Pride Goeth (you know the rest)…

City, County or some mix of the two?

I write this from the perspective of not having children who have gone through a public school system. I’ve never had to make the decision of where to live to make sure anyone I was responsible for got a quality education. At my age, it’s unlikely that I’ll ever have to. However, I do contribute to the tax base of both Memphis and Shelby County, so I am certain that I deserve an opinion on the current situation facing the school systems of both entities.

I spent my entire primary and secondary education in public schools (not Memphis). Most of the communities where I lived had decent school systems, even though there was a little white flight in my Ohio home town when busing finally rolled around. I’d always been willing to give public school systems the benefit of the doubt when I’d hear parents talk about not wanting their children in “those” schools. It’s easy to assume that it’s just the racism talking; typically, the worst performing schools are the ones chock-full of minority kids. But after all, if you care about your kids’ education, and have the option, why wouldn’t you want you kids in good schools, regardless of race (yours or the majority of kids in a particular school)?

Can This System Be Saved?

I know there’s a widespread feeling that the Memphis City Schools, on the whole, aren’t very good. In my case, I didn’t really lose my confidence in public schools until I lived here. It seems that the administration of the system has been bloated and unable to cope with the needs of the students it serves for years (fair or not, like many local problems, I blame Herenton). Does the overall underperformance of the Memphis schools have anything to do with race? Probably not. In any administrative hierarchy, you’re going to have knuckleheads, ego-driven boobs and clowns of every race. Is it the kids? Of course not. Given equal opportunities, children can excel. I went to decent public schools and my parents were very involved in encouraging me to do well – and I did.

Now we’re getting somewhere. Because of the economic situation that affects many of the residents of the city of Memphis, those affected parents lack the wherewithal to give their children necessary support to do well in school. They work too much, or not at all. They may lack sufficient education themselves to make a valuable contribution to their children’s education. They may also not have the sophistication to realize how important it is to be involved in the educational process. This is why it really doesn’t matter how much money poorly performing schools systems spend. Until the bigger problem is dealt with, dumping money into schools won’t do much. Parents of poorly performing students have to be brought up to the level of the parents who are terrified of having their kids forced into a school system that doesn’t seem very good.

Going It Alone?

Which brings us to where we are. The Shelby County School has discussed special school district status. That would allow it to set it boundaries, keeping the Memphis system at its current size, unable to grow, even it the City of Memphis were to annex additional parts of Shelby County – unless approved by county voters. Schools in those areas would stay county schools. The Shelby system would also become a taxing district, setting an education property tax rate. I personally think it’s a good idea for a school system to be responsible for raising its own money, rather than depend on cities and counties with other priorities. Some believe a Shelby County Schools tax district would keep the Memphis schools from drawing from the county tax base – forcing it to rely only on state and city money, which would cause some belt-tightening in city government.

To forestall that, a majority of members of the Memphis Board of Education has voted to surrender the district’s charter. If approved by city residents, the Memphis City Schools would cease to be as an independent entity and the county system would be obligated to take over operation of all city schools, in addition to county schools. That has certainly set some teeth a-chattering.

It’s almost funny. The failed city-county consolidation effort had as a selling point the promise that no effort would be made to every consolidate the schools. Now, almost by default, the only unconsolidated major school districts in Tennessee may have to merge. I’d almost worry about another spate of white flight. On the one hand, DeSoto and Tipton Counties would certainly welcome the addition to their tax bases, but with the housing market still on the weak side, how easy would it be for thousands of people to up and leave?

Like everything else in this town, this is quickly going to boil down to race. Not the race of the children involved, but of the adults trying to protect their power bases. If the county does take over running all the schools, all the people involved in running the city schools (mostly African-American) will find themselves with very little to do. I’m not worried about city superintendent Kriner Cash. He’s already noted that he’s retired from a couple of jobs, so he’ll be okay. But we know how dear political power is held around here, and I have the feeling that people who feel theirs is being threatened will raise the specter of “those” people (white in this case) making decisions about “our” children (black in this case).

