Tuesday, November 13, 2012

World-Class Crack-Up

Voters don’t buy the rhetoric of creating a new school system.

Posted By on Tue, Nov 13, 2012 at 5:35 PM

So much for the world-class unified school system.

By a 69-31 margin, voters put the final nail in that DOA concept last week, defeating a referendum that would have increased the sales tax to provide more money for schools.

Just over 250,000 votes were cast on the referendum, and Memphis was disproportionately represented, because suburban municipalities that approved a sales tax increase in November were excluded. The margin was all the more telling when you consider that Germantown, Collierville, Arlington, and Bartlett passed their tax bump in August by margins of at least 75-25.

Another half-penny on the sales tax, by itself, won't pay for new suburban systems or universal pre-kindergarten. But those things won't happen without additional revenue. The suburbs acknowledged that, and the majority of Memphis voters did not. In a sales campaign, backers of the countywide increase, including Memphis mayor A C Wharton and the NAACP (but not Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell), pitched half of it as a way to fund pre-K programs. Without breaking down the math, this was, in other words, spun as a vote for more funding for public schools. Voters did not say "no." They said "hell no."

One of the backers, city councilman Shea Flinn, said he would not rule out pushing for a Memphis-only referendum in 2013. Better focus, better sales pitch, bigger alliance, yadda yadda. More to the point, special elections get a tiny turnout compared to a presidential election, so, in effect, another referendum would be gaming the system.

Instead, backers of the failed referendum, myself included, have to acknowledge the obvious. A broad sampling of Memphians, in addition to that huge majority of suburbanites, don't buy the notion of a world-class Memphis public school system, much less a unified Memphis and Shelby County school system. A world-class crack-up is more like it. Consider what has happened in the last year or two.

The suburbs want separate school systems and school boards, if not in 2013 then in 2014. Most of the suburban members of the joint city and county school board have no intention of remaining in a unified system.

The Memphis members of the unified school board and the leaders of the Memphis Education Association (MEA) want all the autonomy, perks, power, and jobs they had before the 2011 merger, plus universal pre-K. At the last school board meeting, MEA passed out an 11-page, point-by-point critique of the TPC recommendations. The groups are miles apart.

Among other things, the union says "MCS has a school closing policy that has worked effectively," and it opposes displacing current teachers with newcomers, giving principals the power to fire tenured teachers, and basing teacher pay on merit instead of academic degrees and experience.

The Transition Planning Commission recommended that a superintendent for the future unified system be hired this fall. The school board cannot even agree on where or how to search for one.

The Tennessee Department of Education and Commissioner Kevin Huffman want to expand charter schools and the Alternative School District, which operate apart from the current Memphis system and unified school board. The vast majority of the young college graduates who came to Memphis with Teach For America as change agents and stayed in public education in Memphis after their two-year commitment are working in charter schools or the Achievement School District.

Parents of students in Memphis optional schools and the CLUE program have made it clear at school board meetings that they will only stay in the system if those programs are preserved.

Depending on how the federal court decides the constitutional questions about municipal school systems, by the start of the 2013 or 2014 school year this is what we are looking at: a unified system with fewer than 100,000 students; an expanding state-run Achievement School District with its own superintendent and 15 or more schools; an expanding charter school network with 30 or more schools; and five or six suburban systems with their own school boards and superintendents and 20,000 or more students in all.

There may be some world-class schools in that mix, but to call it a world-class system is delusional. My guess is that if a referendum were held to undo the 2011 MCS charter surrender and put the toothpaste back in the tube, it would pass in both the county and the city, by a margin of about 69-31.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

How to Mask "The Ask"

International Paper's curious approach to community engagement.

Posted By on Wed, Nov 7, 2012 at 9:57 AM

Fairly or not, and whether it goes or stays in Memphis, International Paper is going to be known as the Fortune 500 company that raised the ante on corporate tax incentives.

The company that said "me" when others were saying "we."

The company that wants to inoculate itself against property tax hikes for 30 years.

The company that responded to hard times and a call for community engagement with a threat to disengage.

Some of this is not IP's fault. IP is following the lead of Electrolux, FedEx, Mitsubishi, Belz Enterprises, and numerous other companies that have tax freezes, which are a Memphis specialty of long standing. And let's say it was just bad timing that IP made its "tax-freeze-or-else" request at the dawn of the feel-good "Robert Pera era" of new ownership of the Memphis Grizzlies and while Shelby County residents, some of them anyway, were voting on an increase in the regressive sales tax.

But people get paid good money to create and polish a corporate image. And CEOs have a skill set that includes community engagement. On that score, IP is conspicuously inconspicuous. Yes, it is a top-three corporate giver to Mid-South United Way, and many of its 2,000 local employees doubtless participate in all kinds of community projects. What's missing is a signature project like this:

The Salvation Army Kroc Center and McDonald's founder Ray Kroc; the Peabody hotel and Jack Belz and family; FedExForum; AutoZone Park; the Memphis Redbirds and Dean and Kristi Jernigan; First Tennessee Fields and youth baseball and the First Tennessee Memphis Marathon from 1987 to 2000; Justin Timberlake and Miramichi; the late Abe Plough and the Plough Foundation; J.R. "Pitt" Hyde and the Hyde Family Foundation; "NBA Now" and Staley Cates and Mason Hawkins of Southeastern Asset Management; the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and public education; the Regions Morgan Keegan Championships and men's pro tennis; Cellular South and women's pro tennis from 2003 to 2011; the FedEx St. Jude Classic and pro golf; Shelby Farms and the Lucius Burch State Natural Area; the Levitt Shell and the Mortimer Levitt Foundation; downtown development and the Henry Turley Company; the Mike Rose Soccer Complex.

Some of these people and companies aren't even in Memphis, but their names are still associated with something good.

Lest anyone doubt the power of getting on the right side of community engagement, here is a sample of the love in one newspaper column this week about Robert Pera and the opener: "historic day ... glorious ... self-effacing ... triumphant ... a day of transition and celebration ... crank up the joy ... splendid ... for the goosebumps not the tax write-offs ... dazzling."

Image polishing is not everyone's cup of beer. Frauds like Allen Stanford can blow into town and throw around other people's money while anonymous donors give away millions. A low profile can be a sign of character. The Memphis CEOs, politicians, and heads of charitable organizations that I talked to about IP were wary of being judgmental or speaking on the record.

"It's a pretty big ask," said one businessman who is familiar with local tax incentives. A political veteran said "it would send a terrible message" to other companies who might follow suit. George Little, chief administrative officer for the city of Memphis, was not able to produce a document detailing IP's specific request but told me "it's very much a work in progress."

