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February 21 TN News Digest

This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.

Steel Manufacturer Nucor to Upgrade Memphis Plant (TN Report)

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and Economic and Community Development Commissioner Bill Hagerty, along with Shelby County officials and Nucor representatives, today announced the company’s plans for modernizing and enhancing its Memphis facility, located at 3601 Paul R. Lowry Road. The company will create approximately 27 new jobs. “Our Jobs4TN strategy focuses on existing Tennessee businesses, and Nucor’s latest investment in our state will add good paying jobs in Shelby County,” Haslam said. “Tennessee’s economy continues to improve thanks in large part to our existing industries that choose to reinvest right where they are.”

Nissan plans to add 1,000 jobs at Middle Tennessee plant (Tennessean/Williams)

1st luxury car comes off assembly line Nissan’s first $40,000-plus luxury Infiniti JX crossover rolled off the assembly line here at midday Monday, but that’s just the start of a giant boost from the Asian carmaker’s plant over the next year. Total employment at the Smyrna plant could be pushing 6,000 workers — nearly double its current level — by early next year as workers build two new crossover utility vehicles plus batteries and eventually the Leaf electric car here. Nissan said 1,000 jobs would be filled over the next year to staff a second shift on the plant’s truck line to assemble the JX, the first of which was shown Monday, and a redesigned Nissan Pathfinder crossover that comes later this year.

State getting word out on next steps of NCLB waiver (News-Sentinel/McCoy)

Ed commissioner: ‘Now the hard work starts’ Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman didn’t celebrate long after learning that the state had received a wavier from the federal government’s No Child Left Behind law. “My thought very quickly went to ‘OK, now the hard work starts,'” he said. “I think the goals that we have put in our waiver are very ambitious, and it’s going to take a lot of work to achieve the goals that we’re trying to achieve.” Now, the big question for school officials across the state is: What next? To begin answering that question, Huffman has been meeting with superintendents across the state to share information and field questions.

Haslam looks forward on legislative agenda before him (City Paper/Woods)

Gov. Bill Haslam sat down with reporters last week for a status update on his legislative agenda for this year. In the face of heavy opposition, Haslam is retreating on his proposal to lift the state cap on average school class sizes — an idea he touted as a way to give school districts the flexibility to pay good teachers more. But the governor is pressing ahead with his bill to overhaul civil service laws to give the executive branch broader authority to fire state workers. Ditto for his legislation to keep secret the names of the owners of companies that win state economic development grants.

Haslam Bills Meet Resistance (TN Report)

Last week was trying for Gov. Bill Haslam after a number of his high-profile bills faced turmoil and criticism from both Democrats and the GOP faithful in the Legislature. Haslam has dozens of legislative initiatives he’d like the General Assembly to pass this year, ranging from lowering the tax on food to overhauling how state workers are hired and fired.

Colleges intervene to help overcome some ugly math (Tennessean/Hubbard)

More than 70 percent of freshmen in Tennessee community colleges need remedial or developmental coursework — meaning one of the four core courses they need is a refresher and won’t count for credit. Worse, college leaders say students who need them are more likely to get frustrated and leave after the first year. So they’re reaching back a little earlier, allowing high school students to knock out their remedial college math while earning high school credit. A pilot math program developed by Chattanooga State for high school students is showing signs of early success and garnering interest from Nashville State, Jackson State and Cleveland State, which also want to use it.

Campuses review security after TSU dorm shooting (Tennessean/Anderson)

The day after a Tennessee State University student was robbed and shot in the leg inside his dorm room, campus police arrested two other men who were trying to enter the same building even though they did not belong there. Monday, campus police were still investigating the Sunday morning shooting of an unidentified 18-year-old freshman from Memphis. TSU police were looking for the gunman, who is described as a black male, 5 feet 4 inches tall, who was wearing black shorts and a black sweater. After the shooting, a campus officer was posted at Watson Hall. On separate occasions Monday morning, two different men — who were not students — tried to gain entry to the building.

