Thursday, January 27, 2011

Hart and Pickler spar over school merger

   Just one day after panelists on both sides of the charter surrender debate aired their differences on WREG-TV, News Channel 3, Memphis City Schools board commissioner Tomeka Hart and Shelby County Schools board president David Pickler tried themselves to separate fact from fiction in the ongoing charter surrender brouhaha in a one-on-one televised debate Wednesday on WMC-TV, Channel 5.
   The format of this debate was different. Hart and Pickler each stood at a podium on a stage at Mid-town's Playhouse on the Square and answered pointed questions that were culled from the general public, with moderators, Channel 5's Joe Birch and Ursula Madden, fielding them to the debaters.
   Since MCS voted Dec. 20 to surrender its charter, and now that a referendum is set March 8 for city voters to decide if they want the Shelby County Board of Education to absorb MCS, questions still abound. Will the merger work? What is the motivation?
   Hart and Pickler sought to answer some of those questions in a sparring match that either clarified their position on charter surrender or confused those still looking for answers. A sample of some of the questions, answers and rebuttals is printed below:

Question: As a representative of the Memphis City Schools board, why do you think surrendering the charter and forcing consolation will work?

Hart: It's really important to understand how we got here. The Memphis City School board didn't ask to be here. We were actually responding ... to an action by the Shelby County Schools to create a special school district. That has been kind of lost in the conversation ... the creation of a special school district SCS has been fighting for 10 years. Memphis has been able to fight it legislatively, but that battle changed in November 2010. Shelby County made it clear that they were going to aggressively push for a special school district. So in order to stop that was a motion to surrender our charter.

Pickler (rebuttal): Once again, we have a disagreement on this issue. Actually, it goes back as far back as 1990. Because in 1990, the city school board first considered the option of surrendering their charter. By only a vote of 5-4 did that fail. That you may recall when people in suburban Shelby County even talked about the concept of creating Neshoba County. For 20 years, the Shelby County Board of Education has fought to try to avert a surrender, a hostile surrender, by Memphis City school board by creating special school district status.

Q: What was the original motivation for seeking special status for the Shelby County School district?

Pickler: What we've been looking for over the past 20 years is an opportunity to maintain the legacy of excellence we've had in Shelby County schools. For five years in a row, we've earned straight A's on the Tennessee Report Card. And we're very proud of that honor. Consider if the shoe was on the other foot. If you were the Memphis City School board and earned straight A's over the past five years and you're looking at the possibility, maybe even the probability, of a hostile takeover by the Shelby County Board of Education, take away all of your control, and the school system in Shelby County that perhaps is failing, and earning some of the lowest grades in the state, that's the situation we've been dealing with. We're one of the highest performing districts in the state. MCS unfortunately has had severe struggles.We're attempting to maintain our independence, autonomy, and that legacy of excellence.

Hart (rebuttal): I always love to hear that fantasy world that Shelby County is such a perfect school system when the truth of the reality ... and you can look at the Tennessee Department of Education Report Card ... there are 15 to 20 points that separate the school systems. Shelby County has no score above 60, and they're considered A's and we have 30s and 40s in MCS. So there's not this large gap that somehow people believe that there are between the two systems. So truthfully, we're both struggling, and it's time that we be for real about that. I don't know what happened in 1990. I wasn't on the school board.

Q: Why should Memphis voters support surrendering the charter when no plan has been put in place to explain it to the public?

Hart: That's the time now to put a plan in place. Mr. Pickler and Shelby County can put a plan in place whenever they choose. There are many people calling for a plan. As a matter of fact, Shelby County is the only body that hasn't agreed to a plan. ... I remind us again that we're responding to an attack. We did not ask to come to this fight. In that response to say we're rushing. Well, we wouldn't be rushing if Mr. Pickler had taken special school district off the table. We wouldn't be here. So he wouldn't do that. So shame on us for fighting back.

Pickler (rebuttal): Our board of education on three separate occasions took the issue of special school district off the table. We said we would not pursue that for a lengthy period of time in order for the two school boards to work together. This board of education in Memphis city had the opportunity to pursue a course of consolidation that wouldn't involve 15 months to two years, to take the time to answer the question, to give the people of the city of Memphis the opportunity to have a plan so that all these unanswered questions would not be before us.

Q: Does the quality of the education receive depends on the board leadership and its organizational structure or demographics of its student body?