Nobody plays the community engagement card more skillfully or more frequently than the owners and promoters of sports teams and games. AutoZone Park was too big, too expensive, and ran afoul of the IRS, but all that was masked in the glow of 2000. Tiger Lane, a sop to the football crowd, was sold as a 365-days-a-year playground. Michael Heisley got his price from Pera and friends, who, presumably, are not in business to lose money.

John Faraci, the CEO of International Paper (who makes less than Rudy Gay), told me in an interview earlier this year that IP's signature Memphis project is the National Civil Rights Museum. All right, but get in line. A natural fit for IP and Greater Memphis would be Overton Park or Meeman-Shelby Forest with its 13,467 acres of bottomland hardwood forest, lakes, trails, ball fields, boat ramp, and swimming pool.

Unlike Overton Park, Meeman-Shelby Forest is remote and a bit of an orphan and could use a corporate angel now and then. And IP could use some cover. Better late than never.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Crashing with Lance

Armstrong fans share their disillusionment with a fallen hero.

Posted By on Thu, Nov 1, 2012 at 4:00 AM

Lance Armstrong - KARIMALA | DREAMSTIME.COM
  • Karimala | Dreamstime.com
  • Lance Armstrong
For several days in October, the first news story I looked for each morning when I turned on my computer was not the presidential campaign or the sports scores or the local headlines.

It was Lance Armstrong, the great cyclist who was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and banned from the sport for life for using illegal performance-enhancing drugs.

I'm not even a cyclist, just a guy who occasionally rides a bike and became an Armstrong fan when he overcame cancer and won the only bicycle race that gets any television time. A few years ago, I hosted a visitor to Memphis from India. Just before he flew home, he asked me to do one thing: take him some place where he could buy a yellow Livestrong wrist band in honor of Lance Armstrong.

Armstrong made fans of non-fans and believers of professional skeptics. I read his book, watched his press conferences, and argued with friends who called him a doper. I flipped positions after I saw the interviews with rival pros who finally broke down and said that they and Armstrong had cheated.

That made the story sleazier but no less interesting. If everyone else was doping, then was Armstrong, as he surely believes to this day, not still the champ? How much of an edge does the blood-booster erythropoietin, known as EPO, give you? Would it work for ordinary athletes in other sports? A couple of weeks ago, The New York Times did a story about a 33-year-old competitive runner who was not quite world-class but still good enough to win nearly $40,000 in prize money in more than 75 cherry-picked races. He 'fessed up to using EPO he bought in Tijuana.

I wondered how competitive athletes in Memphis felt about Armstrong's story.

"I've known Armstrong since he was a teenager and have been in races with him," said Joe Royer, founder of the Outdoors Inc. Cyclocross Championship. "I always was suspicious of him. I'm disappointed, because he would have had a great career anyway."

He thinks the cover-up was aided by Armstrong's commanding personality. "If he rode off a cliff, then his team would ride off a cliff," Royer said.

As for ordinary athletes, "Yes," Royer said, "they could get a boost, and it's unfortunate that a great time could arouse suspicion. I feel terrible about that."

Paul Rubin, past president of the Memphis Hightailers Bicycle Club, agreed that Armstrong didn't have to cheat.

"He was a hero and role model," Rubin said.

But Rubin lost faith after fellow cycling pros accused Armstrong of doping. He recalled the time seven years ago when a semi-pro rider spoke to the Hightailers and was asked about dope.

"They all cheat," the speaker said.

Lisa Overall, president of the Memphis Runners Track Club, said there are still "a lot of things we don't know" about the evidence against Armstrong. An attorney, Overall noted that some of the accusations come from admitted dopers.

"It seems strange to me that he could be tested that rigorously and only have one positive test," she said.

The St. Jude Memphis Marathon coming up in December offers a total of $2,000 in prize money. The registration form says participants may be subject to formal drug testing.

Kevin Adams, who rides in regional bicycle races and completed a 16-day solo kayak trip on the Mississippi River, says competitive athletes are always looking for an edge. Armstrong, he says, is still "an amazing athlete" and was not the only one doping.

"I absolutely believed him," he said. "My issue now is that he continued to lie."

Peter Lebedevs, triathlete and director of the professional tennis tournament at the Racquet Club, "wanted to believe Armstrong, but the sport was so rife with it that it was hard to believe he wasn't involved."

Tennis has had a rigorous drug-testing program for years. Tournaments are randomly selected, and Memphis was chosen twice in the last four years, Lebedevs said. No one flunked.

A teaching pro himself, Lebedevs believes ordinary athletes could probably get stronger and faster but that drugs would not improve hand-eye coordination. As for triathlons, he has not heard any buzz about banned boosters in local races.

"The prize money kind of dictates how much you will risk your body," he said.

I'm not so sure about that. Sports have a powerful hold on all of us, and it's mostly about ego and competitiveness. If I could just get to a few more balls somehow, I bet I could beat Lebedevs next time we play squash. Somehow. Hmmmm.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Debate Dodge

Presidential candidates let us off easy, and we know it.

Posted By on Wed, Oct 24, 2012 at 11:07 AM

Unscathed. And pandered to. That's how I felt as one of "the American people" after watching three presidential debates and one vice-presidential debate.

obama-romney.jpg

Nobody told me or my Baby Boomer generation cohorts to expect less in the way of Social Security benefits and Medicare no matter which candidate wins the election next month. Nobody asked us to work longer, delay our eligibility, or pay more taxes to compensate for our expected longer life span and the shortfall in funding.

Nobody asked American high school and college graduates to do a mandatory two years of national service in either the military or a civilian program, even though applications for the Peace Corps and Teach For America are up, due to a combination of idealism and pragmatism, when the jobs picture is bleak.

Nobody said clearly and unequivocally that in order to bring spending in line with revenues "the American people," all of them, will have to expect less from government.

Instead, they blamed the rich 1 percent or the doctors or the insurance companies or loopholes or inefficiency or the takers or the lack of competition and then cynically suggested that the problem can be cured without general sacrifice by the American people. All of us.

Neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney told us what we know — that the choice is reduced services and benefits or higher taxes. Or probably both. In a close race, they fear that they might lose "the undecideds" by telling it straight.

We heard all those personal anecdotes about running into an ordinary, hard-working American in a factory, in a small town cafe, or on a college campus. But we did not hear a single one about a Baby Boomer who has had it pretty good and has an eye on a place in Florida or the Ozarks but is going to have to wait one more year for retirement benefits, pay more for them, and maybe get by with less.

Nobody wants a political leader who's a scold, but is it so hard to say what most of us know full well already — that we have been spoiled by big houses, big cars, cheap gas, easy mortgages, credit cards, must-have gadgets, and budgets built on debt that someone is going to have to pay?

