Monday, June 30, 2008

Our Mayor Moves Even More To The Margins

We’ve received several emails asking our opinion of Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton’s latest magniloquence.

Well, we might as well admit it: We didn’t read about it, we didn’t watch any television reports about it and we didn’t watch any videos of it.

At the time, it just seemed to be the wisest use of our time. At its best, it seemed that his hour-long meditation on justice, fairness, conspiracies and corporations as plantations was nothing but a distraction from issues that really matter.

At its worst, it was symptomatic of a political death spiral that was once somewhat diverting when its primary impact was on the mayor’s own political future, but now has lost any residual entertainment value since it’s fueling a tail spin that threatens the future of our city itself.

No Gawking Allowed

So, we just didn’t have it in us to watch his latest performance. It was just too much like the political equivalent of rubber-necking at the latest pile-up on the interstate. However, after the emails, we did in fact bone up on the latest drama, and at least this time, it seemed to be a one-car collision.

As is the case frequently these days, even when we agreed with him, we questioned why he felt the compulsion to make the comments in a tone and language that devalue his long-held self-image as CEO for the City of Memphis. In that role, over the years, he has chided and derided Memphis City Council for its inattention to the things that mattered and for the emotional conflict that often accompanied its deliberations.

These days, we’re in the midst of role reversal. Any hint of the mayor as CEO – hovering above the day-to-day trivialities and tempests in a teapot – is long gone. So is any suggestion that he understands the importance of the mayor as statesman in the progress of a city.

Now, it is City Council that normally advances the “big idea” – tax equalization, neighborhood revitalization, and removal of double taxation for services that non-Memphians pay once to receive - and it is Mayor Herenton who is left to react. More often than not, however, the mayor uses his bully pulpit to chase conspiracies, real and imagined, and to attack his critics, real and imagined.


Each time, he resorts to one of these displays, he does in fact erode his own power. That’s because the perception of power is always more compelling than the reality of power. When you exercise the weight of your office against someone, whether Memphis businessman Nick Clark or local lawyer Richard Field, and they remain standing, it only serves to deliver the message that your fury isn’t as withering as it was perceived to be.

In his latest volleys, however, the mayor took aim at a target that he’s powerless to touch – the FBI. If he was trying to send a message that he did not quake in the wake of the federal investigation into his business dealings, he did about as poorly as possible. In the end, he appeared to be defensive and rationalizing and worried, giving current meaning to a modernized form of the Shakespearian dialogue from Hamlet: methinks the man protests too much.

The Hamlet analogy may be even more apropos, but we leave any literary analysis comparing the erratic behavior of the tragically flawed Danish prince and the ghostly apparitions that tormented him with the current Memphis mayor to others.

Here’s the thing: there may actually be nuggets of truth in the midst of the mayor’s rambling, but we can’t hear the meaning for the seeming muddle of it all and the strikingly pricklish and desultory performance. To his point, on any given day, about a half dozen African-American mayors are being investigated, and on that same day, it’s pretty hard to think of one Caucasian mayor who’s in the same position.

Shooting Himself In The Foot

We’ve written about this frequently, so we won’t belabor it again here, but from Mayor Herenton’s perspective – which is shared by a considerable percentage of his political base – it is no coincidence that African-American mayors regularly find themselves in the investigative crosshairs.

But instead of calmly and methodically making his case, which would have been more in keeping with his academic background, he instead reduced his concerns to raw emotion and even rawer rhetoric. It’s almost as if these days he’s on a journey of self-destruction that he is powerless to stop.

The third person references to himself have almost become a parody – an affectation whose idiosyncrasy now symbolizes an eccentricity that has taken hold and shows no signs of relenting.

Question Answered

During last year’s mayoral campaign, we wrote:

“The reelection of Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton moves with an inevitability these days that belies the need that exists for a serious discussion about the future of our city. If nothing shakes up the campaign for mayor, he will take the oath of office in January for the fifth time as chief elected leader for a city whose dominant characteristic is the chasm that splits it down the middle – with one side considering him the embodiment of all that is wrong with Memphis and with the other treating him as a heroic figure fighting for them.

“As a result, the question asked frequently these days is whether his divisive rhetoric is the stuff of campaign strategy or whether it is a persona that will carry over into his fourth term. It appears more and more to be the latter.”

These days, it’s pretty clear that his behavior is not the product of some elaborate political theater, but it is in fact the persona that will test the peace in Memphis for three more years of this term.


If his hour-long, rambling critique of all things Herenton-critical wasn’t enough to raise eyebrows, the mayor followed up by suggesting to Memphis Daily News’ Andy Meek that his resignation letter was merely an early April Fool’s joke and the idea that he was trying to get the school superintendent’s job are just foolish. He was merely trying to stimulate a much-needed debate about Memphis City Schools.

Of course, there are much easier ways to spark a discussion on the future of public education in Memphis, but we guess in the alternate reality that grips City Hall, this substitutes for logic.

Despite his energetic efforts at revisionist history, no one in his circle of insiders ever doubted that he was dead serious about resigning and taking the superintendent’s job. In fact, they were so sure of it that they spoke on the record with the news media about it, and some of the most politically active ones were already casting their net across Civic Center Plaza to the presumptive front runner for the next city mayor’s election, Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton.

It’s hard to know what to make out of these periodic forays into political mayhem, but the most cogent reaction to Mayor Herenton's performance came from friends who saw the Sixties through a persistent hallucinogenic haze. Paraphrasing that famous line from When Harry Met Sally, they merely said: “I’ll have whatever he’s having.”

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Cash Era Ushers In New Hope

Can Tuesday get here soon enough?

The dawning of the Kriner Cash era at Memphis City Schools would be reason enough for hopeful thinking, but with the current disarray and chaos at Memphis City Schools, expectations are so low that he has the opportunity to be a miracle worker.

If you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, that goes double for the new superintendent. He’s in the perfect storm, and the problem at the district is there’s a tendency to deny that the wind is even blowing.

Eyes On The Prize

Because of it, Superintendent Cash’s immediate problem is the same that confronted former Superintendent Carol Johnson when she arrived. Who should you trust? In her case, it resulted in her assembling the so-called Minneapolis Mafia that ultimately kept too much of a strangle hold on decision-making, and too often was ham-handed in its handling of internal communications while keeping too much information from her. The Mafia often conveyed a lack of trust in all things Memphis and rarely did anything to inspire entrepreneurial actions.

It’s clear now in hindsight that the Johnson Era was as much an exercise in wishful thinking as anything, and we admit our own culpability in that delusion. In the end, we all wanted so hard to believe that she was making the fundamental improvements that could turn around the district that we became willing suspects for civic hypnotism.

This time around, we are clear-eyed, almost fatalistically so, but it is in this environment that Superintendent Cash will find almost anyone in this city ready and willing to help if he can promise the kind of courage and candor that can transform the culture that strangles innovation, especially from outsiders. When we say outsiders, at Memphis City Schools, they don’t have to stray so far as to come from Miami. It includes almost anyone here who expresses an opinion that threatens the conventional wisdom or the status quo or anything that threatens the patronage and nepotism that lies behind too many decisions.

Breathing New Air

So far, Superintendent Cash seems a breath of fresh air, and if he can turn his rhetoric about data-driven decision-making, accountability and transparency into real policies and programs, he will have done something long considered impossible in our district.

Sometimes, here, it almost feels that data are the enemy. Meanwhile, districts like the Hamilton County (Chattanooga) School District demonstrate how data can be used to “inform instruction, enhance leadership, and motivate students to higher levels of achievement,” according to the local education fund there.

In a partnership with the district itself, the Public Education Foundation of Chattanooga has determined the measurements that matter and the data that drives change. Because of it, there’s an entirely new discussion taking place - about the connection between data and improved instruction – and it’s changing the existing culture of the district. The evidence came when teachers and principals changed their attitude toward data, and it was complemented by the creation of a nonjudgmental environment where they could debate what the numbers meant and use them to provoke new ideas and new thinking.

Numbers Matter

Most impressive of all is that the new attitude toward data resulted from a partnership between the school district and the city local education fund, and board members here say they have a new willingness to engage in these kinds of collaborations.

We can already hear people saying, “Memphis isn’t Chattanooga,” but there is much we can learn Chattanooga, where the district is trying innovations of all kinds and showing the results that come from it. The district and the local education fund report there that the achievement gaps are closing, the dropout rate is down, more students are graduating (and without the apples to oranges comparisons that are repeated proudly here) and more are going to college.

It all started with data. If Superintendent Cash is a man of his word, in the coming months, this entire city and the school board itself will learn some startling things about our district. We’ve written in the past about the way that some information and data has been regularly kept from board members, and it is in opening up the free flow of data and the honest interpretation of them that he can show immediately that a new day is dawning at Memphis City Schools.

