Mar 03 2015

Education: Tennessee’s Under-Funded Mandate

Posted by Steve Ross in activism, State Politics

The State of Tennessee recognizes the inherent value of education and encourages its support. The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance, support and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools. The General Assembly may establish and support such postsecondary educational institutions, including public institutions of higher learning, as it determines. –Tenn. Const. Art. XI, § 12

Back in the dark days of 2013, I wrote a series of posts (1, 2, 3) that delved into the issue of education funding.

The posts were written in a time where the County Commission was trying to beat down the new Unified School Board, to keep their budget tight so the County wouldn’t have to raise taxes to fund their part of education.

The debate featured a lot of red herrings, trojan horses, and outright lies…most foisted upon the School Board by folks who aren’t there anymore, but who, ironically, are or were involved in trying to build up a municipal school district now…through tax increases (Yes, I’m talking about you Mayor Bunker and your former City Manager Chris Thomas).

Through those posts, I sought to show regular folks just how the money comes in, what the money goes for, and that much of the debate about the money was just plain out of line.

Now there’s a new debate about funding brewing, in school board meetings across the state. This time, the State of Tennessee itself is in the crosshairs, and it couldn’t come at a better time.

Basic Education Program

Teachers just wanna teach

Teachers just wanna teach

The State funds its portion of the education pie through a program called the Basic Education Program.

This program uses a formula to determine how much financial support a system should get based on a lot of things, including: number of students, salaries, and cost of doing business (which varies from area to area). The number of students, rightly I might add, is the primary driver of how much money a district gets from the state.

This formula not only determines how much money the State will pitch in, but also the ‘maintenance of effort’ that local governments must provide to stay good with the law. Unfortunately, the State’s portion of the BEP has been underfunded (to the tune of $500m this year alone) since its most recent revision in 2007.

Finally, some school districts are starting to cry foul, as the State demands more with essentially less funding.

Its way past time this happened.

Demanding their Due

scsLast week, the Shelby County Board of Education voted unanimously to join Knox and Hamilton Counties in a lawsuit against the State of Tennessee for underfunding the BEP. Shelby County Schools loses about $103m/yr. because of the BEP shortfall. That’s about 9% of Shelby County Schools proposed budget.

The MNPS (Nashville) School Board is set to vote on joining a potential lawsuit in the coming days.

This post from Bluff City Education gets into the nuts and bolts of the issue…I won’t repeat it here, but its a good read for those of you looking to get into the history of the problem.

The basic crux of it is this: The state has a duty to fund public schools in a certain way, as set forth by the State Legislature. But neither the Governor’s office (who sets the budget), nor the legislature (who amends and approves the budget) has adequately funded education based on the law.

They have, however, lowered taxes on the wealthiest Tennesseans by about $120m/yr in 2012 (source).

While tax collections have exceeded expectations by about $300m this fiscal year, generally tax collections have missed the mark in the past two to three years, which has led to more cuts of state departments after being cut drastically in 2011-12.

On top of that, the state has sought to increase standards for schools, and in many cases, while underfunding schools, taken over low performers for not doing more with less, which is just another example of the Dickensian approach the State has taken on schools.

Moving the Bar

Last year, Governor Haslam appointed a Task Force to examine the BEP. The idea was, that if you can’t fund the thing, then move the bar so it looks like you’re funding the thing.

In the minutes from the second meeting of the task force Governor Haslam’s Chief of Staff, Mark Cate notes that the focus of the group is not to make the ‘pie bigger’, but to adjust how the pie is cut.

Those minutes also erroneously note that the BEP is fully funded, which is false, and has been since 2007.

The point seems to have been to change the way the BEP was calculated to ensure districts couldn’t sue a ‘low tax’ administration who’s hell bent on lowering taxes, even though their obligations and standards are increasing.

But the proof is in the pudding. Since BEP 2.0 was passed, both Democrats and Republicans have acknowledged that the formula isn’t fully funded…despite the new money the governor wants to put into education, which is little more than a drop in the bucket.

Schools Struggling…even the ASD

asdThis comes as schools across the state are struggling to meet state standards that seek to use funding as both carrot and stick…with the threat of a state takeover if they don’t get it done.

