Wednesday, July 30, 2008
The greatest evidence of this is that at a time when the message should be about philosophy and priorities, it is instead about people and patronage.
It was only two weeks ago that we asked how Superintendent Cash would invest the good will from his honeymoon period. He’s perilously close to squandering this golden opportunity to effectively communicate his vision for the district and to create support for his strategies.
Instead, we’ve seen time spent explaining why he’s bringing someone from Miami with a controversial past to run security for the schools and to set up a district police department, a preconceived – not to mention expensive - program in search of a justification.
We’ve seen the creation of several positions paying more than $100,000, which is now attracting the attention of some county commissioners critical of raises in Shelby County Schools.
We’ve seen the salary for the head of security increased about $65,000 and the head of academic affairs increased more than $35,000.
We’ve seen the district athletic director removed despite an overwhelmingly positive review, spurring the school grapevine to work overtime on possible reasons for the appointment with most of the betting centering on it being an effort to send a Valentine to Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton.
We can’t attest to the accuracy of such swirling reports at the district, but if there was a dollar for ever rumor there these days, Memphis City Schools could make up the cut in its budget by Memphis City Council. We can attest to the fact that in the public sector, if you are spending your time explaining why you did something, you are losing ground. Right now, Supt. Cash is losing an awful lot of ground, and more importantly, he’s losing the most precious thing he has – time – time when he should be introducing his approach and unveiling his plans to the community.
We’re sure he’s got a crowded schedule, speaking to group after group and to people wanting to plead their case. While it’s tempting to feel that you are getting your message out, it’s worth remembering that the number of viewers of television news on just one channel on one night is greater than every one he’s spoken to since his arrival.
Inside the district, despite rhetoric about accountability and transparency, little seems changed, and it appears that he’ll have to deliver this message with a sledge hammer to change the culture of the central office. Although the district continues to horde public data and to base funding priorities on race and political considerations, we think it’s too early to be dismayed, because the new superintendent does in fact seem firmly committed to two crucial traits – accountability and transparency - that need to be injected into Memphis City Schools from top to bottom.
Meanwhile, this week, the Tennessee Department of Education engaged in its annual defrauding of the public with its news release about improving state schools. Part of the report dealt with Memphis, saying that 119 Memphis schools are in “good standing,” belying the fact that there was no mention of how many are not meeting state benchmarks and are hidden in the safe harbor designation provided by No Child Left Behind.
The city schools district said the number of schools in safe harbor won’t be released by the state until November, and it’s hard to imagine that officials there don’t have some idea of the number now. After all, they have the option of appealing the findings.
The primary question to us is whether the state reduced the number of questions that had to be answered correctly for students to be considered “proficient.” It’s our understanding that there were some decreases, pointing out again that proficiency is defined by the state in a way that’s at odds with any other common understanding of the word. Essentially, Tennessee Department of Education considers anyone who can make about a D on the test to be proficient.
Spinning The Results
Tennessee Department of Education has claimed – with a straight face, no less - that our state’s students are among the top 5 in the 50 states 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 (compared to about 90% according to state education officials).
Regardless, this week’s results were hardly a cause for celebration, so we’re pleased that this year, Memphis City Schools’ reaction was more calibrated than in previous years. It was good news that 11 schools were removed from high priority status, it was good news that 20 high priority schools are improving, but it was bad news that nine fewer school were making Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) and bad news that 18 more schools were targeted this year than last year (meaning that a total of 34 schools could be designated as high priority next year).
Getting The Message Right
One high-ranking wag at the city district had predicted last week that the results would not be damning, “because everybody in Nashville (at DOE) wants nothing to do with Memphis City Schools and if things got worse, they might actually have to do something here to help.” That said, we were encouraged that the disastrous interim superintendency of Dan Ward didn’t do more damage.
Right now, among many members of the media, the buzz on Superintendent Cash is turning negative with suggestions that “it’s looking like more of the same.” We’re unwilling to adopt this attitude, but we also are convinced that he needs to work on his message and work consistently to get it out.
Unless he does in the next 2-3 weeks, his all-too-short honeymoon will officially be over.
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
Here's the conclusion from a state think tank's report that will be no surprise to anyone here: Memphians' taxes are high and inequitable.
It's the unequivocable conclusion from the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations' report, "Who Pays More: Local Tax Burdens on Tennessee Households by County." The report analyzed the tax burden of people in the 19 Tennessee counties with populations of more than 65,000 people.
"The highest effective property tax is found in Shelby County, reflecting the impact of an extremely high property tax rate in Memphis," the report's executive summary said. "Memphis has the highest combined county and city nominal tax rate in the state…Total local taxes are regressive, since each of the three taxes (property tax, sales tax and wheel tax) is separately regressive. Regressivity refers to lower income persons paying a higher percent of their income for taxes than do higher income persons."
And that in a nutshell is the huge obstacle facing Memphis. The high cumulative tax rate drives people, especially the middle class, out of Memphis (and often out of Shelby County altogether) leaving the regressive tax burden to fall even more heavily on low income Memphians.
The cumulative city-county tax rate for Memphians is $7.4732 per $100 of assessment; in Knoxville, it's $5.50; in Chattanooga, it's $5.356; and in Nashville/Davidson County, it's only $4.69.
TACIR reported that the effective property tax rates were lowest in Sevier County at .35% benefiting from its strong tourism industry) to the highest in Shelby County at 1.29%. No other county had an effective tax rate of more than .95% and that was Nashville/Davidson County.
A telling fact in the report is that the tax burden for a family of three in Tennessee's wealthiest county – Williamson County – pays only $230 more a year. What makes that remarkable is that median value of housing there is $267,700 compared to $118,200 in Shelby County and median household income there is $94,372 annually compared to $54,924 in Shelby County.
Tale Of The Tape
Here's the tale of the tape on the regressive tax structure of Shelby County:
- Families making $20-29,000 pay 5% of their income in taxes;
- Families making $30,000-39,999 pay 4.7%; families making $40,000-49,999 pay 3.2%;
- And remarkably, families making $50,000-69,999 pay 2.8 percent (or 2.2 percent less than families who earn less than a third of their incomes).
Addicted To Regressive Taxes
If there's any consolation, and this is cold comfort indeed, Shelby County is #3 of Tennessee's most regressive counties among 95 – behind Williamson County and Nashville/Davidson County.
In its report, TACIR looked at property tax rates, local option sales tax rates and wheel taxes.
The average adjusted property tax rate in Tennessee was $2.337. Shelby County's is $4.09, the highest in Tennessee.
The average local option sales tax rate in Tennessee is $2.42. Shelby County's is 2.25%, while about 35 counties have maxed out at 2.75%.
The average wheel tax among the 55 counties who have them was $35.16, with the highest in Crockett County. Shelby County's wheel tax is $50 for private cars and $20 for motorcycles.
"In terms of tax burdens, no Tennessee counties are progressive," the TACIR report concluded. "Williamson County's local tax burden is the most regressive in Tennessee. Gibson and Hancock Counties have the least regressive tax burdens."
While local efforts to expand tax sources are well-intended, in the end, the current tax structure is so badly flawed that even new sources are just stopgap solutions that don't address the fundamental flaws in the system.
TACIR spotlighted this reality with its reliance on the District of Columbia report – "Tax Rates and Tax Burdens in the District of Columbia – A Nationwide Comparison" – that looked at the District and the largest cities in each of the 50 state. The report, which we have frequently cited here, said that families earning $25,000 were ranked 31st in their tax burden among the 51 cities while families earning $100,000 and $150,000 were ranked 46th.
We Can't See Up From Here
By the way, the average tax burden for the 51 cities paints a graphic portrait of Memphis' tax structure's inequities (remember TACIR focused on the entire county) – Memphians who earn $25,000 pay 10.8% of their income in taxes; 6.0% at $50,000; 5.8% at $75,000; 4.9% at $100,000 and 4.3% at $150,000. In other words, the equity of the system is upside-down.
For perspective, consider that the 4.3% in Memphis for families earning $150,000 compares with the following rates: Philadelphia, 11.1%; Providence, 11.4%; Baltimore, 10.1%; Atlanta, 10.2%; Columbus, 10.2%; Louisville, 10.0%; and Little Rock, 9.2 . "The three cities with the least progressive state and local tax systems are Las Vegas, Nevada; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; and Memphis, Tennessee," concluded the 56-page District of Columbia report.
In analyzing the tax burden of District of Columbia residents, a previous report concluded that the problem there happens because the city "does not have the authority to tax nonresident income earned within its borders. Nonresidents earn about 2/3 of all income in the District of Columbia." While the district's dilemma is obviously more dramatic than ours, the same principle applies here, where about 20 percent of the $2.2 billion earned here is by nonresidents, who pay no part of their income to support the infrastructure that creates the jobs they hold.
Monday, July 28, 2008
These days, she sounds like a mindlessly robotic candidate programmed to spew more wedge issues per second than Karl Rove.
She can rattle off a litany about the enemies of her district - people supporting a woman’s right to choose, people who care about the environment, people who drive hybrid cars and people who think it’s more important for their children to pray at home than school.
