Behind the Headlines – October 18, 2019

Behind the Headlines – October 18, 2019


– (female announcer)
Production funding for Behind the Headlines
is made possible in part by: the WKNO Production Fund, the WKNO Endowment Fund, and by viewers like you.
Thank you. – The future of the
Achievement School District, City Council runoffs,
and much more tonight on Behind The Headlines. [dramatic orchestral music) I’m Eric Barnes with
The Daily Memphian. Thanks for joining us. I’m joined this week by a
roundtable of journalists talking about some of the
biggest stories going on right now, Ryan Poe from
The Commercial Appeal. Thanks for being here again. – Good to be here, thank you. – Karanja Ajanaku, Editor of
the new Tri-State Defender. Thank you for being here. – My pleasure.
– Along with Bill Dries, reporter with
The Daily Memphian. Let’s start with the Achievement
School District which, for those who’ve forgotten, the Achievement School District
was born around the time of consolidation and
deconsolidation and all the in the school district. It was, I think, Governor
Haslam, when he came in, that introduced that and a
whole lot of other changes and reforms in public education. The Achievement School
District controls 30 schools in the Memphis
area, give or take. They are lower-performing
schools and that was part of what the District
was set up to take over, the lower-performing schools. And so, maybe I’ll
start with you, Bill, it’s at a pivotal moment
in a couple good ways and a lot of sort of
maybe, arguably, bad ways. – There are three Memphis
schools that were taken over in effect by the state-run
Achievement School District here in Memphis, and
those schools look like they are about to
come off of that list. In other words, the
student achievement scores and monitoring at those
three schools has indicated that those schools are no
longer a part of the bottom 5% of schools in the state in
terms of student achievement. So this is the first time
that this has really happened, where it’s been contemplated
that a school taken over by the ASD would return to the
conventional school system, Shelby County
Schools, in this case. It raises a lot of questions about whether there
are still steps that Shelby County
Schools would have to take if it takes those schools back, whether the parents could mount
some kind of petition drive to keep the charters that
run those schools in place, so that still has
to be worked out. All of that happens
against the backdrop of a new administration, a
new governor in Nashville, Bill Lee, and his Education
Secretary, Penny Schwinn, who was already taking
a pretty critical and far-reaching examination into the turnaround
school model, specifically the
Achievement School District and how it works and whether
it should be changed yet again. – Yeah, Karanja, I mean, of those 30 schools
that they’ve taken over, three coming out
after eight years, arguably it’s a
10% success rate, so that has, I think, raised
some red flags for people, and it seems it raised
some questions, certainly, for the new governor and
his Education Secretary. There was also a
study that showed there were really minimal
or no gains in the schools the ASD has taken
over, and it has been, the critics of the
ASD have talked about how it’s just been so disruptive
for parents, for schools, for, and the families and
kids who are in those schools. Your thoughts on where
we are with the ASD. – Well, look, you’re
right that it’s what, we’re seven or
eight years into it. My thoughts really go to
Mark White from Germantown, Republican legislator
from Germantown, he’s the head of the
House education committee, and I saw the other
day where he said, “Hey, look, we’re eight
years into this thing, and we’re still struggling
like it’s day one.” The other thing that
caught me that he said was, “Hey, look, I’m for
the state stepping in “and putting in some stronger
accountability measures relative to the
charter schools,” but he wants to first
of all see what happens from these listening tours
that are going on out there. We talked earlier, there’s
a couple of them coming up, one in Frasier and one at, I think it’s
Wooddale High School. The state will go
through that process of getting information
and then they’ll talk to the local school districts. But as I understand
it right now, if those three schools come off, if they stay on course
and they come off, the state is saying that hey, they would have to
submit a charter request to the local school districts
and then the local schools approve or not, but
what if they don’t? And so that’s part
of the questioning is just what are the steps? – And just to clarify,
’cause it gets, ’cause there’s so many acronyms
and so many bodies here, ASD, the Achievement School
District, is run by the state. – By the state. – It hired charter
school operators to run these three schools, three different charter
operators, I think, – Right.
