- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Recent editorials from Tennessee newspapers:


September 2

Knoxville News Sentinel on prison system review:

The state of Tennessee is planning an independent review of its troubled prison system in the wake of an employee exodus, plunging morale and increasing violence.

There is a difference of opinion about what outside organization will conduct the review, but there is little question about its necessity.

Tennessee has more than 21,000 beds at 14 prisons that operate at about 98 percent of capacity. The department employs 2,587 correctional officers.

At least 322 correctional officers have quit their jobs in Tennessee’s prison system since last August, when the state began implementing a new work schedule designed to save money, according to figures from the Department of Correction. The DOC switched to a 28-day work schedule to save on overtime expenditures. The department will not disclose, for security reasons, how many vacancies exist at each prison.

Last week Randy Stamps, head of the Tennessee State Employees Association, presented a Senate committee looking into the state’s prison woes with documents indicating there will be 182 vacancies at West Tennessee State Penitentiary when the next work schedule begins Sunday. Correctional officers from across the state have been asked to volunteer to work temporarily at West Tennessee.

Ann McGuire, a retired Department of Correction human resources manager, told the committee the agency has “big problems with recruitment and retention” of officers because of reductions in benefits, including longevity pay and the loss of civil service.

More disturbing than low employee morale is a reported surge in violence and the department’s apparent moves to sweep it under the rug.

Jerry Lester, retired warden at West Tennessee, told the same committee that Department of Correction Commissioner Derrick Schofield’s decision to reclassify about half of the system’s maximum-security inmates led to an increase in incidents of violence at facilities.

Department administrators, Lester testified, directed wardens to report violent incidents as lesser, nonviolent encounters if possible - a troubling assertion that raises the specter of a high-level cover-up of the true conditions inside Tennessee’s prison system.

Schofield disputed many of the charges against his management when he testified before the committee but acknowledged problems in the system.

The commissioner announced that he’s asked the American Correctional Association - the national accrediting agency for prisons and prison systems - to send a team of auditors to Tennessee, at the state’s expense, to review prison operations and make recommendations.

State House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Stewart, on the other hand, has called for an outside review by the National Institute of Corrections, an agency of the U.S. Justice Department. It provides technical assistance to prison systems upon written request by the state correction commissioner.

Regardless of the group finally chosen to review the prison system, the investigation needs to be thorough and independent, and any deficiencies must be corrected.




August 26

The Daily News Journal, Murfreesboro, Tennessee on Tennessee Promise scholarship initiative:

Each new school year brings a high level of excitement as students have opportunities to renew old friendships and work to familiarize themselves with new classmates, teachers and academic challenges, but some students this year also have the nation watching them.

They are part of a bold experiment - Tennessee Promise, an initiative that allows state high school graduates to receive two years of post-secondary education without paying tuition or fees for their studies.

They are receiving from the state “last-dollar” scholarships that pay the balance of these costs after all other financial aid is applied.

Monday was the first day of classes for Tennessee Promise students attending community colleges; program participants also can attend Tennessee Colleges of Applied Technology whose class schedules vary with the program of study.

Some students encountered scheduling problems and the “sticker shock” of textbook prices, but officials at Motlow State Community College in Smyrna and other affected campuses pledged to work with the students on their transition to post-secondary education.

While the aim of Tennessee Promise is to provide financial support for participants, its larger purpose is to help them learn how to adapt to a new learning environment and perhaps become the first persons in their immediate families to work toward post-secondary degrees or credentials.

Tennessee Promise is part of the Drive to 55 initiative, whose purpose is to increase the percentage of state residents who have post-secondary credentials, so the state will have a workforce equipped with the knowledge and skills to work in the jobs of the 21st century.

Answers to many questions about effects of Tennessee Promise will not come in the first week, the first month or perhaps even the first year.

As of Monday, for example, the Smyrna campus of Motlow State had the largest enrollment of any of the Motlow campuses. Does this mean that the Smyrna campus will need even more classroom space in coming semesters?

What about the number of full-time or adjunct faculty or the provision of other services for students?

What will be the effects on four-year institutions such as Middle Tennessee State University?

The primary question is not how many Tennessee Promise students attended their first classes this week but how many students will earn associate degrees or other credentials or decide to continue their studies at MTSU or other four-year institutions.

Although their new studies need their attention, we hope Tennessee Promise participants will take a few moments to enjoy the excitement of their learning adventures and celebrate their participation in the initiative.

We hope their communities will join with their families and friends in saluting these Tennessee Promise pioneers who are creating paths that may not only have an impact in the state but also influence other states and the federal government in proceeding with plans for similar post-secondary initiatives.




August 21

Chattanooga Times Free Press on new state library

Nothing sounds sexier than a state library and archives:

One imagines an 83-year-old great-grandmother checking to see if her ancestor really was mentioned in the Pulaski Journal during the Civil War or a small-town, Matlock-type lawyer researching the minutia for a claim in a civil suit. Cobwebs on the oversized volumes. Crickets chirping from dark corners.

So when the Tennessee State Library and Archives officials in Nashville say they’re out of room and need a new building, the clamor has not been deafening to give them what they need.

What they need - indeed, what was designed for them north of the state Capitol next to the Bicentennial Mall nearly 10 years ago - is a building in which they will be able to fulfill their statutory responsibility of storing the informational materials from every bill filed in the state as well as numerous other documents.

“The documents have to be somewhere,” Blake Fontenay, communications director for the Tennessee secretary of state told the Times Free Press editorial board recently. “And there’s more created every day.”

Indeed, if a new building is not built, paperwork for future legislative sessions and future gubernatorial administrations will have to be stored off-site, he said. Digitization of some materials to save space is either statutorily not possible nor practical, officials said.

The problem is the price - $89 million more than the $10-$15 million that’s already been spent. That’s a steep ask of an administration that directed state agencies last year to prepare to cut their budgets 7.5 percent and asked them earlier this week to prepare for cuts of 3.5 percent.

The new building - the old one attracts some 10,000 visitors a year - was said to be the state’s top project in 2008, according to State Librarian and Archivist Charles A. Sherrill, but never got the proper General Assembly support. Then the Great Recession hit, and the project was shelved.

When the administration of Gov. Bill Haslam considered how it would spend nearly $300 million in non-recurring revenue in the 2015-2016 budget, it chose to fund a new Tennessee State Museum, which is currently housed with the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in the James K. Polk building.

Sherrill hopes the next budget will include his new building as part of non-recurring investments, but he’s not holding his breath. He and Fontenay realize the project may take some private funds and certainly will require the help of their Friends of the State Library and Archives group.

But, said Fontenay, “inertia is our biggest opponent.”

A state library and archives may not be sexy, but a state that demands its papers be saved should make sure it has a proper place to save them.



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