First Things First

But it appears these days that before Mr. Cash can execute his vision for the district, he first must return order to its operations. It’s hard to think of a time when the district was in more turmoil than today. There’s self-dealing in some salary increases, apparently without interim superintendent Dan Ward’s knowledge, and even a reported attempt to back date them to avoid his discovery. Then there are reports that access to the HR system has been pared back to prevent oversight, and in light of the memo generated by Mr. Ward that warned of job cuts, the teachers’ grapevine is filled with stories of administrative waste, such as the top manager who receives a monthly car allowance but drives a district vehicle at the same time.

Suffice it to say that the district needs nothing right now so much as a grown-up in charge. And, as we’ve learned from the disastrous interim superintendency of Mr. Ward, that isn’t something that just comes with age. In a series of bad decisions, he not only drove the district into the ditch but kept his foot on the accelerator.

Back when he was appointed, we feared that he would be a do nothing interim appointee. We had advocated the appointment of someone who had the experience and the courage to make sure that the district didn’t lose momentum. What we didn’t count on was the damage that an interim superintendent could actually cause if that person was not only a product of the old school thinking, but wed to it.

Take The Door Marked Exit

Even as he headed toward the exit, he continued to do things like issue the baneful memo about job cuts and to announce a 10 percent across-the-board cut in all department budgets. It was yet one more example of the “stuck in the past” thinking that embodied his tenure.

There’s nothing in the public sector more irritating than the “lazy man’s budgeting.” Across-the-board cuts are motivated more by politics than budget management. It’s a method used by bureaucrats as an attempt to turn up the heat on elected officials with whom they disagree (in this case, City Council’s overdue action to reduce Memphian’s double taxation for schools).

The classic example is the predictable response by the Memphis and Shelby County Health Department to any contemplated cuts. With so many programs to choose from, the Department picked rat control and mosquito spraying, because these were the two areas that would get the public up in arms the quickest.

Restoring The Missing Credibility

Back to the school district, the 10 percent across-the-board cuts are one of the most ill-conceived tactics used in the public sector. Surely, some programs and services have higher priority than everything else, and if district officials were doing their jobs, they would have a list of priorities so any budget cuts would reflect the overall priorities of services to the district.

But there’s another reason that across-the-board cuts are the lazy man’s approach to budgeting. It punishes those department heads who submit “honest” budgets, and rewards those who pad their budgets for occasions just like this. And believe it or not, in public bureaucracies, it is generally no secret about who falls into each category. Equally important, the “spread the pain” approach begun by Mr. Ward does nothing to restore the credibility of Memphis City Schools at the very time that it’s needed as the foundation for the future. We hope that Mr. Cash will reverse Mr. Ward’s across-the-board edict and get his staff to work on the real job of budgeting.

We also hope that Mr. Cash will meet with Louise Mercuro, former executive director of capital planning and transportation, until the interim superintendent, in what has been called by insiders a fit of pique, fired her summarily on the basis of erroneous information. We think Mr. Cash should meet with her to learn about her plans to make schools once again centers for community and to encourage walkable school districts. These too should be centerpieces of his plans for the future.


In the end, it should be no secret that Mr. Cash’s first order of business is to restore the credibility of the district. His second order of business is to find some short-term wins that send the unmistakable message that he’s a serious agent for change.

His third order of business is to prove to Memphians that serious school reform is gritty, long-term work. There are no magic bullets. There are no simple answers. There is no alchemy to school improvement. There is only the alchemy of systemic, long-term, grind-it-out work.

These are tough challenges, but we predict that Mr. Cash will be surprised by the outpouring of support that he will receive for trying. We’re past the time for clever public relations and squarely in the time for transformative public policy. We can only hope that he’s the vehicle to that better future.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Continuing The Discussion: What Would You Do?

We're continuing the discussion we began Wednesday and hope you'll join in.

Inspired by the Memphis Flyer's cover story of two weeks ago, we want to know how you would answer this question:

What would you do if you were in charge of Memphis?

You can post your response here or join in the comments on Wednesday's post.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Atlantic Article About Memphis Crime Now On-Line

The article in Atlantic that sparked our June 7 post is now on line here.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

So, What Would You Do?

We want to continue a discussion that was begun by the Memphis Flyer a couple of weeks ago. It asked nine people for their ideas about what they would do if they were in charge of Memphis.

Here’s the link to all of the ideas. We're posting what was printed from us below, but here’s the question for you:

What would you do if you were in charge of Memphis?

We’re always telling you what we think, so tell your ideas to us and others so we can have a conversation about what Memphis needs to be doing to move in the right direction.

Just for the record, here’s what one of us answered to the question in the Flyer article:

At the risk of being branded for civic heresy, I'd like Memphis to adopt Nashville's attitude. I admit that I've never really "gotten" Nashville, but I nonetheless grudgingly admire something imbedded in its civic culture — ambition.

I was in Nashville shortly after its school district was placed on the state's "high priority" list. There was a palpable outrage among city leaders that such a thing could happen there, and they vowed to do something about it. Here, more than 100 of our city schools do not meet state benchmarks, but there's a pervasive sense that that's just the way things are in Memphis.

In Nashville, better decisions flow from this ambition and sense of purpose. Its political and business leaders simply refuse to accept second best or any suggestion that they shouldn't set national standards. It's hard to imagine a Bass Pro Shop inhabiting a signature building there.

When Nashville wanted to build a symphony hall, it did not append one onto a convention center so it could finagle hotel-motel taxes. Instead, it built a symphony center that is a monument to its cultural commitment. When it came time to build a new central library, it built it as a reminder of the importance of urban design — and downtown.

The magic in Nashville isn't the result of consolidated government. Rather, the magic is found in a special strain of leadership that brings all civic resources, public and private, to the table to solve problems. And yet, Memphis needs consolidation, not because of promised savings that are unlikely to materialize, but because we need to do something to shake up the status quo and send the message to the rest of the nation that things are changing here.

We begin by being brutally honest, because troubling national indicators should inspire a new sense of urgency and a new way of thinking. We need action on all fronts. We need Highway 385 to be a toll road. We need to attack teenage pregnancy by getting serious about handing out birth control. We need to eliminate all tax incentives for low-wage, low-skill jobs. We need to find the best urban school superintendent and pay whatever it takes to get that person here. We need to get more city school students to college graduation, because they are the best predictor of our future economic success. We need to transform our riverfront from a stage set trapped in time to a vibrant magnet for talent.

We need to rationalize our tax structure. It's simply not right that the less you make in Memphis, the more you pay in taxes as a percentage of income. It's intolerable that city taxpayers pay a disincentive to live here and pay for programs and amenities that are regional in nature. If we move regional services to the regional (Shelby County) tax base, the Memphis tax rate can be comparable to Germantown's.

These things don't require that much money. They do, however, require ambition.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Prosecutors Admit Guilt For Overreaching In Lee Case

So, where does Joseph Lee go for an apology?

Or to get a year of his life back?

Today, the U.S. Attorney’s Office did the inevitable – dismiss charges against the former MLG&W president and former City Councilman Edmund Ford. But where does Mr. Lee recover his tarred reputation, where does his humiliation get reversed and where does he get back the attorneys’ fees that should never have been paid?

As for the federal prosecutor’s office, its best explanation in dismissing the indefensible indictment was that “the government has re-evaluated the case and stated to the Court that its dismissal is warranted in the interest of justice.” Of course, the higher interest of justice would have been to never seek this indictment in the first place.

If there has ever been proof positive that the old adage is true that the U.S. Attorney can get the grand jury to indict a ham sandwich, this was it. As a result, this incident not only tarnishes the idea of equal justice under the law, but it makes you wonder if the men and women who serve on the federal grand jury are chosen for lack of intellectual curiosity and a willingness to do what they are told.

In light of the dismissal, we reprise our post from July 12, 2007:

And who will investigate the investigators?

More and more, it becomes a pressing question in light of the growing national awareness of how much politics plays a part in federal prosecutions. It becomes more and more a pressing local question in light of the indictment of former MLG&W president Joseph Lee.

We were probably as critical as anyone of the actions of Mr. Lee in the last months of his tenure at the helm of the nation’s largest multi-purpose utility company, and we were equally perplexed at why Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton would force him into a situation that inevitably painted a target on his back.

A Federal Case

Despite our criticisms, we find yesterday’s indictments more of an indictment of the current U.S. Attorney’s office than of anyone else. It gives new meaning to the phrase, “making a federal case out of something.”

Seldom has so much been made out of so little.

As we have commented previously, there are few people whose integrity is as respected here as David Kustoff, who assumed the U.S. Attorney’s position in late 2005. Perhaps, some say, his lack of experience in criminal law creates an over-reliance on the old-timers on his staff who seem able to criminalize any behavior of which they disapprove.

The Yellow Brick Road

After benefiting from generations of public perception that federal prosecutors are above the whims of political interests and beyond the reach of partisan pressures, the curtain has been drawn back and all of us can now see Oz. If anything, the perceived wizardry at discerning the truth and fighting the just fight has now given way to the reality that there’s often a thumb on the scales of justice – the thumb of political considerations by the party in power.

