Music returns to the UTC Arena

February 5, 2016 at 1:13 pm
Elton John

Elton John

In case you missed it, a couple of big shows are coming to the UTC Arena, now officially known as McKenzie Arena in Chattanooga.  Elton John, a part-time Atlanta resident, is returning for the third time in recent years for a March 12 show, followed by fellow 1970s icon James Taylor on April 23.

James Taylor

James Taylor

This is the biggest back-to-back showing of big name acts since the Arena’s heyday in the 1980s and 1990s. It’s hard for younger music fans to believe, but in those days the Arena hosted music’s biggest names every few weeks, year after year.

The Arena opened October 8, 1982.  I was there, along with 11,000 other excited music fans.  Chattanooga finally had a performing center large enough to attract superstar musical acts.  The Tivoli Theater, opened in 1921 with 2,000 seats, was great for an intimate show, but much too small for a big-name artist.  Memorial Auditorium, dating back to 1924, had hosted its share of shows, but its 3,800 seat capacity had long been surpassed by venues in surrounding cities.

UTC’s Arena (or as some called it, The Roundhouse) put Chattanooga in the big leagues as a concert town.  The opening night headliner was Kenny Rogers, at the peak of his career.  A comedian opened the show, followed by the Gatlin Brothers.  Both acts had to compete with chatty opening-night fans, causing Gatlin to stop in mid-song, asking, “Are we bothering y’all?” Eventually the chatter died down and Rogers appeared, singing “Lucille,” “The Gambler” and his other hits.  We went home happy, awaiting more great shows.

We were not disappointed.  During the next few years, superstars appeared regularly on our local stage.  Just a few weeks after it opened, Willie Nelson sang everything from “Amazing Grace” to “Whiskey River.”  Soon it was Diana Ross.  Alabama.  Tina Turner.  Bob Seger.  Cher. Elton John.  Heart.  Hank Williams Jr.  Van Halen.  Randy Travis.  Journey.  Jackson Browne.  ZZ Top.  Reba McEntyre.  Alan Jackson.  The Allman Brothers.  Bon Jovi.  Wynonna Judd.  Chicago.  The Beach Boys.  The Statler Brothers.  Sandi Patti.  Aerosmith.

UTC Arena posters 002 (2)

There was a triple-header show with the three biggest country stars on the planet in 1990: Merle Haggard, George Jones and Conway Twitty.  Jimmy Buffett.  REO Speedwagon.  John Denver. Bob Hope.  John Mellencamp.   Michael Bolton. Clint Black. The Osmonds.  Rick Springfield.  Kenny G.  Barry Manilow.  Amy Grant.  The Gaither Family.  The Oak Ridge Boys. Kid Rock. Kenny Chesney.  Shania Twain.  Luther Vandross.  Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Not to mention all the rodeos, monster trucks, wrestling, Disney On Ice, Harlem Globetrotters, Bob Barker’s Game Show, circuses and other spectacles.

We saw Rod Stewart kicking a soccer ball….The Pointer Sisters energetically outshining headliner Lionel Richie….Tina Turner commanding the stage…we looked on with amusement as Billy Joel handed off the high notes to a backup singer…we watched  Barbara Mandrell play pretty much every musical instrument ever invented…and so much more.

barrymanilow

We thought those days would never end, but they did.  The arena that hosted at least 20 big-name shows a year eventually went silent, except for basketball and high school graduations.  Taylor Swift was there a few years ago, before her career kicked into high gear.  Maroon 5 with Adam Levine, Carrie Underwood and Toby Keith have all appeared in recent years, but such shows have been few and far between.

Why did the music fade out?  Here’s the quick answer:  Most acts would rather go somewhere else.  Since 1982, the Arena has gone from shiny and new, to undersized and outdated.  Better-designed venues have sprung up in nearby cities like Nashville and Huntsville.  That means bigger crowds, and more sales of t-shirts, programs and other items that fatten artists’ wallets.  One source close to the Arena told me, “It’s not from lack of trying.  We’re always trying to attract big shows.  Some artists look at us as just a blip on the map.”

Perhaps the highlight of the last year at the Arena was the appearance of Vice President Joe Biden, who delivered an emotional tribute to Chattanooga’s five fallen servicemen, just days after the July 16 shootings.  His speech was especially powerful as he shared his grief over the recent loss of his own son to cancer.  The Arena proved to be an appropriate setting for a patriotic memorial program.

I’d love to hear about your favorite “Roundhouse” show memories.  Most of the big shows took place before cellphone cameras became commonplace, so there aren’t many pictures from the 80s and 90s era shows.  But we can still hear the music, and the applause.

Bonus rare video # 1:  Jackson Browne soundcheck at UTC Arena before his August 13, 1983 show:

Bonus rare video # 2:  Alabama performs at the UTC Arena (2 sold out shows) March 12, 1983, with press conference footage, in story reported by WRCB’s Bob Beard.

A salute to Uncle Owen

February 4, 2016 at 9:46 pm

I come from a long line of carpenters and fixers.  My dad, uncles and granddads knew how to repair and rebuild just about anything.  Due to economic necessity, they did what they had to do, to keep the farm and household running.

That line ended with me.  I need printed instructions to change a light bulb. In our family’s store, I was the kid working the cash register while my dad was reassembling someone’s engine.  So if you ever need correct change, I’m your man.

But if you need perfect cabinets, shelves or bookcases, my uncle Owen Norris is the master.  Each year at Christmas, Owen builds something special for every niece, nephew, and cousin.  He brings boxes filled with handmade, carefully crafted gifts: never the same gift twice.  Bird houses and feeders, candle holders, and newly invented  kitchen tools.

Owen Norris with his White House replica

Owen Norris with his White House replica

One year, just for fun, he built a replica of the White House in perfect scale down to the tiniest detail.  This year he built a banjo, from material he found around the house.

Owen Norris and his homemade banjo

Owen Norris and his homemade banjo

Owen is a youthful 85, and when he sets out to do something, he finishes it.  He is the first to credit his wife Kathie, who provides great assistance in his projects large and small.

