most unique testimonial to the larger-than-life late governor may have come Sunday at the Dresden event, however — from one of McWherter’s attending physicians, Dr. F. Karl Vandevender of Nashville’s Frist Clinic, who drew animated chuckles as he related a conversation with his famous patient.

“I asked him once how he felt about death. He said, ‘I’m on good terms with the Man Upstairs — and with the Man Downstairs.’ I never really asked him what that meant. It showed that, no matter how things went, he was prepared to reach across the aisle.”

Ford for Mayor: Big Apple Edition

Posted By on Tue, Apr 12, 2011 at 7:17 PM

The New York phase of former Memphis congressman Harold Ford Jr.’s political career may not have ended with the aborting of his intended U.S. Senate race in the Empire State last year.

Writing in the New York Post last week, journalists Ginger Adams and Claire Atkinson noted, “Recently former Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford Jr. set tongues wagging when he broke bread with leading Democratic pollster Doug Schoen. ‘That could be talk about a possible mayoral run,’ a political consultant speculated….”

Say what?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Van Turner Reelected Local Democratic Chairman

Attorney gets second term via acclamation, urges partymates to heighten 2012 efforts.

Posted By on Sun, Apr 10, 2011 at 4:20 AM

Shelby County Democratic chairman Van Turner receives the plaudits of onetime challenger Curtis Johnson after Turners unanimous reelection Saturday.
  • JB
  • Shelby County Democratic chairman Van Turner receives the plaudits of onetime challenger Curtis Johnson after Turner's unanimous reelection Saturday.

Demonstrating his personal survival skills, Shelby County Democratic chairman Van Turner won reelection to a second two-year term Saturday at the local party’s convention at American Way Middle School.

Thanks largely to a well-organized advance effort by his supporters, Turner was able to overcome the effects of a dismal election cycle for Democrats in 2010 and to turn away potential opposition. Though Shelby County Commissioner Justin Ford had considered running for the party office, and lawyer Curtis Johnson had in the previous week circulated a letter to party cadres seeking their backing, Turner turned out to be the only candidate nominated by the 38 members of a newly elected Democratic executive committee.

In brief acceptance remarks, Turner called for party unity and noted pointedly that the executive committee’s size, predicated on the local Democratic turnout in the2010 statewide election cycle, had shrunk from the 83 members authorized by the previous cycle, the 2008 presidential election year in which presidential candidate Barack Obama had drawn a strong Shelby County vote.

Democrats not only lost statewide in 2010, the party’s candidates on the Shelby County general election ballot had lost to their Republican opponents despite having a numerical majority on paper. (It should be noted that, though a court challenge to the 2010 county results proved futile, strong sentiment still exists among local Democrats, including Turner, concerning what they regard as possible irregularities in the voting.)

Itemizing the races on the 2012 general election ballot, including various Democratic incumbencies and one race — for District Attorney General — that Democrats had not yet won, Turner urged a strong party turnout. Forecasting problems for the party’s statewide candidates resulting from reapportionment after the 2010 census, Turner warned, “The word that I’ve got is that they’re probably going to try to eliminate a few of our House districts and maybe try to run some of our current state reps against each other.”

Taking the long view, Turner said, “We’re going to have to come back in the next 10 years, when they do the census, and get those lines back right….We’ve got a lot of work to do. We know the tide changes, and it’s going to eventually come back around, and it’s going to be our time.”

Friday, April 8, 2011

Will Booker T. Washington Have President Obama As Its Commencement Speaker This Year?

Posted By on Fri, Apr 8, 2011 at 8:43 PM

BTW principal Alisha Kiner and MCS superintendent Kriner Cash help school students celebrate the prospect of an Obama commencement address.
  • JB
  • BTW principal Alisha Kiner and MCS superintendent Kriner Cash help school students celebrate the prospect of an Obama commencement address.

If Alisha Kiner, principal of Booker T. Washington High School, was having trouble containing her excitement at a press call in the school’s auditorium Friday, despite a video machine that perversely decided not to work, the reason why shortly became obvious.

BTW, the venerable institution which has birthed any number of the city’s leaders, including former Mayor Willie Herenton, but has had its problems in a tough time, is ready again to show its proud side.

