One Hand Taking From the Other? 

Mayor says developer incentive money is being used to pay MLGW.

Mayor Willie Herenton and the Memphis Housing Authority think that developer incentive grants are being wasted on Memphis Light, Gas and Water (MLGW), the city-owned utility.

During a city council retreat last Friday, Herenton spoke at length on the need to reform the city's Middle Income Developer's Assistance Program (MIDAP). Herenton said that the $6 million program, funded jointly by the city and the county, needs to be used to create affordable housing throughout Shelby County, not only in the neighborhoods most attractive to developers. He particularly scrutinized the role MLGW has played in the implementation of the three-year-old program.

Under MIDAP, developers receive about $6,000 in incentive grants to develop middle-income housing, which is intended to defray the initial costs of developing. The mayor and Robert Lipscomb, executive director of the Memphis Housing Authority (MHA), both believe that MLGW should be cooperating with the city by not charging the developers for the installation of utilities. Lipscomb says that much of the incentive money is used to pay MLGW.

"We all should be working together on this," Lipscomb told the Flyer.

"If we're going to have this middle-income housing program, then all government entities need to participate," said Councilman Brent Taylor. "It doesn't make sense for one hand to be taking money from the other hand."

"The mayor feels that MLGW should pay a substantial portion of the costs since it is part of the city and the city and county are contributing to this program," says city council chairman Rickey Peete. "I also think that we can't have just one area of the city being developed using this subsidized money; the whole city needs to benefit from this. The whole program should be reformatted."

Lipscomb says he thinks several issues need to be discussed and resolved regarding MIDAP. He distributed a list of questions to council members, including: What are the program goals? How are areas targeted for the program? Will the city and county continue to fund the program? He told the Flyer that MLGW has cooperated with MHA in the past and that he believes the utility will work with MHA to make the program more effective. MLGW's Mark Heuberger says that the utility has not yet discussed MIDAP with the mayor or MHA.

Go, Team!

Memphis City Schools fights losing season.

By Mary Cashiola

It looks like Michael Hooks Jr. has been taking some lessons from Sidney Lowe, John Calipari, or any number of basketball coaches in the Memphis City Schools system.

Hooks, the new president of the Memphis City Schools board, fired up the attendees at Monday night's meeting as he unveiled his plan for improving the district through teamwork.

"We have gathered the information to meet the needs of our district," said Hooks. "The challenge is putting a plan in place to meet those needs. There is nothing that will allow us to lose our focus on student achievement."

Calling his fellow board members teammates and talking about passing the ball, Hooks presented five commissioner-led, student-achievement working committees.

The district has 64 schools on the state's low-performing schools list and has been the impetus for debates on the viability of the Gateway test as well as lowering the educational standards for urban districts.

Commissioner Carl Johnson congratulated Hooks for his charge to the board and said the plan was both a symbol of his maturity and youth.

As with any good team, Hooks assigned board members to the working committees based on their strengths: Veteran members Sara Lewis and Barbara Prescott are in charge of the student services committee, while parents Wanda Halbert and Lora Jobe head up the parental involvement committee. And ministers Lee Brown and Hubon Sandridge got the community action committee.

The plan also includes partnering with the local business community for extra funding and using basic principles of charter schools within the district.

With the standing-room-only crowd, it was a pep rally for the district and for Hooks, who has been on the board for three years. His father, county commissioner Michael Hooks, was in the audience, as was his uncle and mentor, civil rights activist Dr. Benjamin Hooks.

The board also voted Monday to set the percentage of students' report card grades from the end-of-course Gateway tests at 15 percent, the minimum required by the state.

Final Curtain

Actor Jim Ostrander dies at 53.

By Chris Davis

Jim Ostrander said it best. He always said it best. Summing up his own brilliant career, which was cruelly abbreviated by cancer of the jaw, he said, "I've had 33 years of doing something that I was really good at. I was wholly realized as an artist, in full possession of my powers. And I used them with full knowledge of what I was doing. You can't ask for more than that. You can't ask for that to go on forever."