Owen is special to me for many reasons.  Born in 1930 as the youngest of eight, he’s among a special breed of Americans who grew up during the Great Depression.  Most of us who came along later have experienced a few hardships and inconveniences, but Owen’s family, like so many others, truly learned the value of a dollar.

Necessity was the mother of invention.  Before Owen was a teen, he was helping his father patch up the family home in Bryant to keep snow from falling through the cracks in the crowded bedrooms.  Owen’s father (my grandfather Grover Norris) could build anything.  Well into his 80s, he was repairing clocks.  Owen still calls him the smartest man he ever met.  Grover sure would be proud of Owen today.

By the 1950s, Owen left Sand Mountain to join the Army, where he served in Korea. When he returned home, he worked at Dupont in Chattanooga, as did many of his brothers and others from Bryant.  For about fifteen years, he set aside a portion of his earnings, with a goal of owning a business.  His dream came true in 1969 when he and a partner purchased an old lumber store in Flat Rock, renaming it Sand Mountain Supply.  As word spread of the store’s hardware and Owen’s custom-built cabinets, it became a huge success, and Owen stayed busy with it until he retired.

All the while, he was active in his church and community, as a charter member and officer of the Bryant Ruritan Club, which is still going strong more than fifty years later.  He was an early stockholder of the Bank of Dade in Trenton, serving on the bank’s board of directors for many years.

When I visited his home in Ider, I was impressed by all of the Owen-built items, but I was most dazzled by his Alabama room: a great collection of Crimson Tide memorabilia.  I think Nick Saban himself would be overwhelmed by Owen’s Alabama shrine.

Our annual Norris holiday reunions, as captured on more than fifty years’ worth of photos and home movies haven’t changed that much over the years.  Always on Sundays, with lots of food and games to keep everyone busy.  I have video of Owen outshooting us all in a basketball game from decades ago.  After having various hip and knee replacements, Owen can’t outrun us anymore, but he still outworks us.  With all those new parts, we call him the Six Million Dollar Man.  Come to think of it, about half of him is younger than I am!

We used to line up the 8 Norris siblings for a group photo each year. Now we have only Owen, who we appreciate even more with the passage of time.

He tells me he’s writing a book about his early life growing up amid the dirt roads and horse trails of Sand Mountain.  He has some great stories to tell, and I’ll be the first in line to buy his book.

Uncle Owen, thanks for being a good son, brother, husband, father, uncle, granddad and friend.  You helped build and protect this country, and people like you have held it together.  As long as you’re around, I know there’s someone who can patch it up when the cracks begin to show.

Hamilton County schools: Let’s start over

January 25, 2016 at 6:37 pm

A friend of mine who used to teach in Hamilton County planted a seed.  Ken Belt sent a message about one of my stories, and he suggested that smaller school districts seem to function more efficiently than large ones.  He pointed out that the largest school system in the state of Indiana (Indianapolis Public Schools) is smaller than Hamilton County’s system.  As Ken wrote, “The concept of smaller school districts is more manageable and accountable.  There is a better sense of community within the schools.” In other words, rather than feeling overwhelmed in a massive bureaucracy, each parent, each employee has a stronger voice, and they answer to someone a mile away, instead of across town.

It got me to thinking. The Hamilton County school system is kind of a mess right now.  Superintendent Rick Smith, feeling the heat from low test scores, and his handling of the Ooltewah incident, has one foot out the door.  When he goes, it’s likely many of his associates will follow.  Additionally, several principals are sure to retire or jump ship. No wonder: it is generally believed that School Board members will bring in a new boss, with no ties to the status quo.

LET’S  THINK SMALL

Well, guess what?  Many of these administrators are worth keeping, if we start fresh. Let’s suppose for a moment that they aren’t the biggest problem.  Maybe it’s the system.  Let’s think small.

Speaking of Hamilton County superintendents, how many happy send-offs have you seen in past 20 years?  The answer is zero.  This never seems to end well.  In our neighboring Cleveland City Schools for example, they named a building after the last guy stepped down.  We furnish U-Hauls for ours.

The final Chattanooga City schools leader, Harry Reynolds, was pretty much chased out of town in 1996.  His legendary mismanagement resulted in city voters deciding to close their school system.  Keep in mind, Hamilton County was required by state law to absorb the city schools, creating this huge school district.  At the time, some county leaders said it wasn’t a good idea.  Twenty years later, is it possible they were right?

The first superintendent of this combined system, Jesse Register, was sent packing in 2006, armed with $150,000 in “see you later” money.  (Later, Register took over Nashville schools, where he was able to leave on his own terms.  It’s possible he learned from mistakes that were made here.  I’m not sure we need to be a training ground for someone else.)

Register’s successor, Jim Scales came from Texas, and returned to the Lone Star state five years later.  He received $282,000 of buyout money as a going-away present.

For those who can follow patterns, you’ll notice five more years have passed, and it’s possible Rick Smith will leave the party with an even heftier goody bag.

(Just once, wouldn’t you like to see a hospital executive, a baseball player, or a superintendent say, “Well, if I don’t have to work, I’m not going to take your money.”  Let me know if that ever happens.)

While Smith proved in his long career that he is good at many things, his shortcomings eventually rose to the surface:  most notably his communications skills.  In the aftermath of the Ooltewah crisis, people who had rarely noticed our public schools saw the 2015 achievement scores and said Smith should be held accountable.  Whether the blame should fall squarely on his shoulders is now a moot point.  The fact is, we have some serious work to do.

So, as Board member David Testerman famously shouted last week, who would want to take this job? Well, for a high six-figure salary, and the usual lucrative buyout clause, a lot of people would. But do we want a person who’s on every “headhunter” list, trying to build a resume’ to advance their future earnings?  No.  Do we want someone who’s already retired a time or two, swooping in for a rescue, as in “anything I’ll do is better than what they’ve had?”  I’ll pass.

While we’re on the subject, has a local superintendent ever had a paycheck tied to performance? Not that I’m aware of. And have we ever hired a superintendent with a background in business and management, as opposed to coaching and teaching?  You know the answer to that.

IS THIS REALLY A GOOD IDEA?

Maybe a better question would be, “Is a 75-school, 43,000 student school district in a culturally and financially diverse county really a good idea?”  Let me begin the debate by saying the answer just might be, “No.”