Pickler: In both districts, we have very diverse populations. Shelby County Schools has one of the most diverse populations in the state. Over the course of the past 10 years, that diversity has increased. And despite the fact that a number of students are suffering from impoverished conditions, our test scores have done nothing but increased. We believe that having the right kind of curriculum, having the right kind of plan for dedicated teachers, the right kind of leadership and strategic plan, does make a difference.

Hart (rebuttal): If you look at the demographics of Shelby County Schools that look like Memphis -- like Northaven Elementary, Millington High School -- you'll see that their performance mirrors. It is about economic disadvantage and I would like to think it was that simple. But I would ask David to look his own report card on his schools where the demographics mirror Memphis, and look at where Memphis demographics mirror Shelby County and we out-perform and perform as well as they do with those demographics.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

School merger still leaves questions unanswered

   After Tuesday's (Jan. 25) school merger debate on WREG-TV, News Channel 3, the proponents who favor the dissolution of Memphis City Schools and the opponents who'd rather keep city schools separate from Shelby County Schools were deadlocked once again over their philosophical differences and a resolution to the stalemate.
   What transpired at the debate -- as has happened since MCS board commissioners Tomeka Hart and Martavius Jones first dropped the bombshell to surrender MCS's charter -- still leaves those with a stake in public education in Memphis and Shelby County somewhat confused, even as the March 8 referendum vote nears -- unless they're already for or against SCS taking over the administrative functions from MCS without further nudging.
   Once again, SCS board chairman David Pickler made it abundantly clear that non-Memphians won't cower to MCS's "hostile surrender" of its charter without a fight. He joined two others as panelists opposing the charter surrender: Germantown Mayor Sharon Goldsworthy and Rev. LaSimba Gray, pastor of New Sardis Baptist Church.
   On the flip side of the argument, those who support the charter surrender -- panelists City Councilman Shea Flinn, state Rep. G.A. Hardaway, and Jones -- argued their point just as mightily that a charter surrender would not be the deathblow to the district's 11,000 teachers and support staff, and its 105,000 students, as it has been rumored.
   In a direct question to Pickler, Hardaway asked, "Do you plan to fire 11,000 people on March 9 (if voters pass the referendum on March 8)?"
    "That would be a completely irresponsible comment for anyone to make," he said, adding, "It is not our intention to do anything to harm any child in Memphis City Schools. However, we would have to take a look at the economic situation. We would have to see what changes that need to be made."
   Although Gray sat relatively quiet on the side with those who oppose the charter surrender, he noted unequivocally that his greatest fear would be the loss of jobs to privatization. "The administrative staff of Memphis City Schools would be in question," he said, including "the initiatives of Dr. (Kriner) Cash."
   Pickler said there are fundamental and philosophical differences between the way SCS has operated and the way MCS has operated, such as MCS's in-house custodial workers versus SCS's outsourcing of custodial workers.
   He pointed out that SCS has had greater success in the district compared to MCS. "We've had a strategic plan, a tactical plan," he said. "Ten years ago, our school system didn't have the same level of report card as we do now.
   "As a district, we have challenges every single day. We have a very significant population within the school district who are economically challenged. We've been able to overcome that by placing our resources in the right areas."
   Chris Peck, editor of The Commercial Appeal and one of two questioners, responded to Pickler's assertion with a question: "If you've had this great success with planning in a diverse school district, why wouldn't you be able to build on that success?"
   "We've already begun working with the staff of Memphis City Schools to ensure what can be done, will be done," he said, noting that hundreds of questions still need to be answered "and cannot be resolved until it comes up in a court of law."
   For example: What would happen to charter schools and optional schools if a merger occurs, since SCS doesn't operate either one? WREG political analyst Otis Sanford asked Jones. "There are opportunities in charter schools. If they are effectively raising student achievement, they can use them in Shelby County. If we're talking about optional schools -- if they're successful -- they can use them in Shelby County."
   In a kind of dig at Pickler and SCS's purported success in student achievement based on the district's report card, Jones added, "We're purporting that 55 is exemplary and excellent. To purport to parents and children that you're performing exemplary and you're getting 55 out of 100, we're telling our kids a falsehood."
   In back and forth exchanges, Pickler was singled out the most because of his public stance against charter surrender. He has been the most vocal and unswayed by those on the other side seeking dissolution of city schools. He came to the debate with questions too.
    "If we are trying to build a unified system and come together for the best interest of all children, then why are we ... denying 30 percent of Shelby County a voice in the process?"
   He said suburbia should have a voice in the matter since Shelby County contributes 40 percent of MCS's funding.
   Jones responded forthrightly, saying, "Because of the strategy you tried, Mr. Pickler, with 30 percent of Shelby County trying to seek special school district status, you excluded 70 percent of the rest of Shelby County."
   Flinn said it all boils down to MCS's right to determine its own fate. "If Germantown chooses to plot a municipal district course, they should have that right of self determination."
   He said if Germantown, for example, gets to vote on whether Memphians pay an extra tax, "then I expect to vote on the Germantown mayor. I expect to vote on the Shelby County school board and probably the board of alderman too."
   Flinn argued for a unified school district and unified community. "We need to revamp education to make it better for every kid," he said.
   Jones was succinct in one of several exchanges with Pickler. "Before Shelby County pursued their separatist effort to create a special school district, we wouldn't have had no need to do this."

