Ed. Note: For a fuller discussion of the current proposals on County redistricting, check out this post.Another issue, which is perhaps secondary to the debate on County redistricting, is that of the School Board.
In the consent order from Judge Mays, the Unified School Board will go to 7 member after the unification of Memphis City Schools and Shelby County Schools is complete, in September of 2013.
Everyone seems to agree that 7 members is too few for a school system with over 150,000 students, and a county of nearly a million people. Judge Mays left open the possibility that the School Board could be expanded at some later date.
Yesterday, as reported by Zack McMillin at the Commercial Appeal, the County Commission began looking at the legal ramifications, and possibilities surrounding expanding the School Board.
In accordance with Judge Mays’ order, the districts must be single member districts, and they should be of equal size. This means that in order to expand the School Board and have those districts mirror the districts of the County Commission, the County Commission must adopt a single member district plan.
All of this presupposes that the preferred size of the School Board would be 13, though I don’t see any real reason for it to be any smaller.
If the County Commission chooses to go with the current multi-member plan discussed here, then expands the Unified School Board to 13 single member districts, they are effectively speaking out of both sides of their mouth. One thing is good for one body, something else is good for another.
While it may seem that such a position would be hard to support, I can see it happening. This would be a “what’s good for the goose may not be good for the gander” proposition.
But ultimately, this scenario creates additional confusion for voters and an additional set of lines for people to keep up with. You may be in District 1 in the County Commission, and District 6 in the Unified School Board. County Commission districts would likely be split in such a scenario, meaning people who live across the street from each other would have different representatives depending on how the lines are drawn. This makes it harder for people to organize for or against any specific issue that would involve both bodies.
Since the Consent Order effectively gives the City of Memphis an out on funding the schools, the County Commission will be the go to body after unification is complete. To my way of thinking, this makes it that much more critical that the districts for the County Commission and the School Board mirror each other, which, by necessity should push the Commission to adopt a single member district plan.
See Also: Zack McMillin on the issue
Over the past week I’ve written several posts about the contract to provide Family Planning services to individuals in Shelby County. The first post dealt with the political issues involved. The second post took a look at the services to be provided and inconsistencies in scoring based on the quantity of those services. Yesterday I pointed out concerns relating to the ability and/or willingness of one of the potential contractors to fulfill the requirements of the Title X program. Unfortunately, the County didn’t respond to my inquiry about who asked the questions that would lead one to believe they could not fulfill these requirements on the grounds of their “ethical beliefs”.
On Sunday, Wendi Thomas at the Commercial Appeal wrote an article about the issue, and brought up some additional concerns. In that article, she quoted a previous article where the founding physician of CCHC indicated they would not follow the letter of the regulation relating to referrals for pregnancy termination. From her article:
“We really try to provide women with other options and make sure they have those possibilities. And if they at the end still want a pregnancy termination, we know they know where to go,” Rick Donlon told The Commercial Appeal last month. (Source)
There’s one simple truth about receiving public money for a service:
“Play by the rules, or the money goes away.”
For something like Family Planning, the cost of the money going away is huge. The thousands of people served by these funds would be left abandoned without the benefit of these services. If they go away that means a whole lot of women will get pregnant, quite possibly at a time when they aren’t ready. The pressures that unwanted pregnancy will place on them, and the community at large, are huge. Quite honestly, we can’t afford to play games with this money.
I understand there are those in state and local government that have a problem with PPGMR, who has been providing the services for some time in this community. I wish they would acknowledge that those problems have little to do with the actual services that PPGMR renders with this money, and more to do with a service they provide that the money doesn’t touch. Remember, no Federal money can go for providing abortions according to the Hyde Amendment.
That said, Title X funds recipients are bound by the terms of their contract to refer women who ask to a place that does provide abortion. Saying “I think they know where to go” doesn’t fit with the demands the money places on the provider.
There’s another issue that I haven’t touched on, and that’s of staffing. PPGMR already has staff in place to serve people under this program. They’ve been doing it for years, so of course they do. CCHS doesn’t. They explicitly list that they will have to hire 7 people just to execute the contract (you can find this on p. 14-15 of their proposal). That’s a huge problem. How long will it take to get that staff in place and trained? What makes CCHS so much different from the Health Department, who initially refused the money for the very same reasons? Why does CCHS think they can ramp up services quickly enough to be an effective provider?
