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Haslam: Improving Higher Ed Access a 2014 Priority

Gov. Bill Haslam said Tuesday that while he hasn’t finalized the particulars of his legislative agenda for 2014, higher education will clearly be a focus.

Haslam spent Tuesday in Murfreesboro talking up his administration’s efforts to encourage more Tennesseans to pursue an education beyond high school, emphasizing the importance of “higher ed” to economic development for the state.

“Government has a real role. One of the roles is to prepare the workers for the workforce,” Haslam told reporters after his announcement of an equipment grant of $625,007 to the Tennessee College of Applied Technology-Murfreesboro.

The grant is a portion of the $16.5 million in equipment and technology grants approved by the General Assembly last session for “workforce development programs” at Tennessee higher education institutions, a part of the governor’s “Drive to 55” initiative to “increase the number of Tennesseans with post-secondary credentials,” according to a press release.

Haslam said he views these grants as a “great investment” for the state that “will mean even more jobs coming to Tennessee in the future.”

Although the general unemployment in the state is still fairly high, the governor said “we have an impending shortage of skilled laborers in Middle Tennessee.”

In order to address that, and entice more businesses to relocate to the state, Haslam said that one of his administration’s top legislative priorities in the upcoming session will be improving access to higher education. “I think you’ll see a real focus on higher ed; both making certain that we have the job preparation programs, as well as we have to have a way that we can encourage more Tennesseans to attend school after high school, and so I think you’ll see some things around making that more affordable as well,” Haslam said after the grant announcement.

The governor also touted the importance of an increased number of degree-holding Tennesseans as necessary to continue job creation and economic development across the state at a luncheon event with the Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce later that day.

The governor went down the list of programs enacted and laws passed in the name of enhancing the state’s economic status, and praised efforts to improve education – both K-12 and post-secondary – along with recently passed tax cuts, workers comp and civil service reform and his administration’s push for more exports.

Although the state’s business climate is one generally approved of by companies looking to relocate, a common complaint has been that Tennessee lacks in workforce development and has consistently ranked somewhere in the “40s” in education nationwide, Haslam said.

But the state has been working to improve that statistic, and with the release of the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress scores last month showing Tennessee as the “fastest growing state in the country,” it appears that the educational improvement efforts have been paying off, the governor said at the luncheon.

“It’s a really big deal when the commissioner of education in New York says, ‘If we work really hard we can be like Tennessee,’” Haslam said. “That’s a big deal, and that hasn’t been said a lot.”

Haslam Awards TCAT-Murfreesboro $625K Equipment Grant

Press release from the Office of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam; December 3, 2013:

MURFREESBORO – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today announced a grant of $625,007 to fund equipment needed at the Tennessee College of Applied Technology-Murfreesboro.

The governor proposed and the General Assembly approved $16.5 million in this year’s budget for equipment and technology related to workforce development programs at Tennessee colleges of applied technology and community colleges, part of Haslam’s “Drive to 55” effort to increase the number of Tennesseans with post-secondary credentials.

“The purchase of this equipment for TCAT-Murfreesboro will allow the school to provide high-tech training to meet workforce needs in the Murfreesboro area,” Haslam said. “This will not only help train Tennesseans for skilled jobs but minimize the necessity for area employers to seek skilled workers from out of state.”

The grant for TCAT-Murfreesboro at the school’s Old Fort Campus will address needs for equipment for instruction in mechanical systems, electronics, industrial motor controls, hydraulics, pneumatics and wiring. The school will be able to purchase several pieces of high-tech training equipment.

The purchase will help align the school’s advanced manufacturing training programs with area industry. Graduation from the industrial maintenance program as well as the machine tool and HVAC programs prepare students for the workforce and provide up to 30 credit hours to transfer to a community college toward an Applied Associate Degree in General Technology.

“Currently only 32 percent of Tennesseans have certificates or degrees beyond high school, and studies show that by 2025, that number must be 55 percent to meet workforce demands,” Haslam said. “These workforce development grants help us directly meet workforce training needs.”