– if I’m correct about that. – Right.
– And again, there isn’t a clear path that
the Shelby County schools, as these schools come out of
the Achievement School District and go to Shelby County, that
they don’t have to approve, the Shelby County School
Board doesn’t have to approve those charter operators. There’s some question
why they wouldn’t if they’ve shown some success, I mean when you think it would, from an outside perspective, it would seem that
they would be apt to accept those charter
operators, but maybe not. – And in some cases, to
even further complicate it, the Shelby County School
System took the step of saying, “Okay, the ASD has
taken over the school. “As far as our school
system is concerned, that school is closed.” So then you have the
whole question of okay, if the ASD is out, if the
charter organization is out, does that school exist anymore? – Yeah, ’cause I
think originally, the local schools
were thinking that if the improved schools,
if they do improve, then they would come back in, but not necessarily
as charter schools under the traditional model. And so I think what
White has said is that there’s been some
evolution away from that thought to maybe where they could
come in as charter schools but the city would run the charters
as opposed to the state. – Yeah, we had this in the
Shelby County School Board, the city. I mean, yeah, adding yet
another entity into the mix. – And at the outset of
this, we had Chris Barbic, who was the first
superintendent of the ASD on this program several
times as the ASD launched. And he had talked about this
as basically a tenure process for these schools in which the parents would
petition the school system to continue with that charter
organization at some point if parents felt
like it was merited. – I know they’ve had
three leadership changes during that period, the latest
of which was last summer, and that hasn’t helped, particularly with holding
some of the charter schools, charter operations accountable. – Yeah, there is no super-
intendent right now for the ASD. But I don’t know if you
have thoughts on this, Ryan, and you’ve been
involved, your comments? – Yeah, I haven’t
been following it as closely as these
two guys have, but I will say that I do think that the results
that you mentioned, ASDs have not shown
significant improvement, I think that shows that
sticking a new management sign on local schools does not
solve all of their problems. And I think that what
we’re gonna see now is, I do think the parents, I do think that control
should belong locally to Shelby County Schools, and I hope that
it’s gonna work out, that those schools can go
back under Shelby County. We’ll see. I do think the state is gonna
be moving away from this model and so I think that’s where
it’s gonna go eventually. – One thing they raised, and I remember Chris Barbic
years ago talking about it, and when we had Chris
Barbic on with Dorsey Hopson when Dorsey Hopson had
taken over as superintendent of the school system, that they talked about it being
basically a stick, a threat, that the ASD was a threat, if you don’t get
your school in order, we the state will take
over via this mechanism. And I think, I’m gonna
paraphrase Chris Barbic saying, “We’d rather not take them over, and we just wanna keep the
pressure on the school system,” and Dorsey Hopson was, at
least in that interview, was very, and was sitting
next to Chris Barbic, was like, “Yeah, they
keep pressure on us. “We don’t want them
to have schools. “It’s nothing personal. “It keeps pressure
on us to do more “in the Innovation Zone schools, “which have shown
some real progress in terms of education levels,” were an outcome of that, that that was their competition or their alternative to ASD. – But the ASD started
in the 2012 school year, a year before the schools
merger, 2012 to 2013. The question now is that almost
eight years into that, if the ASD is still the incentive
for conventional schools to do better but the ASD
schools aren’t doing better, I think eight years on, that argument really
has some hair on it. – We’ll see where that goes. We’ll wanna move on. As we’ve come off the election, we’ve got City Council
runoffs coming up. We’ll talk about
those in a minute. But let’s focus for a second
on the sales tax referendum. And already we’re
starting to see some, the County Commission moving, that they may try to take half of this give or take
$50 million that’s been raised. Your thoughts on
where we are, Bill, as some weeks from the election, and what comes next? Because this sales
tax referendum, there’s a lot of
unanswered questions in what Commissioner