Monday, January 3, 2011

Community spotlight: Antonio ‘2 Shay’ Parkinson

Antonio "2 Shay" Parkinson, the community leader.

    The pro bono work that Antonio “2 Shay” Parkinson has been doing to revitalize and refresh the Raleigh/Frayser community could pay off if the voters in District 98 elect him to fill the House seat that came up vacant after the Nov. 9 death of state Rep. Ulysses Jones Jr.
    But Parkinson, however, is not looking for a payday for the work that he'd been doing in the community anyway for at least six years. Instead, his love for community and its people most likely were determinants in availing himself for community service on a legislative level. Known for his humble spirit, he had to be convinced nonetheless to seek the House seat.
    Four other candidates are seeking the interim appointment as well, but the Shelby County Commission on Dec. 20 decided to defer the vote until the next commission meeting on Jan. 25, five days after the special primary election on Jan. 20. The general election is March 8. Despite the month-long wait, Parkinson said he is running full speed ahead to replace Jones, a mentor and legislative stalwart.
    “I had no intentions of running at first,” said Parkinson, 42, who was bombarded with phone calls from District 98 constituents, pastors, and elected officials to pursue the House seat. He’d mulled over the opportunity to become a lawmaker in the Tennessee House of Representatives and decided that a nod from the commission, or a vote from district voters, would advance his calling in community service.
    Parkinson, a firefighter at station 61 on Macon Road, doesn’t consider himself a politician, though. However, in the October 2007 municipal election, he ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Memphis City Council from District 1 and placed third behind first-place finisher Democrat Stephanie Gatewood, currently a Memphis City Schools board member who is seeking the House seat herself. She lost to Bill Morrison that year in the November run-off.
    Gatewood, 39, also is mounting a campaign for the seat that Jones had won 13 consecutive times, including the last one on Nov. 2. Three others seeking the House seat are Democrats Brenda Oats-Williams, 50, an attorney; retired teacher Jannie C. Foster; and Nicholas Pegues, a Shelby County Election Commission employee and Republican Party board member. Pegues doesn’t plan to run for a full-term if he gets the interim job.
    Parkinson said Jones was a mentor whom he had watched with admiration on the House floor when then-governor Phil Bredesen gave his last State of the Union Address. “I watched him in action. He was a powerful legislator,” he said.
    Now Parkinson has the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of the late lawmaker who provided moral and financial support for a number of projects dear to Parkinson’s heart, which helped to catapult him in the Raleigh/Frayser community as the quintessential community servant.
    “I’m a community leader that wants to find a way to bridge communities,” he said. “None of the successes that we’ve had was because of one person doing all the work. Everything that we’ve been successful at comes because we’ve been able to create collaborations.”

A voice in Raleigh...