This, in effect, is putting the weight of society’s legacy ills (low wages, scant opportunity, low educational attainment, and heavy tax burdens for the working poor) on the back of the schools, making them both educators and social workers while not giving them the tools to even do one of these things.

At the same time, the ASD is looming, ready to sweep in and privatize schools and hand them off to companies that are friendly with the Governor so they can profit off of a public good.

If the aim were really to better education in struggling schools, it would seem the State would work to give those schools the resources to be both educators and social workers…but they’re not.

Now, the ASD itself is under fire. Three years into its existence, the ASD argues they’re still a work in progress. But legacy public schools wouldn’t have been given the amount of time the ASD has had for many of its schools…and Shelby County’s i-Zone schools, many of which are out-perorming ASD schools pose a real threat the the ASD model in the state’s most target rich environment. Combine that with a growing sentiment of ‘get off my lawn’ from the community, and the ASD is heading into dark days…and still not fully meeting expectations, which would get any other school shuttered.

Conclusion: Sleight of Hand and Twist of Fate

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain

Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain

The honest to God truth is the past five years in education policy have been predicated on a wish that the wizard turns out to be as wonderful as we thought he might be. But just like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, the power to get what you want doesn’t lie in some all powerful external thing…it lies with us.

We’ve been sold a bill of goods.

Its not the first bill of goods, and it likely won’t be the last.

But the promise we’ve been promised isn’t happening and won’t happen until we acknowledge that there’s more to education than warehousing kids, or threatening school districts. Unions aren’t the problem…and they may not be the solution either. The problem is simple: We’re not fulfilling the broad range of promises our elected officials have made to the public, and we haven’t been doing that for a very long time. Now we’re seeing the fruits of that inaction.

And its on us too. We’ve seen all kinds of things happen, and we’ve, by and large, bought in to the distractions based on faulty preconceived notions. Instead of calling bullshit when bullshit needed to be called, we’ve bought the bullshit.

Now its time to dig out of a half-decade (or more) of bullshit, and start looking at the system (our society) as a system, rather than trying to ‘fix’ one part or the other while ignoring how that part fits with the other ones.

Because that’s been our strategy for the majority of my life. And maybe that’s been the strategy all along. But if we’re serious (and I’m not convinced we are) we need to stop just focusing on the ugly mole, and start focusing on the cancer that lies underneath it…

Mar 02 2015

A Shake-up, or a Shakedown?

Posted by Steve Ross in elections, Memphis Politics

George Little and Jack Sammons

George Little and Jack Sammons

Monday’s announcement that Jack Sammons was Memphis Mayor A C Wharton’s choice to take over as the City’s CAO is only surprising in that it took so long to happen.

The mayor’s administration has been mired in criticism from city employees, and citizens who don’t feel they’re getting much in the way of anything (tax savings or increased services) from the years of pain that have been endured and will most likely continue to be endured regardless of who wins in October.

But the Mayor, who won in a landslide just 3 and a half years ago, should be feeling the heat.

The political capital his 2011 win garnered isn’t gone, just long forgotten. And after years of promises, and little in the way of delivery…there’ growing discontent in the city about the way the cards have fallen, and just what the Mayor’s vision is for the city.

Make no mistake about it…Mayor Wharton is good at stitching a yarn together, or making pretty words sound good about what a vision might look like. But when it comes to putting that vision into action in a way that the people can see…he’s left much to be desired.

And, with a heated election just seven months away, and a more heated budget battle with at least two City Councilmen looking at his job, putting an ineffective communicator out there, with little political credibility isn’t going to help the Mayor keep his spot on the seventh floor of 125 N. Main.

Enter Jack Sammons…

As a player in the City game since the late 80’s, Sammons knows what’s expected, and most think he knows how to deliver. His two month stint as the CAO under interim-Mayor Myron Lowery is held up as an example of what a longer term stint might bring.

There are some real hurdles to overcome, like his gig with the Airport Commission. But the Mayor seems to think the State Legislature will pass a law that he wants that would fix it, even though there’s no real reason to believe that.

As for Sammons, no one questions his profile. His time in the City Council and on other boards have given Memphians a kind of comfort with him. For the most part, we know what Jack will deliver…and AC knows this.