Another really important question on this same line is why isn’t this weakness in the CCHS proposal reflected in the scores given by the 6 member ad-hoc purchasing panel? The RFP itself expressly states that the personnel must be in place. Here’s the section from page 15 of the RFP:
That this weakness in the CCHS proposal isn’t reflected in the scores, nor addressed in any official statement from the Shelby County Government, raises many questions about the fairness of the process. This is something that all the evaluators need to account for, as it is listed as a requirement, not a goal.
On Wednesday at 9:45 am the Health and Hospitals Committee will take this issue up again. As of right now there’s 1 hour scheduled for the discussion, though I feel certain that it will last much longer than that. I hope that the Commissioners give the issues I’ve raised over the past several posts a serious look. The lives of thousands of people in Shelby County are depending on them to exercise their oversight over the Administration, and get real answers.
Considering the challenges we already have in Shelby County with poverty, infant mortality and teen pregnancy, it hardly seems like a time to politicize a process that will directly impact some of the most at risk individuals in our community.
We’ll see on Wednesday.
Thanks again for reading.
Ed Note: I started writing this yesterday afternoon. Since then there have likely been updates that I’ve missed, and I may be restating some stuff that’s already out there. Time constraints being what they are, I offer this in the spirit of talking about what could be. As time permits and more information emerges, I’ll either update, or offer additional posts on the topic. It’s a big one.
There are a lot of questions yet to be answered. In the mean time one of the most interesting things about the announcement is that it was covered elsewhere first. Not exactly controlling your message guys.
So what about the paywall? Why are they doing it and what do they hope to gain from doing it? Well, I think everyone knows that newspapers are dying, right? Well, maybe not dying, but a the landscape has changed, and that means things have to change, and revenue streams have to be made more revenuee. As the CA has worked to adapt to that changing landscape, they’ve made some missteps, that I hope they don’t repeat.
So while we’re waiting for the details, I thought it would be a good idea to give some suggestions about how a digital subscription, or paywall might be of value to consumers of news, especially the junkies like me. All of this is in the spirit of keeping a journalistic institution not only alive, but thriving, which is essential to a functioning democracy.
The deadwood has been getting thinner and thinner, and not just in numbers of pages, but also the width of those pages. Some of this is due to slow ad sales, some due to rising costs. All told, it costs a lot to by ink buy the barrel and paper to put that ink on. At the end of the day, people don’t take the paper because of ink or paper, or ads, excluding perhaps the Sunday edition, they take it for content. I believe one of the biggest challenges facing the CA is that of detailed and original content.
This is not a reflection on the reporters, it’s a reflection on editorial decisions and space constraints. I see the reporters at public meetings and events all over town. More often than not they’re either scribbling down notes, or pecking at a laptop. Heck, I know most of them. I see them writing, but I’m pretty sure I often don’t see their product, and if I do, the number of column inches doesn’t match the scribbles and pecks that I observed.
This is a condition caused by the constraints of a physical paper. You got the ads to pay for a 50 page paper, go for it. If not, it’s more like 35. I get it. So if the paywall means freeing yourself of the constraints of the space deadwood allows and actually having a “this is what we printed, there’s more online” type of paper, I’m all for it. Do it tomorrow for crissakes. But I’m not sure that’s what y’all had in mind, so you’ll have to pardon me if I seem a bit skeptical going forward in the post.
The way this was presented is that it may cost more to access the paper if you’re not already paying for it. I get that reporters, editors, paper, and ink aren’t free. I’m willing to pay for access, as long as the content is guaranteed to be there. After I read Chris Peck’s editorial back in January, I was and still am hopeful that more and more detailed content is coming. Mostly because of this paragraph:
There is an appetite for local news. But the bill for the full-course meal increasingly can’t be paid for in the old way. The print audience isn’t as big as it was, the paid adverting revenues aren’t as rich as they were, and the number of paid journalists has declined as a result.
