This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander announced on Tuesday that about 2,000 acres of the 10,000-acre Rocky Fork tract in upper East Tennessee will become a new state park. The Knoxville News Sentinel (http://bit.ly/XZkwQd ) reports the property is surrounded by national forest and contains a section of the Appalachian Trail. It has more than 16 miles of blue-ribbon trout streams and is a popular hunting area for black bear, turkey, deer and grouse.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander and Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation Commissioner Bob Martineau joined members of the General Assembly, local elected officials, and members of the community for a ceremony announcing the future conveyance of more than 2,000 acres in the Rocky Fork area of Unicoi County, which will eventually become Tennessee’s 55th state park. The property is part of the 10,000-acre tract acquired by The Conservation Fund and U.S. Forest Service in 2008, and will be conveyed to the state of Tennessee in the coming months.
Data released by the Tennessee Department of Education shows a statewide increase in the high school graduation rate and improvement in assessment tests taken by elementary and middle school students. The figures released Thursday show the graduation rate for the class of 2012 increased from 85.5 percent to 87.2 percent and that elementary and middle school students grew in 23 out of 24 Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program measures last year.
As talk about education and school choice gain traction on Capitol Hill, the Tennessee Department of Education is giving the public more tools to evaluate its public schools. Part of the state Report Card’s upgrade includes the department unveiling new layers of data on academic achievement and measures to judge schools on, according to state officials. “I think it can be a really empowering tool for parents and community members to understand how schools in their area are doing. And that’s the most important, I think, compass for a report card,” said Kevin Huffman, Department of Education commissioner.
As Tennessee releases a detailed report card this morning on the performance of its public schools, the state’s top educator is urging parents to use the information to push for change. Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, an advocate of school choice, said the data on each public school in Tennessee will arm parents with the tools they need to make decisions on school options or to effect change in their community schools.“I think parents should engage at the school and district level,” Huffman said.
The 2012 Report Card should be a starting point for parents to become more involved in their children’s schools, according to Tennessee Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman. The annual online report from the Tennessee Department of Education will be available as of 9 a.m. local time Thursday at www.tn.gov/education/reportcard/. “To me, the most important thing about the Report Card is it’s a resource for parents,” Huffman said from Nashville Wednesday afternoon. “It’s data for parents — a platform to ask questions and get engaged at their school.”
Metro Nashville Public Schools officials are pleased with the graduation rate released Wednesday, because it shows the percentage of students getting diplomas in four years is now higher than even the percentage of those who once took five years to graduate. An average of 4,000 to 5,000 students graduate from Metro high schools each year, and the system logged a graduation rate of 78.4 percent for the 2011-12 school year, according to the Tennessee School Report Card released this morning by the State Department of Education.
Wilson County Schools get the kind of report card today that kids actually would want to show their parents. “Straight A’s in achievement, that is awesome,” said Nancy Ash, supervisor of testing and accountability for the Wilson County Schools. “Teachers and students worked so hard.” Indeed, the district scored A’s in every subject area, and the graduation rate rose from 90 percent in 2011 to 95.5 percent in 2012. In general, the schools saw improvements in African-American and Hispanic students’ test scores, though students with disabilities or limited English proficiency continued to lag behind.
Scores for every tested subject rose this year for Hamilton County schools, according to the 2012 Tennessee Report Card. State officials on Wednesday released the annual report card, which includes data on everything from student disciplinary problems to attendance and standardized test scores. District-wide results for Hamilton County show moderate to significant improvement in the number of students scoring in the proficient or advanced categories in elementary math, elementary reading/language arts, high school math and high school English.
Knox County increase graduation rates across the board For the last several years, Halls High School’s graduation rates have hovered just under 90 percent. But this year the school not only reached that goal, it surpassed expectations. “We finally crossed that barrier that’s been holding us back, which is that 90 percent,” said Halls High Principal Mark Duff. “That 95.2 took my breath away. I wasn’t prepared for that.” According to the state’s 2012 Report Card, which will be released today, Halls graduated 95.2 percent of its students.
