May 03 2011

Flood or No Flood, The World Keeps Turning

Posted by Steve Ross in Shelby County, State Politics

Mud Island shot from Riverside Dr., 2pm May 2, 2011

This may sound a bit callous or cold, but it is a harsh reality: The world doesn’t stop just because we’re staring down the barrel of a disaster.

Lots of things are going on across the state and the nation, and even though it’s hard to keep up with everything with all the flood information, but it is important.

On the bright side:

Memphis’ own Booker T. Washington High School has been selected as a finalist in the President’s Commencement Challenge. Congratulations to #BTW and here’s hoping they win it all.

The has effectively killed many bad bills for this year including State Sen. Stacey Campfield’s ridiculous “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Thank goodness.

Speaking of “Don’t Say Gay”, here’s an interesting exchange between Sen. Campfield and a blogger.

On the Not so bright side:

The Tennessee Senate voted last night to approve a bill that would end collective bargaining. I’m not sure how removing a check from the system of checks and balances is going to help student achievement, and neither are several state legislators. Here’s a video from State Sen. Eric Stewart.

Speaking Out

Sen. Lowe Finney and Rep. Craig Fitzhugh ask in the Commercial Appeal why the Haslam Administration is abandoning successful policy.

The CA editorial board also had something to say about the Anti-Shariah bill before the TNGA.

Mediation

Here in Shelby County, the mediation on the Schools issue has been taken back over by the Judge. We’ll just have to see what shakes out from that development.

City Council Meeting

This afternoon the Memphis City Council meets and will discuss several items of interest. You can see the agenda here.

No mention of redistricting, which was deferred until the May 17th meeting. Maybe someone needs to go and ask them about the need for public scrutiny. Maybe I will.

The meeting starts at 3:30.

I’ll have more flood information later this afternoon. Until then, stay safe.

Apr 26 2011

100 Days of Less than Little

Posted by Steve Ross in State Politics

TN Gov. Bill Haslam

Yesterday, TN Gov. Bill Haslam celebrated his first 100 days in office with, what else, a snazzy press release.

This first 100 has been busy folks, not so much for the Governor, who has been more than willing to sit idly by as the more firebrand members of his party run the state from the General Assembly.

In the mean time, the good Governor has been biding his time, coming up with press releases, like the one from yesterday, taking credit for things that as a candidate, he might want to distance himself from.

But now, with three years before he has to tap daddy’s war chest again for campaign cash, Haslam is trying to deal with being overshadowed, and look good doing it.

Here’s his list of “accomplishments”:

• Proposing a strategic legislative package that focuses on economic development through education reforms targeted at creating a well-educated workforce and ensuring an attractive business environment in Tennessee;

• Signing his tenure reform legislation into law;

• Announcing a $40 million public-private charter school growth fund;

• Proposing a balanced state budget that is $1.8 billion less than the previous year’s budget;

• Proposing a 1.6 percent salary increase for state employees after four years without one;

• Announcing a Jobs4TN plan that identifies four key strategies which include:

    1. prioritizing the strategic recruitment of target industries;
    2. assisting existing Tennessee businesses with expansion and competitiveness,
    3. supporting regional and rural economic development strategies as well as investing in innovation and reducing business regulation;
    4. Announcing a top-to-bottom review of the department of Economic and Community Development as a pilot process for other state departments and agencies to follow;

• And conducting a thorough review of state rules and regulations.

What he didn’t focus on, and for good reason, are the real consequences of these “actions”, some of which a new blogger on the block helpfully laid out for us.

But what Haslam leaves out is, perhaps, the most important part of his presser.

He conveniently forgets that he started the ball rolling with an Executive Order exempting himself and his cronies from income disclosures.

He ignores the fact that he, and House Speaker Beth Harwell, have allowed the Tennessee Ethics Commission the body that might hear claims against this executive order, has been has been without a quorum for the entirety of his 100 days, something that Democrats on the hill have managed to miss over and over again.

He’s pushing to keep people from holding corporations responsible for their actions, ultimately hurting the very people who have already been hurt, once again, in the name of job creation, an erroneous assertion at best.

He ignores the 32% pay raises he’s given his cabinet, while handing out a piddling 1.6% to hard working employees, or worse pink slips as economic development strategy.

He made it tougher for teachers to teach without worrying about getting let go for making too much, and makes it harder for teachers to negotiate a fair wage for their service…something that will most certainly result in fewer teachers overall, and the best of the best leaving the state for greener pastures.

Oh yeah, that Jobs plan? All those closures are hurting rural areas, already suffering from around 14% unemployment, more than anyone else.

Truth be told, aside from enriching his cronies, and hiding his wealth, Haslam hasn’t done much. The heavy lifting has been done by the legislature, who is pushing the envelope even further than he’s comfortable with. This may be why he’s ready for them to head to the house.

At the end of the day, Gov. Haslam has fully ensconced himself as the Gubernatorial Spokesmodel, rather than the Chief Executive of the state. Until he decides to do more than roll over for the more radical elements in his party, he’ll continue to be nothing more than that.

