This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Northeast Tennessee has become a respected leader in STEM education thanks to a tiny school that was abandoned until a year ago. STEM is learning based around the principles of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The Innovation Academy , as it’s called, is in the old Brookside Elementary School in Sullivan County and is a partnership between two school districts, Sullivan and Kingsport , East Tennessee State University and local businesses. Students learn through project-based lessons, often with the help of local business leaders.
It’s official. Summer’s over. Beginning Monday, nearly 7,800 Murfreesboro City Schools in grades preK-6 students will load buses and head to school for a three-hour, 15-minute day of school, with Tuesday serving as the first full day of classes. Rutherford County Schools has set Thursday aside as a two-hour day, typically used for registration, giving some 40,000 K-12 students a chance to drop off school supplies and meet their teachers. Aug. 12 is the county’s first full day of school. Both districts will run buses on the abbreviated days. Today is a big day for the county school system, as a ribbon-cutting and open house is scheduled for Stewarts Creek High.
We’ve been taking tests since the days of the one-room schoolhouse. Most of us grew used to the end-of-the-chapter science exams or the weekly spelling quizzes. And kids have been filling out those bubble sheets on state assessments for decades. But the controversial No Child Left Behind law made testing so much more. Assessments are now central to public education, as important as textbooks, chalkboards and science experiments. And they’re high stakes. Instead of just serving as scorecards, standardized tests now place federal dollars, people’s jobs and kids’ futures on the line.
The school bells are ringing throughout East Tennessee, or will be in the next few weeks. Toughened economic times, controversies and mandates for improvement have made this year especially challenging. The News Sentinel looks at six school districts in today’s edition, facing hurdles ranging from budget and staff cuts to new leadership. How these issues get handled will influence education in these districts for years to come. Jefferson County: Roof down but attitude upbeat DANDRIDGE — Dr. Charles Edmonds said he’s more upbeat than ever as he begins his fourth year as director of schools for Jefferson County.
A Pulaski man is being held in the Giles County Jail, charged with selling prescription drugs paid for by TennCare, according to the Tennessee Office of Inspector General. Willie Gilbert McWilliams, 43, was arrested Thursday and charged with four counts of TennCare fraud and six counts of selling narcotics in a Drug-Free Zone, an OIG press release said. He’s accused of using TennCare benefits to fill prescriptions for Lortab and morphine and selling some of the pills in a school zone on four occasions.
Defense lawyers and prosecutors are calling it a nightmare, while bail bondsmen say the judges of Davidson County are extorting them and usurping the legislature’s power — all over a new state law that doesn’t even fill a page. The new law, which slipped through in the last legislative session, rewrites a portion of the state law on bail bonds by allowing bondsmen to avoid liability once a defendant is found guilty or pleads guilty. No longer will bondsmen remain liable until a defendant is actually sentenced. A review of videotapes of House and Senate sessions shows there was little discussion of the bill, and confusion dominated what little discussion took place.
Before a crowd of mourners that included former Vice President Al Gore and elected officials at the local, state and federal levels, State Rep. Lois DeBerry was laid to rest at historic Elmwood Cemetery Saturday as friends reflected on the many ways she touched lives and inspired people. Fetuga, who drove from Nashville to attend the funeral, said she met DeBerry when she was in college and DeBerry worked with the children’s defense fund. “Ms. DeBerry was my other mother,” said Fetuga, who founded Gideon’s Army United, a Nashville nonprofit group.
Under Chattanooga’s tough new stance on crime, a felon caught carrying a gun could receive 10 years in federal prison and a $250,000 fine instead of the possible jail term and $500 fine more commonly associated with the offense today. Mayor Andy Berke’s proposed $212 million budget includes $60,000 salary for a federal prosecutor position. If the position is approved, a full-time prosecutor will be hired to focus solely on gang and gun violence. And U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District Bill Killian said he plans to give that prosecutor a tool that will drastically change how cases here are pursued.
Years ago, when he was a young, little-known executive at Holiday Inns, Kevin Kane supplemented his income with a handful of small, inexpensive houses he bought and rented. A world of much greater opportunity opened to him after he became executive director of the Memphis Convention and Visitors Bureau, the highly visible, taxpayer-financed nonprofit corporation that promotes Memphis tourism. After landing the job in 1991, Kane found that established businessmen such as restaurateur Gerald “Bud’’ Chittom and concert ticket seller Charlie Ryan wanted to partner with him in ventures that included buying apartment and office buildings and opening nightclubs.
