This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Tennessee is looking for ways to deal with big changes in the GED—the high school equivalency exam. Education leaders want to make sure those who need to take the test won’t be left out. The cost of taking the GED doubled this year, to $120. Next year, it goes up even more. The GED used to be a pencil and paper test, now it’s only offered on computer. Education officials in Tennessee and other states are considering a new exam known as HiSet. It costs just 50 dollars. Those taking it will have the choice of paper or computer.
Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to lay off more than 200 state workers this month struck a pothole late Monday afternoon when a Davidson County judge issued a temporary restraining order after state employees filed suit. The suit charges top state officials violated provisions in law surrounding a 60-day notice for affected employees. Circuit Court Judge Amanda McClendon granted employees’ request for a restraining order and has scheduled a hearing for this coming Monday in the case, said attorney Larry Woods, who is representing the Tennessee State Employees Association and a group of individual state workers, including several from Hamilton County.
Tennessee biologists have now confirmed cases of a rare fungal disease that has killed rattlesnakes in other parts of the country. The fungus appears in the form of lesions that can interfere with vision and lead to a deformed face that makes it difficult for them to feed. The Chicago Sun-Times has a gallery of photos showing what the infected snakes can look like. The paper reported on the fungal disease last year. Ed Carter, head of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, says there’s no love lost for snakes, particularly poisonous ones. But he says they play a big part in the ecosystem.
Construction is expected to begin in late July on a new Raleigh-Millington Road bridge over the Loosahatchie River, a project that will take three years but leave bridge users with a structure designed to last 75 years. Last week the Shelby County Commission approved the funding of the $9.4 million bridge, to be built by Ford Construction Inc. in Dyersburg. The new bridge replaces the circa 1953 bridge that has had a weigh limit placed on it by the Tennessee Department of Transportation.The bridge, south of Fite Road, is 925 feet long and serves as a main thoroughfare between Memphis and Millington, said Tom Needham, county public works director.
A report by the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth finds the state didn’t apply for some competitive grants that would have benefited programs to aid children. According to The Tennessean, the state receives huge shares of funding from the federal government. The report said Tennessee spent more than $9 billion on programsfor children and families. Of that amount, $3.9 billion came from the federal government. But the commission said Tennessee’s government grant writers encounter obstacles in trying to compete for funds that would aid children and families.
One more patient injected with a steroid medicine mixed by a Tennessee compounding pharmacy has been sickened, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Monday, bringing the number of illnesses reported thus far to 25. All those sickened thus far in the outbreak, which was announced May 24, have been in Illinois, North Carolina, Florida and Arkansas. The medicine, methylprednisolone acetate, is the same drug linked to the ongoing fungal meningitis outbreak that was announced last October, but Massachusetts-based New England Compounding Center mixed that medicine.
Judge Alan E. Highers — presiding judge of the Tennessee Court of Appeals, Western Section, in Jackson — will not seek re-election when his term ends on Aug. 31, 2014. He has informed Gov. Bill Haslam of his decision, according to a news release Monday. The Appellate Court Nominating Commission expires June 30, and the commission will meet in Jackson on June 29 to interview applicants for the position on the Court of Appeals. The commission will choose from the applicants and submit names to the governor.
The TennCare inspector general office said a Nashville woman said she had a child in her care so she could get state health benefits. The office announced on Monday the arrest of 42-year-old Toni R. Petty of Hermitage. Petty is charged with two counts of TennCare fraud and one count of theft of services. The felony counts could lead to two years in prison, if she’s convicted. Since 2005, more than 1,800 people have been charged with TennCare fraud. The health care program has recovered more than $3.5 million in restitution and repayment.
Small bottles of brightly colored fingernail polish are lined up neatly on Marcel Neergaard’s dresser in his room, the décor of which he describes as having a “disco dancey feeling to it.” Posters of young male celebrities — Justin Bieber among them — are on the walls. Marcel uses eyeliner on occasion and puts on the nail polish “when he wants to feel special,” says his father, Mike Neergaard. Marcel is 11 years old and gay. He’s also become something of a national celebrity for launching an online petition on left-leaning MoveOn.org that garnered more than 55,000 signatures last week.
Cleveland property taxes will increase by 18.51 cents in the next fiscal year, which starts July 1. The tax hike is primarily intended to fund the current level of city services, boost police personnel numbers and provide a 3.5 percent cost-of-living raise for city employees. On Monday, the Cleveland City Council voted 6-1 to pass the proposed budget for fiscal year 2014, which is based on the city increasing property taxes. Councilman Charlie McKenzie cast the only opposing vote. It’s important to note that Cleveland has one of the lowest tax rates for cities with a K-12 school system in the state, said Councilman Richard Banks.
County schools face shortfall Voter turnout, expected to be something less than overwhelming today, could make for a squeaker of a decision on a wheel tax that would benefit Blount County Schools. The referendum is the sole issue on the county ballot, and the sponsor of the Blount County Commission resolution calling for the vote declared the decision “up in the air. “It’s not decided one way or the other. It may be close,” said Commissioner Holden Lail. He said low turnout could mean “folks who have a dedicated point of view for or against” will be the most likely to go to the polls in what he described as “a one-item election.”