Lost In Space
Lost in the diatribes is any mention of what she has accomplished in her terms in Congress, particularly any legislation that she has introduced that helped improve the lives of 7th District voters. More to the point, she’s been a rubber stamp for the Bush Administration, reliably casting votes that have created the largest budget deficit in the history of the U.S.
We’ve heard so much about “liberal elitists” from Mrs. Blackburn that it’s almost possible to forget that her opponent in the primary is the reliably Republican and conservative Tom Leatherwood, Shelby County register.
If she was a football coach, the only play she would call is a misdirection. The more Mr. Leatherwood suggests that the campaign should be about the real issues of daily life in the 7th District, the more she talks about anything but that.
Stuck In Time
Her latest foray into the land of unrepentant pandering is her blast about “latte-sipping earth-first-istas,” and just in case you thought she had fully mined her dictionary of political clichés, she added a threadbare canard about environmentalists’ obsession with “the ridge-crested woodchuck.”
Contrast those dreaded environmentalists with her constituents, who are too busy for such frivolous conversations because they are piling “their kids into the mini-van and head(ing) for church, summer camp, swimming lessons and baseball practice.” Apparently, she believes that everyone in her district has small children, which comes as a shock to the empty nester here from the 7th District.
Seemingly, in the alternate universe of Marsha Blackburn, environmentalists are atheistic, bike-riding, child-abusing people with an addiction to a kind of coffee that sounds suspiciously French.
Vive La Difference
In the same commentary, she said that “my constituents and I live a very different lifestyle.” That is undoubtedly true, but not in the way she meant it. Clearly, she does indeed live a different lifestyle. After all, there’s not many of her constituents who can invite over their daughter and son-in-law who have made more than $1.3 million in four years as a result of their professional influence.
Her son-in-law racked up about $1 million to lobby the federal government, and his client list included companies located in his mother-in-law’s district (you would assume these companies could call on their congress member’s help without a lobbyist) and companies who had business with his mother-in-law’s committee. Meanwhile, Mrs. Blackburn’s daughter has been paid more than $325,000 to help her mother’s campaigns.
We get cold comfort from Mrs. Blackburn’s pledge that she and her son-in-law never discuss his clients. Mr. Leatherwood’s words ring true when he says that they don’t have to discuss his clients, because she knows who they are.
Drilling For Answers
Meanwhile, Mr. Leatherwood labors to get the race for 7th District Congressman focused on anything that matters. For us, these would include gas prices that have more than doubled while Mrs. Blackburn has been on the House Energy & Commerce Committee, salaries of the middle class that are declining and her blind support for a war whose pricetag will be more than $1 trillion while she voted against programs to help average Americans because she said they cost too much.
In light of the admission by the Bush Administration that it leaves office with the largest deficit in the history of the republic, she might want to reconsider the words on her website which brag about her “helping shape American fiscal policy.”
In keeping with her scorched earth political style, she attacks Mr. Leatherwood for being uppity enough to run against her, and in her tours of the 7th District, she tends to say he’s from Memphis as if the word almost chokes her. Actually, he lives in Arlington.
Memphis As Whipping Boy
She blames Mr. Leatherwood’s entry into the race on the courthouse crowd in that dreaded Memphis, but it’s pretty hard to understand who that crowd would be since Democrats have taken charge of Shelby County Government and surely not even Mrs. Blackburn would accuse Mr. Leatherwood of being a pawn of those political interests.
All in all, it’s easy to understand why, during her years as a Tennessee Senator, her colleagues and her party’s leaders frequently granted themselves exemptions to the Republican Party’s 11th Commandment when it came to her.
Sunday, July 27, 2008
At Memphis City Schools, the games began again, and at Shelby County Schools, they never seem to stop.
First, the city district. It appears that despite 1,100 students in the Countrywood and Berryhill annexation areas needing a new K-8 school, the facility support and facility construction offices let the bids expire without taking any action. There had been rumbling in the offices for awhile that they would never allow the school to be built, acting on the stereotype that it’s being built for white students.
Probably about 25 per cent of the children who’d attend the school are nonwhite, and if Cordova High School is any indication, that percentage should climb. However, none of this did anything to stop the issue from being driven by the basest racial motivations.
Begging For Help
The simplistic response to the need to build the school at Riverwood Farms was that the money should be spent on inner city schools. We’ve said many times before that Memphis City Schools needs more capital money to improve schools in the urban core; however, the real question is that if this new school isn’t built, what does the city district plan to do with these students who are now attending county schools?
By awarding the bid, the new school could have been built in time for the 2009-2010 school year. But because of the inaction by Memphis City Schools, the project must now be rebid, and there’s nothing for the city district to do but get down on its knees and ask for the Pickler regime at the county district to keep the students for another year.
That could be a difficult negotiation, because there’s really nothing in it for Shelby County Schools except for good will, and that’s in short supply these days.
Fussin’ And Feudin’
This school is a volatile issue to the people living in the annexed area, but more to the point, it’s an opportunity for Memphis City Schools to attract middle class kids of both races into its schools. All told, there are 2,600 students who need to be moved to city schools when high school students are included.
The impact of all this doesn’t seem to be lost on new officials of the Cash Administration at Memphis City Schools with their new focus on accountability, because these students could improve the district’s scores on state tests. It’s also not lost on them that even the increased attention to contract compliance was no fail-safe to prevent this costly mistake.
Over at Shelby County Schools, poor board member Fred Johnson – the only African-American and the only voice of reason – made the mistake of suggesting that the county district should consider “reasonable options” to end its feud with the Shelby County Board of Commissioners over the planned $56,000 raise to county schools superintendent Bobby Webb.
Dr. Johnson was treated dismissively and his idea was rejected out of hand, prompting one school staffer to say that he now knows what it feels like to be black student in the county district.
His colleague Ron Lollar hung his defense on the fact that even with the massive raise to Mr. Webb, the district remained within budget, flunking the test on the symbolic importance of being frugal in times of financial stress for Shelby County Government (whose employees aren’t getting raises this year).
Amazingly, Dr. Johnson didn’t even have the audacity to suggest a specific fence-mending strategy, such as Superintendent Webb’s 32% raise should be reduced to 2%, the same as county principals. He didn’t get the chance.
Only at Shelby County Schools could such a reasonable suggestion be met with such disdain. There, the emphasis on control and oneupsmanship and the “it’s my way or the highway” approach to most things seems more suited for the playground.
One thing is certain: Mr. Johnson was right in his attempt at statesmanship and he was right when he said that the feuding isn’t in the best interests of the students.
Most of all, Dr. Johnson knows that relations between Shelby County Government and Shelby County Schools have never been so bad. He also knows that the district can only thumb its nose at county government for just so long.
Or a fire and brimstone sale.
Perhaps, the worst idea that’s been floated yet for the future of the city’s most iconic structure is to sell it to Cummings Street Missionary Baptist Church for $12 million, which would be just enough to cover the remaining debt service that taxpayers have to pay on the building.
While some county officials say that it’s better than leaving the building empty, it’s hard to see why. While the conventional wisdom is that Bass Pro Shops will end up in The Pyramid (particularly since the Ericson Group bowed out of the competition), even if the retailer wasn’t interested, the church idea should get a rejection notice.
After all, the church’s positive economic impact on downtown would be negligible and that was supposedly the reason that city and county governments were looking for potential tenants for The Pyramid. Because of the lack of economic positives, if city and county governments are willing to consider selling the abandoned arena to the church, the asking price should be north of $12 million.
If it ends up that the church offer is the only one on the table in three months, it’s just time to take The Pyramid off the market until there is a real market for it.
We’ve been waiting 17 years for the building to be a daily draw for downtown. We can surely wait awhile longer.
Even if the church is willing to buy The Pyramid, it’s not a godsend for city and county governments.
Friday, July 25, 2008
In a sentence, they said it's not about housing, but about too many poor young people. As a result, the bulge in that demographic tracks the bulge in the crime rate.
The most salient paragraphs jumped off the screen:
"In 1990, Memphis was a city of 618,652. The city’s poverty rate was 22.9 percent—139,767 people lived below poverty. By 2000, Memphis had grown to 650,100. Along with the rest of the nation, its poverty rate had declined—to 20.6 percent—or 133,920 people. By 2005, however, while the city’s population fell to 642,251, its poverty rate spiked to 23.6 percent—or 151,571 people. While the overall number of poor people increased by about 12 percent, the number of poor adolescents (12-17) increased by about 45 percent.
"If one is looking for a prime suspect for rising crime rates, there it is. Between 1990 and 2000, the number of violent crimes (murder, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault) increased slightly, from 9,085 to 9,610. By 2005, while the city population was falling, the number of violent crimes increased sharply—to 12,629."
This is an important discussion that we should all be part of, so we hope you'll check out Richard's post.
Thursday, July 24, 2008
New Memphis City Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash has hit the ground running, and one of his primary purposes these days is getting as much advice and hearing as many opinions as he can about our city school district.
