Behind the Headlines – April 26, 2019

Behind the Headlines – April 26, 2019


– (female announcer)
Production funding for Behind the Headlines is made possible in part by: the WKNO Production Fund, the WKNO Endowment Fund, and by viewers like you,
thank you. – The superintendent search,
online sports betting, and more, tonight, on
Behind the Headlines. [dramatic orchestral music] I’m Eric Barnes, president
and executive editor of The Daily Memphian,
thanks for joining us. I’m joined tonight by a
roundtable of journalists including Laura Faith Kebede,
reporter with Chalkbeat, which covers education issues
in Memphis and the state. Toby Sells is news editor
with the Memphis Flyer. Thank you both for being here. – Thank you.
– Absolutely. – Along with Bill Dries, reporter with
The Daily Memphian. We’ll start with the
superintendent search. We had the interim
superintendent, Joris Ray, on the show I think a couple
weeks ago, it’s online, and talked about
some of his, what he, why his priorities, if
he is to get the job. We didn’t talk a ton about
the search at that time. There was the assumption, Laura, and I should let you,
let me just set this up, and your story about
it is fascinating, that there would be
a national search, that he was named in the
interim after Dorsey Hopson retired and moved on in January. He is a longtime employee
of the Memphis City Schools and now Shelby County
Schools, but there’s some movement now at the board level to maybe not do a
national search. Talk about what’s going on. – Yeah, and so at one of
the committee meetings earlier this month, three
board members basically said we would rather just
hire Joris Ray outright instead of doing
a national search, and so there’s a resolution
that is expected to come to a vote on Tuesday to see
if the board would do that. They would need six
votes to be able to appoint someone outright. In this past week, when
the resolution was expected to be discussed, the resolution
wasn’t on the agenda, they didn’t mention it at all, so really the most
robust discussion, public discussion
that we’ll get on this will be on Tuesday, right,
the same day as the vote. – Will there be, when
we say public also, is there opportunity
for the public to comment and ask questions
at those board meetings? – At the board meeting, there
will be public comment period, but as far as the
public being able to say this is what we want
in our next leader, whoever that may be, if they
do hire Joris Ray outright as the plan was under that
resolution if it’s approved, then there won’t be
that kind of input. – And there, Ray
has his supporters. Again, he started, I
think, as a teacher, then he was a principal, then
he joined the administration– – He was a teacher,
assistant principal, and then was promoted
to the alternative, the director of alternative
schools for the district. And so there’s a
lotta people who, especially after coming
off of Dorsey Hopson who was a lawyer,
was not an educator, who say, well, my goodness,
we have a teacher, former teacher that
is in this position and can be able to
move the district forward in academic success. But also, at this
point, there hasn’t been like that public input. At the meeting on Tuesday,
there were several supporters that were there wearing
Stay with Ray T-shirts. We don’t know where they
came from quite yet, but– – The teachers or
the supporters? – It was, so there was,
it was mostly teachers and administrators that
were there, there was– – I meant to say the
T-shirts, by the way, sorry about that,
I was curious– – Oh, no, that’s fine.
– Do we know where the T-shirts came from or
where the supporters came from? – The T-shirts, not sure, but
they were handing them out at the central office
building during the day to drum up support for
him, but there are also the people who want to
have a national search and include Dr. Ray
in that as well, but to have other
people in that. – And do, I’ll go to you, Bill, was there a national search
when Dorsey was hired? I can’t remember.
