Capitol View Commentary: Dec. 5, 2008 - | Nashville News, Weather & Sports

Capitol View Commentary: Dec. 5, 2008


By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice President, DVL Public Relations & Advertising

December 5, 2008


The calendar may say it's the beginning of the season for "peace on Earth, goodwill to men", but the Metro School Board and Mayor Karl Dean seem poised to go to war with each other very soon over control of the city's public school system.

After a few months of making nice in public (they still say they are sure everyone has "the best interest of the children at heart"), it's pretty clear these are groups headed in opposite directions and quickly. The Mayor has been hiring staff for months in anticipation of his office taking over schools as early as next fall. That could happen if Metro again fails to meet No Child Left Behind standards which would allow the Governor and the State to boot out the current school board and new Director (if one is hired) and appoint someone else to run the local schools.

Given the pretty close relationship that has developed between the Governor and the Mayor, most observers seem to think the Mayor would get the nod from Mr. Bredesen. It will be interesting to see if there is a need for special or extra legislation by the General Assembly (where would our local delegation stand?) or the Metro Council to make such a switch, or if the Governor can already make this change under existing statutes.

Regardless, Mayor Dean isn't wasting any time. He's been to New York City in recent days to see how Mayor Bloomberg and his office took over and now run the local schools up there. Will a trip to see Mayor Daley in Chicago, where that's also occurred, be the next stop on the Mayor's travel plans?

Meantime, without much of any consultation with school officials, the Mayor's already unilaterally implementing some things he thinks needs to be done, such as combining the Metro Library system with the libraries in local schools. When I brought this matter up in a column a couple of weeks ago, I wondered how school officials would react.

From media reports, it's clear they are very unhappy with how the Mayor proceeded without even consulting them, much less asking for their approval. School Board members have also shown their general unhappiness with the Mayor by hinting they plan to hire their own lawyer for advice, rather than continuing to use the Metro Legal Department. School leaders cite the possibility of a conflict of interest for the city's lawyers, while also pointing out the Mayor Dean himself was Legal Director for seven years (hiring many of the current staff) before moving to the Mayor's office (ouch!)

But the biggest sign of the School Board's unhappiness is that the group is moving ahead with hiring a new Director of Schools, despite the request of the Mayor to hold off on any hiring until the No Child Left Behind takeover issues have been resolved. But with the Board interviewing finalists for the jobs this weekend (December 6-7), it is pretty clear the die is cast for a new Director of Schools to be hired before the end of the year.

Given all this uncertainty, are we getting the best candidates for the job? From some of the comments I've seen from the Board's hiring consultant, maybe not. None of the finalists are current schools directors. That doesn't mean they aren't highly qualified, but does it say something that no one currently running a public school system made the cut or maybe applied? And what about the state's open records law that requires media and public notice of all candidates who apply for the job? Is all that the reason why some of the best candidates seem to be waiting it out on the sidelines? The last time a new director was hired, a couple of the finalists were active school directors. Is it the combination of an open records law plus Nashville's uncertain public education future that's limiting the field?

And what about the looming major budget issues facing the system, which includes the possibility of pay cuts, layoffs and classroom service cuts or dipping again into the system's reserve funds as early as later this month because of the decline in the economy and the city's tax revenues.

In some ways I can understand the Board wanting to move ahead with hiring a Director. Increasingly in recent months, they've been told over and over again what they can't do in their jobs, while state education officials and others have taken over more and more of the Board's prerogatives under No Child Left Behind. Maybe in hiring a new director, the Board is saying "enough" and just wants to show it still has at least some control and power over local public schools. And who knows maybe a new Director can turn things around or at least build new public confidence quickly. But the Board is also taking the big risk of leaving the city to buy out someone's contract, if, as many expect, the school system is completely taken over the Mayor and the state next fall.

Based on a recent story in THE NASHVILLE CITY PAPER (12/3), it appears a number of prominent local business leaders are lining up behind the idea of having the Mayor call the shots for the Metro school system. Clearly, the School Board is starting out behind in this PR battle, especially when you look at all the problems the school system has had over the last few years, not only with test scores but also with discipline, truancy (ask Police Chief Serpas),drugs and gun issues in the schools from time to time.  

  People sometimes complain that our political leaders always justify their actions by saying "it's for the children," especially when a tax increase is involved. Such a tax increase could be looming from the Mayor this coming summer. But for right now, I see a slight variation in this situation. When you see School Board members and the Mayor saying they are sure "everyone has the best interest of the children at heart," what they may really mean is what long-time Southerners do when they say: "Well, bless their little hearts."  

Stay tuned. The political knives may be coming out soon.


Given the continuing political soap opera going on around Metro schools, I can't think of a better topic to discuss on this weekend's (December 5-7) INSIDE POLITICS show. Nor can I think of a better group of local journalists to talk about all the various issues than the ones we have lined up to be with us.

