This is a compilation of Tennessee news and political stories assembled daily by staffers in Gov. Bill Haslam’s office.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman announced Monday that 169 schools in the state achieved Reward School status in 2011-12, and Claiborne County’s Soldiers Memorial Middle School is one of them. Reward Schools are the top five percent of schools in the state for annual growth and the top five percent for academic achievement. This designation comes on the heels of the Claiborne County School System being given an overall “exemplary” status by the state.
Two Sevier County high schools, Seymour High School and Gatlinburg-Pittman High School, were recently named as 2011-2012 Reward Schools by Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman. Throughout the state, 169 schools in 70 districts were deemed Reward Schools — schools at the top 5 percent in the state for performance and the top 5 percent for year-over-year progress. These 10 percent of schools received recognition for their success under the accountability system, which measured overall student achievement levels and school-wide value-added data.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam announced the appointments of 109 Tennesseans to 48 state boards and commissions. Earlier this year, the legislature passed Haslam’s recommended reforms to many of the state’s boards and commissions, and most of those changes take effect Oct. 1, 2012. The governor continues his review of the state’s complete range of boards and commissions to determine other potential reforms that might be made to improve efficiency, effectiveness and accountability.
The differences that have shaken up the Tennessee Republican Party in recent months have not spilled over to Florida, where the party’s top leaders have been greeted warmly by a delegation that contains few tea party activists. While delegations from some states have shown visible divisions, Tennessee’s time at the Republican National Convention has gone smoothly. The state’s delegation contains none of the chairmen of the county parties who last month criticized Gov. Bill Haslam for employing a Tennessee-born Muslim to supervise the state’s overseas trade offices.
State Safety Department officials on Tuesday unveiled a new unit intended to combat the growing problem of identity theft and fraud in Tennessee. Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner Bill Gibbons said at a news conference the move has a twofold purpose. “One, our federal partners are just snowed under with this,” he said. “And two, it was a recognition on our part that local law enforcement agencies by and large do not have the expertise to investigate these cases.”
Labor Day weekend travelers, rest easy. The state Department of Transportation will suspend construction work through Labor Day weekend in anticipation of increased holiday travel. This means no lanes will be closed on interstates or state highways. The suspension will be in effect from noon on Friday until 6 a.m. on Tuesday.Still, some workers could be on site in construction zones and reduced speed limits will still be in effect. “Drivers can expect to see an increased number of law enforcement personnel on the roads this Labor Day weekend,” said Governor’s Highway Safety Office Director Kendell Poole.
The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is asking for public assistance in the unsolved murder of a man who was shot at his home in Roane County earlier this month, and the victim’s family is offering a reward. Family members found 85-year-old Russel Charles Blevins shot multiple times in his home in Kingston on Aug. 12. Investigators believe that firearms are missing from Blevins’ residence, including an M-1 .30-caliber carbine rifle. His family is offering $3,000 for information leading to the arrest of the person or people responsible.
A ruling on the recall effort against Mayor Ron Littlefield should happen within weeks. The Tennessee Court of Appeals heard from attorneys Wednesday in Knoxville and promised to give a decision as soon as possible with a November election looming 21/2 months away, said Chris Clem, attorney for the Hamilton County Election Commission. “They responded they had every intention of hurrying a decision by Sept. 12,” Clem said. Sept. 12 is important because it’s the day all local ballots must be shipped to the printer.
From the Republican National Convention, state Sen. Stacey Campfield has renewed a feud with the Legislature’s Black Caucus and brought criticism from a top state party official. On another front, Campfield’s nationally-publicized comments earlier this year on homosexuality — including that AIDs originated from a man having sexual relations with a monkey — was fodder for a Psychology Today blog post, which this week suggested that Campfield may be homophobic or possibly have issues with his own sexual orientation.
Local Republicans say they’re thrilled to be attending their first GOP National Convention in Tampa this week. “I went to Young Republicans conventions before but not to the big show,” State Executive Committeeman Tim Rudd said during a phone interview while taking a short break from the national convention. Delegates from across the nation, including Rudd, formally nominated former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney to be the GOP nominee for president earlier this week.
Tennessee will get just over a million dollars in a settlement over e-book price fixing. Three major publishers reached the agreement with the attorneys general of 54 states, territories and districts. Hachette, Harper Collins and Simon & Schuster were accused of conspiring together with Apple and two other publishers to force a rise in prices for electronic books and eliminate retail competition in the e-book market.The publishers have agreed to end those practices and pay a total of 69 million dollars.
Ballot flap still contentious The state legislature’s Democratic leaders on Wednesday demanded that Republicans in charge of the state’s election offices hold off certifying the results of this month’s election after some Davidson County voters were given ballots for the Republican primary by default. “There is good reason to believe that the results of the August election are in doubt,” Sens. Jim Kyle and Lowe Finney and Reps. Craig Fitzhugh and Mike Turner wrote to Secretary of State Tre Hargett and Mark Goins, the state’s elections coordinator.