Edmund Ford calls the aspirational language
that was approved. – We’re several weeks
away from the passage of the referendum, and it
becomes increasingly clear that we really don’t
know what we approved. We know what the aspiration was. The aspiration was to
restore the benefits to police and firefighters that were cut by
the City in 2014. But how to carry that out, how much money will
really be raised, and then this whole part
about the County has the right to come in and say, “But we
want to have some measure of that, possibly half of it.” All of that is still the
subject of many legal opinions that the County
Commission has sought, and a reminder here that
the County Commission includes Commissioners
who represent areas within the City of Memphis, even though this is
a City sales tax hike that’s in effect here. So a lot of legal opinions, probably a vote in the
not too distant future on actually taking
this to a referendum, a referendum that one of
the legal opinions says would be among voters in
the unincorporated County, but again, more legal
opinions to come. – And that is because,
the theory there is, that the City
dwellers have already, the City of Memphis
has already voted. The municipalities in the
county voted years ago to increase their sales
tax from 9.25 to 9.75, largely to fund their
independent school districts. – Ryan, I don’t
know if you noticed, so Kemp Conrad, who is a
vocal, vocal, vocal opponent to this sales tax
referendum came on the show, a very heated show
with Tommy Malone, head of the firefighters’ union, and made the case that
this shouldn’t happen, that this puts us on
towards a bad fiscal, the City on a bad fiscal path. It was interesting in
his Chairman’s recap, the City Council
Chairman’s recap, talked about the elections, and he noted that the
referendum had passed, but you could almost see, and maybe I’m
interpreting too much, but you could almost see a
reframing of what it was, what he tried to frame it as was that the voters want improved
police and fire resources, they want to rebuild
the police force, and he seemed almost to
be making the case of, “Well, the intent of that vote, “don’t worry about the specifics “of going back to the
2014 benefit levels. Just use the money
to fight crime.” – Yeah, I do think it was
a reframing of the issue, and I think that what
he said has merit. I mean, do you wanna, I mean, I think people do care very
much about crime in Memphis, and that is what
they were voting for. They were voting to put more
money toward fighting crime, supporting the police and fire. But at the same time, I do
think that what Kemp said shows that there’s a
significant contingent in City government that
wants to use that money in a more general way. And I think there’s not
a lot stopping them. State law doesn’t require
them to use that money for the language that
was on the referendum. – They can use if for
anything, arguably. – They can use it for anything, and if the, if Shelby
County takes part of that, then we may not have enough to do what all the
referendum said anyway, and if there’s
another recession, that’s even less revenue
that we have to spend. So what could happen is you
might not have enough money to do what the
referendum said, anyway. – I don’t know, your
thoughts on that, Karanja? Do you think there are
enough votes on City Council and people in government,
Mayor Strickland, I mean, we’re early in this, but just speculating
for a second, that they might say, “Well, we’re gonna interpret
that referendum as a ‘put this money
towards public safety,’ “versus ‘put it towards
the exact letter “of the benefit structure
that was taken away,” what now, six years ago. – Well, I think part of it
may be when they take it up. I mean we’ve got, we
just had the elections. These guys that are in there
now are sorta like lame duck until the beginning of the year, so is this Council,
that’s constituted, are they gonna take it
up or are they gonna wait and just sorta defer it til
the next group comes in? I think that’s
one of the issues. – Well, let’s shift to that as we have two runoff
races coming up, Bill, in November? – November 14th, early voting
will start later this month. It’ll be here before
you know it. [chuckling] – And who are those folks, for people who aren’t as
close to it as we are? Those races are when and where? – Sure, District
One, it is a contest between Rhonda Logan
and Sherman Greer. Sherman Greer was
appointed to the seat by the City Council
this past January. District Seven is the– – District One is roughly…
– District One is Frayser… – Where are they?
– Raleigh, and Cordova. – Got it, okay.