And there’s the reverse of this.  We’re already seeing political leaders in the other cities in the county giving voice to the idea of starting their own municipal school systems to avoid being swallowed up in a system that would end up made up of mostly Memphis schools. Good luck with that idea. It’s way to expensive to start a school system from scratch, especially when you’d also need approval by the Tennessee Legislature. The Republican-dominated Legislature may be disposed to be on their side, but the money thing of starting numerous new districts is going to make it a lot harder to say “yes” to something like that.

Let’s go back to the title of this post, which borrows from Proverbs 16:18: “Pride goeth before destruction, And a haughty spirit before a fall.” The biggest problem we’re going to see in this situation is the prideful stubbornness exhibited by the various political powers involved. A single system, even a large one, would be an advantage to kids on the low end of the socio-economic spectrum. They’d be in a system that would, at least in part, be geared toward serving better-performing students. That could help them rise to a higher level than they might reach otherwise. Anyway, if Shelby becomes a special district, Memphis would eventually lose too much tax base to be viable, and the state would end up forcing a merger. Better to get on the front end of a shotgun marriage – it might be easier to avoid the petty jealousies and power plays we’re bound to see. Right now, there’s way too much pridefulness. If we, as a community (city and county) don’t see past that, we will fall. And the children (all of them) will suffer.


The News Never Dies

Norm Brewer: from the Commercial Appeal

Perspective. It’s something a lot of current and former newspeople were thinking about Monday. The passing of Norm Brewer, longtime commentator at NewsChannel 3 got many of us thinking about the work he did and the work we did. Before he came to WREG, Norm was at WMC, so over the years many of us had the opportunity to work with him.

I didn’t always see eye to eye with former Channel 3 general manager Bob Eoff, but he did a very smart thing when he came back to Memphis to run the station. While the people in all the newsrooms in town work very hard, there isn’t always institutional memory or the time to look at issues with context. Bringing in Brewer and George Lapides showed that Eoff recognized a need and took advantage of an excellent opportunity to tap into their years of experience.

On occasion, news directors at 3 would be smart enough to consult Norm for background on things occurring in Memphis. One of the downsides of the business is that the people who run newsrooms are a lot like the managers of baseball teams; they come and go based on the needs of the station at the time. Driving ratings, putting together anchor teams, getting new equipment for the weather team take up a lot of time for news directors, who often have little or no long-term connection to the cities where they work. Having a resource with the brains, class and insight of Norm Brewer took some of the load off of the news directors who were smart enough to listen to him.

The "Retiring" Mr. Mintz

I was thinking along those lines over the last few days anyway, after the retirement of Bernie Mintz, longtime shooter and assignment editor. 50 years of doing anything is amazing, but in this business, it’s downright incredible. Especially in one market. I lasted in news about half that time, but I worked in 9 different markets! I never met Bernie personally, but I worked news in Memphis long enough to know that he worked assignments better than most. While people who work on assignment desks should get out of their stations from time to time and actually talk to the people they cover and help report on, the limitations of most local newsrooms keep that from happening. Some assignment editors don’t take the time, more often, I think newsrooms are understaffed to the point that managers are afraid to let desk people leave the room out of fear that something coming across on one of the police scanners. I don’t want to forget the years of hard work by Leon Griffin, who, like Mintz, is also retiring from WHBQ.

Thanks for the insight, Bevan

I noted a Facebook comment from former Channel 3 co-worker Bevan Bell about Norm’s passing. “R.I.P. Norm Brewer. News never dies.” Way to put things in perspective, Bevan. The greats retire or pass away, but their memory, their experience, their influence remains for the people who continue the work. I am anxious, and hopeful, that there are people working in Memphis news who will be the next Mintz and the next Brewer, because news, as the man said, never dies.

Shoes and no socks

I’m trying to keep up the good work. Once you work off 36 pounds, the challenge is to either keep losing or at least maintain your progress. The problem of building this around a weight-loss contest is that it’s hard to keep going once the contest ends. And if it ends the right before Thanksgiving, it’s even harder. I spent the holiday at my sister’s house, and she is both a good cook and an excellent host – so there was more than enough to eat while I was visiting. I did not however, insist on using guest privileges at the gym she and my brother-in-law belong to. I also let the cold weather keep me inside the house while I was there (hey, it gets cold in Ohio).

