This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Governor Bill Haslam says the state could soon make changes to its controversial system for evaluating teachers. An outside review of the evaluation process is due out this week. Haslam wanted the new teacher evaluations to finish the school-year before any retooling took place. Over winter he asked SCORE – the education group founded by former Senator Bill Frist – to look at ways to tweak the law. That helped keep legislators off the subject awhile.
Asking the state’s most vocal education reform advocates to assess its new teacher evaluation system was by no means “just a charade,” Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday. The State Collaborative on Reforming Education is expected to release an analysis of the teacher evaluation system June 1, giving lawmakers a tool they can use to drive revisions to the state’s contentious new method for grading more than 64,000 teachers.
The state’s unemployment rate continues to drop, but officials who track workforce trends say some of that decrease can be attributed to thousands of out-of-work Tennesseans who have stopped looking for work. “I do think there are some folks who have just permanently, or almost permanently, taken themselves out of the job market saying, ‘I have given up,’” Gov. Bill Haslam told reporters after speaking at the American Legion Auxiliary Volunteer Girls State assembly at Lipscomb University Tuesday.
Governor Bill Haslam put pen to paper and signed into law a major victory for victims of sexual assault. On Tuesday, Haslam signed “Kimberlee’s Law” which closes a loophole in the justice system that let people of aggravated rape get out of jail early. Before this law, there were two conflicting laws; one dictated violent offenders serve 100-percent of their jail time another let felons earn time-served for good behavior. The law is named after Kimberlee Morton, who was the victim of a violent rape and attempted murder in Memphis more than a decade ago.
Health, community leaders strive to help stop U.S. obesity epidemic The state’s top health official on Tuesday compared Tennessee’s obesity epidemic to drug addiction and called on chambers of commerce to confront the problem. “I’m pretty convinced that when we are talking about obesity and being overweight, we’re dealing with something that is a chronic relapsing disease. It’s not going to be easy to move this needle,” state Commissioner of Health Dr. John Dreyzehner said, speaking at a joint summit of the Tennessee Obesity Task Force and Gov. Bill Haslam’s Health and Wellness Task Force.
The Highlands Workforce Development & Education Committee is hosting a statewide summit on Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The Reaching Higher in Tennessee: Economics of Education Summit will take place in the Roaden University Center on the campus of Tennessee Technological University. The goal of the summit is to create awareness of the importance of education and workforce development and its link to economic development.
Tennessee Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Commissioner Jim Henry is on a statewide tour to promote awareness of people with disabilities. The goal of the visits is to encourage citizens to support agencies providing services to the disabled. During the tour, Henry will award certificates of appreciation signed by Gov. Bill Haslam. The tour began Tuesday in Memphis.
The state’s top banking regulator sees banks positioning themselves for the future — a good thing in his mind, given the market and regulatory challenges at hand. Commissioner Greg Gonzales, head of Tennessee’s Department of Financial Institutions, said the intensifying trend of thrifts converting to commercial banks is just one of several examples of lenders trying to find a competitive vantage point.
The Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation has launched a new microsite to commemorate the 75th anniversary of state parks. It displays a wide range of content that can be used to plan a visit to one of the 54 parks. Done in partnership with the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, it also includes an interactive historical timeline. Bob Martineau, commissioner of environment and conservation, said the site stresses the natural, cultural and historical resources at the parks.
State workers regularly inspect highway bridges for safety, and Tennessee even has a program to identify potential rockslide areas. But it has no formal method for watching for possible slope failures such as those that twice have closed Interstate 75 in Campbell County. “I’m not aware of any state having a slope inspection program,” said Steve Borden, director of the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s Region 1, which includes East Tennessee.
The confirmation of white-nose syndrome in endangered gray bats in upper East Tennessee is “great cause for concern,” officials say. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has confirmed the presence of white-nose syndrome in very rare bats that wintered in caves in Hawkins and Montgomery counties. “The documented spread of [white-nose syndrome] on gray bats is devastating news,” said Paul McKenzie, a Fish and Wildlife Service endangered species coordinator, in a prepared statement.
Wildlife officials say they’ve found more Tennessee bats infected with deadly white nose syndrome. And as For the first time, the disease has been on Eastern Gray bats, which are an endangered species. White nose is a fungal infection that has killed off entire colonies of bats in the northeast and in Canada. It’s not yet clear whether the disease is deadly for gray bats, but there’s a lot of potential for it to spread throughout the species. Gray bats gather by the hundreds of thousands to hibernate in just a handful of caves.
State authorities are investigating the disappearance of more than $20,000 from the Monroe County chapter of the American Red Cross, an official said. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation launched an inquiry at the request of the District Attorney General’s Office May 9, according to TBI spokeswoman Kristin Helm. Helm said the investigation is focused on several “questionable ATM withdrawals” made in Sweetwater, Madisonville and Athens.
