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Year in Review As We Know It

Year in Review As We Know It

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POLITICS by JaCKSON BAKER

As the Year Turns

Six degrees of separation from auld lang syne.

1)Don't Be Faint of Heart, Phil! This is the job you wanted, after all. Chief executive of Tennessee. It was for this that you left Shortville, New York, lo those many years ago to come south to make your fortune. Right. Try to govern a state that is broker than you'll ever be, that has the nation's highest sales-tax rate, new judicial mandates for spending on teachers' salaries, and a healthcare system that you've promised not to downsize? Running Nashville for eight years was a lark by comparison. And don't expect that the talk-show types that got mobs howling at your predecessor, Don Sundquist, will leave you alone, Governor Bredesen. For one thing, you're a Democrat (even if some of your partymates found it hard to tell from your campaign), and those highly partisan monsters of the microphone won't cut you any slack at all. The old legislature has been pruned and reshaped so that it's now more conservative and marginally more Republican. Just ask Tre Hargett, the Shelby County suburbanite who's the new GOP leader in the state House. For all that, and for all the narrowness of your win over Van Hilleary, people still have a sense that you know something about administration. So, get to it and good luck! You'll need it.

2) So, Do We Still Get To Call You Al? Now that the 2004 presidential rerun is off, will the former vice president and home-state congressman and senator continue to try to mend fences in Tennessee? Or will Al Gore grow his beard back and hang out in remote places -- like Georgetown -- where his policy-wonk soul might find abundant counterparts? He still must have all those blue suits and white shirts and red ties. Actually, Gore's two-month-long trial run at the end of the year may not have convinced his partymates of anything, but, to tell the truth, he tickled a few ribs in all those appearances with Dave and Conan and Jon and the cast of SNL. It's true! The guy is funny. Swami predicts: Now that Gore has had practice in the art of being spontaneous, he will become the next fixture among the talking heads of cable TV. Roll over, Chris Matthews. Tell Bill O'Reilly the news.

3) Which Is More? 31 Years or 29 Votes? Face it, we all got excited when Harold Jr. made his run for House minority leader -- even the Republicans, who were beguiled enough by the dynamic young Memphian's "black centrist" rhetoric to put out feelers. Would he be interested in, er, converting? Really. Some local developers wanted to know (and commissioned a poll to find out how Ford would play as a GOP statewide candidate). Some of W's friends wanted to know. Even Jerry Freaking Falwell wanted to know! There's very little chance of that happening, of course. Ford's style and most of his votes tend in the other direction. Just wait 'til he gets after Bill Frist and the rest of those mean ol' Republicans over the prescription-drug issue! No, the 9th District congressman (who'd much prefer to romp in larger pastures) remains a Democrat for the future.

4) Be Mayor for Life! Which is what long, tall, aging-well Willie Herenton must tell himself every morning as he looks into the mirror and sees only himself, with nobody of substance left to rival him in city affairs. For what it's worth, there's another mayor's race on in 2003. Yawn! Talk about looking down-ticket! The mayor got so bored with the lack of local opposition that he just had to intervene in the 2002 Senate race, coming down on the side of victorious Republican Lamar Alexander. And, to rub it in, he had his own spokesperson, Gale Jones Carson, at the helm of the local Democratic Party. To revisit the cliché one last time, there's no Ford in his future! Those who dote on blood feuds will have to look to North Memphis or South Memphis, where there may be some interesting city-council challenges. Ancillary questions: Can Pat VanderSchaaf survive where ex-husband Clair, the once-and-not-future commissioner, couldn't? And, hey, is that George Flinn, the George Flinn, trying on a council race for size?

5) Meet the New Broom. Same as the Old Broom? Let's see. There's Bobby, there's Kelly (the legal aide, not the CAO), there would have been Tom if it weren't for all that whistle-blowing and those telltale credit-card receipts. Look around and you'll see a lot of the same old faces in the administration of new Shelby County mayor A C Wharton. And (with apologies to Andrew Marvell) always at his back he hears/time's winged chariot drawing near/carrying the likes of such old familiars -- and backers -- as Charlie Perkins. But hark! -- Is that a proposal to revise the detested (by county residents) A.D.A. formula we hear? Is the new man actually serious about calling everybody together and jawboning us into a new age? We're optimistic because we have always liked the guy, whose expertise is Up There and whose people skills are unexcelled. But (with apologies to the Lovin' Spoonful) did you ever have to make up your mind? (The Shelby County Commission will have to do some of that, too, in the still-festering case of its chief administrator, Calvin Williams.)