Students in Memphis and Shelby County schools are making some of the largest strides ever, according to the state report card out Thursday, but both districts failed to close the achievement gap between poor and affluent students and other subgroups, a major accountability flaw. Memphis students earned a D and three F’s in the core subjects compared to straight A’s in Shelby County Schools. But in terms of how fast they are gaining ground, K-8 students in Memphis pushed their scores up a whole letter grade in the area measuring growth, earning B’s in math and social studies, a C in science and a D in reading.
Though Rutherford County earned an impressive report card, there’s no time to rest on its laurels, Director of Schools Don Odom said. The district earned straight A’s for achievement during the 2011-12 school year in the core subject areas — math, science, reading/language arts and social studies — going from a B to an A in science. In the area of learning gains, the district improved from B’s to A’s in math and social studies, from C to B in science, and held a B in reading/language arts. Earlier this year, the 40,000-student district was recognized as an exemplary school district by state education officials.
At the start of the 2011-12 school year, Mitchell-Neilson Elementary Principal Robin Newell was forced to allow students to transfer elsewhere since the school was in its second year as a High Priority School. “I stood in that gym full of parents and I promised them that things would change,” she said Wednesday afternoon. Only six families at the Murfreesboro City School accepted the transfer offer. The state’s 2012 report card measuring progress at public schools, released today, indicates Newell and her staff held up their end of the bargain.
Jackson-Madison County Schools’ state report card isn’t all D’s anymore. After two years of stagnated growth, the district earned C’s in math and social studies, but didn’t meet its academic achievement goals in reading/language arts and science on the report card released today. The district still has D’s in those two subjects. “District-wide we’re going to see improvements in both achievement and growth over 2010 and 2011, and that’s a good thing,” Superintendent Buddy White said. The district also received letter grades for value-added, a measurement of growth in standardized test scores, for the school year.
The state report card for Clarksville-Montgomery County schools shows that the system continues to improve and post higher graduation rates State education officials released report cards for school districts across the state today, and the local school system received all As, except for a B in reading achievement and a B in the science one-year value-added score. However, the K-8 reading and math achievement scores for individual schools improved significantly from 2011 to 2012. Additionally, the system continues to draw closer to its 100 percent graduation goal with a 2012 rate of 95.2 percent.
Grades for Springfield-area schools continue to lag in Robertson County, which showed an overall growth in TCAP achievement scores. Springfield Middle School maintained its average of D in math, F in reading/language and F in science, but raised its D social studies grade to a C this year. In writing, the school received a grade of A in grade 8, the same as the state average. Cheatham Park Elementary earned D’s in all subjects, the same as in 2011. Krisle Elementary scored C’s in math, science and reading/language and a B in social studies; Westside Elementary received C’s in math and reading/language and D’s in social studies and science.
The University of Memphis will host a graduate school recruitment fair Nov. 12 from 1-6 p.m. in the Michael D. Rose Theater. Karen Weddle-West, vice provost for University Graduate Programs, will host a GRE workshop at 5 p.m. as part of the fair. Enrollment in Memphis graduate programs is at its lowest level since 2008 and the fair looks to promote the university’s more than 75 doctoral and master’s degree programs. Graduate school enrollment at the university was as high as 4,911 during the 2010-2011 academic year, but fell about 9 percent to 4,492 in the fall of this year.
Tennessee officials remove the barricades Friday night opening the last segment of State Route 840, it will shave time and miles off the trip from Memphis and West Tennessee to Chattanooga and southern Middle Tennessee — and likely some roadway anxiety off the trip to Knoxville and East Tennessee. The 78-mile southern bypass of Nashville traverses some of Middle Tennessee’s most scenic countrysides while it links Interstate 40 near Dickson west of Nashville to I-65 south of Franklin and to I-24 near Murfreesboro before looping back into I-40 near Lebanon east of Nashville.
Hundreds of hospitals, physicians and health care providers across the country have been ordered to immediately quarantine any of more than 2,000 unused drug products provided by a Massachusetts compounder linked by common ownership to the ongoing nationwide meningitis outbreak. The voluntary recall by Ameridose LLC, announced Wednesday, came at the urging of federal health officials who expressed concern about the firm’s ability to assure its products were sterile.