If his new organization chart is any indication, he could be the much-needed agent for change that Memphis City Schools has needed. Although it's the seventh org chart for the district in the past four years, it appears to be a drastic improvement over the bureaucracy-heavy ones of the past that appeared aimed more at consolidating power than setting up a high-performing district. Those old org charts most resembled a diagram of the federal Medicare system or the infamous Hillary-Care plan. For the first time in way too long, the organizational structure of Memphis City Schools is now sleek, manageable and hopefully, accountable. It also appears to be built on a philosophy of decentralizing power from the Avery Avenue mother ship and getting it closer to the schools and neighborhoods that the central office was created to serve (which allies him with the philosophy of Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton).
Part of this philosophy of decentralization is to engage the public, to rally support, to discuss challenges and to mobilize a movement in support of school reform. But first, the lines of communications have to be opened up, and that seems to be a priority of the new superintendent.
In recent days, we've given our opinion, so we'd like to hear yours:
If you could give your best advice to Superintendent Cash about Memphis City Schools, what would it be? What would you recommend as his priorities and opportunities or pressure points to watch out for?
We look forward to your sharing your opinions as he lays the foundation for his tenure at the head of our district.
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
That’s why we know that he’s giving serious thought to how he’s introducing himself to the community. After all, you only have one chance to introduce yourself and how you do it in such a politically volatile environment sets the framework that can create momentum, or conversely, it can erode it.
There’s no question that since he took the helm of our school district, he’s been man on a mission. It’s less clear what that ultimate mission is, because he hasn’t fully taken advantage of this unique opportunity, when every person in the region is listening to hear him define his vision and describe his priorities.
Rallying The Public
Perhaps, the media have been poor in relaying this kind of information, but if Superintendent Cash will learn anything in the early days of his first top job at an urban district, he’ll learn that he needs to decide what his message is and he needs to repeat it until every one’s mouths move when he says it.
If Superintendent Cash stays at Memphis City Schools through June 30, 2012, the last day of his four-year contract, there will never be days that are more precious than today. As for us, we think – and we suspect he agrees - that his priority is to lay out a compelling vision and rally the public to join him in a historic movement of school reform.
That’s why we think that the media’s notoriously short attention span should be used to do more than roll out a laundry list of district initiatives, but an over-arching vision that represents the thrust of the Cash Era. Perhaps, it is Breakthrough Leadership/Breakthrough Results, the theme of his powerpoint presentation, but we doubt it. The problems of Memphis City Schools demand more than just better leadership. It needs a interlocking network of strategies that work together to transform the district, and leadership of course is one of them.
100 Days And 60 “Initiatives”
Superintendent Cash – in the fashion of elected officials – has unveiled a 100-day agenda that appears daunting. It includes about 60 “initiatives” that he intends to get done by October, ranging from the ambitious (develop a comprehensive plan to eliminate low-performing schools) to the mundane (complete July media tour) to the political (a strategy du jour with each board of commissioner).
In a district with needs that are as broad as Memphis City Schools and challenges as deep, this is well and good. We all know that the problems of the district will not be solved with a few initiatives on a few fronts, but with multiple programs on many fronts.
We admire the ambition of the superintendent’s list, particularly the items that deal with transforming the suffocating, self-centered approach of the central office. Most of the list feels more tactical than strategic, and we still think the superintendent could benefit from boiling them down into his a vision for the district and easy-to-remember themes that are instrumental to our schools’ success.
Keep The Main Thing The Main Thing
We need to Superintendent Cash to emblazon them on all of our minds as the priorities to turn around the district by identifying the levers of change that have the greatest impact and the clear philosophy buttressing them. We need him to appoint about a dozen top lieutenants (hopefully without any more big raises – one already being a $60,000 jump - that have so far been handed out to the new arrivals from Miami) and then we need him to rally the troops who are waiting for a well-articulated crusade for our schools.
For example, we’d be motivated if he told us how, like several school systems in other countries considered great, he plans to select teachers from the top third of college graduates rather than the bottom third. This by the way is often accomplished not just with money but through a civic culture that possesses a high respect for teachers, something the U.S. hasn’t managed since “A Nation At Risk” tarred and feathered schools 25 years ago. Some progress in teacher quality was being made by The New Teacher Project before the previous administration limited its effectiveness and reined in its work.
Also, we’d explain that safe and orderly schools aren’t measured just by law-abiding surroundings and student discipline. All of us need to understand that it’s a generally accepted set of values and norms that make the difference, not school cops and metal detectors. This, too, goes back to culture, because researchers have concluded that it is the culture of an organization that plays the dominant role in exemplary performance, and that’s why building a new culture is hard, bruising work.
The payoff is the direct link between a school’s climate and its educational outcomes. It is this ultimate payoff that taxpayers need to be reminded of daily, because Memphians are desperate to feel that someone is in charge and has a way to turn around the district.
Much of it is about getting the basics right, but it also about engaging in the “disruptive innovations” that can better prepare our students for the knowledge economy in which Memphis now occupies the lower rungs. It’s about experimenting with a school system mired in a century-old infatuation with schools as factories that stamp out the same product with the same sequence at the same age at the same grade levels. Some district is going to invent a new student-centric instruction model, and there’s no reason that it can’t be Memphis City Schools.
Finally, we think Superintendent Cash should say it over and over: He will conduct this city’s first school conversation on full, candid, and transparent information, data and accountability of the district. The only thing more malignant in Memphis than the feeling that nothing can be done to improve our schools is the malignant feeling that the public isn’t being given all the facts.
The Truth And Nothing But The Truth
But the benefit isn’t just to the public, because better data and honest debate within the district could also be used for decision-making, such as how to predict dropouts. Colleges are doing it already with the development of a “risk algorithm” that takes into account variables that correlate the risk of each student to drop out. Clearly, one of these factors here would be transience, since in 80% of city schools, more than 30% of the students move schools each year.
The stakes couldn’t be higher, because we already know from research that boosting high school graduation rates would save $127,000 for each new graduate through extra tax revenues, reduced cost of public health, crime and justice, and decreased welfare payments.
If truth and honesty is the heart of a friendship, it’s also the heart of an effective community whose citizens are joined by their confidence that what they are doing to help their schools can indeed work. There is no greater indicator of Superintendent Cash’s success than this.
Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Maybe we need to be putting in a call to Isaac Tigrett to see if he’ll put his crystal skull back in The Pyramid.
On February 10, we wrote about the crystal skull that was discovered in the apex of The Pyramid and removed in the early days of the iconic building. That post was largely a tongue-in-cheek commentary about the cosmic risk of removing the skull.
Perhaps, we spoke too soon. After all, we seem to be the midst of crystal skull frenzy, and we missed our change to get in on the ground floor.
First, there was “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull racking up more than $300 million. Then, two weeks ago, the Smithsonian opened its crystal skull exhibit, and now, the museum plans to premiere its documentary, “Legend of the Crystal Skulls,” in September. Now we learn that there are crystal skulls on exhibit in the British Museum in London and the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris.
Star of the Smithsonian exhibit and the film is a crystal skull that arrived in the mail at the Smithsonian 16 years ago. It was in a package addressed to “MezoAmerican Museum” and a letter said it was made by the Aztecs. Neither the museum or the skull was real.
In other words, the nation’s foremost museum system have taken a fake and turned it into a franchise. If only we had been so clever.
Some say the skulls are from Atlantis. Other say that if all of them come together at the same place, they will release all knowledge and stop computers. Some say they were made by Mayans or maybe even extraterrestrials.
And yet, if the skull has any power, it is its ability to inspire myths and legends. In that, it has something in common with The Pyramid. For 17 years, we’ve harbored the myth that it can become a 365-day a year tourist attraction.
Here’s part of the earlier post:
The most ominous warning was given by Isaac Tigrett following the removal of the crystal skull that he had secretly riveted to the steel superstructure of The Pyramid apex. The small black box was spotted by a maintenance man about a year after the arena had opened.
Pried from its secret place, the box was opened (the momentous event was filmed) with great ceremony in a conference room in the bottom of The Pyramid, and inside the velvet-lined box and covered with gauze dusted with a fragrant powder was a small crystal skull.
Because of Mr. Tigrett’s interest in Eastern mysticism, it was immediately obvious who put it there. Although the skull seemed to have more in common with those allegedly found in Mayan archaeological sites, city and county officials were told that the skull had materialized in the hands of Mr. Tigrett’s guru, Sathya Sai Baba, during a conversation.
After all, the founder of Hard Rock Café and House of Blues had a special debt to the Indian mystic, who protected him during a devastating car wreck in California. Hurtling off the road in his sports car, Mr. Tigrett said that Sai Baba appeared in his car, put his arms around him and protected him from harm. The car was destroyed.
In other words, the crystal skull’s connection to the religious leader and guru gave it special power, which was amplified by the additional force of The Pyramid itself, according to Mr. Tigrett. “You don’t have any idea what you have done,” he said upon being told that the crystal skull had been removed, adding somberly that the cosmic balance of the earth could be disturbed as well.
By that time, suggestions that removal of the skull could curse The Pyramid were laughable. After all, with the crystal skull in place, little had gone right there.