The Germantown Board of Mayor and Aldermen approved an annual budget and accompanying 44.5-cent increase to the property-tax rate on the second of three readings Monday night after a standing-room-only crowd voiced opinions about some cuts to funds. But even after unanimous votes on both ordinances, aldermen assured supporters they will take their pleas into consideration before the third and final reading on June 24. The proposed increase would bring the Germantown property tax rate to $1.93 per $100 of assessed value.
Commissioners to receive $100 more for non-voting meetings The Montgomery County Commission passed the 2013-2014 Budget within an hour and without a fight on Monday night, and the bulk of discussion centered around a pay raise for commissioners. The commission’s Budget Committee had voted to include a $100 raise for non-voting County Commission meetings, which would raise the rate to $200, an amount equal to the pay for voting meetings. Commissioner Nick Robards made a motion to amend the budget to do away with the raise, which would equal $25,200.
Man-made white water, public vegetable gardens and kitchens shared space with ideas for soccer fields and historic buildings during a public discussion Monday on Lakeshore Park’s future. The park has been known in Knoxville for its 2.25-mile walking trail and athletic fields since the state turned over a portion of the property in 1994, but soon the city will take full control of the land and its future. That’s a future fertile with possibilities as the discussion formally began in the gym at Sacred Heart Cathedral, a short distance from the 180-acre park that fronts Fort Loudoun Lake.
The severe weather that’s walloped parts of the country in recent years has focused new attention on states’ vulnerability to storm surges and inland flooding. Billions in federal, state, local and private money is being spent to upgrade infrastructure, homes and businesses damaged by tropical storms, hurricanes and tornadoes. Much less has been spent improving dams, though they’ve also experienced severe stress. Dam failures are relatively rare, but they do occur. The Association of State Dam Safety Officials counts 132 dam failures throughout the nation between 2005 and 2009.
Louis Graham has been promoted to editor of The Commercial Appeal. Graham’s appointment is effective immediately. It was announced Monday by the E.W. Scripps Company and reported on the newspaper’s website (http://bit.ly/11CSf4u). Graham replaces Chris Peck, who retired from the Memphis daily newspaper in March. Graham is 59 and has held the managing editor post prior to his promotion. He began his journalism career as a reporter at The Commercial Appeal in 1979. He covered local government, courts and business, then spent more than a decade as a senior writer for projects and investigations.
Louis Graham, formerly managing editor of The Commercial Appeal, has been promoted to editor, replacing Chris Peck, who retired in March. Peck had been editor since 2002. Graham had been managing editor since January 2011, and has been with the Commercial Appeal since 1979. During his reporting career, he covered local government, courts and business before spending more than a decade as a senior writer for projects and investigations. From 2003 to 2011, he worked as metro editor and assistant managing editor for the paper.
By the time George Cogswell, president and publisher of The Commercial Appeal, finished announcing that Louis Graham would become the newspaper’s new editor, many employees began standing and cheering. Cogswell moments earlier Monday referred to “the campaign” by many inside and outside the newsroom to persuade him and the newspaper’s corporate parent, Scripps Howard, to make Graham, 56, the successor to Chris Peck, who retired March 17 after more than 10 years leading the newsroom.
American Airlines’ short-lived hub operation at Nashville International Airport ended 18 years ago, but ever since, the airline has continued to pay rent on most of the space it occupied when it was the airport’s biggest tenant. Now, though, using its bankruptcy reorganization as leverage, American has renegotiated its lease, which runs through 2017, and will save $15 million in rent during the remaining four years, the airport said Monday. “They have been reviewing all of their leases and contracts for gates, ramps and office space, and we were one of many airports that were approached to try to cut back on the space they pay for,” said airport President and CEO Rob Wigington.
It’s been more than a year now since Melton “Gene” Scott, 70, drove himself and his wife to Memorial Hospital so she could undergo a lung procedure. Around noon in the waiting room that day, Scott’s daughters noticed that his speech was slurred and the left side of his face was slack. They rushed him through the halls to Memorial’s emergency room. They told nurses they were worried their father was having a stroke. But it took nearly six hours before Memorial emergency room doctors finally diagnosed a stroke and decided to transfer Scott to Erlanger — missing the critical window for treatment that could have dissolved the blood clot in his brain.
In the wake of a government investigation, Knoxville-based truck-stop chain Pilot Flying J has been tight-lipped about even the most basic information about the company. Government documents, however, help shed light on its structure. In April, Pilot’s headquarters were raided by FBI and Internal Revenue Service agents in connection with an investigation into allegations of rebate fraud aimed at unsophisticated trucking companies. Since then, two employees of the company have pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit fraud.
