Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Blogs Relied On For Local News

For all of us who sit alone with only the glare from our computer screen keeping us company as we peck out a blog post with no idea whether any one will read it, here’s some good news.

In Shelby County, more than 118,000 people say they regularly get local news from blogs.

Keep in mind that this isn’t the number of people who say they read blogs; it’s the number who said they read them regularly for local news.

We are of course biased, but that seems pretty impressive considering that the blogosphere has really only proliferated in Memphis in recent years.

In a poll of people taken in the last few weeks in Shelby County, 13 percent of the respondents said that they regularly get their news from blogs. To put that into perspective, it was essentially the same percentage of people who say they get their news regularly from the Memphis Flyer. In fairness, however, there are of reasons to be reading the Flyer besides news, and in addition, the Flyer’s numbers are pulled down somewhat by the drop in readership outside the city limits of Memphis.

Unsurprisingly, a slightly larger percentage – 15% - of people between the ages of 18-44 say they read blogs regularly for local news.

Meanwhile, the income bracket with the largest percentage – 16% - was $15,000 - $29,000. As expected, that percentage is halved for people earning less than $15,000, but is relatively stable for people with incomes of more than $30,000 at roughly 13%.

The 13% who read blogs regularly may only account for one-third of the percentage who say they read The Commercial Appeal, but nonetheless, it is a number that puts a bit more spring into our fingers as we type this post and send it into the ether.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Getting To The Promised Land

Previously published as Memphis Magazine's City Journal column:

Few phrases are as overused today as “defining event,” but it’s never as accurate as when many in my Boomer generation look back at the life and death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

He looms as an influence over our lives as much as our own families. His words and his courage inspired our values and our beliefs. His death endowed our lives with a strange blend of high ideals and cynicism that remains today.

Recalling those purpose-driven times, we are like World War II veterans whose retelling of their experiences places them emotionally back in that exact moment in time. There are the memories – the incredulity of sanitation workers crushed to death among the garbage of their trucks, standing in front of a dorm at Memphis State University after being told that the campus was shutting down and watching smoke climb into the sky over Orange Mound, there were the tanks lumbering down Poplar Avenue making my new Argentine aunt homesick for her country, and there was the overpowering feeling of civic failure.

Prophet In His Own Land

Most of all, there was the aching sense of loss. It wasn’t just his gift of oratory. It was his gift of prophecy. It was dramatically on display the night before his death, but the prediction that continues to resonate in Memphis day was this: the quest for equal justice would give way to the quest for economic justice.

Dr. King was not the only person making predictions in Memphis in 1968. The president of Memphis Chamber of Commerce had one of his own: “If the Negro ministers would tend to their ministering instead of trying to stir things up, we wouldn’t have had this trouble. Nothing can be done about this situation. It’s going to take 40 years before we can make any real progress. You can’t take these Negro people and make the kind of citizens out of them you’d like.”

It was a few days before Dr. King was murdered, so none of us could imagine that those 40 years would come without him. While there are proud milestones of progress, the promise of dramatic economic progress for African-Americans remains elusive today.

Good And Bad News

The good news is that there is now a wider and deeper black middle and upper middle class. The bad news is that the median white family income is almost twice the median black family income and the gap seems as much a part of the Memphis landscape as the Mississippi River.

These days, 40 years after Dr. King led the fight for average workers to get paid more, the economic indicators for African-Americans continue to be troubling, reflecting the Memphis economy’s overreliance on low-wage, low-skill jobs.

That’s something that probably would not have surprised Dr. King. What would have surprised him is that within months, Memphis will become the first metro area with more than a million people to be majority African-American. There are plenty of U.S. cities that are majority African-American within their city limits, but there is no other that is majority minority within its entire MSA.

Getting A Grip
If Memphis officialdom could not come to grips with the notion that the least among us – sanitation workers with no pensions or life insurance – could change Memphis forever. Today, we still haven’t come to grips with the fact about being majority African-American.

At a recent Leadership Memphis meeting, a man who embodies the new approaches being taken by young African-Americans said: “We just have to be brutally honest. There are people here and there are people around the country who say being majority African-American means that we cannot succeed. It’s like we have no choice. But we do.”

It begins by acknowledging in every economic development brochure, it begins by targeting African-American heritage tourism, and it begins by talking honestly to each other. In a world where diversity is the rule, not the exception, how do we parlay our diversity into a competitive advantage? In a world where knowledge-based jobs are the most coveted, how do we get our share?

#1 In Wrong Categories

Along the way, the problems cited by Dr. King remain just as real as they were in 1968. In a comparison of 35 metro areas that included Detroit, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Nashville, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington, Atlanta, Kansas City, Oklahoma City, and Louisville, Memphis ranked #1 in a several categories: families headed by single parents, families in poverty, smallest percentage of adults with advanced degrees, smallest percentage of firms (with employees) owned by African-Americans, smallest percentage of firms owned by women, births to teen parents, and children living in poverty.

If we learned anything from Dr. King, it should be that we should reject language that scapegoats our neighbors, even if it is in a weekly feature in our daily newspaper tallying the number of babies born to single mothers. Rather, as Dr. King urged, it is in facing these issues squarely and with humanity that Memphis has its best chance to solve them.

Perhaps, Memphis even fulfills the words from the night before his death: “I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead…we as a people will get to the Promised Land.” That should be enough to inspire us to try.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

City Council Prepares To Throw Grenade Into School Funding

A decision by Memphis City Council to cut city schools funding will create chaos.

A decision to cut school funding will throw city and county budget hearings into turmoil.

A decision to cut school funding will create havoc in the budget of Memphis City Schools.

A decision to cut school funding will explode into political name-calling and recriminations.

And yet, Memphis City Council should do it.

Forcing Change

We know it’s not the optimal way to create public policy, but it’s clear that doing the same thing and expecting different results is not only the definition of insanity, but the definition of political myopia at City Hall.

After all, we’ve been talking for 25 years about placing all school funding where it belongs – on Shelby County’s larger tax base. We’ve been talking for way too long about making the Memphis tax burden more rational, and despite all the talk, nothing has changed.

Meanwhile, the city tax rate has moved up and the middle class has moved out.

Memphis Rocks

If one thing is clearer than the unfair Memphis tax burden, it is that the inequity will continue to rock along until somebody like the Memphis City Council tosses a grenade into the system. Otherwise, nothing will change, leaving Memphians with strong financial incentives to leave the city for the suburbs.

We’ve written before about the obvious logic of single source funding for Memphis and Shelby County Schools and the obvious need to eliminate Memphians paying twice for public schools while every one outside of the Memphis city limits pays once.

When Memphis began to fund schools six decades ago, it was likely because the rural-dominated county government paid scant attention to anything inside Memphis and took a rural view of schools. It was equally likely that Memphians wanted more from their schools than the small county district did and the needs of the county district drove funding decisions.

Taxes Matter

But times have clearly changed. County government bears no resemblance to 30 years ago, much less 60 years, and today, the lion’s share of its budget is spent for services within the city limits of Memphis.

It would be better if we had a closely coordinated school funding plan between Memphis City Schools, Memphis city government and Shelby County Government, but there’s nothing like a crisis to get everyone focused – and truth be told, we haven’t focused at all yet on the need to equalize and rationalize the Memphis tax rate.

If experience has taught us anything as Memphis’ middle class hollowed out, it is this – taxes matter, but what matters most is whether there is a lack of public confidence that the high level of taxation is producing high level public services. People have been voting with their feet on this issue for more than a decade.

A Decade Late

There is of course the serious question about whether county government will replace the city’s cut in funds to Memphis City Schools, and if it did replace the funding completing, it would result in a county tax increase of about 90 cents. Of course, the city tax rate would be cut by about the same amount.

In other words, changes in school funding aren’t going to create a windfall for Memphis taxpayers, but it could in fact spread school funding across the county’s larger tax base, and miracle of miracles, it might even encourage a little more open-mindedness among the town mayors on the issue of consolidation.

