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Pondering the Future

School board considers renegotiating Watson's contract.

By Mary Cashiola

With a little more than a year to go on the superintendent's contract, members of the Memphis City Schools board are wondering what steps they should take.

At a personnel committee meeting Monday night, Commissioner Wanda Halbert brought up the possibility of renegotiating Superintendent Johnnie B. Watson's contract or "making other decisions."

"I think it would be irresponsible of the board if we wait until five or six months before the contract is up and haven't started talking about a superintendent," said Halbert. "Large urban districts around the country are having issues hiring superintendents."

The chair of the committee, Carl Johnson, said that he would bring it up in the committee report at the next board meeting but didn't feel comfortable discussing issues that had not come from the full board.

Halbert said she hadn't been sure about the process the board should take in finding or keeping the superintendent. "Wouldn't that be the function of the personnel committee?" asked Halbert. "When we established these committees, they had roles. We have one employee under the board."

As a rule, the superintendent has management responsibility -- hiring, firing, etc. -- over district personnel. The board does not get involved with personnel matters, except for creating positions and deciding salaries and when it involves the superintendent.

"The two previous superintendents put the board into action because both tendered their resignations," said Commissioner Sara Lewis. "This was not a normal, typical contract. The superintendent indicated he just wanted a three-year contract. With the trouble big districts are having getting good superintendents, we need to know what his intentions are."

"My intention is to honor the terms of the contract," said Watson. "It is my privilege and pleasure to serve the children, staff, and parents of the Memphis City Schools."

Watson took on the position of interim superintendent in April 2000 and, after an exhaustive national search, was chosen to lead the district in October of that year. He plans to give the board six months' notice if he decides to leave, but at this time, he says his total focus is on improving student achievement.

The next board meeting is scheduled for August 19th.

Courting Change

Downtown landmark gets a facelift.

By Janel Davis

Memphis will see another renovation as the Center City Commission (CCC) plans to redesign Court Square in the heart of downtown.

The project is part of the original Memphis Central Business Improvement District Streetscape Master Plan completed last July by LDR International, an engineering design company. In the plan, the company listed Court Square as having the "potential to be a showcase" for the city, where significant improvements could result in private investment in the properties surrounding the area.

"The park will be more open and pedestrian-friendly," says Janet Pfaff, CCC vice president of operations. Included in the plans are renovations to November 6th Street (actually an alley) and North and South Court streets. Pfaff estimates the project will cost $1.25 million, with construction expected to start in September and end next spring.

John Jackson, CEO of Jackson Person and Associates, which has led the redesigning for the area, says the finished product will be comparable to town squares in Savannah, Georgia. "[In Savannah], there exists major streets and businesses which look down on the city square, which is a major part of the town. The [renovated] Court Square will be like that, in that it will be a more vibrant and open space," he says.

Jackson's firm worked from LDR's plan, which listed pathway disorganization, obstructed park views, and short trees as challenges to the area. The new plan calls for a redesign of all pathways leading to the existing fountain, making that the focal point of the park. The inner pedestrian loop will be removed, and taller shade trees will be planted. The gazebo north of the fountain will be rehabilitated, and more lighting will be added.

Jackson says neighboring businesses won't be affected by construction, which has been a problem with firms located along Madison Avenue as the Memphis Area Transit Authority extends the trolley line to the Medical Center.

Pfaff says Court Square was last renovated in 1986. The redesign is one of nine projects included in the CCC's $5 million downtown-renovation plan.

When Mud and Water Don't Mix

Sometime Monday morning, a rather sizable chunk of Mud Island sloughed off into the Wolf River Harbor, blocking the channel. Developers had been removing tons of dirt from the downtown excavation site for the new NBA arena and trucking it to Mud Island to fill in a low-lying area just south of the Auction Street Bridge. When -- and how -- this massive mess will be cleaned up remains to be seen.

Radio Show Takes First Place

WKNO's Smart City wins a top award in a national competition.

By Mary Cashiola

Maybe it was A C Wharton's winning touch.

Smart City, WKNO-FM's radio show hosted by Carol Coletta, recently won top awards at the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI) conference in Washington, D.C., for a series that included Wharton and David Kushma, editorial page editor for The Commercial Appeal.

"Imagine a Great City," a three-part series on the major challenges Memphis faces and how to address those problems, won first place for Best Series from stations in Division C (those with two or fewer people on the news staff).

"We talked to a lot of different Memphians about what they thought Memphis had to do to be a great city," says Coletta. That composed the first two parts of the series; the third featured county mayor-elect Wharton and Kushma, commenting on those ideas.

WKNO has won two other PRNDI awards in recent years -- including a second place last year for the commentary "Spelling Gets Its Comeuppance" -- but this is the first time WKNO has ever won first place.

"It's judged by some of the best journalists in public radio," says Jeff Bossert, WKNO's news director. "It's tough to win. You know you've really accomplished something."

"Friday night, I had gone to a [National Public Radio] cocktail party before the awards," says Coletta. "I was telling people, 'Oh, we won some award.' It's no big deal." And then she found out it was a big deal. "The judges won't give an award if they don't think there is work deserving of the honor. And Division C, which might sound a little small-time, is actually where all the competition is."

Smart City premiered on WKNO in early 2001. It was profiled two weeks ago as part of a Flyer cover story on the Memphis Talent Magnet Project. Asked if it was unusual for a show to win in its first year, Dan Campbell, WKNO director of radio, says, "Usually, it takes two to three years for a show to get its feet on the ground. This show, pretty much from the beginning, knew what its focus was."

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