Assuming Smith deserves some of the blame for the Ooltewah fiasco, let’s be real: if you have a strong, involved staff leading a school, do you really need the superintendent of a large district to be responsible for what kids do on a field trip?

Naturally, we all wish the next superintendent will be a miracle worker who will please everyone.  I guess anything is possible, but it hasn’t happened yet.  We’ve yet to find a leader who can satisfy the Chamber of Commerce, the mountain folks, the business/foundation leaders, the less affluent, the rural residents, the North Shore, the suburbs, and the County Commissioners.  I’m not sure that person exists.

If you want to think outside the box, start here: What if we divide this massive school system into smaller, more manageable pieces, and put qualified people in place to run each one? I remember when individual schools had trustees.  My elementary school had a terrible new principal one year.  Parents complained to the trustees, who then complained to the superintendent.  Within days, we had a great new principal.  Try removing a bad principal in a large district.  Experience tells us the process requires going through several layers of management, and rarely gets accomplished before damage is done.

SITE-BASED MANAGEMENT: MINI-DISTRICTS

So how about a “mini-district” in East Ridge? Another for Signal Mountain.  Add one each for Red Bank, Lookout Valley, Tyner, Ooltewah, Apison, Harrison, Brainerd, East Brainerd, the Soddy/Sale Creek area, Hixson, East Lake, north Chattanooga and downtown.  Now you have fifteen or so smaller districts, averaging about five schools in each. There would be a supervising director in each area, who would be responsible for those schools only.  They would handle hiring, firing, and major discipline issues. Some current principals are certainly capable and qualified. Also, there are several outstanding retired principals who have great track records.   In a mini-district, if you have good site-based leaders, there’s no need for a high and mighty superintendent.  Yes, someone has to pay the bills and sign the checks, but there’s already solid financial leadership in place to handle those chores.

Our current school district is headquartered at a former Army ammunition plant.  Yes, it’s centrally located in the heart of the county, but who wants to go there every time there is a problem?  Folks who live in Dayton, Athens, and Chickamauga take their problems to an office just down the street.  Maybe that should happen here too.  Let somebody good run the East Ridge area schools, and if you have a problem, get it solved on Ringgold Road.  The sad fact is, most Hamilton County parents cannot tell you the name of their School Board member.  They see this giant monolith called “The Central Office,” which seems cold and unwelcoming.  Perhaps we should bring their district office closer to their home.

This might also encourage our incorporated towns like East Ridge, Red Bank and the others, to be more hands-on with their neighborhood schools.  Some of these local officials will tell you, they feel they don’t have much of a voice under the current set-up.  This is because they truly do not.

What about the always-complicated formula for school funding, now dumped in one giant pot on Bonny Oaks Drive? Divide it up according to student population.  County Commissioners are entrusted to take care of their districts.  This would give them greater oversight of individual schools, and more personal contact with the people who run them.  And about that nine-member School Board we’ve had for decades?  Maybe it’s time to re-think that too.  Perhaps each “mini-district” should have a voice at the table.

IS “THE STATE” COMING?

As for our lowest-performing schools, yes, they need extra help.  We’re being told yet again, that  “The state” might soon take them over.  Well, whoever “the state” is, come on in.  Does “the state” have people who will go door-to-door in our poorest neighborhoods, convincing kids to attend school, and helping parents prepare them to learn?  We don’t have enough people to do that now. Maybe if these schools were in smaller, more community-based districts, they would get the personalized attention they need.

If “the state” can’t handle it, maybe our civic leaders can.  They’ve been quoted a lot lately, as in “civic leaders” are unhappy with the direction of county schools.  In many cases, these leaders of government, chambers, foundations and the like have never really been involved in public schools, but they have strong opinions about them.  So come on in, get your feet wet.  If the private schools do it better, show the public schools how it’s done, while doing so with a fraction of the parental support.

Magnet schools frequently outrank many other public schools too.  I’ve heard some of their advocates say, “I wish every school could be like ours.”  So why don’t we hold a lottery for every school, require parental involvement, and hire only the best teachers.  Charter schools are also on the rise, and vouchers are gaining steam in the State Legislature.  At this rate, Hamilton County Schools, as we know them today, cannot keep operating like it’s 1999….or earlier.

Are the ideas I listed above outlandish and unrealistic? Probably.  Such changes would be endlessly debated, and then take years to enact.  Meanwhile the impending Central Office exodus will begin before the spring daffodils bloom.

A BLOCKBUSTER SCHOOL SYSTEM IN A NETFLIX WORLD

Before you dismiss radical change as foolish, let’s look in the mirror.  Hamilton County schools are not adapting to a changing educational environment.  We’re running a Blockbuster school system in a Netflix world.  We have a K-Mart administrative mentality, while the public is demanding Amazon “at your door” customer service.

Whatever direction we take, here is something we can do now: stop padding and extending the contracts of superintendents who are not going anywhere.  Neither Jim Scales nor Rick Smith, both well into their 60s, were about to be snapped up by another school district.  So why do School Board members insist on treating them as if they are hot properties? This can’t happen again, right?

Certainly, the school district is not a total disaster.  There are pockets of greatness, as I’ve learned from countless positive stories I’ve reported over the years.  Hamilton County has some all-star teachers and amazing students.  We should celebrate those success stories each day.  As a whole, however, it’s clear this school system isn’t keeping pace with others in nearby counties and states.  If it’s true that numbers don’t lie, perhaps we should listen to them.

Agree or disagree, I’d like to hear your ideas.  Now is a good time to start with a clean slate.  If history keeps repeating itself, in about five years, we’ll be doing this all over again.  Do you really want that?

Could you sing the National Anthem on 5 minutes notice?

January 23, 2016 at 8:20 pm

I’ve been covered up with so much bad news lately, I vowed to spend some time this weekend looking for something good.  I found it!