The road to creating a bike and walking trail that winds throughout the Dyer County community received a boost on Friday, when state officials presented a check for $97,000 to complete a portion of the community’s Master Plan. The funds are a grant from the Recreation Trails Program, a federally funded program established to aid diverse recreation trail projects. The RTP grant is provided by the Federal Highway Administration through the federal Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act.
The Tennessee Supreme Court has overturned a death sentence for a man convicted of murdering a Scott County couple in their bed and has ordered that a new jury decide whether to execute the inmate or spare his life. The state’s highest court said Tuesday that prosecutors committed misconduct by making inappropriate statements to the jury during the murder trial of Hubert Glenn Sexton. The court also found that some evidence should not have been admitted because it was highly prejudicial.
Chattanooga officials say local police already have identified some violent criminal street gangs that officials could eventually target under an expansion of Tennessee’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act that takes effect July 1. “The answer is yes,” said Boyd Patterson, one of Mayor Ron Littlefield’s two Gang Task Force coordinators, on Tuesday. “There are some specific criminal organizations in Chattanooga to whom the RICO bill could be applied.”
A judge’s ruling has stopped construction of a Nashville suburban mosque that has been at the center of a rowdy debate for more than two years. Chancellor Robert Corlew ruled Tuesday that proper public notice was not given for the May 2010 meeting that approved the site plan for the mosque being built near Murfreesboro, a booming city of about 100,000 people southeast of Nashville. Corlew notes that his opinion doesn’t prevent the Rutherford County Planning Commission from reconsidering the issue and approving the mosque site plan again.
Muslim community confused, saddened as site approval voided Uncertainty and sadness pervaded the local Islamic community Tuesday after Chancellor Robert Corlew voided site approval of a mosque under construction on Veals Road. The decision may halt work once legal documents are signed and delivered. But with construction in the final stage, a new Islamic Center of Murfreesboro will keep going up until the county orders workers to stop, a mosque spokesman said Tuesday.
A judge says the Rutherford County planning commission violated state law by not giving adequate public notice about a request to build a mosque in Murfreesboro. But the judge did not say whether work on the building has to stop. Mosque supporters and opponents disagree on whether the ruling means construction work at the site should stop immediately until there is another planning meeting to discuss the request again. Essam Fathy, head of the construction committee for the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, said workers will return to the Veals Road site today to continue building the 52,960-square-foot mosque because no one in county government has told them to stop.
Rutherford County’s government failed to let enough residents know about mosque construction plans before approving the project, a judge ruled Tuesday. “The Plaintiffs presented testimony of a number of officials, including the county commissioner who is elected to represent the district in which the building is being constructed, had no knowledge that the matter was being considered,” Chancellor Robert Corlew III said in his ruling.
John Morton grows more produce than he and his family could possibly ever eat. He wants to sell some of the squash, tomatoes, cantaloupe and other crops, and he has the clientele ready to buy. But under the city’s current law, Morton and other farmers are prohibited from selling their produce on their property, as retail sales are not allowed in agricultural zoned districts in Davidson County. “Not being able to sell anything off your farm, you’re putting a small farmer out of business,” said Morton, who helps his mom staff HomePlace, the family’s 166-acre farm in Antioch.
Last year at this time, County Mayor Jim Coppinger and his staff were bracing for layoffs and $13 million in budget cuts. This year, they’re preparing to compensate the county’s 1,867 workers, who haven’t had a raise since the 2009 fiscal year, which began July 1, 2008. Coppinger will begin meeting individually with county commissioners next week to talk about his proposal, he said Tuesday. He won’t talk specifically about what type of compensation he’ll propose but confirmed that he’s still pushing for some.
A Knox County Commission public forum Tuesday brought out more than 60 residents, some touting a multimillion-dollar plan to better local schools, but most encouraging commissioners to pass a minor property tax increase to help seniors and the disabled pay for public transportation. The so-called transportation tax would increase property taxes by 1 cent per $100 of assessed value. For the owner of a house valued at $150,000, that would be an additional $3.75 a year in taxes. It would raise an extra $1 million in revenue.
Memphis City Council members on Tuesday began sifting through three council-generated proposals to fund city government for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The theme running through all three proposals is reducing the property tax burden on Memphians, a contrast to Mayor A C Wharton’s call for a 47-cent increase to cover the cost of court-ordered funding for Memphis City Schools. “I think it’s a real healthy discussion when we’re talking about the big issues,” said council member Shea Flinn.
Three Memphis City Council members have presented plans that would roll back the city’s current property tax rate to varying degrees and come up with the city’s last mandatory funding to Memphis City Schools using differing combinations of one-time funds. Council members Jim Strickland, Harold Collins and Edmund Ford Jr. presented their plans during a Tuesday, May 29, budget committee session. No votes were taken in committee.
