This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Global investment management and services firm BNY Mellon officially broke ground on the expansion of its processing center on Brick Church Pike in Nashville on Wednesday. The New York-based firm, which has roughly 200 employees in Nashville, didn’t disclose the number of jobs that will be added to the processing center, which opened in 2005. Spokesman Lane Cigna said the firm hopes to hire local college graduates and will recruit students from Middle Tennessee State University in particular.
Gov. Bill Haslam is warming to the idea of establishing a process whereby state education officials bypass local school districts when considering approval of new charter schools. The governor has for months indicated little interest in the idea, which is a departure from the current system wherein local elected officials determine whether to allow a taxpayer-funded charter school to operate in their district.
Gov. Bill Haslam and state Transportation Commissioner John Schroer announced Wednesday that more than $18.1 million is going to law enforcement agencies statewide through the Governor’s Highway Safety Office. The goal is saving lives and reducing injuries on state roads through innovation, coordination and program support in partnership with public and private organizations. Law enforcement agencies in Hamilton County are getting $380,000 in highway safety grants.
Gov. Bill Haslam and Tennessee Department of Transportation Commissioner John Schroer on Wednesday announced more than $18.1 million to support highway safety in the state. The funds support the Governor’s Highway Safety Office mission to save lives and reduce injuries on Tennessee roadways in partnership with numerous public and private organizations. The full list of grants is posted on the GHSO website. “These grants help fund a variety of enforcement, legal and educational initiatives across the state including speed enforcement, first responder equipment purchases, DUI prosecutors and child passenger safety training,” Schroer said.
Even though Tennessee graduates rank among the lowest in the country in terms of the amount of student loan debt they carry, the State of Tennessee is launching a program designed to help families in the Volunteer State save money for their children’s education. The Tennessee Stars College Savings 529 Program is a tax-advantaged savings plan that offers incentives to participants with a one-time, $50 match to anyone opening an account with at least $50. Those who choose to roll over balances from existing 529 savings plans are eligible for a $100 match from the Tennessee Department of Treasury.
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam acknowledged Wednesday that a $3.4 million fine on Nashville’s public school system will affect students, but insisted that the fault lies with school board members who refused to approve a charter school. The state Education Department has characterized the withheld funding as targeting administrative functions of the school system, not classroom instruction. But the school system has responded that the money goes to a variety of operations ranging from transportation to maintenance — each of which have an effect on students.
Gov. Bill Haslam may be in Mitt Romney’s corner, but he said he disagrees with the GOP presidential candidate’s comment about how 47 percent of Americans are dependent on government and therefore, would probably not vote for him. “I think he made a statement about, ‘Hey, it might be hard to win some folks’ votes,’” Haslam told reporters after a groundbreaking ceremony in Nashville Wednesday.
Gov. Bill Haslam has doubled the state reward for information that produces the arrest of the person who killed a Sevier County businesswoman in 2009. Shannon Hercutt was found dead in a sport utility vehicle at the base of a cliff, a case that at first seemed like an auto fatality on a mountain road. Authorities turned it into a homicide investigation a couple of weeks later. The Knoxville News Sentinel (http://bit.ly/Pr54YC ) reported that the state also offered to match up to $5,000 of a third-party reward in the case.
Gov. Bill Haslam is increasing a state reward from $10,000 to $20,000 for information leading to the arrest of whoever killed a Sevier County businesswoman in August 2009. Also, the state will match any new reward offered by a third party up to $5,000 in the case of Shannon Hercutt, according to an announcement from the governor’s office. Hercutt’s sister Penny Stephens also is offering a reward for information in the case. Hercutt’s body was found in her Cadillac Escalade Aug. 3, 2009, about 125 feet down a steep mountainside in Sevier County.
The Tennessee Department of Education’s proposed reading textbooks for kindergarten through eighth grade are on display for public review at sites across the state. As a part of Tennessee’s transition to the Common Core State Standards, the new books better align with focus standards in reading and language arts for each grade level. According to Common Core guidelines, the materials include literary and informational content designed to allow students to go in-depth into each text by re-reading, discussing and writing about what they’ve read.