The video you’re about to see is from January 12 at West Virginia University in Morgantown, WV.  The town was snowed in, and the Mountaineers were about to host top-ranked Kansas.  Many students and fans walked to the game, but others couldn’t make the drive.  Among those who didn’t show up was the person who was supposed to sing “The Star Spangled Banner.”  Five minutes until game time, officials scrambled to find someone who could sing it, and Carlton Smith volunteered.  He’s a WVU campus police officer.  Let’s just say he gives us all reason to be proud.  By the way, they upset Kansas that night, so he’s a good luck charm too.  Watch!

The rise and fall of Rick Smith: What’s next for Hamilton County?

January 22, 2016 at 4:32 am

ricksmith15b

UPDATE: SATURDAY JANUARY 23: Several former Ooltewah Middle students and teachers say Superintendent Rick Smith, while serving as the county’s Middle Schools Director in the late 1990s, aided in a “cover-up” after allegations of molestation surfaced against an Ooltewah coach. Read more here.

Original story from January 22:

I first met Rick Smith about twenty years ago, when he was handed a very prestigious assignment.  After having been a teacher, coach and principal , then-Superintendent Don Loftis hand-picked him to be principal of a brand new school: Loftis Middle School.  You don’t draw a name out of a hat to lead the school that bears your name.  I figured Smith must be an up-and-comer, and sure enough he was soon promoted to the central office.  From there, he moved upward a few times until he was second in command to Superintendent Jim Scales.

That’s when life got interesting.  In the spring of 2011, Scales was chased out of office by dissatisfied School Board members, and headed to his home state of Texas with a contract buyout of $282,111.  (Remember that for later).  In the previous fifteen years, Chattanooga and Hamilton County had sent several “supers” packing: Harry Reynolds, Jesse Register and Scales all left before the door could, well you know.  All were out-of-towners.  None had good relationships with the politicians who control the purse-strings.  The School Board selected Smith to replace Scales.  Among the reasons were a couple of big ones: in a budget cutting mood, Scales had indicated Smith’s position would be eliminated.  This did not please some Board members.  Plus, it was widely believed that being a “local,” Smith would have better luck squeezing tax money out of County Commissioners. It didn’t work out that way, but it seemed like a smart move in 2011.

Let’s fast-forward to the summer of 2015.  For Rick Smith, life was a Neil Diamond song: Good times never seemed so good.  His evaluation ratings from School Board members were higher than ever (4.02 out of a possible 5.00).  At the age of 62, his contract was extended through July 2019, with a healthy raise boosting his annual pay to $199,000 annually plus benefits. This deal would be his last, taking him into retirement.  He had a new granddaughter, which he adored. He was surrounded by longtime friends in his central office, and would soon arrange promotions and raises for some of them too.

Even though he had tried (and failed) to engage the community in a series of district meetings, sharing his vision of a school system filled with elementary foreign language and arts teachers, Board members seemed convinced he should continue to lead Hamilton County Schools.

STORM CLOUDS BREWING

All the while, storm clouds were brewing.  Some influential business and foundation leaders were not impressed by Smith’s failed funding campaign. They felt he had “borrowed” some of their ideas, and his failure to inspire the public might have hurt the cause, they believed.  A week after he signed his new contract, the state rained on his parade.  The newest set of achievement test scores revealed Hamilton County students were headed in the wrong direction, placing below the state average in 9 out of 10 tested categories.  Quietly, Board members began asking, “Why didn’t we know about this last week?”  They later learned the Central Office did know about it “last week.”

Still, there was reason to be cautiously optimistic that Smith could reverse this faulty course and make his Board members look good.  He had hired some good principals, and unlike his predecessors, wasn’t moving them around each year.  Some shiny new schools had opened, another is under construction, and there has been talk of more on the way.

OOLTEWAH INCIDENT CHANGES EVERYTHING

Then came December 22, 2015.  A trio of Ooltewah High students committed an act that has changed lives, and has now ended careers.  Although we know more facts that we did a month ago, much of the story is yet to be told.  Smith’s ill-advised delays, puzzling personnel decisions and the appearance of a cover-up has effectively ended his tenure.  Two weeks ago, he was fighting to keep his job.  One week ago, when charges of failure to report child abuse were filed against three Ooltewah staffers, Smith was visibly shaken.  Friends say he was never the same.  His confidence (some say cockiness) was replaced by uncertainty.  By this week, the morale at central office was not unlike the waiting room at a hospital.  Smith had become the sick patient, with friends shaking their heads.  “We don’t think he’s going to make it,” was overheard in the hallways.

On the day he announced his proposal to “separate” from the superintendent’s position (a polite way to refer to a buyout request), he attended the Downtown Rotary Club meeting.  The guest speaker’s topic was education in Hamilton County.  The numbers, as you read earlier, aren’t pretty.  Smith asked no questions and made no comments.  It is believed that he was there to inform friends of his impending announcement.

Thursday night, he grimly told Board members and a live television audience that he felt it was in the best interests of the district to step aside.  Sources told me he is requesting a buyout in the neighborhood of $275,000, plus approximately $75,000 in benefits.  The social media response was immediate, and it wasn’t good.  Why pay someone to quit?  (See the Jim Scales paragraph above).  I’ve never been a fan of that either, but if you look at any school district, hospital, big business, or popular sports team (college or pro), you’ll see “it’s the cost of doing business.”  If you want to get rid of someone with a lucrative contract, you do so in the most cost-effective way possible.

In Smith’s case, the Board can either meet his request, allowing him to go quietly, or they can try to fire him with cause.  If he decides to fight that decision in court, and a judge rules in his favor, he would be entitled to his full contract amount (about $700,000 PLUS attorney fees).  This is why the Board voted 6-3 in favor of proceeding with negotiations for a buyout.  They’re hoping to move forward quickly, and not risk a long court fight and the potential for a larger payout.

In my perfect world, people would not get paid for a job they don’t finish.  That’s how it works for plumbers, contractors, and most everyone else.  It does not work this way for ballplayers, coaches, hospital CEO’s and school superintendents.  I doubt that will change anytime soon, and Rick Smith will likely get at least a large chunk of the money that Board members voted to give him last year.

WHAT’S NEXT FOR HAMILTON COUNTY?

