This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Governor Bill Haslam and First Lady Crissy Haslam are the keynote speakers at the 39th annual Tennessee Prayer Breakfast. The breakfast is being held at Lipscomb University’s Allen Arena. The event is held each year prior to the conclusion of Tennessee General Assembly’s legislative session. It’s an effort to encourage state leaders through prayer. The Tennessee Prayer Breakfast is presented annually by The Citizens’ Committee, which is a volunteer group of Christian business leaders, elected officials, and ministry leaders.
Call it “learning to the test.” For years, educators have wrestled with balancing the need to measure student performance against the fear of creating a culture that’s focused too much on state tests. But nowadays, it’s not just teachers who are eyeing the test. The pressure to lift scores has trickled down to students, who are becoming increasingly invested in their own test performance and preparation. At Whitwell High School, core classes such as math, science, history and English all center on the state’s end-of-course exams.
First Lady of Tennessee Crissy Haslam will be in Fayetteville later this month for the Imagination Library of Lincoln County event “Look Who’s Reading” as well as to encourage children to sign-up for library cards. Additionally, she will also be speaking to the Retired Teachers of Lincoln County during a noon-time luncheon. The events are all planned for Wednesday, April 24, according to organizers. First Lady Haslam, along with Theresa Carl, director of the Governor’s Books from Birth Foundation, will first speak to members of the Retired Teachers of Lincoln County during a 12 noon luncheon at Shoney’s Restaurant in Fayetteville.
Officials with the Tennessee Department of Children’s Service are unveiling a reorganization of the troubled child welfare agency. Interim Commissioner Jim Henry has scheduled a news conference on Monday afternoon to announce changes that will address problems with child safety, health and programming. DCS has been under heightened scrutiny over how it handled abuse and neglect investigations of more than 200 children who later died or were seriously injured. Former Commissioner Kate O’Day resigned in February after department officials told a federal judge they didn’t have an accurate count of how many of the children had died.
Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services will unveil the results later today of an internal shakeup, following months of withering criticism. The department was found struggling to track how many children died in state custody, and fought in court to keep details secret. Two months ago embattled DCS Commissioner Kate O’Day resigned. Filling in as an interim has been Jim Henry, who runs the Department of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities. In addition to prickly questions over child deaths and monitoring, DCS has faced concerns over high turnover, and a glitchy computer system that cost millions to fix.
Committee drafts new social studies standards for grades K-12 in Tenn. A committee appointed by the Tennessee Department of Education is seeking input on a draft of new social studies standards that would affect students in kindergarten through 12th grades. The window for feedback will be open until April 26. The draft proposal is available for review on the state’s website. “Feedback on these items will strengthen the drafts as they continue to be revised,” said Jared Myracle, who is the social studies context coordinator for the proposed social studies standards and the supervisor of instruction for ninth through 12th grades with Gibson County Special School District.
Tennessee’s unemployment insurance program has cut its backlog of claims awaiting decisions by more than half since reaching a high of about 28,000 claims in September, the Department of Labor and Workforce Development said last week. The backlog of claims has averaged 13,629 so far this month, which has reduced the average wait time for a decision to as little as two weeks, down from a high of as many as 10 weeks in 2012, said department spokesman Jeff Hentschel.
With many states struggling to set aside enough money to follow through on their pension promises to government employees, Tennessee officials have decided it’s time to revise the pension plan here. State lawmakers appear to be on board with launching a plan that creates a hybrid between the state’s current plan that features a defined benefit with one that requires more people to contribute to their eventual retirement, reducing government costs and unfunded pension liabilities.
Hate slaloming between speeding cars and crawling trucks up the Ridge cut? Tired of sitting and sitting and sitting in traffic while wreckers snake crunched cars out of the lanes in Lookout Valley? Tell TDOT. The Tennessee Department of Transportation is taking public comments on what’s wrong with Interstate 24 and suggestions on how to fix the 185-mile, 1960s-era highway between Chattanooga and Clarksville, Tenn. It’s part of a study that began in December and is scheduled for completion in January, said Joan Barnfield, TDOT project manager.