Last month saw the release of Knox County Schools’ “grades” for the first time under Tennessee’s newly created school accountability system, which replaced No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The good news is that 10 local schools were named “reward schools”—among the top 5 percent highest-performing or improving schools. And only one school was named a “priority school”— among the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools in Tennessee. But what does this really mean, and how does it compare to the NCLB ratings?
Gov. Bill Haslam’s Economic Development Commissioner Bill Hagerty is supposed to be back to work Nov. 7. If Mitt Romney wins the presidential election on Nov. 6 Nashville observers do not expect Hagerty to return—or if he does, it won’t be for long. Hagerty has taken a position with the Romney campaign; he is a longtime friend of the GOP nominee and is expected to have a role in a Romney administration. He has taken a leave of absence from his post in state government.
Tennesseans can download a new app for their iPhones and iPads called ReadyTN, a preparedness program developed by the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. The app is available through the App Store or the iTunes store. The agency said in a news release that more than 15,000 users have downloaded the Android version of the app, which has been available since February. ReadyTN will provide location-based information on severe weather, road conditions, open shelters and local government contacts.
A small tornado touched down approximately six miles east of Shelbyville late Monday afternoon on U.S. 41A South, a National Weather Service survey team confirmed Tuesday. “An EF-0 tornado touchdown at a residence along Highway 41A approximately one-half mile east of the Highway 41A-Normandy Road intersection,” the team’s preliminary report said. “Dozens of trees were snapped and uprooted at this location and a residence suffered roof damage with many shingles blown off. The tornado then crossed Highway 41A and Shofner Road before lifting.”
More than $18 million in grants on the way to Tennessee to improve highway safety, and our region will get several pieces of that pie. The first judicial district received just over $154,000 for a DUI special prosecutor, the second judicial district awarded nearly $177,000, also for a DUI special prosecutor. Several area sheriffs and police departments also got funding. You can see a full list of how much, who they are and how they will use the cash here. To learn how local authorities will use some of the grant money, watch the video above.
A Hawkins County woman accused of selling oxycodone pills Tuesday in Rogersville received a prescription for approximately 500 oxycodone on Sept. 4 but had only four in her possession upon her arrest. Deborah Ann Hall, 45, 501 Bynum St., Rogersville, told the Hawkins County Sheriff’s Office Narcotics Unit following her arrest Tuesday that she is disabled and on TennCare. Arresting officer Sgt. Lynn Campbell said her arrest information has been sent to the Tennessee Department of Finance and Administration’s Office of Inspector General to determine if a TennCare fraud investigation will be launched.
National group says it won’t file suit The University of Tennessee will continue allowing nonsectarian prayers before football games, and the national foundation that challenged the practice will not sue. UT Chancellor Jimmy Cheek responded Wednesday to a complaint from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which insisted the traditional prayers offered before games was exclusive. The pre-game invocation violated a 1997 U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals decision — Chaudhuri vs. State of Tennessee — that struck down sectarian prayers at public universities, the foundation argued.
The Metro school board is getting what it deserves, according to Nashville Mayor Karl Dean. State education officials are withholding $3.4 million as a penalty for twice-violating a state order to approve Great Hearts Academies. The mayor’s office has been a fan of the charter school operator from day one. Dean says Great Hearts puts an “emphasis on excellence” that “would have been good” for the city’s economic development efforts. As for the financial penalty, Dean says $3.4 million is significant.
Senate Democrats on Wednesday condemned the state sanctions doled out against Metro Nashville Public Schools over its denial of a single charter school’s application. Gov. Bill Haslam, along with Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman, announced Tuesday their decision to withhold $3.4 million from Metro Nashville schools. Huffman has gone to great lengths to recruit Great Hearts Academies to an affluent Nashville neighborhood, and now kids all over Davidson County will have to pay. But Senate Democrats added that they would oppose any bill next session that gives the state sole authority to approve charter schools over local objections.