    The Raleigh/Frayser community is more than Parkinson’s stumping ground, or base of operation. It is a community on the precipice of change because of a number of initiatives that Parkinson has launched and cultivated. He has been the voice of Raleigh for a number of years now, speaking forthrightly for residents, promoting economic development, and leading the charge to restore the community’s vigor and worth.
   First, he launched, a web page that soon morphed into a nonprofit organization with a board of directors and six primary functions: 1) web site, 2) community association, 3) business association, 4) promotions and marketing, 5) events, and 6) voter education.
    “ started out as a Web page where people could talk about their likes and dislikes, their challenges. The page was successful and grew exponentially. So we started building on the brand,” said Parkinson.
    “The sole purpose of all of these [functions] together is to make the community viable and competitive. The plan was to create a community-organizing template that could be moved to other communities.”
    The organization’s mission, he said, is to empower the community through education, organization and advocacy. So why launch a community organization? “A lot of people moved to Cordova and other places. I don’t believe you should have to run away from your community. Your home should be transformed into a comfortable place.”
    With in full swing, Parkinson, the “volunteer” executive director, began organizing community events, candidate forums, and town hall meetings. And if that wasn’t enough, he launched the following offshoots:
    • The Voice of Raleigh and Frayser Community Action Network, a membership association of businesses and residents collaborating to maintain, enhance, protect and preserve the community and its property value.
    • The Raleigh Fire Victims Fund & Donation Center, a fund drive started after seven family members lost their lives in a fire at Avery Park Apts. The fund provided donations of household items and helped to defray funeral expenses;
    •Toys in the Garden (which soon became Toys for Tatts), an annual event first started in the Horton Gardens public housing complex in Northaven that provides toys for children at Christmas;
    •The Fresh Starts Community Baby Shower, an annual event promoting healthy pregnancies and lifestyle awareness as it pertains to infant mortality in zip codes 38108, 38127 and 38128. The venue: Breath of Life Christian Center.
    • The Harvest Ball, an annual fundraiser to benefit other nonprofits in the community with a mission to empower the citizenry of Memphis. It is held at the Raleigh Springs Mall at 3334 Austin Peay Hwy., and;
    • The Block Party for Peace, an annual event Memorial Day weekend, also at the Raleigh Springs Mall, that promotes peace, empowerment and opportunities for employment, education and health within Memphis and the surrounding areas. It is a three-day jobs fair, college fair and health fair.
    • Board member of Methodist North Community Advisory Council. Facilitator of the Partnership Program between Methodist North Hospital and Craigmont High School to give students an opportunity to shadow and intern with health industry professionals.
    “I’m humble that we’ve been successful,” said Parkinson. “People can see the difference and the movement inside of the Raleigh and Frayser communities.”
    Parkinson’s crowning achievement to date may be the re-branding and revitalization of Raleigh Springs Mall. “The mall is the largest commercial retail space in the whole Northwest region of the Memphis Metro market,” he says. “What we want to do is make sure that the mall has its proper place.”
    The mall (built in 1971) is nearly, or at least, 100 percent occupied, said Parkinson, owing some of the mall’s success to the partnership with The organization will set up headquarters, along with other businesses, in 6,000 square feet of office space.
    “ is working with the mall (in marketing, media and events), but not necessarily on the mall’s payroll,” Parkinson said. “It’s within the mission of A Better Memphis that the mall survives, flourishes and grows in the Raleigh community. Whatever we can do to make those businesses flourish, that’s what we do. The mall's success is our success.”

About Raleigh...

    Since the economy has nose-dived over the years, the Raleigh community, like others, is making strides to right itself economically. According to the Web site, the population of Raleigh is 43,000. The median age is 29.6 years; median household income, $39,217; and average home value, $101.068.
    Raleigh is located in the northeast section of Memphis and bordered by Egypt Central on the North, Interstate 40 on the South, Old Brownsville and Sycamore View Roads on the East, and New Allen/Warford Road on the West.
    So the revitalization of Raleigh continues. 
    If Parkinson should be appointed or elected to fill Ulysses Jones Jr.’s House seat in District 98, “the first thing on my agenda will be jobs -- employment, employment, employment. My top three priorities are jobs, economic development and education.”
    If not, he said the mission of is just the same: jobs, economic development and education. “An educated workforce, I think, is vitally important to North Memphis and Shelby County.”

About Antonio ‘2 Shay’ Parkinson...

    Parkinson has lived in Memphis since leaving the United States Marine Corp. in 1990. He served four and a half years and exited honorably with the rank of corporal. In fact, it was a drill instructor, he said, who nicknamed him “2 Shay,” which came from a cartoon character called “Touche' the Turtle.”
    Born in Oakland, Calif., Parkinson spent most of his childhood in Los Angeles and finished high school in Port Arthur, Texas. He is married and has two biological children and three step children ages 24-6, all girls. He has been a fireman for 21 years with the Shelby County Fire Department. His rank: lieutenant.
    He is the president of The Voice of Raleigh and Frayser Community Action Network, former president of Frayser Exchange Club, former vice president of the Raleigh Community Council, and past chairman of the Memphis and Shelby County Music Commission.
    He also is an active member of Breath of Life Christian Center.

(A version of this story was first published in the Raleigh community newsletter, "It's All About Raleigh.")