Bob Patterson, the county official known for his felt hats and folksy charm, repeatedly gave it a try. After he died in 2008, Paul Mattila picked up the attempts where Patterson left off. So did Regina Morrison Newman, who replaced Mattila when he died in 2009. Now current Shelby County Trustee David Lenoir, like county trustees before him, also is giving it a try. The “it” is convincing the city of Memphis to let the trustee’s office collect current and back taxes from Memphis property owners.
Officials hope to draw recreation, fishing industry; opening in March 2013 After more than two decades in the making, residents of Carroll County will soon be able to enjoy a new man-made lake on the outskirts of Huntingdon. The Carroll County Watershed Authority met Tuesday afternoon at Lake Headquarters in Huntingdon. During the meeting, the group discussed a name for the Carroll County lake and talked about renaming some roads.
In an effort to highlight the voices of Republican women in Congress, Brentwood Congressman Marsha Blackburn has helped create a group called the Women’s Policy Committee. Democrats and critics of the GOP, however, don’t think that the panel truly addresses women’s concerns. Blackburn is the vice-chair of the group, which is only made up of female Republicans. She says the goal is to address issues that affect everyone, not just women.
Scottie Mayfield may not like “the big liberal media,” but a campaign document shows the dairy executive’s desire to milk the editorial pages for all they’re worth. In a mass email sent Friday afternoon, Mayfield staffer Abby Robinson asked an undisclosed list of supporters to write letters to the editor. She also told them what to say. “I have attached 12 talking points that we have put together for you as a guide when writing your letter,” the letter states.
A running joke about public safety communication is that first responders are only trying to catch up to the average teenager with a smartphone. But the issue really isn’t funny at all: The performance of the nation’s aging web of public safety networks, which often can’t communicate with each other, is a matter of life and death. According to The 9/11 Commission Report, many of the first responders on September 11, 2001, lacked the ability to communicate with one another at the site in a situation where time was extremely limited.
Normandy Reservoir is at its lowest summer level since 1981, two feet lower than during the drought of 2007, according to Tennessee Valley Authority officials, and Tims Ford Reservoir is also much lower than normal. As the summer season begins, TVA is urging boaters and swimmers to use caution, avoiding hazards like rocks and stumps which may be brought into play in unexpected locations by the low lake levels. Way down Normandy is currently at 868.6 feet, compared to a desired summer pool of 875 feet, according to Thomas Barnett, manager of river forecast operations support for TVA’s river scheduling and river operations.
Just a year after the official opening of Chattanooga’s Volkswagen plant, the company and the city are making moves that suggest the potential for expansion of the factory and nearby supplier park. On Tuesday, the city’s Industrial Development Board agreed to accept $19.1 million in state funds, part of which involve regrading land next to the existing factory that has been identified for possible plant expansion. The board also agreed to hire a company to begin planning for a new road to the supplier park and the layout of future buildings.
Pilgrim’s Pride may lay off or relocate as many as 400 workers in Hamilton County by June 15. The poultry processing company, which operates two downtown Chattanooga plants with nearly 1,500 workers, said the job cuts are because of improved plant efficiencies. Pilgrim’s Pride said it will continue to process as many chickens as it has in the past and will not cut its orders from contract growers in the area.
Metro rejects plan of firm criticized for catering to rich The Metro school board granted approval to two new charter schools, one specializing in literature and language and the other hoping to teach financial literacy along with academics. Intrepid Preparatory Charter School in Antioch and Nashville Classical Charter School in East Nashville were approved by the Metro school board Tuesday. Both schools hope to open by 2013. They will join 12 charter schools already operating in Metro.
The argument over who is to lead the new city-county school district will move behind closed doors next week. The unified school board will meet in executive session on Monday to discuss the purpose of a June 11 special board meeting scheduled by board chairman Billy Orgel last Friday to discuss whether Memphis City Schools Supt. Kriner Cash’s contract should be renewed for the start of the unified school system. Civil rights leaders and African-American clergy voiced their opposition to that move earlier Tuesday, saying the process has been unfair and makes Shelby County Schools Supt. John Aitken the shoo-in for the top job.
The discussion about who will head the new consolidated Shelby County school system has been under way on an unofficial basis since Memphis voters approved a Memphis City Schools charter surrender in March 2011. The countywide school board that took office the following October will begin the formal discussion next week with a special June 11 meeting to review the contract of MCS superintendent Kriner Cash. Cash’s contract runs to the beginning of the merger of what are now Shelby County’s two public school systems.
