City Reporter 

City Reporter

Making Two Into One

Herenton urges consolidation of city and county schools.

By Mary Cashiola

When the city and county government finally consolidated, it was a function of "personality, party politics, angry suburban reaction to annexation and a city-imposed wheel tax, public health concerns related to adequate sewers, demographic changes that portended a serious declining tax base in the central city, competing school systems in search of an adequate revenue base," and so on.

Sound familiar, at least a little bit?

Those were the reasons, according to a July 2001 study commissioned by the Memphis City Schools board of education, for the consolidation of Nashville and Davidson County.

Memphis mayor Willie Herenton recently proposed the city council hold a referendum to surrender the city schools' charter, thereby consolidating the two local school districts. Although he discovered that the city council does not have the jurisdiction to do so, he has vowed to move forward with the plan, seeking an opinion on the matter from the state attorney general.

"Until we reform how our schools are governed and until we have the ability to unify the school districts, our children will continue to suffer," said Herenton. Tuesday morning he released information showing a 35-cent savings to city residents' property taxes under a unified school system.

But how has the proposal been discussed with the two school districts it would involve? When asked about the MCS board's recent retreat, Herenton said he wasn't invited. Nor has he appeared before the county school board.

If the city schools did end up surrendering their charter, it would be the county schools who would have to run a district three times their size.

In July 2001, facing a similar issue, the MCS board received a study on consolidation in Nashville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville. The study made no recommendations on Memphis' situation but outlined what had happened in other places. Generally, it read, "Larger districts tend to be less personal; involve more red tape; remove teachers and principals further from district-level decision-making; require more time in transit; and have lower attendance rates and higher dropout rates; while parental involvement and community support may wane some, too."

It also raised the question of whether consolidation actually lowers taxes.

Nashville's consolidation appeared to be well-received, but costs rose due to an increase in services and to assure salary equity. Educational costs also increased in Knoxville.

"Constant-dollar school expenditures have actually risen by 49 percent since consolidation occurred. ... Given that most spending is done in the classroom, there will not be revolutionary amounts of savings from consolidation, as all the existing students will still need to be taught," read the report. The initial operating budget proposal asked for $16 million more than the previous two districts' budgets combined, mostly because of equalizations between the two systems.

By state law, when two districts consolidate, they have to match the higher system's per-pupil expenditures. In Memphis, per-pupil expenditure is $7,368 while Shelby County's is $6,024 or a difference of $1,344. If $1,344 extra had to be spent on the 44,610 students currently in the county's system, it would cost an additional $59.96 million each year.

That's not completely unlikely either. According to the report, per-pupil expenditure in Chattanooga jumped from $4,487 in 1997-1998 to $6,440 in 1999-2000, a 43.5 percent increase over three years.

And Knoxville's consolidation might have another lesson for Memphis. "Every account concurred that the way Knox County arrived at consolidation was not the way it should be done. They definitely do not recommend having the city school system simply surrender its charter, creating consolidation by default. Without a plan, there ends up being unnecessary uncertainty, fear, litigation, and so on."

An Opportunity to Excel

School board approves first charter school.

By Mary Cashiola

With no debate and only a little confusion about voting procedure, the Memphis City Schools board Monday night approved Tennessee's first public charter school.

The Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering (MASE) will eventually serve about 850 eighth through twelfth grade students from the downtown Medical Center district, focusing on science, math, engineering, and technology. Sponsored by the Memphis Biotech Foundation, the school will have a longer school year as well as Saturday classes.

"We're going to bring in kids in the seventh grade who may or may not be at grade level," said Dr. Steven Bares, the Biotech Foundation's president and executive director. "If they're willing to work, we're willing to take them and get them on an [advanced-placement] track in science and math."

Bares said the curriculum is focused on remediation; the idea is not to see how many A students they can get into MIT, but how many C and D students they can give the opportunity to excel in math and science. And in the long run, the school could help the Memphis economy as well.

As head of the Biotech Foundation, Bares is charged with helping Memphis become a magnet for technology-based companies. "When I came on board in September 2001 and we started talking about making Memphis a leader in medical research, we said, 'What's it going to take?'" The underlying issue is how are we going to create the work force," said Bares. "I can talk about 37,000 employees right now, but the thing that was being said under everybody's breath was, 'What are we going to do about the schools?'"

When charter-school legislation was passed, the foundation saw a way they could help train their work force and help downtown students.

"I'm a chemist by training," said Bares. "We were the guys using the Bunsen burners back in high school. They called us geeks back then, but what we're creating now is really a good thing for this community."