Politicians assume we want easy answers. Sacrifice is a loser. All those carefully crafted questions from the debate moderators and the undecided voters in the audience and not one candidate who said, "American people, hear this. Expect less or pay more. As you probably already know, the gravy train has come to the end of the line."

In Memphis and Shelby County, expansion of pre-kindergarten classes might not happen with a half-cent sales tax increase, but it certainly won't happen without it. And pre-K won't be "universal" without a firm commitment from the school board and supporters willing to pay for it if the half-cent sales tax increase falls short or gets spent somewhere else.

Closing 21 schools, as the Transition Planning Commission recommended, might not balance the unified school system's budget, but there is no way the budget can be balanced without closing schools.

Want suburban school districts? Prepare to pay for them with property tax increases as well as a sales tax increase.

Want more charter schools? One school's gain is another's loss, so face the consequences of reduced enrollment in already half-empty traditional schools and don't expect "community centers" to magically fill them at no cost.

In our daily lives, we know that goods and services cost more and that free is not really free. That holiday package with "free shipping" is going to cost more. That daily newspaper delivered to your home won't be around much longer, unless more readers pay $156 a year instead of poaching it off the internet. The no-money-down sofa comes with an installment plan. That free cell phone or tablet comes with a service plan and a contract.

So here's to politicians and leaders who tell us there are no easy answers but only hard choices, that the other side is right about some things, that all must sacrifice something, and that anyone who says otherwise is not telling the truth.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Chasing the Scofflaws

Blighted property and unpaid parking tickets vex city council.

Posted By on Wed, Oct 17, 2012 at 8:44 PM

Sometimes the Memphis City Council deals with big stuff like budgets and signature developments, and sometimes it deals with little stuff that adds up to big stuff.

In the second category you can put fines and fees and, especially, the people who incur them and do not pay them. In a word, scofflaws.

Two types of scofflaws have earned special attention from the council this month. One is the owners of blighted property and the other is people who don't pay parking tickets. It's not exactly the crime of the century, and lives are rarely at stake, but problem properties and problem parkers take up a lot of city manpower. Add that to the lost revenue from uncollected fines and you're talking millions of dollars.

As always, someone thinks they have a better idea, and the council is all ears — as you might want to be too if you live near a blighted property (who doesn't?) or have an unpaid $20 ticket (ditto).

The blight problem is estimated by city officials to include at least 63,000 vacant and abandoned properties plus a "shadow inventory" of problem properties that banks have not yet forced into foreclosure. What to do? Well, now the city can notify the owner that, say, the yard is ridiculously overgrown and there have been complaints. If there is no response, the city can cut the yard and send the owner the bill or place a lien on the property. It should be noted that overgrown lots are the least of the problems faced by some crime-ridden neighborhoods, but this will serve as an example.

The catch is that irresponsible people are by definition not responsible and unlikely to respond to neighborly complaints, official notices, or fines. The city of Memphis wants to put on the books a property registration requirement.

"We can't find anyone responsible, and we're overworking the departments involved," said attorney Julian Bolton, who is working with the city. "We need a clean database."

The cost for responsible homeowners would be as little as $5, he said, while scofflaws would be subject to a $200 fine. Memphis, at least in theory, could make some money, put the screws to out-of-town owners, and reduce blight as Bolton said other cities have done by starting a registry.

Or not. Joseph Kirkland, an attorney representing several lenders, told the council the Shelby County Assessor already keeps a database of 240,753 parcels. A new registry would duplicate it, and owners could demand jury trials over the fines, which would be "a nightmare." Or, as Councilman Jim Strickland suggested, "Bad property owners are not going to register. They'll ignore it."

The discussion ended with a showing of a Channel 3 News clip of a roach-infested apartment building in Hickory Hill and a tenant complaining that the owner is not responsive. The proposed new property registry will be discussed by all parties for another month.

The parking-ticket issue brought to the council's table two opposing parties. Charles Fineberg, president of Mid South Subpoena Service, wants to take over collections of unpaid fines he estimated at over $3 million a year. City Court clerk Tom Long wants to keep the present system and says the uncollected fines are closer to $1 million.

"We're spending money on enforcement and not getting the revenue," said Councilman Kemp Conrad.

Consumer alert! The fine for a parking ticket is $20. It escalates to $40, then to $80, if unpaid. But, as canny drivers and media watchdogs know, it goes away after one year. Still, Long says, roughly 80 percent of fines are collected. His policy is to fish where the big ones are — the big ones being people with more than $500 in unpaid tickets. Those scofflaws face "booting" by the dreaded wheel-locking boot (rarely used, Long admits) or towing, which means $200 in additional charges and $30-a-day storage. Long said police towed more than 900 cars in the first six months of 2012, which serves as a deterrent to would-be scofflaws.

"Because we're towing, they're paying," said Long, who says his office collects $2.5 million a year on parking tickets. "If I had two years instead of one to collect fines, it would be a lot more."

The council decided to take Fineberg's proposal under consideration.

Consider yourself warned.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Slow Growth or Decline?

From FedEx to the airport to school systems, big changes are coming.

Posted By on Wed, Oct 10, 2012 at 2:03 PM

Memphis is facing the greatest challenge to its growth and prosperity since the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the subsequent description of it by Time magazine as "a Southern backwater" and "decaying river town."

Memphis rose to the challenge and can do it again. This time, though, there are big changes in five of the key drivers of our growth in the last 40 years. We'll know better where we stand by the end of this year, and we'll know some key things by the end of this month and even this week.

FedEx: On Tuesday and Wednesday, FedEx CEO and founder Fred Smith and other top executives will give a detailed description, via webcast, of their plans for reshaping the company. This is unprecedented. Buyouts and possibly layoffs in Memphis are expected. FedEx, which began operations in 1973 and became a public company in 1978, employs some 30,000 people in the Memphis area. Its FedEx Express World Headquarters on Hacks Cross and the FedEx World Tech Center in Collierville were huge construction jobs, employment magnets, and growth engines from 1998 to 2005, especially for the suburbs.

Whatever FedEx does will have a big ripple effect on Memphis as a distribution center and on Memphis International Airport, one of the busiest cargo airports in the world.

The airport: It's so uncrowded that, strange as it sounds, it's scary. There's been an exterior building boom, with a new tower and parking garage, that masks the often empty concourses and shops, the short lines, and the dwindling list of daily arrivals and departures in the terminal, due mainly to cutbacks since 2010 by Delta Air Lines. Airport expansion in the 1980s and 1990s by Northwest Airlines, including international service to Amsterdam, gave the Memphis economy a boost and big-city pride. But the Northwest hub doesn't figure much in Delta's plans, and flights have been cut nearly in half.

