Six Memphis Schools Vie for Obama Commencement Speech

by Ben Campbell

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — Internet voting was to begin Thursday as six high schools vie to have President Barack Obama deliver the commencement speech for this year’s graduating seniors.

In its second year, the Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge invited the nation’s public high schools to demonstrate how their school best prepares them for college and a career. The six finalists were chosen from hundreds of applications.

From Thursday through April 29, the public is asked to view and rate video presentations from each school. The three schools with the highest average rating will be sent to President Obama for a final selection.

Those interested in voting can go to to watch the videos and make a selection.

The finalists are: Bridgeport High School in Bridgeport, Wash.; Wayne Early Middle College High School in Goldsboro, N.C.; Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis, Tenn.; Science Park High School in Newark, N.J.; Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12, School for Creative and Performing Arts in Pittsburgh; and High Tech High International in San Diego. Watch President Obama’s commencement speech at Arizona State in 2009 Click Here.

UTC Takes Over Engel During Transfer

by Ben Campbell

CHATTANOOGA, TN- Tuesday’s City Council meeting presented a good opportunity for UTC and Dr. Richard Brown, Vice Chancellor of Finance and Operations, to address the takeover of the  historic Engel Stadium during the transfer period.

The University of Tennessee acquired the permission to use stadium from the Chattanooga Parks and Recreation back in 2004. The specific question at this meeting was if UTC would be able to begin renovations and other upkeeps during the waiting period for the transfer to complete.Click here to hear Dr. Brown lay out UTC’s plans.

“There have been numerous bureaucratic issues to deal with over the last couple of years but just last week we sent the actual deeds to Knoxville to be processed through the State Building Commission and it is my thought it will take 60-90 days to work through that process,” said Dr. Brown.

Since 2000 Engel had been used by local baseball teams and also played role in hosting the TSSAA playoffs up until their relocation to Murfreesboro, TN. “I used to play at Engel Stadium when I went Notre Dame and I found myself wondering if there would ever be a renovation of the stadium. It just had so much history and promise for future baseball in the community,” said Chattanooga Junior Josh McCutcheon.

After UTC received permission to use the stadium  in 2004 there has been numerous developments. The university has put in 2 million dollars into the renovations and construction of the lacrosse and soccer fields in the areas surrounding the stadium.

Dr. Brown and UTC’s intentions are to keep the stadium intact because of its iconic history and importance to Chattanooga as a community. “The stadium will be used for inner-city baseball and other baseball services through the community,” said Brown. Also developments for new track and field facilities will begin in the coming months.

Engel Stadium has been a member of the Chattanooga baseball community since it’s opening in 1930, with legends like Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron running its bases. As Dr. Brown stated in the Tuesday’s meeting, the university wants to restore Engel Stadium to its “old glory”.

The city council motioned to adopt this request, and grant UTC full access to Engel Stadium during the transfer period of the property. This topic was not supposed to be addressed till the coming week but Dr. Brown and UTC were ready to get the ball rolling.

Detroit School System Change

by Ben Campbell

DETROIT (AP) — Robert Bobb has spent the past two years closing dozens of schools and firing principals in an effort to fix the failing Detroit Public Schools. Yet, he still hasn’t solved the problem for which he was hired — erasing a legacy budget deficit that now stands at $327 million.

Now, in his final months as the state-appointed emergency financial manager, Bobb is proposing several headline-grabbing ideas — including a radical plan to shut down so many buildings that some high schools could see more than 60 students per class — in an attempt to wipe out the red ink.

The state Board of Education wants the budget gap closed sooner than later. Despite reworking vendor contracts to save money, shutting down old, high-maintenance buildings, weeding out numerous cases of fraud and theft, and keeping dozens of teaching and other district jobs unfilled, the deficit hasn’t gone away. With Bobb’s contract ending in June, he’s floating extreme measures to get the job done.

“There are so many competing interests within the Detroit Public Schools, you kind of have to throw a lot of different stuff against the wall to see what sticks,” says Michael Van Beek, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free-market think tank in Midland, Mich.

Bobb’s latest proposal, announced about a week ago, calls for placing 41 academically poor schools and the 16,000 students attending them in the hands of charter operators.

“Rather than simply closing schools, this plan seeks to transform DPS into one of the nation’s premier urban school districts by recruiting some of the best, proven school operators to serve Detroit’s children and remake schools that have been failing them for years,” Bobb has said of the charter proposal.

Another model seeks to take revenue and pay off the district’s outstanding debt while doing away with the existing school system. A new district with new contracts and staffing levels would be built from the ground up. Existing schools would be moved into the new system.

Bobb also has proposed asking the state to continue current funding levels, despite a drop in enrollment, while it chips away at the accumulated deficit over time. But this seems unlikely as Republican Gov. Rick Snyder already is planning cuts to per-pupil funding in his proposed state budget.