Despite some high salaries ETSU pay is below average (Herald-Courier)

When you make $288,000 a year and your salary is 10th highest in the Tennessee Board of Regents system, you’re aware you’re doing pretty well compared to the general population. “It is a lot of money,” said Dr. Phil Bagnell, East Tennessee State University College of Medicine Dean. “It is a lot of money.” However, if Dr. Bagnell and his faculty wanted to make money, they could do better somewhere else. OBGYN Chair Tom Jernigan is the top paid faculty member at the College of Medicine. However, his salary of $375,950 is much lower than the average pay of his counterparts at other medical schools across the nation.

TDOT watching crack in U.S. Highway 127 on Signal Mountain (TFP/Walton)

A cracked section of pavement on U.S. Highway 127 on Signal Mountain — in the same area where the road fell off into the gorge in 2009 — will be patched and monitored, according to the state Department of Transportation. “Nothing is settling; everything is OK,” TDOT spokeswoman Jennifer Flynn said last week after maintenance crews inspected the area near Palisades Drive that runs between a massive rock face and a sheer drop to the Tennessee River. However, a new TDOT study says U.S. 127 between Suck Creek Road and Palisades Drive “has been experiencing a significant degradation for several years resulting in large rockslides, roadway failures and traffic delays” and “contains one of the 10 most hazardous rock fall sites in the state of Tennessee.”

TennCare enrollment open Tuesday (WBIR-TV Knoxville)

Beginning Tuesday, the state’s TennCare Standard Spend Down program will offer another round of open enrollment. Low-income people or those with high, unpaid medical bills who are aged, blind or disabled, or the caretaker of a Medicaid eligible child meet the qualifications. The only way to request an application is by calling the program’s toll-free number. The line will be open between 7:00 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. eastern on Tuesday.

Cleveland, Tenn., crime control grant halfway done (Times Free-Press/Higgins)

Halfway through a three-year, $800,000 grant to reduce crime in certain city neighborhoods, the government and nonprofit agencies involved are considering what will happen when the grant ends. Their goal is to sustain working relationships among the 15 agencies that aim to prevent crime, enforce the laws and rebuild communities. In Cleveland, the targeted area is police sectors one and two, roughly south and east Cleveland. “The mission of the grant is to reduce criminal activity, drug and alcohol abuse in these sectors,” said grant evaluator David Watts, a private consultant and former assistant vice president at Cleveland State Community College. “We have lots of variables to track. You can’t say the grant’s not working when the numbers go up. There might be better reporting, too.”

Railway terminal cited by state inspectors (Associated Press)

Norfolk Southern Railway Co. has been cited by state regulators for polluting streams near a terminal construction site in Fayette County. According to The Commercial Appeal, inspectors found sediment-laden water flowing into streams, and several other issues (http://bit.ly/yTkDSY ). A company spokeswoman said Norfolk Southern is cooperating with Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation officials and has detailed its plans to protect water quality. The $112 million terminal is being built on 230 acres.

‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill troubles school counselors in TN (Tennessan/Gonzalez)

Inside a Metro Nashville middle school bathroom, the boy didn’t know what to make of his classmate’s roaming eyes. And so he went to see the school counselor. Was the boy who glanced at him gay, he wondered. And if he didn’t turn away, did that make him gay? The counselor, who asked not to be named while sharing a real-life example — both to protect the identity of the student and to candidly discuss the full implications of the situation — answered the boy’s questions as best she could. Her goal, she said, was simply to help the student feel comfortable and safe when going to the bathroom. A bill working its way through the legislature could make that more difficult, she said.