If Memphis had been interpreting signs, perhaps there wasn’t one delivered more forcefully than the thunder storm that postponed the “Big Dig” extravaganza to kick off construction. A native American telephoned city and county officials with a warning - the Pyramid site was sacred and that the rain was an omen of worse things to come.
Officials joked about the warning for days. Two years later, no one was laughing. Construction had been delayed, the price had increased, and the shape-shifting Shlenker/Tigrett development was no closer to coming into focus.
The Great American Pyramid plan was essentially dead. So was the Hard Rock Café; the glass inclinator to the apex; the perverse mutation of of Egyptology and rock music into Rakapolis; Dick Clark’s American Music Awards Hall of Fame; a re-creation of the Cavern, ground zero for Beatles fans, and priceless Stax Records artifacts; an Omnimax theater; a light and music spectacle in the arena on non-event days; a radio station on the top of the building beaming shortwave Memphis music; and what became called the “scheme du jour,” ideas that often became inoperable before the end of the business day.
Flush And Flood
The private partnership finally cratered and the public sector scampered to get The Pyramid opened in time for Memphis State University basketball. But first, there was the grand opening. Once touted by Mr. Shlenker as Luciano Pavarotti in Aida, complete with elephants and grandeur, the opening instead starred the Judds, who came all the way from Nashville.
Arena officials had been referring to opening night as their “baptism by fire” because of the rushed opening schedule. In the end, it was a more traditional baptism – by water. When the packed house stormed the restrooms and flushed the toilets at the same time, it was too much for the city sewer transfer station, which flooded the arena floor with water of varying degrees of sanitation, giving birth to the so-called Pyramid test now conducted in all new arenas.
From the beginning, it was clear that the seats were too narrow (required when the arena capacity was increased by 2,000 seats to get the deciding vote from County Commissioner Pete Sisson), the angle of the upstairs seats was too severe (a pregnant woman fell down the darkened, unlit aisles), the track seating adjacent to the floor seats wasn’t used in arenas any more and conjured up images of rodeo seating; the private suites were on the public concourse which devalued their exclusivity, and the sound was in a word, atrocious.
The gallows humor at The Pyramid was that a concert ticket was a bargain, because you got to hear two concerts for the price of one – the actual concert and the one that bounced off the ceiling about 15 seconds later. A lawsuit and millions of dollars later, the acoustics were improved, but not before some promoters decided that there was a hex on the building.
Death By Pyramid
A door at ground level was cut into the south side of the building for disabled guests. Technically, the ramps into the building met building code, but after a Pyramid manager was unable to move up the ramp on a wheelchair, the new entrance was added and handicapped parking was redesigned.
In addition to basic acoustics, the sound system and lighting for basketball games had to be upgraded. More than once, it was muttered that the building was cursed, particularly after someone fell to his death from the rigging and a gunman holed up on the ground floor.
But the dream of a Pyramid attraction doesn’t die easy. Island Earth was killed off by politically connected Herenton supporters who didn’t like the idea of an eco-attraction (the inconvenient truth is that it now seems to have been ahead of its time). As a result, the Wonders exhibit seemed like a godsend when it moved to the north wide of The Pyramid from the convention center. Within a few years, it shut its doors with a debt of more than $1 million.
We may have laughed off the discovery of the crystal skull and chortled at the curse, but now, almost 20 years after The Great American Pyramid was first proposed, who’s laughing now?
Monday, July 21, 2008
Sometimes, it's awfully hard to tell that there isn't supposed to be traffic on Main Street Mall, but tomorrow night, the first steps might be taken to making it official.
At 5 p.m. tomorrow (July 22), the Memphis Center City Commission is holding a meeting to receive questions and opinions from the public about returning traffic to the mall. The session, called "Transportation Options for Main Street," will be held in the Memphis Cook Convention Center's Riverbluff Room. If you want to speak, you need to fill out a registration card and hold your comments to two minutes (leading some of you industrious souls who need more time with the option of developing a team approach to your jointly-held opinions).
As for us, we can submit our opinion pretty simply: Just Do It.
We acknowledged as much in a May 15 post about realigning Fourth Street and opening Main Street to cars. Our opinion was further solidified when Maurice Cox, new director of design for the National Endowment for the Arts, essentially said amen to the recommendation made in early May by his NEA predecessor Jeff Speck, who delivered his 12 "modest suggestions" for improving Memphis. Mr. Cox was the third national expert this year who has told us to open up the street.
While you might discount the suggestion from a retail consultant being paid by the Center City Commission, it's hard to do it when it's backed up by two leading urban designers in the U.S. In his July 10 presentation to the Center City Commission's annual meeting, Mr. Cox summed it up nicely: "If a technical fix doesn't work, have the courage to change course. If the pedestrian mall closed to traffic isn't working, open it up to two-way traffic."
It may sound like too little too late. After all, the mall has already strangled the life out of what Main Street used to be and turned the teeming street into modest pockets of activity in an area begging for vibrancy and animation. Is it only a pipe dream that traffic would inject some renewed economic life into a street whose only retail store between Union and Poplar is the beloved peanut shop?
We didn't come to share Mr. Speck's opinion easily, but at this point, it just seems like it's worth a try. After all, it's not like he proposed turning Main Street into the autobahn or even turning it back like it used to be. Rather, he recommended two lanes of slow-moving traffic.
Failing To See Failure
Also, as co-author of Suburban Nation and a founding adherent to New Urbanism, it's not as if he is hostile to walkable, dense downtowns and a high quality public realm. If there is a monument to faddish planning trends, our Mid-American Mall is its poster child.
While some editorial writers opine that 30 years may not be enough to consider the pedestrian mall a failure, it's long enough for us. We'd like to think that we'll actually have the chance to see signs of life on Main Street before we have to use a walker to get there.
Maybe we are just too old. We remember when Main Street bustled. We remember when it teemed with people and highly-prized people-watching perches in Court Square were hard to come by. It's inarguable that it would have in time been transformed by the shift in consumer loyalty to suburban malls, but like subsequent trolley construction, Main Street Mall construction and reconstruction often killed off the very businesses that the mall was designed to support.
All About Convenience
Shoppers abandoned most downtown pedestrian malls – with notable exceptions that offer crucial lessons about downtown vibrancy and animation - as inconvenient and inaccessible, and Memphis was no exception. In our defense, we were not the only city that chased the pedestrian mall as the magic answer to downtowns' ability to compete. About 200 cities flirted with malls for a few blocks and some like us consummated the relationship with our entire main downtown shopping district forbidding traffic.
While a few pedestrian malls remain and are thriving, the trend today is more about returning some traffic to the malls.
In a study of malls built in the 1960s and 1970s, it was found that 70 percent of them were successful for a few years but then business declined. By 1989, half of them had either totally or partially opened up their pedestrian malls to traffic and two more were thinking about it.
Real City Center
It's worth remembering that the trolley system itself was recognition of the fact that our pedestrian mall just wasn't working. Of the cities that reopened their malls, all reported gains in business.
We're not Pollyannish about this. The return of downtown to a real city center with retail stores and boutiques will be slow and arduous, but it seems worth a try to return cars to the street and see what happens.
The most we'd be out, according to Mr. Speck, is $50,000, and we'll spend a heckuva lot more than that studying what our next magic answer will be.
Worth A Try
We don't have to make a final decision today. We can return traffic to Main Street for 6-18 months and see what happens. Right now, we all have our own opinions, but if we are willing to experiment, we can actually see what will happen. We know that we Memphians don't handle change well, but we owe it to ourselves to find out if this idea can really work. It's not as if much is at risk anyway since Main Street is now largely abandoned storefronts punctuated by an occasional restaurant, and on non-baseball nights, the inactive streets cause safety concerns that keep many visitors from walking even a couple of blocks up the mall. More to the point, it creates a dead zone that even a Verizon commercial can't duplicate.
It's been about a decade since Chicago ripped up the pedestrian mall that was strangling State Street to death. Without cars, the street had a deadened fell like a ghost town, city officials said. Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley rode one of the jackhammers in a pavement-breaking ceremony and said the pedestrian mall was so unpopular no one would even take credit for its invention.
That same fact may tell us all we need to know about our own pedestrian mall.
Sunday, July 20, 2008
Even if there had been a compromise to resolve the political dispute, there would still be the need for a definitive legal determination so city legislators will know if there is any chance that they could finally rationalize and equalize the current tax structure that punishes Memphis taxpayers.
This is a seminal question that will go a long way in determining if Memphis will have a reasonable chance to remove the tax burden that has forced so many people out of the city limits in search of an immediate increase in their disposable incomes by a reduction in taxes.
Eye On The Ball
While city school board members may be worried about the operations of Memphis City Schools, the greater priority is for all of us to be worried about staunching the lifeblood of Memphians leaving for greener pastures and lower tax rates. Otherwise, we may be racing headlong into a future in which fewer and fewer Memphians pay more and more in city taxes for city schools (and this doesn’t even take into account the fact that they will continue to pay twice for schools unlike any other residents of Shelby County).