Even though the student-produced video that Kiner wanted to show the media never did quite materialize fully, its message was clear from the few scenes and overscripts that did show up on screen. Despite horrifically low income stats and a large incidence of “crime and abandonment” in the families of its student population, despite a “high pregnancy rate” among its students, despite any number of other indignities, BTW could boast of being the “first to educate blacks” in Memphis, the first to “implement gender-based classes,” and it would also be the first to —

It was about at that point that the computer or the connection or whatever started misbehaving, but when Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash, who was running late, finally got there to share in the celebration, principal Kiner just went ahead and made the announcement: The White House — yep, that White House — had called her on Thursday with the news that Booker T. Washington was one of six high schools nationwide, out of thousands of original entrants, to be a finalist in the Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge.

And just what is that? From the explanation on the Challenge web site: “The Commencement Challenge invites public high schools across the country to demonstrate how their school best prepares them for college and a career, helping America win the future by out-educating our competitors and achieving President Obama’s goal of having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by 2020.”

The misfiring video, when fully seen, demonstrates BTW’s determination to conquer obstacles and documents what Cash reminded the auditorium crowd of students and media had resulted in an 82 percent graduation rate, among other notable achievements. And it obviously made the school’s case well enough to land BTW in the group of six finalist institutions.

And the prize? President Barack Obama will be the commencement speaker this year at the winning institution.

The next phase of the contest requires votes from backers of the school — much in the manner of American Idol and other elimination contests on TV, Kiner pointed out. (Details of how to vote are on the contest website, This phase of the contest lasts from April 21 to May 3 and will depend heavily on vote count, pure and simple. And, just as with Idol and Dancing with the Stars and all those other contests, anybody can vote.

From the three top vote-getting high schools, President Obama himself will make the selection of which school he will address at commencement.

Given the documented burdens that BTW has had to bear, winning and having the nation’s leader on hand this May to hand out diplomas to the school’s own would-be leaders of the future would be a sweet reward indeed.

For the record, these are the six finalist high schools:

• Bridgeport High School (Bridgeport, Washington)
• Wayne Early Middle College High School (Goldsboro, North Carolina)
• Booker T. Washington High School (Memphis, Tennessee)
• Science Park High School (Newark, New Jersey)
• Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12, School for Creative and Performing Arts(Pittsburgh, PA)
• High Tech High International (San Diego, CA)

Harwell: “An End to Collective Bargaining as We Have Known It”

Posted By on Fri, Apr 8, 2011 at 4:27 PM

State House Speaker Harwell (right) and State Rep. Mark White at Memphis Bioworks
  • JB
  • State House Speaker Harwell (right) and State Rep. Mark White at Memphis Bioworks

For the second day in a row, Memphis was favored Friday with a visit from a ranking personage in state government. On Friday Governor Bill Haslam and state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman had come for a round of visits. On Friday state House Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville) made a series of stops here.

First was a visit to the Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering (MASE), which Harwell said was a model charter school and tied in with Governor Haslam’s emphasis on increasing the number of charter schools by lifting the cap on them.

Then she made a stop at Memphis Bioworks to inspect that facility and completed her visit with a speaking turn at a Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

At Bioworks Harwell took questions from local media. She was asked about the two versions of a pending bill on the issue of collective bargaining for teachers — a House version, which she and Haslam had backed, that trimmed certain prerogatives but provided for a modicum of collective bargaining; and a Senate version, backed by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, that would abolish altogether collective bargaining in public-school education.

Harwell said, in essence, that an amendment to the Senate bill in that body’s Education Committee laid the basis for reconciliation of the two versions. She said she thought the two houses would end on the same page after devising “a policy manual on issues concerning the workplace and certain rights that teachers will have.”

She then made the point-blank statement: “I think you will see an end to collective bargaining as we have known it.”

In other remarks, the House Speaker said the state had made early application for various federal funds in case of a governmental shutdown at the federal level; defended the rapid passage, back in January, of the controversial Norris-Todd bill on school merger in Shelby County (“we needed to be sure we had a plan in place”); and said that, besides education reform, bills on tort reform and immigration reform would soon be in the pipeline.