Andy Berke, a Democratic state senator, wants to keep it four for four. That would be four Democratic mayors of Tennessee’s four largest cities. Berke was scheduled to come to Knoxville this week for a fund-raiser at Club LeConte. He is running for mayor of Chattanooga to replace term-limited Democratic Mayor Ron Littlefield next year. No surprise that guests and hosts included Mayor Madeline Rogero and state Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville. But Republican County Mayor Tim Burchett was also scheduled to attend; he served with Berke in the state senate.
As the days tick down toward the Nov. 6 election, the Hamilton County Election Commission is making final preparations while controversy continues over redrawn precinct lines and voter ID laws. Besides deciding who wins the presidency, the upcoming election will include races for U.S. Senate and House of Representatives and state legislators, as well as six municipal elections in the county. At its meeting Wednesday morning, the Election Commission approved the final ballot and heard a range of concerns about the upcoming election.
Rhea County commissioners approved a recommendation to balance their 2012-13 budget with about $677,000 from surplus funds, but they were warned that the county’s finances are in peril. The new fund balance is projected to be about $387,000 at year end, documents show. “I really am uncomfortable taking the fund balance that low,” commission Vice Chairwoman Emmaly Fisher, who also serves on the Budget Committee, said before the Tuesday vote. “I know at this point it’s hard to do something else.”
Members of the Lenoir City Council apparently forgot some important details of an ordinance they passed less than six months ago that banned campaign signs from public property and rights of way until 30 days before the Nov. 6 election. As early as the end of last week, candidates, including council members Bobby Johnson Sr. and Harry Wampler, began placing signs on public land and rights of way including Highway 321 and even in front of city hall.
The Memphis City Council on Tuesday adopted rules for the invocations held before its meetings to protect the body from a possible lawsuit. A Wisconsin-based group called Freedom From Religion Foundation announced in August it planned to sue the council over its pre-meeting prayers, saying the invocations violate the constitutionally prescribed separation between church and state. Councilman Jim Strickland introduced a written policy that prohibits prayer participants from trying to convert individuals to their viewpoints.
There has been much talk of late about public attention, as well as the initiative in significant public actions, passing from the Memphis City Council to the Shelby County Commission. And certainly the very fact of the county’s current half-cent sales tax referendum, an initiative that has basically trumped prior tax proposals of both Memphis and the county’s suburban municipalities, served to underscore the primacy of county government in state law. But as the current week began, it was city hall, and the dramatis personae on that side of Government Plaza, where the action was, with the fate of two significant issues hinging on actions of city government figures.
A bill that would allow the families of veterans who died while on active duty to avoid paying taxes on forgiven student loan debt passed unanimously in the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday. The Andrew P. Carpenter Tax Act was developed after 27-year-old Andrew Carpenter — a Columbia, Tenn., native — died after being shot while on active duty. The Internal Revenue Service billed the family about $2,000 in taxes on Carpenter’s unpaid student loan forgiveness. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., introduced the bill, which prohibits the IRS from collecting taxes on forgiven student loans held by veterans whose active-duty injuries led to death.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has announced almost $12 million in additional drought aid. The grant announced Wednesday will help livestock producers in 22 states apply conservation practices that reduce the impacts of drought and improve soil health and productivity. Since early summer, USDA has announced a variety of assistance to producers impacted by the drought, including opening conservation acres to emergency haying and grazing, lowering the interest rate for emergency loans and working with crop insurance companies to provide flexibility to farmers.
Mild late-summer weather was credited for the increase in visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in August, according to park officials. The park recorded 1,052,790 visitors for the month, a 5 percent increase over visitation during August 2011, according to park spokeswoman Molly Schroer. Gatlinburg remained the most popular point of entry, greeting nearly 314,000 of those visitors for the month. And on the North Carolina side, Cherokee recorded the second-highest number of August visitors with more than 215,000.