While grown-ups prepare to take their children trick-or-treating tonight, sex offenders under Tennessee Department of Correction supervision will be under a curfew from 5 p.m. tonight until 5 a.m. Thursday morning as they launch operation “Operation Blackout”. Also, Probation and Parole officers will be joined by local law enforcement agencies and the U.S. Marshals to ensure sex offenders who are under TDOC supervision adhere to strict guidelines. Sex offenders under the TDOC have restrictions placed on them each year barring them from taking part in Halloween activities.
Gov. Bill Haslam may have to choose between two former state senators when he picks a new appeals court judge. Among those applying to the Judicial Selection Commission for the judgeship are Dwayne Bunch and Mike Faulk. Both attorneys chose not to run for re-election. Bunch is from Cleveland and left office in 2010, Faulk is from Hawkins County and did not run for re-election this year. The two are among 11 applicants to replace Judge Herschel Franks, who retired. It will be up to the selection commission to choose which three names will be sent to Haslam.
After nine hours of deliberations over two days, a jury still has not reached a verdict in the federal case against disgraced former Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner. The 10-woman, two-man jury asked to go home around 4:30 p.m. Wednesday after putting in nearly seven hours of actual deliberations. The panel pondered the case two hours on Tuesday afternoon before U.S. District Court Judge Ronnie Greer sent them home. The jury has not indicated panel members are in danger of a deadlock nor has the group posed any legal questions. In short, they’ve offered no clue about what’s going on behind closed doors.
Kurita gives GOP candidate for her old seat $5K (Associated Press)
Former Democratic state Sen. Rosalind Kurita of Clarksville has written a $5,000 check to the Republican candidate seeking to win her old seat. Kurita was ousted as the Democratic nominee in 2008 after the state Democratic Party’s executive committee found her 19-vote primary win as “incurably uncertain.” Kurita had been unpopular among Democrats after casting a key vote in favor of Republican Sen. Ron Ramsey’s election as speaker the year before. Kurita, who now works in Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration, mounted an unsuccessful write-in campaign and lost a federal lawsuit and appeal.
Tennessee’s economy is moving forward, but progress remains painfully slow, according to a University of Tennessee report released Wednesday. After “exceptionally strong rates of economic expansion” in the first quarter, the state economy slowed sharply in the second quarter as effects of the debt crisis in Europe rippled across the globe, says the fall 2012 Business and Economic Outlook. However, the state and national economies should see modest gains through the first half of 2013. Significant economic improvement is still a year or two away, according to the study prepared by the university’s Center for Business and Economic Research.
As the economic recovery and debate over its strength trudge along, University of Tennessee researchers have a message: Don’t expect anything robust until 2014. In its business and economic outlook out today, the University of Tennessee’s Center for Business and Economic Research predicts another year of slow growth, followed by a strong 2014 if trends hold. That’s for both the Tennessee and national economy.
Republicans plugged about $1.74 million into state-level races in the final weeks leading up to next week’s general election.The state GOP’s main political action committee threw in $1.2 million worth of campaign ads, direct mail pieces, polling and campaign workers while the party’s House and Senate caucuses kicked in more than a half million dollars combined, according to state campaign finance reports. The heavy GOP spending is almost three times as much as its Democratic Party counterparts who spent $617,811 on the election in the last four weeks, according to their pre-general election campaign finance reports.
Tennessee Republicans blazed through $1.75 million in just 27 days during October as the state party and GOP caucuses bombarded embattled Democratic state legislative candidates with direct mail and television and radio ads leading up to Tuesday’s election. In contrast, the Tennessee Democratic Party and the House and Senate Democratic caucuses spent just $617,000 — giving the majority GOP an almost 3-to-1 spending advantage in early voting and the final stretch of the 2012 campaign.
Tennessee election officials are hoping to break another record when the early voting period ends on today, but they acknowledge remnants of superstorm Sandy could affect voter turnout in the northeastern part of the state. As of Tuesday, more than 1.2 million voters had cast their ballots since the start of early voting on Oct. 17 for the Nov. 6 presidential election. In November 2008, there were about 1.5 million early voters in Tennessee. However, wintry weather spinning off the edge of Sandy caused snowfall in several East Tennessee counties on Tuesday, including up to 22 inches in the higher elevations of Sevier County and 17 inches on the mountaintops of Carter County.