It’s easy these days to feel Pollyannish, but we prefer to think that we were suffering from a malignant case of idealism that made us want to believe that the U.S. Attorney’s office could rise above the politics fundamental to a political system. And yet, it’s more and more clear that the tendency of the Clinton Administration to inject political influence where it didn't belong has become an art form in the Bush Administration.

From surgeon general reports to NASA white papers to environmental alerts to scientific research, this administration has pressured experts to change their conclusions, and when they didn’t, the political appointees did it for them.

Ham (And Egg On Their Face)

It is in this vortex of political conceit that the Joseph Lee indictment has to be placed. We abhor the wrong-headed decision by Mr. Lee to place Councilman Edmund Ford’s overdue MLGW bills into an account for the truly disadvantaged and to give him special treatment, but it is difficult to understand how this rises to a criminal violation.

We know the old adage about the U.S. Attorney’s Office being able to indict a ham sandwich, but with this one, the office seems to have a boarding house reach.

Surely there are better ways to wield the overwhelming power of the federal government.

Reality Check

Here’s the thing. Like it or not (and we are in the latter category), this is the reality of government and public agencies. We even hazard a guess that Mr. Lee would have gone out of his way to do whatever he could to help any member of Memphis City Council if they called him. In fact, he did.

He’s just like any other political appointee operating in government. When the call comes, the pressure is on. It’s only released when the appointee has done something to help (or appears to help) the elected official calling him. There are also the calls of close friends of elected officials, or major contributors, or family, well, you get the picture.

It happens every day from the White House to the courthouse. The name of the game is for the appointee is to prevent complaints that he’s unhelpful or aloof or unresponsive and to keep from creating a political problem that festers until it explodes in a public meeting. In the case at hand, the ultimate objective for Mr. Lee was to do whatever he could do to prevent a hostile reception when he appeared before Memphis City Council with an important MLGW matter.

Like it or not, it is the nature of the beast.

A Bit Player

If the federal grand jury wants to take action, it would be more accurate to indict the whole system rather than one small actor playing his role within it. And, knowing that politics is ever present in government, who assures the public that it’s not happening in federal prosecutions where questions of race, class and power tinge recent investigations?

If Joseph Lee’s indictment does anything, it effectively sends the message to every employee of government that they can be indicted at any time. It appears that expediting a permit for a friend of a friend is grounds for federal action, that allowing time payments for overdue bills is suspect depending on who you are, that serving on a campaign finance committee and then accepting a job in a new administration and that even being appointed to a committee setting policy could fall under the standards set by Mr. Lee’s indictment.

For years, federal investigators talked about their concerns about special privilege for special developers in building permitting and zoning, but the statue of limitations ran out with no action. They talked about their alarm at the public investment of funds influenced by political loyalties, but no action was taken. They’ve poked around the contracting process several times, but it always faded away. And yet, Mr. Lee’s decisions, of all things, produced an indictment.

No There There

If the charge is stupidity, he may deserve the death penalty, but the last we checked that wasn’t a federal infraction.

In reading the indictment, it’s inescapable to feel that there is no there there, fueling the simmering resentment in a large part of this community that there are two kinds of justice in Shelby County. (Not to mention that throwing Joe Cooper into the mix only seems gratuitous and designed to smear Mr. Lee further.)

Sitting in the rarified air of the federal building, investigators and prosecutors see Memphis out their windows and think they understand it. But like the guy who yells into the cave, hears his own voice and thinks all is well, they are inoculated from the real Memphis and the fulminating emotions that are only made more explosive when the federal system of justice over-reaches as badly as it has done in the case of Mr. Lee.

Burden Of Proof

We are certain that Mr. Kustoff is dead serious about cleaning up government (and there’s no denying it was needed), but it also seems that in being so intent on doing that, there is a definite lack of proportionality in his office’s decisions. If Mr. Kustoff is anything, it is someone who loves Memphis deeply, and rather than call press conferences urged on him by his assistants and the FBI, we hope he will get out into the community and take ownership of the anger and distrust that is building there.

There is no justice if there is no confidence in those who administer it. We’re not making any comment about any indictments of the Tennessee Waltz or Operation Main Street Sweeper or any of the similarly silly-named investigations launched here. But it is the U.S. Attorney that has the burden of proof to convince all of Memphis that his prosecutions are color blind and party neutral. There's no better time than the present.

Lowering The Standards (And The Boom)

There are many things that we know about Mr. Lee. He is prone to bouts of self-importance, he made the mistake of seeing his job as serving Mayor Herenton more than serving his customers, he relied on clever legalisms when the truth would have set him free and he was unprepared for a job of the scope of the presidency of MLGW.

But that said, he is a person who is rigid about his moral foundation, and it is impossible to imagine him doing anything that he knew to be illegal. Somehow it seems that the line between what is an ethical lapse and what is a legal lapse is now forever blurred in the deliberations of the federal grand jury.

A friend, an FBI agent, once said: “We don’t pursue quid pro quos. They’re just too hard to prove.”

Apparently the standard has now been put so low that anyone can trip over it.

Monday, June 23, 2008

New Jail Should Set Downtown Free

We’ve always suspected that the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey was the first draft for the Shelby County Criminal Justice Center and Jail.

God knows, the imposing hulk dominating a critical city block in downtown Memphis has been the physical embodiment since 1981 for the public sector’s lack of regard for architectural quality.

From its first days, the Justice Center has been the antithesis of the welcome mat symbolized by the riverfront. If the riverfront is downtown’s warm welcome, the Justice Center is the cold water in its face.

The Lure Of Newness

In recent weeks, Shelby County Sheriff Mark Luttrell has been doing the political equivalent of pushing a correctional boulder up the hill with his advocacy of a new jail estimated to cost roughly a half a billion dollars. The Shelby County Board of Commissioners should have been expected to push back, and many did, because they have been consumed in the past six years by the need to get control of the county’s crippling debt. A new jail alone would increase that debt by about 25 percent.

The option to a new building is a $180 million renovation of the present jail, but from where we sit, that’s a poor option, because that facility has clearly outlived its usefulness. For 27 years, the jail has been county government’s money pit, chewing up tax dollars from the inefficiencies inherent in its poorly designed architecture.

Almost immediately after the ribbon was cut to open it, the building technology that was supposedly state-of-the-art went on the blink. Of course, state-of-the-art back then meant a system of pneumatic tubes that always operated on their own schedule.


Meanwhile, flaws in the design were obvious from the first staffing chart, as significantly more jailers were needed to manage the labor-intensive design. Unfortunately, the architectural firm for the center was chosen more for its political connections than for its previous experience so the jail was in essence its on-the-job training in jail design.

In retrospect, it’s surprising that it took this long for the building’s obsolescence to force calls for a new jail. Shelby County Government spent $250,000 for a consultant’s report on the crowded jail, and it makes a convincing case for change. It suggested that savings in manpower and more efficient operations would offset the costs for a new jail.

Hopefully, the commissioners will resist the siren’s call to put band-aids on a building that has hemorrhaged money for way too long. And if it makes the right call, we hope that its second vote will be to blow up this architectural monstrosity and remove it from downtown once and for all (unless Bass Pro Shop needs an outlet mall).

Welcome Home

We’ve been told by many researchers at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital that it’s difficult to make a decision to come to Memphis to work, because of the shallow job market, lack of a “real” downtown, the absence of a reliable, modern public transit system, and the crime rate. However, the present location of the Justice Center is an obstacle that the internationally famous hospital must regularly clear, because it loudly sends a message that this is one unsafe place to live and work.

As one person put it: “I hadn’t heard a lot of good things about Memphis before I came here, and most of my friends couldn’t believe I was considering a job here. But when I was driven to the hospital and drove by that massive jail with its razor wire, I sure thought they were right. I figured that I was being asked to work in a terribly dangerous part of the city.”

In the end, that particular researcher did in fact accept a job at St. Jude, but others at the hospital say that the dominating presence of the jail does nothing to help in the successful recruitment of doctors who can work anywhere in the world.

Out Of Sight

So, here’s hoping that when and if the commissioners vote for a more efficient, more humane facility, it’s moved from such a prominent place where its fortress façade won’t be such an eyesore to a major entry point to downtown.

It’s always been curious to us that the parking lot for the jail is sitting next to a building filled with hundreds of law enforcement officers and jailers, and yet, it’s somehow necessary to put up a fence topped with razor wire to protect these officers’ vehicles.

Sometimes, it seems that any time the jail has a chance to blend into downtown and mitigate its impact, it has done just the opposite. For example, when the expansion to the jail was approved about a decade ago, Shelby County Government promised to landscape its frontage on Poplar, but instead, it simply ignored its agreement with the Center City Commission and slapped up its razor wired fence.

Of course, more troubling than the cost of a new jail is the need for it. It seems to guarantee that Shelby County Government will continue to run a prison system that is larger than more than a dozen state systems. A new jail would increase the number of beds in the jail alone to about 4,000.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Lawsuits Still Needed To Release Public Records

It’s puzzling why it’s so hard for some elected officials to grasp the meaning of two straightforward laws that should guide all actions of the public sector – the Tennessee Open Meetings and Public Records laws.