Shelby County suburban leaders are headed to the Election Commission today with newly approved ordinances seeking referendums on municipal school systems. Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Germantown, Lakeland and Millington gave final approval Tuesday night — their latest step to avoid becoming part of the unified school system slated to begin in August 2013. The suburbs have until the end of the week to submit the paperwork asking for their respective referendums to be on the Aug. 2 ballot, but none wanted to wait that long.
Technology, construction main topics The Jackson-Madison County School Board budget committee met Tuesday night to discuss its priorities as far as which school projects should have budget cuts and which ones should not. Committee members discussed the numbers of school buses that should be purchased for the coming year and technology purchases, the school system’s usage of the Oman Arena and the completion of a track at Liberty Technology Magnet High School.
A Chattanooga doctor accused of running a “pill mill” faces a 105-count federal indictment that includes charges of health care fraud, income tax evasion, money laundering and using a firearm in the operation of a criminal enterprise. Arrested Tuesday morning in O’Neil Medical Clinic at 4719 Brainerd Road, Ihsaan al-Amin was arraigned before U.S. Magistrate Susan Lee late the same day. The 61-year-old man faces a maximum of 20 years in prison and an additional five years for the weapons charge if convicted.
There is widespread agreement that post-secondary education is a must for today’s students if they hope to land a good-paying job. But several issues stand in the way of achieving education success. Most notable are the poor results from the K-12 education and the high cost of post-secondary education programs. New approaches are needed to address these issues. Today’s employers demand applicants with significant oral, written and computer skills. Many good-paying jobs also demand solid math skills. Many high school students look forward to going to college or to a post-secondary technical school.
The dangers of illegal drug use have been present for decades, but those dangers have been amplified and complicated in recent years with new threats. These are threats that parents must take into account as they seek to protect their children. These are threats that potential abusers of drugs need to take into account when they consider the substances they may put into their bodies. We’re talking about the abuse of prescription drugs and the proliferation of synthetic drugs. Both can kill. A recent report to the state General Assembly indicates that the abuse of prescription drugs may be at an epidemic level.
It’s hard to head into another hot summer without venting steam over the way Republicans in control of Tennessee’s Legislature again left Nashville with ordinary Tennesseans paying among the nation’s highest sales taxes on food, while they bragged about granting the state’s richest citizens the biggest tax cuts the top 1-tenth of the top 1 percent has received in modern times. The unfair disparity could not be more glaring. A large majority of states that levy sales taxes exempt both food and prescription drugs from such taxes. Of the five states that do levy sales taxes on food, just two apply higher sales taxes on food than Tennessee’s new rate, which the Legislature reduced from 5.5 percent to 5.25 percent.
The Tennessee Supreme Court wisely made Special Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood reconsider his dismissal of three convictions in the gruesome Christian/Newsom slayings, forcing the judge to cite specific reasons for his decision. Blackwood now must review the trial records and find supporting evidence — If he can — for his tossing of the convictions of Lamaricus Davidson, Letalvis Cobbins and George Thomas. In a ruling issued last week, the justices gave Blackwood a framework for his reconsideration. The judge, who has been put in the unenviable position of cleaning up the legal mess former Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner left behind, should take his time and amply justify his ultimate decision.
A Sevier County district attorney general and Special Judge Jon Kerry Blackwood have struck again. Last year, retired district attorney general Al Schmutzer, representing the people, and Blackwood, representing justice, signed off on a plea bargain that let disgraced former Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner skip jail time after Baumgartner was found to have used illegal drugs and engaged in illicit sex in the courthouse. Last week, current 4th Judicial Circuit District Attorney General Jimmy Dunn and Blackwood agreed to a plea bargain that allowed former Sevier County Clerk Joe Keener to escape incarceration after Keener admitted taking almost $100,000.
With this being an election year, there are questions about whether the National Nuclear Security Administration will award the huge contract consolidating management of the Y-12 and Pantex nuclear weapons plants — and possibly the tritium operations at Savannah River — before the November elections. Almost every move these days seems calculated to political effect, and this contract involves three states — Tennessee, Texas and South Carolina — as well as some major corporations. So, we’ll see what happens. The award will significantly alter the contracting landscape in Oak Ridge, and there are continuing concerns that the contracting change will reduce employment at Y-12 and perhaps dilute Oak Ridge’s influence at agency headquarters in Washington, D.C.
The Shelby County Commission wrapped up its annual budget deliberations early this year when it passed a $1.2 billion budget May 21 — about $980,000 more in spending for the coming fiscal year than county Mayor Mark Luttrell had proposed. Among other things, the commissioners were able to include extra money to help the homeless and to aid basketball star Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway’s efforts to build a youth sports facility, but only with the provision that the facility must be located in the inner city instead of in Cordova. Luttrell was not pleased with the extra spending. He had proposed a balanced budget that included a 1 percent salary increase for employees, no layoffs and no change in property taxes.