Heading into the last day of early voting, state totals were on track for the second-highest total yet, after the 2008 presidential election totals. In Davidson County early voting totals also tracked lower than in the last presidential election, which of course did not include an incumbent president. According to Davidson County Election Commission numbers from about 4:15 Wednesday afternoon, the cumulative total during this year’s early voting cycle was at 141,460 votes. In the 2008 presidential election cycle, Davidson County totals over roughly the same time span were at 172,259.
First-time voter Katey Alegre knows her vote for President Barack Obama is probably outnumbered in Tennessee — but she still drove 2 1/2 hours Wednesday to fill out an early voting ballot in Chattanooga. “I feel like I’ve fulfilled my duty,” said the 19-year-old Chattanooga native, now a college student in Nashville. “I believe every vote makes a difference. Maybe someday this state could be blue. Who knows?” Early voting ends today in Tennessee and finishes Friday in Georgia.
Early voting will end in Tennessee today in advance of Tuesday’s general election. Polls will be open in 12 Davidson County locations from 8 a.m. through 4:30 p.m. today. About 140,000 people in Davidson County, or about 45 percent of the county’s active registered voters, had cast their ballots as of late Wednesday. At least 1.25 million people have voted so far in the state, according to the secretary of state’s office, 150,000-plus of whom voted in Rutherford, Sumner, Williamson and Wilson counties.
With Election Day drawing near, time is running out for Cora Beach to obtain a state-issued photo identification to vote — and she’s almost ready to give up. The 56-year-old Beach, who lives in public housing in East Nashville and requires regular dialysis for kidney failure, has on three occasions showed up and waited at Nashville driver service centers only to be turned down for a photo ID each time because she didn’t have the necessary documents.
A Pennsylvania judge is still considering a lawsuit to force state officials to change voter identification ads that some say misinform the electorate. In Wisconsin, some election materials still have references to that state’s suspended Voter ID law. And in Tennessee, the city of Memphis says election officials are defying a ruling issued just last week that said library cards could be used at the polling place as proof of identity. Those are just three examples of last-minute complications plaguing state election officials in what has already been a numbingly complex election year for many of them.
Proposed taxes are drawing voters to the polls in several Tennessee counties, including Sumner, where a budget battle delayed the start of school by nearly two weeks. A $25 increase in car registrations is splitting voters who consider themselves conservative. The Sumner County Commission refused to raise property taxes when the schools needed more money but agreed to putting an increase of the wheel tax on the ballot. Stay-at-home mom Kara Thayn – who has a child in public schools – says she still believes the system can do without.
Some Middle Tennessee lawmakers are working two campaigns at once this fall: Running for re-election to their own congressional seats and doing what they can to help their party’s presidential nominees. Presidential campaigns often call upon loyal members of Congress to act as “surrogate” campaigners — those who can go one place to spread the message while the nominee is tied down somewhere else. They are also called upon to help out at major events to give reinforcement about the nominee’s performance and positions to the press.
Officials on Wednesday reacted cautiously to a court ruling in a dispute between Cleveland and Bradley County over how to divide sales tax revenues. On Tuesday, the Tennessee Court of Appeals in Knoxville sided with Cleveland, ruling that the county owes the city more sales tax revenues from 2010. Cleveland Mayor Tom Rowland said he could not comment on the matter until it was finalized, citing the possibility that either the county or the city could appeal the ruling. County officials have estimated the ruling likely will result in a payout of $1.5 million to the city.
Officials with the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro hope to offer their congregation a cemetery on the back portion of their new 15-acre location along Veals Road. “We have older members of the mosque who wish to be buried by the mosque,” Ossama Bahloul, the religious leader for the center, said Wednesday. “It’s their dream, and what is wrong with us trying to help them achieve what they have in their heart? What’s wrong with us helping their dream come true?” The Islamic Center will seek a conditional-use permit from the Board of Zoning Appeals for the property.
U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen is expressing frustration with Delta Air Lines after the company decided not to restore its Memphis-to-Amsterdam flight next summer. Cohen, a Memphis Democrat, says he has requested a meeting with Delta to discuss its decision to eliminate the Amsterdam flight. A Delta spokesman tells The Commercial Appeal (http://bit.ly/SsUF1G ) that the airline scrapped the plan for seasonal service because it wasn’t going to be profitable with continuing high fuel prices and weak passenger demand.
