Jul 25 2011

Why Does Whalum Choose to Stretch the Truth?

Posted by Steve Ross in City of Memphis

Kenneth Whalum

You can’t always pick your messenger, and folks who maybe aren’t so interested in resolving an issue are more interesting on TV than folks who, you know, want to see school start on time and all, but it amazes me that our media is so lilly livered that they can’t even call someone out on misrepresenting their own “facts”.

Such is the case with Kenneth Whalum’s appearance on Fox 13 over the weekend. Video of the interview follows below, but I want to deal with some of the specific statements he made.

1:55 – In response to a question about an article indicating 5 of 9 members would accept the tentative compromise crafted at theCity Council’s Education Committee meeting on Thursday:

“I don’t buy anything the Commercial Appeal says. And, and, there is nothing to poll. There is no formal offer from the city council. So right now the only poll that counts is the vote that was taken when we passed the resolution, and the vote said 8-1 we will not start school.”

This is technically correct, though on Friday the Schools and the City noted that the deal mentioned on Thursday was being formally drafted for approval at the next MCS board meeting, and the next City Council meeting on August 2. By saying there is “no deal” it gives the impression that nothing is in the works. This is a misrepresentation of what those of us who actually made the meeting saw happen over the course of the two hours. Rev. Whalum was absent from that meeting.

2:12 – This is a continuation of the previous answer, but I’m highlighting it to, perhaps, illustrate the political motivation either of the Board as a whole, or Whalum in particular, for making these demands at this time.

“Now, Jill, here’s the deal, I hear the Mayor and Myron Lowery and all these guys talkin’ ’bout how school is going to start yes, school will start as soon as we get the $55m. There’s something though that has changed Jill, and I haven’t hear too many people talk about it. When we passed the resolution none of the incumbent City Council people had opposition. Well since that time, 9 or 8 incumbents have opposition. And the tone has already changed by those incumbents.”

Certainly, if Whalum believes the Board’s actions led to people deciding to file against incumbents, he’s well within his rights to believe that. However, there was no mad rush to the Election Commission on Tuesday to pick up additional petitions. The delivery of petitions followed the adoption of the redistricting lines which were defined on Tuesday night by the Memphis City Council. Only 5 people picked up a petition, and filed after the July 18th MCS Board meeting. There’s no way to know if that meeting had anything to do with their decision to file, and there’s still 4 days (including today) for them to decide to get out of the race.

Now hear comes the statement that really sticks in my craw.

2:52

“If they withheld over $150m from us over the past four years, where is that money?”

What a stunning misrepresentation of the very facts that the MCS Board used to make their case on Monday, July 18th. Here’s the actual document the school system used to make their case.

Click to enlarge

As you can see, the City Schools contend that they are owed about $59.8m from 2008-09, that money is tied up in Chancery Court. $4.4m from 2009-10, and $8.8m from 2010-11, both of which are due to delinquent collections, and $78m from 2011-12, a year that has just started and tax collections aren’t even due until August 31st.

Further, had Rev. Whalum attended the meeting on Thursday, he would have discovered that enrollment numbers are down, resulting a likely drop in funding from $78m to $68m. MCS officials acknowledged this on Thursday.

What all of this makes clear to me is first, the foundation of the logic behind the demand for $55m in order to start school is lacking. Second, the demand for funds now is politically motivated, something I hit on in my last post. Third, it doesn’t serve the interests of anyone for members of the School Board to misrepresent the record. As I noted in the comments of that post, the administration is actively negotiatting the $57.5m contested dollars from 2008-09. Resolving that issue would likely solve a lot of the mistrust. Of course, when we’re trying to negotiate payment for dollars that haven’t even been promised yet, that, by necessity, complicates matters.

There’s a lot more, like around 4:35 when he says, “Who cares about feeling good about yourself when your children are starving to death and dying on the streets” which is more about Whalum’s penchant for overblown rhetoric. I’m not sure what school funding has to do with the conditions on the street, but he draws that connection.

“Deadbeat Dads” is also mentioned again. The phrase illicits a vision of a parent that contributes nothing to their child. This, by MCS’s own admission, is a misstatement. As the chart above notes, the City has been contributing to the schools, though that contribution has been hampered by tax collection problems. If the schools had taxing authority, something every other special school district in the state has, they would be facing this same issue. They should be calling those who failed to pay property taxes the “deadbeats”. I’m sure that if the School Board wanted to, they could go and get a list of all the people and corporations that haven’t payed their taxes and call them out publicly. This doesn’t serve their political interests, and is a pain to do, which is why they haven’t done it. I feel certain that if tax revenue was healthier, as it was before the economic collapse in 2008, this would look better, but no one could have seen this coming. Everyone has been suffering from it.