It would have been better if this had been done back when the city’s funding for schools was $60 million, back in the days when Memphis businessman Russell Gwatney was sounding the alarm of the unsustainable school funding structure. It’s hard to believe that it was about 10 years ago that he first rolled out his plan for single source funding, but now, it seems inarguable that he was right.

Political Trump Card

The problem back then was that his proposal kept being assigned to special task forces created more by county government as a way to defuse the political pressure building for change than in developing new, fairer ways of funding city and county schools. Time after time, single source funding fell victim to the lack of political leadership to get it done and to the no-tax pledges taken by a majority of county officials.

It hardly mattered that it is Shelby County Government’s – not Memphis’ - legal responsibility to fund public education, and each time, the committees issued recommendations that went nowhere, called for more study or ended up at loggerheads because of partisan political interests.

With a Democratic mayor and legislative majority in county government, the pro-suburb attitude that has characterized Shelby County Government for a century should finally be diminishing, and if so, perhaps single source funding is an idea whose time has come.


Back then, Mr. Gwatney pointed out correctly that tax revenues could not keep pace with the rapid expansion of operating and capital expenditures for schools. From 1994 to 2000, he said, the combined spending for both school systems increased $555.5 million, an increase for city schools of 75 percent and 61 percent for county schools.

He also honed in on ADA (Average Daily Attendance) requirements that called for county government to send a proportional amount to the city district every time a new county school was built, meaning that a $30 million county school resulted in about $70 million going to city schools.

Changing Things

To address these problems, Mr. Gwatney laid out the following recommendations:

* Establish county government as the single source of funding for operations and maintenance of city and county schools districts

* Establish a city-county school construction authority to oversee all capital construction projects for both districts

* Establish two capital improvement districts for city and county schools, and each district would be responsible for any debt issued on its behalf.

* City and county school boundaries would be frozen for 13 years (one educational cycle)

* Establish strong systemwide accountability and performance standards

* Support passage of half-cent sales tax increase dedicated to the capital improvement of schools

* Eliminate the ADA requirements for school construction

Real Progress

Perhaps, if we’re lucky, City Council’s determination to change things could spark a re-look at the recommendations in hopes of making the kind of fundamental shift in public policy that represents serious progress in tax equity and school funding.

Friday, April 25, 2008

This Week On Smart City: Green Buildings And Smart Children

When Washington ignored climate change, Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels decided to ignore Washington. He convinced almost 800 mayors to sign on to the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, and he is determined to make his own city the model for sustainability. We’ll talk to Mayor Nickels about his progress in the first half of our show.

Then we'll check in with Marty Bhatia, a Chicago real estate developer whose company, Om Developments, is dedicated to creating high quality living spaces, with a minimal carbon footprint.

Dr. Jeff Howard
is founder and president of the Efficacy Institute in Lexington, MA, where he works with school principals, teachers and parents throughout the county to set high expectations for students and achieve far better results. Jeff is a Harvard-educated social psychologist and is also the founder of J. Howard and Associates, a corporate training and consulting firm.

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.

Note: We've received numerous emails asking about the change in the broadcast time of Smart City in Memphis. We're extremely grateful to WKNO-FM for their instrumental role in making it possible to have this program in the first place and we will always remain so. In answer to emails, however, we did want to respond: If you would like the time moved to the later time that it previously had (as many of you have said), please contact the radio station program director.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Charter Changes Could Pave Way For Back-door Consolidation

Before you think we’re losing our minds, hear us out.

It’s a proposal we’re calling “poor man’s consolidation.”

The only reason that we have this end-around opportunity at transforming city and county governments is because both are now considering changes to their charters. As far as we can recall, it’s the first such alignment of interests in a couple of decades, and we need to take full advantage of it.

Taking Bets

Here’s the thing: Existing charters require the mayor of each government to hold no other elected office. It’s time to loosen up that rule, so either mayor can hold another job – but only if it’s as mayor of the other government.

What also makes it tempting is that even Las Vegas wouldn’t take a bet on this sure thing – AC Wharton will be the next mayor of Memphis.

If Mayor Willie W. Herenton is named superintendent or just steps aside for general lack of interest, Mayor Wharton could be appointed mayor of Memphis, and with a change in charters, he could keep his job as mayor of Shelby County and add one at City of Memphis.

Single Vision

In fact, regardless of the Wharton scenario, it’s time to change the charter to allow the mayor of either local government to serve as the mayor of the other.

After all, the primary benefit cited by consolidation boosters is the power of a single vision for our community – in its public policies, in its economic development and in its priorities. Check the box: One person in both mayors’ offices accomplishes this.

Of course, all of us have heard Mayor Herenton’s argument about the massive savings that can result from consolidation and how it can reduce our tax burden here. He says it with such certainly. It just happens to be wrong.

180 Degrees Off

Significant budget savings is not borne out in a review of consolidation in other major cities. In fact, the budgets there actually tended to rise in the short-term as the governments merge, and that’s why the pro-consolidation leaders in those cities advise against selling government merger on the basis of savings.

Essentially, the only real savings from consolidation is accomplished through the elimination of duplicative management positions, such as chief administrative officers, directors, attorney, and department heads. With one mayor in both city and county offices, that person could achieve the same results.

For example, with one person in both offices, the mayor of Shelby County could contract with city government for management services, or vice versa. One public works director could be in charge of projects for both governments, one chief administrative officer could be in charge of daily operations for both governments, one HR department could handle the hiring and firing for both governments and one attorney’s office could handle legal work for both.

Long Odds

Hopefully, whether there is consolidation or not, the county will adopt the city attorney’s organizational structure, whose budget is a fraction of the county attorney’s office. The retainer system set up by the previous county mayor belies Mayor Wharton’s commitment to economical government, because this is perhaps the most expensive concept of an attorney’s office that can be imagined, with part-time attorneys getting paid monthly retainers plus hourly rates for court appearances. That’s not to mention that they also get health care benefits. All in all, these days, it’s a Porsche operation on a Chevy budget, and proposed changes have already hit the radar of the board of commissioners.

As for why we ought to pursue poor man’s consolidation, it is because there’s about as much chance for getting consolidation passed in the traditional way as it is for the Mississippi River to flow upstream again. In other words, it would take nothing short of a political earthquake to make it happen.

After all, this year’s call for consolidation by Mayor Herenton was based on his pledge to push for an amendment to the Tennessee Constitution to remove the dual majority requirement for passage of consolidation. Under the state constitution, consolidation only takes place when voters inside the city limits of Memphis vote in favor of merger, and at the same time, voters outside Memphis also approve consolidation in a separate vote tally.

The beauty of merging the mayors is that there would be requirement for a dual majority, and a change to the county charter would take effect if approved by a majority of voters countywide - one vote and one vote tally.

Mayoral Consolidation

Like many of Mayor Herenton’s consolidation pushes, this one ran out of steam before it even began, and he quickly abandoned his pursuit of a constitutional amendment. It was a wise decision, although it begged the question of why he trotted it out as an option in the first place since its likelihood for passage was zero.

The recent League of Women Voters public discussion about consolidation attracted the massive crowd of about 30 people, mostly political operatives, and it was predictable in the town mayors’ recalcitrant attitude toward consolidation.

It’s one reason that we think the Memphis City Council is on track with the cuts in school funding. The towns have gotten a subsidized ride long enough and their taxpayers have been using services that they don’t fund with their taxes. If Memphis is to be competitive and to eliminate the existing tax disincentive to live here, services like schools need to be moved lock, stock and barrel to the county’s larger tax base. After all, why shouldn’t taxpayers in Germantown and Memphis be paying the same tax rate for public education. (For a clearer sense of their myopia, read this Memphis magazine's City Journal column.)

At any rate, there’s no chance of consolidating Memphis and Shelby County Governments. With a charter amendment or two, we could consolidate the mayors instead.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Charter Commission Could Vote For Better Elections

The Memphis Charter Commission has the chance Thursday to do something progressive for our city – to create an election process that deserves to be called 21st century.

At the meeting, Charter Commission members will vote on whether to put Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) on the referendum ballot with other amendments to the city charter. It seems an imminently reasonable approach, and we’re encouraged that a number of commission members appear receptive to an idea whose time has come.