Almost a hundred young teachers just wrapped up two-year stints in Nashville by way of Teach For America. They’re often rated among the district’s best newcomers, but the program is sometimes slammed for staffing tough classrooms with ambitious but inexperienced college grads, many of whom leave after just a few years to attend law school or pursue policy work. There’s no shortage of skeptics of Teach For America, but the program also has its share of cheerleaders in Nashville, like Mayor Karl Dean, who spoke last month at a swank alumni celebration for the group that just finished its two-year commitment: “One of the things I think it’s important to understand – You’re doing God’s work,” said Dean, who helped recruit TFA into Metro schools.
School district officials in Metro Nashville are expecting taxpayers to fund a capital-spending plan a little more than half the size the school district asked for. The Metro Council is set to vote Tuesday on a $300 million spending plan for infrastructure projects throughout Davidson County, including $95 million for improvements on buildings and systems within the school district. “It’s no secret that we have capital needs,” said Joe Bass, a Metro Nashville Public Schools spokesman, after walking reporters through rooms now under renovation at Antioch Middle School Monday.
On the eve of a Metro Council vote that can mean the difference between bright, shiny classrooms or dimly lit spaces with sagging ceiling tiles and exposed wiring, school officials hosted a building tour in hopes of showing how much renovation is needed. Antioch Middle School, where an $11 million renovation just began, was used as an example of how urgent some of the building updates can be in the Metro system. The Antioch renovation was approved by the council in last year’s school system capital improvement budget — the same type of vote that is expected tonight at 6 when the council meets.
Nashville’s school district is hoping to get some $90 million Tuesday night from the Metro Council to build and renovate school buildings this year. Part of the concern is that parents who see older schools as dilapidated don’t want to send their kids there. One example is Antioch Middle School, which currently has 20 portable classrooms outside and expects to add more than 200 students in the next few years. Meanwhile some rooms inside the building weren’t being used because of problems with mold; Principal Canidra Henderson says it was driving parents to transfer kids out.
Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell won an important Shelby County Commission vote last week when the commission approved the $4.38 county property tax rate he recommended. The tax rate, with a 30-cent tax rate increase and a 6-cent tax increase, still faces two more readings. But the proposal backed by Luttrell and County Commission Chairman Mike Ritz had eight votes, one more than the seven needed, on first reading. But passing the tax rate that creates $20 million in new funding for the consolidated school system in its first fiscal year is just the first hurdle of several county government faces over at least the next three years.
The unified Memphis and Shelby County school board will be asked Tuesday to allocate $12.6 million from the combined district’s reserve funds to produce a balanced budget for the district’s inaugural year.The proposed budget resolution for fiscal year 2013-14, which begins July 1, would authorize general fund expenditures totaling about $1.189 billion, funded in part by a $20,489,980 increase authorized by the Shelby County Commission.The board has previously enacted a series of cuts to move the budget’s bottom-line deficit to about $30 million.
Gov. Pat Quinn proposed a compromise Monday to solve Illinois’ nearly $100 billion pension crisis, but it was unclear whether the powerful Democratic House speaker, Michael Madigan, would agree to the plan. Mr. Quinn asked lawmakers to devise legislation that would include two rival plans — one advanced by Mr. Madigan and the other by the Senate president, John Cullerton. Mr. Madigan’s, which would impose pension changes on workers and raise the retirement age, failed in the Senate. Mr. Cullerton’s plan, which would give workers options on what benefits to receive in retirement, was not called in the House before lawmakers adjourned May 31.
Gov. Rick Perry on Monday signed a bill that will reduce to 5 from 15 the number of standardized tests that Texas high school students must pass to graduate. The measure was promoted as a way to give more flexibility to students who want to focus on career training, not just college-preparatory courses, and was a response to complaints from students, parents and teachers about too much testing. Mr. Perry said he was at first skeptical about weakening curriculum standards, but believed that the measure struck a good balance.
The annual “Kids Count: The State of the Child in Tennessee” was released on Friday. The 92-page report is available online at www.tn.gov/tccy/kc-soc12.pdf. It is worth taking a look. Children are our future. While most do well in Tennessee, a large number face challenges that will affect them for years to come, perhaps even throughout their lives. The report sheds light on the difficulty of looking out for children who end up in state custody. For years, the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services has come under fire for a wide range of problems ranging from foster care shortcomings to misplaced children to the deaths of children with whom the department had come in contact.
A federal judge last week ordered Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero and Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett to do in the future what they should have been doing over the past several months — figure out a way to build a facility that would be an alternative to jail for nonviolent offenders. U.S. District Judge Thomas Phillips on Friday ordered Burchett and Rogero to form a task force to debate the merits of constructing an alternative to jail for people whose infractions can be blamed solely on addiction and mental illness. Phillips’ order stems from a lawsuit against Knox County dating back to 1986.
For years, as the federal surveillance state grew into every corner of American society, the highest officials worked to pretend that it didn’t exist. Now that Americans are learning what really takes place behind locked doors, many officials claim they are eager to talk about it. “That’s a conversation that I welcome having,” President Obama said on Saturday. Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Intelligence Committee, said on Sunday that she was open to holding a public hearing on the subject now, a hearing next month, a hearing every month. This newfound interest in openness is a little hard to take seriously, not only because of the hypocrisy involved but because neither official seems to want to do more than talk about being open.