In other words, there is a lot more at stake in Chancellor Kenny Armstrong’s court than the issue of school funding on the court’s docket. More fundamentally, it is about whether Memphis will be handcuffed into a tax system that undermines the city that it purports to serve and that limits seriously our ability to become attractive to young workers who prefer to live in the urbanized core of cities.
The best thing about the beginning of the court hearing is that the attorney gamesmanship that had been depreciating the quality of the public discussion has largely been eliminated. In this regard, the $152 million countersuit filed by the attorney for City Council was sophistry and casuistry at its worst.
Losing The High Ground
Worst of all, the countersuit blew up the high ground on which Memphis City Council had based its decision and lowered this crucial public policy question into just another game of political oneupsmanship. It was a disappointing turn of events, particularly in light of the fact that most Council members were unaware of the politically-charged plans for the counterclaim.
Unfortunately, the gratuitous claim resulted in an equally gratuitous broadside - filled with terms like illegal conduct, nonsensical argument, and 11th hour novel legal theory – from the attorney for Memphis City Schools. All of a sudden, this important question had degenerated from an important public policy decision to two attorneys who appeared to be fighting for headlines and treating this like it was a private legal battle.
Memphis City Council would do well to keep the public discussion and their rhetoric focused on tax equity and its pivotal influence on the future of Memphis. Instead, its countersuit gave this all the familiar trappings of politics as usual.
Other School News
And yet, the Chancery Court lawsuit – which is destined to end up in the Tennessee Supreme Court for the definitive decision needed on the core question – is important enough to suspend our normal retail politics long enough to have a reasoned public discussion about the issues at stake.
Meanwhile, there’s other school-related news in the headlines.
On the Shelby County Schools front, Superintendent Bobby Webb received perhaps the most preposterous pay raise in the history of the public sector, jacking up his salary by $56,500 to $231,750 a year. And to undermine the beating that Memphians take in these school issues, keep in mind that about $40,000 of the raise will be paid by city taxpayers - although they have no voice in the operations of Shelby County Schools or the election of its school board members.
We’re sure it’s only a coincidence that Supt. Webb’s salary is being boosted just in time to affect his pension as he approaches what we are told is his 35th year in the state retirement system. In that system, we are told that the final pension amount is the average of the top five years’ salary, and with his raise, Mr. Webb just bumped up that average by about $11,000.
Meanwhile, the people who have the most to do with whether student academic performance really improves – county school teachers – will get 2% raises, compared to the superintendent’s 32%.
Ultimately, there was no way for the Shelby County Board of Commissioners to prevent the raise that the majority abhorred, and they were left with no options but to let Shelby County Schools move ahead with the hike. We thought Commissioner Mike Ritz’s resolution setting Supt. Webb’s raise at the same level as his teachers had merit, but there wasn’t any real way to enforce it.
Not Buying It
That doesn’t mean that anyone on the board of commissioners is really buying the county district’s argument that a big raise is necessary to keep their superintendent. If that is actually the case, the district should forward to the commissioners a list of all those other districts that have been knocking on the door to lure away this invaluable leader.
In the meantime, someone should deprogram PTSA president Becca Priddy who told the commissioners that perhaps the school district could teach county government something about efficiently managing taxpayers’ money. If Ms. Priddy is really interested in that kind of efficiency, we’re looking for the PTSA to call for a consolidated district where costs could really be reduced.
And to demonstrate an abhorrent lack of knowledge about local government, she asked what county government had done with “millions of dollars” collected by the wheel tax and diverted from education. The fact that nothing like that has remotely happened did nothing to keep her from perpetuating the myth that the wheel tax was a temporary tax only for schools. It said volumes about the kind of propaganda dished out by the county schools to his adherents.
The Wheel Deal
For the record, when the Shelby County Wheel Tax was passed, the uses of the bond funds were set out specifically and publicly communicated, and while education was the primary beneficiary, some of the bond funds were used for The Med and road construction. It’s worth remembering that Shelby County Government could not have legally issued the bonds without detailing the ways that the taxes would be spent and any deviation from that spending plan would jeopardize the bonds.
Then there were media reports suggesting that $7 million in improvements to Fairview Middle School could be a boondoggle for taxpayers. That opinion could only be true if the school is bulldozed to turn over the site as part of the plans for the 168-acre Fairgrounds to be transformed into a mixed-use development that anchors this critical area of Memphis.
It also presupposes that there is enough political muscle to push Memphis City Schools into allowing the demolition of one of Memphis’ last remaining Art Deco schools. In recent years, there have been some intriguing suggested uses of Fairview Middle School, particularly by former city district chief planner Louise Mercuro, and all of them should be explored before any consideration should be given to razing the school.
In that vein, if it is decided that the better use for the southeast corner of Central and East Parkway is for the school to be turned over to commercial development, we believe that with some imagination, adaptive reuse allows the school to continue its status as a historic landmark for Memphis.
If Poag-McEwen can envision such a future for the former Church of Christ at Highland and Midland, we are confident that the Fairgrounds team can envision a use that could become a symbol for our city’s new attention to sustainability.
The demolition of Fairview Middle School should be the last choice for the future of this site, and it shouldn’t even be on the table right now as Memphis City Schools weighs its best uses for the school’s future.
Finally, the last piece of school news that interested us wasn’t the “We Got Game” détente that Memphis Mayor Willie W. Herenton and new Superintendent Kriner Cash found on the basketball court (we’d have preferred a more substantive setting), but the investment that Mr. Cash appears to be willing to make to get former Miami security chief Gerald Darling to Memphis.
Last week, we wondered how Supt. Cash would invest the coveted political capital that he has during his honeymoon period. If he’s not careful, this could be just the kind of distraction that he doesn’t need as he tries to communicate his academic priorities. It could also be the kind of controversy that eliminates the honeymoon altogether and the luster of his newfound celebrity.
You only have a honeymoon once, and his love letters to Memphis need to be about improving student performance, reforming the district’s culture and installing a school-centric administration, rather than defending the controversial record in Miami of his new security chief.
Saturday, July 19, 2008
I read your post with great interest having just returned from Memphis as a "tourist" from Tampa. I'm writing to you of my experience only to help you in your post.
I recently visited Memphis to see Graceland, Mud Island for a concert, and Beale Street.
I admit I was asked by a pan-handler for money at each one of these places. I remember seeing a police presence at each place, but they seemed too "busy" to address what you speak of here.
Shame on the mayor, police chief, or whoever is responsible for this. I also have to admit, maybe I "helped" the problem, by giving money?
The "foot patrol" on Beale Street was busy talking to the shop owners. Police walking the street would have cut out the guy asking me for money, when the streets were not quite closed, but not many other "tourists" out either.
There were police, however, in cars on my walk from South Main to Beale Street, finishing their paperwork no doubt from a massive two car accident with a Toyota pick-up. I felt safe "Walking in Memphis." :)
I was surprised it was difficult to get a bowl of gumbo on Beale St. at only 11:40p.m. Most of the responses I got from door personnel were that the kitchens were closed. It was a Tuesday night, but 12 seemed just a little too early to close.
Again, I loved your city. Memphis is a jewel of the Mississippi. Having never seen the big river before, I was not let down.
Thank you again for your warm Southern hospitality and I hope to return soon. Peace~
As part of the WEVL family, I can’t begin to express the sadness and pain from the loss of our dear friend, Dee “Cap’n Pete” Henderson.
Cap’n Pete and I had a common love for the genre of music we call blues; however, there was more to our friendship than that. We would talk for hours about different types of music and especially what we called “real blues.”
Cap’n Pete wasn’t one that just loved Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, but also of the new contemporary blues as well. His face would light up when you would get him to listen to a song that you knew he would like. He was a quiet- talking man, but once he felt comfortable around you, he would talk about everything from “today’s young kids” to “today’s music.”
We would spend many times in the back parking lot of WEVL next to his antique black Chevrolet pickup, and we always ended our conversations with “that was fun, we should talk like this more often.”
There are special people put into the world for many different reasons. I believe Cap’n Pete was put here to bring people together through music or better yet, to teach kindness and understanding. I learned a lot from you, Cap ’n Pete, and please tell Muddy, Bo, Stevie Ray and Dr. King I said hello.
Your blues buddy,
“Free? “Nothing’s for free!”
It’s the only line of William Mastrosimone’s The Wool Gatherer that I remember from a lengthy monologue I was required to perform for an acting class I took some years back at The University of South Carolina. As I look back over the years, I have come to realize that there are in fact many things in this life that are free, many of which exist right here in the City of Memphis.
Take, for example, the National Civil Rights Museum - free on Mondays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. The Memphis Zoo is absolutely free for residents on Tuesdays from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., and my personal favorite - the beautiful summer sunsets on the Mississippi River.
But wait! That’s not what this article is about. Skip to the part about free legal assistance. It’s true! The Memphis Bar Association’s Access to Justice Committee and Memphis Area Legal Services have teamed up to provide free legal assistance to all takers in the form of its Saturday Legal Clinics.
Since September of 2007, these Saturday Legal Clinics have been held monthly at various locations throughout Memphis and Shelby County. While the legal advice may be limited, this is not a service providing legal assistance to only those who qualify. This is the real deal. No one is turned away.
