This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Gov. Bill Haslam was in Church Hill Wednesday afternoon to officially swear in a couple of Hawkins County boys who were appointed to fill judge vacancies last month. Former state senator and longtime Church Hill attorney Mike Faulk was appointed by Haslam to complete the term of retiring Third Judicial District Circuit Judge Kindall Lawson. Rogersville attorney Doug Jenkins was also appointed by Haslam to complete the term of Third Judicial District Chancellor Thomas Frierson, who had previously been appointed to fill a vacancy on the Tennessee Court of Appeals.
The final leg of Gov. Bill Haslam’s tour of Hawkins and Hancock counties Wednesday took him to Surgoinsville’s Creekside Park, where he announced a $120,000 grant for improvements at the town’s two public parks. The money will pay for a walking trail to connect the Creekside Park with the nearby Riverfront Park, as well as restrooms at the Riverfront Park. Five years ago this grant wouldn’t have been possible because one park belonged to the state, and one park didn’t exist. In 2009 Surgoinsville received a 25 year lease from the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency for the Riverfront Park and boat ramp on the north bank of the Holston River off of Longs Bend Road.
For those who were not able to attend one of Gov. Bill Haslam’s six events to launch a new health and wellness initiative last week, the governor’s office posted a video Wednesday challenging Tennesseans to adopt healthier life habits. The video includes shots of fresh produce, bikers, joggers and Haslam meeting Tennesseans at a farmers market. It also includes comments from the governor and his wife, Crissy Haslam, as well as Rick Johnson, who is president of the program, called the Healthier Tennessee Initiative.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today announced the appointments of eight new members and five re-appointments to Tennessee’s higher education boards as well as the selection of the chair of Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC) and vice chair of the Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR). Robert Fisher, Pam Koban and Keith Wilson will serve on THEC. Brad Lampley, Bonnie Lynch, Sharon Pryse and Thaddeus Wilson will serve as new members of the University of Tennessee (UT) Board of Trustees. Deanna Wallace will join TBR as a new member. Cato Johnson was elected chair of THEC, and Emily Reynolds was elected vice-chair of TBR.
Tennessee Safety Commissioner Bill Gibbons was in Knoxville on Wednesday, for a quick visit with many of the state troopers stationed in the area. The meeting was one of three held by Gibbons to review the department’s priorities, especially those regarding the need for THP to become “more proactive” as a state law enforcement agency, Gibbons said. And just as importantly, he said, it was to hear what troopers had to say about the equipment and support they need to do their jobs better. Accompanying Gibbons were his deputy, Larry Godwin, and Col. Tracy Trott, commander of the highway patrol.
Chattanooga and Hamilton County officials dodged an upcoming state deadline to negotiate with property owners for land along a three and one-third mile extension of the Tennessee Riverwalk from Ross’s Landing to St. Elmo. Facing an Aug. 31 deadline by the Tennessee Department of Transportation for millions of dollars in state funding, officials said they asked for an extension after several property owners delayed negotiations. But plans are still on track to begin construction this spring, officials said. “I’ve received assurances that they will work it out,” said Chattanooga Councilman Chris Anderson, whose district covers St. Elmo.
Tennessee law enforcement officials are touting the new Common Core standards as a potential solution to reduce violent crime, but at least one local educator disagrees aboutwhether the standards will help Tennessee students. FIGHT CRIME: Invest in Kids, a national anti-crime organization of more than 5,000 law enforcement leaders with 145 members in Tennessee, urged the continued implementation of the academic plan during a media conference in Kingsport July 17. Common Core standards, which include mathematics and language arts, outline what benchmarks students should reach at each grade level from kindergarten through high school to prepare graduates for the workforce or college.
The Tennessee Department of Education is giving local school districts $8 million in federal education funds. The money will be awarded to 83 districts that have chosen to participate in the First to the Top Scope of Work Supplemental Fund. The funds are part of the more than $500 million the state won three years ago in the national Race to the Top education grant competition. Officials say the districts chose to implement at least one innovative program or strategy in three categories: teacher evaluation, implementation of the common core state standards and student assignment.
The Tennessee Department of Education will grant $8 million in state Race to the Top funds to 83 districts that participate in programs that include teacher evaluation and adherence to state core standards. Known as the First to the Top Scope of Work Supplemental fund, districts can choose one of three programs to focus on during the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years: teacher evaluation, common core state standards or student assignment. If they meet the state’s requirements, they can receive a share of the fund, which comes from the $501 million Race to the Top award given to the state in 2011.