Rally turns spotlight on Tennessee film allure (Commercial Appeal/Beifuss)

When Tennessee movie and music professionals rally on the steps of the Capitol in Nashville today in support of legislation designed to make the state more attractive to the film industry, costume designer Meriwether Nichols won’t be among them. The drive is just too far. Not the drive to Nashville from Memphis, but the drive to Nashville from Albuquerque, N.M. She left Memphis for the Southwest in 2010 after years of struggling to make a living in the local film industry. “As much as I would prefer to be in Memphis, my prospects are much better here,” said Nichols, 41, who worked last summer on the Marvel Comics megablockbuster “The Avengers” in New Mexico, a state with one of the nation’s most film-friendly financial incentive programs.

Arriola, Tygard spar over wedding-fee refund (City Paper/Garrison)

In a testy email exchange with Metro Councilman Charlie Tygard last Friday, embattled Davidson County Clerk John Arriola asked for the withdrawal of legislation that urges him to refund $40 fees to couples he charged prior to performing their marriages. A Tygard-sponsored nonbinding memorializing resolution, which requests Arriola return to nearly 3,000 couples more than $119,000 in cumulative wedding fees, is set to go before the Metro Council on Tuesday evening. Tygard alerted Arriola of his resolution by providing an ultimatum, outlined in an initial email last week: either return on his own accord mandatory $40 wedding fees a state audit found he charged or Tygard promised to introduce the resolution that would formally request Arriola return the money.

Hamilton County responds to Occupy Chattanooga motion (Times Free-Press)

The Hamilton County Commission took another step Monday in its lawsuit against Occupy Chattanooga in federal court. The county filed a response to a motion to dismiss that the protesters filed weeks ago. The county argues that the suit it filed last month against Occupy and nine individuals shouldn’t be dismissed. “By opposing the motion to dismiss, the county continues to pursue a confrontational course in which it seeks to make Occupy demonstrators pay for the county’s effort to have its own law upheld,” said Scott Michelman, a Washington, D.C.-based lawyer for Occupy Chattanooga.

Obama campaign in Tennessee gears up for tougher fight (City Paper/Greenberg)

In the days and weeks leading up to Tennessee’s March 6 presidential primary, most of the state will be transfixed on the Republican race, waiting to see which of the four remaining Republican candidates will win over Tennessee voters. After all, Tennessee has been notoriously red in recent years, when it comes to the general election. A Democratic presidential candidate hasn’t won the state since 1996. And while the attention will be focused on the Republicans’ heated primary, the Tennessee Democratic Party won’t be sitting back and enjoying the show. In fact, TNDP communications director Brandon Puttbrese said the Obama campaign is already established in Tennessee — and is gearing up for the general election.

States push to end civil service rules (McClatchy Newspapers)

Your boss offers you a 5 percent raise. The only catch is that in return you risk being fired at any time, without any right to an explanation. Would you take it? This is the dilemma that 26,000 Arizona state employees may soon face if Gov. Jan Brewer’s proposed overhaul of the state’s personnel system becomes a reality. Her budget calls for a 5 percent raise for employees who voluntarily give up all civil service protections. Brewer argues that there’s no reason in this day and age for state workers to be treated differently than employees in the private sector who generally have “at will” status and are promoted or fired based on their performance rather than being protected by seniority.

Steamboat company holding job fair in Memphis (Associated Press)

The Great American Steamboat Company says it will be hiring 300 employees for the American Queen riverboat. The company will hold a job fair Tuesday at the Cook Convention Center in Memphis. Beginning in April, the American Queen will begin making trips on the Mississippi River, with departures from Memphis, New Orleans, St. Louis, Louisville, St. Paul, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. The company will be seeking to fill numerous roles on the boat, including hotel and hospitality, housekeeping, culinary, marine and technical crew.

VW taking applications for apprenticeship program (Associated Press)

Volkswagen Chattanooga is accepting applications for its automotive mechatronics program at its onsite training facility. The apprenticeship program will select 24 candidates for a training class scheduled to begin May 15. A second class is to start Aug. 27. The program is a three-year scholarship-based opportunity created through a partnership between Volkswagen Chattanooga and the Tennessee Technology Center at Chattanooga State. Students are trained in safety, quality, electricity, metal work, machining, welding, pneumatics, hydraulics, robotics and other topics. Applications will be accepted until March 31.

