This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Even with an influx of state dollars, Hamilton County Schools won’t be technologically up to speed anytime soon. The school system will get about $1 million out of a one-time pot of $51 million in Gov. Bill Haslam’s budget to help school systems buy computers, tablets and technological infrastructure. The state is making the money available because it’s mandating districts be ready for new online standardized tests by next year. But Hamilton County will have to increase the bandwidth capacity at most schools before each student can use a laptop, smartphone or tablet.
At its most basic level, the job of child welfare agencies is to keep children alive. Recently, the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services has had trouble keeping track of how many children died in its custody. The disarray in the department’s records revealed in two court proceedings has child advocates wondering whether the agency’s clerical and administrative troubles could be putting children in jeopardy. “The big picture here is that the state has to have a way to accurately track all child deaths and DCS needs a process for investigating all child deaths thoroughly.
The last days of life of three Tennessee children, the near death of a fourth child and a glimpse into the state child protection agency’s involvement with each of their families were revealed in state records made public last week. Notes describing the four child welfare investigations, as written by caseworkers with the Department of Children’s Services, describe a baby shaken to death, a rollover SUV crash that killed a foster child, an infant found dead at a domestic violence shelter and the hospitalization of an asthmatic boy.
The state Department of Health says it has stepped up inspections of sterile compounding pharmacies in Tennessee after a fungal meningitis outbreak tied to a tainted drug, but it won’t release the results. Citing a state law, the agency has refused to state the number of violations cited, to say how many corrective actions have been taken, to release individual disciplinary reports against pharmacies or to specify the dates of their last inspections — the same type of information that the agency has released for hospitals, hospices, assisted living centers and nursing homes.
The University of Tennessee has been selected as a Top 20 green power-using university by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Green Power Partnership. The partnership is a voluntary program that encourages organizations to use green power as a way to reduce the environmental impacts associated with conventional electricity use. UT ranked 10th on the January 2013 list after not being ranked the previous year. UT is the only SEC school in the Top 10 and was noted for its use of biogas, small-hydro, solar and wind resources, as well as its partnership with the Tennessee Valley Authority, according to UT.
Built when Calvin Coolidge occupied the White House and revamped and widened during the Eisenhower years, the viaduct that opened the way for Memphis’ eastward growth shows unmistakable signs of age, not to mention the wear and tear from 23,000-plus vehicles crossing it daily. Colorful graffiti and some crumbled concrete mar the “Poplar Boulevard Viaduct,” as a plaque from the April 1928 opening calls the bridge carrying Poplar and Scott Street over a railroad corridor and Union Avenue.
Donations to the University of Tennessee athletic department, and the number of people who gifted that money, fell by more than 25 percent in 2012. The $10 million drop followed coaching shake-ups and a poor performance on the football field — but it also came after years of record giving to the department. For the last decade, new capital gifts have fueled new building projects. Those building projects brought new luxury stadium seating. Those seats delivered even more donations at higher-dollar amounts required from ticket holders who wanted to watch games from a premium perch.
Tennessee Department of Transportation Commissioner John Schroer will hold an open meeting with Rep. Bill Sanderson at the Dyersburg/Dyer County Chamber of Commerce on Friday, Feb. 22 at noon. Schorer is expected to discuss projects such as: Interstate 69, Highway 412 and the Reelfoot Spillway project. Other projects that affect Northwest Tennessee’s transportation infrastructure will also be discussed. The meeting is free and open to the public.
After breaking off negotiations in the ongoing school merger case, suburban leaders and legislators from Shelby County will make another run at creating their own school districts in the now-familiar corridors of the statehouse, where they’re likely to find an even more receptive audience than in the previous two years. Lawmakers say they may file a bill as soon as this week that would likely repeal Tennessee’s 15-year-old prohibition on new municipal school systems statewide. The state legislature last year lifted the ban only in Shelby County, but a federal judge in Memphis ruled a Shelby-only bill violated the Tennessee Constitution.
Republican James “Micah” Van Huss promised to protect Tennessee from the United Nations when he ran for state representative in 2012. Van Huss made that pledge at a tea party event in Kingsport last October and specifically spoke out against Agenda 21, a 20-year- old United Nations initiative advocating sustainable development. The 34-year-old military veteran, who now serves House District 6 in Washington County, has filed two bills with intentions of keeping the United Nations out of the state.