In a sentence, it’s as simple as this: public business is the public’s business.

So, any time two elected officials on the same legislative body are talking, it’s the public’s business. And all state and local government records are public records, because they deal with the public’s business.

There are some very limited exceptions to both laws, but if there’s ever a question about whether a meeting should be opened or whether a record is public, the simple assumption should be that they are.

Legal Reminder

Chancellor Walter Evans reminded all officials of this fact with his ruling six days ago that records of applicants for the superintendent’s job of Memphis City Schools are public records.

The Commercial Appeal deserves credit for filing the lawsuit against the school district, because it’s widely believed in the public sector that our daily will threaten court action but rarely does. (Of course, that’s better than the general lack of fear toward the electronic media.) Of course, our daily newspaper has probably decided over time to pick its fights. If it filed a lawsuit every time there is a violation in Memphis, it would be in court all the time.

We presume that The Commercial Appeal doesn’t have the option to ask for compensatory damages in such a lawsuit, but it would seem to be justifiable. After all, the CA probably thought it resolved this in a 1979 Tennessee Court of Appeal ruling issued in response to a somewhat similar lawsuit by our daily newspaper.

Still Open

The citation for that 29-year-old lawsuit – Board of Education v. Memphis Publishing Co., 585 S.W. 2d 629 Tenn. Ct. App. 1979 – sums it up pretty unequivocably: Applications of those seeking the position of school superintendent are records which are open to public inspection.

As a result of this precedent, it’s stupefying that Memphis City Schools felt compelled to offer up a defense to the complaint. Surely, someone at the district expected such a lawsuit, and if it was thought that hiring a search firm would hide the applicants from the intentions of the public records law, it would constitute little more than a subterfuge. (These days, the district’s new school general counsel so far seems a breath of fresh air, and perhaps, he would seen these pitfalls if he had been at the district at the time of the hiring of the search firm.)

More to the point, it appears that Chancellor Evans sees a clearer logic. If a third party entity is acting as an agent for a public agency, it cannot be a way to sidestep the requirements of the public records law. In essence, the records of that third party entity are the property of the public entity, and therefore, they are the property of the public itself.

Easy Answer

It’s the school district’s position that since the Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioners never saw the list of all applicants or personally possessed the documents, they are not public. Board member Martavius Jones, chairman of the search committee, said, “It’s a privacy issue,” and suggested that any member of the public in a similar process would expect some degree of privacy.

Of course, that begs the question of why any member of the public would expect to be immune from the public records laws of Tennessee that governor the school district. In the end, if someone doesn’t want to subject themselves to public scrutiny, they have an easy way to handle it – don’t apply.

Yes, it’s a cumbersome process and even inconvenient. But then again, that’s a pretty good description of democracy itself.

Mixed Message

More to the point, at a time when the transparency and accountability of Memphis City Schools have been called into question by many, it’s exactly the wrong message for the district to be sending right now.

However, in the interest of fairness, none of us should be too hard on Commissioner Jones and his like-minded colleagues. Most of them are new to public life, and based on the number of flagrant violations that are regular parts of the public sector here, it would be easy for them to think there’s no problem with it.

Surprisingly, most elected officials in Tennessee take office without a formal orientation and most are never given an overview of the purpose and scope of the Sunshine Law and Public Records Act. In the absence of information, they rely on anecdotes and advice from other people, usually other elected officials, who have no in-depth understanding of the law either.

Into The Breach

For every breach of the law that makes it into the media, there are a dozen that don’t, so frequent are the casual violations. Journalists don’t even report on all the ones they see. As one Commercial Appeal reporter explained: “If we did, it’d just look like we’re whining. The public doesn’t really get the fact that the law isn’t about us, it’s about them.”

It’s the rare reporter – although there have been some – who refuse to leave an unscheduled meeting that they’ve stumbled across or the latest executive session. Most times, the option is to leave the room and report about the meeting, hoping that maybe finally this time the public will be equally upset.

Gadflies like Joe Saino and Jerry Cobb have made their reputations requesting reams of public records, and they can tell stories of obfuscation and misdirection that are incredulous. Similar stories of stonewalling and misleading are told by reporters, some of whom wait for half a year to get a standard reply from local government in response to records.

Street Legal

The consensus of some print and electronic reporters that we contacted is that city government is normally more open with records than county government. (They chalk it up to the presence of more lawyers in the county building than in City Hall.)

In an age when some local governments across the U.S. are posting all kinds of information on their websites, local governments here are essentially in the Cro-Magnon period of the digital era. The motivation for putting records on-line has largely been on getting money from the public rather than giving information to the public, and that’s too bad, because more communication and information would be a major step in encouraging more public involvement – not to mention confidence - in their governments.

It could begin simply – with an executive order from the mayors: Anytime a city or county department or board develops information, it needs also to develop a plan to get it online. Public records mean little if the public can’t see them.

It’s not just “public” information because it’s held by a public agency, but because it’s the public that pays for it. Getting more information on-line could say volumes to the public that foots the bills in the first place.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

This Week On Smart City: A Special Report - Driven To The Brink

Gas prices have reached 4 dollars a gallon across the country. Home prices have plummeted. What does one have to do with the other. Our guest Joe Cortright is an economic analyst for Impresa Consulting in Portland Oregon and speaker at this year's Leadership Memphis "Community Breakfast." His new report, Driven to the Brink, shows how high gas prices are devaluing homes that are further away from amenity-rich city centers.

In addition, Smart City Producer Scotty Iseri brings us a special report about some of the best ways to get around a city that help alleviate the gas crunch.

Smart City is a syndicated, weekly hour-long public radio talk show that takes an in-depth look at urban life: the people, places, ideas and trends that affect us all. Host Carol Coletta, president and CEO of CEOs for Cities, talks with national and international public policy experts, economists, business leaders, artists, developers, planners and others on the pulse of city life for a penetrating discussion on urban issues.

Smart City is broadcast at 6 a.m. Saturday and Sundays on WKNO-FM, but it is also webcast and podcast. For the webcast, times for the broadcast in other cities and to sign up for the podcast, visit our website.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Council Gets Capitol Punishment From Governor

Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen sure has his panties in a wad.

Or at least that was a political friend's highly accurate – albeit inelegantly and highly colloquial – assessment.

The governor appeared to be fuming because the Memphis City Council had acted within its legal rights to control its own budgets and priorities. In fact, we have vague memories of the governor's irritation about Washington telling the State of Tennessee what it had to do. As a result, he should have tempered his rant about City Council doing what legislative bodies do – controlling the budget and setting the tax rate.

Giving Council The Business

As a highly successful businessman, Governor Bredesen was famous for his thorough, methodical analysis of an opportunity and a problem and for clear-eyed decision-making in the end. In fact, he brought the same skill set to the governor's office, where his staff knows to present most issues as a business proposition in anticipation of the governor putting together his own term sheet before making a decision.

When it came to this Memphis issue, however, the governor seems to clearly have abandoned the qualities that have made him so successful. This time he seemed to reach conclusions without any deep knowledge of the issues, and in oversimplifying the question, he not only engaged in highly unusual behavior, but he managed to politicize these issues even more at a time when they are in need of statesmanship.

It's more than passing strange that at a time when he's lecturing City Council about its obligations to education, he's allowing himself the option of doing the same thing with state budgets. He has equally tough decisions about budgets, and as we recall, one involved cutting the funding for higher education at the precise time that a strong university presence is a major determinant in whether cities and states prosper. There are numerous other services whose state budgets are being pared back, but apparently, that is allowed at the state level; however, when Memphis City Council exercises the same prerogative, they've overstepped their bounds.


We hope that in the next few days, Governor Bredesen will take some time to gather the facts and ask the kinds of laser-like questions for which he is known. For example, it might be a good time for him to ask his own Department of Education why it has shown so much preferential treatment to Nashville's schools woes while essentially giving lip service to ours. Several years ago, when Memphis City Schools was on the same high priority list that Nashville school district is on today, DOE did precious little to transform Memphis City Schools with some much-needed leadership, direct help and resources. As we've pointed out previously, that's sure not the case when it comes to the center of the universe in Middle Tennessee.

While he's at it, we hope the governor will also research why Memphis is the only major city in Tennessee that is expected to fund schools. Nashville doesn't do it. Knoxville doesn't do it. Chattanooga doesn't do it. Even Jackson doesn't do it.

Yes, we know that all of those cities have consolidated their districts, and perhaps, that's where the governor's influence would be put to better use.

Board Rooms, Not Courtrooms

Perhaps, he could even be an intermediary who could convene all parties at a conference room table to negotiate an agreement to eliminate city funding over time.

Chattanooga is a good model for us. Several years ago, city government there decided to get out of the school funding business. Over several years, they stepped down their funding until it was totally eliminated, and as the final exclamation point on the process, the city school district was eliminated. As required by state law, the county government there – Hamilton County – absorbed the former city district into the existing county district, effectively eliminating onerous double taxation of Chattanooga taxpayers.

