This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
In July, Gov. Bill Haslam officially launched a new higher-education choice for Tennesseans – WGU Tennessee. WGU Tennessee is an accredited, nonprofit online university aimed at expanding access to higher education for all Tennesseans. Tennessee has excellent higher education programs through both its University of Tennessee and Tennessee Board of Regents systems. The addition of WGU Tennessee brings a new option to the table – a nationally recognized university created with the needs of working adults in mind.
A 400-acre wildlife refuge in Southeast Knox County has been named Tennessee’s newest state park, and is the first to feature bird watching as its central draw. Gov. Bill Haslam on Friday announced that the state will take ownership of the Seven Island Wildlife Refuge and rename it the Seven Islands State Birding Park in recognition of the estimated 183 species of birds that are drawn to the area’s wildlife-friendly combination of upland hardwoods and river-bottom fields. The property is expected to be transferred to the state on July 1, 2014.
Joe DiPietro said it’s a “privilege” to preside over the dedications of new buildings and facilities — a perk that comes with being the president of the University of Tennessee. But DiPietro admitted that Saturday’s grand-opening celebration of the new Farm Animal Hospital, Equine Hospital and Equine Performance and Rehabilitation Center at UT’s Veterinarian Medical Center tugged at his heartstrings. “This one is very special to me because it’s who I am. I am a veterinarian. This touches me right here,” said DiPietro, pointing to his heart.
A 2-year-old state law requires the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to maintain a meth offender database that pharmacists can use to ensure they don’t sell pseudoephedrine to anyone who has a meth conviction. But scores of convicted methamphetamine users are not being entered into the Tennessee Meth Offender Registry, leaving addicts and drug sellers free to walk into any of the state’s 1,200 pharmacies and purchase over-the-counter cold medicines — the main ingredient used to make meth.
At first it was the union types. Then groups of parents grew frustrated. And now even the state’s school superintendents are piling on criticism of Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman. His reform agenda was always controversial. After all, the state has dismantled public education’s traditional structure in recent years, changing the rules for teachers and students alike. But lately, criticism of Huffman has reached new heights. Teachers dig into his background and create petitions. Some 6,000 people have organized on Facebook calling for Huffman’s ouster. And just this month, more than 50 of the state’s 137 superintendents signed a letter to the governor criticizing his education chief.
Local school superintendents who signed a petition critical of the Tennessee Department of Education and its head, Commissioner Kevin Huffman, said communication from the state has been lacking, especially regarding recent reform measures. “To me, when you have a dialogue, communication is two ways,” Unicoi County School Superintendent Denise Brown said Wednesday in explaining her signature on the petition authored by Tullahoma City Schools Superintendent Dan Lawson. “When Huffman talked with education representatives, it was: ‘This is what I’m going to do, and it really doesn’t matter how it effects teachers, this is part of my reform.’ ”
More than 30 Bradley County residents attended a recent meeting with state and local officials to talk about proposed improvements to state Route 60, especially along a stretch of Georgetown Road between Cleveland Middle School and the Hopewell community. The proposed changes include increasing the number of vehicle lanes from two to five, which would include a middle turn lane. Ten-foot bike lanes and sidewalks on both sides of the road also would be added. Bradley Commissioners Terry Caywood, who serves as vice chairman of the State Route 60 Corridor Management Committee, and Bill Winters distributed fliers about the meeting and encouraged resident and business participation.
Bitter experience taught Ken Rowland that if he wants to avoid traffic congestion through Shelby Farms Park on his commute to his job Downtown, he’d better leave his Cordova home by 6:15 a.m. “If you leave after that, you’re going to sit at Farm Road,” said Rowland, 65. During the morning and evening rush hours, the traffic signal at Farm Road and Walnut Grove forms a chokepoint that can back up vehicles a mile or more on both roads. It’s a dilemma that transportation officials have tried to solve with road proposals that have been studied, shelved, modified and restudied over the past quarter-century without the first shovelful of dirt being turned.
Nothing lasts forever. The latest inspection of 289 bridges revealed that 16 locally maintained bridges and three state-maintained bridges in Washington County are “structurally deficient,” according to the Tennessee Inventory and Appraisal Report, an account compiled by the Tennessee Department of Transportation as required by the Federal Highway Administration. “We have replaced about 100 bridges in the past 30 years,” said Johnny Deakins, Washington County Highway Department superintendent. “We don’t have any that are critical, but we do have some that are in poor condition.” Take a deep breath. Relax. Exhale.
A leading Democratic legislator says either fraud or incompetence was involved in awarding millions of dollars worth of tax credits for development of two low-income housing projects in East Tennessee — one to a company where a top aide to Gov. Bill Haslam once worked. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner outlined concerns about the projects in Anderson and Sullivan counties at a hearing on Tennessee Housing Development Agency last week and urged colleagues on a joint House-Senate panel to delay giving THDA a new lease on life pending a full investigation of “potentially illegal activities going on.”
Chattanooga-area congressmen voted with House Republicans to approve a government funding bill that strips monies marked for implementation of the Affordable Care Act, sending the bill to a Democratic-controlled Senate and threatening a shutdown of the federal government. Both Reps. Chuck Fleischmann and Scott DesJarlais supported the continuing resolution. The bill, which is widely expected to have provisions pertaining to the health law restored by senators next week, provided the opening shots in a fall set to be marked by wrangling over fiscal issues. If an agreement can’t be reached on the funding bill by Oct. 1, nonessential government services could be shut down until lawmakers are able to agree on a resolution.
Are shouting, attempts at crowd control by the governor and promises of lawsuits going to be the face of education reform in Tennessee? That would seem to be the tenor that we are in for, as conflicts of the past few weeks have come to a head between the state Department of Education and leaders of local school districts and teachers associations. It’s a far cry from the comity that reigned just three short years ago, when then-Gov. Phil Bredesen called a special session of the General Assembly to lay the groundwork for education reforms.
The Senate Education Committee last week held a two-day hearing on one of the many “controversial” aspects of education reform in Tennessee, the Common Core State Standards Initiative. Tennessee embraced Common Core after a 2007 U.S. Chamber of Commerce report pointed out that while Tennessee state testing showed nearly 90 percent of its students were proficient in mathematics, in reality less than a quarter of them attained proficiency on national tests. The State Board of Education adopted the standards in 2010. In all, 44 states and the District of Columbia are somewhere in the process of implementing them.
The administration and governance of the new Shelby County Schools district were set last week when the SCS board approved a three-year contract with Supt. Dorsey Hopson and elected Kevin Woods board chairman. The board had already approved naming Hopson, who had been serving as interim superintendent, to the post and the only thing left to do in that regard was for Hopson and the board to agree on a contract that will pay him $269,000 a year and includes a $500,000 life insurance policy.
In Memphis and Shelby County lingering racial baggage can obscure the bigger picture on issues important to the community. That happened Wednesday during a packed County Commission Community Services Committee meeting that included a discussion about the possibility of county government getting out of the Head Start business. Some Head Start advocates who addressed committee members thought the proposal was a prelude to reductions in a program that provides a lot of African-American 3- and 4-year-old youngsters with the skills they need to be ready for kindergarten. County Mayor Mark Luttrell, however, explained there is no intent to diminish or eliminate the program, but to expand it.