Lawmakers still considering charter panel, city systems As the 108th Tennessee General Assembly draws to a close, state lawmakers are hoping to push through education proposals that include creating a state panel to authorize charter schools for five counties and a measure that would clear the way for cities to begin forming municipal school systems. The session, which lawmakers are trying to wrap up this month, began with several proposals aimed at continuing education reform in Tennessee.
City annexations across most of Tennessee, including current efforts by Collegedale, would be stopped dead in their tracks for up to 27 months under bills scheduled for final consideration this week in the General Assembly. The bills are a compromise from initial plans by Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and Rep. Mike Carter, R-Ooltewah, to require voter consent before cities could annex territory. After cities and their lobbyists objected fiercely to the original bill, the legislation now blocks annexations of unwilling property owners while a comprehensive study of Tennessee annexation laws is conducted by June 30, 2015.
As Memphis puts much of its annexation plans on hold, the state legislature this week is likely to impose a statewide moratorium on municipal annexation until 2015 pending a broad review of Tennessee urban growth law. The state bill is set for a Senate floor vote Monday and a House vote later in the week, as lawmakers push toward adjournment of the 2013 legislature by the end of the week. As originally filed, Senate Bill 279/House Bill 475 would simply ban all future annexations without a majority of voters in the annexation areas approving it in referendums.
Tennessee’s legislature is weighing whether homeowners should have a say before being annexed into the boundaries of a city. A bill requiring a majority of voters to sign off is up for consideration in the state Senate tonight. And some lawmakers are looking for a way to opt out. The reason annexation is an issue at all is that a property owner’s taxes often go up when they’re sucked inside the city limits. Theoretically, they’re paying for more services, like trash pick up or sewer lines. If being part of a city is so great, local governments should convince the people who live there, says Sen. Bo Watson (R-Hixon). But cities don’t want to.
A measure that would allow cities to form their own school systems is scheduled to be heard on the Senate and House floors Monday evening. The legislation would lift a 1998 ban that forbids municipalities from starting their own school systems. The measure would benefit six Memphis suburbs seeking to bypass a merger of the Shelby County and Memphis school districts and run their own schools. The suburbs voted in August to create their own districts after the Legislature passed a narrowly crafted bill that allowed it.
One of the remaining skirmishes for the Tennessee legislature this year pits agriculture interests and animal rights activists in an effort to block undercover investigations of livestock abuse. A proposal being considered in 11 states requires someone to go to the police immediately if they take photos or video of animal abuse. “Investigations and documentation – if that’s what was required – needs to be done by law enforcement, not by vigilantes,” Sen. Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) said on the Senate floor Thursday.
A law means this. Or it means that. Who says? On the first day of last month, Roy Grimes got a call from his attorney. The president had pardoned him for a petty, 52-year-old crime. Grimes, 72 years old, was happy. He felt redemption and shouted a couple of hallelujahs and thought about his future. Now, though, “things aren’t as rosy as they seemed back on March 1,” Grimes said last week. Beyond the obvious sentimental value, Grimes applied for the pardon because he wanted to collect handguns.
It’s the beginning of this early spring ritual, so the out-of-balance budget estimates — while heftier than usual — aren’t that surprising, Anderson County officials said. County departments are asking for slightly more than $4 million over expected revenue, while the school system’s fiscal plan is some $3.2 million in the red. “We’ll be going through the process of shaking that down,” school system budget chief James T. Woodward Sr. said of initial school budget figures.
An ambitious proposal to build a multipurpose agricultural exposition and event complex in Loudon County — estimated to cost as much as $35 million — may have to be scaled back. “With the school building program and the justice center, we have bigger nuts to crack right now,” said Commissioner Bob Franke, a member of the steering committee that has been exploring the “ag center” concept since last year. With more than 2,000 students in the county enrolled in 4-H or similar programs, there is a need for some kind of facility where agriculture and livestock events can be held, Franke said.