Indigent persons who are charged with crimes in this country are given the embrace of representation through the various public defenders’ offices. This gives them the protection and voice they need in answering the charges against them. I can’t for the life of me understand why many of those with appointed public defenders have such loathe for their counsel.
“I want a REAL attorney!” they cry. Obviously they don’t understand that they have just been handed an experienced criminal defense attorney....for free. But what becomes of the pro se individuals in civil court? What protections do they have in meandering through the complex legal maze of justice? Well....none.
That’s where the Access to Justice Committee steps in. Its objectives include helping to provide guidance to low-income individuals who are overwhelmed with the frustrations of being sued or bringing a lawsuit of their own in our local courts. The State of Tennessee does not have a small claims court system where individuals can go to handle common disputes without the mastery of steadfast evidentiary rules. Even General Sessions Court requires litigants to play by the same rules that experienced attorneys must adhere to. That certainly puts pro se litigants at a great disadvantage.
The Access to Justice Committee answered this need with its first series of clinics called Attorney of the Day, which began in 2004. Still to this day the clinic operates each Thursday from 1:30 pm to 3:30 pm in Room 134 of the Shelby County Courthouse.
Recently, the Access to Justice Committee has expanded its horizons with the implementation of its Saturday Legal Clinics. These clinics not only offer assistance to those in the community with pressing legal issues, but allow attorneys who are unable to participate in pro bono work during their regular work week the opportunity to fulfill a call to service on a weekend. These clinics also are an effort to portray the legal field in a positive light rather than the negative perceptions often emphasized by the media.
The Saturday Legal Clinics have begun to reach into many of the communities in the Memphis area including: Binghampton, Frayser, Orange Mound, Whitehaven, Cooper-Young, Hickory Hill, Downtown and the University area. The ultimate goal is to stave off the legal trauma associated with foreclosure, adverse judgments, and grave legal consequences before they get to the point of no return. Many people feel overwhelmed when faced with these and other legal issues and tend to bury their heads in the sand when they should be working toward some possible resolution. If they understand their alternatives, they have a much better chance of working out a more favorable outcome and establishing some peace of mind.
I am excited about the participation of volunteers for these clinics and it has certainly allowed clients to get in front of an attorney with their legal issues with very little waiting time. The Memphis Paralegal Association has formed a small coalition of volunteers and regularly contribute to the efficiency that is greatly needed when setting up in a new location each time we operate. Their willingness to staff these clinics each month has been a tremendous help to the attorneys.
I also continue to beam with pride at the number of attorneys who have given their time to participate in the Saturday Legal Clinics each month. David Cook, the past Memphis Bar Association president, and the associates at the Hardison Law Firm have provided a remarkable amount of time staffing these clinics and have contributed greatly to improving awareness in the area of advance directives and durable powers of attorney for healthcare.
Amy Amundsen, the current Memphis Bar Association president has also been a regular contributor offering her specialized knowledge in the area of family law. Linda Seely, director of pro bono recruitment with Memphis Area Legal Services has been instrumental in helping organize the clinics and offering assistance in a wide variety of consumer issues. Sam Blaiss and Bruce Ralston, both general practitioners, dedicate their breadth of knowledge in the law each and every month. Lisa LaVigne Kelly, the incoming chair to the Access to Justice Committee brings a passion that will serve the committee well when her tenure begins. These and the countless other attorneys and paralegals who volunteer their time to strengthen the Memphis community help make this world a better place to live.
My thanks go out to all who have contributed to the success of the Saturday Legal Clinic, but keep in mind that there is much more work to be done. So with that, I challenge the legal community to continue their efforts in making this program a continued success for the benefit of the legal profession, our local bar association and the community at large.
Friday, July 18, 2008
And we'll speak with Steve Barlow. He's the Executive Director of the University Neighborhoods Development Corporation in Memphis. The UNDC is working with the University of Memphis to help the school participate in the life of its surrounding neighborhoods.
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.
This month's ranking in Men's Health of America's largest 100 cities addressed the question: "Where our cars are killing us." The subtitle asks: "green drivers or fossil fuels?"
Memphis ranked #80.
This monthly feature often presents a revealing portrait of Memphis - even with its men-focused approach - such as the month that ranked our city #69 for places where men have the best sex.
We clearly should have been #1 for places where dumb men have sex. Memphis was #100 in condom sales and #8 in birth rate.
Thursday, July 17, 2008
The New York Times this week highlighted Dickson Despommier's idea for "vertical farms" and one of the images looked awfully familiar.
The professor of public health at Columbia University, working with his students, coined the concept about a decade ago, but it's being taken up recently by several imaginative architects.
It's been estimated that a prototype vertical farm would cost $20-30 million, but it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to build the kind of 30-story towers that could feed 50,000 people.
For its originator, the concept speaks to ways that environment and human health converge, and architectural renderings now imagine such facilities.
It was a little easier for us. We thought that you, like us, would find one of the renderings particularly familiar. It's the fourth image on the New York Times' vertical farm slide show.
Well, it looks like Midtown deserves its bragging rights.
It's the most walkable neighborhood in Memphis , according to Walk Score, winning the designation over the expected winner, downtown.
However, at this point, we're putting an asterick by the winner, but we'll get back to that shortly. We've written previously about Walk Score and the ability to score your home or business or favorite place's walkability, but today, it added a feature that ranks neighborhoods.
Midtown finished at the top of the list by Walk Score with a score of 53, compared to 52 for downtown.
East Memphis/Colonial/Yorkshire was third at 48, River Oaks/Kirby/Balmoral was fourth with 44.
A neighborhood had to score more than 49 just to get out of the "car-dependent" category and into the "somewhat walkable" group. A score of more than 70 was judged to be very walkable.
By way of comparison, Nashville had 25 neighborhoods that scored higher than Memphis Midtown's 53; however, we can take some pride in the fact that as a city, we still finished ahead of Nashville in the rankings of 40 cities. Memphis was #35 and Nashville was next to last at #39.
According to Walk Score, our city's overall walkable score is 43, reflecting our umbilical relationship with our vehicles.
The city with the highest score was San Francisco with an 86, and adding insult to injury, somehow, Houston (#26) and Atlanta (#22) finished ahead of us.
If you want to know what the perfect walkable neighborhood looks like, think New York's Tribeca (100), Dupont Circle (99) or Chicago's Loop (98). As far as we're concerned, there's no argument that they are the standards that our city should be pursuing.
But here's the thing. The boundaries for our neighborhoods are based on no definitions that we've ever seen before.
Our complaint isn't about the conclusion that 7% of Memphians have a Walk Score of more than 70 (our firm's score downtown at Union and Front is a highly respectable 90, by the way), or that 29% have a score of more than 50 or that 71% of Memphians are car-dependent; however, in looking at Memphis neighborhoods, East Memphis stretches from Overton Park to I-240, taking in more than 100,000 people, and Midtown runs from Kilowatt Lake in North Memphis to the Defense Depot. Other cities have dozens of neighborhoods on the list, so we think that while the overall city ranking wouldn't change, by better identifying Memphis neighborhoods, we can show that some Memphis neighborhoods – real neighborhoods - are highly walkable.
All in all, Walk Score looked at more than 2,500 neighborhoods, meaning that the average city had about 60 neighborhoods. Memphis has only 12.
Despite this, it's still a revealing portrait of Memphis, and completes the image of a city that is neither walkable nor bikable (more about this in coming days). More and more each day, it's clear that in our love affair with the car, it's our city's quality of life that is getting screwed.
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
Memphis City Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash is about to make the most important decision in his new job – how to best invest the capital that he has during his honeymoon period.
The reality of public life in these high-profile jobs is that you are never as popular as the first weeks after your election or your appointment. Because of it, Supt. Cash should just about now be deciding how and where to invest his most precious commodity – the highest political and civic capital that he's likely to have as superintendent.
There's absolutely nothing like leveraging the lovefest of a honeymoon period to create momentum for the future, particularly in a bureaucracy where change is anathema and the entrenched culture creates a persistent undertow for innovation. That's why it's so important for Dr. Cash to get his first priorities right: there's never a better time to get what he wants, and whether he succeeds or stumbles out of the gate, it creates the context and expectations for all that comes later.
So far, Supt. Cash's mantra about accountability and transparency sounds like the fresh start needed to turn around Memphis City Schools. In a system with a well-deserved reputation for obfuscation and secrecy, the incomprehensible firing of the district's top planner primarily for releasing public information to the public has been a morality tale that rippled throughout the district, and along with the report of a verbal reprimand given to a manager who dared give the school board honest answers to its questions, it's produced a chilling effect on any vestiges of openness.
Meanwhile, some district officials seem to think that being honest with parents and the community only increases the risk of being blamed for lagging performance. As we've said before, we think that district leaders have missed a golden opportunity to galvanize our city to attack the crisis in our schools by spinning the data rather than releasing the unvarnished facts.