Congressman Marsha Blackburn (R-TN7) was in Clarksville Tuesday, where she conducted a question-and-answer session with members of the Downtown Kiwanis Club at First Baptist Church. Asked whether congressional action is expected regarding the incident at a U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, where U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and three other U.S. personnel were killed in the course of a seven-hour firefight on Sept. 11 of this year, Blackburn answered, “Absolutely, yes.”
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington responded Wednesday to new allegations against U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, again asking state medical authorities to investigate its ethics complaint against the physician-turned-congressman. “Who knows how many more women are out there, wary of coming forward for fear of embarrassment?” CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan said in a news release. “If Tennessee expects its doctors to follow the ban on sexual misconduct, the Board of Medical Examiners must take swift action.”
East Tennessee’s all-Republican congressional delegation seemed to be coasting toward re-election until revelations about U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais’ personal life reinvigorated Democrats and threw at least his political future in doubt. DesJarlais, a Jasper Republican who is finishing up his first two-year term, is locked in a hard-fought race against Democrat Eric Stewart, a state senator from Belvidere, in Tennessee’s 4th Congressional District.
The wife of U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais said Wednesday accusations the pro-life, family-values congressman had affairs outside of his first marriage and encouraged one of his girlfriends to get an abortion don’t accurately reflect his true character. Amy DesJarlais said the congressman has been a good husband and father during their decade-long marriage and that she has not witnessed any of the philandering or erratic behavior ascribed to him in divorce papers from his first marriage a dozen years ago.
If the votes go their way in the 11 elections for governor next week, Republicans could have their strongest statehouse hand in decades. It is partly about the numbers. With 8 of the 11 seats currently held by Democrats — and 4 of those with Democratic incumbents leaving office, in New Hampshire, North Carolina, Montana and Washington — Republicans have far less turf to defend. And with popular Republican incumbents in conservative states like Utah and North Dakota considered likely to hold on, that could make this year something of an aftershock to 2010, when the Republicans picked up six seats in the midterm elections, to give the party 29 governors, to 20 Democrats and 1 independent.
Local officials plan to offer International Paper a package of incentives to keep the company’s corporate headquarters and more than 2,000 jobs in Memphis. Three high-ranking city officials said they have been told by Mayor A C Wharton that Memphis is in a dogfight with Mississippi to keep the Fortune 500 corporation based here. The company, they said, is seeking a 30-year property tax break on a new building it would construct in Memphis. In addition to retaining the company’s current workforce, the project would bring another 100 high-paying jobs to the city, the officials said.
Memphis-based International Paper Co. is looking to expand its headquarters but isn’t saying much about the process beyond that. The global company has expansion plans as it integrates Temple-Inland, an Austin, Texas-based competitor the paper and packaging giant acquired earlier this year. As that integration has been under way International Paper CEO John Faraci has said it could mean more jobs in Memphis and most likely won’t mean Memphis jobs moving to Texas.
Countywide school board members will begin what several described as the “dirty work” of the schools merger at a special meeting Nov. 15. At that meeting, the board will vote on many if not all of the recommendations from the consolidation planning commission that ended its work in July. The special meeting kicks off a timeline brought to the board by Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash and Shelby County Schools superintendent John Aitken for the move to the August merger in three phases.
When public officials stonewall, obfuscate or just don’t respond when a request for public information about taxpayer support for businesses is made, we have to wonder: What is wrong? It is a reasonable question as we witness the sad saga of the details of the state and local tax breaks certified for Silicon Ranch Corp. by the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation. TDEC has certified eight projects of Silicon Ranch — where former Gov. Phil Bredesen is chairman, former state Economic and Community Development Commissioner Matt Kisber is president and CEO, and former state Revenue Commissioner Reagan Farr is chief operating officer — to be eligible for tax breaks, but the public does not have access to how much those tax breaks are worth.
The Knox County Commission is moving toward establishing an education committee to work with school leaders on future budget issues. Commissioners will be discussing — and possibly forming — the committee later this month. A committee of commissioners devoted to understanding the issues facing the school system so County Commission can make informed funding decisions would be welcome, but the panel would have to avoid overstepping its bounds. More than 60 cents of every dollar spent by Knox County government goes to education, and County Commission is the legislative body that handles the county purse strings. Most commissioners are not educators, however.