6) Thanks a Lott, Trent: To paraphrase a certain Mississippi ex-leader: If the Republicans in the U.S. Senate had followed our state's lead and elected Bill Frist to represent them in the first place, the GOP wouldn't have all these problems. That was the conclusion members of the president's party (with a little nudge from George W. himself) were preparing to reach as we wrote these words. The question is: Will Frist, who allows as how he'll take the job, actually end up doing it? It means getting back in the operating room again -- under what will often be ER conditions. Even a surgeon as precise as the good doctor from Nashville could get a little messy trying to stitch the hearts and minds of those peacock senators into something resembling harmony. And is he aware of the historical disconnect between such legislative service and presidential ambitions? (Think Taft, Dole, Gephardt.) But the members of the Shelby County Republican Party (whose steering committee devoted an entire meeting recently to the theme of outreach to minorities) will certainly welcome the change.

Happiest of Holidays and the Best of the New Year to all those kind and astute enough to be reading this.


BUSINESS by BIANCA PHILLIPS

Good Beginnings

A number of new businesses sprouted in Memphis in 2002.

Remember when that bikini bar, Silk & Lace, opened on Front Street and closed three weeks later? Yeah, that was a bad idea. The concept of scantily clad females serving up hot burgers and beer downtown just didn't go over too well. But the owner of Silk & Lace did what anyone who wants to start a business has to do -- he went out on a limb with a new idea to see if it would lure the masses. Perhaps the downtown location was the problem. Or maybe patrons were too distracted to eat. Who knows? Still, there were other new businesses that did do things right in 2002, from small independent specialty shops to multimillion dollar corporations. Here's a list of a few of those recent additions that have the potential to become permanent fixtures.

1. The Skate Park of Memphis (7740 B Trinity Road, Cordova) -- Finally, a place where the kids really can be alright. The 14,000-square-foot indoor facility, which opened its doors in June, is the only professional-level skate park in the city. It boasts 10 quarter pipes, a six-foot bowl, a 1,400-square-foot pyramid, and much, much more. On an average weekend, a look inside the transformed warehouse reveals at least 50 kids zooming past one another at lightning speeds. Watching them perform various kickflips, 360s, and backside airs is enough to leave any onlooker dizzy.

2. The Beauty Shop (966 S. Cooper) -- Who woulda thunk an old beauty salon could be transformed into a trendy restaurant, complete with an adjoining gift shop? Karen Blockman Carrier has already proven her ability to turn an innovative idea into a success with Automatic Slim's Tonga Club downtown, but this one really takes the cake. The old-fashioned hair-dryer chairs, mismatched plates, and dolled-up waitresses give the eatery a certain 1950s feel that creates a perfect ambience. And the charred tortilla pizzettes are scrumptious.

3. Square Foods (2094 Madison Ave.) -- This independent health-food store in Overton Square was a welcome addition to Midtown. The small market offers everything from vegetarian riblets to fresh, organic veggies to wasabi-covered peas. It even has a dining counter that offers hot and healthy meals to eat in or carry out. And the store has the only fully organic juice bar in the city. Wooden checkout counters and a clean, well-kept appearance radiate a natural vibe that's just right.

4. Wally Joe (5040 Sanderlin Ave.) -- Although it's a little pricey, Wally Joe is already a success. Even us poor folks need a classy restaurant for those special occasions, and oenophiles are sure to frequent this place for its extensive wine list. Chef Wally Joe and his family owned and operated the nationally known KC's restaurant in Cleveland, Mississippi, before setting up shop here, and this one's definitely got world-class potential. With its open kitchen and peekaboo wine cellar, the décor is ultrachic, as is the food, which includes such exotica as Michigan wapiti elk loin and Australian barramundi sea bass.

5. The Madison Hotel (83 Madison Ave.) -- The Madison Hotel is 16 floors of luxury. Gold-tinted light provides an elegant glow in the foyer. A grand piano graces the art-deco lobby. A rooftop garden overlooks the Mississippi River. And a fitness center is located in an old bank vault, a vestige of the building's original tenant. Each room comes complete with high-speed Internet access, multiple phone lines, an entertainment system, and a wet bar. Prices range from $190 for a regular guest room to $1,160 for the Presidential Suite. A bit expensive, but this ain't no Motel 6.