– No. They made the decision to go
with, they had actually hired a search firm called
ProAct at one point. Keep in mind at this
point, they were going into the first and only
year of the schools merger. ProAct actually terminated
its own contract with the school board
and said we don’t think there are gonna be
a lot of candidates who are going to apply for this that you might want to consider because of the historic
nature and the unprecedented nature of the
schools merger here. And over the years,
there really hasn’t been one set way to do this. There have been times when
a national search committee has been used, there
have been other times when the board
has basically said we’ll take it from here, we
don’t need a search firm. There’s been a lot of
discussion this time around as well as in earlier searches about should a
philanthropic foundation, should a philanthropic
organization that is specifically
involved in education issues pick up the tab for a search, and if such a concern picks
up a tab for that search, is that then their way of
finding a superintendent who will pursue
the kind of agenda that that foundation
wants to pursue. – And is it a, is that
the case this time, that the search is funded
by a philanthropic group? Or is it funded by the– – No, the Memphis
Education Fund, which is a group of
philanthropic organizations that put money into education,
the offered to pick up the tab for the national search, the board decided
not to go that way. – Well, none of this is to
necessarily cast aspersions on Joris Ray, but
just, this is, I mean, what is the budget for the
Shelby County Schools system? – A little over a billion. – A little over a billion,
it’s the largest expense for county government,
right, I mean, and there’s just been so
much change and strife and innumerable shows,
I can’t imagine how many articles Bill wrote over
the years, the Flyer, you. I mean, there’s just so
much that’s been going on, so I think it’s, that’s
really why the spotlight is necessary on who this
next person is gonna be. The other thing is that
they’ve been a couple of stories that have come out. There was a sexual harassment
lawsuit that I think, talk about that ’cause
you reported on it. – Yeah, so there was an
anonymous letter that came in in the fall before he was
named interim superintendent claiming sexual harassment. It was signed by a first
initial and last name. The district opened
an investigation and were not able to
identify the letter-writer, so they closed
the investigation. That complaint was never
put in his labor file, and it came out in
that investigation that there was another
claim about misuse of school funds that
was later unfounded, but that also was missing
from his labor file. So publicly, we don’t
have a full picture of his employment history. – And I said lawsuit, and
I was wrong about that. It was an investigation–
– Right. – An internal investigation–
– Correct. – It was not a formal lawsuit. – They hired a law
firm, actually, to come in and do
that investigation. – So what happens next? And then we’ll move on to
some other issues here. What’s next?
– Yeah, the big thing will be on Tuesday
when the school board discuss that resolution to
figure out whether they want to continue with a national
search or just hired Dr. Ray. Not sure what that
resolution’s gonna look like. All we’ve gotten is
just that it’s coming, and right now there
are three board members that are solidly in favor
of hiring Joris Ray. – Okay, as we move
on, there’s a bunch of education-related
issues going on right now. Often these come from the
state, sometimes to the benefit, sometimes people like that,
and sometimes people hate it, but the state funds
a lot of education throughout the state, but
in Shelby County of course. So the voucher bill, it made
some progress this week, but it was, as Sam Stockard,
who reports on the capitol for us at The Daily
Memphian said, it was a historic
40-minute deadlock where the House was tied, someone
had to change their vote. Speaker Glen Casada
promised that person, Jason Zachary, a
Knoxville Republican, to change his vote
from no to yes to get the 50 votes
that he needed and was told afterward that
if he switched his vote in favor of this
bill, he was promised that Knox County would be
taken out of the legislation. And so this is legislation
as currently framed that include, what,
Knoxville, Knox, Davidson, and Shelby counties, he was
promised Knox would come out. I believe the Senate bill
excludes Knox as well. And so for some people,
in Nashville and Memphis, the biggest cities,
this is one more time where the legislature
is targeting legislation just at
the biggest counties. For other people maybe say,
well, that’s where the schools, they were bad schools,
and that’s where all the money is spent so we
should be targeting that. Your thoughts on
this voucher bill and the way it’s playing
out in the legislature. – Well, I mean, it
really was historic with the House vote because
that’s where this bill has died for years
in the legislature, and so for it to come
down to such a close vote and for there to
be this big pause which opponents are saying
is open to legal challenge because you’re in
the middle of a vote, why pause it when people
have already cast their vote. So yeah, it was
absolutely historic, but there is this, you
know, you think of the ASD, the Achievement School District, which is the state-run district that takes over local schools, that was targeted
to Memphis mostly, and then there’s also
two schools in Nashville, so there is this kind of thought that wow, the legislature
just keeps targeting these two counties
as opposed to saying what can we use these for
for other places as well, if they’re so good. – In terms of next is the Senate Finance Ways and Means
Committee passed a bill six to five in a vote, Brian
Kelsey locally voted for that. He’s been behind, Bill,