Dec 18 2010

It Hasn’t Worked Thus Far, Why Would It Work Now?

Posted by Steve Ross in City of Memphis, Shelby County

In this morning’s Commercial Appeal, MCS School Board Member, Dr. Jeff Warren pens an Op-Ed prescribing the conditions necessary for a stand-down in the current stand-off between Shelby County Schools (SCS) and Memphis City Schools (MCS).

The column, entitled “Let’s get MAD about our schools face-off”, calls for the two districts to come together to work for an equitable solution that affirms the dedication of both systems to the education of all the children of Shelby County.

Playing on the acronym MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) that many have applied to the possible consolidation of the schools, Warren proposes the idea of Mutually Assured Dedication, a series of agreements with consequences for both SCS and MCS should either breach the terms as well as a shared interest in the education of all the children of Shelby County.

Further, Warren calls on Senator Norris and Representative Lollar to publicly state they will work to ensure that Shelby County is excluded from any Special School District status legislation should the issue come up in the state legislature this session.

As a general statement, I agree with the ideas that Dr. Warren says created the current situation. Even though I was only 1 year old, and didn’t live here at the time, I agree that forced busing in the 1970′s caused many people a great deal of dissatisfaction and the consequences of that decision led many to vote with their feet, moving into the county and ultimately, building up the county school district to its current size, not to mention the large number of thriving private school institutions that have arrived on the scene or expanded since.

Warren likens SCS’s push for Special School District Status to creating

permanent inequality by instituting a special school district that will never have to be involved with poor inner-city children.

I also agree with this assessment. Whether those served by SCS want to admit it, they are currently negatively impacted by the abject poverty and other conditions present in the City schools. This impact is felt in the struggle to attract high quality, good paying jobs to our area. Simply put, the challenge of seeking broad based economic opportunity for all residents of Shelby County has been made more difficult by the mass exodus of students from MCS (either through private education or moving to county schools), and people from the City core, starting in the 70′s and continuing to this day.

With this in mind, it’s clear that there already exists a fundamental disconnect between many outside the city school system and the hard realities inside the city borders. There is currently no real dedication by Shelby County residents as a whole, to reverse the conditions of poverty and want that ultimately sustain the dire outcomes for so many of our children in the City system. So why, even under the threat of consolidation, anyone would think a shift in philosophy so extreme would occur now is beyond me.

Currently, public education in Shelby County sustains a “separate but equal” system, whereby children with more economic advantages are paired with economic peers as are those with fewer advantages thanks to political boundaries that are both irrational and arbitrary. The consequence of this arrangement is a further widening of the gaps between the two rather than providing both with equal educational opportunities and a sense of shared destiny. In short, sustaining the current scenario in a “stand down” agreement is merely maintaining a system of inequality that has persisted for generations, not a solution. Nothing about this condition serves the people, or the children of Shelby County well.

Further complicating the issue is the political situation outside Shelby County. The politics of this issue are not confined to just the SCS Board, the MCS Board, Senator Norris or Representative Lollar. There are 32 additional State Senators and 98 State Representatives, any one of whom could propose a private act that would ultimately give Special School District status to SCS. Given the massive shift in the political makeup of both the State Senate and House, and the presence of quite a few ideological bomb throwers, Sen. Brian “last vestige of slavery” Kelsey (R-Germantown) and Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville) among them, does anyone actually believe that both Norris and Lollar can maintain the line in Nashville? For goodness sake, Sen. Kelsey almost killed a bill he supported with his “last vestige of slavery” remark. Does anyone believe he can keep it together long enough to not “accidentally” screw this up? Color me skeptical.

While I agree with Dr. Warren on many of the conditions that have created the current situation, I disagree with him and City Councilman Jim Strickland on the potential outcomes of school consolidation. Writing in the Commercial Appeal on December 16th, Strickland opined that

it is safe to assume that the suburban residents would have stronger negative opinions of merging their school system with the city’s than they did about the consolidation issue debated this fall. One MCS board member has publicly worried that a schools merger would result in increased flight from Shelby County.

Where, I ask, are they going to go? Tipton? Fayette? DeSoto? Perhaps, but they do so at their own peril. None of these districts can provide the educational opportunities that a combined MCS/SCS can. They lack the bricks and mortar as well as the instructors to deal with a massive influx of students. Further, most of the people who live outside the City limits work in Memphis. Are they honestly going to try to sell their homes in this market, and move to an unproven district with fewer resources just to get away from Memphis? I don’t think so, but if they do, it again proves my point that these individuals have no interest in building all quarters of our community up for the common good. It is a sad commentary on our society.

I applaud Dr. Warren’s efforts to negotiate a “stand down”, however, I generally agree with Rep. GA Hardaway’s assessment as reported on the 14th

(Shelby County schools will) push the pedal to the metal, headed to special school district. If you let this window of opportunity pass you by, I have no reason to believe they won’t put that pedal to the metal again.