Perhaps Governor Bredesen could tell us why we aren't entitled to a similar equity in our local tax burden. While he's at it, he needs to keep uppermost in his mind the fatal flaw in the state's tax structure – the more you make, the less you pay in taxes as a percentage of income. The family earning $25,000 pays 7.0 percent, but the family earning $50,000 doesn't pay more. It pays less – 6.2 percent. A family earning $75,000 pays 6.3 percent, one-third less than the national average; and the $100,000 income family pays 5.9 percent and the family earning $150,000 pays 5.6 percent.

If Governor Bredesen wants to have the credibility that he needs to get Memphis City Council to listen to him, we're sure they'd like to know what he is doing to make the tax burden in Tennessee fairer, because no city in the state is punished more for this flawed tax system than our own.

Dollars And Sense

All that said, here's the real question we'd like the governor to answer.

The State of Tennessee's own data show that between 2003 and 2007, the number of students in Memphis City Schools dropped by 11 percent. Wouldn't he then expect for the budget of Memphis City Schools to have also reduced in this period of time? And, governor, if the student population has dropped 11 percent, why shouldn't the Memphis City Council feel that it could cut $70 million in funding, the equivalent of 7 percent cut in Memphis City Schools' budget.

A down and dirty calculation – and assuming the state's own numbers are right - indicates that this reduction should have reduced Memphis City Schools' costs by $84 million. In other words, even with the Memphis City Council's cut, the district still nets $14 million. But that's not all, in roughly the same period of time, despite the plummeting number of students, the budget for Memphis City Schools increased $146 million.

In other words – and again, if the state's own data are right – while the number of students went down 11 percent, the Memphis City Schools budget went up 19 percent. Maybe the governor can fine tune these numbers, but it certainly makes it worth his time to gather the facts before he condemns Memphis City Council for an act of courage – if not desperation – to do something to equalize the tax burden between Memphians and non-Memphians.

The Water Is Wide

On this one, our normally inscrutable governor waded into the water without checking its depth.

There are many cross currents in this issue, and if he is not prepared to be a vehicle to develop a plan to end the double taxation of Memphis taxpayers for public education and to address the disincentive that they pay to live inside the city limits of Tennessee's largest city, he has in fact abdicated the high ground in this discussion and forfeited a productive role in resolving this to the public good.

And that's the worst kind of Capitol punishment.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Rhetoric Takes Flight In Delta-Northwest Merger

It’s always curious when economic development officials start talking like politicians who seem to think that admitting there is a problem is the same as being blamed for it.

We thought of this as we read Tennessee Commissioner of Economic and Community Development’s upbeat column in The Commercial Appeal explaining why we should all have goose bumps of excitement over the merger of Northwest and Delta Airlines.

Well, maybe we should expect that from Commissioner Kisber, who is after all a political appointee of Governor Phil Bredesen, but it seems to be an attitude that is rampant among the people who should be telling us the cold, hard truth about this deal. There’s no sin in being optimistic, but we’d have a better feeling if some of our economic development and airport experts would tell us what the down side could ultimately be and what we would do if it happens.

Hubs And Spokes

Yes, Commissioner Kisber, we recognize the value that a hub brings to Memphis’ economy, and although we gripe about our airfares, we still understand that it gives us a distinct competitive advantage. If it were not so, why do all major cities beg and plead for hubs of their own.

The headlines alone made for a revealing counterpoint.

The headline on Commissioner Kisber’s column said: Northwest-Delta merger: good for Tennessee.

A day later, on the CA’s front page was this one: Airline merger may be trouble for Pinnacle.

Just The Facts

In other words, it seems like all the wishful thinking and happy talk to the contrary, there is a price that Memphis will have to pay in this merger, notably a wound to our 2,000-employee regional carrier. Meanwhile, Delta CEO Richard Anderson assures in a speech here us that this has nothing to do with the merger. It seems these days that every one immediately shifts into their spin cycle in response to any question.

According to Delta officials, canceling the Pinnacle contract was a result of a continuing problem, but it sure seems more than a passing curiosity that it was announced in the wake of the merger announcement. And the folks packing their boxes at Pinnacle sure connect the dots in this way.

Mr. Anderson continued his reassurances at a breakfast sponsored by the Memphis Regional Chamber, Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, Economic Club of Memphis and Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority, but it sure was hard to put much stock in his Panglossian view from the bridge with the Pinnacle headline shouting from the front page. What were we to believe – our eyes or our ears?

Wanted: More Specificity

He did promise that Memphis would remain a hub, but then again, he didn’t say how that hub would be defined – by the current number of flights or half the present number of flights or a quarter of the present flights. It was cold comfort, but in Memphis, hope springs eternal and we seem given to “everything’s going to be fine” speeches from our economic development leaders. We guess our civic response to Mr. Anderson’s speech is supposed to be that he told us everything would be just fine, so everything will be just great.

Since the merger was announced, speculation in industry journals has been rampant about the hit that Memphis will take, and although we hope that all good things come to pass, it’s just hard to see a future that will be as bright as the present. But despite that serious concern, we’ve been given a steady dose of upbeat rhetoric suggesting that this merger will be a great thing for Memphis. We’ve even heard some Airport Authority board members suggest that our strong personal friendships and relationships position us to be a winner in the tug-of-war between Memphis and Atlanta.

While we are as Southern as the next person and know the power of relationships in this part of the world, we have a sneaking hunch that at the end of the day, the spreadsheets that will drive decisions about this merger won’t have a column called “relationships.” Facing serious corporate challenges even with the consolidation, it’s hard to imagine Delta Airlines making any decision that won’t be based on the cold, hard facts of profit-making, friends be damned.


We appreciate the power of positive thinking, but we would appreciate even more some suggestions from the powers that be about what our options are if worse comes to worse. Surely, there is some contingency planning going on in this volatile environment, and we think that the citizens who own the airport deserve to know more about our scenarios for the future.

Here’s the thing we need to assure our economic development officials. When you tell us we have a problem, we aren’t going to say you are the cause of it. That’s particularly true of any negative developments from this merger. Surely, no one thinks that our economic development folks have any real power to change the forces that are reshaping the aviation industry.

So, shoot straight with us. We promise we won’t shoot the messenger.

Changes In Schools Have Gotten An "A" In Other Cities

In light of the renewed call by Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton for Memphis City Schools to become part of city government with the mayor appointing the superintendent and board as well as a proposal for a Joint Board of Control to handle certain operations of city and county school systems, we reprise this post from December 17, 2007 on these subjects:

There are better ways to run urban school districts than by elected school boards.

That’s an opinion that’s gaining traction in many large U.S. cities and given new energy by the success of buoyant, youthful Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian Fenty in taking over his city’s troubled school district.

This year’s takeover of school operations by Mayor Fenty bookends a 15-year mayoral takeover movement that began in 1992 in Boston, and between them are five other successful changes in school governance -- Chicago (1995), Cleveland (1998), Detroit (1999), Philadelphia (2001), and New York (2002).

When In Doubt, Reorganize

The interest in this different way of operating school districts surfaced here a month ago when Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton said that it’s hard to imagine a better time to change the operational structure of Memphis City Schools. Considering the litany of controversies at the city district in recent months, it’s pretty hard to argue with him.

After all, if Albuquerque, Los Angeles and Richmond can move this topic to the top of their list of priorities, it sure seems that Memphis can, too. Here, there’s the ongoing federal investigation, the nutrition services scandal, questions about a no-bid transportation contract, concerns about the contract for temp workers and the rumblings inside the district headquarters show no signs of stopping.

If there’s any indictment of the chaotic culture of the Memphis City Schools and the district’s persistent inability to improve things, it is the latest organizational restructure – it was the fourth in five years.

Better Controls

While Interim Superintendent Dan Ward’s recent reorganization (complete with clumsy press release references to his military experience 25 years ago) effectively dismantled the centralized organization that evolved during the Carol Johnson era, the truth is that no org chart has proven to be the antidote to the problems that seem inherent in the lumbering, $1 billion a year bureaucracy.

In fact, the failure to resolve these problems over the years is probably the strongest evidence in support of mayoral control, because research has shown that a chief benefit from this new governance is the improvement in operational functions. As one study put it, financial and administrative operations of the districts are more effective and healthy under mayoral control, and in districts run by mayors, more people who are non-teachers are hired for key management jobs.

While the greatest benefits of a governance change are on the administrative side of the district, it’s hard to argue that a change in organization couldn’t help the academic side. After all, Memphis City Schools has 100 schools that don’t meet state benchmarks for progress. With state standards toughening in the next 12 months, it’s hard to imagine a scenario that the public relations house of cards about improved student performance won’t come crashing down.