If approved at referendum, it would not automatically implement IRV for Memphis. Rather, it would give city government the option of IRV, and our city gets the rare opportunity to be a trend setter. More to the point, at a time when city elected officials are scrambling for ways to cut costs, this one does by eliminating costly runoffs.

The Process

Here’s how it works:

When voters go to the polls, they vote for candidates in order of their preference. The pick their first choice, their second choice, their third choice, and so on.

If a candidate wins a majority, that person obviously is the winner. If there is no candidate with a majority, the rankings of the other candidates are used to declare a winner.

All ballots are recounted, and the candidate receiving the least number of first place votes is eliminated. The ballots are counted again, and voters who chose the eliminated candidate now have their votes counted for the second-ranked candidate. The weakest candidates are progressively eliminated and votes redistributed until a single candidate has a majority of the votes.

Real Winners

In this way, IRV offers the chance for better voter choice and wider voter participation in selecting the winner. According to proponents like Shelby County Commissioner Steve Mulroy, IRV allows voters to vote for their favorite candidate without the fear that they are helping to elect their least favorite candidate. Best of all, the ultimate winner actually has the real support of a majority of voters.

It’s a good time to let Charter Commission members hear from you on this promising improvement in local elections.

Contacts For Charter Commission Members

Here’s the email addresses for the Charter Commission members:

Willie Brooks

Sylvia Cox

Marsha Campbell

Janis Fullilove

George Brown

Sharon Webb

Myron Lowery

Here’s our September 25, 2007 post: IRV Gives Election Results ASAP.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Future Economic Growth Plans Build On Lessons From The Past

Continued from yesterday.

In the past, economic development programs like Memphis 2005 have received widespread support from the private and public sectors, but in the end, their residual impact was limited.

The reasons included alienation of many economic development organizations that accepted responsibility for goals but received no money to achieve them, lack of the community-based support that was needed for the program to become implanted in the Memphis DNA and a tendency to see economic growth as an extension of the present.

There are cautionary tales from Memphis 2005 as MemphisED gets ramped up. Most of all, there’s the need to be realistic and to emphasize results rather than marketing. Memphis often suffers from civic amnesia when it comes to the history of past economic development plans, and this time, we need to be clear-headed about potential pitfalls.

Sticking With The Facts

We hope that some of the veterans from these past wars will talk to new members of the MemphisED team as they come aboard. In the Memphis Flyer, the new V-P of economic development talked about the importance of existing business by spotlighting distribution yet again, and he said MemphisED is different from previous plans because “it’s actually being implemented.”

We hope someone will pull the Memphis 2005 file out of the Chamber’s filing cabinets. It too had specific objectives. It too was implemented. It too had measurements and regular reports to the community. It too had broad city government, county government and business support. It too had a highly-publicized launch and standing room only meetings to report on its progress.

MemphisED is an important opportunity for Memphis, and every one of us should hope that it succeeds. But it needs to be grounded in reality and avoid the spin that can undermine it before it even begins.

Lessons From Youngstown

We were more interested in the fact that new Chamber V-P comes to Memphis from Youngstown, Ohio, where he ran that city’s Chamber of Commerce. The lessons that he brings from Youngstown could be especially valuable to our economic growth plans in light of MIT’s Sean Safford’s instructive report, “Why The Garden Club Couldn’t Save Youngstown: Civil Infrastructure and Mobilization in Economic Crises.”

In his research, Mr. Safford compared two historically and economically similar cities in the Rust Belt – Youngstown, Ohio, and Allentown, Pennsylvania – and reached conclusions that he shared on Smart City about why Allentown succeeded and Youngstown failed.

“Youngstown has suffered from an inability to develop a coherent approach to attracting inward investment, a lack of entrepreneurship and the inability of major local employers to transform in ways that benefit the community,” he wrote, citing causes that deal with social network density, social capital, elitism and duplication.

Learning From Others

The reason that social organizations couldn’t save Youngstown, in Mr. Safford’s opinion, was that the civic organizations “rather than being forums of interaction, then, these were simply places were social status was affirmed. In the end, this may have done more harm than good by strengthening the ability of a small group of actors to assert narrow interests over those of the community more broadly. Moreover, these ties ultimately proved extremely brittle leaving the community without strong leadership when it was absolutely necessary to have it.”

The lessons of Youngstown are important for Memphis. Despite our Southern status, our city has a gritty city edge to it, complete with gritty kinds of problems more in common with industrial cities like Youngstown. That’s why the Youngstown connection is so intriguing to us, and what we can learn from it.

As for lessons from our own past, they are especially useful right now as well.

Lessons From 2005

As MemphisED gets under way in earnest, what are the lessons of Memphis 2005 that should remain top-of-mind:

• The ultimate outcome of the plan is new thinking, not just new money for economic development budgets and new marketing.

• Success requires sustained leadership and attention that transcends the initial push.

• It’s about leadership – engaged, committed and inventive – who are able to think of the future as more than just an extension of the present.

• It’s about collaboration between key Memphis organizations, not just top-down direction without meaningful input along the way.

• It’s about spreading the wealth; if the help of organizations are needed, they need the money to make it happen.

• It’s about increasing the capacity of existing organizations rather than creating a bevy of new task forces, committees and groups.

• It’s about average Memphians hearing a narrative that they can imagine themselves being a part of.

• It’s about one over-arching vision that encompasses all strategies into a cohesive, easy-to-understand, aspirational story.

• It’s about focusing on key levers of the greatest change – such as increasing the number of college graduates in our workforce.

• It’s about measuring success by our ability to leap frog ahead of the competition, not just by improving our economic performance.

• It’s about calling a spade a spade by ignoring the spin and calling the Memphis economy what it is – a crisis.

Boiling Water

Two years ago, we wrote: “Sometimes in Memphis, it’s as if we’re the city equivalent of the frog sitting in the pot on the stove as the water gets warmer and warmer until it’s boiled to death.”

As the dimensions of our economic problems deepen and the challenges get more serious, many urban commentators have already given us up for dead.

MemphisED is at least built on the premise that the water is indeed boiling. That is indeed progress. Now, we need to take the kind of actions that are bold enough to not only turn around our economy and get us out of the bottom rungs of economic performance but spring board us ahead of our competitive rivals.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Limping Memphis Economy Must Leap Into Future

The Memphis economy has reached the moment of truth.

Languishing in the lower rungs of the economic indicators that matter, we have reached the point where we either snap out of it or we sink into the abyss with Detroit and Cleveland.

It’s that serious, and the choices are that stark. In the family of cities today, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. It doesn’t take a Harvard University economist to point out which group we are in.

Leaping Ahead

Today, cities that are successful are becoming ever more so, gaining momentum, attracting talent and gaining knowledge economy jobs. Likewise, cities that are not floundering are failing behind at a quickened pace, lacking the kind of leadership that can pull them out of the downward spiral, reject their reliance on low-wage, low-skill jobs and adopt strategies that have the potential to shake off the civic lethargy and to set them on a dramatic course for the future.

It’s not going to be easy for the cities that are floundering. In other words, it’s not going to be easy for Memphis.

To have any chance at all, cities like ours need leap frog strategies that catapult them ahead of rival cities. In Memphis’ case, it would take a major leap forward just to get to the median in most economic indicators, but that would be a start.

Seeing A New Future

Mary Jo Waits – a guest on Smart City and someone who pioneered these kinds of strategies for Phoenix and State of Arizona – explained the leapfrog approach this way:

“The principles are straightforward, whether for companies or communities. It's a one-two punch: Spot opportunity and respond faster and better than anyone else. Remember when Steve Jobs and Apple challenged IBM? They didn't do it by catching up, by building a better mainframe.

“They did it by seeing a different future, betting on the personal computer and leapfrogging over IBM. It works for regions, too. Austin and San Diego leapfrogged over most U.S. metropolitan areas by capturing more talent, research funds and science- and technology-oriented jobs in a relatively short period, less than a decade.