These strategic investments resulted from the governor meeting with businesses and education officials across the state last fall to better understand workforce development needs. One of the most common themes Haslam heard was the lack of capacity and equipment at Tennessee colleges of applied technology and community colleges to meet job demand, so these grants are aimed at addressing those gaps.

Rutherford Co. Deputy Arrested on Cocaine Trafficking Charges

Press release from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Tennessee; March 19, 2013:

Complaint Alleges Armed Deputy Arranged Purchase Of Seven Kilograms of Cocaine

Luis Reynaldo Parra Flores, 35, of Murfreesboro, Tennessee, a deputy with the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Department, was charged in a federal complaint in Nashville yesterday, with conspiring to distribute more than five kilograms of cocaine, announced Jerry E. Martin, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee.

According to the affidavit in support of the complaint, on March 13, 2013, agents with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) intercepted a courier who arrived at the Nashville International Airport with seven kilograms of cocaine in his luggage. Federal agents and Metro Nashville drug detectives conducted an undercover operation to identify the individuals who planned to receive the cocaine. The affidavit alleges that Flores met with the cooperator and attempted to take delivery of the cocaine. After he did so, federal agents placed him under arrest and found that he was carrying a firearm and a badge identifying him as a Rutherford County Sheriff’s Deputy.

“The actions of a few corrupt law enforcement officers harms the reputation of the many dedicated men and women who wear the badge with honor,” said U.S. Attorney Jerry E. Martin. “We will always pursue those few who choose to dishonor their badge and will bring them to justice.”

“Flores failed the citizens of Rutherford County and the dedicated employees of the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office and violated their trust,” said Rutherford County Sheriff Robert Arnold. “We have a black eye and a bruised jaw. I am ashamed of his actions and I apologize to the citizens of Rutherford County. He has tarnished his badge and ruined the trust the citizens placed in him. His employment was immediately terminated and his badge has been destroyed and will never be worn again.”

If convicted, Flores faces a sentence of ten years to life in prison and a $10 million fine.

The case was investigated by the DEA, the 20th Judicial District Drug Task Force and the Metropolitan Nashville Police Department. Assistant United States Attorney Alex Little is representing the government.

A criminal complaint is merely an accusation and is not evidence of guilt. Defendants are presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty in a court of law.

Amazon Seeks 1,500 for Full-time Positions in Lebanon, Murfreesboro

Press release from the Department of Labor & Workforce Development; June 29, 2012: 

NASHVILLE – Jobseekers in middle Tennessee are invited to begin applying at Tennessee Career Centers on Monday, July 2, for jobs at Amazon’s fulfillment centers in Lebanon and Murfreesboro. These new fulfillment centers will fill customer orders for Amazon and the many third-party sellers from Tennessee and around the country that use fulfillment by Amazon. Amazon is working with Tennessee Career Centers to conduct initial screenings and scheduling of interviews to fill more than 1,500 full-time positions at their new facilities. Interviews will begin in July, so applicants are encouraged to apply immediately. The facilities are expected to begin operations this fall.

“We’re very excited to partner with Amazon to help employ qualified Tennessee applicants at their fulfillment centers,” said Labor Commissioner Karla Davis. “This is a tremendous opportunity for our community.”

Warehouse associates pack and ship customer orders and are empowered to troubleshoot problems. Ideal candidates possesses a strong work ethic, attention to detail, ability to meet deadlines, and a commitment to customer service as it relates to product fulfillment. Warehouse associates are expected to understand all aspects of production and adhere to strict safety, quality, and production standards.

Basic Qualifications:

  • Must be at least 18 years old
  • High School diploma or equivalent
  • Willing to work all shifts
  • Work overtime as required
  • Read and take direction in English
  • Pass a post offer, pre-employment drug screen and background check
  • Must lift up to 49 pounds
  • Stand / walk for shifts 10-12 hours long
  • Willing to frequently push, pull, squat, bend and reach

Hourly Starting Pay Rate Range: $11.00 (Warehouse Position) to $13.00 (Lead Warehouse Position), plus shift differential, variable compensation pay, company stock, and comprehensive benefits.

