This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Gov. Bill Haslam has appointed Savannah, Tenn., lawyer Carma Dennis McGee as chancellor in West Tennessee’s 24th Judicial District, encompassing Benton, Carroll, Decatur, Hardin and Henry counties. She succeeds the late Chancellor Ron E. Harmon, who died Sept. 14, 2013. McGee, 43, begins serving as judge immediately and will be up for election in August. She received a bachelor’s degree from Union University in Jackson and a law degree at the University of Memphis in 1998. She was a city judge in Savannah in 2004-05 and has been a trainer in juvenile law for the Tennessee Administrative Office of the Courts since 2006, in addition to her private law practice with McGee & Dennis.
For the second time in less than two months a Sunday afternoon grass fire has scorched tombstones at Chattanooga National Cemetery, and state and national investigators want to know why. A 911 call came in at 1:54 p.m. Sunday informing authorities of the fire that covered an acre and affected about 500 tombstones, severely charring some in the cemetery that houses the graves of military veterans. The call came nearly seven weeks to the minute after a similar fire with an unknown cause engulfed five acres of the cemetery and affected 1,800 tombstones, requiring some to be replaced. Sunday’s blaze hit a different portion of the 120-acre cemetery’s 43,000-plus grave markers.
First Lady Crissy Haslam will join Miss Tennessee 2013, Shelby Thompson, to honor volunteers from 39 counties at the Sixth Annual Governor’s Volunteer Stars Awards ceremony in Franklin on March 10, 2014. The awards celebrate the efforts of 71 volunteers statewide who strive to improve their communities through service. “I am thrilled to recognize Tennesseans who give of their time and resources to improve the community,” Mrs. Haslam said. “Setting an example for service can be one of the very best ways to be a leader.” One youth and one adult volunteer were selected from participating counties to receive this prestigious award.
Alice Nelson, a senior at Sacred Heart of Jesus High School in Jackson, and Anita Kay Archer, assistant vice president of Bank of Jackson, have each been honored by Volunteer Tennessee and Madison County as Madison County Volunteer of the Year for the Governor’s Volunteer Stars Awards. The awards were presented Monday in Franklin. The sixth annual Governor’s Stars Awards, Tennessee’s statewide volunteer recognition program, recognized Nelson and Archer for their outstanding service, volunteerism and dedication to Madison County… First Lady Crissy Haslam spoke to the winners and helped present the Volunteer of the Year Awards along with Miss Tennessee Shelby Thompson.
Legislation that would require any data collected under Tennessee’s Common Core standards only be used to track the academic progress and needs of students has passed the House. The bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Bill Dunn of Knoxville was overwhelmingly approved 81-9 Monday evening. The standards are intended to provide students with the critical thinking, problem solving and writing skills needed for college and the workforce. They have been voluntarily adopted by 45 states. Tennessee adopted them in 2010 and began a three-year phase-in the following year.
The House approved Monday legislation setting rules for collecting and distributing data from student tests and declaring in its preamble that “the federal government has no constitutional authority to set educational standards for Tennessee” — a move seen as addressing some, but not all, concerns of Common Core critics. Sponsor Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, said the bill (HB1549) will also provide that legislators will have a chance to review any new standards adopted in the future before they take effect.
House lawmakers stopped short Monday night of a vote to undo the Common Core educational standards, instead passing a less sweeping bill. But some are still hoping for a head-on confrontation over the grade-level benchmarks, which almost every state has adopted. Among the critiques of Common Core, conservatives say it gives up too much state control over education, while opening the door to data-mining. The bill passed Monday night by the House and on its way to the Senate floor would make sure school districts don’t collect student data related to politics, religion or gun ownership.
Tennessee’s high-profile education commissioner has a new stump speech. Within it, he says he figured critics would quiet down after results of a national test showed Tennessee making bigger gains than any other state. They haven’t. “I thought in my head, you know, I think people are going to step back and say this is a really good thing and we should figure out how to do more of this,” Huffman told business leaders at an event in Belle Meade Thursday. “That is absolutely not what has happened.” There have been attempts to backtrack on everything from Common Core grade-level standards to high-stakes teacher evaluations.
