This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
If every student who applied for Tennessee’s free community college program actually went to community college, some schools in the state would nearly double their full-time enrollment. For example, nearly 4,200 high school students chose Volunteer State Community College as their top choice school on their Tennessee Promise applications. That’s big, considering Vol State had 1,200 incoming freshman this year and has about 4,700 full-time students overall. But Eric Melcher, communications coordinator at Vol State, says the school suspects many of these students only applied because their high schools made them. So it’s holding judgment until January, when Tennessee Promise applicants have their first in-person meeting — an information session with community mentors.
The large old trees on its campus and the large paned windows of its brick buildings indicate the William R. Moore College of Technology has been around for a while. It was the idea of William R. Moore, a dry goods wholesaler, who left a $500,000 endowment to fund the institution following his death in 1909. It took another 30 years to build the endowment to the point where land could be bought on Poplar Avenue west of Cleveland Street and a campus built. In the last eight years, the school has had a rebranding as Moore Tech and updated its technology as well as its training. And the leadership of the school wants to become a part of the Tennessee Promise program that promises two years of free higher education to the state’s high school graduates starting with the class of 2015.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam launched the administration’s annual round of budget hearings Monday. In September Haslam told state agencies to prepare budgets reflecting a 7 percent decrease from the last year’s budget. Haslam, who in 2013 asked the departments to make a 5 percent cut, said the cuts aren’t necessarily inevitable. “I want to emphasize there’s not been a determination to make a 7 percent cut,” Haslam said Monday at the open of the talks. “We’re waiting on revenue, we’re waiting to see the impact of a lot of other things.” The governor, who won a second four-year term in November, added that the departments had done “hard work” in terms of making “difficult decisions” to prepare for a “worst-case scenario,” which is part of “responsible” budget preparation.
A top official said Monday that Tennessee is “changing the culture” at its three state-operated youth development centers, including a Nashville facility where teen felons rioted, assaulted staff and staged two mass escapes in September. Children’s Services Commissioner Jim Henry said the new “learning and mentor system” will reward good behavior with increased privileges, more focus on education and smaller staff-to-resident ratios. The list includes dinners more appealing to teens, computer games and later bed times for troubled kids who behave as well as improved therapeutic services. But there’s some tough love here, too, Henry told Gov. Bill Haslam during his budget presentation: the state is asking a court to alter a 40-year-old agreement and obtain permission to use 144 locks on rooms at night as well as the ability to use pepper spray for trouble makers.
Tennessee Department of Children’s Services Commissioner Jim Henry spoke Monday of a “culture change” in how his agency deals with the delinquent youths placed in its custody. That includes a “learning and mentor system” in which good behavior is rewarded with increasing levels of privileges, smaller staff-to-resident ratios and an emphasis on learning rather than punishment. And after a summer of disturbances at the department’s Woodland Hills Youth Development Center in Nashville, it includes locks coming next month to the doors of the residential rooms at Woodland and the two other youth development centers in Somerville and Dandridge. At Woodland Hills, several teen offenders charged unarmed staff and some escaped custody. Parts of the department’s services have been under federal court monitoring but the courts have approved locks on the doors for emergency use.
The Department of Children’s Services is planning to equip guards with stun guns and pepper spray at its juvenile detention centers, where currently guards who watch over youth are unarmed. DCS Commissioner Jim Henry told Gov. Bill Haslam during a budget hearing on Monday about a two-fold plan for its youth detention centers: transfer a portion of the population to residential facilities closer to the teens’ homes and step up security at places like the violence-plagued Woodland Hills. “Now we’re going to continue to get these kids and try to de-escalate them through the use of other techniques. But the last resort will be the use of pepper spray,” Henry said. Right now, the staff to inmate ratio is around 16 to 1. The department is aiming to improve that ratio to 12 to 1.
Governor Bill Haslam met with state agency officials Monday for annual budget hearings. Haslam asked them to figure out how to trim 7% from next year’s budgets. During the Department of Children’s Services presentation Commissioner James Henry said they plan to install locks on kids’ rooms on December 22nd. DCS got national attention this fall after riots and escapes plagued the Woodland Hills facility in North Nashville. Henry said the locks will require court approval because right now they are legally allowed to move freely from their rooms to commons areas. The commissioner said the change could stop bullying and more riots.