– District Seven is a runoff between Berlin
Boyd, the incumbent, and Michalyn Easter-Thomas. They were the top
two vote-getters and in each of these contests,
no one got 50% plus one, the reason for the runoff. – And Berlin Boyd now
represents the parts of downtown and North Memphis. – This district is actually
some parts of Frayser, Downtown, North Memphis,
that’s the basic area, Mud Island as well. – Thoughts on this, on these
races, for the people there, these are important seats and
these seats can be decided by a small number of votes. – They are. I think in District
Seven and District One, I think what you have there, the incumbents, Greer and Boyd, kind of represent the
institutional faction, the faction of the Council
that generally votes to support Memphis institutions, they vote for the
Zoo, for whatever. And on the other side, you
have the more progressive, more the group that
wants to use City money more specifically for
the individual people. And so I think there’s this
kind of this battle going on right now for City Council
between those two groups, and I think that who wins
that will largely decide how, what kind of Council
we have going forward in the next four years. – Thoughts from you, sir? – Well, my first
thought is turnout. I mean, I think there’s 26.5%
for the election itself, and then usually when
you go to these runoffs, it drops dramatically, I mean,
like down to the 5% level. So I think, for the candidates
that are not incumbents, their first issue is
just letting people know that there is an election and
where do you go from there. In the Boyd race, I think he
polled like 30% of the vote, and so it’s like 70%
of the other people decided they like somebody else. But incumbents, though,
generally do better in those runoff races
because of the mechanisms and things that they have. – Go ahead. – In the October elections, seven Council incumbents
were re-elected. The other three incumbents,
you had Gerre Currie, who lost her bid for
a super district seat, these are the other two seats
that are held by incumbents on the Council, so depending
on what happens here, you could have a 7-6
balance on the Council, seven returning members, six
new members, or you could have nine returning members
and four new members. – I have the voice of
Steve Mulroy in my head. Steve Mulroy, who
has been an advocate for instant runoff voting
and all that goes into that, how, I don’t know if I can
ask this question correctly. Had instant runoff
voting been in place, who would have won
those districts? Has anybody done that math? Right? I mean, ’cause the argument was, you don’t go to a second vote, you take the
results and you do– – You don’t go to a runoff, you just indicate your
second and third preferences. – Oh, so we don’t know because
they weren’t on the ballot. It was not just a
man, it wasn’t just a, so we don’t know. – I mean, it’s guesswork,
because you have the person who finishes second
in the initial vote, could wind up finishing first, but the person who
finishes fourth could wind up
finishing first in it. – You had some interesting, we
didn’t have you on the show, Ryan, we couldn’t work it out, on the show we did right
after election night, but you had thoughts on, a
quote from a column you did about the J.B. Smiley
was one of the people who didn’t get the endorsement
of the people’s convention, but ran as a progressive and the role of the people’s
convention and progressives right now locally and
how that played out. Your thoughts on that. It was an interesting column. – Yeah, I do kind of think that
this election really showed that what Memphians want is
someone who believes in Memphis. I think that a lot
of the campaign, and y’all feel free
to disagree with me, but a lot of the
campaign was about Memphis is going
the wrong direction and I think that
Memphians really gravitate toward a message of
“We have problems, but we all still like Memphis.” And so I do think
that J.B. Smiley kind of struck that chord there. He still had the
progressive message. A lot of the
progressives who ran, who were endorsed by the
people’s convention lost, but he had the right message and he had that
progressive mindset that showed kind of a way that
progressives in the future, I think, can move forward. I think in that way he was
similar to Mayor Strickland, who had that “Memphis
has momentum” message. I think that’s kind
of his message. – I never heard him say that,
[sarcastically] I never once heard him
say that, on this show, or in an interview, I
never heard him say– – It wasn’t his official
slogan, but yes, I believe he has said
it before and that was, kind of what got
associated with his campaign. – Thoughts on that, where
the progressive movement is, and we talked about it that
day after the election? – Right, Memphis is
not a progressive city. We’ll start there. It’s moderate at best,
and so I think that, I just think generally, whether you’re
moderate or progressive or conservative or whatever, we just need to be
more educated generally about the process of
elections and government and things of that sort. I think that the whole
process of the referendum is really a good case study for the whole
government process, both from particular entities,
like the police association, the fire association, but
also the general populace. I mean, we’re talking about
a move that the City made because it was getting
heat from the state relative to the
unfunded pension… – (Bill)
Liability. – Liability, so
they make a move, then they cut benefits
and then the police and the fire come in, they
move to get it restored. They go the referendum route. Then we vote on the referendum, and now we’re talking about, “Okay, what did we
really vote on,” and possibly going
into court for that. That’s a case study for sure. – Your thoughts.