With over 65,000 employees worldwide, Amazon has fulfillment centers in multiple states. Amazon already operates fulfillment centers in Chattanooga, Cleveland, and Lebanon, employing more than 2,500 workers.

Applications for Amazon jobs are available at the following middle Tennessee Career Center locations from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. beginning July 2 through July 13: Dickson, Franklin, Gallatin, Lebanon, McMinnville, Metro Center, Murfreesboro, and Nashville South. For contact information and directions to the Tennessee Career Center nearest you visit http://www.tn.gov/labor-wfd/cc/cccounty.shtml.

Feds Charge Texan for Bomb Threat to Murfreesboro Mosque

A Texas man has been indicted for threatening to bomb a planned Muslim community center in Murfreesboro.

Law enforcement say Javier Alan Correa, 24, of Corpus Christi, called the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro on Sept. 5, 2011, and said there was a bomb in the building that would explode on the anniversary of Sept. 11.

He has been charged with intentionally obstructing a free exercise of religion by threat of force and with using an instrument of interstate commerce to threaten to destroy a building with explosives, said Jerry Martin, U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee.

Although Correa has not been taken into custody, the U.S. Attorney’s office is in communication with his legal counsel to discuss surrender, Martin said.

If convicted, Correa faces up to 20 years in prison.

The mosque’s approval in 2010 sparked protests and a lawsuit, even as construction has moved forward at the site southeast of Murfreesboro. A judge earlier this month ruled that the public notice for a meeting to approve the construction plans was inadequate, which has put in limbo plans to have a first section of the building open in time for Ramadan at the end of July.

Federal investigators are also still looking into an incident of arson at the site in 2010.

“These despicable acts are not only illegal, but are also completely contrary to our American way of life,” Martin said. “So let there be no question. If you interfere with anyone’s constitutionally guaranteed right to worship and assemble, you will face federal prosecution and severe penalties.”

In Nov. 2010, the Department of Justice also filed an amicus, or friend of the court, brief in relation to the ongoing lawsuit, in which plaintiffs had asserted that Islam is not a legitimate religion.

MTSU Poll: Tennesseans Don’t Like Teacher Tenure; Split on Eliminating Collective Bargaining; Favor Wine in Grocery Stores

Press Release from the Middle Tennessee State University Survey Group, March 2, 2011:

Obama would lose to a Republican opponent, but his low approval rating has stabilized

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. – Tennesseans take a dim view of teacher tenure but show no consensus on whether to do away with collective bargaining power for teacher unions, the latest MTSU Poll finds.

Fifty-four percent of state residents choose the statement, “Tenure makes it hard to get rid of bad teachers” as most representative of their viewpoint, while 29 percent choose the alternative statement, “Tenure protects good teachers from being fired without just cause” as most indicative of what they think. Sixteen percent say they don’t know, and the rest decline to answer.

Meanwhile, 37 percent of Tennesseans favor “eliminating the ability of teacher unions in Tennessee to negotiate with local boards of education about teacher salaries, benefits and other employment issues.” But a statistically equivalent 41 percent oppose such a move, and a substantial 22 percent are undecided.

“Compared to public opinion about teacher tenure, public opinion about collective bargaining for teacher unions seem to be still taking shape in Tennessee,” said Dr. Ken Blake, director of the MTSU Poll. “The people most likely to have any opinion at all on the collective bargaining issue are also, based on other measures in the poll, the ones most likely to be politically active and politically knowledgeable. They probably are creating a framework for the debate and soon will start contending with each other for the support of those who are undecided.”

Conducted Feb. 14 – 26, 2011 by Middle Tennessee State University’s College of Mass Communication, the telephone poll of 589 Tennessee adults chosen at random from across the state has an error margin of plus or minus four percentage points at the 95 percent level of confidence. Full results are available on the poll’s website, www.mtsusurveygroup.org.