Chattanooga: Erlanger Health System losses mount (Times Free-Press/Martin)

Despite seeing some improvement in outpatient surgical figures, Erlanger Health System lost another $2.1 million in January, bringing operating losses in the first seven months of the fiscal year to $12.5 million. Erlanger executives presented their January financial report during a budget and finance committee meeting Monday evening. Last month, they warned trustees that they do not expect the hospital will begin making money until April. “There are a lot of things that are actually happening, but volumes are still not back to where we had hoped they would be for the month of January,” said Britt Tabor, Erlanger’s chief financial officer.

Schools Discussion Hits Two Points (Memphis Daily News)

The Arlington board of aldermen takes a final vote Tuesday, Feb. 21, on a May 10 referendum on a municipal school district. If the referendum ordinance is approved, it would be the first of several moves to the ballot by Shelby County’s suburban municipalities who are considering each creating their own school systems. Meanwhile, the schools consolidation transition planning commission hears its first formal recommendation Thursday on what a countywide school system’s structure would look like. And the recommendation Thursday from a committee chaired by countywide school board member David Pickler is expected to recommend a countywide school system divided into sub-districts.

Hermitage councilman proposes new high school (Tennessean/Hall)

The Metro councilman whose district covers Hermitage emailed a proposal for a new high school to the mayor’s office and school district on Monday. Bruce Stanley is arguing that McGavock High, where Hermitage teens attend, forces a long bus ride for the students of his district. He contends a new high school was identified as a need to eliminate overcrowding more than a decade ago and should be built on state-owned land near the Old Hickory Boulevard entrance to The Hermitage historic mansion. Metro Nashville Public Schools does not have a new Hermitage high school on its capital needs list, and spokeswoman Olivia Brown said McGavock is at 84 percent capacity, with about 2,200 students enrolled.

Oklahoma: Business gets its way in Republican Oklahoma (Stateline)

Oklahoma is used to being overshadowed politically by its bigger, bolder southern neighbor, Texas. But in the past year, it’s Oklahoma that has developed a reputation for unusual political boldness, with the GOP flexing its muscle in dramatic fashion. The 2010 elections gave Republicans complete control of state government for the first time ever in Oklahoma. They have quietly, methodically enacted a slate of pro-business measures and are embarking on an extraordinary plan to eliminate the personal income tax outright. “We passed almost every single thing I asked the Legislature to address last year,” says Republican Governor Mary Fallin, who replaced Democrat Brad Henry.

OPINION

Editorial: NCLB waiver not a reprieve but a call to action (News-Sentinel)

It is not a big surprise that Tennessee received its waiver from some of the difficult requirements of the No Child Left Behind law. The waiver, announced by President Barack Obama last week, is a testament to the state’s hard work to prepare its appeal and make its case to federal education officials that Tennessee education is on the proper course but should not be held to impossible standards. Nine other states also were granted waivers. The work now must shift to two levels — the state, including local school systems, and Congress, which at some point must grapple with reassessing a well-intentioned law that is in serious need of reform.

Editorial: NCLB waiver lets schools make reforms in right way (Daily News Journal)

We would not have been surprised to hear a collective sigh of relief go up from school districts across the state earlier this month when President Barack Obama announced Tennessee would receive a waiver from the No Child Left Behind Law. The waiver was approved on the basis of Tennessee’s Race to the Top education proposals. While we agree NCLB was successful in focusing attention on the importance of measuring learning – or lack thereof – its main goal of 100 percent proficiency in math and reading by 2014 was unrealistic. And the law failed to take into account student growth.

Editorial: Helpful drugs that can kill (Commercial Appeal)

Over the years, there has been a litany of celebrity deaths resulting from the misuse of prescription drugs. According to news reports, prescription drugs were a factor in the untimely deaths of actors Heath Ledger and Brittany Murphy, R&B singer Gerald Levert and singer Michael Jackson. Although there has been no official cause of death for singer Whitney Houston, the misuse of prescription medications is considered a possible factor in her death as well. We shake our heads and wonder how this could happen to these very talented people.