The disappearing banks: Less than 15 years ago, Memphis was home to three regional banks — Union Planters, First Tennessee, and National Bank of Commerce — as well as homegrown Morgan Keegan. Not even Nashville could say that. Now Morgan Keegan is a piece of Raymond James, and the Union Planters and National Bank of Commerce brands are gone. There is, literally, no sign of them on the downtown skyline. Only First Tennessee, now First Horizon, still calls Memphis its headquarters, and its stock price and employee count took a big hit in the recession.

The housing bust: Home builder Jerry Gillis of Faxon-Gillis said there were more than 9,000 starts in the five-county Greater Memphis area in 2005, way over the 40-year average of 4,000-5,000 starts a year. Easy mortgage money to overextended buyers fueled the boom and ripple effect to appliances, furnishings, road building, and expanded public services. Some of it was growth, but some of it was flight. Memphis annexations of Cordova and Hickory Hill disguised what would otherwise have been a significant loss of population in the 2000 and 2010 Census. The completion of the Southwind annexation in 2013 could be the end of an era.

"The number of starts fell off 80 percent in 2008," Gillis said. "It happened all over the country, not just in Memphis. Because of low interest rates, the number of permits is going to grow, but I don't know if we will get back to 4,000-5,000 units in five years."

The changing school system: Within a week or two, U.S. district judge Samuel H. Mays will rule on the legality of the proposed municipal suburban school systems. Face it, if municipal school systems aren't coming next year, they're coming soon enough. Meanwhile, charter schools will chip away at enrollment in the Unified School System. Will "multiple paths to achievement" be more than gobbledygook or will the muni systems spiral toward taking care of their own while the Unified School System becomes the former Memphis City Schools, with a final and fatal round of flight?

Cause for hope: Nobody is cooler under fire or more visionary than Fred Smith, who has said he won't retire for a few more years. Memphis has a stellar group of innovative and generous philanthropists. Electrolux and Mitsubishi will bring new jobs that should eventually drive the housing market. Southwest Airlines and Bass Pro are (probably) coming to Memphis. So are hundreds more new teachers with Teach For America. Downtown developer Henry Turley says apartment rents are rising.

We're buying growth. There will be bills to pay. But that's better than being a Southern backwater and decaying river town.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

London's Memphis Music Geek

A visit with Neil Scott of No-Hit Records.

Posted By on Wed, Oct 3, 2012 at 1:37 PM

LONDON — So I went looking for Elvis in London and instead found England's biggest fan of Memphis roots music, Amy LaVere, Jim Dickinson, and Sun Records.

"I am a music geek," said Neil Scott, who works at No-Hit Records in Camden Town, a short bus ride from central London and as packed on a Sunday afternoon as Beale Street is during Music Fest.

Scott joined an Elvis fan club when he was 8 years old, came to Memphis for the first time when he was 10, and has been back several times since then. He plays the upright bass and splits his time between Memphis and Nashville when he travels. His bible is Shangri-La Records and its guide to low-life Memphis called "Kreature Komforts."

No-Hit was founded in 1987, and the name is a reference to the owner's preferences for old-school 33 rpm vinyl albums and 45 rpm records kept in boxes stashed all over the store. Scott, 45, has worked there for 17 years, starting with compilations of various artists then digging deeper and deeper.

"Most of the stuff we've got is pretty obscure," he said.

That's an understatement.

Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis sell their share of albums and their pictures adorn the walls, but the store's biggest seller is a rockabilly guitar player named Charlie Feathers, a contemporary of Elvis who recorded at Sun Studio with Sam Phillips and died in 1998.

 "I saw him twice when he came to London," Scott said. "Both shows were sold out. He never had a hit record, but he's still a household name here and has a lot of young fans."

In 2004, the Flyer's music editor, Chris Herrington, did a guide to the 50 best albums in the history of Memphis music, which I brought along as a souvenir swapper.

Scott knew them all, from Herrington's number-one pick, Al Green ("too smooth and too soul for us"), to Jerry Lee Lewis ("still reissued, and came to London three years ago") to Rufus Thomas ("his early blues sells well") to Carl Perkins ("god-like") to Jim Dickinson ("he had just passed away when I came to Memphis") to Sam Phillips ("Peter Guralnick's documentary on him is amazing") to Herrington's number 50, Mud Boy and the Neutrons.

He's also a big fan of Amy LaVere, the bass player for the Wandering, and Big Star, whose boxed set is one of No-Hit's bestsellers.

No-Hit does half of its sales through the store and half via the website or on eBay. For some reason, Johnny Burnett is enjoying a revival this year, along with Johnny Cash, who is outselling Elvis.

"Elvis is still popular, but most people have got all of his music by now," Scott said.

Talking about rock and rockabilly made Scott as wistful as Americans get when they see travelogues of Europe.

"I've got to get back to Memphis," he said. "I love it more every time I go."

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Separation of Powers

The shape of things to come at the Memphis City Council.

Posted By on Wed, Sep 26, 2012 at 12:53 PM

Last week's consideration of the gay rights ordinance by the Memphis City Council pushed several of the players into prominent roles. Like they say, you can't tell the players without a program.

The silent hero. Causes love converts. Reid Hedgepeth, by one media account, "rocketed himself into the city's annals on civil rights" by the way he "eloquently deconstructed" the opposition to the gay rights ordinance. While civil rights legends back in the day were fiery orators who took to the streets and pulpits, Hedgepeth took to the internet. His launching pad to the city's annals was an email he wrote and sent to members of the media after the vote. During the live debate on the vote, Hedgepeth was silent, giving new meaning to the phrase "mailing it in."

The drama queen. Nobody makes a more passionate speech than council member Janis Fullilove, who reached new oratorical heights last week in defense of gay rights. A crowd pleaser, and a nice distraction from legal problems that had her in the news.

The expert witness from across the mall. Generally speaking, city council members and county commissioners stay in their own yards. Mayors are occasionally invited to speak on the other side of the mall, but even that is rare. Steve Mulroy is a professor of constitutional law at the University of Memphis law school. He is also a member of the county commission. Last week, Mulroy showed up at the city council meeting and was invited to give his view of the charter question, which — surprise! — was different from the opinions of city council attorney Allan Wade and Memphis city attorney Herman Morris Jr. As some council members pointed out, Mulroy also happened to be a supporter of the gay rights ordinance. And as Morris pointed out, he (Morris) has an actual client.

The T-shirt gallery. If your group doesn't have a T-shirt, you ain't nothin'. Public meetings are starting to look like rock concerts. Making the grade in fine form lately were supporters of the gay rights ordinance, police and firemen, AFSCME, Stand For Children, and the Memphis Education Association. The more the better. Signs recommended.