The mangled graduation rate statistics is the poster child for this tendency, as a school board member in an op-ed column in the Memphis Flyer compared two different sets of statistics to claim falsely that the rate has dramatically increased 21% in four years (those ripples would have been felt throughout Memphis) rather than a respectable 9%. However, it's difficult to be too hard on the elected officials, because appointed officials have routinely fed them misleading information and board members don't have the staff capabilities to provide an independent analysis or to frame up the critical issues on which board members should be concentrating.
But back to Mr. Cash's honeymoon, it's clear that the swooning has begun, which is customary at this point in a new superintendency. This is particularly true about our new superintendent, because he's essentially a blank slate with no track record in a similar job. It's clear in hindsight that we want improvement in our schools so badly that we have clung to wishful thinking and hopefulness when there was little strong reason for it.
Supt. Cash has a profound opportunity to chart a different path from tradition, and one that has more long-term positive impact on the district. Rather than rely on public relations, he seems willing to rely on public information. Rather than rely on a cloistered set of insiders, he seems more inclined to engage the public in a real discussion about the future of our schools and our children.
Of course, it's too early to say with any certainty that the reality will match the rhetoric, but in Memphis, hope springs eternal, and when the future of 113,000 children is being set in classrooms today, it should.
In this regard, we worry that the question about whether Memphis City Schools needs a police department may not be where the emphasis ought to be placed right now. While there is a legitimate obligation for the district to ensure that city schools are safe, there's also the concern that we are transforming them into Juvenile Court-light, replete with police, metal detectors, frisks and locker searches. Unfortunately, too many city school students are already being sent the very clear message from our city that they have no value. Otherwise, they would have higher quality learning environments. It's conceivable that with a police department in the schools, we send another malignant message – that schools are akin to detention facilities and students are destined to have police in their lives.
There are strong pros and cons about a police department for Memphis City Schools, but it certainly seems too soon to make a decision to bring in Gerald Darling, who had 25 years with the Miami-Dade Police Department and four years heading up the Miami-Dade County Public Schools Police Department, to head up a new department of school cops. This is a serious public policy question and it deserves serious research and debate. How this issue is handled could come to symbolize the way that Supt. Cash engages and involves the public in important issues in our schools, and unfortunately, so far, the message seems to be that the decision has already been made.
Hopefully, Supt. Cash understands the way that this honeymoon period will firmly communicate his working style, his priorities and his philosophy. As a result, it calls for careful calculation and skillful execution, and based on the general reputation that he had in Miami, there's no reason to think he's not up for the task.
As he develops his agenda and articulates his vision, there are three things that we all need to keep in mind if we are to maintain realistic expectations for the Cash era:
One, he faces the reality that test scores are not going to be turned around in short order. The revolutionary Washington, D.C., Superintendent Michelle Rhee has already reported a dramatic increase on student achievement tests in about two years there, but the real test is whether the increases will be sustained over time. There are always some short-term changes that can have impacts, but this isn't a war that will won with a single surge strategy or on a single front. It will take grind-it-out, day in, day out persistence from a district singularly focused on student achievement.
Two, he faces a district culture where many staff members assume that they can simply wait him out. They have seen superintendents come and they have seen superintendents go, and as a result, they can co-opt his verbiage and feign conversion without really doing anything differently. We thought Mayor Herenton was right in his state of city schools speech when he called for every one in management to submit their letters of resignation. It gives the new superintendent maximum flexibility to create an organization in his own philosophical image. It doesn't mean that there would necessarily be wholesale replacements, but it does help shake out the people who feel that they can't commit to a new agenda or those who prefer to transfer out of the Avery mothership. One of the primary ways that Supt. Rhee produced results in Washington was in her authority to attack the massive institutional malfeasance and ineffectiveness that she found in her mid-level to upper-level managers. Like Memphis City Schools, there was too much emphasis on the Washington district as an employment agency rather than an educational institution. It will take time to make the needed transformations in the culture, but it is key to success.
Three, he faces the question of how Memphis will define success. After all, even with the proficiency level for elementary students rising 11% in one year in math and 8% in science, and the level of secondary students rising 9% in both math and reading, the Washington district still had only 47 schools – about one-third of the total number of schools – make adequate yearly progress under No Child Left Behind. Such is the challenge of urban education in America today. We need to understand that the battle to transform Memphis City Schools will need to continue for a generation.
The Right Journey
We think that Supt. Cash's attention to accountability could be a strong first step, and it sounds like he's bringing a former Miami colleague in to head up the newly-created, but badly-run, Memphis accountability department. It's also likely that he'll change the reporting responsibility so the department answers to him, not the chief of staff.
He's getting help these days from Irving Hamer, a former deputy superintendent of school improvement for Miami schools and a consultant with Millennium Group. It's unclear at this point if Mr. Hamer is spearheading the process to create a much more effective organization structure as a consultant or whether he may be staying on in Memphis (the betting at the district is that he's staying). Mr. Hamer, like Supt. Cash, is a disciple of Rudy Crew, the reform-minded former head of the New York City school district and now at the helm in Miami.
According to Mr. Hamer's resume, his emphasis is on strategic development, organizational development and fiscal management. In writing about Miami for Education Week (where The Commercial Appeal's Dakarai Aarons will soon take up a new post), Mr. Hamer's comments about the Florida city could have just as accurately apply to Memphis: "There are no easy answers…for years, efforts had been made, without much success, to get the most vulnerable students to meet state and local standards…there was no time for pilot projects…for me, the work encompassed the most poignant social justice issue of the era…gone are the days when small, incremental gains are acceptable for the most vulnerable students.
Momentum For Change
The fact that Supt. Cash is bringing in new thinking and intellectual firepower as he gets started seems to say volumes about his seriousness to create the immediate momentum for change. It seems a safe bet that major staff moves will be made at the district, and apparently, Alfred Hall has already moved from chief academic officer to chief of staff, a shift that seems like a better fit and attitude at the top.
That takes us back to accountability and transparency. We've written often about the ways that former Supt. Carol Johnson's masterful manipulations for No Child Left Behind's "safe harbor" provisions kept dozens of schools off the list of troubled schools. We have no problem in her taking advantage of the arcane features of the law. We do have a problem in misleading the public about substantial progress at the same time that school administrators knew that many, many more schools were not meeting state benchmarks.
If Dr. Cash is to make one pledge, we think it should be that he is making the commitment to base improvements in schools and student performance on a complete, open, honest reporting of the current situation at Memphis City Schools. For example, there is no argument – at least none we hear – that qualified teachers and good teaching are the best predictors of academic success. One Tennessee study found that two groups of students started out at the same place but the group that had three ineffective teachers in a row ended up 50 points behind the other group on a 100-point scale.
This is why Memphis City Schools needs to tear down the walls that have hidden data from parents and community leaders, and instead, the district should dig deeper in the data to give the public meaningful information about performance gaps, opportunity gaps (low-achieving students are more likely to be assigned to ineffective teachers than effective teachers) and practice gaps among teachers and administrators. All of this needs to be done while assuring teachers that it's not about "gotcha" programs, but about sparking the kind of substantive discussion about teaching that can result in higher levels of achievement for their students.
Speaking of teacher quality, we hope that Dr. Cash will delve into The New Teacher Project work at Memphis City Schools. Although the nationally significant program upgraded the quality of teacher applicants in terms of their grade point averages and experience, it never reached its maximum potential because it was strangled to death by the former administration that seemed unwilling to allow the full reform of its hiring policies and programs.
We hope that Dr. Cash is a miracle worker, but the truth is that in urban American education today, there are no miracles. There is only the miraculous results that come from a compelling vision and the alignment of the entire district – administrators, principles, teachers and staff – to achieve them. And, along the way, making decisions and holding people throughout the system accountable by using measurements that clearly monitor performance of students, schools, the district and the community.
Here's the thing. Current school district structure was set a century ago, when marveled by automation and assembly lines, educators thought that they could create an educational system that could stamp out well-educated citizens. It was supposed to be a more scientific way to educate students – standardization, rather than politicization, and a belief that only a few students are meant to achieve.
It's a different world. The structure is not only a throw-back to the pre-Industrial age, but so is the thinking behind it. In particular, it punishes urban district students and ensures that innovations are frustrated at every turn, particularly ideas that do not originate within the schools themselves.
In other words, there's good reason that urban district superintendents have been said to have the "toughest job in America." That said, we refuse to believe that data-driven decisions, strong relationships with parents, high standards and expectations, high quality teachers, entrepreneurial principals, economies of scale with city government and a school-centric commitment at MCS headquarters can't set Memphis apart for its success as the urban school district where nationally significant things are taking place.
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
We were a little surprised this week to see a poster in the window of the UrbanArt Commission for the advocacy film, "Two Million Minutes," a film that purports to demonstrate how far behind American students are when compared to their peers in India and China.
The general premise of the film is that the students in those nations more wisely invest their two million minutes in school than U.S. kids and then portentously projects the fall of American Civilization on the basis of an alleged erosion of our students' performance in math and science. The film often feels more like it was a conclusion in search of an argument rather than a project in search of the facts.