None are guaranteed to work and most would draw opposition from the teachers’ union and parents who don’t want to see schools closed and teacher contracts thrown out in favor of charter school operators hiring non-union educators to work in their buildings.

But all are preferred to Bobb’s initial deficit elimination plan that called for closing 70 of Detroit’s 172 schools and increasing the maximum high school class size to 62. Though that plan was approved in February by state education officials who wanted to see a proposal that would eliminate the deficit quickly, even Bobb says it goes too far.

“He had no choice but to get us down to zero by the 2014 fiscal year,” said district spokesman Steve Wasko. It “is not the plan we want, nor is it good for DPS or its students.”

Bobb was appointed by then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm in March 2009 to turnaround the cash-strapped district. He hired an inspector general to look into complaints of financial wrongdoing and within two months was investigating about 50 cases of theft and fraud. Audits of school records revealed some administrators made or received inappropriate personal loans.

Along with the school closings, contracts of more than 30 principals were not renewed. Less money also is flowing out of the district as Bobb cut millions of dollars in spending from the budget.

But as enrollment drops, less money to pay the bills is coming in. And while seeking answers to the district’s financial turmoil, Bobb also is fighting other battles.

“He has a school board that has taken him to court — and won; a recalcitrant teachers union that promises to file grievances. Then he has people within Detroit neighborhoods who don’t want to see schools shuttered,” Van Beek said.

Bobb was given more ammunition when Snyder recently signed a bill that gives broad new powers and tools to financial managers to restructure school districts and communities headed toward insolvency. Under the law, financial managers will be able to toss union contracts to help balance the books, strip power from local elected officials or — in extreme cases — dissolve a town or school district.

It’s unclear how Bobb will use that going forward. For now, he continues to push the charter school plan which is the one receiving the most support in the city at the moment — even from the school board. Under Bobb’s proposal, Detroit Schools would sponsor the charters and seek out groups to operate them. The district would lease the buildings for an estimated $21 million and receive 3 percent of whatever funding each charter gets from the state.

Operating costs are expected to drop by up to $99 million. The district would save about $22 million by not having to secure the closed buildings.

But the teacher’s union has been fighting Bobb’s efforts to close schools over the past two years and is “adamantly opposed” to adding more charters in Detroit while losing district-run buildings, Detroit Federation of Teachers president Keith Johnson says.

Charter schools, even those authorized by the district, are not required to hire displaced Detroit Public Schools teachers or hire teachers under the union contract.

The district’s track record with charter schools has not been smooth. It has closed two since it began authorizing academies in 1998, according to Wasko.

The Michigan Institute for Construction Trades and Technology was closed in 2002 for among other things failing to abide by and meet its educational goals and meeting generally accepted public sector accounting principles. The New Horizon Academy was also shut down in 2000 for the same reasons.

Bertha Marsh, who has five grandchildren in Detroit schools, says while most people don’t want change, the problems with the schools leave them no choice.

“The district knows it has to do something. Mr. Bobb has seen how the finances are doing, and he sees it’s impossible to make it financially stable unless they do something drastic. It can’t be the same old same old,” she said.

Charlie Sheen Has Gone Crazy

by Ben Campbell

NEW YORK (AP) — Here’s something for Jeff Rossen to ponder after a crazy week: Is being called a “rock star” by Charlie Sheen good or bad for his career in television journalism?

Rossen, an NBC News correspondent who works chiefly for the “Today” show, played a prominent role in the actor’s bizarre media tour to bash his bosses for suspending “Two and a Half Men,” and explain a lifestyle of drugs and “goddesses.” Andrea Canning of ABC News, CNN’s Piers Morgan and radio star Howard Stern also spent extensive time with Sheen.

It was Rossen, however, whom Sheen later described as a “rock star” whose interview was “pure gold.” Sheentold Morgan live on CNN that Rossen was awesome and should be a guest on his show.

“I think what he meant by calling me a rock star is that I kept my word to him,” said Rossen, who joined NBC News in 2008 after working for seven years at ABC’s New York City station.

Rossen had been trying to get Sheen to come on the “Today” show since shortly after the actor trashed a room in New York’s Plaza Hotel last fall. He said he spoke frequently with Sheen’s management team and met the actor on the “Two and a Half Men” set in November. Sheen subsequently spoke to Rossen for background on other stories, but didn’t go on camera until last weekend.

Besides taped interviews that appeared on “Today” Monday and Tuesday of last week, Rossen convinced the actor to get up — or stay up — for a 4:30 a.m. PT live interview the morning after he lost custody of his twins.

Rossen didn’t pull punches. He asked Sheen about his drug use and whether he provided a healthy home environment for his children and his role in making the future of television’s most popular sitcom shaky.

“I told him from the very beginning (that) I’ll make no agreements,” Rossen said. “I’m going to ask you whatever I want to ask you. The questions will be tough. Sometimes they will be uncomfortable. What I promise to you in return is that I will keep your answers in context. I’m not going to have any clever, tricky endings. I’m going to let you explain.”