Forty-five Tennessee school districts would have appealed and corrected demographic accountability data related to the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program this year if they had known it were an option. That’s according to the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents in a letter sent to Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman on Wednesday asking him to reopen the appeals window to allow school systems to review and correct TCAP coding errors — one week after the state released accountability designations for the state’s 136 school districts.
The Tennessee teachers union stopped short of threatening a lawsuit over proposed changes to the state’s licensing process Wednesday, but still had a lawyer do most of the talking during an announcement of the group’s opposition. License renewal for many teachers would be based on student achievement scores that are faulty and meant to be used only as estimates, said Gera Summerford, president of the Tennessee Education Association. Summerford and attorney Rick Colbert used the scores of a middle school science teacher to show how ratings can fluctuate from year to year.
The state teachers union rolled out ammunition Wednesday in its fight to keep teacher license renewal separate from performance. State Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman wants teachers who score less than 2 on 1-5 performance scale two years out of three singled out for help. If they don’t improve in a year, he wants the state to force their ouster by not renewing their licenses. The union, which has been relatively quiet on the issue, held a news conference in Nashville two days before the state board of education is expected to approve the measure. TEA’s lead exhibit was Weakley County veteran teacher Cyndi Watson.
Tennessee’s largest teachers’ union is trying to head off a plan that calls for using student achievement data in determining whether a teacher can keep her license. Gera Summerford, president of the Tennessee Education Association, says the numbers – known as TVAAS – are useful but not 100-percent reliable. “Tying license renewal directly to TVAAS scores is not appropriate,” she said at a press conference Wednesday. “And we challenge the idea that a teacher’s score in a given year is a valid indicator of a teacher’s future performance.”
Still above national average Tennessee nursing homes still use more antipsychotic drugs on their patients than the national average, but new data shows the state ranked fifth nationwide in lowering that rate over a two-year period. Data released recently by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services show the percentage of long-term nursing home patients in Tennessee being treated with powerful antipsychotic drugs dropped 16.46 percent from the first quarter of 2011 to the first quarter of 2013. That still leaves the Volunteer State with the third-highest rate in the nation.
TDOT is continuing with routine bridge inspections this week — just a day after more concrete fell from the I-40 West bridge deck over Charlotte Avenue, prompting an emergency repair job. The same thing happened last week. TDOT says they’re monitoring that area for potholes. “We’ve had a lot of rain lately and the rain getting into the bridge deck accelerates the concrete to crumble,” said TDOT spokesperson Deanna Lambert. The short term repairs are just the first step. TDOT says it has planned a major rehab project for the Charlotte Avenue Bridge, hoping to start next summer — but they have to find funding first.
Brentwood has won the latest round of a legal fight to ban the selling of The Contributor, a newspaper sold by the homeless and formerly homeless, to motorists in their cars on city streets. On Wednesday, a panel of three judges from the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati upheld a 2012 U.S. District Court’s decision that the city’s prohibition on the newspaper’s street sales didn’t trample on freedom of speech. In the court’s opinion, The Contributor arguments “offer no reason to suggest they can not reach their intended audience by employing the City’s proffered alternatives,” such as going door to door, selling to pedestrians on the sidewalks or distributing the newspaper by mail, email or in news boxes.
The pivotal and often overlooked role of Tennessee attorney general Robert Cooper in the state’s affairs was highlighted again Tuesday with his announcement that Tennessee would join a multistate coalition opposing a proposed merger of U.S. Airways and American Airlines. Cooper’s action aligned Tennessee with Arizona, Florida, Pennsylvania, Texas, and the District of Columbia in joining a U.S. Department of Justice antitrust action challenging the merger in federal court. “Studies show that Tennessee’s four major airports in Nashville, Memphis, Knoxville, and Chattanooga will experience fewer flights to certain destinations, and travelers will pay more for remaining flights,” Cooper said.
A Tennessee House investigative panel said Wednesday there is enough evidence against 10th Judicial District Attorney Steve Bebb to continue a process to remove him from office. The special judicial oversight committee will recommend that House Speaker Beth Harwell appoint another panel to come up with specific charges warranting removal when the Tennessee General Assembly convenes in January, said Rep. Tony Shipley, R-Kingsport. “There were 15 items considered, and those will be provided to the charging committee,” said Shipley, chairman of the special investigative panel appointed during the session earlier this year.
Inspired by Texas legislation, state Sen. Stacey Campfield has introduced a “Merry Christmas bill” for Tennessee that he says will assure schoolchildren and their teachers have a legal right to use what the bill calls “traditional greetings” during “winter celebrations.” “This stops all these silly lawsuits that say you can’t say ‘merry Christmas’ or ‘happy Hanukkah’ or have a Christmas tree,” said Campfield, R-Knoxville, who has pre-filed SB1425 for consideration by the General Assembly in 2014.