Memphis theater's most recognizable voice will never be heard on stage again, though it will not be soon forgotten. Ostrander's long, brave struggle ended on Monday, January 15th.

If there is a single word that might be used to describe Memphis' most beloved actor, it would be "giving." While any one of the millions of people who have seen Ostrander perform over the years can confirm this statement, only his fellow actors really know how true it is. As actress Pamela Poletti once told The Memphis Flyer, "[He] is the one who usually pulls us mortal actors out of the quicksand of forgotten lines and blundered blocking." In fact, any actor fortunate enough to know him will happily explain that Ostrander could make a show better merely by being in the audience, his chuckle, a loud unmistakable rattle, encouraging and inspiring the actors to do their best work.

Ostrander began acting in 1967 while attending Christian Brothers College. Over the years he performed in the lightest of musical comedies and the hardest-hitting dramas, turning every role he took into a memorable one. Along the way he was awarded numerous Memphis Theatre Awards, including the Eugart Yerian Award for lifetime achievement. In 2000, the Memphis Theatre Awards were renamed the Ostranders in his honor.

Ostrander has asked that his body be donated to research. At press time on Tuesday, no date had been set for a memorial service.

Teaching the Word

Group proposes new Bible class for public schools.

By Mary Cashiola

"In the beginning God created the heaven and the Earth."

Whether students believe Genesis 1:1 or not, the writers of a new Bible course curriculum think it's something students should study in school.

"It's just another part of a good and full education," says National Bible Literacy Project chairman Chuck Stetson. "The Bible has been a book that's been censored by public schools."

After a proposed Bible class for the Shelby County school district was struck down last year for having a Protestant slant, the 45,000-student district will present a new Bible curriculum in a public forum Thursday, January 17th. The curriculum, developed by the Bible Literacy Project and called "Introduction to the Bible: The Hebrew Scriptures," has not yet been piloted by any other school system.

"The whole project came about when Dr. Charles Haynes, a religious scholar at the First Amendment Center, and I co-published what was in our view a guide as to how the Bible could be taught in public schools," says Stetson. "The second step was developing the curriculum; we couldn't leave everyone hanging."

But why is learning about the Bible important? Stetson says that it will help students understand other people as well as give them a basis for the Bible's role in literature and history.

"I'm a businessman," says Stetson. "If I'm doing business with someone, I want to know where they're coming from."

And then there are the Biblical allusions that pepper poetry and prose alike.

"In Martin Luther King Jr.'s last speech, he talked about the mountaintop; if you don't know what mountaintop he's talking about, you won't understand what he's saying," says Stetson. "Without knowing those references, you don't really know what impacted him, and he was a major figure in recent American history."

But not everyone agrees that a Bible course -- taught in public school -- is the way to go. One of those concerned by the newest proposal is Jim Maynard, a member of the Memphis Freethought Alliance.

"Our main concern is that the people pushing these Bible classes have as their goal -- in their own words -- returning God to public schools," says Maynard. "We think that should be kept to churches and synagogues."

Maynard, a self-described atheist who was once a Christian fundamentalist, says that he's all for students learning about other religions but thinks the best way to approach that goal is with a comparative religion class. Instead of a class that rests prominently on one religious text, Maynard would like to see something that represents the views of different religions, as well as those of agnostics and atheists.

One thing that concerns Maynard is the interpretative quality of the Bible. Some people take the translations literally, while others might interpret the same passage entirely differently. And in a classroom setting, no matter how scripted the curriculum, there are going to be questions from the students.

"How can you teach the Bible objectively? I don't see how people can teach it without promoting religion," says Maynard. "It's not fact; it's not history; it's religion."

But Stetson says that teachers of the course will go through training to address those issues.

"We're trying to do this in a way that's constitutionally viable," says Stetson. He goes on to say that "in the past, groups have perhaps gone in and tried to do a little sleight of hand. We're not going to do that here."

"We're not asking them to change faiths or asking them to believe something," adds Stetson. Instead he says the course is about creating a common language.

The Bible forum will be held January 17th at 6:30 p.m. in the Bartlett High School Auditorium. The author of the curriculum, Matthew Hicks, will present an overview and be available for questions.

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