Nashville Mayor Karl Dean could score an extra year in office if an amendment to the Metro Charter passes as written. A ballot initiative continues a year-old effort to align local elections with Presidential races. To At-Large Councilman Charlie Tygard, moving the odd-year local elections makes fiscal sense. “To cut out two elections and save a half a million to a million dollars of taxpayer money every four years is worth at some point having either a three year or a five year mayoral/council cycle.”
If you have a persistent, severe cough, you may be the latest victim of a national increase in pertussis — better known as whooping cough. Hamilton County has seen 21 cases so far this year, compared to 22 cases in the last five years combined, according to the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Health Department. Northwest Georgia also had more than double the number of cases so far this year compared to last year, according to health departments in those counties. Pertussis can be especially serious for young children and infants who may not have had all their vaccinations.
An order by U.S. District Judge Harry S. “Sandy” Mattice refusing to temporarily halt Hamilton County Commission prayers likely will be appealed to the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. Plaintiffs Tommy Coleman and Brandon Jones said that, after reading Mattice’s 37-page order issued Wednesday, they plan to exercise their right to appeal the decision. Mattice’s ruling was limited to a motion for a preliminary injunction, which would have halted the prayers temporarily until the judge could rule on the underlying case, which asks that the prayers be permanently stopped.
Shelby County Commission chairman Sidney Chism has asked the county Election Commission not to place the elections for members to the six municipal school boards on the Nov. 6 ballot, citing a state law that allows no more than six school districts in the county. Chism made the request in a letter to Robert Meyers, Election Commission chairman. “If in fact it’s unconstitutional for them to have more than six school districts, then we need to know so they can investigate before they put it on the ballot,” Chism said.
Remember the vivid and graphic images that the Mars Rover took of the Red Planet? That same technology will be used later this year in Shelby County. Vehicles with special cameras mounted on the roofs will be slowly roaming and photographing every street, alleyway and interstate for images of buildings, homes and businesses that make up the grit and grind of Shelby County. The images will be a part of a new public safety mapping system that will help police, fire and ambulance personnel reach their destinations without getting lost or worried about the location being outside their jurisdiction.
The city of Memphis this week is preparing to send property tax bills to the residents of newly annexed South Cordova. The residents are likely to begin receiving the tax bills Friday or Tuesday and will have until Oct. 31 to pay their taxes before they face penalties. Because of the annexation, total property taxes for residents in the area will essentially double with the addition of city taxes. A property owner with a $150,000 home now pays $1,507 in Shelby County property taxes, but property owners will now be charged an additional $1,196 in property taxes by Memphis.
After months of prodding by activists, the Loudon County Commission appears ready to fulfill a promise it made when it approved the new county budget. According to Loudon County Mayor Estelle Herron, the commission will discuss and vote on pay cuts for commissioners at its meeting Tuesday. In June the budget committee recommended County Commission cut its pay from about $8,000 to $4,000 per year. Most committee members agreed it was a good idea to recommend the cuts, given the fact that other departments had been asked to make cuts to balance the budget.
A federal judge in Nashville ruled Wednesday to allow opponents of a Murfreesboro mosque to have a say in the religious freedom case involving the building. Judge Kevin Sharp decided the group of neighbors has a legitimate interest in the case. An emergency ruling by a different federal judge last month overruled the neighbors’ victory in Chancery Court that would have halted construction of the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro. Sharp put strict limits on the issues the mosque opponents will be allowed to address in court.
A preliminary report shows Tennessee homeowners are benefiting from a settlement reached with the nation’s top five mortgage servicers. Tennessee and 48 other attorneys general and federal agencies reached the agreement with the servicers in April following a series of state and federal investigations into improper foreclosures and industry practices. The settlement is designed to provide assistance to struggling homeowners. The report released this week by a settlement monitor shows Tennessee homeowners received $36 million in relief during the first quarter of the settlement, which was from March through June.
Tennessee has held town halls in each of the state’s 95 counties and instituted special Voter ID-only hours in motor vehicle offices. Wisconsin has revamped its training scheme for 1,800 local elections managers. Pennsylvania just this week unveiled a new, streamlined voter ID card. Those are among the many steps states have taken to prepare for November’s elections under a host of new or stricter voter identification laws enacted around the country since 2010, even as challenges to those same laws continue to wind through the courts.
A former Memorial Health Care System employee says she was fired after reporting fraud allegations to federal authorities months before Memorial executives say they self-reported possible violations. Carmen Fletcher-Schreane filed the whistleblower complaint in January 2009, but it was sealed until June this year while federal authorities conducted an investigation. Fletcher-Schreane served as the hospital’s manager of contract and compliance from December 2007 to December 2008, when she was fired.