Take Your Best Shot

“Not entirely. Mostly, leapfroggers pick their shots. Sometimes, the best shot is to play at the edges, aiming to set the pace of innovation. And sometimes, in this economic whirlwind, the best shot is to follow the ‘first mover.’ Appropriating an idea that is already working in the world can produce the quickest results.

“Ray Kroc didn't invent McDonald's; he took the idea from brothers Dick and Maurice McDonald when he bought their small chain of burger joints. And Home Depot founders Arthur Blank and Bernie Marcus didn't invent the first warehouse-outlet hardware chain. They got the ‘big box’ concept from their earlier employer, Handy Dan Home Improvement.

“But copying a good idea is not enough. You have to make the idea your own, grafting it onto your situation. And you have to improve on it so that your competitive position takes a big leap forward, as do the benefits it offers. Leapfrog players pursue with single-minded focus big jumps in performance.”

Improving ED

That in a nutshell is the challenge facing MemphisED (no, not that ED – this time it’s economic development), the economic growth part of Memphis Fast Forward. So far, it appears to be directing the work of the usual suspects but hasn’t captured the imagination of grassroots Memphis.

The biggest obstacle to rank and file support – if MemphisED does in fact want it – is that the average Memphis worker really doesn’t now see themselves in it, how it improves their quality of life, raises their wages or changes their lives.

There are questions asked in academic quarters about whether the fairly typical Chamber-type plan is just a collection of every one’s favorite ideas and whether it picked the right priorities that can vault Memphis from a blue collar city to one that can succeed in the innovation economy.

It’s Just One Thing

Time will tell if MemphisED can really do it, and we’ll know it’s on the right track when we quit talking about distribution and start talking about entrepreneurship and innovation. We’ll know we’re succeeding when we quit giving away tax freezes for marginal industries that do nothing to improve job opportunities or job skills for our workers. We’ll know we’re on the right track when we yank down all the “America’s Distribution Center” signs that remind every visitor that we are lacking a high-skill workforce.

As a result, there’s no time like the present to dream big dreams. Pursuing the same old industry anchors is risky if the ultimate aim is to transform Memphis into a strong competitive position for today’s talented workers – whose presence in turn attracts new jobs.

In fact, if you want to predict our success in the future, throw away all the statistics and graphs. There’s only one indicator that we really need to watch – the percentage of Memphians who have college degrees. There’s no more accurate proxy for future success than this.

Flunking Out

Unfortunately, Memphis is near the bottom of the top 50 U.S. cities in the percentage of college graduates and near the bottom in the percentage of young people in college. In other words, we can sift through dozens and dozens of strategies, but at the end of it all, every one of our programs need to aim at doing one thing – increasing the percentage of college-educated workers in Memphis. Absent a change in those numbers, Memphis’ future is sealed.

Meanwhile, some people in local government believe that MemphisED aims too low in the number of new jobs it hopes to create in five years – 50,000. For one thing, that number is essentially what Memphis’ economy was generating 15 years ago, so it has a certain back to the future feel to it. Secondly, it’s not about the number of jobs but where the jobs are being created. The days of announcing the number of new jobs by including the jobs created by every new McDonald’s that opens in the region should end now, because the success of our economic growth plans will be judged fundamentally on creation of jobs in sectors that pay higher wages.

Accomplishing the goals of MemphisED will not be easy, as similar economic development plans have proven in the past, most notably Memphis 2005, a forerunner of the current plan in its basic approach, many of its goals and the fund-raising of significant money to expand the programs and staff of the Memphis Regional Chamber.

Tomorrow's Post: Learning From the Past

Friday, April 18, 2008

This Week On Smart City: The Race Is On

The race to attract and keep talent is on. Even in this economy, many companies - and cities - are doing everything they can to make themselves more appealing to college graduates and those who may be seeking new experiences.

They can learn a few lessons from David Doepel. It's been David's job to attract people from all over the world back to Western Australia, and he'll talk about the strategies he's used successfully to do so. David is principal policy advisor to the Premier of Western Australia.

Jeff Gordinier is the author of X Saves the World. Generation X is turning 40 soon and Jeff says it's time for slackers to rise up and take charge. Jeff is the Editor-at-Large at Details magazine.

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.

Note: We've received numerous emails asking about the change in the broadcast time of Smart City in Memphis. We're extremely grateful to WKNO-FM for their instrumental role in making it possible to have this program in the first place and we will always remain so. In answer to emails, however, we did want to respond: If you would like the time moved to the later time that it previously had (as many of you have said), please contact the radio station program director.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Safe Harbor Hides Schools' Rocky Shoals

The Washington Post headline could have just as easily been in The Commercial Appeal.

It said: “Safe Harbor” Offers Shelter From Strict “No Child” Targets.

The report said that hundreds of schools in Maryland, Virginia and District of Columbia mask their failure through the use of the “safe harbor” provisions of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). They include 11 schools in the nation’s capital.


Here’s the beauty of safe harbor for these school districts – they get to report these failing schools as making AYP (adequate yearly progress) under NCLB. As a result, they are not included on the list of high priority schools that need special attention.

It’s a sleight of hand that misleads the taxpayers who pay for schools and the parents who believe their children must be getting a good education if they are attending an AYP school.

Here, more than 60 schools are docked in "safe harbor” at Memphis City Schools, and 41 schools are on the high priority list and 17 of those haven't met them for six years.

Winner On A Technicality

And yet, safe harbor allows the district to proclaim in its press release that "128 Schools (in good standing)… Most in NCLB History!" Then-superintendent Carol Johnson said: "It is inspiring news for the Memphis community and all in our district to know we are closer to realizing one of our most important goals – for every school to be in Good Standing."

The fact that a sizable number of them are in good standing on a technicality went unmentioned.

Safe harbor also allows the educational bureaucrats at Tennessee Department of Education to pop the champagne corks each year as they release their list of successful schools on the AYP list.


In other words, the safe harbor provision acts as a loophole to the federal education law that calls for a national goal of 100% proficiency by 2014 for all students, including all subgroups of race, income, disability or language.

With state tests under way this week that will determine which schools meet state benchmarks, it’s a good time for parents with children in AYP schools to ask if it’s because the school is in “safe harbor.”

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

There's Always Time For One More Org Chart At City Schools

Ah, springtime in Memphis.

Blooming flowers, Beale Street Music Festival and another organization chart for Memphis City Schools.

Yep, there’s yet another one this week following Interim Superintendent Dan Ward’s creation of a new division – the Division of Strategic Planning and Accountability.

New Org Charts Again

From where we sit, there needs to be accountability for the flurry of organization charts that have been adopted by Memphis City Schools. After all, this is the sixth new organizational chart in three and a half year. Both local governments together haven’t had that many in the past 10 years.

Sometimes, it seems that if the city school district is not a high-performing operation, it’s because every one is always adjusting to the latest new structure, reporting roles and new responsibilities.

While this district obsession has always been perplexing, it’s absolutely incredulous that the latest division was created by an interim superintendent whose time at Memphis City Schools is being measured by the handful of weeks he has left.

More Changes Ahead

The fact that a whole division is being added, personnel is being reassigned and policies are being changed now seems a senseless distraction – and needless cost - for the district in light of the fact that a new superintendent will be appointed in a few months, and that person will establish his or her own operational system, programs and policies.

Working at Memphis City Schools is like working at The Vatican -- a lot of time is spent interpreting signs. Creation of the new division is seen by some as a sign of the consolidation of power that always seems to be part of the office of chief of staff – even though that also is being filled by someone on an interim basis. Others see it as motivated by the nepotism that seems rampant at the district. Others see it as a needed but strangely timed.

Superintendent Ward explained the creation of this new division this way: “As part of our continuous review and appraisal of MCS operations, we have determined that our accountability and strategic planning functions need to be organized in a more focused manner.”

Ultimate Victim

According to Mr. Ward’s memo about the new division, it will, among other things, “monitor and document performance outcomes.” It seems to us that the problem hasn’t been so much that this responsibility hasn’t been assigned before, but that overall, the administration has not shown a serious commitment to ask the tough questions, to be open and candid with the research and to conduct an honest conversation with the community about the challenges facing Memphis City Schools.