What all of this really comes down to is the 2008 decision by the Memphis City Council to stop the double taxation of Memphians on schools. We pay for schools in City taxes and the County taxes, but no one else does. I looked back to see if I wrote anything about that at the time, and I didn’t, though, as a child of educators, anything that threatens school funding makes my ears perk up and causes me to be skeptical. Had the City Council chosen to keep the tax rate the same, and not repurpose that money, perhaps this wouldn’t be what it is today. That didn’t happen and there’s nothing we can do now to go back and change it. We have to move forward from where we are, not where we wish we were.

There have been several proposals put forward to resolve the 2008-09 funding dispute, including mediation, somethin Councilman Jim Strickland has pushed, to no avail. Mediation would allow the issue to get out of court, and resolved relatively quickly. However, both sides have to be amenable to the scenario. At this point, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Either way, this needs to be resolved somehow, and I’m not just talking about this year’s funding, I’m talking about all of it. The issue has been complicated over years of litigation and filings and shenanigans to the point that the media, not to mention the public, simply can’t keep up with all that’s going on. We can’t move forward with this drama continuing to play out this way. Both sides need to sit down and resolve it, for the good of the children, instead of posturing under the guise of “the good of the children”.

As of this writing, there are no details about the deal that was reported on Friday, so there’s no way to know where negotiations stand. I hope, for the good of all parties involved, the parents, teachers, and most importantly the students, that the deal can be brought forward and both the School Board and the City Council will agree to the terms. It serves no one to delay the school year at this point. The children will suffer academically, the teachers will suffer financially, and whomever is perceived as holding up the process will suffer politically.

Finally, here’s that video I referenced above. Watch it at your own peril. There is a lot that’s stated that’s just plain wrong, much more than I covered here. It’s unfortunate that an elected official and religious leader has chosen a path that is so filled with divisive rhetoric and misinformation. We should expect our officials to lead with honesty and dignity. This ain’t either, and that’s part of the problem.

Whalum on Possible School Compromise: MyFoxMEMPHIS.com

Jul 21 2011

Manufactured Crisis

Posted by Steve Ross in City of Memphis

via Moviephone

“What we have here is a failure to communicate”, as the line goes from the movie Cool Hand Luke. But what Memphis has seen since Monday is not a failure of communication, but an unwillingness to communicate in any venue other than in front of the cameras.

What started on Monday as a demand for $9m or else, ballooned into $55m “100 yard pass”, as characterized by Board member Kenneth Whalum.

Whalum suggested “we throw a 100-yard pass and force them to catch it. I suggest we not open school until we get everything we need, every duck lined up in a row. … Every day these children are at home with their parents” will put pressure on the City Council.(Source)

And that, ladies and gentlemen, pretty well sums up the strategy for this whole “crisis”, put pressure on the City government, at the beginning of the campaign season, and whip up the emotions of the people in order to pressure the City into giving what they haven’t got.

By the time it all came down, the city government was befuddled. In Executive Session on Tuesday, the Mayor and several Council members expressed shock and dismay at what was being put before them…that they pay the majority of their annual contribution to the schools up front.

Parents came down to the Council angry. Teachers, who saw many of their colleagues let go just a week before, began to fear for their livelihood, and parents, most of whom are regular working folks, were left wondering what they would do to arrange childcare for their children. In short, emotions were stirred, and people got scared, and that was by design.

By Wednesday morning, members of the School Board had taken to the national airwaves to try their case before the court of public opinion. Language ranging from mild to down right incendiary was used to make their case. “Deadbeat Dads”, an oft-used phrase of Board member Kenneth Whalum, was the quote of the day. But in reality, something very different was going on here. This was a hostage negotiation, and the kids, and employees of Memphis City Schools were, no doubt, the hostages, but it was the Administration of the School system, and the School Board itself that was holding them hostage, not the City administration or the City Council. Despite this, a whole host of people got collective Stockholm Syndrome and turned against the City government for withholding funds.

Never before has the City fronted the school board money, yet now, in the midst of two court cases, one in State and one in Federal, the City Schools wants their money up front. Even though, for the past two years, in the midst of one of the worse financial crisis’ this nation has faced since the Great Depression, the city has appropriated and disbursed the majority of the City Schools’ money (minus collections that are in arrears), the City Schools wants it all now.