By the year 2040, the Nashville region will have lured a million new residents. Nashville itself will be more than 30 percent bigger than it is now, and Rutherford and Williamson counties will have 500,000 residents each — more than cities such as Kansas City or New Orleans have today. The population will be more diverse, with Latinos becoming the city’s biggest racial or ethnic group. It will be more active and more demanding of a sense of place, experts say. And it might be less tolerant of long, expensive commutes.
As Congress contemplates rewriting No Child Left Behind, President George W. Bush’s signature education law, legislators will tussle over a vision of how the federal government should hold states and schools accountable for students’ academic progress. At a Senate education committee hearing on Thursday to discuss waivers to states on some provisions of the law, Senator Lamar Alexander, Republican of Tennessee, forcefully urged the federal government to get out of the way. “We only give you 10 percent of your money,” said Mr. Alexander, pressing John B. King Jr., the education commissioner for New York State.
Federal discretionary spending cuts “are going to happen” March 1, U.S. Rep. Phil Roe told about 130 business and local government leaders at a Rogersville/Hawkins County Chamber of Commerce legislative breakfast Saturday.The scheduled cuts on that date are part of a so-called “sequestration” process enacted in 2011 during an impasse between President Barack Obama and Congressional Republicans over raising the nation’s debt limit. Defense will take the biggest hit, Roe warned.
With family members waving from a pier, sailors aboard a Navy destroyer left for an overseas mission with more uncertainty than ever about their homecoming as potentially massive budget cuts reshape military plans. The political squabbling in Congress over the budget is having real-life consequences for service members in the Navy and maybe soon in other branches. It comes at a time when some military families were getting used to deployments coming back down to normal lengths after more than a decade of two wars, when the Pentagon routinely extended the time that troops stayed in the field.
Union membership fell last year to the lowest level since the 1930s as recession-battered states and municipalities shed workers and organized labor struggled to organize new members at growing private-sector companies. Despite the nationwide decline, however, labor union membership rose across Tennessee and Georgia last year from job additions at traditionally unionized factories and construction sites and new growth from Georgia’s growing movie industry.
Ooltewah Elementary School is about to double in size. Dozens of additional teachers. Longer and wider hallways. Expansive lunchroom. Two full-court gyms. And this is a model that Hamilton County plans to replicate. At some point all elementary schools will be about this big. Officials argue that one school for 1,000 children is cheaper to build and operate than two schools for 500. But some education researchers say that savings comes at a high price because the more students in a building, the worse they perform.
Cleveland City Schools will not tolerate firearms on school grounds, with the exception of law officers. In a 7-0 vote, the Cleveland Board of Education recently passed a measure limiting firearms to each campus’ school resource officer, who is provided by Cleveland police. The resolution received a clear endorsement from Dr. Martin Ringstaff, director of the city school system. “There’s lots of discussions about teachers carrying weapons — I’ve been a little outspoken on that and will continue to be, and I know our board feels the same way,” Ringstaff said.
When Brian Davis began teaching in Westwood in 2003, one of the easiest decisions he had to make was where to live. “The principal told me Southaven was where most of his staff was happily located, and even gave me the name of a good local Realtor. My family has lived here ever since,” said Davis, now running a grass-roots campaign against a residency requirement that could force Memphis City Schools teachers to live in Shelby County. Memphis City Schools has no residency requirement for its employees, but Shelby County government does.
During the past several years when Carter County was planning and building a new jail, the county’s school system did not make any demands for new schools, and only two schools, Hampton Elementary and Cloudland Elementary have been built in the past 20 years. But now that the jail project is completed and with some long-term debt set to be paid off in the coming years, the building of new schools will once again become a topic of discussion. In anticipation of that development, the Carter County Board of Education appointed a Long Range Facilities Planning Team to conduct a study of the school system’s future needs and make recommendations on how to most effectively meet those needs.
When Rutherford County Sheriff’s Sgt. Bobby Weeks began his law enforcement career in 1986, he had no idea he’d end up spending most of his working days at a school. For the last 15 years that’s exactly what Weeks has done. After spending years working in corrections, patrol and narcotics enforcement, he was one of the first school resource officers assigned to Hamilton County Schools in Chattanooga. “I saw it as the wave of the future,” Weeks said of the SRO program, which was fairly new to Tennessee in the 1990s.
School officials in Santa Ana were in a bind several years ago: they wanted to build hundreds of new classrooms, but feared that voters would rebel against tax increases to pay for the construction. So in 2009, the Santa Ana Unified School District borrowed $35 million using an inventive if increasingly controversial method known as capital appreciation bonds, which pushed the cost of the construction on to future taxpayers. Not a cent is owed until 2026. But taxpayers will eventually have to pay $340 million to retire that $35 million debt.