Editorial: Sex-education bill seeks to fix what is unbroken (Tennessean)

A word of warning for state Sen. Stacey Campfield and his supporters on SB 49/HB 229: Beware of unintended consequences. Current Tennessee law and policy forbids, under penalty of prosecution, the teaching of any aspect of human sexuality to any student under the ninth grade. The decades-old law, Tennessee Code 49-6-1005, appropriately delegates the conversation about human sexuality to parents and guardians of students in our state in clear unambiguous and reasonable language. The law makes an exception for teaching sex education to high school students in appropriate biology, physiology, health, physical education and home economics classes with clear instructions and protection for teachers leading those curricula.

Editorial: No guns in parking lots (Commercial Appeal)

No, guns should not be allowed in cars sitting in the company parking lot. Guns and work don’t mix. It’s really that simple. Think about it for a minute. Think about the number of times a co-worker at your place of work has stormed out mad. Or had a conflict with a co-worker. Or a romance. Sure, cooler heads most often prevail on the job. But not always. Once somebody pops a cork, loses his cool, runs out to the car where there is a gun, well, the after-the-fact accounts of these tragedies already are all too common. The Tennessee legislature should be clear-eyed on this question.

Editorial: Deer-farming prizes: disease, loss of livelihood (Tennessean)

There is more than one good reason why deer farming — the business of breeding and raising livestock deer primarily for trophy hunting — is a bad idea for Tennessee. That is why past attempts to legalize the practice have failed. It also is why the new attempt, HB 3164, sponsored by state Rep. Frank Niceley, R-Knoxville, should be rejected. Niceley rewrote his failed bill from last year, and the new version would allow white-tailed deer to be brought into the state for farming; allow Tennessee deer to be caught and farmed; and allow shooting of deer in a pen. Never mind that wild deer belong to the people of Tennessee as a long-established public trust. And never mind that thousands of Tennessee outdoorsmen and women are spinning like a top at the thought of penned shooting as hunting.

Editorial: Adams/Pitts bill will help military families (Jackson Sun)

Americans are quick to talk about supporting the men and women in our military. But, sadly, the talk and flag waving often doesn’t get translated into action that can help military service members and their families. Legislation in the 2012 Tennessee General Assembly, presents an opportunity to offer real help to military families, and it should be passed. Companion bills sponsored by State Sen. Tim Barnes, D-Adams, and state Rep. Joe Pitts, D-Clarksville, would make spouses of active military members eligible for Tennessee unemployment benefits if they are forced to quit their jobs because their military spouse is transferred to a new location. The bill has the support of Gov. Bill Haslam, and he has included $280,000 in his proposed budget to pay for the benefits.

Times Editorial: The rap on ending school transfers in Hamilton County (TFP)

County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith’s proposal to eliminate student transfers from majority black schools to majority white schools is likely to alarm proponents of racial equity in education, and for good reason. Given this county’s racially tainted past, it clearly would be a challenge for Smith to show that there is a better immediate option for minority students who want to escape schools where average student achievement levels remain well below those in the best white-majority schools. Blatant racism was at the core of opposition just 15 years ago to a merger of the city and county school systems.

Editorial: Shuttering Bad Charter Schools (Wall Street Journal)

The charter school movement has expanded over the last 20 years largely on this promise: If exempted from some state regulations, charters could outperform traditional public schools because they have flexibility and can be more readily tailored to the needs of students. Another selling point is that these schools are supposed to be periodically reviewed when they renew their operating permits — and easily shut down if they fail. It has not worked out that way. Despite a growing number of studies showing that charter schools, financed with public money and operating in 40 states, are often worse than traditional schools, the state and local organizations that issue charters and oversee the schools are too hesitant to shut them down.

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