That includes NEWSCHANNEL5 Education Reporter Rodney Dunigan, TENNESSEAN education reporter Jaime Sarrio, and NASHVILLE POST/NASHVILLE CITY PAPER education reporter Amy Griffith Graydon.

We've had these folks on before (our shows on the weekends of February 29 and June 20) and they know their beats inside and out. So if you have any interest in public education, you want to make sure and see this week's show.

INSIDE POLITICS airs several times each weekend on the NEWSCHANNEL5 Network.

Friday, December 5.........7:00 PM, NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS, Comcast Channel 50

Saturday, December 6.....5:00 AM, NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS

Saturday, December 6......5:30 PM, NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS

Sunday, December 7.......5:00 AM, WTVF-TV, NEWSCHANNEL5

Sunday, December 7........5:00 AM, NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS

Sunday, December 7........12:30 PM, NEWSCHANNEL5 PLUS


It's no wonder Governor Bredesen had such a positive reaction to meeting with President-Elect Barack Obama the other day (along with the rest of the nation's governors in Philadelphia). It's probably the first meeting the Governor's attended in several months where someone was talking about ways to help state governments with the severe revenue squeeze they are facing. All the rest of the Governor's meetings lately have likely been about what to cut or who to  layoff to meet a potential budget shortfall that is now estimated to be as much as $1 billion just for this current fiscal year. It's a deficit figure that seems to be rising almost every week as the state continues to see near-record tax revenue declines. "Looking into the abyss," one economist recently told the State Funding Board.

Now it's far from clear how quickly the proposed public works stimulus package (along with Medicaid funding assistance the President-to-be is proposing) will pass, or exactly what it will contain when it does clear Congress. But I'll bet the new President has plenty of political clout to get this done, especially early in his term when he's still enjoying his honeymoon with Congress and the country.

But some honeymoon, huh? Vice President-Elect Biden was correct. The new President will be tested. However, foreign governments, terrorists, Wall Street, the automakers, Congress and everyone else don't seem to be waiting for him to take office. They've started already with their challenges, leaving Mr. Obama to do the best he can (without having any real power yet) to rule by the force of what former President Teddy Roosevelt once described as "the bully pulpit" of the White House. The only problem is Mr. Obama has to do it from Chicago, not Pennsylvania Avenue. He doesn't get the keys to or the real powers of the White House until January 20. 

So far, the new President's cabinet appointments seem to be well received. The comparisons to President Lincoln's "Team of Rivals" seems apt with both former opponents Hillary Clinton and Bill Richardson coming on board, along with others who are on record opposing several of candidate Obama's positions on the campaign trail. Maybe what's happening is closer to that old political adage to "hold your friends close, and your enemies closer."

As for those who are complaining that the cabinet looks like a bunch of retreads and how they can they bring "change we can believe in," I think the President-elect is right in his selections. They show he plans to govern from the center, not the left or the right. And where else could he find anyone with national experience in his party's ranks except those who served before under President Clinton? The last Democratic President before that was Jimmy Carter and he left office almost three decades ago. And isn't experience pretty important in these difficult times? As for "change we can believe in", remember the new President says he will be the one to shape his administration's policies and make the ultimate calls on what to do.  

It reminds me of the story told of President Lincoln when he presented the Emancipation Proclamation to his Cabinet. When he put it to a vote, everyone voted "no." The President then said: "I vote aye, and the ayes have it."

Up on Capitol Hill in Washington, the Big Three Automakers have come back to town, now looking for a $34 billion-plus governmental bailout to stay in business. They went to PR school this time. They came to the D.C. driving their hybrid cars, talking about selling those luxury corporate jets and even the top executives say they will now work for just a dollar a year. Now the UAW has joined in, offering concessions on their retiree health care plan along forgoing pay for laid-off workers. The car executives also brought back business plans to show Congressional leaders how they plan to spend the public's money.

Good idea. Too bad nobody in Washington insisted we do that a few months back for the banks and financial institutions. Exactly how and to what positive impact their $700 billion bailout is being spent, nobody seems to know while the economy continues to tank.  You'd be better off to guess which will bottom first, the stock market or gas prices and at what cost to the overall national and world economy.

Republican Tennessee Senator Bob Corker continues to try and play a major role in this bailout debate concerning the car companies. He has presented a package of demands very similar in some ways to what the car companies and the unions are suggesting. But his plans and requirements go much further it seems, also requiring salary cuts for employees to bring them more line with American operations of foreign car companies like Nissan and Volkswagen (interesting choice, since those are two of the major car companies with operations in Tennessee).

Corker's plan may be a significant point of contention if car makers really need their bailout loan legislation passed right now, before the first of the year when a new more heavily-Democratic Congress comes to town. 