Hitting The Books

Here’s the thing about mayoral control. While research indicates that the single vision creates progress, the real magic is in removal of an elected school board. It’s not that board members are bad people or not serious about their duties. It’s just that the presence of an elected board politicizes a district already difficult enough to operate. It’s hard to remain loyal to balkanized districts of constituents and manage to develop an overall vision for the district.

About now, Mayor Wharton is likely poring over lawbooks from the county attorney’s office to find ways to bring a new governance structure to Memphis City Schools. So far, school board commissioners have concentrated their attention on the governor’s powers under No Child Left Behind and the opportunities for takeover of the city district by state government.

While state law endows the governor with considerable powers, he’s shown little appetite for bold action to this point despite the crisis in both Memphis and Nashville districts; however, his support for mayoral takeover could be a key to getting it done.

Unearthed Opportunity

Word filtering out of the county building is that Mayor Wharton has been investigating legal and political options for months and doing much of the research himself. It’s hard to imagine that one major point of investigation isn’t the Joint Board of Control, a mechanism that he unearthed in 2004 in the midst of his campaign to clamp down on the devastating impact that the capital costs of schools were having on the county budget.

In a July 14, 2004, letter to Patrice Robinson, then president of the Memphis Board of Commissioners, Mayor Wharton wrote: “After much research, I believe establishment of a Joint Board of Control is a viable tool that should be considered as we move forward with this process.” He could say the same now about mayoral control.

In media coverage in 2004, he compared his approach as similar to a “joint venture in the private sector” and said school officials had pledged to keep an open mind on the use of the joint board. While capital funding pressures at the time drove the discussion, the description of the Joint Board in Mayor Wharton’s letter suggests that it has the potential to be the vehicle for mayoral takeover.

Pyramid Scheme

The 1957 state law about Joint Board of Control says that city and county school districts can enter into contracts which provide for joint operation of a school or certain services with an eye to increased efficiency. The law is bolstered by the Memphis city charter which allows contracts between the two school districts.

Emulating the kind of legal structures set up for some of local government’s most complicated projects – The Pyramid and FedEx Forum – a possible course of action could be for Memphis City Schools to sign a far-reaching contract with Shelby County Schools for a Joint Board of Control, and the Joint Board of Control in turns contracts with Memphis city government to run the city school district. (It’s not unlike the city and county governments contracting with the Public Building Authority to construct an arena, and the Authority then subcontracts with a third party to build it.)

According to a 2003 opinion issued by Tennessee Attorney General Paul G. Summers, there’s no limit to the powers and control that the joint board could possess, and although the change in the governance of Memphis City Schools would require the approval of its board of commissioners, it’s still possible that it could be quicker than other options. The beauty of the Joint Board of Control is that it doesn’t require any additional legislative action, because the law already exists.

The Catch

Here’s Catch-22: Success will eventually depend on the better angels in board members’ nature, because its members’ support are needed to give Memphis the chance to see if this dramatic change in governance can take place and produce the positive results seen in other cities.

In an authoritative study about the impact of mayoral takeover, the following conclusions were reached:

* In 80 percent of the districts studied, the elementary schools improved their test scores.

* Every district studied showed improved performance by high school students.

* The most significant improvements in performance are seen in the lowest-performing schools.

* More accountability in the system and responsibility held by a single city leader increases public confidence in strategies to turn around the schools.

Chance For Success

In addition, Dr. Ken Wong of Brown University, in a must-read, recent report, “The Education Mayor,” conducted a comparison of 14 mayor-led districts to 90 similar districts run by independent schools boards and concluded that mayoral control results in one-third of a year in extra learning by the average student.

In the end, pursuit of a Joint Board of Control rests on two premises – one, that Memphis City School board will do what is best for the children in its classrooms, and two, that a unified front of Governor Phil Bredesen, Mayor Wharton and Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton can wield the political influence to make a Joint Board of Control happen.

It’s clear that a unified political front stands the best chance of coming up with a combination of carrots and sticks that convinces school board commissioners to give a new governance structure an opportunity. With public confidence in the school district bottoming out and with more of the same promising the same disturbing results, there’s little doubt that the public is willing to try something different.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Recess Needed From New School Issues

Being a Memphian is a bit like being part of a dysfunctional family.

We get so used to things as they are that we think every other family is just like ours. We start to think that our family really is normal…until we start explaining things to someone from outside the family.

We think of this analogy as we are experiencing a pretty routine day in Memphis – Mayor Willie W. Herenton is lobbing his latest grenade – until we get a call from a friend in state government in Nashville, who asks a pretty simple question: “What the hell is going on down there?”

Rationalizing Irrationality

As we try to explain what Mayor Herenton is doing this time and why his actions seem rational from behind his desk in City Hall, we realize how ridiculous it all sounds. We have become so comfortable in our dysfunction that only when we hear ourselves trying to explain it out loud do we realize how ridiculous this all is.

Today, Mayor Herenton surfaced in one of his regular guerilla raids on civic tranquility, this time proposing the elimination of the elected school board and making Memphis City Schools part of city government. Here’s the thing: we agree with him in a preference for a mayor-led district with an appointed school board. Research shows convincingly that this governance structure is directly connected to improved student performance.

However, life – and politics – is nothing if not about timing. This discussion about a mayor-led district and a referendum would have been useful subjects for citywide discussion earlier this year when all options should have been on the table, but now, it’s too little too late.

Die Is Cast

Miami school official Kriner Cash will be here in 15 days to take over as the new Memphis City Schools Superintendent. He takes over in the wake of Memphis City Council’s vote to cut the school district’s budget $70 million.

In other words, things are already in motion, and we would all do well – starting with the mayor – to take time out. We need to let Mr. Cash get to Memphis so we can see for ourselves if his encouraging rhetoric about bringing data-driven decision-making, accountability and transparency to Memphis City Schools will be converted into a immediate plan of action.

Meanwhile, every one needs to turn down the rhetoric and let the courts decide the issue of school funding. As we wrote yesterday, it’s nonsensical to think that the Tennessee Department of Education plans to slice away half of our district’s budget, so there's no need for the hysteria in some quarters. It’s almost as nonsensical as any suggestion that state officials would do anything that would inevitably require them to take over our district, which they see as a third world nation.

Wake-Up Call

As our call from Nashville reminded us, if we have accomplished anything in the past four months in Memphis, it has been to reinforce convincingly the statewide stereotype of our city as one weird place where the political environment is punctuated by sound and fury signifying nothing, at least as measured in the progress of the city. In two words, across Tennessee, Memphis is a laughing stock. While this may be comical to some, it is this reputation that neuters Memphis' impact in Nashville and inspires a Memphis versus the world attitude in the Legislature that puts our city on the wrong side of too many critical votes.

We hear ourselves explaining that yes, Mayor Herenton wants to have a referendum, but it’s questionable at this point if the referendum would even have any meaning, and it almost sounds like it’s just a beauty contest vote between Mayor Herenton and Memphis City Schools Board of commissioners.

At this point, it just seems to us that it's more in the public interest to give Mr. Cash a chance to attack the problems of Memphis City Schools. And it can’t come too soon.

Warding Off Inanities

We hear ourselves quoting Interim Superintendent Dan Ward who said today that Memphis City Schools is “the best school system in the United States of America.” We guess that’s why two grand juries are presently investigating district operations and why the district’s student performance is nothing short of a civic disgrace. We’ve seen a lot of “spin” in the public sector, but Mr. Ward’s is the rhetorical equivalent of the Tilt-A-Whirl.

Mr. Ward added that if you know of any “waste and mismanagement and inefficiencies in the school system, just call us…we’d be happy to tackle it. If you don’t know of any, put down the epithets.” Only in Memphis could the facts be considered epithets, and perhaps no one is better suited to be the father of our dysfunctional family right now than Mr. Ward.

Rather than reflexively join in his delusions and try to “spin” statistics and data to put the district in a better light, school board members would do better to engage in some brutal honesty in a candid citywide conversation about what the district needs to do to turn itself around.


We expect that in the coming months, every one at Memphis City Schools will appear astounded by some of the changes that Mr. Cash says are needed and revelations made by their new superintendent as he reviews operations and improves the management structure.

When Mr. Cash takes up the duties as superintendent July 1, there are many things that he intends to do immediately to get a sense of where the district is now and what needs to be changed for it to get to where it needs to be. We can only hope that one of the things that he does is to request a list of all promotions and salary increases that have been made in the past 12 months. (He might also want a list of anyone fired in the past 12 months.)

We believe that some of the inefficiencies requested by Mr. Ward can be found on these lists, as people with connections and with relatives and friends at the top have been promoted and their salaries increased.

The Gift Of Newcomers

Perhaps, the greatest gift that Mr. Cash brings to Memphis isn’t just his skills as a Rudy Crew adherent in Miami, but the fresh eyes that are needed to see Memphis City Schools as it is, rather than the way it looks through the rose-colored glasses worn by too many appointed and elected officials there.

In one of his diatribes several months ago, Mayor Herenton derided the value of a national search for superintendent – and by extension, for any number of important Memphis jobs. He said that Memphis is guilty of bringing in outsiders who really don’t understand our city and who don’t know what to do.