6. The Cotton Exchange (796 S. Cooper) -- With all this talk of expensive food and lodging, you may be wondering if anything opened this year that falls within the average Joe's price range. Never fear, the Cotton Exchange is here! This small indie thrift store contains only the hippest used goods, from vintage T's to corduroy coats, at very affordable prices. You can even trade in garments from your tired, old wardrobe for what used to be part of someone else's tired, old wardrobe. With a motto like "Because the mall sucks ... shop at the Cotton Exchange," this is a place destined for greatness.

7. Legba Records (2152 Young Ave.) -- Memphis' main claim to fame is its rich musical history. So what better way to keep that history alive than with a slew of independent record stores. The newest kid on the block: Legba Records, a tiny shop in Cooper-Young that specializes in local music. Viva L'American Death Ray Music, the Reigning Sound, and the Cool Jerks are just a few of the bands you can find on CD, LP, or 45s. Legba also carries underground comics and only the coolest music mags.

8. Felicia Suzanne's (80 Monroe Ave.) -- Felicia Willett, who hails from Jonesboro, Arkansas, spent seven years apprenticing under Food Network chef Emeril "Take It Up a Notch" Lagasse, so, needless to say, she knows the art of cooking. Her downtown restaurant, Felicia Suzanne's, serves up all-American fare with a down-home Southern twist, such as a salmon fillet served over grits with sides of asparagus and oven-roasted tomatoes. Southern cooking is synonymous with clogged arteries, but we must indulge every once in a while, and Felicia Suzanne's is the place to do it.

The above is just a small sampling of the new businesses that opened their doors in Memphis this year. We hope none close those doors anytime soon. Or anytime at all, for that matter. We also hope plenty of others, such as Schnucks, Bhan Thai, the Melting Pot, and Cafe 1912, to name a few, will experience continued success and be around to serve the Mid-South for decades to come.


education

by mary cashiola

Moldly Going Where Others Have Gone Before

How East High showed us what's wrong with education today.

Maybe you can call it revenge of the moldy oldie.

One of the biggest stories of the school year -- in terms of coverage and cleanup costs -- was East High School. The 54-year-old school came down with a bad case of negative publicity after students, parents, and teachers started complaining of mold-related health problems and a senior at the school died of complications due to asthma.

The school district sprang into action after an initial report was released to the media, sending out information to parents and putting together a community advisory committee to look at mold identification and cleanup throughout the entire district. Even so, absenteeism ran rampant as parents pulled their children out of school.

"East is a sore thumb," says outgoing Memphis City Schools board president Michael Hooks Jr. "Not only is it a low-performing school, but it's an optional school. Those kids need to be in school. It's one of the most visible schools in the city; it needs to be a shining star."

East, however, is not a shining star. It's typical. The problems that East faced typify the major problems in education this year. It's on the state's low-performing list, for one. Plus, parents didn't trust school administrators enough to send their children to school amid rumors and half-truths. And the Memphis district didn't think enough of the recommendations from the newly formed community advisory committee on mold to follow them.

But the most expansive problem is also the most expensive. The cause of the mold can be traced to unfunded capital needs that plague both the Memphis city and Shelby County school systems. According to information from Memphis City Schools' division of facility services, the district has $529 million in capital maintenance needs. It would take between $11 million and $20 million to upkeep all the district's buildings in mint condition. But in mold condition -- or any number of other problems that relate to deferred maintenance after years of underfunding -- that amount climbs exponentially each year.

East, for example, has needed asphalt work since November 1997, breezeway repair since February 2001, and foundation leaks fixed since January 2002. With the shortage of maintenance funding, the administration operates on a sort of repair triage. East, which expected renovations in coming years anyway, has just been bumped to the top of the list.

But the Memphis City Schools are not the only ones that need money. The year was book-ended by two new funding plans set on replacing the attendance-based funding formula the county currently uses. Under that formula, the county's $49 million Arlington capital improvement project -- set to ease school crowding in the northeast quadrant of the county -- would result in $147 million to the city schools, for a combined price tag of almost $200 million.

Mayor Herenton's plan, put together by a closed-door task force and presented last May, would have frozen district boundaries and created "single-source" funding. A more recent plan, proposed by county mayor A C Wharton, consists of two components: creating a Needs Assessment Committee that would be charged with reviewing each district's capital needs and making suggestions to the county commission regarding those needs. The second part of the plan trades funding for four city-annexed county schools, plus an additional $30 million paid over 10 years, in order to get the Arlington project built under the attendance-based formula.

Without those new schools, Shelby County will be faced with hundreds of thousands of dollars in state fines because of over-the-top student/teacher ratios.

"There's going to have to be more collaboration," says Hooks.

While Memphis City Schools' board members have been relatively civil to each other this year, the East situation highlighted the eroding relationship between the board and its top management staff.

