May 21 TN News Digest

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

Secretary of state to unveil Tenn. quarterly economic report (Associated Press)

Secretary of State Tre Hargett plans to unveil details about the state’s economic indicators for the first quarter of the year. Hargett is scheduled to discuss the findings from the Tennessee Quarterly Business and Economic Indicators report in a conference call on Thursday morning. The report is published through a partnership with the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. It provides a snapshot of the state’s economy based on a variety of indicators, including from new business data from the Division of Business Services in the Secretary of State’s office. Bill Fox, the director of the UT center that created the report, is scheduled to explain findings on the call.

Chattanooga State Community College trains TVA nuclear operators (TFP)

The inaugural class of nuclear professionals from the Tennessee Valley Authority began training this week in a new workforce development program offered by Chattanooga State Community College. The students will complete a 20-week program to achieve a Senior Reactor Operator (SRO) Management Certification. A state grant of $960,550 provided in 2013 funded equipment for the college’s new nuclear plant stimulation lab and an expansion of its advanced mechatronics program. “The new SRO Certification program gives Chattanooga State a superb opportunity to showcase what we can do to build the skills and knowledge that nuclear power employees need to prepare for the industry’s future,” said Tim McGhee, engineering dean at Chattanooga State.

MTSU signs pact with S. Korean sports science academy (Daily News Journal)

MTSU’s College of Behavioral and Health Sciences has entered an exchange agreement with a South Korean secondary school that specializes in sports science, according to a release from the university. MTSU signed the five-year memorandum of understanding Tuesday with Ulsan Sports Science Secondary School, a new middle and high school in South Korea “dedicated to the education and training of aspiring professional athletes, as well as students interested in other sports-related careers,” the release stated. Ulsan’s students live six days a week on its campus, which contains a dormitory wing, academic wing and an expansive athletic complex.

Highway 36 construction still on fall schedule for finish (Johnson City Press)

Four miles of shimmering, five-lane blacktop will stretch from Boones Creek Road to Bobby Hicks Highway by autumn, if construction stays on schedule. Tennessee Department of Transportation spokesman Mark Nagi said Tuesday the widening project on state Route 36, known locally as North Roan Street or the Kingsport Highway, is estimated to be completed by Sept. 14. Started in January 2011 by contractor Summers-Taylor, the project will bring four travel lanes — two in each direction — and a middle turn lane to the stretch between Boones Creek Road (state Route 354) and Bobby Hicks Highway (state Route 75).

New Law Gives Thousands Of Dollars To Special Needs Students (WTVF-TV)

A new law will give parents of special needs students money if they want to take them out of public schools. Rosie, age12, has autism, a speech disorder and an intellectual disability. She currently attends Metro Schools where she receives speech, occupational and specialized instruction. Under a new law, in the Fall of 2016 public schools will no longer be her only option. “Finally parents will be put in the driver’s seat of their child’s education,” Beacon Center Policy Director Lindsay Boyd explained. The state can take money for each special needs student from local districts and move it into an Individualized Education Account. “They can attend a public school part time, while attending a private school part time or while doing tutoring part time,” Boyd said about the options.

Tennessee pays $46K for new state logo (WSMV-TV Nashville)

Say goodbye to the stars and flag and say hello to a little red square. The state of Tennessee is about to get a new logo, and it’s come at quite a cost. The Channel 4 I-Team has uncovered what it looks like and what it cost. Some are already questioning whether it was money well spent. “This is something a fifth-grader could easily produce on his or her computer at home,” said Chris Butler, with watchdog.org. The state paid $46,000 to Nashville advertising and marketing company GS&F to design the new logo. Gov. Bill Haslam’s office confirmed the logo will replace several others. A spokesman said part of the reason it was necessary was to give the state a unified look.  In time, state officials said the logo will be on all signage and letterheads.

County Commission committee approves $1.18B county budget (CA/Moore)

The Shelby County Commission’s budget and finance committee approved on Wednesday the county administration’s proposed $1.18 billion budget for the 2016 fiscal year, but sent no recommendation to the full commission on the county’s tax rate. The budget includes $7.9 million for Shelby County Schools, less than the $14 million the system requested, and $1.95 million for grants to nonprofit agencies, which will be allocated in $150,000 increments for each of the 13 commission districts. The administration’s budget included $6 million in unallocated funds, of which $2.9 million in budget increase requests was approved for various areas of county government. That, along with the $1.95 million for grants left $1.1 million on the table, which commissioners hope can be used toward a one-cent cut to the current property tax rate of $4.37 per $100 of assessed value.

Congressman Cohen proposes amendment for downtown construction (MBJ)

Congressman Steve Cohen introduced an amendment today that would give Downtown the first consideration when the federal government is deciding where to build. Cohen is proposing an amendment to H.R. 2322 — the Public Buildings Reform and Savings Act of 2015 — that would instruct the General Services Administration to give first consideration to urban/downtown areas when deciding the location of new federal buildings. Ben Gash Garmisa, Cohen’s communications director, said the congressman’s purpose in amending the bill is to help revitalize urban, downtown areas. The amendment instructs administrators to consider centralized community business areas with accessibility to public transportation that is “consistent with the long-range economic development goals of local communities.”

