This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Gov. Bill Haslam’s school-voucher task force today submitted its final written recommendations to the Republican governor on how a program could be implemented in Tennessee. The report comes a year after Haslam appointed the nine-member group to study how Tennessee might students use state and local tax dollars to attend private and religious schools. Task Force members finalized their recommendations in a public meeting earlier this month, saying the state should limit any would-be program to poorer students.
Recommendations on how best to let parents send their children to private schools using taxpayer dollars are leaving lawmakers with major decisions to make when writing the ideas into law. A study by the governor’s Opportunity Scholarship Task Force released on Thursday offered legislators recommendations but stopped short of offering many concrete solutions. Factors such as implementing the program statewide and exclusively to children from low-income families are two points lawmakers would have to decide on if they choose to push forward with a school vouchers program next year.
A much-anticipated report Gov. Bill Haslam requested on a potential school voucher program for Tennessee has left key areas open to debate, including recognizing a “range of opinions” on the scholarship’s funding mechanism. Filling in the gaps will be the Republican-controlled state legislature, which is expected to consider a voucher proposal during the next session, one year after a version stalled. To advance “school choice,” some Republicans are pushing for a voucher program that would allow students to use public dollars to attend private schools.
A state task force on school vouchers handed its findings to the governor Thursday. Lawmakers could soon take up the matter of how, and whether, to divert public-school money so poor kids can instead go to private schools. The task force says a vouchers program should specifically target poor kids, and participating schools should accept vouchers as payment in full, instead of possibly charging parents some tuition as well. But the report (PDF) also left some big questions for the governor and lawmakers to wrangle over next year.
Governor Bill Haslam and first lady Crissy Haslam are getting ready to share some Christmas joy with the public. Starting Monday, they will open the doors of the Tennessee residence to visitors, to enjoy holiday decorations. It’s a tradition they started last year when 3,500 people visited the home in Nashville. This year’s theme is “Tennessee Music.” Crissy Haslam said the halls of the home are decked. “Downstairs in conservation hall, we have trees decorated by school children, and then upstairs, we’ve partnered with some of the museums across the state, to highlight Tennessee music.”
New Life Lodge, the drug rehabilitation center stung by three patient deaths and a temporary state-ordered shutdown, was hit with a $14.5 million lawsuit on Wednesday by the grandmother of a man who died in 2011 shortly after his release from the Dickson County facility. Charity Comage charges in the lawsuit that her grandson Savon Kinney, 18, died after being administered a powerful antipsychotic drug without being properly monitored by medical personnel for an adverse reaction.
Greenway Drive took center stage Thursday night for much of a public hearing on the Tennessee Department of Transportation’s plans for improvements to the interchange of Broadway and Interstate 640 in North Knoxville. Several Greenway Drive residents said the plans do not appear to help with their traffic congestion and safety issues. “All of us who live on Greenway Drive are feeling a lot of frustration right now,” said Kathy Johnson. After the hearing, she said she did not feel satisfied with some of the answers to her questions, and remained concerned that the currently proposed plan might actually worsen the Greenway Drive situation.
Public Citizen on Thursday called on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to reinspect the 16 compounding pharmacies that received formal warning letters over the past decade in light of the failure to prevent the fungal meningitis outbreak this year. Five of those pharmacies have licenses to sell drugs in Tennessee: Hopewell Pharmacy in Hopewell, N.J.; PharMedium Services in Lake Forest, Ill.; Wedgewood Village in Swedesboro, N.Y.; Reliant Pharmacy Services in Clearwater, Fla.; and Custom Compounding Centers in Little Rock, Ark.
Three of Tennessee’s five 2012 Green Development Awards and Grants are going to local cities or agencies. Athens, the Southeast Tennessee Development District and Chattanooga will get shares of $127,500 from the state’s Green Development grant program for projects such as rain gardens, green roofs, pervious concrete applications, trees and tree boxes. The money also may be used for citizen outreach and education efforts, according to Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation spokeswoman Meg Lockhart.
A Lincoln County woman is charged with TennCare Fraud. Prosecutors said she went doctor shopping for prescription drugs. Amber Watkins, 24 of Dellrose, was indicted earlier this week. Tennessee’s inspector general said Watkins went to multiple doctors in Lincoln County to get Percocet and sleeping and anti-anxiety pills. She faces up to two years in prison. Officials say TennCare Fraud has cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars in recent years.
Senate Democrats narrowly agreed to renew Sen. Jim Kyle as head of its caucus, a vote he said shows some still have hard feelings about him defeating a longtime peer in this year’s primary election. The Memphis Democrat was re-elected minority leader on a 4-3 secret ballot vote Tuesday on Capitol Hill after a challenge from Sen. Reginald Tate, also of Memphis. “What I hear in the mode of that vote is that perhaps I need to change the way we do some things in my office. And I’ll take a look at it and do that,” Kyle told reporters Thursday.