Most of all, it feeds into the well-orchestrated hysteria by some business organizations that "the United States is in danger of losing its competitive edge in science and technology." We haven't seen this much angst since our nation cast the Soviet Union as a superpower to justify sending trillions of dollars to the well-connected defense industry. Only later did we learn that we had been victims of our own government's propaganda.
How About Art?
So, why were we surprised to see the poster in the UAC's window?
Because we think that based on other research, we could make the argument that if those two million minutes included a much greater emphasis on art and music, they would produce better results in our students' lives and careers.
This all began in earnest four years ago when 15 prominent business groups – including U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Defense Industrial Council - whipped up paranoia, perhaps with a dash of xenophobia, by warning direly that a lack of expert engineers and scientists pose a grave threat to U.S. competitiveness. Actually, we'd place more of the blame on some inane economic policies of the current administration, but we suspect that most of the businessmen had already sent in their campaign contributions. As a result, it should be no surprise that these business groups are looking to the Bush Administration for incentives and tax breaks to create what one of them called more "raw material" for them.
The Drum Beat
Today, the same groups issued an updated report that beat the drum again for the crisis in American education and points out that we are being left in the dust by Indian engineers. We immediately thought of a news item that showed that more than $2 billion is being spent in India on college entrance exam coaching and the call by the Indian Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry for deregulation of higher education. "If quality institutions are provided, a large number of students will stay back (home) and contribute to the nation," the business group there said.
Oh, well, we don't want to be too harsh on businessmen - whatever their nationality - for worrying about their profit margins, but we're frankly fatigued from the constant whipping that American education takes in the process. For decades, business leadership in the U.S. has decried a failed education system, and while we are proponents for our own preferred reforms, we think that we need to keep our balance. It's not as if in the decades since "A Nation At Risk," American ingenuity and global economic dominance have vanished.
Also, we think that a single strategy on a single front – more emphasis on science and math – is simplistic and denies the realities of the knowledge economy, not to mention the components of a fulfilling life. Only someone at the top of the business food chain could suggest that the answer to our economic future is for American students to be more obsessive-compulsive about school and should feel ashamed for their participation in the extra-curricular activities that give their lives pleasure and camaraderie.
We're not saying that it's not a good goal to have more people with degrees in science, math and engineering (and art and music for that matter), but we are saying that we need to discuss it without suggesting that the sky is falling. After all, in our opinion, the facts tell a different story.
About the same time as the business report said that China and India were producing more engineers, Duke University conducted a study to evaluate the persistent repeating of these dire statistics as evidence of declining American prowess in the world. Its conclusions were simple enough: they are misleading at best and inaccurate at worst.
First of all, when considered in terms of population, the U.S. is producing about 750 engineering graduates for every one million people; in China, it's 500; and in Indian, it's 200.
The Proverbial Apples And Oranges
In addition, when China and India report graduates in engineering, they don't limit them to people with four-year degrees, and they include computer technology specialists and technicians. In fact, only about half of these countries' annual engineering graduates are capable of competing in an environment known for its outsourcing. To compound the flimsiness of the statistics, there is even evidence that China includes motor mechanics in its number. If you look at the kinds of jobs filled by engineers in India and China – low-paid engineering jobs at that – they are those that can be filled by transactional engineers, according to the study. In the area of high-level engineering, the field that is dominated by U.S. engineers, and there's no reason to predict that it will not remain that way.
In addition, researchers at Georgetown University and The Urban Institute issued a research report last October, "Into the Eye of the Storm: Assessing the Evidence on Science and Engineering Education, Quality and Workforce Demand.
Here's the interesting part: "Of the challenges discussed, few are thought to be as serious as the purported decline in the supply of high quality students from the beginning to the end of the S&E pipeline – a decline brought about by declining emphasis on math and science education, coupled with a supposed declining interest among domestic students in S&E careers. However, our review of the data fails to find support for these presumptions. Rather, the available data indicate increases in the absolute numbers of secondary school graduates and increases in their math and science performance levels. Domestic and international trends suggest that U.S. schools show steady improvement in math and science (and) the U.S. is not at any particular disadvantage compared with most nations, and the supply of S&E-qualified graduates is large and ranks among the best internationally."
Needed: Bigger Megaphone
In fact, the report concluded that the American educational system produces more qualified graduates than there is demand for them. Each year, there are three times as many science and engineering four-year college graduates as job openings. "It is difficult to conclude that the major economic 'threats' to the United States are related to the performance levels of U.S. students as compared to students in other countries" and "our major economic competitors, particularly emerging nation behemoths, are not among top test scoring nations."
In fact, if film producers would bother to scratch the surface, it turns out that Singapore is trying to emulate U.S. innovation and creativity and deemphasize strict math and science test performance.
Unfortunately, the news media headlines the reports by well-financed business interests and buries statistics that tell a different story. In the end, it's a case of who can afford to biggest megaphone, and researchers don't have the marketing machine that the business sector can mobilize to pass legislation or get out its story. As a result, these statistics continue to be widely used by people with their own special interest in creating the impression of a crisis in need of their own specialized cure, whether it is more federal money for educating for the kinds of workers they want or more tax breaks for their corporations.
Monday, July 14, 2008
Doug Farr, green architect and author of Sustainable Urbanism, urged the 350 people attending the announcement at Memphis Botanic Garden to resist traditional silos in implementing the agenda and moving ahead. His 40-minute presentation highlighted the things that are important to a sustainable city – effective public transit, transit-oriented development, walkable and bikable neighborhoods, high performance buildings and high performance infrastructure.
While Memphis is usually behind the curve on these kinds of initiatives, this is one time when we seem to have the chance to be at the front of a movement forming behind Mr. Farr’s principles and philosophy. Already, our local ULI chapter is following up with him to set up a workshop in a couple of months to build momentum behind the Sustainable Shelby process.
As part of the Sustainable Shelby process (with which we helped), the 52 top-rated priorities will get immediate attention. In the next 90 days, plans of implementation will be developed for each of them, and to emphasize the point, Mayor Wharton said 90 days four different times.
Recently back from a study tour of Germany with the Brookings Institution, he said that if Germany can retool its economy, remake its cities and reinvent its transportation networks, surely Shelby County can do the same. A similar point was made by Mr. Farr, who said that Memphis should shed its normal lack of self-confidence to take up the call to become a leader of sustainable urbanism.
The comprehensive recommendations were developed in only four months by seven committees - transportation and traffic, public buildings and public policies, neighborhood rebirth, public incentives, environment and natural resources, building codes, and land use and development – and the ratings for the top 52 were the product of voting by the members of the committee members and voting on behalf of the public using a public opinion poll by Steve Ethridge.
$2 Billion Penalty For Waiting Too Long
There’s a recommendation from every committee in the top 15, but concern about land use and development policies is clearly evident. Three of the top five recommendations were related to that area, and based on the Shelby County debt of about $2 billion, it’s hard to argue about the need for different land use and development patterns.
While Mayor Wharton’s attention on smart growth was spurred by the threat of bankruptcy if county government’s debt remains unchecked, he seems able now to show just as much passion about reducing daily commuting mileage (Portland economist Joe Cortright pointed out at the kick-off of the process that if we could reduce our daily driving mileage by 1.6 miles a day, it would result in $280 million in savings), the need to develop quality public transit that gets people out of their cars, “complete streets” and walkable neighborhoods.
While Mayor Wharton only has a couple more years in office as county mayor, he pledges to make Sustainable Shelby a priority, and in light of his expected race as frontrunner in the next Memphis mayor’s race, there is the chance for the agenda to be transplanted in city government as well.
Regardless, this smart growth agenda is an idea whose time has come. We’ve proven how badly we can degrade our quality of life with unbridled sprawl, with developers calling the shots, with traffic engineers given the power to shape our city’s character and with an inequitable tax structure subsidizing the unsustainable lifestyle choices of residents in far-flung reaches of Shelby County.
In that regard, it was encouraging to us that the #1 recommendation dealt with the public realm. We would never have predicted it, but there it was – “Create/reinvest in a great public realm that includes parks, schools, streets, plazas that are appropriately scaled – one size does not fit all.” Coupled with it in our mind is the #2 recommendation, which said: “Create/reinvest in great neighborhoods – not merely subdivisions – that are “complete,” walkable, and provide a sense of neighborhood.”
If we could only get those two right, we’d be happy, but if the other 50 are also backed up with plans to implement them, this could indeed be the seminal event that its organizers envisioned.
Getting The Conversation Right
As we have regularly written, too often, in Shelby County, we’re not having the right conversation about the important issues. Instead, we are rehashing the past, we are fighting old battles and we are driven by personality conflicts while our city and county drift aimlessly at a time when it needs all cylinders working together to compete in this complex economy.
Finally, it feels like we are having the right conversation about the right issues and the right strategies.
But, now for the fun part -- making sure, as Mayor Wharton said, that Sustainable Shelby doesn’t merely become another report that we dust off occasionally to congratulate ourselves on our collective wisdom.
The proof of his and like-minded organizations’ seriousness will become clear in the coming weeks, because recommendations without implementation are nothing but wishful thinking. It seems that we actually have the chance for new thinking on some old issues that are fundamental to the kind of city that we want and can create.