So when Smith steps aside, what’s the fallout?  Get ready.  I predict many of his top aides, department heads and directors will follow him out the door.  Many, if not most, can retire with full benefits.  As is often the case, good school jobs are often available just across the Georgia state line.  The central office positions will have to be filled by someone, and several principals will likely move up.  Their jobs will be filled by assistant principals, whose jobs will be filled by teachers, which means new teachers must be hired.  This is one big set of dominoes, folks.

Of course, a new superintendent must be hired.  I would be very surprised if that person comes from the current central office staff (unless someone is promoted on an interim basis, depending on when Smith leaves).  The public has sent a clear message that the school system needs a do-over, and you can’t do that from within.  I would also be surprised if the next leader is from a distant locale.  We’ve been there, done that, and it never ends well.  I think you’ll see a new face from somewhere in Tennessee, maybe even this region.  That person will be younger, and will have a doctoral degree (Smith did not, much to the dismay of his critics).  Whoever it is, will provide the county with a fresh start, which is what the public seems to want.

I’ve never seen so much distrust and disillusionment aimed toward our public schools.  Whether it’s because of what Rick Smith did, or what he didn’t do, he eventually accepted his fate.  He could have stayed on the job, pridefully insisting on earning that big check, but he knew he was damaged goods.  It’s hard to get anything done when people are questioning your honesty and your competence.  He knew he could no longer be an effective leader of teachers and students.  It’s a sad ending to a long career, and I take no pleasure in his, or anyone’s downfall.

I hope you’ll join me in wishing for healing.  First, the healing of the young man who was so brutally attacked by his teammates.  Information has been hard to come by, but his family tells me he’s doing better and will soon resume his education.

And second, the healing of this community.  Hopefully the inflammatory opinion posts will cease, the name-calling will subside, and those who are guilty of violent acts and poor judgement will pay the price.  This needs to happen quickly.  We need to lift up our children and our schools, and if we remain divided, we will surely fail.

The Ooltewah you’re not hearing about

January 19, 2016 at 1:36 am

ooltewah-logoBy now, you’ve read the stories about the Ooltewah assaults. Some are local, others are national. Some have been fair and factual, others have been downright irresponsible. Certainly, those involved in the Gatlinburg incident, either directly or in a supervisory position made some serious mistakes.  The deed itself was bad enough, and the aftermath has been filled with communication delays, misleading information and questionable personnel decisions.  Reputations have been ruined, jobs are in jeopardy, and careers are on the line.

The good name of Ooltewah High School has taken a beating.  Many stories have been circulated, mostly from anonymous sources, about a school where athletes get special treatment and teachers get little support.  I’ve heard many such stories from many different sources.  Some are recent incidents, while others are from past years.  No doubt, many of the stories are true, and as I’ve written, Ooltewah probably needs a re-start to salvage its reputation.

It’s also important to note that Ooltewah has about 1600 students and about 100 staff members, and the huge majority of them have been doing school the right way.  When I asked for them to speak up about their school, the response was overwhelming.  They believe their story hasn’t been getting told.  I’m happy to share excerpts from their responses with you.

Taylor Stutz, student: “Ooltewah is anything but a nightmare.  I for one enjoying going to school there. I love the administration more then anything. I work in the front office and get to see up close and personal what our administration is like outside of the halls making people get to class. They are the funniest, nicest, and caring people I’ve ever met. We have the best administration in Tennessee and I’ll step up to the plate for any adult at that high school.”

Robert Barker, parent:  “My daughter graduated from Ooltewah High School in the top ten of the class.  She worked hard, and received a four year scholarship to a very well known private university.  She played soccer all four years with the school, and was part of the band program all four years as well.  She also was one of the first set of students to enter the IB program that Ooltewah has, as only two schools in Hamilton County that have the program.  My middle child is a junior, and is also heavily involved with the band program.  She has made All-State East every year, and even as a freshman.  Look at the victories in our schools, and the great achievements our students and programs have accomplished, and make that the loudest voice in our community.  I am still proud to say my children attend Ooltewah High School, and now I am even more aware of the officials we elect to represent our children.  I know that this issue has also raised an awareness with parents to ask more questions, and it will heighten awareness on trips.  But, I implore you to help not let this incident put a mark on the innocent children and students of the community, the teachers and administration that fight every day for our children, and parents that have given their children the tools to be strong men and women further in life.”

Emily Brown, student: “I am beyond blessed to attend Ooltewah High School. It is a school full of love, equality, and support. I play soccer there, and as an athlete I have never experienced any negativity from teammates/coaches, and have never received special treatment. Regardless of what the negative comments say, Ooltewah is definitely the best. I am forever proud to be an Owl.”

Dale Miller, parent: “I am the father of two children that are seniors this year, they have spent four years at Ooltewah and I believe they have had a great experience at the school.

 My son has been involved in the swim team, student council, FBLA and many other events.  My daughter has spent four years on the dance team, and is involved in FCA and leadership, along with many other accomplishments as well.
They have many friends that I have met and know to be very good students and citizens of our community as well.  The environment that they have been subjected to for 4 years has been a positive, supportive and growth oriented environment.  My wife and I are proud parents.  We feel that the partnership between the school administration and parents was sufficient to ensure that our children grew in their education and have helped to prepare them for the next level of education that they choose.
While I am not sure the loudest voices on this issue have any desire to hear this, just be sure that you have a quiet audience and a large majority of families that desire to hear this publicly.
 We chose OHS four years ago, and to date, I have no reason to believe that it was anything but a very good decision.”
Gina Rahn, parent: “I have a daughter who is a sophomore at OHS. We have been amazed by the education she has received. She is very involved in the various clubs and absolutely loves this school.  She is on the soccer team. We have met the best kids and parents through this team. There is one standout and that is coach Adolph. He is an amazing man and even better coach. He loves and respects those girls and they give him that respect and love right back. He knows exactly what these girls are doing on and off the soccer field. He puts school first and the team second. They have been on out of town trips overnight with no issues at all.  These kids respond to leadership and respect.  OHS needs great leaders who have a vision of what is right and fair and are not afraid to stand up and do what is right for the entire school and not just a few athletes.

My son will be a freshman at OHS next  year.  We are not afraid nor embarrassed to send him there. He will hopefully make the soccer team and have coach Adolph as his high school coach.”