On Tuesday, I got my City property tax bill. It’s not due until August 31st, which means that at best, the city will have collected the largest chunk of its revenue for the year by then. Property taxes make up over 40% of annual revenue. As that money comes in, it will be sent to the appropriate places, including the schools. But the City School Board, knowing full well that the city, who just went through a contentious budget year that saw cuts to services and employee pay, will not see the bulk of their funding for the year until August 31, demands 10% of the annual budget for that city before August 8th? That’s not good faith, that’s a power play.

Does the City owe some $13m from FY 2009 and 2010? Yes, but that’s due to delinquent property tax collections, not some kind of willful withholding of funds. Yesterday, the City released $3m to the City Schools, ahead of schedule, that had been collected from delinquent property taxes. As I sat at the Election Commission earlier this afternoon with several potential candidates waiting for the filing deadline, a deal came across that would give the City Schools an additional $10m from the City’s reserves, in hopes of satisfying the School Board and putting the start date of the schools back on track.

Will it work? Who knows? But it sets a dangerous precedent for two entities whose relations have been strained since the 2008 vote to defund the city’s maintenance of effort funds to the school system.

Let me be perfectly clear. I want the schools to be fully funded so the students and the teachers can start their work on time. I want the City to pay what it appropriates to the schools in a timely fashion. But more than that, I want both entities to deal with each other in a fair, and above board manner, and the way the School Board has acted in the past week is neither fair nor above board. They saw the political lay of the land, and took advantage of it in a brazen and cynical attempt at manipulating parents, teachers, and the public at large to put pressure on the City to do something they’ve already said they’re going to do.

Will the School District accept this offer? Who knows, but the events of the past several days leave a lot of questions on the table that need to be answered. Here are a few:

1. How can the City Schools claim to be owed $151m when $57.5m of that is in litigation, and has been ordered off the table until said litigation, that the City Schools has had no interest in expediting, is ruled upon?

2. In what scenario does any entity give another funds that it hasn’t collected yet? This is not Cash America y’all.

3. What dangers, if any, are exposed by making this deal, and what is this money for? Does it cover the back taxes, is it for FY 2012? I’m pretty sure these details will come out in the coming hours.

In the end, the people who lose are all of us, not the School Board or anyone else. We’ve lost faith, which is something that was in short supply to begin with here in Memphis. The school board chose to put that faith on the line rather than picking up the phone, to use as a political chit, and they should be called to account for that action.

No one may want to acknowledge it, but this crisis was manufactured on Avery, not Main St. The folks that started it should be called to account for their actions.

Jul 20 2011

via City Council Chair Lowery

Posted by Steve Ross in City of Memphis

Below is a fact sheet sent out by City Council Chairman Myron Lowery. I’ll have a post on this at some point, but I’m still tracking down a few details…

City of Memphis

Education Funding

Fact Sheet

· The City of Memphis has paid MCS over $171.7 million in operating funds since July 2008

· The City of Memphis has set aside over $87.7 million in its FY2012 operating plan for MCS

· MCS does not have authority to levy taxes, therefore the City of Memphis dedicates part of its property tax ($0.18 of the $3.19 city tax rate) for the local portion of school funding as counties in TN are required to do by law. The City has voluntarily given in excess of $1.0 billion in additional funds to MCS over the years

· In the past three years the City has funded MCS in the same manner and at the same time; at no time in any of those years did MCS have any problem starting school on time.

· According to MCS’ recent budget the City’s proposed contribution to MCS’ 2012 budget is 8.65%–This is less than a dime on a dollar. Think about it. Even if the City completely refused to fund them at all, a dime out of a dollar should not be a cause to shut down schools. Prudent management should be able to open schools, even on a reduced basis with 90% of its budgeted revenues

· The City of Memphis has also borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars on MCS’ behalf for capital projects such as building and renovating schools. MCS has not fulfilled its obligation to pay the debt service on these capital dollars – though the city still must make debt service payments on this debt- and the city has filed suit to collect $160mil owed for MCS capital projects

· The Memphis City Council and MCS have been negotiating the $57mil judgment MCS won against the city for the 2008-2009 school year and the City’s $160mil counter claim which is currently in the courts and will be ruled upon in the near future unless a settlement is reached

· As the City of Memphis collects property taxes from its citizens, MCS’ receives its portion of property taxes as well as local sales tax via monthly payments from the Shelby County Trustees office. The City of Memphis does not “advance” MCS money from taxes the city has not yet collected

· The City Council has approved as part of the City of Memphis budget and paid funds to MCS for the past 2 school years (2009-2010 and 2010-2011) The Council will consider MCS’ 2011-2012 school year budget in committee on July 21, 2011 at 4 pm.