Some students had to drop out of school to go to prison, while some failed to complete the course when they were released on bond. Some had to make up coursework because they were attending their own trials. So the culinary class that began with 46 inmates at the Shelby County Jail seven weeks ago will end Tuesday when 29 of the inmates graduate with cooking skills that include using thermometers to measure the internal temperatures of foods and learning to cook as if feeding a small town.
It was a moment to savor. For a time, a 28-year-old wife and mother from Chattanooga stole the spotlight from the president of the United States. Lydia Flanders was the center of attention for local and national media and countless people at Amazon as she introduced President Barack Obama and they met in a smiling embrace on Tuesday. The image was captured and displayed across the front page of the next day’s Chattanooga Times Free Press. When she saw it, “my mouth just dropped open,” Flanders said. “The entire top half of the fold [in the newspaper] is Lydia and Obama. It was amazing.”
Lawyers both inside and outside the Pilot Flying J fuel rebate criminal probe agree: Charges against upper-echelon employees are coming, but racketeering likely won’t be on the list. “I wouldn’t think they would make it very complicated,” said veteran defense attorney James A.H. Bell of prosecutors in the U.S. attorney’s office. RICO has two faces. There is its civil side, which allows treble damages should they be proved in a lawsuit, and criminal, which gives the government tools to shut down a suspected racketeering firm long before any criminal prosecution is pursued.
In the pages of an FBI affidavit, Pilot Flying J executive John Freeman is portrayed as a foul-mouthed executive who defrauded customers. Talk to his friends and a different picture emerges, that of a dedicated family man who has integrity, a high-energy personality and a commitment to his community. It’s hard to reconcile the competing images, but one thing is certain — as federal prosecutors pursue a wide-ranging rebate fraud case involving Pilot, the diesel-fuel executive has suddenly found himself in an exceedingly uncomfortable spotlight.
Two steps forward, one step back. On Monday, construction of the largest slurry wall in the country — 60,000 linear feet or more than 11 miles around — will be completed as part of the $1.1 billion cleanup of the TVA Kingston Fossil Plant ash spill catastrophe. While that work on the $175 million containment cell is several months ahead of schedule, TVA didn’t publicize an event — brought by Mother Nature — that’s thrown a brief kink into recovery efforts. A week after a media tour in late June where TVA officials showcased the last of the ash removal from the 80-acre middle embayment, torrential rains struck and ash-laden water flowed back in.
It’s going to take some getting used to, but the first week of August means the kids (at least many of them) are back in school. And our educational leaders are back at it, too. I’m sure we all wish they were getting their pencil boxes stocked, dusting off their graphing calculators and excitingly catching up on what their friends did over the summer break, but it seems the time off was used to let bad feelings fester. The most egregious back-to-school behavior was exhibited by Nashville Prep charter school founder Ravi Gupta and Metro school board member Will Pinkston, who exhibited classically inappropriate social media etiquette last weekend in a Facebook flame war over Gupta’s comments on Metro school board member Amy Frogge’s Facebook post lambasting a segment of the school reform movement with which she disagrees.
Teachers, Most years, as you well know, there’s always that one student in every class. That — one — student. Obstinate. As pleasant as bursitis. Thick-headed. Disruptive. Gets under your skin worse than sumac. No matter how hard you try, how many come-to-Jesus talks you have, how many umpteen different ways you try to explain things, this kid just won’t get it. Guess what? This new school year, all of you have to deal with the same makes-it-hard-on-everybody troublemaker. His name is Kevin Huffman. And he’s in charge of public education in Tennessee. Or what’s left of it.
More than 150,000 students across Memphis and Shelby County begin a new school year Monday under one unified Shelby County Schools district. When the school bells ring, they will mark a tremendous change in the administration of public education, an evolution that began when the former Memphis City Schools board voted in December 2010 to surrender the district’s charter. The move was fueled by the fear that the Shelby County Schools district was preparing to try to become a special school district, which could have had a staggering impact on funding for city schools.