Billy Burnette, parent:  “I have two daughters that have graduated from Ooltewah and have two more daughters that are currently juniors.  We have had nothing but a great experience there. One of my daughters had an accident and broke her back. The administration did everything possible to accommodate her needs.

I’m the volunteer coordinator for The Forgotten Child Fund. Every year for the past four years we have had students from Ooltewah High School come down to the warehouse and help pack toys for needy children for Christmas. These kids were from  the IB program, Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the dance team. They were polite, respectful and just a pleasure to be around.
My purpose in writing this is to let everyone know that the good students and faculty in Ooltewah High School far outnumber the bad ones.”

Finally, a shout-out to the Bradley Central High Fellowship of Christian Athletes. When the Ooltewah Lady Owls played Bradley a few nights ago, this is what they found in their locker room:
bchsbchs2This is what high school sports should be about.  Most of the kids at Ooltewah, Bradley, and our other schools are blessed with great parents and coaches who are teaching the right lessons. The Gatlinburg incident exposed some serious problems that have been overlooked for too long.  Let’s take this opportunity to encourage and lift up our good role models.  Hopefully, their good influence will begin to drown out the negative forces among us.

Remembering Glenn Frey

January 19, 2016 at 12:00 am
Glenn Frey

Glenn Frey

Those of us who grew up on the radio hits of the Baby Boomer era are mourning the loss of yet another great voice.  So far in 2016, we’ve lost Natalie Cole, David Bowie, and now Glenn Frey. You could put together a pretty good radio station with those artists alone.

Last December, Eagles, the supergroup Frey co-founded in the early 1970s, was scheduled to be among the honorees at the annual Kennedy Center program.  Just before the show, it was announced that the group would be unable to participate due to the illness of a group member, and their tribute would take place in 2016.  Sadly, we now know the ailing group member was Frey, and a combination of illnesses took him from us today.

Glenn Frey, 1993

Glenn Frey, 1993

Many of us remember Frey and Joe Walsh on Saturday June 26, 1993, the final night of that year’s Riverbend Festival, appearing as part of their “Party of Two” tour.  Big crowd, big fireworks, big hits.

“Well I’m runnin’ down the road, tryin’ to loosen my load, I’ve got seven women on my mind.”  Jackson Browne wrote the words, but Glenn’s laid-back, good ol’ boy delivery influenced us all to Take It Easy.  They’ve even named a park in Winslow, Arizona in honor of this song.  “Such a fine sight to see.”

winslow

I have three favorite Glenn Frey songs, and this one, their very first hit from 1972 leads off my list.

Back in 1975, “Lyin’ Eyes” was released as a single off the “One of These Nights” album, and Elektra Records edited the song down to about three minutes.  I was music director at WFLI at the time, and I refused to play that short version, like our competitors did.  The album version was well over six minutes, and most radio stations frowned on playing long songs (you could squeeze in more commercials with short songs).  Still, I got away with it, and when we’d play the full version of “Lyin’ Eyes,” we’d always make some wise comment like, “WFLI, where you hear the REAL version of Lyin’ Eyes.”  I was proud to play it then, and I’m glad most stations play the long version today.  It’s my second favorite Glenn Frey lead vocal.

There are many other Glenn Frey songs that will be around forever.  With Eagles, he sang lead on “Tequila Sunrise,” “Heartache Tonight,” and “New Kid in Town,” to name a few, and as a solo artist, “The Heat Is On” is another favorite.  With the gravel-voiced Don Henley, Eagles had a great one-two punch of vocal styles.  Here is the heartfelt statement Henley wrote after learning of his partner’s death:

“He was like a brother to me; we were family, and like most families, there was some dysfunction. But, the bond we forged 45 years ago was never broken, even during the 14 years that the Eagles were dissolved. We were two young men who made the pilgrimage to Los Angeles with the same dream: to make our mark in the music industry — and with perseverance, a deep love of music, our alliance with other great musicians and our manager, Irving Azoff, we built something that has lasted longer than anyone could have dreamed.  

“But, Glenn was the one who started it all. He was the spark plug, the man with the plan. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of popular music and a work ethic that wouldn’t quit. He was funny, bullheaded, mercurial, generous, deeply talented and driven. He loved his wife and kids more than anything.  

“We are all in a state of shock, disbelief and profound sorrow. We brought our two-year ‘History of the Eagles Tour’ to a triumphant close at the end of July and now he is gone. I’m not sure I believe in fate, but I know that crossing paths with Glenn Lewis Frey in 1970 changed my life forever, and it eventually had an impact on the lives of millions of other people all over the planet. It will be very strange going forward in a world without him in it. But, I will be grateful, every day, that he was in my life.

“Rest in peace, my brother. You did what you set out to do, and then some.”

It’s hard to pick a favorite Glenn Frey song, but “Peaceful Easy Feeling” is hard to beat.  Eagles sold more albums than anybody in the 1970s, and Glenn Frey’s musicianship and voice are among the main reasons.  RIP to one of the great voices of the top-40 era.

The Ooltewah crisis: Questions and Answers

January 16, 2016 at 5:31 am

ooltewahsign

I’ve been doing this radio/TV/internet news job for quite a while now.  I’ve never received this many questions about any other school-related story.  Here are some of the most frequent ones:

  1.  Have you ever seen anything like this?  No, not even close.  I’ve seen superintendents hired and fired, political fights, and budget battles.  But in terms of public outcry, this one tops them all.
  2. Will Ooltewah High principal Jim Jarvis survive this scandal?  It depends on what you mean by “survive.” He could certainly retire, or resign.  If most of the allegations about Ooltewah’s supposed out-of-control culture turn out to be true, he may want to jump out of the Owls’ nest before he is pushed.  Stories are running rampant about pampered athletes, bogus student hardship transfers, and a lack of support for teachers.  If ever a school needed a reboot, it’s this one.  We could call it “Ooltewah 2.0.”
  3. Why don’t you report the good things about Ooltewah High School?  It isn’t for lack of trying.  I know Ooltewah has amazing teachers and students.  Evidently most of them are afraid to say anything right now, in public anyway.  At the most recent School Board meeting, I responded to this question by saying, “Would you like to brag on Ooltewah for me?”  The answer was, “No, but you need to find someone who will.”  My e-mail is dcarroll@wrcbtv.com if you’re among those who will.
  4. Will Superintendent Rick Smith survive this scandal?  If you had asked me two weeks ago, I’d have said, “It would help if he would talk about it publicly.”  Then, he did.  Afterward, I would have said, “He realizes he should have spoken out sooner, and by admitting that, he has silenced many of his critics.”  Now, after charges were filed against three Ooltewah staff members, I’m not so sure.  It turns out that Smith’s public relations snafu may be the least of his problems.  There’s increasing evidence that some community leaders and educators (Central Office employees, principals and teachers) are questioning Smith’s competence.  Of course, the most important opinions belong to nine School Board members.  Before Ooltewah, three of them never criticized Smith, three of them occasionally voiced concerns, and the other three were in the middle, but usually agreeable.  After all, this is the same Rick Smith who was given a lengthy contract extension just six months ago, assuring him of $200,000 annually through July 2019.  Not a single Board member voted “no.” (The vote was 8-0, with Dr. Greg Martin absent). Today, that would not be the case.
  5. If there is an exit strategy for Rick Smith, will it be orderly, or noisy?  Smith has a lot of pride.  I can’t see him going quietly, or cheaply.  If “the powers that be” want him out badly enough, it will happen.  Where the payout money would come from is unknown.  Let’s face it: Smith has never been the city power structure’s guy.  When he was campaigning for increased school funding last spring, holding 11 town meetings to share his vision, Hamilton County Commissioners offered no support, and Chattanooga business leaders sat on their hands.  So if he exits the stage, more than a few movers and shakers will be saying, “I told you so.”
  6. How did he get into this mess?  Smith has been blasted by his critics for surrounding himself with “good old boys.” His senior staff includes several former colleagues and co-workers, mostly male, some of whom had retired during previous administrations only to return to work for Smith.  It is widely believed that few of them ever tell him “no.” Judging from his poor decisions in almost every aspect of this case, someone should have said, “NO!” while jumping up and down, waving their hands wildly. Smith’s inner circle may be experienced, but it needs to be widened to include more diversity, more women, and advisers who understand 2016-era communications skills. The “gag order” was a fiasco. Certainly it’s never wise to comment about an ongoing investigation, and the School Board attorney felt he was following the verbal advice of Sevier County authorities. But the fact there was never a true gag order issued just added to suspicions of a cover-up.
  7. Why has it been so hard to get information out of Sevier County, where the incident took place? Two reasons: first, it’s a police investigation involving teenagers. Second, as one court clerk told me Friday, “We’ve never dealt with anything like this before.” Same here.
  8. What do you think of the media’s reporting of this case?  It’s a mixed bag.  Most have been responsible, while being competitive.  Still, I’ve seen many sloppy factual errors, perhaps due to being overly competitive.  Some of the stories have relied on anonymous sources, and are riddled with misinformation.  Unverified rumors, reported as fact, have been proven wrong.  “The 3 players who are charged with rape played in a game the very next day.” Wrong.  “Coach Montgomery has been transferred to an administrative role.” Wrong.  Facebook, as always, has been the home of hearsay, second-hand stories, and exclamation points.  We all want to know why the adults and teens made so many bad choices before, during and after the Gatlinburg incident.  Until they respond publicly, or until authorities release accurate information, much of what you’re reading is speculation.
  9. Can anything good come from this?  Yes. Hopefully the young man who was brutally assaulted and raped will fully recover, and should he choose to do so, become active in the anti-bullying movement.  How powerful would that be?  I’d love for someone to do a documentary on this story, and show it worldwide.  It could be a rallying point for families who want to teach their children the right way to treat others.  I also hope this awful incident will result in punishment and rehabilitation that will turn the lives around of those who committed the act, and will be a lesson in detecting and reporting such crimes for the adults who allowed it to happen.  Finally, I hope it inspires conversation and positive change in homes and schools, inspiring children to speak up, and adults to use prevention techniques wisely. District 8 School Board member David Testerman told me, “This won’t die down until we commit to being the most safe, secure educational environment for all students. It may cost some money, but we have to ensure parents that their children will be safe, starting from the school bus to the classrooms. We have to be safest school system anywhere.  Why shouldn’t we be? Aren’t we here for the children?”
  10. Will Ooltewah High survive, and thrive?  YES.  I’ve never discouraged anyone from sending their children to Ooltewah High, and I won’t start now.  There is an impressive core of strong teachers, involved parents, and talented students.  Some in the media have compared it to Penn State, because that makes an easy headline.  Yes, there are similarities.  They are two great schools with sex scandals attached to their names.  Penn State is becoming great again, and so will Ooltewah.  Some new faces are needed.  Conversations are taking place about the next chapter of Ooltewah High, and who will lead it.  I believe a leader will emerge who will revitalize the school and unite the community.  A school should be a source of pride, and in the very near future, Ooltewah will be better than ever.  The community will make it so.

To report bullying anonymously in Hamilton County schools, click here.

How to pronounce “Ooltewah.” I think.

January 9, 2016 at 1:45 pm

During the past few weeks, Ooltewah High School has dominated the news, with a rape/assault investigation involving the boys varsity basketball team.  Sifting through countless Facebook messages, e-mails and phone calls, I’ve gotten compliments, criticism, and complaints about the news coverage.  Here’s a sampling:

  1. Why doesn’t the news get to the bottom of this?
  2. Why don’t you force the police to talk? (That’s a good one)
  3. Why aren’t y’all saying more about this story?
  4. Why don’t y’all shut up about this story?
  5. Why don’t you tell the truth about what happened, and give us every detail?
  6. Why do you insist on reporting every detail?
  7. I can tell you exactly what happened. I have a friend whose cousin used to work with somebody who knows a man who used to be a police officer.
  8. Y’all need to stay on this, and stir something up!
  9. Y’all are just putting this on the news to stir something up!    And finally:
  10. How do you pronounce “Ooltewah?”