After city school officials found mold at East, some board members, most notably Sara Lewis, publicly criticized the actions the district took in protecting students. The board has become more and more distrustful of the superintendent's staff, after incidents such as the discovery of a "bad" transportation contract with Laidlaw and the firing of security director John Britt for carrying a handgun. After the East mold crisis, Superintendent Johnnie Watson filed a formal complaint against Lewis, charging her with abuse and harassment. He withdrew the complaint a few days later.

It was a year that began with new school uniforms, a rousing recommitment to student achievement at the Memphis City Schools, and a resolve to find a new funding formula for the county. But by year's end everything looked ... well, sort of moldy.


Child Care by Janel Davis

Shaken Up

Necessary evolution continues in Tennessee's child-care industry.

Child care in Tennessee took a dramatic turn in 2002, as rules got stricter, requirements got tighter, and the governing body, Department of Human Services (DHS), got tougher. One DHS supervisor summed up the situation: "We're not just baby-sitting anymore!"

The state's 3,800 child-care centers -- responsible for 209,000 children -- were under new guidelines, as DHS strove to move Tennessee child care from under the stigma of neglectful practices into a new era of safety measures. Centers that house Shelby County's 56,000 day-care children now receive required yearly evaluations, with results provided in a report-card format. Guidelines cover seven areas: director's qualifications, professional development of the teaching staff, compliance history, parent/family involvement, adult/child ratio and group size, staff compensation, and program assessment. Administrators were determined not to let past mistakes resurface. Along with report-card evaluation came the "star-quality" rating system, an optional, tiered-bonus program for centers exceeding minimum licensing standards.

"It was a major change to child care in Tennessee when these programs were implemented," says DHS spokesperson Dana Keeton. "It was a major positive change. It has given parents an advantage by knowing what type of center they're putting their children into. And it has given providers a blueprint to go by." In addition to the evaluations, adult/child ratios were increased, requiring some centers to hire more staff members and forcing others out of business as costs rose.

While child-care providers were getting used to the new system, former child-care broker Cherokee Children and Family Services -- already stripped of its charter -- and its president, Willie Ann Madison, were in hot water as allegations of thousands of dollars of misused funds continued to surface.

The industry was again shaken when an April 4th car crash left a child-care-center driver and four children dead. The driver, an undiagnosed diabetic, was found to have marijuana in his pocket and in his bloodstream, along with a prior drug conviction of which the center had no knowledge. A required background check had not been done.

Determined to prevent future tragedies, Don Sundquist appointed a three-person panel to review transportation guidelines. The findings were not good. Tennessee's child-care system was found to be in a "state of emergency." Panel member Jane Walters reported that it was "more difficult to open a bar than it was to open a day-care center in terms of responsibility of owners and investigation." The panel's recommendations led to the enactment of emergency transportation rules, to be eventually adopted by DHS. "The tragedy that occurred in Memphis on the morning of April 4th should never be repeated in our state," said the governor. "Some of the changes will be costly, but you can't put a dollar value on a child's life."

While everyone agreed that something had to be done, not everyone agreed with the proposed new rules: Day-care vehicles would be required to meet federal vehicle safety standards by 2005, resulting in a change from the industry-standard 15-passenger van to a school-bus-type vehicle. Providers balked at the proposal, citing increased purchasing costs and already financed vehicles. In addition, a monitor would be required on vehicles in addition to the driver, and drivers would be required to obtain a commercial driver's license.

During public hearings on rule modifications, DHS administrators met with opposition, as providers questioned the department's enforcement of rules already in place. Inevitably, modified rules were enacted, including requiring drivers to attend training by the Department of Safety and submit to two annual random drug screenings. Center contact information and a DHS emergency phone number are now required to be posted on the sides of vehicles.

While new rules have been enacted, there's still much work to be done in the child-care industry. A November accident involving six children and a nonlicensed substitute center driver proved that no amount of legislation can prevent all accidents. "We've gained enormous ground in child care. We've done everything we can do to enforce the rules," says Keeton. "[DHS] can't do everything. We need help from providers to ensure that the rules are followed and background checks are done."

On the horizon:

· Soon DHS' evaluation and "star-quality" programs will receive a report card of their own, providing a fuller assessment of Tennessee child-care quality.

· As more of the new transportation rules are implemented, providers will have to find ways to offset associated costs.

· Willie Ann Madison, her husband, and another business partner have been charged and arraigned for their illegal business procedures. As they prepare for trial, more indictments could be forthcoming for other business associates.

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