The Commercial Appeal has reportedly instituted another round of layoffs.cThe Memphis media-focused blog Mediaverse published a letter from the Memphis Newspaper Guild revealing that the newspaper has eliminated 17 positions, 15 in circulation and two in advertising. According to the letter, the employees will be paid through the end of next week and keep their company health insurance through the end of September. The letter further outlined how parent The E.W. Scripps Co. (NYSE: SSP) will replace those lost employees.
An agricultural equipment company is laying off 35 workers in West Tennessee. According to The Jackson Sun (http://bit.ly/PsGXLV ), Behlen Manufacturing will shift work to its plants in Columbus, Neb., or Baker City, Ore., and maintain only a distribution center in Huntingdon. The employees being laid off by Oct. 31 will be offered jobs at the other two plants. The plant makes livestock equipment, including bail feeders, feed bunks, some dog kennels, tillers and other equipment.
In the state’s ranking of best and worst performing schools, charter schools were a mixed bag last year. Two charter schools made the state’s top 5 percent list for showing big academic gains, but five showed up as schools with the worst academic records. “It really reflects that a lot of students come to us two or three school years behind,” said Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Charter Schools Association. “Those five schools that are on the bottom list, decisions are being made on each case whether they’ll be kept open. Right now, really hard decisions are being made about those schools, and that’s how it should be,” he said.
Ten charter schools in Memphis outperform traditional neighborhood schools, according to a Stanford University study that compares charter students to their “virtual twins” in other schools. The schools are: Power Center Academy High, Freedom Preparatory Academy, Promise Academy, Power Center Middle Academy, Veritas College Prep, Star Academy, Circles of Success Learning Academy, KIPP Memphis Collegiate Middle, Soulsville and Memphis Academy of Health Sciences High School.
The process that countywide school board members are using to filter school merger recommendations from the transition planning commission looks a lot like the commission itself. The group of senior administrators from both school systems even has a similar name – the transition steering committee. And like the transition planning commission, it will explore hiring consulting firms to advise it. The board approved the group Tuesday, Aug. 28, with assurances it is not creating a new merger plan from scratch and ignoring the 172 recommendations from the planning commission.
A Unicoi man was charged with two dozen counts of manufacturing methamphetamine after officials discovered multiple meth labs at a pair of Unicoi residences, according to Unicoi County Sheriff Mike Hensley. Hensley said the investigation that led to the arrests of Richie Barnett, 46, his wife, Nioka Barnett, 43, and relative, Kourtney Barnett, 18, all of 911 Massachusetts Ave., Lot 20, had been ongoing for several months and involved his department in conjunction with the Erwin Police Department and the Drug Enforcement Administration. Authorities were able to secure a search warrant for the residence Tuesday evening.
It is important to celebrate success. We congratulate Madison Academic Magnet High School and Beech Bluff Elementary School on being recognized as Award Schools by the state for being among the top 5 percent of public schools in Tennessee. The two schools and their leaders, teachers, students and parents are great models of what public education can be. We salute their efforts and their success, and challenge every school in our community to meet the challenges of public education today and to become the best they can be. The two Madison County schools are not alone in West Tennessee. Of the 169 Award Schools across 70 school districts included in the top 5 percent, 13 others in our West Tennessee area also made the list, and we congratulate them and celebrate them as well.
Next Session, State House WIll Have Two Kinds of Republican In the next session of the state Legislature, there could be three political parties: the Democrats, the traditional Republicans, and a group of ultra-conservative members that can be grouped under the rubric of the Tea Party. Not that there isn’t a lot of overlap among Republican members, depending on the issue. In 2010, the Democrats lost 714 positions nationwide—governorships, state legislators and members of Congress. This fall, in Tennessee, it won’t get any better for the Democrats. Republicans are expected to pick up even more House and Senate seats, most likely they will have enough Republicans for a two-thirds majority in the House. That means they wouldn’t even need Democrats for a quorum and they can squelch any parliamentary maneuvers and can ram through any legislation they please.
The decision by U.S. District Judge Harry S. “Sandy” Mattice not to issue a temporary injunction to stop weekly prayers at Hamilton County Commission meetings is not the final word on the issue. The Wednesday ruling does give, on the surface at least, some hope to both plaintiffs and defendant in the case. Those who approve of the commission’s weekly prayers can argue that Mattice’s ruling supports their stand because it allows the invocations to continue. Those who believe the prayers should be stopped can say that the failure to issue an injunction does not doom their case. They point out — correctly — that the judge’s ruling indicates that the case raises complex and serious constitutional issues that still must be considered and then addressed.
The Knox County Charter Review Committee wrapped up its work last week with little in the way of bold initiatives to put before the voters. The committee, which is formed every eight years to suggest changes to the Knox County Charter, managed to put the closure of the Sheriff’s Office pension plan to future employees and a clarification of term limits on the ballot, but the rest of its proposals amount to little more than housekeeping. The comfort of maintaining the status quo won out over the difficult work of reshaping an inadequate government structure. Voters in the August election approved a handful of relatively minor measures. In November, a couple more substantive issues will be on the ballot, but an opportunity has been lost.