A Democratic lawmaker says an objective by Tennessee State University’s new president to tackle internal issues at the historically black university may present an opportunity for legislation that could benefit other educational institutions. The Tennessee Board of Regents on Tuesday unanimously approved Glenda Baskin Glover, who takes over a university that has been plagued with internal problems, including a lack of cohesion among its leadership. Earlier this year, a vocal faculty member who opposed university leadership was taken away from a campus meeting in handcuffs.
Counties across Tennessee spent more money than they took in in every year back to at least 2007, according to a new state comptroller’s report. In fiscal year 2011, counties collected more than $11.6 billion in revenues, but spent $12.1 billion, the report says. Counties are postponing making principal payments to bring down debt, the report says — a financial move akin to an individual only paying the minimum each month on a big credit card bill. From the report: Total county-related debt in Tennessee increased almost $1.41 billion from 2007 to 2011.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn says she considers her newest committee assignment not only a step up in her congressional career but a perfect match “for the economic sectors of our state.” Blackburn, R-Brentwood, is the new vice-chairman of the full House Energy and Commerce Committee, one of the most powerful committees on either side of Capitol Hill. Announced this week, her duties will begin when the 113th Congress convenes in January. She will have the most influential committee post of any of the nine members of the U.S. House from Tennessee.
The Tennessee Department of Health has acknowledged opening a “complaint file” against Republican U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais. But the file wasn’t mentioned this week as the state Board of Medical Examiners met for the first time since controversy hit the physician-turned-4th-District-congressman in October. A board member said that isn’t unusual. “It takes a long time, sometimes a year or two, for a complaint to get to us,” said Nina Yeiser, a citizen member and 12-year veteran of the Board of Medical Examiners.
A tax expert is warning state officials that Tennessee would be among the hardest-hit states if federal officials don’t resolve the so-called fiscal cliff. The Chattanooga Times Free Press reported Dr. Stan Chervin updated Gov. Bill Haslam and other state officials Wednesday, saying states that depend heavily on sales taxes for revenue would feel the most stress if tax breaks are not extended. He said if the Bush-era tax cuts and newer payroll tax reductions are not extended, Tennessee residents will have less disposable income.
Ratings for ABC’s “Nashville” climbed during Wednesday night’s episode, which featured characters Juliette Barnes and Rayna James performing a duet at the Ryman Auditorium. The ABC show scored a 4.5 rating, which means that 4.5 percent of households were tuned to the show, up from 4.4 percent on Nov. 14, SpoilerTV.com reports, citing data from Nielsen Media Research. The show premiered in October with a 6.8 rating. CBS’s “CSI” took the number on spot during the 9 p.m. time slot, with a 7.7 rating.
The closing of Merita Bakery may signal the end of an iconic Knoxville business, but more immediately, it jerks the financial rug from under the more than 100 people who worked there. As Hostess Brands, owner of Merita Bread, goes through bankruptcy, it’s likely some of its widely known brands such as Twinkies, Ho Ho’s, Ding Dongs and others, will survive under other buyers. The Merita Bakery, off Pleasant Ridge Road in Powell, will likely see use again under some other buyer, said Mike Edwards, president and CEO of the Knoxville Chamber.
Families and Metro education officials are being reminded charter schools aren’t necessarily permanent. Charters are ramping up in Tennessee, boasting some ten thousand students. They get public money to run their own way, on the promise they’ll put up good test scores. But some charters inevitably fall short, and shutting them down is a messy process. Since Tennessee started its charter program a decade ago, only three have failed. The latest is Smithson-Craighead Middle, which has to shut down when the school-year ends.
A new system for applying to Metro Nashville schools of choice has smoothed out the application process this year, although the number of requests for transfer is expected to be about the same. Parents can submit applications for their children to attend Metro magnet and other schools of choice until 5:30 p.m. Friday, which marks the end of a 30-day application period. Charter schools, publicly funded but privately managed, have a separate charter school application process that requires contact with each charter school to which a parent wants to apply.
Frank Cuevas is pleased to hear that his child will be able to finish out his fifth-grade year at Farragut Intermediate, even though he is zoned to attend the new elementary school in the southwest corner of Knox County. “We’re new to the area and this would the third school in the last two years for my student so just it’ll be easier for them to stay with their current cohort as they’re going from fourth-grade to fifth-grade,” Cuevas said after the last of four community meetings on a proposed elementary rezoning because of the new unnamed school. Cuevas said he walks away happy with the proposal and hopes the school board approves it as is.
Knox County Schools will have to try another approach to figure out the next steps for the former Rule High School. In October, the school system requested letters of interest to possibly develop the 85-year-old building. But at Thursday’s 2 p.m. deadline, no letters had been submitted. Karen Carson, the school board’s chairwoman, said whether the school system had received any interest or not, they still planned on moving forward with working with the East Tennessee Design Center to assess the property to identify its best uses and most economically viable purposes.