For the majority of MCS students, 90% of whom are African American and 86% of whom are on free or reduced lunches, the specter of a further loss of funding, which would further negatively impact their already dire educational outcomes, is not something I’m willing to chance to an agreement that relies primarily on the good will or good intentions of individuals who have sought no remedy to our problems until now, when their system of “separate but equal” is challenged. I agree with John Branston of the Memphis Flyer, we haven’t been able to reach a compromise so far, there’s no reason to believe we will now, and we have to end the “us” versus “them” mentality that continues to divide our community.

Will the surrender of the MCS charter be messy? Absolutely. If the School Board decides to put it on the ballot in March, I fully anticipate that SCS will initiate a full court press to not only maintain, but expand the inequality between the two systems. I think everyone involved understands that the ultimate outcome will be decided in the courts.

What about the children, won’t they suffer? Not any more than they are now. The current scenario will likely be “frozen” by a Federal court injunction until the issue is resolved, which may be a few years down the road. Anything the State or SCS tries to do after MCS starts the referendum process will likely be viewed unfavorably by the Federal Courts as an attempt to circumvent a long codified and widely understood process that was law upon the initiation of the referendum. That said, I am not, nor do I claim to be an attorney. I am interested in hearing the thoughts of attorney’s out there on this particular issue.

Ultimately, this is a question about the sustainability of Shelby County as an economic engine for our region. Coming together, recognizing the potential for the common good, and working to reverse the abject economic and educational poverty in our community, which is the true “last vestige of slavery”, is the only way to positively impact the outcomes of all our children. In order for this to work, we all have to have skin in the same game, not two different games with differing agendas. To that end, I humbly ask the MCS School Board to vote to surrender the charter, and allow the people of our City, who make up 70% of the population of Shelby County, to have the ultimate voice in the decision.

May 07 2009

Big Shelby Leads Charge in a Declining Western Division

Posted by Steve Ross in Shelby County, State Politics

Tennessee is growing. According to US Census estimates Tennessee has added some 525,614 people since the census in 2000. In that time, the Eastern and Middle Divisions, as defined by TN Code 4-1-202 through 204 have seen their population increase by nearly 500,000. The Western Division, by contrast, has only added 30,000 people.

The Western Division suffers from some issues that have contributed to this poor population performance. First, the W. Division has fewer counties (21) that are far more rural than the other two divisions. The W. Division has only 1 of the 10 largest counties in Tennessee…Shelby. Only Shelby, Madison, Tipton and Gibson have populations over or near 50,000. By contrast, Middle TN has 8 Counties with populations greater than 50,000, and East TN has 15.

According to these estimates, Shelby County has only grown by just over 9000 people since 2000. Davidson, Rutherford, and Williamson in Middle TN have grown by over 150,000 total in the same time period. Knox, Hamilton, Blount and Sevier in the East have grown by around 100,000. Where have all the West Tennessee people gone?

10 counties in West TN have seen population declines since 2000 for a total of 6500 fewer people. Tipton and Fayette, the two counties surrounding Shelby have seen a growth of almost 16000 people. Many of these new residents are likely from Shelby Co., creating a growth neutral situation. DeSoto Co., MS has seen growth of some 50,000 since 2000, the vast majority of these people have moved from Shelby Co. Under these circumstances, the growth that Shelby County “feels” in terms of infrastructure use is not realized in the tax base, or the population leading to a net negative growth as a percentage of the entire state’s population of 1.8% division wide.

With redistricting coming up in 2010, the Western Division stands to lose as many as 3 Representative and 1 Senator, if these numbers hold true, to the quickly expanding Middle. This is bad news for as many as 4 elected officials as well as the people of the Western Division, but at this point, there’s not much that can be done by 2010.

The closure of several manufacturing plants in NW TN, and the general absence of economic diversity in rural counties is partially to blame for this decline, but the majority of the cause is right here in Shelby Co. High crime, low graduation rates, rampant poverty, and a reliance on existing employers to “grow our way” out of the problem have hampered Shelby’s growth, sending more and more people to N. Mississippi, which has almost tripled in population since 1990.

Mayor Herenton’s famous declaration calling on people to “leave” rather than addressing the problems of the City can’t have helped the situation.

On the flip side, nearly all of the new employers to the state in the past several years have taken residence in the Eastern and Middle divisions. This helps explain their growth as much as our inability to maintain our percentage of the statewide population.

In the end, while this is an ugly scenario, this is the reality that we’re facing in two years, assuming that the numbers hold true. For Democrats, it gives us one more motivating factor for taking back the House in 2010, to keep Republicans from exploiting these statewide demographic shifts in redistricting. For the Western Division, it further illustrates the need for us to demand better from our elected representatives in state, county, and city government.

We have a lot to address, and it can’t all be done by 2010, but it’s important for the 21 counties here in the West not fall so far behind that we become an economically depressed area of Tennessee. We have a great deal to offer, but we also have to stop being our own worst enemies, and work together to raise the standard of living for all West Tennesseans. It’s a tough row to hoe, but inaction is not an option.