Dec 31 2010

Looking Forward to 2011

Posted by Steve Ross in activism, Memphis, Memphis Politics, Puke, Shelby County

Happy New Year!

2010 is just hours away from being a memory. For me personally, it hasn’t been a bad year. From a political standpoint, for Democrats, liberals and progressives it’s pretty well sucked. I won’t go through the long list of setbacks, because I don’t think its constructive to looking forward right now, but I do think that whatever those failures are to you, its best to take not only the outcomes but the actions that led to the outcomes into account going forward. That’s the only way anyone can really learn from the past. That’s the only way I learn from it anyway.

Here in Memphis, 2011 holds at least four elections that we know about right now. The House 98 primary happens on January 20th, the MCS vote is going to be in mid-February, and the
House 98 General wraps up on March 8th. Then there’s the City elections in October. If Stephanie Gatewood wins the primary in 98, and the MCS resolution is rejected, there will likely be another election to replace her on the MCS board. That’s a whole lotta votin’. The big question is how many will actually vote?

From my perspective, it seems like people kinda shot their wad in the 2008 Presidential election. That election saw 66% registered voter participation. In elections held since then we’ve been seeing anywhere between 10% and 40%. I understand that Presidential elections are a big draw and 66% was a huge outlier, but damn, why is voter participation so low in all the other elections?

I don’t really have an answer to that, but I’d be interested to look at who votes most consistently and which areas of the city get what. I bet there’d be a correlation.

Part of that correlation may have to do with the ability of people to lobby their elected officials. If you run in the same circles, there’s a greater chance that something you say to an elected official will happen. This is about incidental access, not something nefarious.

Another part of that correlation may have to do with the fact that people of like social standing tend to live in the same areas. If you look at every City Council district in Memphis, there’s at least one precinct that has more affluent folks which seems to be where the elected officials come from. Again, nothing particularly nefarious, just something to note.

It seems like most electeds don’t have that many Town Halls Meetings, so unless you attend public meetings regularly or have some other incidental affiliation in common, chances are you aren’t going to
run into them. Maybe more of them go to community meetings than I know about. Honestly, there are too many to keep up with, and I’m not all that interested in stalking all 60 something of them (13 in
the city, 13 in the county, 9 MCS, 7 SCS, and 21 in the state legislature and that doesn’t count all the surrounding ‘burbs and towns).

In any case, this isn’t a pile on electeds post, just pointing out the obvious, if you or your community has a need, you’re probably not going to get it by yourself. You simply don’t have the access, or the political wherewithal to get it done alone. Chances are you’re going to have to band together with other people
who share your interests to get it done. If you’re a part of a constituency that votes regularly and is otherwise politically active, your chances of getting whatever it is that you want done is probably even better as a general statement.

Tennessee Equality Project Rocks!

One group that has been really successful both here in Shelby County and Statewide is TEP. For our purposes, I just want to focus on what TEP has done here in Shelby County (not to diminish anything else, it’s just closer to home). TEP represents the GLBT community. Unlike other groups, there’s not a specific area where you will find members of the GLBT community (save me the Cooper Young jokes). There’s not a specific race, or socio-economic background or any other traditional identifier to figure out where or who these folks are.

Truth is, there are probably members of the GLBT community in every precinct in the County. So how did a diffuse group of people that represents around 10% of the total population of Shelby County get a resolution passed in the County and heard twice on an ordinance in the City? They were organized. They had a goal, they had a plan, they executed that plan and got results. Did they get everything they wanted? No. But they did make some headway, and they showed their political chops. That’s something big.

In the run up to the 2011 City elections, it will be interesting to see how they use this organized effort. I’m really proud of the Shelby contingent of TEP. It would have been easy to sit around and complain or talk or just generally do nothing posing as doing something. They did something, and I believe they’ll do more in the future.