A bill that would grant in-state tuition to the children of undocumented immigrants has picked up speed in the state legislature, but a related measure that would offer the same benefit to undocumented students who attend high school in Tennessee still appears to face steep obstacles. The House and Senate finance committees are scheduled to vote Tuesday on House Bill 1929/Senate Bill 2115, legislation that would let U.S.-born children whose parents entered the country illegally get in-state tuition to the University of Tennessee and other public universities.
Jairo Robles didn’t even bother applying to the University of Tennessee system after graduating from Nashville’s McGavock High School in 2008. “It’s a well-known fact within the immigrant community that, for example, UT-Knoxville doesn’t let undocumented students in,” said Robles, who came to the United States with his family from Guatemala when he was 11. “It’s like a ban, even though they say it isn’t. You know that if you apply, you’re not going to get in.” Robles instead attends Volunteer State Community College — part of the Tennessee Board of Regents system, which takes a different view of undocumented students.
A proposal that would change the time frame the Legislature’s Fiscal Review Committee has to provide a fiscal analysis of a bill has been delayed. The measures sponsored by Republican Rep. Mark White of Memphis was debated for a while on the House floor Monday evening before lawmakers voted to send it back to the House State Government Committee. The Fiscal Review Committee prepares a “fiscal note” on each bill introduced, providing an estimate on the costs — if any — to state and local governments from enactment.
Legislation that would allow a student to express a religious belief in a school assignment has passed the House. The measure sponsored by Republican Rep. Courtney Rogers of Goodlettsville was overwhelmingly approved 90-2 on Monday. Under the proposal, a student could express beliefs about religion in homework, artwork and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content. Rogers said she proposed the legislation after a 10-year-old student was given an assignment to write about the person she most admires and she chose God. The teacher asked her to choose another subject.
Tennessee lawmakers are trying to protect people who break into hot cars to save unattended children from extreme temperatures. In the past, some rescuers have broken windows to try and save children from heat stroke to only later be sued. Now, officials want to give citizens the means to break a window legally if they’re ever in this situation. “I want to raise awareness for families and John Q Public out there, that you have the ability now to save a child’s life should you see this occur,” said State Rep. David Hawk, R-Greeneville.
A state lawmaker wants to make sure people can’t be sued if they break into a hot car to rescue a child locked inside from heatstroke. If the proposal becomes law, it could provide a framework to one day block lawsuits against people rescuing animals, as well. Rep. David Hawk says this year he’s not trying to make it legal to bust a window to rescue a sweltering dog, but it’s not out of the question. “We felt we need to save humans’ lives first. This may lead to possible legislation in the future dealing with family pets that may be in a harmful situation as well.” Hawk’s bill for rescuing children makes some specific requirements: You have to call 911 first.
A bill to be heard Wednesday by a Senate sub-committee would require a warning label on all Tennessee Lottery advertisements. If passed, the advertisements would be required to include the line: “”Warning: You will probably lose money playing the lottery.” Tennessee would be the first state to pass a bill of this kind. The bill’s sponsor, Jim Summerville of Dickson, says his goal is tomake consumers more aware of their chances of winnings. The warning would have to be on all billboards advertising the lottery and be announced at the end of television and radio ads.
University of Tennessee students are urging lawmakers not to dictate how their student fees are used after the controversy surrounding Sex Week, a campuswide series of lectures, games and events held earlier this month. Student representatives from UT-Knoxville gave legislators a petition signed by 3,501 students stating their belief that they should be free to decide how student fees are used. They urged lawmakers not to take up two bills filed by state Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, that they said would make it harder for student-run organizations to put on events and bring in off-campus speakers.
The city’s school board has gone on record opposing a proposed Tennessee law that could quash the ability of school systems to pay dues for professional organizations of school board members, superintendents, principals and others if the organization lobbies the General Assembly. Board of Education member Susan Lodal called the resolution a local control issue and said she feared the legislation and another bill allowing local funding body line-item vetoes of school budgets in some situations might make it into law. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” Lodal told the board before it voted 5-0 to approve the resolution.
U.S. Rep. Diane Black, R-Gallatin, announced Monday night she’ll seek a third term representing the 6th Congressional District, which encompasses Wilson, Sumner, Robertson and all or part of 16 other Middle Tennessee counties. Black easily won re-election in 2012 in the heavily Republican district, taking more than 75 percent of the vote over a third-party and several independent candidates in the general election. Black also defeated tea party activist Lou Ann Zelenik in the Republican primary with 69 percent of the vote.