Mar 11 2011

Ramsey: “I’m from the Government and I’m Here to Help”

Posted by Steve Ross in Memphis Politics, State Politics

TN Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey is one attention seeking son of a gun. Since his elevation to the Speaker of the Senate in 2007, Ramsey has used his bully pulpit to spout off all kinds of nonsense, most of which has gone unchallenged. Yesterday, the Lt. Governor had another “event”. He declared that the Memphis City Schools should be taken over by the state.

This is a startling statement from a guy who has consistently spoken out against state government intervention in local affairs. It seems that the Lt. Governor, through this statement, has positioned himself against himself, but that shouldn’t be too surprising considering just who and what Ron Ramsey is, and what he does. Ramsey, like so many others of his ilk, believes that government should stay out of “his” business, but when it comes to “your” business, well, that’s another matter.

The truth is, Ramsey believes he can say whatever the heck he wants to with impunity. No one has ever really challenged him, either politically or otherwise, and his district, which covers Sullivan and Johnson counties, is safely Republican. Without some serious money, there really isn’t anyone in the area that can dethrone him, so he has nothing to lose by spouting off about a district that is over 500 miles away from his home.

Ramsey said a lot of things, most of which are contained in media accounts below, and much of it comes as a result of his understanding of Memphis from his perch in Nashville, which is still 200 miles away. One thing though, that he said that is simply ridiculous is that “there are more people that work (for MCS) that don’t teach than do teach”. That’s just an ignorant statement.

According to the FY 2010-11 MCS budget (p. 19) there are 12,972 full time employees in the district. Nearly 60% of those employees are teachers, almost 14% provide instructional support, 5% are “middle management” type positions (principals, counselors, etc), 6% work directly for the administration in a non-instruction role (Avery employees as well as IT and other professional support), and 16% make the food, clean and maintain the buildings and do all the stuff that has to be done for a school district that serves over 100,000 students.

So get your facts straight before you make any wild assertions about who is hired to do what Mr. Lt. Governor.

What’s more, the State Department of Education says that MCS isn’t eligible to be “taken over” by the state, so again, I’m not sure how an auctioneer from Blountville is in any way qualified to assess who, what, when how or why a school district should be administered.

Further, by advocating this “big government” solution, Ramsey has run afoul of one of the Republican Party’s greatest spokesmen, Ronald Reagan. In his first inaugural address, President Reagan said these words:

Ahh, but as we all know, “big government” is only a problem when Republicans are not in charge of said “big government” so, all bets are off.

Since I moved here in 2004 I’ve heard time and time again from locals their belief that the folks up in Nashville have a pre-disposition against the interests of Memphis. Over those seven years, I would say it’s not just Memphis but all of West Tennessee, of which Memphis makes up 1/2 of the population. Ramsey’s assertion, and the actions of the Republican led state legislature this session only serve reinforce that belief.

I would take a deeper look into the motivations of the Lt. Governor, but I fear I don’t have soap strong enough to wipe that taint off, so I’ll wait until I can get a pallet of Lava or Gojo or something.

In the mean time, Ramsey’s statements should be taken for what they are, empty political posturing by a guy who talks fast for a living.

Media Reports

Tennessee Lt. Gov. Ramsey calls for state takeover of Memphis City Schools
BULLETIN: Lt. Gov. Ramsey Threatens State Takeover of MCS
Ramsey: State should run failing Memphis schools
MCS Superintendent Cash Says State Is Not Equipped To Run MCS
Ferguson on Ramsey’s MCS Comments
Ramsey Advocates State Take-over of Memphis Schools
Ramsey: State Should Run Failing Memphis Schools
Ramsey: State Should Run Failing Memphis Schools
Ramsey: State Should Run Failing Memphis Schools

Jan 07 2011

Vote Yes for School Unity – Media Event

Posted by Steve Ross in activism, elections, Memphis, Policy, Shelby County

Below is video I shot of the Press Conference this morning at 11. I got there just as Commissioner Chism was wrapping up so I don’t have his presentation. Also, the video is a little shaky as I’m getting used to both shooting with a flip and my new glasses.

I’m working on one more video that includes the Q&A portion of the event. I’ll add it to this post as soon as I’ve completed processing it.

You can join the effort on Facebook. There is a web page in the works. I’ll link to that as soon as it’s complete.

Update: I’ve added the question and answer section below.