Wednesday, February 27, 2013

CM Carter Todd, TFA donor, expresses his support for Karl Dean on education

There are many avenues of education reform, but I want to address one in particular: high-quality public charter schools .... we have to create and recruit more great charter schools. And I will stand in support of any reasonable measure that helps make that happen.
-- Mayor Karl Dean in last Sunday's Tennessean

It is noteworthy that CM Todd agrees with Hizzoner's conservative embrace of charter schools and has donated a large sum of money to Teach for America. TFA is a "teacher's pet" of corporate venture philanthropy that strives to remake public education on market-based models and business strategies irrespective of the views of veteran education professionals.

It is also noteworthy that TFA has its own problems. Witness just a snippet of the comments from a TFA alum to NPR last year:

the biggest thing is that politicians hear these inflated successes, and then they buy into the current myth that we've got these old, lazy teachers that need to be replaced with these young go-getters. And that's also not the way it works.

But the huge issue - and the thing that got me, about a year ago, writing on this almost weekly - is the TFA alumni who, after two or three years, leave the classroom and go into a leadership pipeline. Now, there are some great Teach for America alumni that became leaders. They taught for a lot of years, and they became principals and things like that.

But I'm talking about a certain, small class of them. They taught for maybe two or three years, and then they were given the reigns to take over a district - and they have not done a very good job. A prime example is Washington, D.C., where Teach for America alumni are sort of at all levels, including the very top, and they haven't succeeded there. They have a policy of shutting down schools, firing teachers, given bonuses based on what I consider to be inaccurate metrics. And they've sort of bought into the whole corporate reform movement.

Gary Rubenstein points out elsewhere that the corporate push behind TFA and education reform consistently renders those of us who are its opponents (many of whom, like me, do not make enough to offset CM Todd's big donation of $5,000) as "defenders of the status quo". Hardly. Both Mayor Dean and CM Todd are established, powerful politicians who rely on corporate donations in a Republican red state, by definition conservative. Calling themselves reformers in the sense of agents of change, is far from expressing truth in advertising.

The status quo in Tennessee is that poor students and students of color generally end up with poor education while students from wealthy, mostly white families are handed better opportunities. In fact, that is the status quo in America. Neither charter schools nor TFA do anything to change that status quo. On the contrary, charter schools "cream" the best performers from public schools and can move poor performers out. Moreover, education reformers defend the status quo themselves by drawing the discussion away from economic inequalities that keep some students down in the dust while lifting a few others to obscene heights. I certainly understand why: conservative corporate donors do not want to support anything that rocks the boat that brings them their wealth in the first place.

And consistent with the corporate status quo, it is not students who are the primary beneficiaries of school reform, but the few wealthy white guys bankrolling it with their investments; the kind of guys on whom Karl Dean and Carter Todd rely on to keep their powerful positions in Nashville. The Mayor and the Council Member may cheerlead the flipping of education away from public, but at the end of the day let's hope that they are honest enough to admit that it really will not amount to any real positive change for the vast majority of Nashville's students.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Latest Salemtown Neighbors compromise on overlay still fails to live up to democratic process

Salemtown's neighborhood association sent out their minutes today. In the report was an update on discussions held at the last business meeting (which I did not attend) on the proposed conservation overlay:

Conservation Overlay: This process is well underway and all paperwork has been filed with Erica Gilmore .... the lengthy discussion on this important issue is summarized below.

  • SNNA is responsible for the cost of notifications, including mailings and signage.  The cost for this is estimated to be about $2,000, but we have been advised to set aside approximately $3,000.
  • SNNA voted in 2012 to pursue the overlay, and the current executive board endorses it.
  • However, this will require a budget amendment and/or running a deficit.  Fundraising is an option for making up the difference.
  • The area being considered is 3rd Avenue to 7th Avenue north of, but not including, Hume Street. The guidelines would apply to any new construction and any significant street-facing renovations.
  • The most significant aspect of the guidelines is a height restriction much lower than the current restriction of 45 feet.  This would make construction of 3 or more stories extremely difficult, if not impossible.
  • One alternative to the Conservation Overlay is an Urban Development Overlay, but this would require us to start the entire process over.  Another option is to amend the currently proposed guidelines to be more flexible on height restrictions.
  • Many people voiced a concern of how to ensure the character of Salemtown while not tying the hands of quality developers who are willing to work with us. Also, there are also a lot of concerns about some new development that appears out of line with the existing charm and character of the area.
  • If the overlay is pursued in some form, it will serve to give us more leverage in future development.
  • There was a motion to amend the current overlay guidelines regarding height restrictions to be more in line with that of Germantown.  The motion passed.