Hamilton County is now the lone holdout among the state’s four biggest counties on a growing program that offers free community college tuition and mentors for soon-to-be high school graduates. County Mayor Jim Coppinger and Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke say the tnAchieves program is worth examining. But they also point to their own education initiatives aimed at boosting opportunities for local students. Earlier this week, Metro Nashville Mayor Karl Dean announced that city was joining tnAchieves, a nonprofit group created in Knoxville in 2008.
Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander is not conservative enough for some Tennessee conservatives, those conservatives wrote in an unconservative manner. Matt Collins, who describes himself as a Republican activist, authored an open letter to Alexander that was released Wednesday. The letter is signed by 20 political groups throughout the state. Most of them are tea parties. Others include Gibson County Patriots, Volunteers for Freedom and We the People, which consists of the people of Tipton County. “Our great nation can no longer afford compromise and bipartisanship, two traits for which you have become famous,” Collins wrote to Alexander.
Sen. Lamar Alexander would be better-suited to retire “with dignity” than seek a third Senate term, 20 tea party and conservative groups in Tennessee said Wednesday. In an open letter circulated by the groups, writer Matt Collins called on the senator to end his decadeslong career in Tennessee politics instead of face a potential primary foe who would lambaste his voting record. The letter, which received coverage from The Wall Street Journal, says a trend of bipartisanship on key issues from Alexander is out of place with desires of Republicans in Tennessee.
Nashville Tea Party founder Ben Cunningham tells News 2 that he “would guess by the end of next week, you are going to have more information, and everybody is going to have more information about a potential challenger” to Tennessee Republican Senator Lamar Alexander. His words came on the same day that 20 Tea Party and conservative groups in Tennessee signed a letter urging the former governor to retire from the Senate seat he has held since 2002 because of not reflecting what they consider the state’s conservative values. The senator’s recent votes like one supporting an immigration bill that passed the Senate has angered some conservatives.
U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann said Wednesday he sees an opening this year to pass a House bill to fund the restart of work on Chickamauga lock’s replacement. The Tennessee Republican said House Speaker John Boehner told him last week that plans are to work on a bill this fall that would include reviving the lock project, which stalled about two years ago after money dried up. “I think this year there is a tremendous opportunity,” Fleischmann told a group of Chattanooga business people at a Chamber of Commerce meeting. Fleischmann said it’s vital the new lock project keep its place among the top ones in line for funding.
The financially struggling U.S. Postal Service is revamping its Priority Mail program to raise revenue and drive new growth in its package delivery business. The agency is now offering free online tracking for priority mail shipments, free insurance and date-specific delivery so customers know whether a package will arrive in one, two or three days. Postal officials said Wednesday they expect the changes to generate more than $500 million in new annual revenue. The changes — including redesigned boxes and envelopes — are effective immediately. The improvements come as the Postal Service is reeling from losses this year totaling $3.9 billion.
States struggling to rebuild their workforces in the wake of staggering unemployment say they know better than the federal government how to make the most out of limited workforce development and job training dollars. Governors want more administrative control over programs funded through the Workforce Investment Act, now before Congress for an overhaul. As that discussion continues, the National Governors Association has a wish list. “We know the federal dollars have been cut, but what’s even worse is the fact that we have less flexibility,” Iowa Gov.
In a bunker protected by two barbed-wire gates near the Chickamauga Dam, Joel Wise and his TVA colleagues monitor the electric grid to make sure the lights stay on across parts of a dozen states. “We’re constantly monitoring the grid for any signs of trouble and to be ready if there are power interruptions,” Wise said Wednesday. The staff and equipment inside the regional operations center in Chattanooga have been revamped and upgraded over the past decade to limit chances of a power blackout like the one that left 50 million Americans in the dark 10 years ago Wednesday.
Doing about 60 knots more than 150 feet above the ground as a Tennessee Valley Authority helicopter pilot and line inspector scour high-voltage transmission lines brings a visual perspective to the term “power grid.” TVA towers connect and guide lines carrying 500,000 volts — the first utility ever to do so. The structures are much more visible from this vantage point, as a Johnson City Press reporter and photographer found out Wednesday while piggybacking on a check of a small portion of the system’s 16,000 miles of “circuit” line — enough to span the nation more than six times. It’s an extensive network that originates from electricity spawned at hydroelectric dams and coal-fired and nuclear plants.