Countywide school board members voted Thursday, Nov. 29, to begin the process of considering the closing of four elementary schools in western Memphis and the conversion of two other inner city schools in what amounts to a move to compete with the Achievement School District. The vote at a special meeting of the board begins a process that will include a detailed “school impact study” as well as public hearings in the affected areas of southwest and northwest Memphis. The board should take a final vote on the recommendations in March that would either close the schools or keep them open for the 2013-2014 school year.
Immigrant and civil-rights groups filed a lawsuit Thursday challenging Arizona’s order to deny driver’s licenses to young illegal immigrants who qualify for a reprieve from deportation and a work permit under a new Obama administration policy. The suit alleges that the state treats such immigrants, who are allowed to remain in the U.S., as unlawfully present. It asks that a federal judge declare unconstitutional an executive order issued in August by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer. “Arizona’s creation of its own immigration classification impermissibly intrudes on the federal government’s exclusive authority to regulate immigration,” the complaint says.
California Treasurer Bill Lockyer Thursday called for overhauls in school districts’ sales of so-called capital-appreciation bonds, saying too many schools are locking themselves into what he described as “terrible deals” with onerous terms such as debt payments of more than 10 times the principal. Mr. Lockyer, a Democrat, said he has been meeting with legislators, underwriters and bond attorneys in recent weeks. His office has compiled spreadsheets showing that about 200 K-12 schools and community-college districts in California issued billions of dollars of this type of bond over the past five years.
According to Tennessee conservatives, the silver lining in the very dark cloud of the recent national elections has been the creation of a “supermajority” of Republicans at the state level. So now, they would have us believe, conservatives will be able to guide the ship of state away from the dangerous reefs and shoals of liberalism. But what if the ship is being steered away from modernity, basic science and common sense, by a confederacy of dunces? Here are some of the more moronic things many members of the “supermajority” seem to accept as gospel truths: Like evolution, global warming is “untrue.” Never mind that polar ice caps and glaciers are melting and sea levels are rising. God is in control and frets constantly about human sexual relationships, so the best way to avoid floods and other natural disasters is to keep gays from marrying.
U.S. Sen. Bob Corker has shown bold leadership by drafting a bill that would avert the so-called “fiscal cliff.” His $4.5 trillion proposal calls for both entitlement reform and increased revenues, providing a realistic framework to address the nation’s long-term financial situation. Now it is up to President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats to show an equal amount of leadership. The Tennessee Republican unveiled his proposal in a guest column in Monday’s Washington Post. The fiscal cliff refers to the automatic end to Bush-era tax cuts coupled with draconian budget cuts that would be triggered if Congress can’t reach a long-term budget deal by the end of the year. Many economists have predicted that going over the cliff would cause a jump in unemployment and knock the economy back into a recession.
Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, insulated by re-election, didn’t just daintily touch the third rail of public policy this week with a big, bold proposal for fiscal reform — he grabbed entitlements with both hands and shook them with common-sense solutions that could both pull America back from the fiscal cliff and move us beyond our chasm of deficits and debt. Corker rolled out his plan in the Washington Post on Monday. “In business I found that a challenging environment often produced our best opportunities,” Corker wrote. “Perhaps that’s why I see the so-called ‘fiscal cliff’ of year-end spending cuts and tax increases not as an impassable precipice but as our best opportunity to finally enact meaningful fiscal reform.” On Tuesday, Corker released a summary of his 242-page bill to reduce deficits by $4.5 trillion over the next 10 years.
Unified School Board Commissioner Tomeka Hart made a good point at Tuesday’s board meeting, regarding education and the business community. Hart was among those speaking on a resolution sponsored by board Commissioner Freda Williams requesting that members of the school board have seats on the Economic Development Growth Engine (EDGE) board, Memphis and Shelby County’s economic development body. Williams’ aim is to recapture some of the education funding annually lost to tax abatements for new and expanding businesses. Right now, $1.91 of the $4.02 county property tax rate goes to schools. Hart got right to the point when she said the idea makes sense since this community has been told on several occasions that it can be hard to recruit industries here because of an untrained workforce.
Teachers and administrators should be outraged. We certainly are. Federal prosecutors in Memphis this week indicted 14 people, mostly educators, on allegations that they cheated on teacher-certification tests in Tennessee, Mississippi and Arkansas. The tests, called Praxis Exams, are used to qualify teachers for classroom teaching assignments, and test-takers supposedly paid a former Memphis educator to arrange test-takers to pass the exams for them. Prosecutors say that the cheating ring has been operating since 1995. And to make matters worse, the tests are not hard. As Sarah Almy, director of teacher quality at the Washington-based Education Trust, told The New York Times, “These are pretty basic tests. The fact that there were folks who felt like they needed to bring somebody else in in order to meet a very basic level of content knowledge is disturbing, in particular for the kids those teachers are going to wind up teaching.”