These events do practically nothing to address concerns already expressed that the 2012 Executive Board trampled all over the democratic process to get the appearance of a plurality on a conservation overlay. I am still not convinced that the consent reported (and I've never seen hard data on the survey results) by the officers was adequately informed and thus reliable.

While softening height guidelines may satisfy developers, who as a group tend to oppose restrictions anyway, that is not enough to win my support for this overlay. The process matters more than the ends-means fallacies currently floated as justifications for not starting over. However, if starting over to pursue an Urban Development Overlay is an option, that's the one I would prefer. If we're going to pursue an overlay, lets do it right this year.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Advance Financial's campaign contributions evade tracking

After I posted on a Facebook discussion of Germantown's new predatory lender, Advance Financial, I received the following observations from Mike Peden (who single-handedly tracks campaign finance) on the lender's influence:

Advance Financial is making political contributions two ways.

They are making donations as "Advance Financial" and as "Advance PAC" [political action committee].

"Advance Financial" can make unlimited contributions to PAC's without filing a disclosure, which is the case with the $10,000 contribution to Tennessee First.  But they cannot make a contribution directly to a candidate without filing a disclosure.

"Advance PAC" can make contributions to other PAC's and candidates, but must file a disclosure.

So, you cannot tell how much Advance Financial has given just by looking at the Advance PAC disclosure.

It is very confusing.

I am convinced that the purpose of the loopholes and misdirection of campaign finance is intended to be confusing so that influence and power are hidden from communities who would stage popular revolts if they could see through the ruse.

Mike's comments further sustain my point that letting businesses off the hook with arguments like Ron Wynn's (that they are just trying to make a buck) is irresponsible and naive. They system of planning and zoning is gamed, juiced and lubed by business money, and the entrepreneurs and executives, as well as the politicians they woo, should be held personally responsible for the maze and the mess.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Using social media to get the lights back on

Back in February 2005 I blogged a post on a cobra-head street light in front of my house burning out and the 10-day wait I was subjected to after the Metro bureaucrat at the other end of my phone request for repair drug his feet and rationalized the delay.

Jump forward to the first week of January 2012. I contacted the NES social media manager via Twitter to ask for the most effective way to report 3 sidewalk lampposts--installed several years ago as part of our federal block grant streetscape project--that had burned out. With Metro's confusing website makeover, I felt that going straight to NES was a better solution this time. That person directed me to their online report form.

One of the lampposts had been out for at least two years without any repairs. Two others stopped working late in 2012. I reported all three on January 4, giving locations and a lamppost serial number.

Despite my anticipation that going straight to NES via Twitter would get faster results than in 2005, three weeks passed with no changes to the lights. I tweeted @NESpower again. The person at the receiving end of my tweet replied, "For some reason, the work order was marked complete." They issued another work order.

Another week passed without any repairs and I direct tweeted @NESpower again. The social media specialist said that they were working with NES Customer Service to resolve the problem. Eight more days elapsed without changes, and so I followed up on Twitter again. @NESpower responded last Friday by saying that they tried to repair the lights on Thursday, but had some obstructions that kept them from completing the job.

Then on Saturday, the cherry picking truck showed up and replaced all of the the burned out lights that I originally reported on January 4. It took about 5 weeks longer than I hoped it would, but the lampposts are shining brightly once again on my street.