The man upstairs. Mayor A C Wharton picks his spots. Last week, to the chagrin of some members of the council, he was nowhere to be seen when the gay rights ordinance came up. He was represented by chief administrative officer George Little. Wharton did, however, make some very nice remarks at the demolition of the Lone Star Cement silos.

The referendum option. "Let the people decide" is the most direct form of democracy. Prepare a ballot question, schedule it for the next election, and let it be voted up or down. Used sparingly, it has its merits. Overused, it leads to ballot bloat, voter fatigue, mischief, and a sneaking suspicion that elected officials are trying to pass the hot potato and get off the hook. In recent years, Memphians have voted on the city charter, annexation, and surrendering the Memphis City Schools charter. This year, a proposed local sales tax increase was headed for a Memphis referendum until the county commission trumped it. Last week, some members of the city council suggested that the gay rights ordinance should also go to a referendum, because it amounts to a charter change.

The judicial review option. A corollary to the referendum option that boots the ultimate decision to someone else, in this case the state court (the withdrawal of city funds for schools, still unresolved after four years) or federal court (municipal school districts). City attorney Morris predicted that a gay rights ordinance would lead to a lawsuit. Expensive and time-consuming.

The busy attorney. The city council's attorney is the man or woman who sits in on meetings and offers occasional advice when asked. Usually a low-profile person, but not so much lately. Allan Wade is representing the city in federal court in the municipal schools lawsuit in addition to his bimonthly council sessions and other cases in his private practice. Since the city school board charter surrender in 2010, Wade has gotten more speaking time than most council members.

The silent protest. Wanda Halbert is usually one of the council's most talkative members, but she passed on the 7-5 vote on the gay rights ordinance. Halbert did, however, ask some questions before the vote to the attorneys, which led her to decide that some of her colleagues were pulling a fast one, or even two fast ones. She suggested it's time for the council to review its policies and procedures, because "this is really getting agitating."

You think?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Diplomacy Needed

The city council takes up discrimination based on sexual orientation

Posted By on Wed, Sep 19, 2012 at 11:35 AM

Divided We Stand. And if Memphians can't find something to divide us, then we'll just look a little harder.

As if race, public schools, superintendents, the riverfront, and Liberty Bowl Stadium aren't enough, a few more "where do you stand?" questions have been thrown into the mix: bike lanes on city streets, and Chick-fil-A and gays.

In the latest media attention grabber, the Memphis City Council has taken up a antidiscrimination ordinance with specific attention to sexual orientation. The ordinance is supported by the Tennessee Equality Project, which supports gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals. The vote was scheduled for Tuesday afternoon, too late for Flyer deadlines for this week's newspaper.

Council members said they expected to hear from several speakers but did not know if any of them would be current or former city employees with personal stories about discrimination.

This looks like a solution in search of a problem. Testimonials could present fresh evidence, but three city and county mayors whose tenures spanned three decades recalled few if any such instances when I talked to them.

Willie Herenton, mayor of Memphis from 1992 to 2009, remembered a couple of events, but they were not directly related to city policy or city employees. In 2000, he met with Judy Shepard, mother of Matthew Shepard, a young man who was murdered in Wyoming in 1998 in a hate crime. She was in Memphis to give a talk, and Herenton offered his sympathy. Another time, Herenton went to a ribbon cutting at the Memphis Gay and Lesbian Community Center in Midtown. He was criticized both times, he recalled.

"My philosophy was that discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation is just wrong," he said.

Bill Morris, Shelby County mayor from 1978 to 1994, could not remember any complaints based on sexual orientation reaching his office but said it was possible that they would have been handled by a division director without his knowledge.

"That was never an issue for us," he said. "My policy was equal rights for everyone from the time I was elected. I established that on day one."

Dick Hackett, mayor of Memphis from 1982 to 1991, said activists tried to force the issue once, but his position was that federal law covered all types of discrimination.

"We said we would abide by federal law that is already on the books," he said. "I think somebody thought they were going to get us to fight it. The issue was probably more divisive back then."

Memphis mayor A C Wharton, ever accommodating in his 10 years as county mayor and city mayor, has met with thousands of groups and activists but has stayed out of this debate and left it to the city council. Present policy prohibits discrimination based on "race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, genetic information, veteran status, political affiliation, or other non-merit factors." The proposed ordinance could wind up being watered down to a general statement of nondiscrimination, like a similar proposed ordinance that came before the Shelby County Commission.

As Hackett said, things were different back when the word "gay" might have still had some shock value. In 30 years of covering city and county government on and off, I have probably known several gay employees, but sexual orientation did not come up in our conversations, so I really cannot say. If a city employee failed to get official redress for a grievance based on anti-gay discrimination, I think I can safely say that there are members of the Memphis media who would consider that a possible story.

The reasons I have heard and read for the need for this ordinance are unpersuasive at best and silly at worst:

Memphis should do it because Knoxville and Nashville did it and Memphis will be compared unfavorably to them.

Richard Florida, "the guru of the creative class," thinks cities should make sure they are known to be gay friendly.

An ordinance is stronger than a general policy, because it is harder to change.

An ordinance is needed, because this is a civil rights issue and Memphis is home of the National Civil Rights Museum, where supporters of the ordinance rallied last week.

I say, what else is new, so what, don't think so, and hypothetical job discrimination against gays at work is not morally equivalent to legal segregation and racism.

Memphis should be a city where people think for themselves. And a little more diplomacy and a lot less confrontation would serve us well.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

A Judicial Joke

The Milan Effect and its surprising repercussions from the schools case.

Posted By on Wed, Sep 12, 2012 at 11:33 AM

Funny thing, nobody from the Milan Mirror-Exchange weekly paper showed up. And nobody from the Humboldt Chronicle. Or the Jackson Sun. And no mayors from Milan or Humboldt or other towns in Gibson County, and no state legislators.

What a bunch of slackers. One of the biggest stories in Gibson County history unfolded in federal court in Memphis last week, and the locals completely blew it off. By local, I mean rural West Tennessee and, of course, its centerpiece, Milan, located about 100 miles northeast of Memphis. Because the trial in U.S. district judge Samuel Hardy Mays' courtroom is all about municipal school systems in Gibson County.

State senator Mark Norris from Collierville was there, hanging on every word that might impact the Humboldt strawberry region. Bartlett mayor Keith McDonald, Germantown mayor Sharon Goldsworthy, and Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken dropped in too in a show of solidarity with their Milan brothers and sisters.

To be fair, there is also an eentsy teentsy chance that the Norris-Todd bill could also apply to Shelby County, and on that chance, eight Memphis news organizations are covering the trial. But really, this is all about Milan and demographic trends in urban growth areas in rural Tennessee counties.