The President-Elect has also not stated his preference on the new automakers plan just yet, and what he wants will again likely carry major weight on Capitol Hill. So, as this is being written, and Congressional hearings wind up for the week, there remains quite a bit of uncertainty about exactly where this matter is headed, while the latest unemployment numbers (6.7%) show the economy continuing to nose dive.


The New Year brings the new Tennessee General Assembly to town. And not only does Governor Bredesen have to face a huge state budget deficit, he has to face a legislative body where a lot of his political capital has taken a hit lately.

Not only do Republicans now control both house of the Legislature for the first time since Reconstruction, the Governor has managed to publicly estrange himself from his own party's leadership in the House. The Governor made it clear he hoped Nashville State Representative Gary Odom would be deposed as Democratic Leader by his colleagues. Through a surrogate, the Governor said he had "trust issues" with Odom over a tax bill from last year. Actually they've been less than friends for years dating back to when Mr. Bredesen was Mayor of Nashville and Mr. Odom in the Metro Council.

The adage in politics is that if you are to shoot at the Big Dog, you need to hit and kill him with the first shot from the porch. You may not get another good opportunity. That's what the Governor tried to do, but he missed. Odom was re-elected and he isn't one bit happy about the Governor's comments. Mr. Bredesen now says he plans to work on both a "bi-partisan" and a "bi-Democratic" basis with the General Assembly. Good luck with that with Representative Odom. He is still upset about the Governor's "trust issues" charges. Odom says it's "the cheapest of shots." But what probably really set off the Nashville lawmaker was when he says his own mother called from Elizabethton in East Tennessee to ask him what this was all about. You know how bad it is when your mom gets involved J

As for the Governor, his office is making it clear he still doesn't plan to let Odom carry the administration bills this term, seeking out sympathetic Democrats and maybe even a few House Republicans on selected issues. That will be fascinating to watch.

On the Republican side of the House, with only a one vote majority, it could be equally fascinating. But for right now, it's so far, so good.  House GOP Leader Jason Mumpower got unanimous support (all 50 votes) from his colleagues to be the next Speaker of the House. There were some who wondered if the selection of a nominee for Speaker Pro-Tem might upset the apple cart and lead to a possible defection to Jimmy Naifeh  (it only takes one member) and keep the Democrats in control.

But that hasn't happened yet, even in the wake of former Naifeh (and, oh horrors, income tax) supporter GOP Representative Steve McDaniel beating Frank Nicely for the Pro-Tem nomination.

Speaker Naifeh is still said to be dreaming he can somehow hold on to his post. According to THE TENNESSEE JOURNAL (November 28), he told his members at the end of his House Democratic Caucus meeting: "I am still looking for that one vote. Keep the faith."

OK. But don't hold your breath either.


Someone else who needs to not hold his breath is Congressman Zach Wamp. As I predicted a few months back that someone would do, Wamp is publicly putting some pressure on former Senator and GOP Majority Leader Bill Frist to make up his mind soon about whether he plans to run for Governor in 2010.

Wamp says if Frist is not running, he definitely is, and that he'd like to start putting together his campaign as soon as next month. The Frist camp has indicated for some time that no decision about the 2010 race has been made, and won't be until later in 2009, at the earliest. 

Don't expect Wamp's media comments to change anything to move up Frist's time line to decide (most indications still are that Frist will run, by the way). Meantime, don't Congressman Wamp's comments put him in a strange position? He just got re-elected (easily) to his current post (and the challenges facing all of Congress are the most serious in many years). So shouldn't Wamp's comments be aimed more at dealing with the tasks at hand in D.C, rather than complaining that he needs to know now who's is or isn't running for Governor in two years, so he can get his ducks lined up for his own campaign for a new job?       

I know this is politics and I give the Congressman high marks for his candor, but maybe not so great marks for his timing.     


Speaking of timing, if I had to make a wager, I would say more likely than not, current efforts to keep the English First proposal off a special election ballot here in Nashville on January 22, will fail.

Now I happen to agree with those who believe the proposal is unconstitutional and wrongheaded, placing Nashville in a terrible position, and sending the wrong message to the whole world about our community if it passes.

But it has been my experience over the years that courts are very hesitant to rule on matters before the voters, before the voters decide first. After all, no one has been harmed yet, and the voters may decide to reject the matter anyway (which I hope they do, along with the other proposed amendment to make it ridiculously easy to our constitution every year).

This attitude by the courts about when to decide if something is illegal or constitutional is understandable but kind of a messy way to deal with it, I think. I also expect this matter to wind up in court several times if it does pass. What a shame! Let's hope mayoral aide Jim Hester, now on an unpaid leave from the Mayor's office, can come up with a winning strategy to persuade voters to reject English First.

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