The lesson to be drawn is that the traditional channels for requesting lighting repairs are not any more reliable for me now than they were in 2005. In fact, replacing the lights took longer and a work order was erroneously marked as complete even though repairs were not made. And not having Metro help readily available for neighborhood infrastructure may make leveraging follow-up more difficult. My next option if nothing had been done by this weekend would have been to contact my council member.

Consequently, I would counsel anyone having trouble with NES customer service to be sure to use social media to interact with a company representative directly about follow-up.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Rezone for a restaurant in Salemtown? Don't be dazed by the dream

So, there is this rumor floating around Salemtown and promoted by certain segments that a developer on the 1600 block of 6th Av North is trying to woo owners of East Nashville burger joint, bar, and beer garden The Pharmacy to open a second place in our neighborhood (or at least to woo a restaurant "like The Pharmacy"). The 6th Av property, like most of Salemtown, is zoned for residential, so the developer would have to rezone either for commercial or mixed-use if they come to an understanding with restaurateurs.

Screenshot of 1604 6th Av N & homes from Google Maps
The developers who bought 1604 6th Av N last summer are absentee. They are Oak Tree Partners LLC of Gallatin, TN. They were founded in 2011 and they flipped another holding in their own town into a liquor store. According to Next Door comments forwarded to me, Salemtown Works (a 501c3, not to be confused with Salemtown Neighbors Neighborhood Association) president, Molly McCluer has corresponded with Oak Tree Partners. She encouraged neighborhood residents online to "lobby" The Pharmacy owners (the restaurant is owned by Terrell Raley) to open a restaurant in Salemtown. No word on which owners of restaurants "like The Pharmacy" are being so lobbied.

Now I don't question the value of having restaurants in higher density urban neighborhoods as long as there is careful planning and attention to traffic and parking impact and noise abatement. I have expressed support on this blog for a number of local businesses, including those that feature bars and restaurants. And we spend our money in these establishments to support them particularly because we appreciate the chance to walk rather than drive to do so.

But Salemtown sends the wrong signals to developers when we unquestioningly welcome them with open arms and no critical concerns. We send the wrong signals when we assume that, if we support a specific zoning change here, developers--especially absentee developers--will deliver the restaurants they float in front of our noses as wishful concepts to get their rezoning. We send the wrong signals when we appear to fall in love with their product and generally appear desperate for development when we should be asking developers to compromise to a win-win.

I live very close to the property that other people in my neighborhood who appear to live farther away want to see flipped into The Pharmacy. If I lived where they live I might want that dream, too. The reason I like going to the Pharmacy, besides the fare, is because it's across the river in East Nasty, and I do not have to worry about late-night bar closings near my property or noisy beer gardens.

But if this rezoning bobs to the surface, I will be contacting Mr. Terrell myself to ask about parking, traffic, his closing hours of 3am 7 days a week, and any amplified music played in a beer garden on top of the voices of dozens of customers on school nights. I see that he has a kid about my youngest kid's age, so he would probably understand why I would ask. I might even visit The Pharmacy late night with a decibel meter to measure the noise level myself.

Before I could support a bar and restaurant with outside service near my house on a property that is currently zoned residential, I would need assurances. And I have already talked to a couple of my neighbors who tell me they would need the same assurances. I bet I could find other neighbors who would be sympathetic, especially parents.

One online review of The Pharmacy indicates that parking is a problem in its East Nashville location. In 12South residents have been struggling with shrinking parking due to business growth for years, and the tensions came to a head in 2012. Following multiple meetings between 12South neighborhood association, the Belmont-Hillsboro Neighbors neighborhood association, and 12South businesses, affected residents have successfully navigated the parking permit application process to reserve street parking for themselves. They have a public hearing set with Metro Traffic and Parking Commission on March 11. I bet reserved on-street parking for residents will be approved.

Given that Salemtown has primarily on-street parking, support for residential permits is one thing among others that developers and business owners should be willing to give in order to get support for rezoning. One among others, like noise abatement.