A Channel 4 I-Team investigation that exposed how the military awarded benefits to a female National Guard soldier after she accused her superior of rape helped prompt legislation designed to change the way sexual assaults are investigated. Although that bill didn’t pass the U.S. Senate late last week, U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-TN, said he hopes to introduce the bill in the House and encourage senators to vote again on the bill at a later time. Cooper said he saw the Channel 4 I-Team investigation into the female soldier and how she says her commanders told her that they couldn’t investigate her rape claims, and how she ultimately got benefits due to “PTSD secondary to sexual assault.” “I’m glad that that case made the TV. So many don’t,” Cooper said.
There are no seventh-graders in the Lindsay Unified School District. Instead, in the “Content Level 7” room at Washington Elementary, 10 students, ages 11 to 14, gather around teacher Nelly Lopez for help in writing essays. Eight sit at computers, plowing through a lesson on sentence structure, while a dozen advanced students work on assignments in pairs. The 4,100-pupil district at the base of the Sierra Nevada range is part of an experiment shaking up classrooms across the country. Called competency-based learning, it is based on the idea that students learn at their own pace and should earn credits and advance after they master the material—not just because they have spent a year in a certain class.
The so-called Red Team evaluating alternatives to the Uranium Processing Facility arrived Monday for its first visit to the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant and apparently will spend most of this week getting an up-close look at the plant’s uranium operations, some of which are still conducted in World War II-era facilities. Oak Ridge National Laboratory Director Thom Mason is heading the team, which is supposed to come up with safe, secure and, perhaps most importantly, affordable options to the ultra-expensive Uranium Processing Facility.
U.S. Dist. Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays granted a joint request Monday to dismiss the legal case regarding the formation of municipal schools, ending the lengthy battle over education in Shelby County. Mays issued the order at the close of business. In the order, the judge said he “reviewed the terms of the Agreements and finds them reasonable.” Those agreements involve the accords reached between the Shelby County Schools Board and the six municipalities forming their own schools this summer. The agreement included financial considerations paid to the county to cover retirement benefits in exchange for the suburbs receiving the school buildings within their boundaries to form the respective school systems.
The Memphis Federal Court judge overseeing the three-year old court case over the reformation of public schools in Shelby County has dismissed the last major claim of the case, all remaining claims still pending. The Monday, March 10, ruling from U.S. District Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays also comes with the court’s approval of the agreements on the formation of the six suburban school systems that included the transfer of school buildings from Shelby County Schools to the six suburban districts and the broad parameters of open enrollment provisions in each of the six districts.
The “Little Voucher” versus “Big Voucher” public education debate is with us again in the Tennessee General Assembly. The same debate last year ended up with “No Vouchers.” We favor the “Little Voucher” approach put forth by Gov. Bill Haslam. It would allow the state to experiment with school vouchers for a narrow band of students in failing schools. While some compromise appears to be under way in the House, we urge Haslam to stick to his limited approach. Public school vouchers are not, and never will be, the silver bullet some believe them to be. Even a “Big Voucher” system only would impact a small number of students.
A truly nutty bill is scheduled to be considered today in committees of the Tennessee General Assembly. It would have voters declare in partisan primaries that the party they are voting for “most closely represents [their] values and beliefs.” Um, isn’t that the point of a partisan primary? However, Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, who is the sponsor of the House bill (and who, incidentally, is challenging U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander in August’s GOP primary), says the measure is intended to discourage a crossover vote that has the intent to maliciously malign the election of either primary party. But he admits it wouldn’t “conclusively” prevent crossover voting, because voters could still sign the loyalty oath and then cast their ballots as they choose.
A proposal to lift the age limit for school bus use in Tennessee recognizes that different school systems place different demands on their buses, but one aspect has been missing from the discussion — the effect on areas under federal watch for air pollution. Tennessee’s current law allows the vehicles to be used for up to 17 years and requires at least two inspections a year. Legislation sponsored by state Sen. Janice Bowling, R-Tullahoma, would allow buses to stay in use regardless of their years of service or mileage as long as they pass their safety inspections. The bill calls for two annual inspections after a school bus has been in service for 15 years and allows the Tennessee Department of Safety to charge a fee to districts for the reviews.