Even as U.S. troops scale back joint operations with Afghan forces, soldiers soon to deploy from Fort Campbell continue training for their partnering role. Their mission calls for embedding with Afghan units, despite a rash of insider attacks. A Blackhawk helicopter streaks across a mock battlefield with a Humvee suspended from it. Fort Campbell continues to buzz with mass exercises. Maj. Eldridge Browne is trying to prepare soldiers for a new role that’s key to getting out of Afghanistan. Small teams will advise – though not lead – much larger Afghan units.
Nearly six million Americans, most of them middle-income workers, will face a tax penalty under President Obama’s health overhaul for not getting insurance, Congressional analysts said Wednesday. That estimate, from analysts at the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, is significantly higher than their previous projection, calculated in 2010 shortly after the law passed. The earlier estimate found four million people would be affected in 2016, when the penalty is fully in effect. The budget office expects the penalty to be about $1,200 on average in that first year.
Tennessee is home to 29 of the nation’s top-performing hospitals as ranked Wednesday by the Joint Commission, the country’s major hospital accreditation board. Only California, Florida and Texas have more hospitals on the list. Of the 29, five of those hospitals are in the Middle Tennessee area, including Rolling Hills Hospital in Franklin, StoneCrest Medical Center in Smyrna, Centennial and Skyline in Nashville, and Hendersonville Hospital Corporation. The commission recognized a total of 620 hospitals nationwide as “top performers” for following basic procedures for treating common illnesses like heart attacks and strokes.
Parkridge Medical Center and its parent company, HCA, reached a $16.5 million settlement with the Department of Justice over violations of federal laws that govern leasing agreements between hospitals and physicians. Parkridge and HCA Physician Services in Nashville made several deals with Diagnostic Associates of Chattanooga in 2007, providing financial benefits to encourage doctors in the group to refer patients to HCA facilities, according to the agreement.
Although tensions had been tight between the two entities, particularly in the past week when commissioners had numerous questions about the school system’s accounting practices, the budget was passed in a 20-4 vote with no rebuttals and little discussion. In a separate vote of 16-6, the commission passed a resolution to ask the school board to strongly consider cutting focus coordinators when making the anticipated $935,000 in personnel cuts the board has said it will be forced to make, after the county did not fully fund the board’s budget requests.
Metro Nashville school officials are hoping a $3.4 million punishment meted out by the state can be avoided through conversation, but staff members are looking for budget cuts just in case they are still needed. Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman agreed Wednesday to a meeting with Metro school board Chairwoman Cheryl Mayes, board member Jill Speering said. In a same-day response to a letter Mayes sent to him on Wednesday, Huffman said he would “quickly” schedule a meeting with Mayes, Speering said.
Amy Frogge’s cellphone won’t stop ringing. Reporters, politicians, out-of-town callers with unfamiliar caller IDs — suddenly, it seems, everyone wants a word with the PTO president turned school board member who is just two weeks into her first gig in public office. A mother of two and a lawyer by training, Frogge has emerged as a key voice in the controversy over Great Hearts Academies. The Phoenix-based company’s efforts to establish a charter school in Nashville was rejected last week by Frogge and fellow board members in a defiant 5-4 vote over the express directives of the state board of education, which has since pulled $3.4 million in funding from the Metro school budget in response.
Never-before-used state triggers law allows public schools to be converted into charters Dissatisfied parents and elected officials from West Nashville are exploring a never-before-utilized state law that would allow a public school to be converted into a parent-controlled charter school. Under the so-called trigger law, if 60 percent of the parents or teachers at a public school sign a petition, the school board then votes on whether to approve converting the school into a charter. In Tennessee, a charter school is financed with tax dollars but privately operated by a nonprofit group.
Stopped by TV news cameras in front of Memphis’ City Hall on Main Street, Bartlett Mayor Keith McDonald was asked during a break in the municipal schools trial about a possible “Plan B.” Though he acknowledged that some of Shelby County’s six suburban municipalities do indeed have backup plans should U.S. District Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays strike down new state laws allowing municipal school districts (MSDs) in Shelby County, he said he was “confident” they would not be needed. “I think we will prevail,” he said.