Without taking anything away from TEP, they’re a pretty small percentage of the local population. For instance, over 48% of households in Memphis make less than $35,000/yr. 20% of all Memphians of voting age live in poverty. That’s a HUGE number, nearly 136,000 people of voting age in Memphis alone. What would happen if just 10% those 136,000 adults banded together and demanded the City and County do more to address poverty or help eliminate blight or enact tougher regulations on rental property owners, or enact better renters rights? What if they lobbied the School board and demanded greater access to educationally fulfilling Pre-K or more educationally focused after-school programs? What if they rolled up in Nashville, with the local poor people, and poor people from Knox and Hamilton Counties and demanded the state do more to help create better conditions or more opportunities to help get them out of poverty, or provide funding for more enriching educational opportunities? What do you think would happen?

I think if they were organized, goal focused, understood and used the process to their advantage, and just a little patient they would get everything they wanted and more. I think that if they maintained this effort for several years they would remake a lot of policy that helped people in areas outside their homes, like in rural Tennessee where steadily increasing poverty rates are dismantling small communities.

I think it would transform the state and eventually create a rising tide lifting people out of poverty, creating better jobs. I think it would empower people in our state to understand which things really are a zero sum game and which things aren’t. I think it would challenge the existing political status quo which is designed specifically to ensure some people have power and some people “stay in their place”, whatever that place may be. I think it would completely turn the entire political dynamic on its head.

Why doesn’t it happen? Lots of reasons, but mostly because people don’t believe it can.

Can it happen? Absolutely.

Looking forward, I see a lot of opportunities for the people who want to make a difference in Memphis and Shelby County. The key is getting organized, understanding the process and using your voice to communicate your needs then using your vote to make it happen. It won’t happen overnight, but if you keep at it, it will, eventually.

My wish for 2011 is that the people of Memphis, Shelby County, Tennessee and hell, the rest of the country not only find their voice, but use it. What’s happening now, the top down structure that we’ve maintained at the exclusion of our own interests not only isn’t working, it can’t work. We have to flip the script and build from the bottom up if we want better results.

My goal for 2011 is to do exactly what I’m talking about. I don’t know what, who, or how but I do know that I can’t sit here and write on this blog and talk about someone else doing something more while I’m doing the same stuff I’ve been doing since December 1, 2006. I work really hard to keep up with what’s going on in the City, County and State governments, but what I’m finding more and more is that keeping up isn’t enough, I’ve got to get up.

I hope together we can find not only our voice, but put it to use in a set of common goals, as well as the motivation and action to back it.

Cheers and Happy New Year!

Dec 30 2010

Wharton Calls School Merger “Shotgun Wedding”…Really?

Posted by Steve Ross in City of Memphis, elections, Shelby County

“The Watchdog” Mike Matthews spent some time today with Shelby County Schools Superintendent John Aitken and Memphis Mayor A C Wharton. Video of the exchange is below.

Shotgun Wedding…really? The Mayor of Memphis is calling the legal prerogative of another body politic, as set forth by state law, a shotgun wedding? All I can say is wow.

Maybe the good Mayor is confused on what a shotgun wedding is. Here’s a helpful reminder…

A shotgun wedding is a form of forced marriage occasioned by an unplanned pregnancy. Some religions and cultures consider it a moral imperative to marry in such a situation, based on reasoning that premarital sex is sinful and unsafe. The phrase is an American colloquialism, though it is also used in other parts of the world.
It is based on a hyperbolic scenario in which the pregnant female’s father resorts to coercion (such as threatening with a shotgun) to ensure that the male partner who caused the female’s pregnancy goes through with it, sometimes even following the man to the altar to prevent his escape. Source

So, is MCS pregnant? Who is the father holding the shotgun? The MCS School Board? The voters? The same voters that will go to the polls in October and vote for Mayor?

Methinks the good Mayor misspoke.

While I don’t think anyone is really keen on the circumstances surrounding this scenario, they need not be in place for the remedy that we’ll be voting on in February. MCS could vote to surrender their charter at any time. The process is set forth in state law. There’s nothing in state law that pre-determines circumstances or any conditions of this action. State law is clear, it is within the power of the MCS School Board to put the question to the voters. Mayor Wharton has no say in the matter, except at the ballot box.