The Loudon County school board last week voted to limit residents’ comments to subjects on the agenda during its meetings. The move reversed a policy that had been in place since 2008. “I’m disappointed the public will not be able to comment on non-agenda items at future board meetings,” said board member Jeremy Buckles. Buckles, along with board member Gary Ubben, cast the only votes against the change on Thursday. He said he was surprised that the board would reverse a policy that seemed to work well.
Republican state Sen. Jim Tracy’s congressional campaign says the Shelbyville lawmaker raised nearly $436,485 during the first quarter in his bid to oust “scandal-ridden” U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais, R-Tenn., in the 2014 primary. Tracy has raised more than twice the $205,000 that state Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, said last week his exploratory committee has amassed. And Tracy said he still has $400,000 in cash on hand after expenses. Tracy’s finance chairman, Shane Reeves, said in a news release Sunday the senator’s “robust fundraising totals coupled with his strong grass-roots organization put him in the best position to defeat the scandal-ridden incumbent.”
Congressional investigators say pharmacy boards in nearly all 50 states lack the information and expertise to oversee specialty pharmacies like the one that triggered a deadly meningitis outbreak last year. A report released today by House Democrats shows that most states do not track or routinely inspect compounding pharmacies. Staffers surveyed officials in 50 states about their oversight of pharmacies and then compiled the responses. The findings come as lawmakers debate how to prevent another outbreak like that caused by the New England Compounding Center, a Massachusetts compounding pharmacy.
Proposal needs more support from GOP A bipartisan Senate proposal to expand background checks for gun buyers gained the backing of one Republican and the potential support of a second on Sunday as sponsors said the vote expected this week was too close to call. The plan would “strengthen the background check system without in any way infringing on Second Amendment rights,” Maine Sen. Susan Collins said in a statement explaining her support for the measure. But she added that “it is impossible to predict at this point” what will be in a final bill.
Developer defends expensive new version as reflecting higher standards Several dozen states are looking for an alternative to the GED high school equivalency test because of concerns that a new version coming out next year is more costly and will no longer be offered in a pencil-and-paper format. The responsibility for issuing high school equivalency certificates or diplomas rests with states, and they’ve relied on the General Education Development exam since soon after the test was created to help returning World War II veterans.
The unified Memphis and Shelby County school district will not lack for ideas about how to reduce high rates of out-of-school suspensions, particularly among African-American students at the middle- and high-school levels. Recommendation No. 138a on the Transition Planning Commission’s list of 172 proposals for the district — a recommendation that has been adopted in principle by the unified school board — calls for adding 60 new school counselors, matching the current staffing rate at Shelby County Schools.
One of the most important ways to help grow our economy is by ensuring we have a well-trained workforce whose skills match the needs of Tennessee employers. As Gov. Bill Haslam mentioned in his annual address to the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce this month, within the next five years, over half the jobs in Tennessee will require a postsecondary credential. However, only 32 percent of Tennesseans currently hold an associate’s degree or higher, and the affordability of higher education remains a great concern for many families. This is a critical issue for Tennessee, which is why the governor set a goal of increasing the percentage of Tennesseans with a postsecondary credential from 32 percent to 55 percent by 2025.
A bill before the state Legislature this week looks at first glance to be a measure that would combat animal cruelty. It is not. The bill instead could help facilitate animal cruelty and is an attack on First Amendment rights. Sponsored by state Rep. Andy Holt, R-Dresden, and state Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, the proposal would require anyone who takes photographs or videos of people committing acts of cruelty or neglect against livestock to report the violation and submit all the images taken to law enforcement within two days. Failure to do so would a misdemeanor punishable by a fine.
Whether or not all students in the new Shelby County unified school district will have to wear uniforms is an important policy issue, but one that does not have to be decided before classes start Aug. 5. Memphis City Schools students are required to wear uniforms. Shelby County Schools students are not. MCS goes out of business July 1, and the uniform issue is one that draws hot reaction from parents and students. Legislation that will allow the county’s suburban municipalities to create their own school districts is poised for passage in the General Assembly this week.