Frequently, it appears that there is no one more victimized by this lack of transparency and accountability than members of the board of commissioners of Memphis City Schools. As part-time elected officials, it’s not their job to figure out what questions they should be asking and what data are critical to their assessment of the district’s performance.

More to the point, board members are often at the mercy of the educators to tell them what’s important and why, and if the administration is less than completely candid, there’s really no way for the board members to know. In the past, it’s no secret that the board was not given complete information or pertinent research by the past administration, sometimes to the point that the inescapable conclusion was that they were being intentionally misled.

Reporting Lines

In this regard, if Memphis City Schools is setting up a new division of accountability, the board of commissioners might want to consider that it should report to them. Without the kind of information that they need to evaluate the results of superintendent’s priorities and program or the kind of questions to ask, commissioners often appear defensive, uninformed or confused.

With a research department whose results are not massaged by the administration to make sure that the data supports their points of view, perhaps we could finally have the serious, in-depth and plain spoken discussion that the state of our public education deserves.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Actually, It's Not Even About The Test

As our school students start taking the state tests that determine if they are proficient and if their schools are considered successful, here's a music video, "Not On The Test," that helps keep it in perspective.

And City Budget Hearings Haven't Even Begun Yet

It’s one of those weeks when we have to fight the thought that our elected officials are losing their minds.

And it’s only Tuesday.

First, Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton announces – without a hint of concern about the average city taxpayer – that he’ll be seeking a 17 percent property tax increase this year.

Attention Grabbers

A few things about his plan caught our attention:

• That the mayor treats the city’s fund balance, now approaching $80 million, as if it’s sacred while he’s willing to close community centers and libraries to save $1.5-2.0 million. With a large tax increase staring Memphians in the face, it’s time for the mayor to explain why the city’s bond rating is more important than the citizen’s tax rate. The fund balance is often called the “rainy day” fund for city government, but last time we checked, there’s a serious storm brewing over Memphis, and it’s time to spend some of that money on the taxpayers whose money it is in the first place.

• That he seems oblivious to the symbolic value – not to mention the clear need – to put employee layoffs on the table. The Wharton Administration gets it: the majority of public budgets is in personnel costs, and if you want to whittle down budget requests, you have to address the size of the workforce. At the least, county elected officials seem to understand what taxpayers are looking for – tough times demand touch decisions, and they want to see some.

• That he trots out his threadbare cure-all – consolidation – as the answer to local governments’ financial problems. At best, it’s naïve or at worse, a worrisome ignorance of the fundamental forces driving public budgets and the fundamental solutions to them. To contend that we should put our attention and energy into another push for consolidation is nothing but a distraction and a waste of energy. The real answers are found in reforming our taxes, in rationalizing the responsibilities of city and county governments and in equalizing the tax structure.

Yet Again

Then, there’s Memphis Councilman Joe Brown, whose malapropisms, flawed syllogisms and faulty hard wiring appear to know no bounds. This time, while arguing against a relaxation of the residency requirement so Memphis can hire the police officers it needs to protect its citizens, he questioned whether people in other communities are smart enough to do the job and questioned their views on race.

We thought we remembered the city lowering its educational requirements to be a police officer to a high school diploma, and the average educational attainment in these communities is much higher than that. It occurs to us that if these people just aren’t that bright, we need to recruit them for Super District 8, Position 1. Apparently, high IQ is no prerequisite for that seat.

As for race, Councilman Brown is right. Every one of us is concerned about race – the race to get into our houses before we become victims of crime. Even for a man who’s never shown any reluctance to toss a racial warhead into an otherwise reasonable debate, it was just the latest shameful exhibition of his willingness to use race, prejudice and scapegoating for his own personal political purposes.

Remedial Education

Then, there’s the Memphis City Schools Board of Commissioners, who thumbed their collective nose at Memphis City Council’s request for school officials to answer some questions at its education committee meeting. The Council probably was apparently laboring under the mistaken notion that its $93 million in funding to the city schools this year at least entitled it to common courtesy and good manners.

Put simply, the Council was clearly within its rights to ask its intended questions about alternative schools, discipline, graduation rates and student academic performance. Perhaps, if the school board actually was prepared to serve as the forum for these kind of critical and candid conversations, they wouldn’t be getting the invitation to come to City Hall.

The school board’s clumsy politics largely paints Memphis City Schools as a paranoid organization where every one manages to see every question by anybody these days as part of a grand plan by Mayor Herenton to become the next superintendent.

Bad Form

Actually, the no-show by the district plays more into the mayor’s grand plan than anything, because once again, it suggests that the board and the superintendent are defensive, secretive and controlling – all the things that are anathema to any part of the public sector, but particularly in the $1 billion enterprise known as Memphis City Schools.

Reports from Interim Superintendent Dan Ward’s office are that he was instructed – with little argument from him – to boycott the Council committee meeting and to prevent any administrators from attending. And to show how politically tone deaf he is and how political bungling runs deep at the district, he even suggested that if the Council had any questions, they should put them in writing.

About now, some grown-up at Memphis City Schools needs to remember one central truth: school funding by city government, which accounts for 10% of the school district’s total budget, is not required by law and it can be eliminated at any time. It’s also worth remembering that if Council deleted the optional school funding, it not only would immediately balance the Memphis budget without a tax increase, but it would allow a much-needed tax cut of about 34 cents. Put another way, the city property tax rate would not go up to $4.01, but down to about $3.09.

At this point, the Council would be well within its rights to remove school funding from the proposed budget for FY ’09 until it gets the answers to its questions from Memphis City Schools.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Memphis City Schools Honor Roll

While we frequently decry the crisis that exists in Memphis City Schools and the more than 100 schools that are not meeting state benchmarks, we want to take this opportunity to salute the schools - 2 high schools, 7 middle schools and 23 elementary schools - that have met state benchmarks and shown improvement over the last two years.

Hopefully, someone at Memphis City Schools is trying to learn what they are doing right, and how we can apply these lessons to the rest of the district.

Here’s the honor roll:

High Schools:

Middle Schools:
KIPP Diamond Academy
Memphis Business Academy

Elementary Schools:
A.B. Hill
Double Tree
Fox Meadows
Holmes Road
Knight Road
Shelby Oaks
White Station

State Press Parties Mislead On School Facts

Get ready for one of those sham celebrations manufactured by the Tennessee Department of Education to mark alleged improvements in student academic performance.

While talking about how the state will toughen up its standards for the state’s school districts, state educational bureaucrats recently downgraded the score that it will take to be judged proficient in reading and language arts.

This means that there will possibly be yet another one of those misleading major announcement that the percentage of students achieving proficiency went up again; however, there will be no mention of the fact that it took place because fewer correct answers will be needed to be scored proficient.

In The Top Five, Really?

When compared to the other 49 states, Tennessee Department of Education claims – with a straight face, no less - that our state’s students are among the top 5 in the U.S. in eighth grade math and reading, fourth grade reading and math, and high school reading.

It’s an incredible claim, especially when the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) ranks Tennessee #40 and puts its percentage of proficient students in the range of about 25 per cent. In case your math proficiency has been certified by Tennessee DOE officials, we point out that there is a difference of about 65 percent between what the state officials say and what the independent national test says.

One educational researcher issued what he calls the “Pangloss Index,” named for the character in Candide who, despite all evidence to the contrary, always argued that all was well. On that index, Tennessee’s results rank it as the 11th best state in student achievement. Again, that compared with the NAEP ranking of 40th in student achievement, and more disturbing, since 1992, test scores have been relatively been flat.

No Cause To Celebrate

Speaking of misguided celebrations, we were stupefied by a recent well-publicized report that said that the Memphis school district, among the 50 largest districts, is among the top five in graduating more students than the suburban districts surrounding it.

That sure got our attention, and we were ready to pull the bull horn out of the storage closet. Then, we realized that if the America’s Promise report is correct, Memphis City Schools increased its graduation rate more than 27 percent in only one year.