To me, this signaled upcoming expanded coverage of local and statewide news.
While there has been more focus on local news as of late, and thank God for it, coverage of statewide issues has been largely lacking, and not just from the CA, but from just about every paper in the state. I touched on this Wednesday.
So if paying for access means that there are more reporters covering more stories and deeper coverage, here, please take my credit card. But I’m not sure that’s what Peck et al. have in mind. It would take over 350 digital subscriptions to get to one reporters salary (maybe more maybe less, I have no idea what they make). When I’ve seen this happen at other newspapers I’ve seen an initial burst of expanded coverage, and a slow spiral back to where they were before the paywall or “premium” content launched.
This may be because they didn’t get the subscribers they needed to pull it off. It may be because of editorial decisions, or it may have been because of a need to drive shareholder value, and that’s what I fear this is really all about.
Business is the Business of Making Money
It’s not called “the newspaper business” because it’s a charity, folks. They are in the business of making money and they do it all while informing the populace. But newspapers are and have been for some time, a big money business. It takes a lot to get into the deadwood side, and that means you have to have investors who want something in return for their investment.
I understand and am fine with this. If folks don’t make money, no one gets paid. I like getting paid and I’m sure you do too. But news isn’t and hasn’t been a big growth industry. Just look at the staff size compared to the days of the newspaper wars and you know that the business is contracting.
The newspaper business isn’t like oil, or consumer goods that have a big upside and rake in billions a quarter. News is slow growth, it’s personal, it’s conversational and very fragmented. What I want as a consumer is very different than my neighbors, or the people down the street.
Sony, or Apple or whomever doesn’t have this problem. They make a thing, add a bell or whistle, presto, people either buy it or they don’t. Balancing the content that consumers want is a difficult task indeed.
At the end of the day, content brings in readers which should increase circulation. Greater circulation brings in more dollars. More dollars should allow for more content spurring for more growth. But that’s not how its worked out. News organizations are expected to outperform the economy, just like every other business out there. If they don’t do it, then there have to be cuts, and that’s been at the expense of hard working reporters, printers and editors. Eventually, someone’s gonna lose, and so far it’s been lifelong newspeople and consumers, which, in my view has depressed the upside of the business and I’m not sure that shareholders and boards get this.
The promise of digital content is the removal of one of the biggest costs associated with the news, the actual physical paper. But its a crowded space, with national and international players taking an ever bigger piece of the pie. Maintaining a revenue stream to pay for the other huge cost of a newspaper, payroll, is hard to do with all the competition online.
The way to do it is to offer compelling content that draws people in. As Peck noted in his Tsunami editorial, the CA does drive a lot of the news in this area. Think of the Ernest Withers/FBI piece, and all the articles and broadcast news stories that followed. It was a conversation driver.
But driving the conversation and realizing the revenue from that is difficult in both the online space and the deadwood. You don’t see the immediate gains from it like you do when you come out with a new model of TV or computer because the space is so personal. And just like relationships, they can take a long time to foster and a short time to destroy.
While I’m a firm believer that reporters, editors, printers, delivery folks and investors need to get paid for their investment, be it time, expertise, or money, I also know that springing something like this on people, without really laying it out there for them is off-putting, and I think some folks felt the brunt of that yesterday.
People Hate Change, And Hate It Even More If It Doesn’t Deliver
People say they want change, but the rarely like it when they get it. It’s so easy to ignore that there are costs associated with everything. We all want more for less. We don’t care how much it costs someone else as long as we don’t feel it. It’s a cultural thing, a disconnect that is fueling a toilet tornado.
While folks like me have been hollering for more content, not everyone gets that there’s a cost associated with it. I do, and like I’ve said already, I’m ready. But with change comes a danger, a danger that you may not deliver. That’s the chance you take.
If you do deliver, some will notice, others won’t but hopefully they’ll just keep paying. If you don’t deliver someone will step in and do it for you, which nets you nothing.
Remember, this is about relationships, and nothing says goodbye like disappointment.
Fee Structure for the Future?
