Painful Lesson

How city officials first created and then averted a graduation crisis.

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City government does big things like collect taxes, set budgets, and provide police protection. But often it's the little things that impact peoples' lives and shape their views. Things like graduation ceremonies at the Mid-South Coliseum.

In the space of about six weeks, city officials managed to create a crisis disrupting the plans of thousands of Memphis families and then resolve it. The story offers a glimpse of how members of the city administration, the school board, and the City Council operate -- sometimes working together and sometimes painfully ignorant.

Around January 27th, the news broke that city and county schools would not be able to use the Coliseum for graduations as they have in the past because the building was not in compliance with code requirements for disabled citizens. Some schools made plans to shift graduation to the DeSoto Civic Center. But that idea enraged Memphians who pay taxes to support the Coliseum, the Pyramid, and FedExForum.

One of them was Wanda Halbert, a member of the Memphis City School Board of Education and mother of a child graduating this year from White Station High School, one of the affected schools. Halbert, who said she does not read the daily paper, said she learned the news a few days after it broke. In a committee meeting, Superintendent Carol Johnson said there were code-compliance issues that would cost $100,000 to fix. She suggested that parents who had already ordered graduation announcements insert a slip of paper informing recipients of the change of venue. But Halbert, one of three board members with graduating children (the others are Jeff Warren and Kenneth Whalum Jr.), was not satisfied. She even wondered about financially compensating families for the cost of reordering announcements and invitations.

"It was not a petty issue," said Halbert, who recalled the chaotic scene five years ago when Ridgeway High School decided to hold graduation in its gym and had to turn away several guests due to lack of space. "It was the worst thing in the world," she said.

The Coliseum has problems of its own in addition to code compliance. With more than enough seats for all comers, recent graduations have been marked by rowdiness, despite efforts of principals and teachers to encourage decorum. And at last May's ceremony for University of Tennessee health-sciences grads, the power went off, and those attending had to cope with oppressive heat and darkness. Drew Ermenc, whose wife was one of the graduates, said it was "a mess all around" and especially so for elderly people.

Halbert contacted Memphis City Council member Myron Lowery, who had already heard the news and was surprised by it. On December 19th, council members had been promised by Parks Division director Cindy Buchanan and chief financial officer Robert Lipscomb that the Coliseum would be available for graduations even though it is slated to be closed later this year. For Lowery, it was an all-too-familiar problem.

"Too often as council members we read about decisions within our scope that are changed by the administration without informing us," he told the Flyer this week.

Lowery asked Halbert to send him an e-mail, which he forwarded to City Council chairman Tom Marshall, along with his own e-mail, which said in part, "This is not only a serious creditability [sic] issue for the city, it was [sic] create a hardship for thousands of our citizens." He suggested the council discuss it on February 6th.

Lowery called Buchanan for an explanation. Although she is a veteran city administrator, Buchanan has been head of the Parks Division for only about a year. The division includes a hodgepodge of golf courses, community centers, and tennis courts as well as the Fairgrounds complex, which includes the Coliseum. Mayor Willie Herenton is scheduled to report to the council in two weeks on his overall plan for the Fairgrounds. In January, he surprised Memphians by recommending that the Coliseum be demolished so that a new football stadium can be built.

Lowery says Buchanan told him it would cost too much money to open the Coliseum. He reminded her that she had earlier promised that the Coliseum would be available. Buchanan disagreed but later called back to apologize to Lowery after he produced a transcript of the December meeting. In it, Buchanan says "minimal maintenance" will enable the Coliseum to be used for "small community events like the high school graduations." Councilman Jack Sammons asks, "So you could still do the graduations?" She replies, "Right."

On Tuesday, February 6th, the day the council was scheduled to meet, Lowery read in the morning paper that the graduations were on once again. The subject came up at a committee meeting that day. Keith McGee, chief administrative officer for the city, came to the meeting and assured members that the Coliseum would indeed be available for graduations this year only.

"Other than these graduations, the Coliseum is closed," he said.

McGee said the U.S. Department of Justice has signed a consent decree with the city of Memphis about compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act, commonly known as ADA compliance. The Justice Department has agreed to allow graduations.

Council members were not satisfied. They wanted to know why they were not informed and how schools were informed that they would have to find alternate sites. McGee said Buchanan (who was not at the meeting and who could not be reached for comment because she is out of town) informed school officials by telephone, setting in motion the whole chain of events.

"This council needs to be kept informed on the front end," Lowery told McGee.

So the graduations at the Coliseum are once again on. Bring your friends, canes, fans, sweaters, flashlights, and earplugs. And congratulations.

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