As a result, we put the bull horn back in its place, and we were left wondering why the Gates Foundation continues to fund this kind of misleading research.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Schools Always Need More Money

There is no sacred cow in the public sector that compares to public education - or can moo as loudly.

We’ve been hearing the familiar refrain since June when the Shelby County Board of Commissioners put $11 million in new tax revenues into a rainy day fund for school construction rather than send it to the districts for their operating budgets.

There’s one thing we can always count on when it comes to schools. It doesn’t matter how much money they get; they always want more.

Flat Enrollment, Growing Budgets

And it comes in spite of flat and declining student population in the districts. In Memphis City Schools, enrollment has dropped from 119,021 students in the 2004-05 school year to a projected 114,456 for the coming school year. Meanwhile, the district’s expenditures – excluding the bond payments for school construction made by city and county governments – has climbed from $764 million in 2004-2005 to $910 million in the proposed budget for the coming year.

Parenthentically, it’s interesting to note that in Willie W. Herenton’s last year as superintendent, enrollment was about 9,000 students less than today and the district’s budget was less than half of what it is today.

As for Shelby County Schools, its expenditures have increased from $270.6 million in 2005-06 to $324.5 million in 2007-2008.

More Of The Same

They hardly sound like school systems that are going belly up if they don’t get the $11 million in dispute. Already, the courts have held that the board of commissioners was acting within its rights when it used the money to pay capital expenses.

However, the districts act like their entire operations hang in the balance, which is a pretty remarkable overreaction considering that $11 million represents roughly 8/10ths of 1 percent of what the two districts spend each year. Because of it, you’d think that just once the districts could set aside its special interest attitude and help with the financial pressures facing the city and county governments that fund them.

Here’s our prediction for the upcoming budget hearings: while all other public services are cutting budgets and laying off employees, the districts will act like their budgets are sacred, calling for more money in the face of the grim financial realities. Of course, the beauty for the city and county school boards is that even when they are successful in getting more money, it’s the City Council and County Board of Commissioners who get the blame for the tax increases.

Worth The Investment?

The broader question to be asked about every public service in budget hearings this year is this: If the service was a business, would its performance justify more investment? That’s an especially tough one for public education, and curiously, it’s one that’s rarely asked and answered during budget hearings.

For example, there’s never a time when each of the school districts lays out a cohesive plan to increase the academic performance of their students and what measurable impact will result from its approach and its new programs. Instead, the districts normally just tell how much they need and make the same old arguments about how much they need more money for schools, but without offering any seriously encouraging signs that more money is producing better results.

The $11 million got back into the news this week when the Memphis and Shelby County Needs Assessment Committee recommended that county government give the money to the schools for their operating budgets. The Needs Assessment Committee was created in 2003 at the urging of Shelby County Mayor AC Wharton to evaluate capital requests in order to control the county’s spiraling debt for schools.


While the Needs Assessment Committee has largely been ineffectual or irrelevant, it’s hard to understand its logic for wading into this issue, since the $11 million was being used to respond the exact kind of capital challenge that the committee was created to help solve.

Its recommendation in this matter in essence reinforced the school districts’ consistent message: it’s all about us - the county’s financial problems are the county’s problem.

One fact of life uppermost in the minds of city and county legislators is that whatever amount they fund the district, they are wed to it. Because of state law, it can never be reduced, regardless of whatever budgetary challenges or demographic changes facing city and county government. In other words, local government can never fund public education at a lower amount than last year.

New Way

The worst thing about the budget processes of city and county governments are that they have changed little in the past 20 years although many local governments have installed new measurements, new accountability, new transparency and new data-driven budgeting. As a result, there’s little sense here of the results that flow from public funding, and no area is more opaque than education.

With budgets larger than the two local governments that fund it, the school districts could set out to show all of us how budgets should be developed, measured and assessed. Now that would be an education all of the public sector could use.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

This Week On Smart City: The New Meaning Of Community

Say the word community and it still brings to mind thoughts of people with something in common who identify with each other as a group and usually as a neighborhood. But this week, the meaning of community is being stretched in exciting new directions.

Chris Kelly suggests that what we need to solve big problems are big communities - what he calls Megacommunities. They are working partnerships of business, government and nonprofits that are tackling issues in Harlem, East Biloxi, and worldwide. Chris is co-author of Megacommunities: How Leaders of Government, Business and Nonprofits Can Tackle Today's Global Challenges Together.

Eric Gordon is using a virtual community in Second Life to engage citizens in planning major projects in the real community of Boston. Eric is a researcher interested in the areas of new media and American urbanism. He is the co-founder of Hub2, an organization that employs virtual world technology to enhance the community engagement process around urban development.

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.

Note: We've received numerous emails asking about the change in the broadcast time of Smart City in Memphis. We're extremely grateful to WKNO-FM for their instrumental role in making it possible to have this program in the first place and we will always remain so. In answer to emails, however, we did want to respond: If you would like the time moved to the later time that it previously had (as many of you have said), please contact the radio station program director.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Suburban Mayors Give Pep Talk About Memphis

There’s one fact of life about today’s news media that’s always disconcerting to us – the way that people become one-dimensional caricatures of themselves.

Willie Herenton is arrogant, Henri Brooks is unpatriotic, Wyatt Bunker is a knee-jerk right winger, Ken Whalum is difficult and Ophelia Ford is unprincipled.

The truth is that none of us are cardboard cutouts. Neither are they. We are all complicated and complex, and unfortunately, the news media doesn’t do complicated and complex well at all.

New Thinking

So, instead, we often come to see people as the worst aspects of their personalities rather than the totality of the good and the bad that forms them.

This is especially true of the mayors in Shelby County’s municipalities. We rarely hear about them until there is some controversy – normally caused by the latest volley from Mayor Herenton – in which they are cast as enemies of Memphis or unsympathetic to the concerns of the city. They are regularly trotted out to oppose the latest government consolidation plan or changes in schools.

It’s a far cry from reality as Germantown Mayor Sharon Goldsworthy and Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald proved in recent thoughtful, hopeful presentations to Leadership Memphis. Both mayors called for more regional thinking about issues that affect every one in our community.

Others Figure It Out

“Other cities figure out ways to do it,” Mayor Goldsworthy said. “There is comprehensive political leadership that comes together in meaningful ways to conduct a community conversation on things like the airport, how to get light rail to work, and in Minneapolis/St. Paul, they even figured out a way to share sales taxes.”

We can start here by working on crime, “the #1 issue for all of us,” she said. “This isn’t just a Memphis issue. And neither is public education. Our quality of life depends on how well we educate our children – the children of Memphis just as much as how well we educate a child in Millington or Germantown. We’re willing to consider better ways to get it done.” She said that she is opposed to consolidating schools because she does not believe that the students’ academic performance improves.

She said that the anchor for the region is Memphis’ central city, and “together, we’re like a giant quilt. Some pieces are larger, some are slightly different fabric, but if we’re all stitched together, we can give comfort and safety to all of our people.”

Alike And Different

Mayor McDonald punctured any stereotypes of well-to-do white suburbs battling a majority African-American city. “We have people who are impoverished in Bartlett,” he said. “We have people with no hope. We must find answers to these problems, because we - our cities - are different and we are alike at the same time.”

He acknowledged that the suburban towns’ population blossomed in the 1970s, fueled by white flight. “Today, however, we’re not about white flight,” he said. “There is economic flight, and there is no color associated with it. We have grown from 5 to 20% minority. The middle class – both white and black – are leaving (Memphis) and many of them are ending up in our cities.”

While he is focused on the future of Bartlett, he said that he also supports the city that lies at the heart of the region. “Memphis needs to be vibrant,” he said. “It needs to be diverse. We are proud of the way we look in Bartlett, and we need every city competing to be the best.

Being The Best

“I want to be talking about the fact that we have the best schools. I want to talk about the fact that we have the best neighborhoods. We need things to brag about. Memphians – in the broad sense of the term – are our own worst enemies. We hurt ourselves when we bad mouth ourselves and each other. Let’s talk about the good things and success.”