Finally I want to talk about the fee structure as I understand it. As Bruce at the Memphis Flyer noted, a Sunday subscription is less than a digital subscription for a year. This tells me something:
That the Commercial Appeal doesn’t believe in the strength or stability of their online ad system and instead of working to strengthen it, have chosen to push people to the deadwood to drive up physical circulation and by extension ad revenue from that physical circulation, which is the largest piece of the pie in terms of revenue.
I hope this isn’t the case because this is not a forward looking solution, it’s a stop gap. In effect, the digital subscribers are paying more to defray the lost revenue of declining or stagnant ad revenue in the deadwood.
If this is the case, then I don’t have a lot of hope for expanded coverage either.
I’m in wait and see mode. I want to hear what the leaders of the CA have in mind. I will give it a chance. I will set my expectations to what they promise to deliver. But no matter what that promise is, as a consumer, there are things that I want. If the CA wants my money in perpetuity, then they should work to deliver those things. If not, I’ll look elsewhere and take my money with me. That’s the free market folks, and everyone needs to understand, there’s no monopoly on news. Especially not now.
In other news, E.W. Scripps, the parent company of the Commercial Appeal, has announced the exit of the senior vice president of its newspaper division. Interesting timing.
Memphis City Schools busses over 10% of its student body and pays some $20,000,000 for it. That’s $1050/student bused per year, or about $5.60 a day for each of the 19,000 students that use the district’s bus contractor.
When you break it down to a daily cost per student, it doesn’t seem like much. It’s more than a round trip on the city bus, but don’t get me started on that whole thing.
When you consider at the total operating budget of the District, which is knocking on the door of one billion dollars ($879M), $20M is a drop in the bucket. In fact, that sum constitutes less than 2.3% of the total budget of the school system.
All of this said, the notion that a contract would not be bid out more than once in 21 years is EXACTLY what’s wrong with Memphis. That we are possibly paying more for busing than Knoxville and Nashville in light of these circumstances is no surprise. Both of these issues need to be addressed before the end of this year to ensure that both the students interests and the taxpayers money are being treated with the care that they both deserve.
What bothers me is that I can’t decide what this story is really about. Is this an attempt to build outrage over the other problems at the MCS, an opportunity to pile on Halbert in light the recent Grand Jury testimony, of is this just a pumped up tabloid piece disguised as investigative journalism?
I don’t really know the answers to these questions, and certainly don’t have a dog in this fight, when it comes to the interpersonal relationships of the School Board members. It would have been nice to see some real numbers contrasting to the cost per student here in Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville instead of the blanket numbers given early on in the article and the table at the end. There are other issues to consider, like trip length, route distance, and number of students per route that may have an impact driving up the cost of bus services in the school district.
For instance, if Nashville is busing some 50% of it’s students; there are many factors that could play into a lower cost per student ratio. However, with 30,000 fewer students, the Nashville school system is paying a higher percentage of its total budget than Memphis. Playing with numbers can serve many masters, and the article should have addressed this. In any case, this is to be expected considering the total number of students bused. It also follows that with a greater number of students bused, there is a greater opportunity to make those routes more cost effective. Did anyone think about this? Sure doesn’t seem like it.
Secondly, the question I will ask until the CA stops monetizing content…who paid for the article? How much does an article like that cost, and who do I talk to in sales to get one written? This is not meant as a slap to the author, whose work I have enjoyed in the past and look forward to in the future, but the publisher, who refuses to understand that his paper is not losing readers because of too much staff, but because of too little real local coverage. We can get an AP report anywhere dude, how’s about some more articles that address what’s going on in Memphis and less wire fill.
Finally, while I understand that all is not rosy in the world, I would really like to see some articles about something going right in Memphis. I’m not talking about saving kittens from trees or helping old ladies across streets or anything, but for the love of all that is holy, there HAS to be something good going on in this city. Sure there’s plenty wrong and it needs to be reported, but the sheer bulk of it all is just down right overwhelming.
Here’s an idea, maybe you could trade up and have less Wendi Thomas, and more of something like a list of people who are screwing the city out of money or are general ne’er do wells. That would be good reference material for us bloggers and remove an annoying part of my week.
BTW, who pays for her column?