The poll also finds President Obama currently trailing whoever the Republican 2012 presidential nominee might be. Thirty-one percent of Tennesseans say they would vote for Obama if the election were held today, but a 48 percent plurality say they would vote instead for “his Republican opponent.” 14 percent say that they don’t know who they would vote for at this time, and 6 percent volunteer that they would vote for neither candidate.

The downward slide in Obama’s approval rating among Tennesseans seems to have leveled off, though, according to Dr. Jason Reineke, associate director of the MTSU Poll.

“The president’s approval rating stands at 39 percent in Tennessee, a possible uptick from his 35 percent approval rating in our Fall 2010 poll,” Reineke said. “But, of course, he’s still down quite a bit compared to his 53 percent approval rating in the Spring 2009 MTSU Poll.”

In other findings, three in four Tennesseans considers illegal immigration a “somewhat” or “very” serious problem, and a 42 percent plurality describe as “about right” the new Arizona immigration law’s requirement that police making a stop, detention, or arrest must attempt to determine the person’s immigration status if police suspect the person is not lawfully present in the country. Another 25 percent say such a law “doesn’t go far enough,” and 28 percent say it “goes too far.”

Additionally, 55 percent characterize as “about right” the Arizona law’s requirement that people produce documents proving their immigration status if asked by police. Twenty-three percent say that aspect of the law doesn’t go far enough, and 17 percent say it goes too far.

Meanwhile, closing the Tennessee’s projected budget gap could prove politically difficult for state lawmakers.

A 52-percent majority of state residents think dealing with the budget gap will require either cutting important services (16 percent), raising state taxes (6 percent) or both (30 percent). Despite these attitudes, though, Tennesseans show little support for cuts to any of five of the state’s largest general fund budget categories. Only 25 percent of state residents favor cuts to TennCare, 14 percent favor cuts to K-12 education, 24 percent favor cuts to higher education, and 17 percent favor cuts to children’s services. Cuts to a fifth major budget category, prisons and correctional facilities, drew the most support (44 percent), but the figure is still well below a majority.

Asked about gun regulation, Tennesseans divide essentially evenly on whether laws governing the sale of guns should be kept at their current levels (43 percent) or made more strict (41 percent). Similarly, 45 percent of Tennesseans say they would support a nationwide law banning the sale of high-capacity ammunition clips, defined in the poll question as those that hold more than 10 bullets. But a statistically equivalent 42 percent say they would oppose such a law.

In still other poll findings:

  • Sixty-nine percent of Tennesseans favor letting food stores sell wine.
  • A 50 percent plurality think Congress should repeal the health care law.
  • Support remains high for the religious rights of Muslims.
  • Tennesseans think neither President Obama nor Congressional Republicans are doing enough to cooperate with each other.
  • More Tennesseans approve than disapprove of new governor, legislature, but many are undecided.

For over a decade, the Survey Group at MTSU has been providing independent, non-partisan and unbiased public opinion data regarding major social, political, and ethical issues affecting Tennessee. The poll began in 1998 as a measure of public opinion in the 39 counties comprising Middle Tennessee and began measuring public opinion statewide in 2001. Learn more and view the full report at www.mtsusurveygroup.org.

Sen. Tracy Announces Grant Incentives for Energy Efficiency Programs in Murfreesboro Schools

Press Release from the Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus, Dec. 2, 2010:

(NASHVILLE, TN), December 2, 2010 – Local State Senator Jim Tracy announced today that the Murfreesboro City Schools District has been awarded $120,000 in grant incentive funds from Tennessee’s Energy Efficient Schools Initiative (EESI). The funds will be used to install an energy efficient HVACs at Cason Lane Academy and Erma Siegel Elementary School.

“This grant will save taxpayer money by helping with school utility costs,” said Senator Tracy. “I know our schools need every dollar that can be squeezed as their budgets are very tight.”

The General Assembly is recognized for the legislation that is assisting all school districts to become more energy efficient, resulting in lower operating costs and creating a healthier and safer learning environment. The Initiative is also retaining and creating jobs in Tennessee, both in the manufacturing sector in Tennessee as well as equipment vendors, contract labor for equipment installation, local equipment sales, etc.