he supported various voucher legislation
bills over the years. This one has changed constantly as it’s gone through
the legislative process. It’s been a lot
of back and forth. You had a lot of suburban,
although the suburban legislators who were
saying, in the Memphis area, who it would not affect
the Shelby County school, or the, excuse me,
the suburban schools, they didn’t like the precedent. They didn’t like the
idea that these vouchers could come in and
students could be able to come out of whatever
school in the area, that this voucher bill,
although it was targeted at certain types of
schools, failing schools, and so on, that it could, once
you get that bill out there, it could expand, expand, expand. Let me also say, a
$7,300 voucher to enroll at a private school,
your thoughts. – Well, this really, while
it became a partisan issue, if you look at the
roll call in the House, there were Republicans
who voted against this, and there were Democrats
who voted for it. And as we’re
recording this show, the two different
versions are attempting, they’re attempting to
reconcile those two versions so that you have the same
piece of legislation there. What was interesting is
that Casada made a statement to the Republicans
in his chamber before the vote
took place and said no matter how you vote,
I’m going to support you. So in other words, vote
your conscience on this, and we’ll see where
the cards lie on it. At the same time, he
obviously wanted to see this bill passed in
the House in some form. When John DeBerry showed
up on the roll call, a Memphis Democrat, as
voting for the bill, social media
automatically lit up with some pretty
prominent Democrats saying in 2020, we have
to primary DeBerry, in other words, he
has to be challenged in the Democratic
primary in 2020. He’s faced stiff
challenges in the last two primaries as well. – Toby, your thoughts. – As far as proponents and
critics of the voucher system, you know, somehow the
vote got the attention of the Trump administration,
and this week on Wednesday, Trump tweeted, the
great state of Tennessee is so close to
passing school choice. All of the nation’s children,
regardless of background, deserve a shot at achieving
the American dream. Time to get this
done, so important. Also tweets from Education
Secretary Betsy DeVos and of course Governor Lee. The critics of the voucher
say that they would funnel even more money away
from public schools, failing public schools,
into private school coffers, and they want the money to
stay in those public schools, and they’re afraid
that there would be less oversight of the
quality of the education at those private schools,
some worry about fraud. There was a story
in The Tennessean that found that a similar
program in Arizona, they found $700,000
in fraudulent spending from the voucher dollars. Some of ’em were spent
at beauty supply stores, sports apparel stores,
and other things. – Yeah, I mean, and we
had the conversation with interim superintendent
Joris Ray recently, in the last couple of weeks
when we had him on the show, about what do you
say to, you know, there are failing
schools in Shelby County and throughout the
state, there just are, and there’ve been all
these various efforts, some of been
successful, you know. We talk a lot about the
Innovation Zone schools, we talk about, we focus
maybe in some ways on too many of the failing
schools in Shelby County. There are many that are
doing well or doing great and many that have
been turned around, but there are ones
that are failing. And so if you can’t
figure it out, I think the proponents
of these sort of plans say, well, the
clock doesn’t stop for the kids in these schools. You can’t, you’re trying
and trying and trying, even best-faith
effort, you’re trying, but that kid is going
from first grade to second grade to third grade and is stuck in
a failing school, why not give other options? And so that’s–
– Well, another thing– – It’s an interesting debate–
– Yeah, absolutely. – About that.
– Yeah, and to be able to target to that same
population of kids, you have to also think that
these education savings accounts don’t cover the full
cost of tuition, which is very different than
previous voucher legislation. So if a parent is
gonna get this $7,300, either the private school
will have to provide scholarship money, or
they’ll just have to come up with the rest of
it on their own. So that is different,
and so a lot of opponents have said, well, then how
is that really targeting those kids that are coming
from low-income families and from those failing schools. – Yeah, I mean, I
think we talked about with Joris Ray, and
then we’ll move on, I mean, the sort of
top-rated at least private schools in
Memphis are upwards of 20 to 22, $23,000 a year now. There are some that are
much less than that, but it’s an interesting debate. – I think–
– Go ahead, Bill. – And that was a key difference. If you look at the
voucher legislation that Bill Haslam proposed
when he was governor, his versions always had a
more-specific income guideline for when this would kick
in, and he was insistent that if the state money, $7,300,
I forget what it was then, but if that amount
traveled with the student to a private school,
then that was going to be what the full
tuition cost would be for that student at that school. – Yeah, I should also say,
I think at least in earlier versions of the bill, and
it has changed a bunch, the idea is that the
governor has said that the money that comes
out of the school system, that $7,300 that comes
out of whatever school where that child used
to be will be backfilled for a certain number of years. I should say that as well. Let’s move on to a charter
commission-passed bill that passed the Senate,
what is that bill about. And Memphis has so
many, I don’t know, how many charter schools
in Memphis, 40 to– – About 50.