Its the kind of political calculation that one might expect from an election year. In the CA article, outgoing CAO George Little laid the play bare saying:

“I’ll tell you what I don’t bring to this job, and I don’t mind saying it. I’m a longtime civil servant. … Where I can’t serve the mayor is in terms of political strategy.”

There it is folks…political strategy. I’ll get into that in just a second.

By the way, Little isn’t going away, just to another in a long line of mystery funded executive positions that didn’t exist four years ago.

Let’s hear it for efficiency!


Political strategy is something AC desperately needs if he’s going to hang on to the top spot in the City. Every passing week brings another candidate, tasting blood in the water, looking to exploit the Mayor’s perceived weakness.

But the Mayor, over the past couple of weeks, has stepped his game up, making sure the media is there for every baby kissing, kid camping, and potential economic development deal he can muster. There’s no question a Jack Sammons at the helm of the CAO’s spot will only accelerate that.

And there’s the election strategy. A Jack Sammons at the helm of the city sends a signal to the City’s business community…who have been in AC’s camp since 2011, that all will be ok, we’re working on it, and don’t jump ship just yet.

This is a big blow to the Strickland campaign, who no doubt sought to at least divide the business folks out of AC’s camp, and unify voters in the Poplar corridor. Sammons’ entry to the AC administration puts a damper on that effort. I’m not saying Strickland’s sunk…just that the bar got raised a little bit.

As for the rest of the crowd, they’re left fighting over the voters that aren’t as sexy to the media…you know, regular people. I’m not saying Strickland and AC won’t reach out to them too, but with those two at the top of the ticket, you know the local media was salivating over a Poplar corridor showdown. Now, that could play second fiddle…and with some of the things the Mayor has up his sleeve right now, he could use those to grab just enough to win a plurality in October with Sammons’ help.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not counting out the top tier of the front-runners, but if they don’t have a bad case of heartburn right now, they’re fooling themselves.

Shake-up or Shakedown

But the real political question to me is this:

Is this shakeup the move of a leader who recognizes he’s got a problem and is trying to fix it, or is this a shakedown of the city’s business community/Poplar corridor voters, basically saying, stick with me or else?

Anyone who’s watched Season 4 of The Wire knows the basic playbook this campaign was going to take. But this is a curve ball for those folks looking to keep some plot purity.

And while the State Legislature may stand in the way, that may still not be a loss for Mayor Wharton. There are political fortunes to be made using the ‘foreign other’ (Legislators standing in the way) as a blunt instrument to rally the troops.

Regardless of whether or not Sammons actually takes the CAO job with the city, he’s put himself out there, ready to use his considerable political skills for the Mayor, and that’s more than just a moral victory for Mayor Wharton.

Jan 18 2015

District 5 free-for-all

Posted by Steve Ross in City of Memphis, elections, Memphis Politics

The entry of District 5 Councilman Jim Strickland into the race for Mayor of Memphis has set up a free-for-all in the race for his district.

Right now there are four people who have either declared, or are openly considering a run. I’ll be honest with you, I only know two of them, and a third, I only know anything about because of a Facebook post.

Hardly much of anything to go on.

Still, its a long way to October, and candidates have plenty of time to define themselves…or be defined by each other.

I’ll tell you what I know, and look at the way the district’s been voting. And if any of you candidates want to chime in with links or more information, do it in the comments.

The Candidates

Candidates listed in alphabetical order

Worth Morgan

Worth Morgan

Worth Morgan

I found out about Morgan’s potential candidacy through this Commercial Appeal article announcing another candidates run.

Morgan doesn’t have much of an online profile. His Facebook profile is locked down. As of this writing, there is no Facebook page, twitter handle, or website for his campaign.

What can be found is that he is the child of Musette and Allen Morgan, the latter of Morgan Keegan fame.

I also found this old MUS newsletter talking about Worth’s childhood liver problems, and the family’s commitment to funding research.

By virtue of his family, Worth could be a strong fundraiser (I know that’s a stereotype, but I don’t have much else to go on) or could possibly ‘self-fund’. As for positions, I have no idea. It seems odd to me that a potential candidate would put themselves out there without anything to begin defining them. But, if you subscribe to the money vs. message worldview (which I’m not sure I do because that worldview assumes mutual exclusivity) whatever message Worth comes up with, he’ll most likely have the money to get it out to the masses.