When U.S. District Court Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays resumes his hearing on municipal school districts, Thursday, Sept. 20, he will already have a desk full of reports, documents and depositions to consider. And most of the information has nothing to do with public education in Shelby County. The schools-related material has to do with other school systems to which the state laws setting the rules for establishing municipal school districts might apply. Attorneys for the Shelby County Commission claim the state laws violate the Tennessee Constitution’s standards for general laws because they could only reasonably apply to Shelby County.
Ten new names were added Wednesday to the growing list of people indicted in a long-running scheme in which authorities say Mid-South teachers hired others to take their certification tests. The indictments bring to 14 the number of teachers or test-takers accused of participating in a scam dating to 1995 in which former Memphis City Schools employee Clarence Mumford charged teachers and aspiring teachers thousands of dollars to hire stand-ins to take their required tests.
Incubator offering stipends to increase charter talent When Bobby White took over the principal’s job at Westside Middle School in 2009, fights were breaking out on the Frayser campus an average of once a day. Within a year, they were down to once a week — a 79 percent decline. Two years later, White is the first participant in the Education Entrepreneurs Fellowship, a three-year training program the Tennessee Charter School Incubator is kicking off in Memphis to increase the pool of charter leaders skilled enough to turn around failing schools.
One of the most vexing problems for Chicago and its teachers went virtually unmentioned during the strike: The pension fund is about to hit a wall. The Chicago Teachers’ Pension Fund has about $10 billion in assets, but is paying out more than $1 billion in benefits a year — much more than it has been taking in. That has forced it to sell investments, worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year, to pay retired teachers. Experts say the fund could collapse within a few years unless something is done.
Washington State is home to Bill and Melinda Gates, champions of childhood vaccines across the globe. Its university boasts cutting-edge vaccine research. But when it comes to getting children immunized, until recently, the state was dead last. “You think we’re a cut above the rest,” said Dr. Maxine Hayes, state health officer for Washington’s Department of Health, “but there’s something in this culture out West. It’s a sort of defiance. A distrust of the government.” The share of kindergartners whose parents opted out of state immunization requirements more than doubled in the decade that ended in 2008, peaking at 7.6 percent in the 2008-9 school year, according to the state’s Health Department, raising alarm among public health experts.
In the current contrived political climate — a sad sham, actually — fixing so-called failing schools and raising overall achievement scores demands teaching to unending tests and denigrating under-supported teachers by gagging their collective voice and ending tenure. Against this deeply flawed trend, the clear sanity of Dr. Diane Ravitch’s message here Tuesday came as a welcome elixir. It’s too bad county commissioners and school board members, who regularly fight over the county school system’s budget and mission, largely failed to show up to hear what she had to say in the kick-off presentation of the Benwood Foundation’s annual lecture series.
The cost of attending one of Tennessee’s public universities or community colleges has jumped annually in recent years. Nationally, many college graduates are leaving school not only with diplomas, but also with stifling student loan debt. Some of that debt can take as long as 20 years to pay off. When those factors are taken into account, it is understandable why the college experience is taking on a harder edge as an investment in the future — namely, how big the graduate’s paycheck will be when he or she graduates, what field of study will pay the most and what colleges have the best programs in those fields. A new website launched Tuesday will help students and their parents weigh their college or community college decisions.
This may be grabbing at straws that there is some hope for ending the poisonous partisan deadlock over “Obamacare,” but it could be a positive sign that former Senate Republican leader Bill Frist of Tennessee is emerging as a voice in the health care debate. And in one of those “only in Washington” tectonic political shifts, he is doing it in partnership with former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle. Many believed the two politicians would never speak to each other again — let alone cooperate on remaking one of Congress’ most far-reaching laws. Frist defied tradition and Senate collegiality by campaigning against Daschle in the Democrat’s home state of South Dakota, a race Daschle ultimately lost. But now the two have united under the banner of the Bipartisan Policy Center to defend critical sections of President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act, large sections of which Frist agrees with, an act of heresy in GOP congressional circles.