In closing, Mayor McDonald called on every citizen to be part of creating a “regional good feeling” and dealing with reality instead of stereotypes. “Some people think that Bartlett is white bread. It’s not. We’re multi-grain bread. We see kids playing soccer together, people of all backgrounds living together. If we sit down together and work together (as a region) and get excited about ourselves, we can make the kind of future that we all want.”

They got a standing ovation.

Time To Plant Support For GrowMemphis

Madalyn Warren emailed from her home in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York to say that “community urban gardens are the single most important grassroots effort for people to participate in.”

Ms. Warren was in town for the commemorative events associated with the 40th anniversary of Dr. King’s death in Memphis. She said that while she was here, she asked about Memphis’ urban garden programs and was put in touch with the Mid-South Peace and Justice Center. In turn, she talked with Lovell Pratcher, who was a friendly, helpful source of information.

Ms. Warren emphasized that for urban gardens to be successful, they need community support and urged Memphians to support them. There’s no time like the present, because it’s the time of the year to get the beds prepared and planted. Already, she is exchanging information with Mr. Pratcher and promises to send garlic to plant here.

GrowMemphis is the urban garden program of Mid-South Peace and Justice Center, and it is collaborating with three low-income neighborhoods in Memphis - Orange Mound (where one was planted in 2002), Midtown North (Hollywood Springdale) and St. Augustine Parkway Gardens.

For information on this fine program, click here.

Public Issues Forum This Sunday

From Walter Diggs of the Memphis Public Issues Forum:

The Memphis Public Issues Forum is pleased to announce that Carol Coletta will be the featured speaker this Sunday, 3:00 PM, April 13, at the Hooks Central Library, Meeting Room C. Carol is president and CEO of CEO’s for Cities and host and producer of the nationally syndicated public radio show Smart City. She will be speaking about what makes cities successful.

Before moving to Chicago to head CEO’s for Cities, she served as president of Coletta and Company (now Smart City Consulting) in Memphis. In addition, she previously served as executive director of the Mayor’s Institute on City Design, a partnership of the National Endowment for the Arts, U.S. Conference of Mayors, and American Architectural Foundation.

She has interviewed almost 600 international urban leaders. We expect Carol to speak on talented, innovative, connected, and distinctive cities! The public is invited.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Mayor's Bite Upsets Watchdog

These days, the “Government Watchdog” seems to be doing more whimpering than barking, and all because Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton won’t give him an interview.

In recent days, Mike Matthews has petulantly used WREG-TV’s prime air time to fulminate over the fact that the mayor talked to the New York Times rather than to him. Incredibly, these rants apparently meet the station’s definition of news.

All in all, it reminds me of a favorite copy editor who screamed for a reporter to come to the city desk after the editor struck a sentence in the reporter’s copy that said that the mayor wouldn’t give him a comment.

It’s Not About You

The editor screamed: “Why do you think the public cares that you can’t do your job? You’re the reporter. Go get the news and quit giving excuses to readers. They don’t care if the mayor doesn’t like you and won’t return your calls.”

It seems a revolutionary idea in today’s world of modern electronic journalism, but the editor wasn’t through. “Just remember,” he said. “You’re not the news. No one cares if you’re having a hard time doing your job. Quit working yourself into your stories. This isn’t about you.”

That seems a completely alien thought in light of the mixture of journalism and entertainment that frequently passes for the nightly news. Often, it appears that some reporters like the watchdog see the news as a reality show in which they are starring.

Dogging It

Perhaps, this brand of magnified self-aggrandizement is responsible for the latest diatribe about Mayor Herenton’s decision to give the New York Times an interview.

Mr. Matthews told his viewers: “The trouble is recently Willie Herenton has been more accessible to reporters from New York as opposed to reporters from Memphis, refusing to stop and even listen to questions that we wanted to ask about this case.”

In yet another report on his inability to get an interview, he essentially delivered an editorial. “His face was set in a frozen smile,” he intoned. “But Willie Herenton wasn’t happy. He had a group of reporters in front of him ready to ask questions about several issues, but the mayor of Memphis wasn’t in the mood to talk. What he saw were people that were in his way.”

Reading Minds

After basing the first paragraph largely on his mind-reading abilities, the watchdog continued his editorial with a litany of personal grievances, including the mayor’s office’s failure to issue a schedule of events, the lack of easy access to the mayor’s floor in City Hall, the fact that there’s only been one press availability since Mayor Herenton announced the possibility of his resignation to become superintendent, and Mayor Herenton’s failure to comment on the stripper blackmail investigation.

We’re sure that we were supposed to be enraged by the watchdog’s “on your side” reporting, but our only reaction was to shrug. After all, elected officials don’t have an absolute obligation to talk to the reporters, or to every reporter. Instead, they have the right to decide how, when and with whom they want to communicate with the public.

It seems to us that in an environment where leaks are as common as public meetings, a reporter worth his salt could find out what’s going on with or without Mayor Herenton’s help. In other words, it’s all about cultivating sources.

Counter Point

Meanwhile, on the subject of the media and the watchdog, Mayor Herenton offered this perspective:

“I have very little tolerance for games. The media should be professional and present the news in a reliable, unbiased way. I said, ‘Mike, I have no comment,’ and I was smiling. But if you’re in your living room, you hear that the mayor is hostile. He deliberately did that. You probably thought, “There goes Willie Herenton again.

“There has been such a deterioration of objectivity in the media. There are reporters like (Memphis Daily News reporter) Bill Dries who are professional. He’s going to be factual. He’s not going to editorialize. I have some media people who don’t like me. I don’t mind that, but they have the obligation to be accurate.”

We’ve written often about the mayor’s irascibility, but on this particular coverage, it’s hard to argue with him.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Mayor Herenton In His Own Words

Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton will lay out his plan for Memphis City Schools in a 60-90 minute presentation on May 6 in City Council Chambers.

“I’m going to make the most important presentation in my entire public life,” he said, adding that it will be “major” and a detailed plan of action.

Already, he’s worked nonstop for 4-6 weeks on his presentation which is likely to feature a critique of the district, a report on the state of our schools, and specific recommendations for improving the district, including organizational structure, priorities, and strategies for turning the district around.

Experienced Opinions

While his presentation will focus on city schools, he’ll probably repeat his oft-stated contention that consolidation of the city and county districts only makes sense. “There is so much duplication that costs money, and schools and government need to be consolidated,” he said flatly.

About his proposals for the city school district, Mayor Herenton said it will be a “presentation on school reform based on 30 years of experience in schools.” “I’ll send special invitations to the school board, and we’ll even send cars to get them,” he said in April 3 comments to Leadership Memphis.

Despite a New York Times article to the contrary, support for the idea of Mayor Herenton as superintendent is growing both in the grassroots and business communities, largely on the basis that his passion for improving the city district and his track record as an educator offer hope for the kind of prominent leadership needed for major change at Memphis City Schools.

At Peace

According to political allies, Mayor Herenton hasn’t worked as hard or as enthusiastically on anything in city government since the “tiny towns” controversy a decade ago. In particular, the mayor is keenly aware that the presentation on city schools will be just as important as the ones he made in opposition to the incorporation of new towns inside Shelby County.

These days, Mayor Herenton seems more at peace and candid than at any time in recent years and is more reflective about his legacy. “I’m often described as arrogant and blunt,” he said, “but your skin has to be tough (in politics). I have had a purpose-driven life, because true leaders always have purpose.”

“When you know who you are and whose you are, you do things on the basis of purpose. Whatever leadership role you embrace, you need to embrace it with passion and a desire to make a difference. True leaders are committed to purpose and they pay a price, whatever it is, for taking a position.”


He emphasized that when he was superintendent of Memphis City Schools, it was the 10th largest in the U.S. (it’s the 21st today), and that schools alone are only part of the answers for students. “There have been 20 murders in the schools of Chicago and every day, there are shootings in high schools in ever major city,” he said. “The highest priority in my budget is public safety. This country locks up more people than any industrialized nation in the world, but we have to ask, when will we address the root causes – family deterioration, housing, a whole lot of things?”