Speaking of the impact of neighborhood businesses on parking, I meant to respond to Chris Chamberlain's observations about on-street parking in a Nashville Scene review of Germantown's Rolf and Daughters back in November. Chamberlain wrote:

Although Rolf and Daughters may seem to be in a remote location with no dedicated parking lot, intrepid diners will quickly realize that it is really only about a minute past the Nashville Farmers' Market and just a couple minutes from the interstate at the Rosa Parks exit. There is plenty of street parking on Taylor Street, so you shouldn't have to walk far to enjoy this new gem in the local restaurant crown.

I drove down Taylor tonight at rush hour, just before dinner time. I saw no ample on-street parking. There was ample parking if you were willing to walk at least a block to get to the place, because cars were choking both sides of the street (and what is the impact on residents who live on 7th Av off Taylor?). Taylor is so narrow that moving traffic is reduced to one squeezed lane when the ample parking spaces are occupied. Without traffic flaggers, two-way traffic on Taylor would be impossible on nights when Rolf and Daughters is slammed and on-street parking backfills for two or three blocks. Ample parking? Did Chamberlain closely look at the street before writing that?

All questions about traffic and parking impact and noise abatement must be soberly considered by Salemtown before we indulge ourselves in the seduction of developers' dreams.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Facebook chatter on Germantown's Advance Financial

Metro planners were criticized a couple of weeks ago in a thread on the new predatory lending store (Advance Financial) going up in Germantown at Rosa Parks Boulevard and Jefferson Street. Of course, observers pointed out that predatory peddlers are always dumped into more transitional neighborhoods and that you would not see this happening in West Nashville.

One person insisted that a liquor store replacing the demolished gas station would have at least given something back to the North Nashville community rather than simply taking away.

Local jazz and blues column writer Ron Wynn was expressly concerned about about the lack of warning we got about the arrival of the lender:

The time to do something about this was before they got on the property. Where are the elected representatives for North Nashville and why did this happen without some comment from them? I don't blame the business. They are doing what business people always do, trying to maximize profit. But these things don't happen in other communities because they get stopped before they get started.

While I believe that our council member more than likely should shoulder some of the responsibility for her part in allowing this to happen without due diligence to the community, I also think that Mr. Wynn lets Advance Financial off the hook too easily. What he fails to include in the profit-maximizing equation is the political influence the lender flexes through the vehicle of campaign donations, full-time lobbying and leveraging public support. Advance Financial, after all, has its own "527" political advocacy committee (remember "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth"?). This not just some shop owner trying to make an honest buck. Advance Financial is a player and the politicians predictably fall in line with the players' money.

And these things don't happen in other communities because other communities have either organized money or organized people to stop them. North Nashville needs more of the latter. Yet, any of us who stand up and argue that not all growth is good for our quality of life are often met with knee-jerk and baseless criticism from people who have issues with confrontation of and debate with Nashville's patrician class, the "job creators".

I do not disagree that we need more people here who are willing to be an early warning network of watchdogs digging up dirt that otherwise is spirited under the radar. I've curated and blogged (8 years last week!) with that as my intention.

A neighbor here in Salemtown who joined in the Facebook discussion quoted one of my previous blog posts on Germantown's new predator to point out that zoning, use and historic overlay requirements were all met by Advance Financial, making it legal. Mr. Wynn responded:

I can guarantee you that there are plenty of other places in this city where Advance Financial would have never gotten approval to set up where they are. They are directly across from the planned Black Music Museum. You think the city would let a predatory lending company establish itself across from the Country Music Foundation?

Point taken. But Advance Financial greases deals like this. They contributed thousands to the Germantown Street Festival. I believe that they could get a predatory lending company across from the CMF if they were willing to donate millions. Of course, that would fly in the face of the whole "maximizing profits" equation. But money changes everything. It can purchase anything in any part of town for the right price. In reality Advance Financial makes more from preying on working class and poor people, who are compelled to concentrate away from affluence. Putting Advance near the CMF makes bad business sense in an established tourism district, but if they needed to locate there the price would be higher than it is on Jeff Street.

Once a company has the zoning and the use requirements lined up and then the local neighborhood association cows to their money, how can they possibly be stopped?

