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Curtiss, Burks Absent Most UCDD Board Meetings

Two Tennessee state lawmakers partly responsible for helping oversee the scandal-gripped Upper Cumberland Development District can count on one hand the number of board meetings they’ve collectively attended in the last two years.

Attendance records for meetings of UCDD’s Board of Directors and its Executive Committee dating back to 2010 show that Rep. Charles Curtiss attended one meeting in that time and Sen. Charlotte Burks made two appearances.

“We can’t always break loose” from prior engagements to attend UCDD meetings, Curtiss, D-Sparta, said in his Capitol Hill office during a recent interview with TNReport.

“They have a lot of meetings while I’m here. I’m still earning a living, so when they decide to have a meeting at 10 o’clock or 11 o’clock in the day or 1 o’clock in the afternoon, a lot of times I’m on the job, and I can’t just walk off the job,” he said.

Curtiss and Burks have served on the board since they were elected to the General Assembly in the 1990s. They say they see themselves more as liaisons between the Legislature and UCDD than full-fledged board members, who are responsible for ensuring that the development agency faithfully executes its mission of helping the poor and improving the region’s economic outlook.

The Upper Cumberland Development District encompasses 14 counties in eastern Middle Tennessee consisting of 5,000 square miles and containing a population of 338,000 people. UCDD’s website submits that the agency is “always on the lookout for new, creative ways to serve our area.”

UCDD’s executive director, Wendy Askins, and her deputy, Larry Webb, were recently placed on administrative leave after a WTVF NewsChannel 5 investigation revealed Askins had moved in to the agency’s million-dollar “Living the Dream” assisted living facility for needy seniors.

NewsChannel 5’s UCDD series raised questions not just about the “Living the Dream” facility, but management of the agency in general. UCDD doled out thousands of dollars for campaign events, booze, personal gifts and other potentially suspicious reimbursements under Askins’ leadership, WTVF reported.

After the WTVF “Living the Dream” story first broke last month, UCDD board members who previously voted for or vocally defended taxpayer-spending on the plush estate — or signed off on other curious agency spending — claimed they were duped into acquiescence by Askins and a UCDD auditor, whom board members now allege was incompetent.

Curtiss has missed every meeting since 2010 except this year’s Jan. 19 meeting, where board members voted to revise the official minutes from a previous meeting which occurred on Feb. 16, 2010 regarding discussions they’d had about the “Living the Dream” project. Curtiss was one of 16 members who voted “yes” on the revisions, which involved retroactively approving $300,000 for “Living the Dream,” even though he wasn’t at the 2010 meeting in question.

A number of Tennessee lawmakers are now calling for a thoroughgoing probe of UCDD by state auditors. The situation is raising concerns among lawmakers that this board, and possibly others like it, risk being poor stewards of government money and deserve focused legislative investigation as well. Comptroller Justin Wilson’s office would not confirm or deny if an investigation is in fact formally underway.

At least one lawmaker who favors a critical examination of UCDD’s dealings and direction of late says he believes membership on any taxpayer-funded agency or organization’s board carries with it a solemn duty to keep vigilant for potential misuse of public funds.

“There is a problem, and I want to find out what the root of it is and fix it,” said Rep. Mark Pody. The Lebanon Republican said the UCDD scandal has left “a bad taste in my mouth.”

Curtiss and Burks count themselves among those who want to see the state Comptroller start regularly auditing the agency. They’re also calling for a legislative study of the UCDD board’s activities and a look into similar public agencies that oversee millions of taxpayer dollars.

Pody said he isn’t necessarily looking to lay blame for UCDD’s woes on Curtiss and Burks’ absences. “I’m not going to comment good or bad on either one,” he said.

“But I will say that if it’s a situation where they can’t be on the board, we probably need to find other people that can,” Pody told TNReport. He said it may be necessary to “reconstitute” UCDD’s board and appoint members who “can and are willing to ask the hard questions.”

Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver is presently pushing a bill that would boot members from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commission if they miss more than four meetings in a year, an idea she says should be replicated throughout all state boards and commissions.

Asked if that should apply to UCDD, Weaver said, “Very much so.”

“If you’re going to serve on these boards, you basically are saying to the people (that) you know a lot of what’s going on,” said the Lancaster Republican, whose legislative district includes part of the Upper Cumberland Development District.

Weaver continued, “To just not go because you don’t feel like it, or something else (came up) you think is a priority, other than death or sickness, then maybe you should re-evaluate your service, and say, ‘You know, I’d probably ought not do this, because I’m not serving the commission justice, and I’m certainly not serving the people that I serve justice’.”

In the last two years, Burks has attended only the UCDD’s annual meetings held in June. At the 2010 meeting, gubernatorial candidates Zach Wamp, a Republican, and Mike McWherter, a Democrat, shared their visions for Tennessee to the group. In 2011, the meeting Burks attended involved a visit from the state Department of Economic and Community Development’s assistant commissioner talking about the Haslam administration’s job-growth priorities.

“I think it’s not the make-up of the board — it’s just when the board doesn’t know something that’s going on, how can they confront it if it wasn’t brought before them or they had no knowledge of the things that were going on?” said Burks, whose late husband, Sen. Tommy Burks, was also a UCDD board member.

The full UCDD board is made up of 62 people, mostly county executives and city mayors from the 14-county region. The executive committee is made up of half of that and, according to its bylaws, must include a member from both chambers of the General Assembly.

“A lot of people on the board rarely ever come to a meeting. They’re members, and they have a vote, but other than that, they don’t really come very much,” said UCDD’s interim executive director, Earl Carwile.

Alex Harris contributed to this report.

Education NewsTracker

Rediscovering the Importance of Childhood Reading

State government has grabbed firmly onto warnings that children whose reading skills are lagging by the third grade face an uphill educational climb from then on.

In a news release Wednesday about a Department of Education website on reading, First Lady Crissy Haslam said, “Research has shown that if children do not read on grade level by third grade, they never catch up with their peers.”

The first lady and the DOE launched, a site the department says is designed to help teachers, parents and community members regarding new standards and higher expectations.

The point about the third grade has become a recurring theme on many fronts.

The Tennessee General Assembly passed a law this year regarding “social promotion,” saying students who do not perform at expected reading levels in the third grade will not be sent to the fourth grade.

The bill was sponsored by Sen. Charlotte Burks, D-Monterey, and Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville

“We cheat our children and ourselves when we allow students to move through our schools without actually learning the material,” Burks said in a release in May about the bill.

The Senate Republican Caucus said about 45,000 students in the state had been considered to be socially promoted.

“The main problem with social promotion is that the student falls further and further behind if they cannot master the third-grade-appropriate testing,” Gresham said in a release.

“Mastery of the basics, which are tested in the third grade, is critical to a child’s future success in school. Everything else builds on that foundation.”

The measure was highlighted in a recent speech by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey (see video), but while Ramsey and Gov. Bill Haslam were campaigning in 2010 on a jobs agenda, former U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp was the strongest voice on the campaign trail about third-grade reading levels. His emphasis on the issue in the Republican primary was noticeable as far back as 2009.

Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, is another passionate advocate of improving early elementary school reading skills. Parkinson said he’s learned that it is possible to project as early as the third grade whether a child may be incarcerated later in life.

“Think about that. Third grade. We know the likelihood of you going to prison based on how you come out of the third grade,” Parkinson said.

The new website the Department of Education announced Wednesday is geared with information boosting student achievement. It includes an online toolkit for teachers to connect them with various resources related to the issue.

Press Releases

Burks Gets ‘School Accountability’ Bill Passed

Press Release from the Senate Democratic Caucus, May 19, 2011:

Burks Bill To Strengthen Education Accountability Passes Senate

NASHVILLE – A bill by State Senator Charlotte Burks (D-Monterey) to require results-based promotion for third graders across the state passed unanimously in the Senate on Wednesday.