Foreshadowing a point that may make its way into his presentation on schools, he said: “Government has grown too big, with a bloated bureaucracy that costs too much money. We’ve had an atmosphere of abundance and convenience that will change. These are tough times, and we have to make tough decisions. Government has to cut back. We need people to make the right decision, not just the popular decision.”

Reflecting on his legacy of public service, he said he hopes history will describe him as a leader. “I’ve had the two toughest public service jobs there are,” he said. “The biggest mistake I made was mishandling MLGW. I just messed it up. I didn’t manage it correctly. My greatest triumph was in defending Memphis against its ultimate destruction by tiny towns. Had we not prevented them, Memphis would not be where it is today.”

Personal Style

Drawing on comparisons between himself and University of Memphis basketball coach John Calipari, Mayor Herenton said he too has been criticized and targeted by the media. “Memphis is unique and different, and it accepts you conditionally,” he said. “We blame others for our unique problems. I didn’t fit into old Southern traditions. I was African-American, independent, and my place is wherever I want it to be. The South always has a place for you.

“Everything in Memphis is about race, and you have to have a real consciousness to navigate through it and move toward making Memphis a better place. There were expectations in the black community when I was elected that I would make every black businessman a millionaire. White people said Herenton won’t treat white people right. They thought I’d be the same as the white tradition. But I knew the culture, and I tried to be fair. My style might be a Harvard case study, maybe about what not to do, but my style was needed at the time. Either you love it or you don’t. I’m just a South Memphis guy. The next mayor won’t have the challenges I had”

Despite the distinctive Memphis culture, Mayor Herenton strongly believes that things have changed for the better. “God placed me in a time and space where I could be part of a healing,” he said. “It’s working. When I was elected, I had 5-8 bodyguards, 24-hour security even at my house, threats were made, places where I was going to speak were checked ahead of time for bombs.”

The Tide Turns

Referring to the city that he often holds up as the ideal, he said Atlanta knew the inevitability of African-Americans taking power. “As a result, they embraced it, and Atlanta became a place of great progress. I knew that the tide started turning here when white families introduced their children to me as their mayor. It was gratifying, and I knew it (African-Americans in power) was gaining acceptance.”

Friday, April 04, 2008

This Week On Smart City: The New Meaning Of Community

Say the word community and it still brings to mind thoughts of people with something in common who identify with each other as a group and usually as a neighborhood. But this week, the meaning of community is being stretched in exciting new directions.

Chris Kelly suggests that what we need to solve big problems are big communities - what he calls Megacommunities. They are working partnerships of business, government and nonprofits that are tackling issues in Harlem, East Biloxi, and worldwide. Chris is co-author of Megacommunities: How Leaders of Government, Business and Nonprofits Can Tackle Today's Global Challenges Together.

Eric Gordon is using a virtual community in Second Life to engage citizens in planning major projects in the real community of Boston. Eric is a researcher interested in the areas of new media and American urbanism. He is the co-founder of Hub2, an organization that employs virtual world technology to enhance the community engagement process around urban development.

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.

Note: We've received numerous emails asking about the change in the broadcast time of Smart City in Memphis. We're extremely grateful to WKNO-FM for their instrumental role in making it possible to have this program in the first place and we will always remain so. In answer to emails, however, we did want to respond: If you would like the time moved to the later time that it previously had (as many of you have said), please contact the radio station program director.

The View From The Outside

Chuck Porter, who contributed the posts from this year's Blues Foundation International Blues Competition, recommends the following from the blog of an inveterate traveler. it falls in the category of seeing ourselves as others see us:

Hey, Mister, Can You Spare A Dime...Or 10 Bucks.

The Truth About America.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Events Honor Dr. King

There's nothing that we can write that does justice to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s impact on our lives. For those of us in the Boomer generation, he looms as an influence over our lives as much as our own families. His words and his courage inspired our values and our beliefs. His death endowed our lives with a strange blend of high ideals and cynicism that remains today.

We'll be taking a couple of days off to participate in events to commemorate the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. If you're looking for a way to observe the King legacy, a calendar of events can be found at the top of the home page of the Memphis Tourism Foundation.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Government Changes With Or Withour Consolidation

In the not too distant future, government in Memphis and Shelby County will look nothing like it does today.

And it will happen with or without consolidation.

Voters outside Memphis who reflexively oppose the merger of Memphis and Shelby County Governments haven’t grasped the realities of this brave new world. If they had, they might decide they prefer consolidation to the government behemoth that Memphis will become when it’s fully annexed out.

Tiny Towns

When Memphis completely executes the annexation agreements reached in the wake of the “tiny town” controversy of the late 1990’s, 65 percent of Shelby County will be inside Memphis, which is almost 50 percent larger than today (about the same land area as the city of Los Angeles).

The fixed order will be transformed, and smaller cities will find that their future will no longer be defined by their relationship with Shelby County. Rather, it will be with Memphis.

Memphis will overshadow and drive the futures of all the other cities in Shelby County even more directly than now. Meanwhile, Shelby County Government will morph from a major force in our community to a government more like rural counties that deliver little more than schools, jails and justice, and public health.


Outside Memphis, only annexation provokes more enmity than consolidation. It was a similar anti-annexation attitude that led to Nashville’s successful consolidation 46 years ago. Faced with the choice of consolidating governments or being annexed by Nashville, voters in Davidson County opted for the merger.

But there was something else. The consolidation vote in Nashville became a referendum on who voters had the most confidence in – the county executive or the city mayor. In the end, it was Davidson County Judge Beverly Briley, a staunch consolidation advocate, who won the vote of confidence and became the first mayor of the new consolidated government.

That too offers a useful lesson for consolidation proponents here.

A Change Is Gonna Come

If consolidation passed here, city government would cease to exist. However, it’s likely that state law would require Memphians to pay higher taxes than people living outside the city, and the risk of institutionalizing the tax disincentive now paid by Memphians could become the third rail of consolidation inside Memphis, the equivalent of the school issue outside Memphis.

The best chance for consolidation presupposed that Mayor Willie W. Herenton was serious about changing the Tennessee Constitution to remove the dual majority that now makes consolidation all but impossible. The dual majority requirement sets up two hurdles that consolidation has to clear to take place – approval by a majority of voters inside Memphis and also approval by voters outside Memphis.

Mayor Herenton’s amendment was supposed to allow passage of consolidation with only one vote tally for the entire county. Realistically, the only thing more unlikely than convincing county voters to vote for consolidation is convincing the Tennessee Legislature and state voters to approve an amendment to the state Constitution. Perhaps that's why Mayor Herenton abruptly dropped yet another consolidation plan after promising another all-out battle for government merger.

It's Never Easy

In Louisville, there was no dual requirement for consolidating city-county governments, but even there, it wasn’t easy. Despite media vilification of anyone opposing the merger, strong leadership by the business community and a wildly popular former mayor, and a $2 million marketing campaign, it only passed 56 percent to 44 percent.

If there had been a dual majority requirement in Kentucky, officials in the Louisville mayor’s office said consolidation would have gone down in defeat because of suburban opposition.

There’s only one thing certain about consolidation: regardless of where in the U.S. a consolidation vote takes place, it is always difficult, going down to defeat 85 percent of the time.

New Lens

Even if Mayor Herenton's plan had been successful, the earliest that a consolidation vote would have been held was 2011, and if the amendment hadn't been passed in the current session of the Legislature, it moves to 2015.

Without a change in state law, the only way to consolidate government is the old-fashioned way – with voters outside Memphis coming to grips with the idea that they may actually prefer a merged city-county government to the massive annexation that lies ahead.

It runs counter to everything the mayors of the municipalities now believe, but there may be a time not too far in the future when they look back and realize they missed their best chance to negotiate what they want most in return for supporting consolidation – frozen school boundaries, special school district, and freedom to control development in their annexation areas.

By then, they will have watched as Memphis ballooned and Shelby County Government dwindled away.

This post was previously published as the City Journal column in Memphis magazine.