Undeterred, Mr. Wynn seems to have an answer:

The killer here is that this MIGHT have been stopped if action was taken way back in the beginning. It's not like businesses have never been prevented from setting up shop in areas due to neighborhood opposition. But the opposition has to happen beforehand, and it has to be informed .... I didn't find out about this until it was already set in stone. Where are our (the community) sources with access to this type of information regarding who's obtaining property and for what purposes? You better believe anytime something is vacant, for sale or available in Brentwood or Belle Meade or even Madison it is closely tracked and people living in those communities are briefed and informed about possible buyers, businesses, firms, etc. I don't believe that the people of North Nashville would have stayed silent had they known what was happening in advance.

So, Advance Financial is not to blame for this deal, but "community sources" who did not properly warn North Nashville are? (Also, note that North Nashville, which has not been organized well enough to catch wind of these things and mobilize in the first place, is absolved from responsibility). Who are these community sources he demands step up? Campaign-financed politicians? Bought-out neighborhood associations? The incentives have already been handed out. Expecting them to go turncoat is unrealistic.

So, who is left to sound the early warning system? Neighborhood leaders and watchdogs unplugged from streams of influence?

In all fairness, waving red-flags about power moves in Nashville is highly risky. You can be ostracized as "conspiratorial". You can be stigmatized as "NIMBY". You can be ignored as someone who merely looks for a fight without higher goals. There is very little benefit in watchdogging in Nashville. After so many years of doing it through this blog, I do not blame anyone for not stepping up and sticking their necks out.

And there's the rub. If by "community sources" Ron Wynn is referring to ordinary people, why isn't he willing to step up and do the job himself? Why not start his own hyper-local blog?

Maybe because hosting your own neighborhood blog is tough and thankless? Neighborhood groups and watchdogs proliferated under the previous Mayor and his relatively robust Office of Neighborhoods. The focus on neighborhoods has died in Karl Dean's administration. The courthouse class effectively counters community watchdogs with communications specialists, PR flacks and rumors of anonymous trolls on online comment boards.

Speaking of flacks, there is no shortage of reporters who are willing to echo what they are fed about growth and development.

Journalists have colonized the blog lifeworld and they promote the dominant narrative there. The local blogosphere was at one time an alternative channel for voices that would convey news that the news media ignored. News companies now pay social media managers and enlist bloggers who gatekeep the legitimate voices more effectively than dead-tree versions could.

Hence, there are so many obstacles to the communication for which many of us wish before developments move from concept to reality.

We do need community watchdogs. We do not need unrealistic expectations about community watchdogs, who assume remarkable risks in service to the community.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

I want to ride my bicycle

The Nashville restaurant business is a tough one. I've lived here nearly a quarter of a century and I've watched them come and go; birthed, prosper and blow away like ashes in the wind.

I used to buy cat food in the old Jones Pet Store in Hillsboro Village. Then I stood in the same shop on Fido's opening day at the counter (that replaced a line of fish tanks), and I ordered my first of many coffees. I also wrote half my dissertation at Fido, setting the trend early of annoying students who occupied the place for hours (except that I made a point of purchasing food and drink during busy times so as not to miff "Bongo Bob" Bernstein). Fido is one of the few places with staying power, and that makes my remembrance of its early days that much more significant.

Since moving to the North End in 2004, we have been able to rely on the Big 3: Mad Platter, Germantown Cafe, and Monell's not falling to Nashville's fickle dining market. However, newer places like a coffee shop called Drinkhaus, a hotdog cafe called Zackies and a sweets boutique called The Cocoa Tree have shuttered. (I should at least mention City House, a newer place that has held its own for several years).