The Tennessee department that oversees social service programs like food stamps is proposing cutting more than 300 jobs by the start of the 2016 budget year. That’s a drop of about 900 positions since the 2014 budget year. Many of those jobs are vacant now, and won’t be needed thanks to the Department of Human Services no longer overseeing applications for TennCare, said Commissioner Raquel Hatter. The department previously oversaw applications for federal health services, but as of the start of this year TennCare stopped having state personnel help people submit applications directly to the state and simultaneously directed that applications be filed online at www.healthcare.gov. Hatter outlined the department’s fiscal goals Monday during one of several budget hearings before Gov. Bill Haslam and other state administrators.
Nashville Mayor Karl Dean challenged Gov. Bill Haslam to a “food fight” this past month, and now, a victor has risen. The 6th annual Metro Food Drive, led by Dean, raised more than 147,000 pounds of food — the most the drive has ever collected — for Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee. Dean challenged the governor’s office to see whose office could raise the most food, and Dean’s office donated 505.91 pounds per employee for the win. “Metro employees and community contributors were extremely generous this year, and I could not be more proud of everyone who participated,” Dean said in a press release. “I can’t thank Gov. Haslam and his staff enough for their enthusiastic participation in our friendly competition.
The state’s college savings program is being recognized nationally. TNStars is ranked as the No. 2 plan in the country, according to SavingForCollege.org, which recently released the top 10 direct-sold 529 plans in the nation based on one-year performance rankings. TNStars is a program of the Tennessee Department of Treasury It’s designed to give Tennessee families investment options at a low cost to help them put aside money for higher education expenses, while benefiting from certain tax advantages and special incentives. Tennesseans can invest directly with the program, without having to go through a plan manager. Money can be withdrawn from a TNStars account tax-free, as long as it is used for qualified higher education expenses.
Bill Young, a former solicitor general, will be new Attorney General Herbert Slatery’s number two. Slatery on Monday appointed Young — who had been director of the Administrative Office of the Courts since last year — as associated chief deputy attorney general Monday. “I have had the privilege of working closely with Bill on a number of matters over the past few years. He is well-known and well-respected and I am pleased he is returning to the office,” Slatery said. “His experience in the public sector, in particular the relationships that he has forged with members of all three branches of state government, along with his high level private sector experience and his knowledge of the Attorney General’s Office, makes him uniquely qualified for this important leadership position.”
New Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery isn’t joining a group of Republican colleagues from other states in issuing a statement vowing “appropriate action” on President Barack Obama’s executive order on immigration. Slatery’s predecessor, Bob Cooper, was heavily criticized by some Republicans in the Legislature for refusing to join a multi-state lawsuit against Obama’s health care law. But Slatery doesn’t appear to be in a hurry to promise litigation over another presidential move that has riled up Republicans in the state. Slatery said in a statement that he will be giving “careful consideration to all the relevant facts” about issues of federal overreach to come to an informed decision.
As Republican governors and attorneys general across the country gear up for legal action against President Barack Obama regarding his recent immigration action, new Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery isn’t hopping on board yet. In a statement, the newly selected GOP attorney general said his office will examine the potential for federal overreach. But Slatery didn’t commit to joining other GOP attorneys general in their lawsuits. “There are many factors to be taken into consideration when determining if litigation is warranted. We will be giving careful consideration to all the relevant facts and factors so that we can make an informed decision on behalf of the state,” Slatery said in a statement.
More than 16,000 people in Tennessee live with HIV, and that number has climbed steadily, the Tennessee Department of Health said in a news release Monday. In 2009, roughly 14,000 Tennesseans had the virus. Since that year, an average of 871 additional Tennesseans has become infected every year. About 820 new cases were diagnosed in 2013. HIV attacks the body’s immune system, causing a life-threatening illness known as AIDS. When a person has AIDS, the body’s natural defense system loses its ability to fight infections. The average annual AIDS death toll in Tennessee between 2009 and 2013 was 294. “The vast majority of deaths we see every year from AIDS could have been prevented,” said Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Dr. John Dreyzehner.
The Tennessee Department of Transportation says there will be no road closures on state highways and interstates over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. TDOT says it will open all construction-related lanes starting on Wednesday and running through Monday morning. Commissioner John Schroer says that the move comes amid projections that 1 million people will travel by car in Tennessee this weekend. TDOT stresses that while lane closures will be halted, there may still be road workers in some construction zones. Speed limits will still be enforced in work zones, where violations can cost up to $500 if workers are present. Updated travel and construction information can be found on the TDOT SmartWay website at http://www.tn.gov/tdot/tdotsmartway or by calling 511.
