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Tennessee editorial roundup

December 26, 2018

Recent editorials from Tennessee newspapers:

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Dec. 14

The Commercial Appeal on a plan to close schools in Tennessee’s largest school district:

The boardroom at Shelby County Schools will be no place for the faint of heart in coming months as board members listen to emotional arguments against carrying out Supt. Dorsey Hopson’s plan for right-sizing the school system.

Dwindling enrollment figures and a growing list of deferred maintenance projects have created a need for right-sizing -- and righting -- a school system that has weathered massive shifts in recent years.

That will not deter students, parents and alumni of schools marked for closure from delivering heartfelt testimonies about key roles these schools have played in the lives of their students and the vitality of their neighborhoods.

It won’t be easy for the board, but members must choose a path that is best for students in the long-term and stay on it, evaluating each element of the plan objectively and emerging from the process with learning environments that will most effectively achieve the district’s educational mission.

The long-overdue plan, a priority request by the Shelby County Commission, one of the district’s funding bodies, would spark $700 million in investments and put 15,000 students into new buildings in areas such as Raleigh, Whitehaven, Orange Mound, and Parkway Village.

Two of those new schools already have been approved, and will take in four of the schools on the “preliminary” closure list. The full plan would require closing 28 schools, the construction of 10 new schools and additions to five others. The plan would eliminate about $102 million in deferred maintenance, about 20 percent of the system’s overall bill.

Hopson won’t be in the hot seat as the plan is considered. His resignation is effective Jan. 18. But his blueprint is sound. Only two schools on the new closing list were not named about two years ago when Hopson issued a critical focus list, giving those on the list time to raise test scores and enrollment. The system has about 17,000 empty seats.

It’s understandable and admirable for students, parents and alumni to remain loyal to the schools, the bands and the athletic programs that have provided and are still providing some positive results for their students and their neighborhoods. But given the major realignment in public education here in recent years, Hopson’s consolidation plan makes sense for students and taxpayers.

A more sensibly-sized system would improve student-teacher ratios, provide more funds for a wider variety of academic, social and emotional programs, and bring new, upgraded facilities that enhance the educational environment and attract talented teachers. Hopson said the plan would save the district between $15 million and $25 million in operational costs each year by having more efficient buildings with fewer maintenance issues.

Closing schools will be an agonizing process. And the blueprint deals only with the 139 schools SCS runs directly, leaving questions unanswered regarding the future of about 50 charter schools and 30 schools in the state-run Achievement School District, most of which are in old buildings still owned by SCS.

It’s a shame the even-keeled Hopson won’t be here to steer the plan through the coming storm. But he has done us a favor by initiating a difficult discussion the community has needed to have in the wake of the battering the old Memphis City Schools system has undergone since its merger with Shelby County Schools.

The departure of suburban municipal school systems. The growth of the charter school movement in Memphis. The birth of the ASD. The creation of the Innovation Zone, which has poured extra resources into struggling schools to improve student performance.

All of those changes were made, according to those who promoted them, for the good of the students. A thoughtful, conscientious right-sizing of the district would further enhance their prospects for academic success.

Online: https://www.commercialappeal.com/

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Dec. 17

The Tennessean lays out how Lamar Alexander could play a key role in political developments during his last two years in the Senate:

Lamar Alexander’s final two years in office will define how the U.S. Senate lives up to the Founding Fathers’ vision for the upper chamber of Congress.

It will be a trial by fire for Tennessee’s senior senator, a Maryville native, who has made collaboration, collegiality and moderation a key part of his lawmaking strategy even amidst growing political polarity.

“I’m able to get results,” he said, after announcing he would not seek re-election in 2020.

Yes, he has been effective, especially in these last two years where he served as a powerful committee chairman in a GOP-dominated Congress governing alongside a Republican president. He shepherded successful legislation from equitable pay for songwriters to fighting the opioid epidemic.

His final two years in office, however, will likely not be as collegial.

Democrats are taking control of the U.S. House of Representatives in January and have made no secret that they plan to butt heads with President Donald Trump. Some have said they might pursue impeachment.

Trump is under federal investigation, and more than 30 of his associates, acquaintances and agents working on his behalf have been investigated, charged, indicted or convicted for crimes. Nevertheless, he plans to fight back hard.

That is where the Senate is supposed to play its role as a check on power — a referee or a stopgap. That is where Alexander could be at his most influential.

“The job of the United States Senate is to restrain popular excesses,” he said. “To restrain the excesses of the executive . (to restrain) the tyranny of the majority.

“That’s why we require 60 votes. Even when we disagree with what the Democrats are doing, we have to pay attention to what they’re doing. We could always do better, but I think we’re doing that.”

His critics on the right have felt he has compromised too much with the left. He was, after all, able to pass landmark legislation on education reform and medical miracle cures under the Obama Administration.

On the left, he is accused of lacking a backbone because he has not forcefully stood up to Trump when the president showcases his frequent penchant for rhetorical excess.

Fellow Republican and retiring U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, on the other hand, has openly criticized Trump for governing in a chaotic and divisive manner.

It is worth noting that when Alexander declared he was running for president in the 2000 election, he did not hesitate to criticize President Bill Clinton, according to a New York Times article from 1999:

“If we are going to bring out the best in America, we need a president who talks straight and who will listen. A new American century will require a moral foundation laid by a president who respects the office and respects those who put him in the office, a president who understands what makes this nation great and who understands what will keep it that way.”

Much like his political mentor, the late Sen. Howard Baker, a Republican who was forced to ask tough questions of the Nixon Administration during the Watergate scandal, Alexander may be forced to play a similar role in the next session of Congress.

It will be nothing short of uncomfortable for him.

However, in choosing not to seek another term in office, Alexander, who once served as Baker’s legislative assistant, is putting all his energies in governing and not elections.

That decision may be what saves the republic beyond 2020.

Online: https://www.tennessean.com/

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Dec. 19

Johnson City Press on how Lowe’s Home Improvement is stymieing efforts at school modernization:

Lowe’s Home Improvement should be getting letters soon from County Mayor Joe Grandy and Jonesborough Mayor Chuck Vest about property near the store in Jonesborough.

The 15 acres adjacent to Jonesborough Middle School have been deemed key to Washington County’s efforts to improve K-8 school facilities in Tennessee’s oldest town, but Lowe’s maintains the right to pre-approve any construction — be it for a building or a road — on the tract when it bought its land from the same seller several years ago. The restriction would have to be removed for the school project to move ahead.

Well, property owner Joe McCoy asked on the county’s behalf, and according to him, Lowe’s said no. We urge the company to rethink that position.

Since 2016, the County Commission and the Board of Education have been in a political tar pit over the project, and now that they finally seem to be on the same page, the last thing they need is to cope with a roadblock from a corporate entity 2½ hours away in North Carolina.

Jonesborough’s students deserve the same kind of modern facilities as their peers in other parts of the county.

The McCoy property would be used to create a new road for a bus loading and unloading zone with access to Main Street. The county’s current access to the existing school grounds is via busy U.S. Highway 11E.

As Senior Reporter Robert Houk reported in Tuesday’s edition, County Commissioners voted 12-1-1 Monday to yet again extend the county’s option on McCoy’s property by 90 days while officials continue to work on the restrictions. Commissioners also voted to ask Grandy and Vest to send those letters asking the company to lift its property restrictions as a “public service” to the community.

We suspect many Jonesborough parents would agree.

Online: https://www.johnsoncitypress.com/

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