The San Francisco-based startup incubator and venture capital firm Hattery, which was looking to Nashville for its third location, is not building a local office, according to Entrepreneur Center CEO Michael Burcham. Hattery strategist Mike McGeary came to Nashville in April to scope out the city and meet with entrepreneurs, developers and programmers. Burcham said in April that a Hattery presence could help connect Nashville startups to networks in California and New York. In an forwarded email, Burcham attributed Hattery’s decision to company changes involving Google.
Memphis needs to secure its logistics brand, but diversify beyond it and boost its export business. Those are some of the strategies made public Wednesday from a new economic development plan. Memphis was selected last year by the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based nonprofit think tank, to develop the growth initiative called the Memphis & Shelby County Regional Economic Development Plan. That plan is aimed at moving Memphis and Shelby County away from a “back of the envelope” style of growth planning to a more analytical, cohesive and long-term approach that plays to the region’s strengths.
The director of transportation for the countywide school system, Debbie Rike, resigned Wednesday, Aug. 14, capping a week and a half of significant transportation problems for the new school district. Interim schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson confirmed Rike’s retirement effective immediately but did not indicate whether she gave a reason in her letter of resignation. With Rike’s departure, Hopson announced Wednesday afternoon that he has put Hitesh Haria, the school system’s chief of business operations, in charge of the day-to-day operation of transportation services.
With Tennessee’s institutions of higher learning operating on strained budgets and more of the cost of college falling on the shoulders of students, it is fair to ask why the state is investing in a potential competitor to its public colleges and universities. Gov. Bill Haslam supported investing $5 million in public funds to help start Western Governors University Tennessee, a new nonprofit online school intended to help Tennesseans who attended college but did not graduate obtain degrees. Yes, the program does compete with state colleges and private institutions that also offer online courses toward degrees, but WGUT’s format may be better suited for adults whose work and family schedules are not conducive to sitting in a classroom or following a rigid course schedule.
On Tuesday, Gov. Bill Haslam helped a group of Chattanooga State Community College graduates celebrate their accomplishments, and their new $40,000-a-year jobs at Chattanooga’s Volkswagen assembly plant. Haslam used the occasion to note that the key to attracting good-paying jobs to Tennessee is workforce readiness. We couldn’t agree more. That’s why every effort must be made to fully prepare K-12 public school students to continue their education after graduating from high school. West Tennessee is home to the No. 1 industrial megasite in the Southeast, located in nearby Haywood County.
A mid-point update of research into the long-term effectiveness of Tennessee’s pre-K program shows mixed results, but that is no reason to scuttle the effort. Researchers at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody Research Institute are in the midst of evaluating the Tennessee Voluntary Prekindergarten Program, gauging the academic and social progress of the participating students through third grade. So far, they have results from students from prekindergarten through first grade. The full-day program for 4-year-olds is optional and focuses on the state’s neediest children. The study follows students participating in pre-K, as well as a control group of low-income students who were unable to get into pre-K because of space.
As standards rise and the pressure mounts to meet them, Nashville’s school leaders would like to make the clock their ally. They think that by adding days to the school calendar, student achievement will follow. Not many parents agree. Metro Schools Director Jesse Register told The Tennessean, “Closing the gap is really tough. … Time is a variable that we must take advantage of.” His sentiment is shared by many, including President Barack Obama, who see a short school year as a key reason why American students lag behind their peers around the world. Currently, the Metro school calendar is 175 days in class. Tennessee requires a minimum of 180 instructional days, but allows districts to have longer hours that they can “bank” for use to meet the state mandate, which Metro does.
It costs more to hire a nurse in New York than it does in Knoxville. That’s why something called the Medicare Wage Index was invented. It is supposed to recognize the differences in costs to hospitals and it determines how much hospitals get in reimbursements for Medicare patients. Under the flawed rules as they now work, Knoxville’s hospitals are being under-reimbursed by an estimated $50 million a year. And it’s getting worse. Despite being an urban area, Knoxville has the same wage index of rural hospitals in Tennessee, which rank 42nd in the 50 states. The Medicare Wage Index is set by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services within the Department of Health and Human Services.
Two Davids will not long be able to survive in a competition against two Goliaths. Sometimes you can’t help but wonder what the people who run our government are thinking. On Tuesday, the Justice Department sued to prevent the merger of American Airlines and US Airways. According to Justice, the merger will mean less competition and higher prices for consumers. Yet the Justice Department reached a different conclusion when it evaluated the mergers of Delta and Northwest in 2008 and of United and Continental in 2010.