The Tennessee Department of Safety is partnering with police and sheriff’s offices across the state to make sure there’s an officer stationed every 20 miles throughout the holiday weekend. Last year, not a single motorist was killed on Interstate 40 from California to North Carolina. Tennessee Highway Patrol is partially responsible. “We think that the presence of a trooper every 20 miles adds to that safety factor and produces that kind of result where no people were driving recklessly. No people were doing what they shouldn’t have been doing,” said Col. Tracy Trott with THP. “Maybe they were more conscious of putting on their seat belts.” Trott was the brainchild behind a program called Drive to Zero, where officers in eight states vowed to cover I-40 in mass numbers. Monday, the same group announced they’re doing it again this year.
The Center for Earthquake Research and Information at the University of Memphis has received a commitment of $2 million in funding from the U.S. Geological Survey over the next three years. CERI is responsible for monitoring earthquakes from the Arkansas-Oklahoma border to the Potomac River, which includes the New Madrid, Wabash, East Tennessee, Charleston and Central Virginia seismic zones. The funding will be used to continue monitoring earthquakes in these areas. The CERI seismic network has 140 seismographs in nine states and integrates data in real-time from an additional 160 stations to process about 40 gigabytes of data each day, processing information from about 500 earthquakes each year.
University of Tennessee student trustee R.J. Duncan, a junior from the Knoxville campus, resigned from the system’s governing board Friday, according to Student Government President Kelsey Keny. Duncan was appointed this year by Gov. Bill Haslam, who selected Duncan from three candidates submitted by the students at the Knoxville campus. Keny said she and other student leaders were notified of Duncan’s resignation Friday by the UT Dean of Students Melissa Shivers. The Student Government Association Executive Committee has already begun discussing a short list of possible replacements for Duncan and will take those names before the Student Senate on Dec. 2, Keny said. Duncan was in his first of a two-year appointment. In the first year, students and faculty representatives are nonvoting members of the board.
While school was out for the summer, seven local schoolchildren were writing novels, and now they’re being recognized for their accomplishment. Those seven youths ranging from fifth grade to high school seniors participated in A Novel Idea, a writing workshop that encourages and teaches students writing, language and grammar. On Dec. 8, Tennessean publisher Laura Hollingsworth will help recognize all seven, who will not only receive their published books for the first time but will receive a letter from Tennessee first lady Crissy Haslam. Author Ann Patchett and former District 8 school board member Becky Sharpe also will speak at the 6 p.m. event at Parnassus Books in Nashville.
A workforce development push scheduled to begin in Greater Memphis next year will connect the skills local employers say they need to programs at educational institutions, its backers said Monday. The Greater Memphis Alliance for a Competitive Workforce, an initiative with roots in the Memphis Fast Forward program, was introduced Monday in a meeting with The Commercial Appeal’s editorial board. Glen Fenter, the president of Mid-South Community College, will lead the GMACW, which is slated to begin hiring employees and open an office in early 2015. The GMACW — which already has blue-and-silver lapel pins some of its promoters wore Monday — has a five-year, $5 million funding commitment that relies in part on private money, Nike executive Willie Gregory said.
On the gridiron, it takes a team to win, and some elected officials around the South are looking to band together rather than brawl over the 2016 presidential primaries. Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp is among those pushing a regional March 1, 2016, contest known as the “SEC Primary,” named after the Southeastern Conference and that would include states such as Georgia, Tennessee, Arkansas and Mississippi and possibly Alabama and Louisiana. “As someone who went to the University of Georgia and lives in Athens and understands how powerful the Southeastern Conference is in football today, that is exactly what we want to be when it comes to presidential politics,” Kemp said.
Chaos returned to the streets of Ferguson after a grand jury declined to indict a white police officer in the death of Michael Brown — a decision that enraged protesters who set fire to buildings and cars and looted businesses in the area where the unarmed, black 18-year-old was fatally shot. Monday night’s destruction appeared to be much worse than last summer’s protests, with at least a dozen businesses badly damaged or destroyed. Authorities reported hearing hundreds of gunshots, which for a time prevented fire crews from fighting the flames. Jon Belmar, chief of the St. Louis County police, said that unless his agency could bring in 10,000 officers, “I don’t think we can prevent folks who really are intent on destroying a community.”