On the latter, she said, “We want to be sure that no state aids go to people in the state illegally, but she suggested that a recently passed bill mandating the use of the eVerify electronic method to check citizenship of prospective employees might be modified so as not “to harm small business.”

Concerning speculation about a power struggle between Ramsey and Haslam, Harwell echoed the governor’s sentiments of the previous day, saying, “The governor and lieutenant governor get along well.” They differed, but that was “part of the legislative process,” adding, “There will always be some differences; you could say same thing about the House and Senate.”

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Haslam and New Education Chief Huffman Come to Memphis to Learn from Teachers

Posted By on Thu, Apr 7, 2011 at 11:42 PM

Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash, state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, and Governor Bill Haslam at East High School on Thursday
  • JB
  • Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash, state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, and Governor Bill Haslam at East High School on Thursday

Governor Bill Haslam and his newly appointed state Education Commissioner, Kevin Huffman, came to Memphis Thursday on what they both termed a “learning” mission.

After the two of them had breakfast at East High School with a roundtable of educators from the several corners of the education firmament in Memphis and Shelby County, the governor told reporters, “We’re making a lot of decisions about education, so we owe them [the teachers] the responsibility to listen, to hear what the real issues are every day on the ground in the classroom.”

In the course of the breakfast meeting, the visitors had heard from teachers who favored testing as a gauge of education and teachers who disliked the concept, from principals who looked forward to the sweeping new evaluation process Haslam intends as a centerpiece of his education agenda and principals who thought the new evaluation procedures could shatter the continuity of the educational process.

In his session with reporters, Haslam noted, “There’s a lot of concern about the whole evaluation process, because for a lot of the teachers the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment Service doesn’t work for what they teach.” The governor mentioned music and art instruction in that context. “But we can wait forever to get the perfect evaluation system. Let’s begin the process. All of us need feedback. I need it in my job. I needed it when I was in business. Let’s start that process.”

Haslam said, “This is a tumultuous time. And I understand that. That’s why it’s even more important for leaders to come listen.”

After the two of them had taken part in a second event Thursday morning, the inauguration of the Max Cooper Business and Technology Program at Margolin Hebrew Academy on White Station, Huffman put his spin on the situation: “There’s nervousness every time there’s change…We’re not trying to drive toward standardization. We’re trying to create a world where innovation is the expectation. One thing I’m excited about is …implementing our teacher evaluation, our principal evaluation program across the state. There’s a huge opportunity to identify excellent teachers, excellent principals, and to study them, see what they’re doing, to learn from them, and help that drive further innovation.”

After the session at Margolin, Haslam was asked about the status of a pending bill regulating collective-bargaining for public-school teachers. A state House version, backed by the governor and by House Speaker Beth Harwell, puts new curbs on teachers’ associations but allows them to organize. The Senate version, backed by Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey, would abolish teachers’ collective bargaining rights altogether.

The governor indicated that the process of resolving the two versions of the bill could yield a third possibility. “There’s still a lot to be played out on that. I think the House version addresses the key issues that, as the governor, I’m concerned about — the ability to have differential pay, the ability for the superintendents to decide who gets hired and who gets laid off in situations where that happens [but] there’s still some talk about bringing up another alternative….I’m just not certain yet how that will play out.”

Haslam attempted to minimize speculation about whether persistent differences of opinion between himself and Ramsey amounted to an ongoing rivalry. “I can honestly say that there’s nothing there.” The two were “on the same page 90 percent of the time,” he said. “There’s times when we see things differently but that’s healthy. I don’t think it’d be good if every one of the Republican leaders said and did everything the same way every time. I’m not sure that would be a good thing.”

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Remembering Ned Ray McWherter (1930-2011)

A Tennessee icon who transcended political divides and set models for the nation

Posted By on Tue, Apr 5, 2011 at 10:38 AM

Governor Ned McWherter in 1988
  • Governor Ned McWherter in 1988
The last time I spoke to Ned McWherter was back in early February. The former governor called me — from his home in Dresden, I presume — to let me know he was keen to follow up on a suggestion that had come from his son Mike and his good friend and mine, Trace Sharp.