Two charter-school applications were denied based on problems with their school plans. Under the new legislation, those schools have 15 days to cure deficiencies and submit revisions for reconsideration.

To Catch a Thief

Law expands suppression areas.

By Janel Davis

Following the success of its neighborhood crime-suppression efforts, the Shelby County Sheriff's Office plans to expand the sting operations to other parts of the county where their agency has primary jurisdiction, including the Northaven area.

According to Sheriff's Department spokesman Steve Shular, the neighborhood north of Frayser and other sections of the city will be targeted for various offenses ranging from traffic violations to aggravated assaults. "When [crime] gets to a point where it reaches a critical level, everything becomes zero-tolerance," said Shular.

In recent suppression operations in Whitehaven, Binghamton, and Midtown, the Sheriff's Department was called in to assist the Memphis Police Department. To combat rising numbers of serious offenses, the operation, usually consisting of 150 officers, pinpoints major intersections for any traffic violations, while fugitive-squad officers canvass the neighborhood for wanted suspects. "Once an initial traffic stop is made, that can give officers probable cause for a vehicle or individual search," said Shular. "For example, if, while a person is stopped, an officer sees a gun lying on the back seat, they can then search the vehicle and deal with the offender."

Officers involved in the operation are told which crimes to target, which fugitives are known to reside in the area, and then given the goals to accomplish. A portable booking area is set up to process offenders on the spot.

The latest suppression operation, held last week in Hickory Hill, lasted five hours and yielded 34 arrests (including 26 fugitives) and 195 traffic citations.

Reaching Out During a Retreat

Center City Commission reviews its progress and problems.

By Janel Davis

The Center City Commission (CCC) retreat got off on a cold note -- with temperatures, that is. When the downtown redevelopment and revitalization organization met at the newly renovated (meaning, cold and empty) Power House for its annual review and planning meeting, the heat of their ideas was no match for the cold building. Nevertheless, a quick location change was all it took for the organization's board and staff to map out its future goals for the 6.5-square-mile area under its jurisdiction.

After presenting the strategic plan update for 2002-2006, CCC president Jeff Sanford reviewed his organization's nine goals, including a self-sustaining Main Street Mall, diverse residential neighborhoods, improved transportation and access, and a world-class medical district. "While there are currently $2.1 billion worth of projects currently under way in the area, this is still only 30-40 percent of what needs to be done," said Sanford.

Sanford cited a history of downtown deterioration and bad infrastructure, homelessness and street disorder, and lack of affordable housing as obstacles to further development.

As with other projects under way throughout the city, the area is experiencing a lack of minority development participation, he said. Sanford described outreach efforts by Myron Hughes, vice president of planning and development for the organization's Central Business Improvement District, and other staff members, including hosting informational sessions and requiring CCC projects to adhere to Minority and Women Business Enterprises (MWBE) goals. "We must develop developers," said CCC board chairman and city councilman Rickey Peete, who suggested establishing an apprenticeship program requiring minority contractors to partner with larger companies in order to compete for bids. "The day for giving [minorities] a little bit is over."

Fellow board member and city council member Barbara Swearengen Holt echoed Peete's sentiments. "It's an embarrassing situation.This should become a priority and the priority should become a reality," said Holt. All of the $2.1 billion in development projects currently under way with the CCC are within Holt's council district.

While most involved were in agreement to develop more MWBE participation, finance board member Lee Askew of the architectural firm Askew Nixon Ferguson was satisfied with things as they were. "I'm pleased with what Memphis has done so far. If I had to choose between getting the job done and [acquiring] mixed participation, I would choose getting the job done."

Sanford also presented an update on the development of a five-block section of Main Street Mall from Adams to Gayoso. The development, which began in 2000, is designed to draw residents, businesses, and visitors back to an area with renovated and newly constructed properties.

A key element to this development has been the agreed-upon failure of the mall as a pedestrian and trolley-only traffic area. "By not having cars on Main Street, we're shooting ourselves in the foot," said Askew. While most agreed that the area would thrive with vehicular traffic reintroduced, Sanford warned of the risks of reimplementing this system. "The capital cost for remaking it open to traffic will be expensive ... and all types of traffic and parking may not be able to be accommodated on Main Street."

Several components of the the CCC's strategic plan are already under way, including the Riverfront Master Plan, the Streetscape Master Plan, and the Medical District Master Plan. "Our goal is to make downtown a 24-hour environment," said Sanford.

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