He must have been talking about another Memphis, because for years, Memphis has had a troubling tendency to conduct alleged national searches that end up hiring someone here who’s already on the inside of things. It is this lack of new blood, fresh ideas and new thinking that feeds our dysfunctional family, because it is only through the newcomer and the outsider can we see with new eyes what we have really become.

Enough Already

So, for our part, we say, let’s celebrate the coming of Mr. Cash, and let’s hope that it is only the beginning of national searches that really bring national talent to bear on the considerable problems of our city.

Meanwhile, let’s deal with the issues already on the table – school funding by city government, questions about authority, issues about taxing authority and questions about city, county and state governments’ roles. We need to clear the air before we start talking about a November referendum, an amendment to a state law and a new governance structure for Memphis City Schools.

Our dysfunctional family already has enough to argue about. Let’s solve one family crisis before we start another. Only in Memphis would that be seen as progress.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

State Ed Officials Rattle Sabers After Dodging Help

The chest thumping by the Tennessee Department of Education about cutting $423 million in state money for Memphis City Schools unless City Council restores city funding is in the end headline-grabbing but little more than an empty threat.

After all, a cut in funding of that amount hurts no one as much as the Department of Education itself. At the end of the day, the State of Tennessee is responsible for educating our children, so cutting funding really doesn’t cause anybody more trouble than state educational bureaucrats.

Also, if the state department of education couldn’t manage to do anything substantive and show real leadership when Memphis City Schools was a “high priority district,” it’s hard to imagine it playing out that way now. Back then, the options included holding the district’s academic feet to the fire and even taking over control, but in the end, Tennessee Department of Education did little more than nibble around the edges to encourage district improvement.

The Best Predictor Of The Future

So, now we are expected to believe that these same people in Nashville will now have the spine to shut down the entire district and actually face the prospect of having to take over operations of Memphis City Schools.

From a political point of view, and this really political theater at its essence, this threat by the Department of Education is toothless because its target – Memphis City Council – isn’t really hit by this shot across the bow.

More to the point, it’s hard to imagine Governor Phil Bredesen allowing state education officials to follow through with this threat, according to close political allies of his. After all, he too has resolutely avoided being pulled into the educational controversies in Memphis although state law gives him a great deal of power – unexercised power – over the city district.

Pulling The Trigger

For example, the governor has had the power to set in motion changes that could put Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton in charge of the district, but clearly, there’s no appetite in the Capitol to wade into what is seen as the quicksand that is Memphis politics.

At this point, all of this back and forth has one obvious outcome – a court ruling.

First off, there are dueling and conflicting legal opinions from all sides – state, city and school district – so it appears obvious that only the courts (eventually, the Tennessee Supreme Court) will resolve the fundamental questions at issue.

In addition to the question of whether Memphis City Council can cut its funding for schools, there’s an even more interesting issue to be resolved. Way back when, the city district abdicated its taxing authority to city government in return for funding, and if the funding cut is legal, does it then give the Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioners the right to pass its own taxes?

Conventional Wisdom

Usually, there is normally a certain underlying logic in laws and legal precedents, and it’s baffling to think that based on a decision made 60 years ago, city government is powerless to decide what services – including schools - it can afford to fund. There’s never been any confusion about it in Memphis and Shelby County Governments, where for 30 years, it has been thought that city government could eliminate its funding at any time, because it was county government that had legal responsibility for public education.

In fact, about a decade ago, when city and county governments were considering ways to rationalize their respective responsibilities in the wake of the “toy town” controversy, a preliminary plan called for city government to eliminate its funding as part of a plan to reduce the city budget.

Besides the need for a court to make a determination on the issues at stake, the court test is also a safe political position for the governor to take, political friends speculate. “After all, why take sides in a contentious political debate In Memphis when they (the governor’s office) can avoid it all by saying that a judge needs to decide these questions?” one said.

Full State Partnerships

While we’re on the subject of the Tennessee Department of Education, officials there – like many people throughout state government in Nashville – consider Memphis as a third world where the wisest course of action is often to avoid it at all costs. As a result, we rarely get the kind of full partnerships from state government that we need to deal with the challenges before us.

We think of this as we watch the difference in attitude and action as DOE bureaucrats treat problems in the Metro Nashville Public Schools since it was put on the state’s “high priority” list, compared to the way it reacted when Memphis City Schools was on that list.

It’s worth remembering that even though the Nashville district is on the state list, the schools there still outperform our own. For reasons that we have explained frequently before, Memphis City Schools is not now a “high priority” district, but that is highly likely to change in the next 24 months.

The Dichotomy

Back to DOE’s preferential treatment of the Nashville school district, it was less than a year ago that Department of Education, given a chance to force transformative change in our district, accepted the so-called and aptly named Proposal for Expenditures of Additional State Revenues,” largely a list of everybody’s favorite ideas with no thread of academic philosophy underpinning them.

Compare that to Nashville. There, the DOE mobilized into action and focused its considerable influence and resources on turning things around. In a move announced last Thursday, DOE announced that it would step in to set up leadership for the district because of the current disarray and the uncompleted search for a new superintendent.

A Vanderbilt University education expert said that these drastic measures are generally reserved for districts in worse condition. DOE’s action in Nashville has been called the single largest school district reform effort ever undertaken in Tennessee, begging the question of what it would take to get that much assertive action out of state government to help here.


At a time when DOE has treated a “state take over” of even a few schools in our district as a petrifying idea, there has been no such reticence in Nashville. Perhaps, it’s the political equivalent of “out of sight, out of mind.”

With Nashville media daily and loudly trumpeting the serious problems in their schools, state officials were being reminded constantly that something needed to be done and Nashville reporters regularly called DOE to ask what its officials were going to do to fix things.

Obviously, it’s easier for DOE to ignore problems 210 miles away in a city that too often accepts poor schools as a simple fact of life. It’s true that the squeaky wheel gets the grease, but that’s certainly true when it’s the squeaky wheel that you have to hear all day long every day.

This Week On Smart City: Virtual Communities And Real Diversity

Today on Smart City we're talking about communities. Real ones, and the virtual neighborhoods found online in such social networking sites as facebook and meetup.

Phil Wood is the co-author of "The Intercultural City, Making the Most out of Diversity." In it he describes the advantages of a diverse city, and how the interaction between intercultural groups can strengthen a community.

And we'll speak with Clay Shirky. He's the author of the book "Here Comes Everybody, The Power of Organizing Without Organizations." The book is about the power of the internet to break through old bureaucracy, and how online networking can create brand new ways of interacting out in the real world.

Smart City is a syndicated, weekly hour-long public radio talk show that takes an in-depth look at urban life: the people, places, ideas and trends that affect us all. Host Carol Coletta, president and CEO of CEOs for Cities, talks with national and international public policy experts, economists, business leaders, artists, developers, planners and others on the pulse of city life for a penetrating discussion on urban issues.

Smart City is broadcast at 6 a.m. Saturday and Sundays on WKNO-FM, but it is also webcast and podcast. For the webcast, times for the broadcast in other cities and to sign up for the podcast, visit our website.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Postcards From Scenic Agricenter International

Agricenter Diminishes Shelby Farms Park Potential

We’re not sure of everything Agricenter International is trying to harvest on its prime 1,000 acres of public land, but much of it looks to us like just a bushel-full of embarrassment.

Put simply, it just gets clearer and clearer that the presence of this failed experiment just makes no sense on land that should have a more direct public purpose and public benefit.

While on its best days, we are hard-pressed to imagine that this was ever the best use for about 25% of Shelby Farms’ land, it seems incontrovertible now that it has become the dumping ground for ideas that seem to have only tangential bearing on agriculture and absolutely no relationship with the overall aesthetics of this precious natural resource.

Slap In The Face

While we try most of the time to remain in denial about Agricenter International, the obvious slapped us in the face once again as we drove through the road that meanders through its land on the south side of Walnut Grove Road.

If there is any single characteristic about these 1,000 acres, it is that they are dotted with eyesore after eyesore – a sloppy pay-to-fish lake, tin buildings, mulching operations that belong in an industrial area, stone operations, bleak parking areas, a stark RV park, and a hodgepodge of things that just seem to have no common thread pulling them together into a cohesive whole, much less into a pleasant, appealing use of this irreplaceable land.

While most of us gasped at the thought of shearing off the frontage on Germantown Road of Shelby Farms Park for commercial use, the irony isn’t lost on us that any proposed commercial use couldn’t be more of an affront to this unique green space than the operations of Agricenter itself.

Highest And Best?

It’s especially disconcerting to consider that Agricenter International officials would actually think this is the highest and best use of this land at a time when a master plan for the entire 4,500 acre footprint of Shelby Farms is being developed. Based on Agricenter’s history of thumbing its nose at any suggestions for being a cooperative partner in the park, much less the reasonable ideas for reducing the amount of land that it controls, it’s a cinch that it intends for the current uses to remain no matter what the master plan says.