Matt prepping the gear

Earlier in the week, I spent some time in the wilds of Minnesota for work. It gets even colder there. I don’t mind traveling, but the week of Thanksgiving, the Grand Rapids (Minnesota, not Michigan) metroplex was in the single-digit temperature range. During the day. I’ve lived in the South so long that it’s difficult to even imagine why people live in places that get that cold. And it wasn’t particularly easy to get there either (it’s an old logging town). Fly from Memphis to Detroit. Change planes and fly to Duluth. Rent a car and drive 90 minutes to Grand Rapids. The people up there are very nice and they have that flat Midwestern tone in their voice (it’s like watching “Fargo”). It’s also the home of the Judy Garland Museum, although we didn’t have a chance to stop by.

Oh yeah, it was cold!

Think I was kidding about the single digits? The rental had a dashboard temperature display. When we arrived at our outdoor location (of course there’s an outdoor location – why else go to Minnesota?), it was a balmy 9 degrees. The videographer was able to build a little warmth because he was moving around. Being the producer on a shoot like this is problematic. You can’t really take notes when you’re worried that your fingers are going to fall off. It did warm up a bit before we left. An entire degree. The first day we were there, it was nearly 70 in Memphis (makes you want to channel Kenan Thompson and sing “what’s up with that?”)

Surprisingly comfortable

Now that I’m back, it’s still a challenge to stay active. There is a fitness center at our office campus; I’m just too lazy to take the extra time to go there before work or stay late to go after work. When it was light until 8pm, I didn’t mind working out after getting home. Of course, now that it’s pitch black outside by 5:15, it’s a bit of a challenge. Not running in the dark, but knowing that the temperature is going to drop to freezing on most days. And now that I’m wearing the Vibram 5-Finger shoes, I can’t wear thick socks to keep my feet warm.

But – surprisingly – once I get out the door and start moving, I find that my feet are the warmest thing on me. If I layer correctly, I can actually work up a sweat by running two quick miles. Even though I like to go a little farther than that, I know I’d want to stop and walk a little bit if I were trying to cover 3 miles. With two miles, I get out, and I’m back in, inside of 20 minutes. I’m not quite sure what I’ll do when it gets even colder. Stay tuned.

Trickle Down?

Let's Make a Deal

So, is it a deal or not? The president and the Congressional Republicans have reached an agreement on extended the Bush-era tax cuts. From a personal standpoint, I admit that the cuts have specifically profited me, helping to make sure I’ve gotten a healthy refund over the last few years. Collectively, I know that tax cuts, combined with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the expansion of Medicare drug coverage, helped fuel the current economic situation.

There are still widely differing opinions on whether the economic stimulus worked. In an online discussion with former Memphis TV reporter Jonathan Clarke, I thought that the deal, even though it retains tax breaks for the rich, might be a good thing for a lot of folks because it would extend unemployment benefits, drop payroll taxes and keep tax breaks for the middle class.

I have heard the idea that keeping taxes low for higher income Americans will help job creation, because it will give small business owners the capital needed to expand employment. Someone has to explain to me where those folks were while getting those tax breaks over the last few years. It’s my opinion that people with money are most interested in making money. If they believed that creating new jobs in this country would make them money, they’d do that. If they thought shipping jobs overseas would make them money, then they’d do that. And if they believed that sitting on piles of money until they had more confidence in the economic policies of an Administration bullied by a Tea Party and elite class-influenced Republican-controlled Congress, then that’s what would happen. Hey wait – that’s actually what’s been happening!

The Boyz

Okay, we’re in a new economy. I was downsized about a year and a half ago. A few more people in my old department have seen their jobs “redefined.” It seems likely that when the economic cycle turns, it won’t be the same kind of turn we saw in the “go-go” 90s, as reporters used to call them. Still, the economy will improve. It always does, pretty much whatever the President or Congress does. So – should they agree on everything? While I still have a lot of confidence in President Obama, I don’t think he’s got the political savvy of President Clinton. You’ve got to know how to give the GOP their lead for a while. Let them run. They’ll get full of themselves and do something ill-advised. I don’t think the influence of the Tea Party will keep the old-line Republicans from doing the same kind of things they did during the last administration that helped deep-six the economy. On the off chance that I’m wrong, I have no problem admitting it. If John Boehner and Mitch McConnell lead the country in the right direction, that’ll be just fine. But who really thinks that’s what will happen?