Do you realize that if the cohort component forecasting method is correct, Milan could positively explode? I don't mean literally, although conceivably it is possible given the presence of the Army Ammunition Plant. The potential ramifications of what is now being called the Milan Effect are so great that Mays called a halt to the dueling demographers until September 20th so that more experts can be consulted and more legal bills can be submitted.

The Norris-Todd bill, now known as the Gibson County Growth Act, is one of the most misunderstood pieces of legislation in history, possibly because lawmakers were specifically told that it would apply only to Shelby County before voting for it in case any of them were too groggy or dim-witted to get the point.

The delay has caused a whole lot of rethinking about, well, everything.

It is possible that the Unified School Board will decide after a national search for a superintendent to offer the job to Willie Herenton.

It is possible that the law firms in this trial wake up each morning and kiss the pictures of Shelby County commissioners Sidney Chism and Steve Mulroy.

It could be that Alabama football coach Nick Saban keeps a straight face when he warns his players not to be complacent when they face Florida Atlantic. And that Ole Miss will remain undefeated. And that Memphis will fill the Liberty Bowl.

And it could be that when someone booms, "Band, take the field!" the Tiger band will march out of the tunnel and across Central Avenue to Tobey Field.

It is possible that The Commercial Appeal will turn over the names of its commenters, revealing that half of them were Curry Todd, half were residents of Milan, and some comments were deleted by staff due to mistakes in spelling and grammar.

It is theoretically possible that the lawyers assigned to read the comments will, after bathing in Lysol, decide to renounce law and become GIS map specialists.

It is also possible that lawyers on both sides will decide in light of the outrageous fees and nature of the case to put it on the pro bono account and settle.

It is possible that North Korea, Pakistan, or Indiana will launch an invasion of Tennessee using Highway 45 and the Tennessee River and the Milan Army Ammunition Plant will hire thousands of employees and the Milan Effect will reopen International Harvester in Frayser and the Memphis Defense Depot. When this happens, it is possible that nobody will call it a "population boom" or "real estate explosion."

It is possible that Memphis rapper Al Kapone will sing in the new television series Nashville and that its success will inspire another series called Memphis Blues starring the Romney Brothers, with music by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

It could be that Clint Eastwood thought he was talking to the presidential nominee of the Green Party and that Bill Clinton did not realize he exceeded his time limit by half an hour and has therefore sworn off public speaking, golf, and sex for four years.

And it could be that Judge Mays knows exactly what the legislature was up to but thinks it is unwise to overrule the wishes of 85 percent of suburbanites and Milan has given him an out.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Calling Clarence Thomas

The schools trial this week could just be a warm-up for the main event.

Posted By on Wed, Sep 5, 2012 at 12:32 PM

Let's face it. This divided country needs a fresh U.S. Supreme Court statement on school desegregation on the order of Brown v. Board of Education (separate is unequal) in 1954 or Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg (busing) in 1971. Memphis v. Shelby County is as ripe a case as there is.

The little sideshow scheduled to start Tuesday in Judge Hardy Mays' courtroom is not going to settle anything; it will only prolong it. Mark Norris and his mates in suburbia and in Nashville will have a Plan B, C, and D in about 15 minutes if Mays decides the enabling legislation for municipal school districts is unconstitutional.

Same goes for the settlement last month of a 47-year-old desegregation case involving the Fayette County School Board and the NAACP. The settlement calls for "controlled choice" and racial balancing in each school. The Justice Department's civil rights lawyer and U.S. attorney Ed Stanton III hailed it as an important landmark, but Fayette County has a total of 3,474 students in public schools, or about as many as two Shelby County high schools.

If the Justice Department is looking for landmarks, it should pick on someone its own size — like us.

In another federal desegregation case this summer in Hot Springs, Arkansas, a judge declared that the Constitution's equal protection clause doesn't prohibit white kids from moving to majority-white magnet schools. But he concluded his ruling with this thought: "The court fully expects this case to be appealed in view of the important issues presented in this case."

And in a Nashville case this year, parents argued that a rezoning plan intentionally moved black students out of higher-performing schools to racially isolated, subpar schools. U.S. district judge Kevin Sharp disagreed: "While the school board's action caused a segregative effect, the court is unable to conclude that the school board adopted the plan with a segregative purpose. Therefore, it passes muster under federal constitutional principles of equal protection."

The main event in Memphis comes up in November when Mays will turn to the Shelby County Commission's claim that municipal school systems would be unlawfully segregated. That decision, too, seems likely to be appealed in view of the importance of the issues.

Meanwhile, Memphis and Shelby County are spending time and money on non-solutions that are half-baked (municipal schools and the unified school system), half-successful (charter schools), and half-crazy (subpoenas for the identities of commenters on The Commercial Appeal's website). The unified system is supposed to be up and running a year from today.

Greater Memphis is the ideal place for a 21st-century statement from the Supreme Court on desegregation and resegregation in urban school districts. Our history includes the sham of gradual integration in the 1960s, leading to Plan Z and forced busing and white flight in the '70s, Frayser residents burying a school bus, a "unitary" Memphis system where 90 percent of black students attend all-black schools, another "unitary" suburban system that is majority white, and now the largest school system merger in post-integration American history.

Plan Z, hatched in 1972, was supposed to be the "terminal" desegregation plan. Instead, the school systems and the courts went through the alphabet and back again: controlled choice, magnet schools, optional schools, neighborhood schools, new schools, shared city and county schools, racial balancing to a 15 percent standard, consent decrees, special masters that never materialized, and the biggest concentration of Gates Foundation money, charter schools, and Teach For America in Tennessee.

And no one has any idea what the unified school system will look like.

The Supreme Court stated its position on school segregation in a 5-4 decision in 2007 that involved the school systems in Seattle and Louisville.

Here's how Justice Clarence Thomas, siding with the majority, defined public school segregation:

"In the context of public schooling, segregation is the deliberate operation of a school system to 'carry out a governmental policy to separate pupils in schools solely on the basis of race.' ...

"However, racial imbalance without intentional state action to separate the races does not amount to segregation. To raise the specter of resegregation to defend these programs is to ignore the meaning of the word and the nature of the cases before us."

Since then, President Barack Obama has appointed two new Supreme Court justices — Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan. Both replaced justices who voted with the minority in the Seattle-Louisville school desegregation case. The next Supreme Court appointment could be pivotal.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Creative Confusion

Vetoes, overrides, overrules, and overlaps mean muddled outcomes.

Posted By on Wed, Aug 29, 2012 at 11:24 AM

You say you've had enough of apathy and do-nothing politicians in Memphis and Shelby County? You want civic engagement? You got it. This is what civic engagement looks like:

The Memphis City Council, after much debate and soul-searching and with the support of Mayor A C Wharton, votes to put a half-cent sales tax increase on the November ballot.

The Shelby County Commission trumps the Memphis City Council by voting for a countywide sales tax referendum instead.