Does he have the public profile to compete in what will likely be one of the most competitive races this fall? That remains to be seen.

Charles ‘Chooch’ PickardFacebook

Charles 'Chooch' Pickard

Charles ‘Chooch’ Pickard

Pickard (aka Chooch) organized an exploratory committee for the District 5 seat in late 2014. An architect by trade, Pickard has been involved in several public and non-profit organizations over the past 6+ years.

In 2009 he was named Executive Director of the Memphis Regional Design Center, an organization that seeks to bring economic stability through land use, planning and design.

That may not sound like a big deal in Memphis, a city where folks consistently list crime and poverty as primary issues, but the wealth of vacant and blighted properties in Memphis only exacerbates those problems, and makes for convenient havens for crime. Those vacant properties also represent a decreased property tax base, which means less revenue, which then translates to fewer services and higher taxes. At the very least, land use is an issue that must be tackled in tandem with these other issues that grab more headlines.

Currently, Pickard serves on the MATA board and is the Executive Architect at City South Ventures, which is seeking to redevelop the U.S. Marine Hospital, which is just south of Crump and the South Bluffs area.

Pickard announced on his Facebook Page that he would have a meeting to make a decision about a potential run. So far, no word on whether he’s in for sure or not.

Dan Springerwebsite | Facebook Page | Twitter

Dan Springer

Dan Springer

Dan Springer announced his candidacy mere moments after Strickland announced his run for Mayor. The two articles were competing with each other on the CA website. But that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, Springer interned with the law firm of Kustoff & Strickland several years ago, so he likely had an inside track.

Currently Springer serves as the Director of Communications for Evolve Bank & Trust. Previously he served as an Executive Assistant to Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and a Legislative Aide to U.S. Senator Bob Corker.

According to people who know Springer, his GOP bona fides notwithstanding, he’s moderate and open minded. Its hard to say how Springer’s GOP background will play in District 5…which has been a swing area in the past two County elections (Luttrell carried the area, but Democrats were voted in on the County Commission). By virtue of his relationship with Mayor Luttrell, there’s little doubt he will have a strong fundraising operation.

Mary Wilder

Mary Wilder

Mary Wilder

Wilder has been a fixture in the Evergreen Vollentine neighborhood for as long as I’ve been in Memphis (which means even longer than that). Wilder is a strong advocate for neighborhoods, and has been active in several civic and political organizations for quite some time.

In 2007 Wilder was named to the Tennessee State House District 89 in an interim position after State Senator Beverly Marerro won the Senate District 30 seat. In 2007 she ran for Memphis City Council District 9 position 3, losing to Reid Hedgepeth in a tight 3-way race.

Wilder is retired but was most recently the Facilities Director at MIFA.

Wilder’s strong ties to the community and neighborhood advocacy make her an early favorite, especially with the Midtown corridor of District 5. The Midtown area has very high voter participation compared to other areas in District 5 and Wilder is a well known and respected quantity in those areas.

Mary’s track record as a community advocate will also likely play well in the struggling neighborhoods within District 5. Many of those neighborhoods have been thirsting for a strong voice on the Council and feel a bit like an afterthought in both Council and County Commission discussions.


Of course, its still early, and perhaps too early to make any decisions about anything, but Springer came out of the gate strong, and that means the other candidates have a little catching up to do.

It will be interesting to see what the candidates report on their early financial disclosures next month.

The deadline for petitions isn’t until July, but the race, like it or not, is well underway.

District 5 has some of the highest turnout, and has more concentrated wealth than perhaps any other single member district that will be in play this cycle. That means candidates will have to raise a lot of money, and have robust organizations to get their message out.

District 5 is also a 50%+1 district, meaning, with at least four people (so far) vying for the seat, there’s the very real possibility of a run-off election a month after the October election. This makes organization and fundraising even more critical in the months before the July petition deadline.

Its going to be very interesting. As I find out more about the individual candidates, I’ll update this post.