It’s a strange statement coming from Mayor Wharton. His record is that of a politician who has been very careful to manage his image and not cause too many waves. Perhaps the good Mayor doesn’t like the potential impact of the political scenario. Perhaps that’s why he’s chosen to use the bully pulpit his office affords him to mischaracterize this legal and democratic action.

I don’t know, but its pretty offensive.

Of course, if Wharton wants to paint MCS as the recipient of some kind of sexual congress at the hands of SCS that resulted in an unwanted pregnancy (or problem in this case) and that SCS was trying to shirk its responsibility…well, I guess that pretty well sums it up.

I hear wedding bells!

Dec 29 2010

Poisoning the Well

Posted by Steve Ross in City of Memphis, elections, media, Shelby County

Opponents of School Merger Don't Have to Prove Anything, Just Gin Up Fear

Does this scare you enough?

One element of any campaign, but particularly a campaign as emotionally charged as the fate of public education in a community, is the element of fear.

Fear comes naturally with an attempt to change something because the outcome is unknown, and long held assumptions may be challenged in a way that is uncomfortable. One of the tactics used by people who would seek to derail any change in the status quo is using that naturally occurring fear and taking it up a notch to support their intended outcome. This is called “poisoning the well”.

Over the past week since the historic vote to bring the fate of the MCS Charter to a referendum I’ve been chronicling the media coverage. Thus far, most of the coverage has been fairly benign. The emerging narrative has been largely focused on the political realities behind the resolution vote, and the questions that currently don’t have any answers right now due to the circumstances of the situation, though that seems to be shifting. Over the past few days the coverage has shifted some to a so far unsubstantiated charge by Shelby County Commissioner Terry Roland that there was a back room deal to secure the majority of the vote. Roland asserts he has “proof” of such a deal, but as of yet, has not been forthcoming with that “proof”.

One example of legitimate questions that need answers is this post from Shelby County Commissioner Mike Carpenter’s campaign site.

Since his posting of these questions, some have been answered, many have not. Over the coming days I hope to match up some answers to these questions here on the blog. I’ll also be working on a more comprehensive section of the blog to address issues as they arise.

While there are many questions that need to be answered, there have also been some attempts to create controversy about the vote in areas where none should exist. The previously mentioned charge put forth by Commissioner Roland, which borders on libel unless he has something other than circumstantial evidence, is one example.

Another example is this site put together by the same people who opposed the metro charter vote back in the fall. The site makes a list of “reforms” that they feel must be accomplished during the transition process to merge the districts…a process which hasn’t yet begun. Among these are limiting collective bargaining, increasing instructional time for teachers, eliminating optional schools, outsourcing services, approving new Charter Schools, funding home-schooling, and firing all MCS middle management.

It should be noted that not all of the “ideas” on the site are bad, however, it seems clear that the intent of this “list of demands” is to make MCS teachers, administrators, and some parents FEEL as if their livelihoods are on the line or the future of their schools are in danger should the referendum be approved.

While there is probably a good bit of duplication between the two districts, that doesn’t mean that there is any less need for teachers or administrators going forward, particularly through the transition. In most large school consolidation transitions I’ve studied there is a two to three year period of transition before any “efficiencies” are acted upon. There’s no reason to believe the same wouldn’t be true here and there’s no way to know what those “efficiencies” would look like.

Further, state law provides that teachers would keep their current contracts through the term of the contract in any consolidation, and that district wide parity would have to be achieved over time meaning most county teachers would likely see a pay raise.

As for the future of specific schools and/or programs, there are a lot of questions going forward. However, before any dramatic changes are made there will have to be a reapportionment of the resulting Board of Education and a new election. The fate of schools and programs will not be decided until all the constituents of the resulting district are represented on the resulting legislative body. Any attempts to move unilaterally before such a time will most definitely result in litigation.

So, these are a few examples of a group or individual seeking to poison the well of public opinion against something that I believe is in their best interest, but there are others. Notably, former Nashville English Only activist John Crisp who in an email clearly states he wants to gin up as much fear as possible among key constituencies.