Hamilton County Schools’ budget requests spark challenges (TFP/Omarzu)

Like Abraham Lincoln giving his famously brief Gettysburg Address, it took less than five minutes for Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith to make his pitch Wednesday afternoon for a $34 million annual school budget increase to the County Commission, which controls the school district’s purse strings. “Chattanooga can be the smartest city in the South,” said Smith, who since March has presented his vision to bring art and foreign language classes to the elementary grades, increase teachers’ pay and benefits by 5 percent, buy up-to-date technology and make other improvements. Gettysburg gave way to a gritty discussion of dollar amounts and about 90 minutes of questions, opinions and sometimes heated back-and-forth comments from Smith, the nine commissioners and county Mayor Jim Coppinger.

Gibbs meeting focuses on middle school (Knoxville News-Sentinel/Witt)

Knox County Commissioners Ed Brantley and Bob Thomas were prepared for their latest traveling roadshow Wednesday, in which the two at-large commissioners drop in for dinner and meet with folks in Knox neighborhoods. The topic: a middle school for Gibbs. Anticipating the discussion to be about the lack of funding for a new Gibbs school, Thomas brought along a map on poster board showing enrollment for each of Knox County’s middle schools. No ideas for finding the money to build new schools has arisen among commissioners, and no solution appeared apparent in Wednesday’s meeting. Knox County Finance Director Chris Caldwell said the money isn’t in the budget to build Gibbs a middle school, nor two other new schools the school board proposed: a middle school for Hardin Valley and an elementary school in North Knox.

Short-changing the Schools (Memphis Flyer)

At one point in the Shelby County Commission’s crash session on aspects of school financing on Monday, the subject of charter schools came up amid a discussion of whether closing schools actually saved taxpayer money.  Shelby County Schools (SCS) Chair Teresa Jones noted wanly that, while her board can decide on school closures for financial reasons — and has done so frequently — it has no such authority over charter schools, regarding which the Tennessee Board of Education is now the principal overseer, thanks to actions of the Tennessee General Assembly. That part of the conversation was a reminder of the degree to which local control of public school education has succumbed to the dictates of state government, like so much else that used to be the prerogative of local jurisdictions — control of firearms in municipal parks, for example, or the right to impose wage and anti-discrimination standards in the public sphere.

Comcast bringing 2-gigabit Internet speed to Knoxville (News-Sentinel/Harrington)

Knoxville soon will have access to the fastest residential Internet in the country when Comcast begins offering its 2-gigabit per second (Gbps) service to some homes next month. Gigabit Pro will be available to 190,000 residents within proximity of Comcast’s fiber network in Knox, Anderson and Roane counties, as well as portions of surrounding counties where Comcast’s network extends. “This is really a professional grade service. It’s a fiber-to-home solution. Early adopters are going to love it because the speed is amazing,” said Doug Guthrie, senior vice president of Comcast Cable’s South Region. The cable giant will be the first to provide such high speed broadband to Knoxville residents. TDS Telecom started offering a 1-gigabit connection to homes in Farragut and to the Halls community this past winter.

3 things to know about BlueCross’ 36 percent increase (Tennessean/Tolbert)

It was widely reported last week that BlueCross plans to raise rates on individual health insurance policies an average of 36 percent in 2016. That is a big increase, which caught the eye of many health care consumers. Following are three things to bear in mind. 1. It is only for under-65 individual plans. This announcement only applies to under-65 individual policies from BlueCross. If your employer offers a BlueCross group plan, its cost may still go up. But, its increase has nothing to do with this announcement. The same is true for Medicare-related policies from BlueCross. The cost of those may go up, but this particular announcement has nothing to do with that.

 

OPINION

Sam Stockard: Will More Money, Reviews Improve on Common Core? (MDN)

Is it Kabuki theater or a transformative process? That question comes to mind in the aftermath of the legislative session as the Tennessee General Assembly passed a bill “repealing and replacing” Common Core, a set of K-12 education standards, by adding another layer of review and pushing the governor’s process for completion to 2017, along with adding a $400,000 expense. Public comment on Tennessee’s standards, a massive set of guidelines determining when students should learn what, closed April 30, eliciting more than 131,000 reviews and 20,300 written comments from 2,260 reviewers, according to the Tennessee Board of Education. Seventy percent of reviews came from K-12 teachers, while parents and guardians followed with 12 percent of the reviews after Gov. Bill Haslam set up the review website in November 2014. Elected officials offered seven of the reviews.

Editorial: Congress needs to shed its tax-hike phobia (Commercial Appeal)

No one is disputing the fact that the nation’s infrastructure needs major upgrades and repairs, but Congress has refused to make sure the funding is there to make those improvements. The Federal Highway Trust Fund is set to expire May 31. So far, Congress has been unable to reach a consensus on finding the funding for a permanent extension. The trust fund’s existence has been on a tightrope because of years of stopgap funding. That scenario played out again Tuesday when the U.S. House passed a two-month extension of the trust fund, which pays for a huge proportion of the states’ major road projects. For months, U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, has chided his congressional colleagues to craft a permanent funding solution.