And we really have not had the benefit of a bona fide breakfast place (my personal favorite for meal of the day), although Garden Brunch Cafe may qualify despite its brunchiness (and the Garden Brunch owners are salt-of-the-earth folk you should meet if you have not already). However, all of the sudden we do with the opening nearly three weeks ago of The Red Bicycle Coffee and Crepes, which previously served the denizens of Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

I have now been to the Red Bike at least half-a-dozen times and I have not had a bad experience or fare. Full disclosure: my taste preferences run from savory to spicy, so I have not yet tried their sweet menu. To tell you the truth I liked the savory crepes I've had so much I may never get to the sweet side and still not regret it. I have tried at least four variations of their breakfast crepes (the "Good Morning" with meat and without, the "Wake Up" and the "Yummy Crepe") and two variations of their lunch crepes (the "Thai" and the "Bacon Cheeseburger"), and I thoroughly enjoyed every single one. Given what you might be in the mood for, each is a winner in my book.

I have to say that I have had more crepes in the past two weeks than I had in the past twenty years, so there is definitely a niche among my taste buds for something extraordinary.

The only glitch in their menu that I see is that the salsa that they serve with their chips and salsa is not what I have traditionally called salsa. It is more of what we from my corner of the southwest refer to as "picante sauce", which is thinner and less chunky than salsa. No matter. They send it out in a supersized coffee mug with a huge plate of chips that I could not finish by myself. More for sharing.

My preference in breakfast drinks runs toward the espresso end of the pool with lots of shots, and again, nothing sweet. Their breves (steamed half-and-half instead of milk) are the best I have had in our end of town (yes, better than the departed Drinkhaus, of which I was a loyal customer). They pull their shots from a cool retro machine that looks like a shade of Tar Heel blue. I have had the coffee with my meal and stand-alone, but I have yet to be disappointed in their skills. In fairness, I should mention a couple of other eateries in or near the North End whose espresso drinks are also worth a mention. Newly arrived Swaffles (across 5th from the Red Bicycle) has brewed me a mean cup of coffee the several times times I have been there. They tell me that they were schooled by some of Bongo Bob's minions (the legend becomes legacy). Also, I refer you to Garage Coffee Company a short drive away in Marathon Village. They also pull tasty java.

A big selling point of Red Bicycle for me is that they are open 6:30 am to 9:00 pm. Those hours are rare in this community and we need to avail ourselves of the privilege. If you follow their Twitter stream, you'll get daily tweets on specials they have during the evening hours until closing (2-for-1 crepes, 50% off drinks, etc). They have knocked out the cozy boutique that was The Cocoa Tree into a big, breathing dining room that bests any other shop at the corner of 5th and Madison (excluding Silo). The way things are setting up, the Red Bike could be to Germantown what Fido has been to Hillsboro Village. That is a hugely favorable comparison based on my experience.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Follow the bouncing logic

Karl Dean, Jesse Register, and just about every charter school leader I listen to draw the conclusion that Nashville needs charter schools and more charter schools. Their premise is that "choice" will give Metro Public Schools parents incentive to stay rather than to move to affluent public school districts like Williamson County or to private schools.

Williamson County Superintendent Mike Looney told reporters yesterday that he does not want charter schools in his school district because they dilute the resources that the public schools have. So, the focus in Williamson is not on "choice", but on "infrastructure," since money would shunt from the latter to fund charter schools. So, how can Williamson possibly be one of the most envied district if they do not even wave choice at their parents?

I have argued for some time that, as a public school parent, I am more likely to abandon Nashville schools over the charter issue. I base my view exactly on Mr. Looney's premise: charter schools sap what little money bona fide public schools have. Charter schools weaken already reeling Metro public schools. Hizzoner et al. give parents a false sense of choice because the mediocrity is spread around while wealthy education corporations (and some charter administrators) enrich themselves on the pedagogic blight. Choice is like an opiate that lulls parents into believing they have power in a school district that does not share power with those who do not first have the influence (like that of the Nashville Chamber of Commerce).

I guess sometimes, when the red flags of peon parents in poorer districts are ignored, it takes an affluent (and predominantly white?) school district leader to smack down the bouncing, flawed logic of our own educational overlords. Since few people listen to me, I hope others notice the hot mess of Mr. Looney's logic (and take note that infrastructure seems to take precedence over choice in one of the most Republican-leaning counties in the country). It makes more sense than the bunk we are spoon-fed here.