Yes, how to pronounce “Ooltewah.”  For many years, I pronounced it with the “L” sound, as in “OOL-tuh-wah.”  Then someone, I can’t remember who, convinced me the “L” was silent.  So I started saying “Ooo-tuh-wah.”  That’s how I’ve said it for the past 20 years or so.  So I posed the question, on Facebook and Twitter.  I knew my social media friends would settle the issue for me, once and for all.

Now I’m more confused than ever.  Of those who expressed a preference, 90 people said, “Pronounce the L.”  72 said, “Do not say the L sound.”  A slight majority want to hear the L, but it’s hard to ignore those who say, “Get the L out of there,” or words to that effect.

According to Wikipedia, Ooltewah is derived from a Cherokee Native American word meaning “owl’s nest.” If that’s true, I would lean toward pronouncing the L, since you can’t say “owl” without it.

However, read this story from an unidentified 1890 newspaper:

ooltewah-story

 

Now if you believe this version, you would pronounce it without the L, right?

To confuse things even further, a website called chenocetah.wordpress.com, describing itself as a site with Cherokee place names, has this to say:  “Ooltewah, Tennessee, stands about where the Cherokee settlement of Ultiwo’i was. The meaning is unknown and does not appear to have been originally a Cherokee word.”

As you can see, there’s definitely an L in Ultiwo’i.  Facebook friend Debra Fisher adds: “It comes from the Cherokee “Ultiwah.”

Meanwhile, my Facebook friends point out that even celebrities struggle with Ooltewah. President Ronald Reagan, during a visit to Chattanooga in the 1980s, reportedly called it “Ool-TEE-wah.”  Today Show weatherman Al Roker famously called the Ooltewah High band “Ool-TAH-wah” during a recent New Years parade.  And CBS college football announcer Verne Lundquist said one hometown athlete hailed from “Ool-tuh-WAY” High School.

Clearly, there’s more than one way to spell, define and interpret Ooltewah.  You say tomato, I say to-mah-to.  Well, actually I say “mater.”  Going forward, I have decided to continue saying Ooltewah without the L sound.  I know, that puts me in the minority of my own poll, but it was unofficial, and awfully close.

I’ve been told, “If you’re from around here, there’s no L when you say Ooltewah.  If you’re from out of town, you say the L.”

At some point, we’ll have to examine the pronunciations for Whut-well, La-fet, Bledsaw County, Sappitchburg (say it fast) , Murville and Ringo, Georgia.  Y’all know where these towns are?

The Ooltewah crisis response: If you can’t stand the heat….

January 7, 2016 at 2:53 am

 

Most of my reporting has been in the education field, and I’ve always encouraged school officials to be open and accessible. Thankfully, most of them are. Years ago, I covered a sexual assault that took place in a high school football press box during school hours. I was among several reporters sent to the school, where Superintendent Harry Reynolds was investigating. He was in a closed-door meeting when we arrived, so we waited outside for a while. When he emerged, we followed him to his car, asking for any information he could share. We hoped he would tell us that whoever was responsible would be punished, that students were safe, and that classes had resumed. Instead, he briskly walked past us, hands in the air, saying only “No comment,” as if he had just been arrested for grand theft. That’s what you saw on the news. His relationship with the media only went downhill from there.

I’ve seen some elected officials go for years without saying much at their public meetings. Rarely a comment, never a question. Once, I asked a school board member about a tight-lipped colleague, and was told, “I think he only shows up because we get a free meal afterward.” Sometimes, they have good reason to remain quiet. On one occasion, board members approved a generous bonus for the superintendent. It was a close vote, and some in the audience were outraged. The next day, I tracked down the board member who had cast the deciding vote, and he told me, on camera, that he didn’t know what he was voting for. He had intended to vote the other way. Maybe he should have asked some questions?

Recently, Hamilton County Superintendent Rick Smith has come under fire for being elusive during the recent Ooltewah High basketball team rape/assault investigation.  Granted, it happened over the holidays.  School was out, and he, along with many others were on vacation.  Other than a brief statement to one media outlet, saying the three arrested students were suspended from school, Smith did not return calls from the media. (To be fair, Smith has been quite open with me in recent years on several tough stories.  He has not responded to my calls about this one).

Meanwhile, the questions from the public were overflowing.  Fueled by social media, talk shows and news reports, people were outraged, and no wonder.  This was easily the most sordid, widely publicized incident in recent school district history.  A 15-year-old freshman, brutally attacked and violated by three older students (one of whom reportedly took video).  The story was picked up by media outlets around the world.  If ever there was a time for crisis management, this was it.  This was no budget battle, no textbook shortage, no leaky roof.  This was a safety issue that cut to the heart of every Hamilton County parent.  “Who’s looking after our children?” was asked repeatedly, with no one standing in front of Central Office to answer.

Ironically, two months ago, I stood in front of every Hamilton County school district principal and Central Office administrator, speaking on this very subject.  For years, I had requested an audience with this group to talk about crisis management.  The school district has not had a communications director in several years, and the most recent one did little to improve the situation.  One of her most notorious directives to principals was, “When interviewed by a TV reporter, how you look is more important than what you say.”  That may be the worst advice ever.

So I gladly accepted the invitation to discuss school/media relations.  I had done the same program for many area school districts, but not Hamilton.  I covered the basics: how to request news coverage, what to expect when a reporter calls, and of course how to deal with a crisis.  First and foremost, be responsive, be available, and tell the truth.  Certainly, there are many cases, like the Ooltewah story, when you can’t tell the media every detail.  You can, however assure the public that an investigation is underway. You can tell us that if mistakes were made, they won’t be repeated, and you can assure us our children are safe. A “no comment” will never do, and in this nonstop news cycle, even during the holidays, if something terrible has happened, you have to step up and face the cameras.

Thankfully, some of those in the audience paid attention that day, just like kids do in classrooms across Hamilton County.  Unfortunately, others may have been doodling or daydreaming.

As one School Board member said this week, expressing disappointment in the lack of response to the Ooltewah crisis, “If a house is on fire, someone must respond.  And our house was on fire.”

Well said.  As I’ve told many public officials: If you can’t stand the heat, why did you want to work in the kitchen?