The two of them had contacted me at the beginning of the year and proposed that I interview the former governor, who ran Tennessee from 1987 to 1995 and was Speaker of the House for a dozen years before that, about his life and times. I had the impression they had made the same pitch to Governor McWherter — or Ned Ray, as most of his neighbors in northwest Tennessee still called him.

“And, Jackson, I wouldn’t wait on it,” Mike, who had been a candidate for governor himself just months earlier, said. The comment was made in an understated way, but I was alarmed by it. Was the former governor seriously ill?, I asked. “He’s all right,” said his son, after a deliberative pause. “You’ve got some time right now, but I wouldn’t let, say, a year go by.”

In retrospect, it seems obvious — and Mike McWherter has confirmed — that Ned McWherter was manifesting some obvious warning signs, but there was as yet no drastic diagnosis.

I let maybe three weeks go by — a fact that I will regret for some time — while I disposed of some other matters that had piled up on me. I was both intrigued and flattered by the invitation to do the interview, however, and eventually put a call through to the former governor. I went through McWherter’s longtime administrative assistant, Madelyn Pritchett, who in turn passed my message to the governor.

At the time I didn’t know any of the special circumstances that I was shortly to learn about — the most important of which came from Governor McWherter himself when he called. “I’ve got cancer,” he told me in that February conversation. But he communicated a hope that he would shortly be out of the woods on that score, and he said, “I’m not sure when I could come to Memphis.”

No, no, I assured him. I’d be more than happy to come to him. That was fine, he said. It was just a matter of when, and he’d get back to me on the best time for me to arrange a visit — “in a few days,” presumably when he completed a round of treatment he was just then involved with. Meantime, he talked about several Shelby Countians who had loomed large in the politics and civic life of the last few decades and ticked off the names of several he had enjoyed working with. “I did a lot of things with Memphis,” he said. “It meant a lot to me. I can tell you a lot of stuff about me and Memphis.”

The “few days” would stretch out for a while and I grew concerned enough, at some point, to put a call through to Mike McWherter. “How’s your Dad?” I asked.

“Jackson, it’s not real good,” he said, in a voice that may have sounded graver than he intended. For he continued, “He’s on a painkiller now, and will be until March 9th, and he’ll probably be able to talk to you as soon as he gets off. It’s just that he gets so tired from the medication, and it’s not the best time for him to be trying to remember things.”

Mike would, he told me, call me on March 9th. A week or 10 days later, I still hadn’t heard anything; so I called Mike back. At this point he made no effort to disguise the gravity of things. His father was riddled with cancer, he said, and the outlook wasn’t good at all. Doing chemo?, I asked. “Yes,” said Mike. “Let’s just see how this works out, and we’ll talk again toward the end of the month.”

That was my last communication with anyone in the McWherter household. The end of March came and went, and the first week of April got started, and — you know the rest of the story. Along with everyone else, I learned about the former governor’s passing on Monday afternoon.

My print competitor and TV colleague Bill Dries of the Daily News, who was getting news flashes on his computer, leaned over to tell me about it during a typically agitated moment on the county commission, while the 4th District’s Terry Roland was going head-to-head with the 5th District’s Steve Mulroy concerning an aspect of the school merger crisis. Or something suchlike.

The effect — to scramble time and space — was a little bit like getting the news of Pearl Harbor or JFK or 9/11 while watching a WWE throwdown on pay-per-view.

I had never known Governor McWherter well, though I had interviewed him a few times — once, during the Democratic convention of 1988 in Atlanta, while he held the door of a busy elevator open for several minutes, stopping time in its tracks while he discoursed eloquently and fully on the world of contemporary politics in answer to a question of mine.

In addition to everything else, Ned McWherter was a courteous man, generous with his time. I was flattered — nay, honored — to have been invited to conduct what might well have become the final interview of his life, one that would have been the basis for a look-back — no doubt, a highly appreciative one — in the Flyer’s sister publication, Memphis Magazine. And, of course, I lament that his time ran out before that could happen.

I lament that his time ran out, period. As the avalanche of accolades and eulogies from all corners on Monday indicated, so did most other people — Democratic, Republican, what-have-you.

Reactions to McWherter’s death — from the high and mighty and regular folks alike — made it evident that both the former Tennessee governor and the political era he presided over held a special claim to the affections of his state.