Recent decisions by Republican governors have punctured the posturing that was making Tennessee’s hesitancy to accept federal funding of an expanded TennCare one that was more about politics than people. Since early January, several states that were fence-sitters have made the decision that an expansion of Medicaid makes social and economic sense. The expansion was included in the original Affordable Care Act, “Obamacare,” but it was made optional for states under a U.S. Supreme Court ruling this past summer. The states’ decisions extended health care insurance to 17 million Americans.
A split in the ranks of Tennessee Republicans is a clear indication of the complexity surrounding potential Medicaid expansion here. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, in his State of the State address, declined to announce a decision on whether to add more people to the rolls of TennCare, the state’s Medicaid program as part of the Affordable Care Act. The move is optional for states after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled mandatory expansion unconstitutional. Haslam already opted against Tennessee starting its own insurance exchange in favor of joining a federal exchange as part of the law commonly known as Obamacare.
After some dark days for the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services and, more importantly, for those whose welfare depends on it — there is reason for some optimism. Much of that optimism is buoyed by the integrity and administrative skills possessed by interim Commissioner Jim Henry. Those who are relatively new to Tennessee might know Henry primarily as the state commissioner for the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. For 13 years before that, Henry was president and CEO of Omni Visions Inc., an organization serving families with adults and children who have developmental disabilities.
The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services wants to charge a media coalition $55,584 to provide records of children who have died or nearly died after contact with the agency since 2009. The beleaguered agency’s bloated request should outrage Tennessee citizens, who are allowed by law — and supported in this case by a judge’s ruling — to inspect most public documents. At best, the explanation given by the state’s legal team outlines an inefficient, Byzantine system for responding to a public records request. The state should waive most, if not all, of the cost. Led by the Tennessean and including The Associated Press and the News Sentinel, the media coalition requested the records in a lawsuit.
A 1998 Tennessee Supreme Court ruling said government agencies cannot create policies for releasing information that are so expensive to the entity asking for the information that they “substantially inhibit disclosure of records.” That case law should have a direct bearing on the ridiculous $55,000 charge the attorneys for the Department of Children’s Services said last week it must charge the media to make public the records of 200 dead children. The 1998 Supreme Court ruling came after a three-year court battle between The Tennessean and Nashville Electric Service.
Former Gov. Phil Bredesen fired Michael Miller as commissioner of the Department of Children’s Services in 2003 and named another commissioner, Gina Lodge of the Department of Human Services, to serve as his interim successor. About a decade later, we find Gov. Bill Haslam accepting the resignation of DCS Commissioner Kate O’Day and naming another commissioner, Jim Henry of the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, to serve as her interim successor. A clear distinction, of course, is that Bredesen fired his first DCS commissioner, saying he had been unable to provide “the cultural change” that was needed and as illustrated by various critical reports with a lawsuit involved and media attention.
Putting it bluntly, the state of Tennessee needs to get off the 95 counties’ backs and fix its prison overcrowding problem once and for all through better planning. County governments representing large metro areas or even small rural towns – already financially strapped every year during budget-making season, some to the point of stagnation or even deficit spending to the detriment of schools and other basic services – can ill afford this added expense. In Montgomery County alone, anywhere between 50 to 200 state prisoners are housed in the Montgomery County Jail on a given day, because of never-ending overcrowding in state prisons.
Holy hot lips! Who’da ever thunk it? State Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, is a Ruskie socialist! Verily, Comrade Campfield marches in lock-step with those godless commies from afar! That’s the only conclusion I can reach after reading the latest news out of Russia, via the BBC. Seems there’s a proposal before the Russian parliament to “ban the promotion of homosexuality among children.” This measure faces two more readings, then must be passed by the Federation Council and approved by President Vladimir Putin before it can become law. No doubt the hotline between Moscow and K-town veritably flutters with palpitations as votes are being lined up.
A well-known legend asserts that ostriches bury their heads in sand when threatened. That same behavior is commonly practiced by Americans when confronted by the realities of a rapidly expanding national debt and the expanding costs of Social Security and Medicare. Despite claims by liberals to the contrary, no plans to reform the entitlement programs will result in throwing granny over the cliff. Younger Americans, however, should take notice: Change is necessary, and it is coming. U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., hopes to lead that change by attempting to alter our ostrich-like behavior while ensuring granny’s safety.