“We set our children up for failure when we allow them to move through our schools without being proficient in reading,” Burks said. “This legislation will make sure that students have the foundation for greater success in the classroom.”

Senate Bill 1776 requires a third grade student to show a basic understanding of the curriculum through standardized test scores or daily grades before being promoted to the fourth grade. The requirement would not apply to special education students.

The bill effectively ends “social promotion” in elementary schools – that is, passing students despite lacking the necessary skills to advance to the next grade. About 45,000 students in Tennessee are considered to be socially promoted without regard to their achievement.

After receiving notice that the bill would cost the state $175 million if it were implemented in every grade, Burks focused on the third grade because of its importance in teaching literacy. Senators on both sides of the aisle praised her work in eliminating the cost to Tennessee taxpayers while strengthening educational accountability.

“We can spend millions of dollars and implement all kinds of new programs, but real education improvement will only happen when we set goals for our children and help them reach those goals,” Burks said.

The bill is scheduled to be heard on the House floor on Thursday.

Featured NewsTracker

‘Health Freedom Act’ Headed to Senate Floor

Sen. Mae Beavers’ bill that attempts to block the most controversial component of the federal health care law had no problem moving along through the legislative process Tuesday.

The Senate Commerce, Labor and Agriculture Committee OK’d the bill by a 6-1 vote with Democratic Sen. Eric Stewart of Belvidere and Sen. Charlotte Burks of Monterey abstaining. Only Democratic Sen. Reginald Tate of Memphis voted against the bill.

SB79’s one minor speedbump during committee discussion included a short bit of questioning about an amendment Beavers added protecting businesses’ authority to require an employee enroll in a health plan.

Stewart, a Democrat who voted in favor of a similar bill last year, said he regarded it hypocritical to let employers force employees to purchase a company insurance as a condition of employment while at the same time attacking the federal government for its individual health insurance mandate provision.

Beavers countered that no one forces an individual to work for a particular company. She said her bill is aimed at positioning the state to help protect against the federal government coercing private individual behavior under penalty of law as a condition of living in American society. That’s different than a business requiring participation in a health plan as a condition of employment, Beavers said.

“A person has a choice of whether or not to work for that company that mandates that they take their health care so you still have a choice there,” said Beavers after the committee meeting. “Whereas with national health care, you’re not going to have a choice, you’re going to be required to take insurance.”

Passage of SB79 out of committee means the measure will make its way to the Senate floor. The House version still awaits a hearing. Beavers is also pushing a bill to create health care compacts in another strategy to derail federal health care reforms. She said she expects to take up that issue in committee next week.

Press Releases

Republicans Suspect Election Fraud in Burks Win Over Steakley

Press Release from the Tennessee Republican Party, Nov. 12, 2010:

TNGOP Calls for full  Investigation into Potential Election Fraud in State District 15; Troubling Voting Irregularities Reported Which May Have Compromised Election

NASHVILLE, TN – The Tennessee Republican Party is calling on the State Election Commission to investigate several reports of voting irregularities in State Senate District 15 where State Senator Charlotte Burks narrowly received more votes than Republican nominee Gary Steakley.

“Voters deserve to know what irregularities occurred and who is responsible for them. The fact that any irregularities may have occurred is troubling enough, but given the narrow margin of votes calls into question the accuracy of the election results and the legitimacy of the election’s outcome,” said Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Chris Devaney.

“We will relentlessly pursue what happened, and believe that nothing short of a thorough and detailed investigation from the State Election Commission will be able to address whether or not any criminal activity occurred.”

According to uncertified election results, Democrat Incumbent Charlotte Burks defeated Republican Gary Steakley by 183 votes. State Senate District 15 includes Cumberland, White, Putnam, Overton, Jackson and Pickett counties.