There’s also State Sen. Brian Kelsey who has launched a full frontal attack on the Memphis City Schools from his perch in Nashville.

The point is, consider the messenger, not just the message, and that includes me. I’m biased in favor of this proposal, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. The difference is, I will not play on your emotions. I will seek to provide the best information I can find out there, even if it doesn’t further my position.

Ultimately, this is about the kids and the future of our community, not the power brokers seeking to save their own skins or make some kind of political gain. If it were only about power the MCS School board would have NEVER approved the vote for a referendum.

As long as we all keep these things in mind we can make the most informed decision in the upcoming election.

Dec 24 2010

Following the Media – 12/23/10

Posted by Steve Ross in MCS Media

Just three days since the vote for a referendum on the MCS and things are starting to move.

First, the MCS board met today to approve the minutes of the December 20th vote. This ensures that all the t’s are crossed and the i’s dotted.

The folks who brought you the anti-Metro Charter group are pulling together to oppose the surrender referendum. Even though they don’t have a vote on the matter, they’re still against it, and trying to link the previous issue to the current. Really, the two couldn’t be more different.

Arlington is talking about the possibility of starting their own municipal school district if the referendum is successful. I say go for it. If they’re willing to take on the addition tax liability to support a system, that’s up to them. Somehow, I don’t think they’ve thought this through all the way.

Finally, County Commissioner Chism is calling for a quick transition, should the referendum be successful. Personally, I don’t see this happening as there will likely be a great deal of litigation after the vote.

The Schools Front: Timing & Calendars
Letter from the Editor
Chism: Transition to New School System Should Be Quick
Anti-consolidation activist launches online fight against merger of Memphis and Shelby County schools
Current School Debate Brings Host of Issues
Arlington considers creation of municipal school district
MCS Board Member Warns of Lawsuits
MCS Board Argues “Dots” Before Approving Surrender Minutes
Merging the School Districts
Legislators In Nashville Set To Deal With City/County School Consolidation Issue
MCS board blasted during meeting to approve minutes
MCS Votes to Approve Charter Minutes
MCS Board Approves Minutes to Surrender Charter

Dec 23 2010

Following the Coverage

Posted by Steve Ross in City of Memphis, Shelby County

The Future is in Your Hands

On Monday, the Memphis City School Board voted on a resolution that allows the voters of Memphis a choice…to merge, or stay seperate from the Shelby County Schools. I wrote about this issue before the vote here.

Tonight, a special meeting of the MCS School Board will be held at 6pm to approve the minutes of the meeting back on the 20th. This is a procedural meeting to ensure that all the i’s are dotted and t’s crossed to allow the referendum vote on the charter resolution.

Going forward, one of the most interesting things to me will be how the media chooses to cover this event. To that end, I’ve started a page that includes all the local, and some national media coverage. It can be found on the navigation bar to the right under the heading School Consolidation – Following the Media Narrative.

How things are reported is often as important as what is reported. To that end, I hope to be able to spend some time analyzing these reports, dealing with some questions as they arise, and dispelling myths as they come up.

Time is short. This issue will come up for a vote in as few as 45 days, creating a scenario where there will be three critical elections in very short order (HD 98 primary, School vote, HD98 general). This will make the task of informing the public on the issues, an already difficult task, even more difficult. To that end, there are groups of people already forming to address issues and inform the public. I hope to maintain a list of those groups and organizations as I become aware of them. Feel free to notify me of any that arise in the comments of this post.

One group in favor of the proposal that started on Facebook is called Vote YES Memphis – Surrender the City Schools Charter. I encourage you to like that page as I feel it will be a good vehicle for discussion and additional information.

On an administrative note, I’ve added a functionality to the site that allows users to share and like posts on Facebook as well as Tweet posts directly from this site. The buttons are located at the bottom of each post. In addition, there is a button that allows users to make a PDF of posts for printing and distribution via email. Feel free to test these and please report any problems in the comments or via the Contact Page.

Finally, I want to wish all of my readers a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. See y’all on the flip!