McWherter and Clinton as fellow governors
  • McWherter and Clinton as fellow governors
And to his nation as well. Former President Bill Clinton, whose tenure as governor of Arkansas overlapped with that of McWherter in his neighbor state, made it clear on Monday that his Tennessee counterpart’s positive influence transcended state borders: “…His legendary ability to cut to the heart of a problem in a few blunt words was invaluable to me in the White House. Those of us who served as governors with Ned knew that under his leadership, there was no state better run than Tennessee, because of his commitment to both continuous change and sensible management, and his uncanny blend of old-fashioned common sense and progressive values….”

And the memory of McWherter’s common-sense, forward-looking approaches to the problems of Tennessee was attested to by the uniform out-pouring of praise and remembrance across a Tennessee political spectrum that is otherwise highly fractionated these days.

Alexander, Corker, Cohen, Haslam, Ramsey, Naifeh, Herron, DeBerry, et al, et al. Former U.S. Senator and Vice President Al Gore, whose service spanned state and nation, said it simply: “Regarded by many as the greatest governor in our state's modern history, he fused the demands of tough executive management with the authentic touch of the common man.”

“The greatest.” Gore was not alone in making that claim for a man who had worked his way up to the governorship from long years of service as Speaker of the House, whose attention to detail regularly earned Tennessee the title of the nation’s best-managed state, whose far-sighted policies — in matters of healthcare and education, especially — became models for the rest of America, and whose bipartisan spirit was best reflected in the strong votes this authentic Democrat always got in arch-Republican East Tennessee.

Like Elvis Presley, this political icon was a sharecropper’s son. Like Elvis, and like another up-from-nothing titan who fell this sad and tragic week, University of Memphis basketball immortal Larry Finch, he will be well and long remembered.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Judge Gets Parties to School-Merger Suit to Look for Compromise, Sets April 19 Deadline

Posted By on Mon, Apr 4, 2011 at 12:29 PM

Chism with media after hearing
  • JB
  • Chism with media after hearing
The several parties to ongoing federal litigation concerning the ifs, whens, and hows of local school system merger will have to wait at least 15 days before getting their first ruling from U.S. District Judge Samuel Hardy Mays.

That’s because Mays, after conferring with attorneys from all the separate contingents on Monday, said he would wait to see if they could hash out a compromise agreement of some sort. That was his aim in summoning the lawyers back to his chambers for consultation, and he apparently made some headway, because nobody involved was saying anything afterward about it being impossible to work something out.

After a preliminary hearing last week, Mays had set today as a time for ruling on a request by Shelby County Schools and the state Education Department that the Shelby County Commission be enjoined from proceeding with their plans to appoint 25 members to a new interim all-county school board.

And the judge said that if the various litigants and defendants could not agree on a common course of action before 9:30 a.m., Tuesday, April 19, he would go ahead and issue his ruling on that date. If, on the other hand, an agreement was reached, that would obviate the need for such a ruling — and conceivably for a subsequent trial, for that matter.

Sidney Chism, chairman of the county commission and a spectator at Monday’s abbreviated hearing, commented afterward, “I think everybody would try to work something out, because, if we stay in court, it would be a long drawn-out battle and very expensive.”

Word from Chism and other principals involved in the litigation was that Memphis Mayor A C Wharton, an old hand at compromise, was taking charge of finding a solution. And, while nobody was willing to be specific about particulars, there was speculation about amending a key provision of the Norris-Todd bill, recently passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by Governor Haslam.

The bill’s validity and precedence over the private act which the county commission is relying on is one of the issues at stake in the current federal litigation (as well as in a separate federal suit filed last week that U.S. District Judge Bernice Donald will deal with). The bill establishes a 2 ½-year timetable for the merger of Memphis City Schools with Shelby County Schools, after which, in August 2013, the creation of new school districts in Shelby County would be enabled.

Members of the county commission have previously indicated that abolition of the special-district provision of Norris-Todd would make that legislation more palatable — although, as Lawrence Giordano, an attorney for SCS, pointed out, the law is a Tennessee statute and state government would have to be involved in amending it.



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