In fact, if you are a gambler and are looking for a sure thing, put all your money down to bet that Agricenter smiles, acts like it’s willing to help create an exciting new park at Shelby Farms and then does whatever it damn well pleases. In other words, there is the definite prospect that whatever the master plan produces for Shelby Farms Park, there will be always be a mess on Agricenter’s 1,000 acres as a result of the incompatible uses that it allows to mar the Shelby Farms Park landscape.

Yes, we know that Agricenter International agreed to have its land included in the master planning process, but that commitment didn’t even go so far as to put up any funding for it. It’s awfully hard to conclude anything but that Agricenter is just playing the game while maintaining no intention to do anything differently, particularly the much-needed and imminently logical concept to put operations of the entire 4,500 acres under one umbrella organization.

Realm Of The Public

While the master plan that was chosen seems to be the most carefully modulated option, there was never any way that Agricenter was seriously going to consider any of the creative – and visionary - uses that were suggested for its 1,000 acres. As a result, while other cities are pursuing organic farms on public land (often with an on-site chef-run restaurant serving up the produce), urban farming and community gardening, we are left with land that might as well have a “no trespassing” sign on it for all the good that it is to the public.

These days, people who care about the future of cities talk a lot about the importance of the public realm. Landscape architect Shirley Kressel describes it like this: “Public spaces are the arenas where the collective, common life which defines us as a society is acted out, and where we come into contact with those who are like and those who are different from ourselves…In public spaces we are reminded of the most important civics lesson: We are all in this together.”

There’s 1,000 acres of the public realm that sends precisely the opposite message at Agricenter: “It’s every man for himself. It’s our land, and we’ll do with it what we like.”

Wasted Resources

Increasingly, cities, particularly successful ones, have realized that a well-designed, high-quality, distinctive public realm enriches the fabric of a city and contributes to its special sense of place. So, what exactly do the 1,000 acres of prime public land at Agricenter say about Memphis?

These days, there are even frightening rumblings coming out of Agricenter that it believes that under the master plan, its area of control should be expanded. Such is the delusion under which it operate. If anything, the land controlled with an iron fist by Agricenter should be reduced to the footprint of its headquarters building, ShowPlace Arena and the Farmer’s Market. All the rest should be returned to use by the public.

While Agricenter has put together a batch of new programs, many aimed at kids, no one there mentions any more the justification that was used in 1981 to give it public money. Then, it was promised that Agricenter International would be a “regional resource and technological center for all aspects of agriculture…a showplace for cutting edge technology and equipment…a repository for information in a state-of-the-art data bank…a prominent center for innovative research…the site for permanent and changing exhibits…and the host/sponsor/organizer for significant agricultural conferences, seminars and conventions on emerging themes.”

We’re still trying to figure out under which of those headings comes the mulching operation. Or the RV park. Or the stone operations. Or the fair. Or the subsidized office space.

Today’s Reality

Today, Agricenter International reports these compelling purposes to the IRS:

1. The Agricenter maintains a farmer’s market and a fishing lake open to the public.

2. The Agricenter raises farm crops and conducts related research activities. The Agricenter received $132,863 of donated seeds, chemicals, advertising and the use of equipment for use in these activities.

3. Various public programs and other private events held throughout the year are open to the public and further the public knowledge of agriculture. The Agricenter leases offices and facilities to agricultural related entities.

Even if you find these worthy enough to Agricenter, it’s impossible to figure out why it needs 1,000 acres to do them. And if it does, and county government thinks it’s that important, let the public sector find Agricenter crop land somewhere else in Shelby County but not on the site of what was promised to be a “21st century park.”

No Transparency

Even if you find it a worthy use of so much land, there is little justification for Agricenter’s institutional inclination to stonewall any questions of accountability or to dismiss any calls for transparency. If it is to dominate 1,000 acres of parkland, the public at least deserves to know the financial basis behind its decisions, to know who its vendors are and to have a clearer sense of who’s in charge.

Many of us were naïve in thinking that the master planning process would usher in a new cooperative relationship between Agricenter and the park. If it doesn’t, as we now predict, it’s past time for Shelby County Government to take a fresh look at its relationship with an organization that controls so much of its land with such little return to the public interest.

It’s now been more than three years since the special Shelby Farms Park Advisory Committee headed by Dr. Gene Pearson issued its wise recommendations for the 4,500 acres. Chief among those was the recommendations that there should be a single entity operating the entire area, eliminating the dueling entities and conflicting philosophies, and that the future of the entire area should be mapped out in a single master plan implemented by a unified organizational structure.

Wanted: Decider

Those recommendations are just as wise today as they were then, and regrettably, just as much in need of execution.

It’s patently peculiar how Agricenter is able to stare down anyone who suggests that a blade of its grass should be touched, but somehow, it’s always been treated as if it, not the park, is the single most important purpose of this coveted land. How else can anyone explain why government – mainly county government - gave Agricenter $20 million in public money while the park managed to get $1 million for a visitor’s center and that had to come from state government.

Once upon a time, Agricenter was a risk worth taking. However, it’s just one of those projects that never seems to be able to get on track, and its present purpose is so far from its original mission that it makes little sense to act as if the original agreement about the land still makes sense.

Let Us Pray

Again, here’s what Ms. Kressel said about a primary threat to the public realm. “The transformation of public space into a corporate preserve is an attempt by powerful elites to erase from our minds a consciousness of ourselves as people with goals which transcend a market-defined framework of social interaction and values which cannot be measured by the ‘bottom line.’ Above all, the privatization of public space is an attempt to diminish the democratic dreams of ordinary citizens and to make us forget that we have the power to achieve them.”

Amen. And amen.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Smart Politicians Pay Attention To Cities

Surely, it’s about time to have a presidential campaign that’s about cities.

So far, cities have been just short of pariahs in the endless debates that have regularly punctuated the party primaries. Candidates were asked all manner of esoterica, but routinely overlooked were questions about the residential centers and economic engines that are our cities.

Perhaps, that’s because, as our colleague Carol Coletta points out, if you put the word, urban, in front of any problem, and it becomes even worse – urban crime is worse than crime, urban congestion is worse than congestion, urban poverty is worse than poverty, urban education is worse than education and urban hopelessness is worse than hopelessness.

Third Rail Politics

So, cities are often treated as the third rail for candidates – a good place to visit in the campaign but you wouldn’t want your campaign to live there. There’s just too much baggage attached to cities, it is thought, and the problems are just too complex and any way, there just aren’t any easy answers and short-term solutions.

As part of her always provocative work at CEOs for Cities, Carol recently made a persuasive case that candidates – starting with this year’s presidential ones – need to reconsider the attention that they give to cities’ issues.

That’s because she’s recently released polling that convincingly shows that the vast majority of political contributors are strongly supportive of cities and their place in the U.S. economy.


The logic seems fundamental.

After all, cities are where you find 80 percent of the nation’s employment, more than 80 percent of the national GNP and 86 percent of tax revenues.

As Carol has said: “These old attitudes only hold us back. There is so much good and vital and positive about cities and so much potential for even more progress if we as a nation recognize and build on the assets we have in our cities. It’s time for a new urban agenda that embraces the role of cities as the centers of America’s global prosperity.”

The avoidance in the political system is a commentary on how badly cities were stigmatized decades ago – particularly during the turbulence of the 1960’s - and how slowly any improvement in their reputation has been. Now’s the time.

Money Talks

The survey by Lake Research Partners – the well-known national political research firm - found that political donors, including urban, suburban and rural residents, overwhelmingly view cities as solutions to some of the U.S. most vexing problems.

In fact, 72 percent believe that there is not a strong country without strong cities and they fully understand clearly the strong connection between the economy of countries and cities.

Interestingly (not to mention encouragingly), non-urban donors were just as likely to think America cannot complete in the global economy without strong cities.

As for the relationship between urban and suburban economies, 85 per cent of the public says that their economies are closely and somewhat connected.

Defying Predictions

A key message to political candidates: political donors favor increased investment in cities, and despite all conventional wisdom to the contrary, donors that don’t live in cities are even more supportive than city-dwellers toward the investments.

Key messages that politicians can use to their advantage are these: we cannot allow America’s cities to deteriorate (83% agree); America cannot be strong if we do not have strong cities (72%); and America cannot be competitive in a global economy if we do not have dynamic cities (61%). Overall, Republican support is generally about 13-17% less than Democrats.

Donors also see cities as places for solutions and hope – from jobs to education to fighting poverty. Again, donors living outside cities were even more positive than donors in cities about cities’ access to jobs, access to education, innovation to stay competitive, combating poverty, keeping America globally competitive, reducing gasoline consumption, expanding prosperity for all and immigration.

Milk And Honey

The result suggest that despite the frequent lack of political interest in cities, people still see cities as special places of opportunities and economic prosperity.

All in all, it was eye-opening polling and powerful insight into the motivations of political donors whose cash oils the campaign process. Now, if only we can get a reporter at the presidential debates to ask the questions that matter to many of us – those about our cities.