Rossen’s boss, “Today” show executive producer Jim Bell, called him a versatile and relentless reporter.

“Literal and figurative doors were slammed in his face along the way but he simply wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” Bell said. “His work on this story is consistent with the many stories he covers for ‘Today,’ from comprehensive investigative pieces to breaking news.”

Sheen’s interviews were a brilliant piece of performance art or evidence he’s off his rocker, or some combination of the two. He probably set a record for inserting more catchphrases into the public lexicon in the shortest amount of time. The more he talked, the sadder it became.

Rossen said Sheen told him that he wanted to upstage the Academy Awards.

Is he nuts? “It’s tough to tell,” Rossen said.

“I’ve been given a very limited snapshot of Charlie Sheen,” Rossen said. “I’ve spent about 10 hours with him over the course of several days, sometimes with cameras and sometimes without cameras. You can’t judge a person fully on the basis of 10 hours. I would hope nobody would judge me that way.”

Clearly, Sheen is at a crossroads in his life and struggling with that, he said.

How much the “rock star” line sticks with Rossen is an interesting question. Journalists usually look with suspicion at praise from interview subjects, perhaps seeing it as evidence that not enough tough questions were asked.

“It makes me uncomfortable,” said Suzanne Lysak, a professor of broadcasting at Rossen’s alma mater, Syracuse University. “But this whole situation is just so crazy.”

The more important issue is the media’s role in giving Sheen a platform. James Rainey of The Los Angeles Times wrote that news outlets are Sheen enablers and, in the case of ABC and NBC, “aiding and abetting the epic meltdown of a celebrity who happens to be the biggest star on the biggest comedy hit at rival CBS.”

Networks have swiftly responded to the market. Morgan’s interview with Sheen did so well in the ratings CNN reran it Friday. After Canning’s “20/20” interview proved a big draw, Rossen put together a “Dateline NBC” special Friday. Celebrity substance abuse expert Dr. Drew Pinsky is doing a VH1 special on Sheen and even Spike TV can’t resist, ordering a countdown of Sheen’s most outlandish moments illustrated with Taiwanese animation.

“I don’t know how you don’t cover it,” said Richard Wald, a Columbia University professor and former executive at ABC and NBC News.

“It’s a bit like (O.J. Simpson’s) White Bronco,” Wald said. “It has little or no meaning, but it’s fascinating: Are you taking advantage of Sheen? Are you helping him or hurting him? These are interesting questions, but I don’t know if they are questions for journalists. I don’t know how as a television producer you can ignore this. It’s the human equivalent of a train collision.”

Rossen also disagrees with critics who say the media should have turned its back on Charlie Sheen.

“This is a public figure,” he said. “He’s in the throes of a life crisis. As we would for a politician, as we would with a celebrity, as we would with any public figure that the public is interested in hearing from, we are telling their story. What better way to tell someone’s story than with that person?

“If that person is making himself accessible to you,” he said, “I would argue that it would be irresponsible not to talk to him.”

Arrest Made in Bellagio Heist

by Ben Campbell

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Police have arrested a 29-year-old Las Vegas man in a brazen armed robbery of $1.5 million in casino chips from the posh Bellagio resort on the Las Vegas Strip.

Anthony M. Carleo was being held Thursday at the Clark County jail pending a Friday court appearance on felony armed robbery and burglary charges.

Las Vegas police say Carleo was the motorcycle-helmeted robber who waved a gun, grabbed high-value casino chips and made off on a motorcycle before dawn Dec. 14. No shots were fired and no one was hurt. Police said then that they thought the same man robbed the Suncoast casino in northwest Las Vegas early Dec. 8.

But stealing $1.5 million in chips isn’t like stealing $1.5 million, experts and police pointed out at the time. Chips are unique to casino properties and are generally not interchangeable, although state regulations let casino companies redeem sister properties’ chips with some restrictions.

After the heist, Bellagio announced plans to discontinue the casino’s $25,000 chips in April, setting a deadline for the thief to try to use them. Police weren’t saying early Thursday whether the suspect tried to redeem the chips — which ranged from $100 to $25,000 — before he was arrested.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal reports that Carleo is the son of a Las Vegas Municipal Court judge.

Bellagio officials wouldn’t say whether MGM Resorts properties are among Las Vegas casinos that embed radio frequency devices inside the tokens.

Police say it took less than three minutes for the robber to pull off the heist.

The bandit entered a casino entrance from Flamingo Road, strode fewer than 500 feet to a craps table, brandished the handgun at the 10 to 12 patrons and three or four dealers with chips piled on the green felt, scooped up the loot and ran.

Casino security officers didn’t confront the robber, but a ceiling security video camera followed his path out the door. Morgan said a 911 call was placed to police while the man was still in the casino. He was gone by the time police arrived.