Ed. Note – If you’re a candidate for District 5 and have more information you’d like me to include in this post, shoot me a note via my Contact Page.

Dec 11 2014

The Steve Ross Show – Episode 3

Posted by Steve Ross in activism, The Steve Ross Show

Episode 3 of the Steve Ross Show is up and ready for your viewing pleasure.

You can watch it below or by clicking here.

This episode focuses on the issues surround police militarization, and the protests that have arisen since the Michael Brown and Eric Garner Grand Jury Decisions.

I spoke with Brad Watkins of the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center about all that and more.

I’ll be posting the extended interview very soon, so stay tuned for that.

Enjoy the show!

Nov 30 2014

Populism alone won’t save Southern Democrats

Posted by Steve Ross in elections, National Politics, TNDP
Complete Devestation

Complete Devestation

Friday, the AP published an article pushing for more populism from Democratic candidates in Southern states to help revive the respective state party organizations.

I agree that a more populist message would help motivate Democratic voters, and possibly move some swing voters our way, but the notion that populism alone is the answer is moronic.

Because any messaging tactic one might bring to a campaign is worthless without the apparatus to effectively deliver that message. That’s where Democrats in the South, and plenty of other places, have been failing.

I constantly hear from Republicans to be ready to do battle with “Democratic Machine Politics”, but I’ve not seen much evidence of a machine at all in recent years. Certainly not on the local and state levels.

That’s where we’re getting destroyed. And the destruction will have long lasting effects on the politics and policies of individual states, and the federal government going forward.

But its not just Tennessee, its happening all over.

Here’s what they’re saying in Arizona about their state party structure.

“There’s got to be a serious autopsy. And I say autopsy because I think we’re dead at this point. The infrastructure is dead, the party structure is dead….

It’s not just money, we have a much bigger problem than that. I can’t blame anybody. I’m part of the problem, too.”

– Arizona House Minority Leader Rep. Chad Campbell

If this refrain sounds familiar, it should. I’ve been saying something similar to this since 2008.

I suggest you go and read the whole thing, because there’s a glimmer of hope in the statement from AZ House Minority Leader Chad Campbell…recognition.

Unlike Democratic leaders in Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi and other deep south states, Campbell actually understands two critical problems:

  1. That the state political structure is dead.
  2. That he is at least somewhat responsible for killing it.

That kind of recognition is absent from far too many of the discussions being had around here.

But this post isn’t about blame…because that’s not productive. In fact, I have no interest in calling names or anything like that, because we’re all responsible on one level or another.

This post is about the transformative power of recognizing the problem.

The Arizona Democratic Party actually has a chance now…if only its leaders will act on the recognition of their State House Minority Leader.

We need our leaders, including school board members, County Commissioners, State House and Senate members, State Executive Committee members, and US Representatives, to recognize the role they play in contributing to the problem…and begin working on concrete actions to start building something…anything.

That means finding something for campaign teams to do once the election is over.

We can’t just build campaign teams for the election and then let all that talent get scattered to the wind once the cycle is over. We have to keep these folks in the fold, so all that time training and mentoring doesn’t go to waste.

We have to build a bench, and keep that bench game ready.

But we don’t do that…ever. We fight amongst ourselves about petty party issues, and pigeon-hole people as one faction or another (that we have decided we don’t like) and let that get in the way of building. Its stupid.

Its funny to me that Democrats are the Party that professes to stand up for the little guy, when we consistently squander the “little guy” campaign talent as soon as the election cycle is over.

Then, two years later, we come calling on these folks, hoping they’re still around to help us…and more often than not, they have done what any self-respecting person would do…they’ve moved on.

Republicans don’t do that. They keep their people busy. And while some might say they have more money than we do…part of that is because they don’t ever stop campaigning. They keep their army busy fundraising, advocating, and recruiting.

We don’t, and that’s what’s killing us.

I’ve been saying the same thing for more than six years now, and I don’t care if you’re tired of hearing it. No one has really, effectively put anything in motion for any period of time because we spend so much time second-guessing ourselves into inaction, and ultimately, failure.

Until we decide to get over ourselves, and stop looking around the corner for the next internal boogeyman, we’ll never be able to take on the real villain that’s right in front of us…and has taken over.