Shelby County mayor Mark Luttrell vetoes the Shelby County Commission's sales tax proposal.

The Shelby County Commission overrides the mayoral veto and the referendum is back on the ballot.

The county referendum knocks the city of Memphis referendum off the November ballot.

Voters in Shelby County will vote on the referendum in November, unless they live in Collierville, Bartlett, Germantown, Lakeland, or Arlington.

Approval of the countywide sales tax increase would override the sales tax increases approved in those suburbs in August.

Rejection of the countywide sales tax increase would put the sales tax increases in those suburbs back in force.

The suburban sales tax increase, possibly combined with a property tax increase, would fund municipal school systems whose school board members would be elected in November.

Unless the federal court, after a trial that begins in September, nullifies the suburban election results on the grounds that the enabling legislation violated the state constitution.

Then the unified school system is back starting in 2013, and the suburbs are part of it.

Unless the state legislature comes up with new legislation next year that passes constitutional muster and the municipal school systems are back.

Unless the federal court rules in another trial scheduled to begin in November that municipal school districts were racially motivated and violate the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The Memphis and Shelby County school board members continue to serve on the interim unified school board only until September 2013, unless they won seats on the permanent unified school board in the August election and only if the election results were not challenged by a losing candidate and the challenge is unsuccessful.

School superintendents John Aitken and Kriner Cash continue to work for their respective systems unless Cash takes a job in Florida for which he is a finalist.

Aitken serves as interim superintendent of the unified school system until the unified school board completes a search for an omigod superstar superintendent, unless the search committee and board decide to abort the search or do the search but offer the job to Aitken anyway.

The "world class" unified Shelby County school system begins operations in 2013 with approximately 145,000 students, unless the suburbs start their own systems and siphon off 20,000 to 30,000 students.

The unified system starts in August 2013 unless the start is delayed until August 2014.

The 23-member unified school board, which will shrink to seven members in September 2013 unless the Shelby County Commission decides after that to increase it to 13 members, will run the unified school system, except for the charter schools, which are independent and have their own boards, and the failing schools in the Achievement School District, which are run by the state.

The operating manual for the unified school system is the 21-member Transition Planning Commission's plan, unless the unified school board has other ideas and decides not to adopt the plan or adopt only the parts that a majority of its members like.

The unified system starts with a deficit of $57 million, unless the TPC plan's proposed savings are scrapped and the deficit balloons to more than $100 million.

The city of Memphis is off the hook for $65 million a year it used to give to city schools before MCS surrendered its charter.

The Memphis City Council lowers property taxes next year unless members don't cut the budget and have to raise taxes instead or revive the sales tax increase six months from November, assuming it fails in the upcoming referendum.

Got it?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Sex and the Supermarket

Helen Gurley Brown’s Cosmopolitan had roots in Arkansas.

Posted By on Wed, Aug 15, 2012 at 11:17 AM

Cosmopolitan is in the magazine rack at checkout lane seven at Kroger on Union, right next to the frozen-food aisle. Taking no chances, I picked up a half-pint of ice cream to beard my buy.

"The magazine, it's for my wife, see?"

No one looks twice at a man with ice cream. A magazine cover that touts "25 sex moves he secretly wishes you'd try, they're so specific, it's shocking!" is another story. Of course, I only bought Cosmo to check the ads and the page count — 270 of them, the envy of the struggling magazine publishing business — information as essential and illuminating to a journalist as the interview in Playboy.

The modern version of Cosmopolitan was the creation of Helen Gurley Brown, who died Monday at the age of 90. Before Fifty Shades of Grey, before Sex and the City, there was Sex and the Single Girl, Brown's 1962 bestseller, later made into a movie. She followed it up with two more bestsellers, Having It All in 1982 and The Late Show in 1993, which foreshadowed geezers-rediscover-sex movies like Hope Springs and Something's Gotta Give.

"I very clearly remember reading my older sister's copy of Sex and the Single Girl for the first time when I was probably in about the fifth grade," Jill Conner Browne, author of "The Sweet Potato Queens" books, told me.

"As I recall, she circumspectly spoke of a certain single girl who had men positively lining up, eagerly awaiting their invitation to while away a few hours in the single girl's apartment simply making brownies. It was a few years before I fully grasped the concept, but it did dawn on me eventually. It is no accident that the very first recipe in my first book is 'Chocolate Stuff.'"

Helen Gurley Brown was a lifelong writing machine and a fixture on television talk shows. A generation ago, it seemed like you couldn't turn on The Tonight Show without seeing her once a week. Now she's a name to Google, but Cosmo is her legacy: sex in the supermarket.

She was born in a small town in Arkansas and grew up in Little Rock. In Sex and the Single Girl, she described herself this way:

"I am not beautiful, or even pretty. I once had the world's worst case of acne. I am not bosomy or brilliant. I didn't go to college. My family was, and is, desperately poor."

She answered fan mail at a radio station for six dollars a week while learning shorthand, leading to countless secretarial jobs.

"There is a catch to achieving single bliss," she wrote. "You have to work like a son of a bitch."

Unmarried until she was 37, she preached the gospel of self-reliance, thrift, confidence, and sexual experimentation. In addition to her books, she wrote proposals for reality television shows featuring celebrity chefs in a cook-off and celebrities advising ordinary people on their marital problems. In that, she was ahead of her time, but, boy, did she know how to sell magazines. Even after a 15 percent drop in the first half of this year, Cosmopolitan is the top seller on newsstands, at 1.3 million copies per issue.

Unburdened by the responsibilities of weekly news magazines, Cosmopolitan delivers sex, celebrities, career advice, and models curvier than Brown, who looked borderline anorexic even in her prime.

"Now if you are already mounds of pounds overweight, you must Do Something, or you can't hope to be blissfully single," she wrote in Sex and the Single Girl. Even Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor "can't survive runaway fat."

The book was reissued in 2003 as "a cult classic" with a pink cover and a picture of a pair of hot-pink lips. It is remarkably similar to a recent cover of Newsweek showing a pair of disembodied lips open to receive some asparagus. The headline: "The 101 Best Places to Eat in the World."

"Yes, it was a cheesy grab for attention, akin to Time's cover gambit of having a 4-year-old hanging off his mother's breast," wrote New York Times media reporter David Carr. "But magazines are nothing if not desperate these days."

Some are more desperate than others. As long as there are drug stores and grocery stores and airports, I expect there will be magazine racks.

And as long as there are magazine racks, I expect there will be copies of Cosmo, with ever more tips to drive a man wild.

Right next to the ice-cream freezer.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Almost Olympian

Bill Hurd set records at Manassas High and never stopped running.