– Probably 50 of them. What is this charter commission at the state level,
what’s that about? – So it’s basically moving
from the State Department, to the State Board of
Education has the power to basically either agree
with a local school district or to overrule them when
they say that they don’t want to approve a charter
school in their area, and so instead of putting that under the State
Board of Education, which has been really
bogged down and backed up with this responsibility,
which the governor says wasn’t really what
they were meant to do, it’s creating a new
commission of nine people that that would be
their sole focus is to be able to talk
about those approvals and that sort of thing,
and if they overrule a local school district,
then they would also be in charge of
that charter school. – Right, would this change
the local approval process, or just give another layer of, a way to sort of overrule
the local process? – The latter, so
yeah, it would give, so the local school
board would still have that first shot of deciding
is this charter school gonna come in or not. – Okay, let’s say
with the legislature and move on to sports betting,
and I’ll turn to you, Bill, and we’ll get other
people input here, but it’s an online
sports betting bill. It’s been heavily pushed by,
and we had couple of ’em on, Senator Akbari and
Robinson from Shelby County who say, look, I mean,
there’s, what are the estimates of some billions of
dollars that are lost in these estimates because
it’s not legal in Tennessee so people use offshore
or Internet-based, they’re based somewhere else and Tennessee doesn’t
benefit from it. It passed the House, and
it goes to the Senate. Your thoughts? – Well, Akbari and
Robinson are co-sponsors of the legislation,
and the House, G. A. Hardaway from Memphis
is also another sponsor of the legislation, and
it also has the backing of the Strickland
administration at city hall as well as the
Memphis City Council with the thought
at city hall being that if there is
a sportsbook here that it could be
located on Beale Street as part of the Beale Street
Entertainment District. Well, the bill’s been
amended pretty significantly toward the end of the
session to eliminate a bricks-and-mortar
requirement for a sportsbook. It could be done by an app
or some other digital means to actually make the bet on it. I don’t think that
would necessarily stop a business from
opening and saying, hey, we welcome people who
are betting on sports here, but that’s still being
determined at this point. And the argument here
among our legislators who favor this is
that we’re bordered by Arkansas and Mississippi. You know, Arkansas has Southland just across the bridge from us. Tunica, some of the
casinos down there are having a hard time,
but they already went with a sportsbook at
one of the casinos there just as soon as the ink
on the Supreme Court ruling was dry there. – I mean, Toby, I mean this
debate has been going on, I’ve lived in Memphis 25 years, around the time I moved
here, Splash Casino, going back in time, was the
first riverboat casino– – Sure.
– That opened in Tunica. I remember going down
there with some friends, and it was a
riverboat in the sense that there was a barge
floating in some mucky water, and there was a really, I mean, I’m not saying there’s
no nice casinos, but this was a
really tacky casino, and that was the
beginning, and I remember that debate back then,
and it continues now that there’s all
this tourism money, local money, hospitality
money, a loss of workers. I mean, in its heyday,
when there were I don’t know how many casinos
down there in the Tunica area, you would hear restaurants
and hotels here say look, we can’t compete with the
labor that goes down there. Now you’ve got
Arkansas expanding, I mean, hundreds of
millions of dollars in investment in what used
to be sort of dog parks and horseracing tracks, and
now they’re allowed to do, I think they had video
poker, and now they’ve got sports betting, I mean it’s– – And live gaming now.
– And live gaming. I mean, it’s effectively
they are casinos. They’ve got some sort of– – Exactly.
– Weird terminology to call it otherwise. Your thoughts on the
competitive nature of this in terms of the loss of revenue? – Like you, when I got
here about 12 years ago, it was interesting
to me to see gambling on both sides of the border
and that we didn’t have it and what a missed
opportunity, I guess. You’d see the
billboards everywhere, from Beale Street to Midtown, and now when you drive
around those same places, you’re seeing those
same billboards, but they’re all
about sports betting. And you gotta think
that people in Memphis see that every day whereas
legislators maybe in Nashville or Knoxville don’t
see that as much. But I did a story and
looked at revenues for sports betting
in North Mississippi, just that sector from the
Mississippi Gaming Commission, and they’re astounding,
I mean, they were north of $40 million
easily in a quarter just on their sportsbook. and if you’re a lawmaker
looking at taxes, that’s gotta look pretty good. – But here’s the thing,
if you’re that legislator, you’re also looking for a
stable source of revenue. – Certainly.