Some local leaders in Chattanooga were not surprised by the grand jury decision not to indict officer Darren Wilson for the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. Ash-Lee Henderson, an organizer for Chattanooga’s Concerned Citizens for Justice, said the verdict was not a surprise. “I don’t think we had any expectations, whether there was an indictment or not, that there would be justice for Mike Brown,” she said. She said that one of the messages from all of this is, “It’s OK, you can get away with murder as long as it’s a black person.” “Understandably people are furious and hurt and scared for their loved ones across the country … but definitely right here in Chattanooga,” she said, regarding the greater meaning of the verdict.
As the news spread from Ferguson that the police officer who shot and killed an unarmed black teenager earlier this year would not be indicted, Memphis appeared to react calmly. By late Monday night, Memphis police had no reports of any trouble. A picture circulating on Twitter indicated that Memphians were burning flags Downtown after the verdict, but that turned out to be a hoax. About 30 minutes after the announcement that Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted in the Aug. 9 shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown, Memphis Police Director Toney Armstrong held a press conference to urge the city to remain calm. “We have no reports of any (problems). We ask that our citizens continue to follow the law,” Armstrong said.
The city of Oak Ridge has installed traffic cones and drums along the shoulder of Scarboro Road directly across from the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant, an apparent effort to deter protests. There is virtually no place for protesters to park or stand in the vicinity of the plant outside of Scarboro road itself. Oak Ridge Police Department Capt. Robin Smith said Monday evening the actions were taken not to discourage or block protest but rather to protect public safety. He said there were concerns about parking along the shoulder and people possibly wandering into the streets — especially if large numbers of protesters showed up. Y-12 has been listed as one of the potential locations for protest following the announcement of the grand jury verdict in Ferguson, Mo.
With the debate over charter schools in Nashville more contentious than ever, Mayor Karl Dean is reaffirming his place as the city’s leading charter advocate as he renews a call for education reform. Dean, in a speech at the downtown Rotary Club of Nashville on Monday, highlighted some of Nashville’s strongest performing charter schools, later adding that a lot of people in Nashville would nevertheless like to see fewer of them. “I want to see more,” Dean said. “I don’t think the city is anywhere near the saturation point for charter schools. We need even more reform, even more entrepreneurial spirit to keep failing schools going and to actually turn them around. We need dramatic change in too many of our schools, and we need it now. “The issues around reform are intense,” he acknowledged.
Google has taken another step toward bringing high-speed fiber-optic internet to Nashville. But Fiber fans shouldn’t get too excited by the news: It’s still not a binding commitment. Google Fiber recently filed an application, along with a $5,000 application fee, to do business in Tennessee. It’s part of a routine process for telecommunication companies — they have to obtain a certificate from the Tennessee Regulatory Authority to run cable lines and build new infrastructure in public areas of a city. The company’s application says it intends to provide internet services within two years of getting the state’s approval. But that doesn’t mean they will: There’s no penalty for backing out, according to the University of Tennessee’s Municipal Technical Advisory Service. The application also includes a state-mandated plan to “actively solicit” contracts with businesses owned by minorities — including African Americans, people with disabilities and women.
When the state announced its new list of the worst-performing schools, called “priority schools” in September, it was a slap in the face for a school system that believed it was improving. There were six MNPS schools on the 2012 list, and school leaders thought they were making progress to lift them out of the state’s Achievement School District. Four of the six schools did make progress, but only two worked their way off the bottom. There were 15 Metro schools on the new list. Director of Schools Jesse Register responded with an impassioned call for a “bold, smart and common-sense problem-solving” approach, focused on the district’s lowest performing 25 percent, not just the priority schools.
Fewer Tennesseans are going without health insurance than at any time in the past decade, a welcome development that has coincided with the implementation of the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. According to a report by the University of Tennessee’s Center for Business and Economic Research, the rate of uninsured residents in Tennessee this year is 7.2 percent, a whopping 23 percent decrease from 2013. The rate of uninsured children also plummeted by more than one-third, from 3.7 percent to 2.4 percent. While the report does not explicitly link the drop with the startup of the Affordable Care Act, the researchers noted that the decline occurred at the same time the Health Insurance Marketplace was established under the landmark health care legislation.