– I think the people’s convention was not a gathering
that was meant to be representative of the
City as a whole. I think it was a
gathering of people who were a part of
the new activism of the last four to five years. And– – Going back to the bridge
and the Black Lives Matter. – Going back to the
bridge protests, a little bit before that, so I think that this
election was a first step. I think that progressive forces under the banner of the new
activism did not succeed in turning out their voters. I think that’s what
happened on Election Day. I think that Memphis voters,
the 26.5% who turned out, were saying that we think
Strickland is on the right path. But there’s an
important caveat in it, and we even heard it
from the Mayor himself during the campaign,
that he said, “I realize there
are other problems, “that our economic development
is right now happening “in the places that
are the usual suspects, “Downtown and Midtown, “but that it needs to
grow beyond those areas, break out of those areas,” which was something that
A.C. Wharton was saying when he was Mayor
four years ago. I think what you still have, particularly with regard to
the economic development issue, is a lot of people who
are highly suspicious, because they’re saying
“We’ve seen this before, and these areas continue
to get left out.” So I think there
are some warnings in the statement
the voters made. – It is interesting this
week that there was, I think it was this,
it was recently, that uptown TIF was approved to bring some more tax
incentives to the uptown area, and you know, the Firestone
plant suddenly is in play, potentially the old
Firestone plant, but speaking of business,
economic development, Melvin Burgess, tax
assessor, held a forum this, recently about
these very issues. Your thoughts on that? – Well, it starts with the
point that he was making that in Orange Mound, I think
property values have reduced by as much as 30%
over 10-year period, and so what do we do about it? So an economic development
summit was the initial response. It was a huge turnout
over there, too, just hundreds of people. You had entrepreneurs and
investors, community people, and so then out of
that came the decision to have a task force to focus
on Orange Mound to come up with a comprehensive plan and
whatever they come up with to make sure that they
avoid gentrification. I thought that Burgess
made an important point, and he was saying that “Hey,
whatever we do going forward, “we need to make sure that
we keep inclusion in mind, “and we need to be able to handle difficult
conversations, okay.” – Define gentrification. Because one gets
different definitions. – You know, I think the
one that the people I know mostly reach for is
you have an area, say like North Memphis
or around Crosstown and back over there in
Klondike and places like that, and then the development
comes in and those houses, or people come in and buy up
houses, businesses, and the people in the neighborhood
then are moved out, okay. – And often that means that
African-Americans are moved out and it is more white
people moving in. I mean, that is a history
of gentrification, that you’re referencing. – Another thought, with just
a minute and a half left, you did a story and somehow
this relates in some way, about a natural hair
discrimination ordinance or law that was passed in Cincinnati, and you made a case for
in your column recently, Memphis doing the same. – Yeah, I did, so
what’s going on now, California and New York are
two states who have passed laws that have banned
discrimination against people based on their natural hair. So in other words, an
employer cannot tell a worker, “You have to straighten your
hair” that is naturally curly. Or you have to cut
off your dreadlocks. That’s another case that
we’ve seen recently. So in Cincinnati, they were the
second city to have done it, after New York City,
and I was recommending that Memphis be the third. I think that Memphis
could make a big statement to the world, to the nation, that this is the kind of
discrimination that tells people that they should not be who
they are or express themselves how they naturally would. And I think that as a City, I think that’s something we
need to stand up against. All right, we
will leave it there. I will preview the newly
re-elected Mayor, Jim Strickland, will be
on the show, I believe, on November 1st. Lee Harris will be on the
show sometime in November, I don’t have the date in front
of me, but he will be on, watch your listings, to talk
about kind of things going on. Probably the sales
tax referendum, but certainly the funding
and expanded funding of MATA that he is after. That is all we have this week. Join us again next
week, good night. [dramatic orchestral music] [acoustic guitar chords]

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