– And the history of casino gaming,
legal casino gaming in North Mississippi has
been pretty turbulent. Splash opened on Mhoon Landing
within the city of Tunica. As soon as casino gaming was
ruled out in DeSoto County, which would’ve been
right up against Memphis and a very good reason for
having it up against Memphis, as soon as that was ruled out, all of the casinos that
had been at Moon Landing including two that I
went to that opened on the same night–
[groups laughing] This is how frantic
the activity was there, they all moved to as close
as they could possibly get out of Tunica to the
Tunica-DeSoto County line. And now you’ve got
Roadhouse Tunica, they’re auctioning off
all of their fixtures for their casino there. It’s been a pretty
turbulent history, and sportsbook
betting is jumping out of the box right now,
but how long will it be? – Well, the only counter
to that would be, you know, you look at
Southland which has been, over the past few
years just added hundreds of millions of
dollars of expansions, and they’re going through
a huge one right now. So I’m not sure, I’m
not an expert on it, but you know, it looks
pretty solid over there. – Well, and they’re, let me
just, a couple of facts here and I’ll move on with
just a few minutes left, the companies that
wanna do this, it would be administered
by, this is the House bill, it’s still gotta go
through the Senate, the Tennessee
Lottery Corporation that manages the lottery
would oversee this. There’d be a $750,000 license. The House members claim
there are 10 people who’ve lined up to
show interest already. There’d be a 20% privilege tax with 80% of that going
towards lottery scholarships, 15% to local governments for
infrastructure and education and 5% for mental health. And again, I think by and
large, what I’ve heard in terms of the critics of this is it’s more of a
moral issue, right? I mean, it’s gambling,
it’s also yeah, it’s online sports
betting, you start here, but that’s just, you’re
tiptoeing down the road. So with just a
couple minutes left, we mentioned hospitality
and all that, I was walking Downtown recently, and I think I counted under
construction right now, Downtown hotels, I think
there are five or six that I walked past,
something like that. It’s pretty amazing. Most of those are anywhere
from boutique 50-person hotels to maybe 100 or two, we’ve
had some convolutions, Toby, in the big convention
center hotel that’s proposed down there with a
group splitting apart, one group owned 100 North Main, the other wanted
to build a tower. Now Loews wants to
just build that tower. They’ve moved away from the
100 North Main partnership, and it looks like the city
wants to go in that direction. – Signed a letter of intent
this week to get that done. It was, that kind of
kicks off what has been years of planning
on this process, and the renderings as
they look right now, that building would
look really different than anything that’s down there. There’s a huge plate of
glass that kind of faces the north that says Loews. Of course, all of
that can change. So it’ll be a sharp contrast
to anything down there. And they come at the
same time when we’ve got $200 million worth
of renovations at the Cook Convention Center, is that the right figure, Bill? And so it would be a
20-plus-story hotel, 500-room hotel, and a lot
of this is in an effort to compete with really
Nashville, I think, you know, with
Music City Center. If you guys have been
there and seen that, it’s this blocks-long,
massive, beautiful facility with all the modern amenities, and folks here say that
we just can’t compete. Folks in the region,
even Atlanta, see that as kind
of this big vacuum, and it just has been sucking in all of the convention business
into that thing down there. And Doug McGowen, the
chief operating officer for the City of Memphis told
the Memphis Business Journal that the Loews deal
fulfills the promise of a wholly reimagined
convention center, and when it opens,
it and the Sheraton, with those togethers,
Memphis tourism will be able to block
off about 1,100 rooms for big conventions,
and so it would be a huge amenity and a huge
uptick for those folks. – Thoughts on what
happens next, Bill? – Well, there’s still
a lotta discussion about what happens with the
100 North Main building, the tallest building in
the city, which THM owns. According to the city,
there’s nothing to rule out THM from pursuing a
restoration of that and the two 30-story towers
that would go with it. THM is still trying
to sort itself out and see if it wants
to try to compete with a convention center hotel for the same tourism
development zone revenues. – And that’s that TDZ money
that would help to fund, what, this Loews hotel. – Right, the letter of
intent is specifically the city saying that
we’re on our way to a permanent agreement. While we’re on that way,
we’re only gonna negotiate with Loews on that prospect. – And with just a minute left, I was gonna do
more on the budget, but there’s one part
because I’m still honestly frustrated by this
Wall Street Journal article from a few weeks ago about
incentives and claiming, sort of painting
Memphis as the only city in America that
takes incentives, that right now that
FedEx is looking at about 22, 21 million
in tax breaks, basically, for its big billion-dollar
expansion of the hub, which apparently the Wall
Street Journal now argue they’re the only ones
taking incentives again, except that there’s 65
million in the budget for the Amazon
facility and 50 million in the Volkswagen
expansion in Chattanooga. I mean, this whole expansion
thing just sort of continues. With just 30 seconds
left, I also wanted to say a quick note of thanks. Madeline Faber, who
has been the editor of High Ground News
and a frequent guest whenever we do
these roundtables. She used to work at the Daily
News and the old Daily News. She is moving on
to other things. She’s going to graduate school, and I just, I wanted a
quick note of thanks. She’s always been a great
voice on these panels, and I appreciated
her being here. And I appreciate all you being
here, thank you very much. We’ve got a county
budget preview coming up and other shows, so join us
again next week, good night. [dramatic orchestral music] [acoustic guitar chords]

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