Posted By on Wed, Aug 8, 2012 at 2:08 PM

When Usain Bolt, the "fastest man in the world," goes for an Olympic double-gold in the 200 meters Thursday, a former Manassas High School sprinter who was once arguably the "fastest teenager in the world" will be watching.

"He's phenomenal, the real deal," said Bill Hurd, a Memphis eye surgeon, jazz musician, and former world-class athlete who's pretty accomplished himself.

In 1965, as a senior at Manassas, Hurd ran the 100-yard dash in 9.3 seconds on a cinder track at the Fairgrounds, breaking a prep record held by the legendary Jesse Owens.

"It was actually never accepted as a national record because it was a small meet," Hurd said. "There were like eight runners, and I won by a wide margin. The fastest time in the city before then was 9.5 by my rival, Willie Dawson, at Melrose. By the end of the season, he had run a 9.4 and a guy at Carver had run 9.5, so there was a picture of the three of us holding up the numbers 3, 4, and 5."

Hurd, who was also an outstanding student and horn player in the Manassas band under the direction of Emerson Able, got scholarship offers from UCLA, Villanova, Southern Cal, and others. He chose Notre Dame, then a powerhouse in football.

"I had my eyes on an academic scholarship to MIT. A newspaper article said I could be an example of someone who chose academics over an athletic route," he recalled. "I wound up doing exactly the opposite, but Notre Dame was great and I came out well-rounded."

College athletes ran metric distances, and Hurd ran the 100 meters in 10.1 seconds, good enough to get him to the U.S. Olympic trials in 1968. He missed qualifying by one position for a team whose sprinters included Tommie Smith and John Carlos, memorialized forever in the "black power salute" of black-gloved fists and bowed heads on the medal stand.

Hurd's best event was the rarely run 300-yard dash, in which he set an American indoor record of 29.8 seconds. He also ran a 6.0 60-yard dash, when the world record was 5.9 seconds.

"I did not train that hard compared to what they do now," he said. "There was no such thing as steroids or performance-enhancing drugs when I was running."

In 1968, he was voted Notre Dame's Athlete of the Year, beating out future NFL Hall of Famer Alan Page and basketball All-American Austin Carr.

"Page is now a state Supreme Court justice in Minnesota," Hurd said. "He used to cut my hair. There were not many black students there at the time. I think there were like 12 in my class of 2,000. Page was typical of student athletes then, a smart guy who planned on going to law school."

After graduating with a degree in electrical engineering, Hurd ran for the Philadelphia Track Club for a couple of years and traveled to Italy, Germany, and London. But there was no future in it. He enrolled in the management program at MIT, toured with the jazz band, played with trumpet player Clark Terry at the Montreux Jazz Festival, and worked as a consultant.

"I wanted to have my own business, and so many of my clients were physicians that I decided to go to medical school at Meharry in Nashville."

He returned to Memphis to start his practice as an eye surgeon. He and his wife Rhynette, an attorney, live in Collierville. Both of their sons graduated from Notre Dame.

Hurd spends two or three weeks a year doing voluntary eye surgery on poor people in Africa, Mexico, and Brazil. In 1994, he was one of the recipients of the NCAA's Silver Anniversary Award along with notable members of the Class of 1969 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, miler Jim Ryun, and football stars Calvin Hill and Leroy Keyes.

Whew. Oh, and he has four music CDs out.

Phenomenal, you might say.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Schools Snooping

What's the end game in finding racial motives in municipal schools?

Posted By on Wed, Aug 1, 2012 at 2:29 PM

So The Commercial Appeal is willing to go to the wall before divulging the names of anonymous commenters to attorneys for the Shelby County Commission.

Another reminder that it's not only the glamour or the pay or the easy dress code, print journalism is just so ennobling.

What's that famous saying? I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your First Amendment right to say "you suck," spread rumors, and use as many fake names as you can invent until they pry your cold, cold fingers from your keyboard.

Facebook, of all things, offers a practical solution to commenting with accountability that is used by several newspapers including The Tennessean in Nashville. But that cuts down on clicks and drives commenters who crave anonymity to other websites. This business isn't dying for nothing.

Accountability, one commissioner noted, has a chilling effect on commenters. Yes, it does. It's why the commission and other public bodies require speakers to identify themselves and limit their remarks to two or three minutes. And why letters to print newspapers are signed and verified. And why reporters value accuracy and are careful about slamming people who can come visit them or might run into them on the street.

The snoopiness of the subpoena is not so much the problem as the futility of it. What, exactly, is the end game of the pending federal court case asserting that municipal school systems are racially motivated?

As the county commission's brief says, under the Unified Shelby County School System, there will be approximately 153,000 students if there are no breakaway school systems. The student demographics will be 70 percent black, 22 percent white, 5 percent Hispanic, and 2.4 percent other races and nationalities.

"The Shelby County Municipal School Acts will affect these demographics in a racially discriminatory manner, creating racially homogenous school districts in the municipalities," the brief says.

The assumption is that the school district demographics would mirror the demographics of each municipality, because those are the only students they would be legally authorized to educate. Germantown, for example, would be 90 percent white and 10 percent minority. In fact, Germantown and other suburban schools educate students from unincorporated parts of the county or neighboring suburbs, boosting their minority enrollment.

It is Memphis, of course, that has mostly one-race schools, because there are only some 9,000 white students in the system. That is the result of 40 years of white flight after court-ordered busing. There are 25,000 white students in the county system.

Municipal school systems, the county commission says, "would create predominately Caucasian schools in those municipalities" and leave the unified district predominately black, very much like the current Memphis system.

Anyone up for some judicial rebalancing? That would mean sending students all over the county. Suburban rebalancing only? Then there would be 100,000 students in former Memphis schools robbed of their constitutional right to be educated in a racially integrated system. How much segregation is acceptable?

No judge in the country can come up with a "solution" to resegregation. Municipal school systems, assuming voters approve them this week, are more likely to be derailed by the other federal court case in September on the constitutionality of the state law.

Municipal schools and private schools are not the only escape hatch from the unified system. Charter schools are gaining strength in Memphis and Nashville under a state department of education that equates charters with "reform" and a change in state law that clears the way for any child to enroll. Last week, the state board of education overruled the local school board in Nashville and approved a new charter school in a middle-class area. I had no idea this was a big deal until I read about it in The Wall Street Journal.

None of this — the subpoena or the federal court cases — will advance the transition to a unified school system by August 2013. An able and willing superintendent, John Aitken, is waiting in the wings while the school board decides how it will do a search. The transition plan lacks the votes and leadership on the 23-member school board needed to implement its cost-cutting proposals. No wonder. As every member knows, a year from September, the 23-member board will become a seven-member board, which the county commission could expand to a 13-member board.

There's an accountability issue, sort of like those anonymous commenters.

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