Each year, about the time summer temperatures are reaching their peak, a new school year starts. Buses roll, principals welcome new teachers, teachers prepare their classrooms, and students load up their backpacks and come to school full of anticipation. In the background, central office leadership and staff hold their breath and cross their fingers that all the preparation will result in a smooth school opening. Each year this happens, but this year is different. This year is historic. For the first time since 1848, there is no Memphis City Schools district.
It seems like only yesterday students were shouting a “School’s Out” cheer. But, alas, the summer break is over and more than 30,000 students will be heading back to school this week in the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System. On Tuesday, high schools will conduct freshman orientation. Also Tuesday, from 5 to 7 p.m., all elementary schools, K-5, will be hosting “Back to School” nights. On Wednesday, all students will attend classes for a half day. After a break with no school Thursday, the first full day of classes will be Friday. The new school year, as is often the case here in fast-growing Montgomery County, will include the opening of a new school.
The death of state Rep. Lois DeBerry leaves a far greater void in local politics than we realize, or care to admit. With her passing last week, women in key elected positions from Memphis and Shelby County, particularly those with universal esteem and bipartisan influence, just got noticeably scarcer. Both the numbers and the attitude regarding women in government leadership roles — elected or appointed — bear witness to what I’m saying. Factor in elected positions on the Shelby County Commission, the Memphis City Council, the upcoming seven-member county school board, the county’s legislative delegation and the district attorney’s office.
In his quasi-campaign last year against insignificant opposition, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker declared himself independent-minded, willing to work with Democrats and “more optimistic than I’ve ever been” about Washington folks achieving a sensible, post-election solution to the nation’s fiscal problems. At this point, it seems the senator may be guilty of over-optimism, but certainly not for any lack of personal political independence from the Washington Republican mindset and a willingness to work on changing the Washington Democratic mindset. He has become, unquestionably, the most raging moderate of Tennessee’s congressional Republicans and, arguably, could outdo all GOP officeholders in the state in that department.
It’s time for the Tennessee Valley Authority to come clean — as in clean, renewable energy. While the giant utility says that it is positioning itself and its millions of power customers for the future, less than 1 percent of TVA’s power generation is in renewables, and there is no indication it will create a more balanced portfolio anytime soon. The way TVA is treating solar power producers should get the attention of everyone in the utility’s seven-state region. Despite the rapid growth in demand for solar in the past five years, homeowners, businesses owners and installers who want to start or expand their solar energy production have hit a low ceiling: TVA’s Green Power Providers program.
Here’s an astounding fact: Each hour, Earth receives enough solar energy to meet all human energy needs for a year. The challenge is how to economically tap this vast resource. The good news is that we are getting better at harnessing solar energy in increasingly cost-effective ways. Solar is one of the fastest-growing energy resources in the country, growing 600 percent since early 2010, with average prices dropping 24 percent in the past year alone. Just like with computer semiconductors, as production increases, prices continue to fall, placing solar power “in the money” in more markets across the world.
The Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman case has once again dehisced the racial wounds of our nation. Six years ago I wrote about racial disparity in the health care system in my first piece for The Washington Post, titled “How I Learned to Treat My Bias.” Last week I read it aloud to my son and daughter. Here are some excerpts:• I observed myself whenever I entered a hospital room to see a new patient. To my surprise, I realized that in the initial glance, I viewed patients as an “elderly black man” or a “Hispanic worker” — and all the baggage that comes with their race, gender and ethnicity. My prejudices had kicked in. Unfortunately, the entire health system sees patients by race, gender and ethnicity, and it has a profound effect on how care is delivered.
Depending on which side of the political fence you stand, the phrases “Obama Nation” and “Obamination” are probably familiar to you. And, again depending on where you stand, one of those phrases may describe your emotions about President Barack Obama’s visit to Chattanooga on Tuesday. I will not be offended whichever phrase fits your feelings. The president’s visit and surrounding hubbub prompted plenty of Times Free Press readers to share their thoughts on the president and how the newspaper covered his trip to town. The top half of our front-page was dominated by a photo of Obama hugging Amazon employee Lydia Flanders, while the rest of A1, except for some teases to other stories at the bottom, was dedicated to Obama in Chattanooga.