For more information about the Energy Efficient Schools Initiative, please visit www.tn.gov/eesi.

$20K Reward for Mosque-Site Arson Arrest

Federal law enforcement agents are offering $20,000 for information that leads them to solving a case of vandalism at the construction site of a proposed mosque and Islamic cultural center in Rutherford County.

On Aug. 28 a fire was set to construction equipment at the site of a future Islamic Center of Murfreesboro worship house and community hall south of Murfreesboro. The case has garnered widespread media attention.

“We are bringing all our resources to bear to make sure this case gets into federal court so justice can be served,” Steven Gerido, an assistant special agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, said during a press conference at the mosque construction site Friday.

He called the case “high profile,” but stopped short of labeling it a “hate crime.”

“We don’t feed into all of the different circumstances surrounding the event itself,” Gerido added.

The FBI and BATFE have confirmed the act was, as has already been widely reported, a case of arson. Laboratory tests for the use of fire “accelerants” at the site returned positive, agents said.

“The Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office, ATF and FBI are continuing to investigate and no further information regarding the ongoing investigation can be provided at this time,” Gerido said.

Cami Ayash, spokeswoman for the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro has in the past called the incident a “shameful crime…instigated by the hate campaign that our Muslim community has been subjected to recently.”

“Somebody knows something, and hopefully this is an incentive to get someone to step forward,” she said.

On Friday Ayash elaborated on mosque leaders’ thinking on events of the past few weeks and months. Had they the chance to plan the development and initiate construction on their new facilities all over again, they probably would not have done so at the height of an election season, she said.

“All of this started because of bad timing on our part,” said Ayesh. “A lot of people were running their campaigns off of ‘terrorist training camps’ and things like that. Unfortunately, when you have people that plant that initial seed, then you have those who want to take it and run with it, and take the law into their own hands.”

“I really don’t think there is anything politically motivating whoever did this,” Ayash added.

McWherter, Haslam Denounce Mosque Fire, Laud Zoning

Both major party candidates for Tennessee governor denounced the burning of construction equipment at the site of a new mosque in Murfreesboro over the weekend.

And both also reiterated earlier statements that local zoning officials should decide if and where controversial building occurs.

Candidates Mike McWherter, a Democrat, and Bill Haslam, a Republican, addressed the issue Tuesday night at a “Student Town Hall” forum sponsored by Tennessee First Lady Andrea Conte.

Asked how “as governor (he) would balance freedom of religion with concerns about security,” McWherter said that while he’s a “huge proponent of religious freedom” he “understand(s) the constraints and problems you have when you locate an institution like that inside of a quiet neighborhood.”

“As a community you ought to be able to have some zoning restrictions, and make sure that the house you bought is something that you can continue to resell, and will not disturb your neighborhood,” he continued.

McWherter, a businessman from Jackson, went on to denounce the perpetrators of the crime, calling it an “atrocity.”

Responding to a question from a reporter outside the forum later, Haslam took a similar tack.

“No one should condone what’s just happened, OK. It’s just not acceptable in any way, and those folks should be found and appropriately punished,” said the Knoxville mayor.

On the issue of whether the mosque should be built, Haslam said it is a “local land-use issue.”

“As somebody who has been a mayor, I didn’t want the state or federal government telling us what to do,” he said. “That’s where you follow constitutional guidelines and local land-use planning and you let the local land-use people decide.”

Federal law enforcement agencies are investigating the setting ablaze of a piece of earth-moving equipment in the early morning hours of Aug. 28 at the location of a proposed 52,000-square-foot Islamic religious center in Rutherford County.

A local FBI official was quoted by CNN as saying that while the the cause of the fire is believed to have been arson, “We have no reason to think it’s a hate crime.”

A statement issued by an Islamic Center of Murfreesboro spokewoman Monday declared “we feel heartbroken that we have been a victim of yet another shameful crime, however, we are grateful to the majority members of this community who expressed their support.”

“We believe that this event was instigated by the hate campaign that our Muslim community has been subjected to recently,” the release continued.