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VOL. 131 | NO. 76 | Friday, April 15, 2016

Parkinson: OK to ‘Go A Little Bit Extreme’ to Get Job Done

SAM STOCKARD | Nashville Correspondent

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With U.S. Marine Corps training, Rep. Antonio Parkinson knows how to grab people’s attention.

He did that earlier this year when he sponsored legislation to kill the Achievement School District, Tennessee’s solution for turning around struggling schools.

“Sometimes you have to go a little bit extreme in order to get people to come to the table. That definitely was part of the strategy to wake everybody up to start listening,” says Parkinson, 47, a Democrat who represents House District 98 in Memphis.

The retired Marine’s “nuclear option” went beyond the call of the Legislature’s Black Caucus, which sought a moratorium on putting more schools under authority of the state’s Achievement School District, which can take over schools in the bottom 5 percent of performance, running them itself, turning them over to a charter operator or allowing a school system to take increased steps to improve them.

But while his effort to kill the ASD might have been more strategic, he also filed legislation to put a three-year moratorium in effect, alongside several pieces of legislation Black Caucus members sponsored in an effort to reform the state’s ASD.

Early in the session, they agreed to send those measures to a summer study, after ASD and the governor’s office balked. And even though such a move means the demise of legislation for the year, Parkinson says he feels “successful” just by getting people to come together for a “real serious conversation.”

“For me, it’s about accountability and making sure you’re performing and doing exactly what you were put in place to do.

“And that we are getting the return on the investment for the tax dollars we’re putting in play to have you do the job,” says Parkinson, who carries the nickname “Touche,” pronounced “2 shay,” a moniker he picked up from his drill instructor in Marine Corps boot camp.

Parkinson and the rest of the Black Caucus, and primarily Memphis legislators, want more accountability for the ASD in raising the level of performance for schools in the bottom 5 percent. Twenty-seven of the 29 schools under ASD are located in Memphis and two are in Nashville.

The state district added four Memphis schools to the list in December, even after a Vanderbilt University study showed Innovation Zone schools, which are run by local school districts, are performing better than those handled by the state district.

Lawmakers want ASD to move half of its schools off the state’s Priority List before it takes on more, especially since the state poured more than $80 million into the district.

“I think it’s almost criminal to take failing schools, moving them under the ward of the state and they continue to fail under the ward of the state,” Parkinson explains.

ASD Superintendent Malika Anderson, who took the post this year, defended the district’s efforts in a meeting with the Black Caucus this session, pointing out the Vanderbilt study says the district needs more time to make improvements.

Asked what the district is doing to allay lawmakers’ concerns, Anderson says in a statement, “We’re looking forward to continuing a dialogue with legislators and the community in the coming months to ensure that our plans for partnering with school communities to improve outcomes for priority school students are reflective of the communities we serve.”

Making a difference

Despite agreements by the Black Caucus to send ASD bills to summer study, Parkinson believes the group is having one of its best years in his three House terms.

“We’ve been coming together and having a focused agenda in regard to the injustices in the judicial system for African-Americans and focusing legislation in that direction to fix those,” says Parkinson, a Shelby County Fire Department lieutenant.

“It’s one of those deals where we put together 10 or 12 pieces of legislation and get three out, we’re good, because it’s gonna help.”

“Ban the box” legislation by Nashville Democratic Rep. Brenda Gilmore, who chairs the caucus, passed the Legislature, prohibiting state employers from inquiring about an applicant’s criminal history on an initial application.

The caucus also is backing several measures designed to reform prison sentencing and keep people out of jail for minor drug offenses.

Parkinson is sponsoring legislation for local referendums to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. He contends his bill isn’t so much to make pot easier to use but to allow police to spend more time focusing on serious matters than hours on end arresting and transporting people for simple possession to 201 Poplar, the Shelby County jail.

Memphis Police Department is short anywhere from 250 to 500 officers, and police need to focus energy on major crimes, he adds, “and we’ve got real killers out there in the streets of Memphis.”

Another Parkinson bill failed this session, one prohibiting certain public employees and officials from owning stock or holding investments in private prison companies.

He says the bill, which died in the Civil Justice Committee, is designed to eliminate conflicts of interest in the justice system, since such a large portion of the state’s budget is linked to incarceration.

He points toward a situation in North Carolina where a judge was sentenced to 28 years in prison for sending children to a detention center that was funneling money to him.

“I’m not saying anyone in Tennessee has done anything remotely close to that. But if I were an individual facing a judge, and I was able to see that this judge had direct ties in the prison pipeline, my knees would be making too much noise.

“They would put me out of the courtroom because I would be scared to death that there’s another motive versus receiving real and true and unaltered justice,” he says.

As vice chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, Parkinson concedes, with only 26 members against the Republican supermajority, it can’t drop many more members. Yet he believes the caucus has had a strong session, increasing its presence in the media and making “really valid arguments.”

For instance, he says, Democrats recently supported an amendment on the House floor to put Tennesseans first to be employed and in access to state contracts but saw the measure voted down by Republicans.

Consolidation talk

During recent debate on de-annexation legislation initially targeting Memphis and four other cities, Parkinson said the matter could force Memphis and Shelby County to start discussing consolidation or metropolitan government. The measure would have allowed residents in disputed areas of annexation to vote to remove themselves from municipal limits. It died in a Senate committee after passing along party lines in the House.

Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland warned legislators the bill could cost Memphis anywhere from $28 million to $78 million in lost property tax revenue if 10 areas left the city.

Proponents of the bill said they had been brought into city limits against their will, given no voice by the local government, and forced to pay city taxes simply to boost municipal revenue.

Shelby County and Memphis took a turn of sorts toward consolidation when Shelby County Schools took over Memphis City Schools. Asked if he believes consolidation is the ultimate answer to a large number of Memphis’ problems, Parkinson calls it an “interesting question.”

“Consolidation is important for the life of Memphis at this point, and it has to be done properly though,” he says.

“When you consolidate, you won’t have a division of the Shelby County delegation, one group pushing for the outer edges of the county, or the municipal areas, and another core group pushing for all of the city interests. So consolidation would work in that aspect. Also, you’re looking at a shared cost for everyone that lives and operates in Shelby County.”

But consolidation is not the answer to every problem in Shelby County.

“The real, true answer to everything in Shelby County is for the hearts of people to change. We’re talking about something that’s generational that would have to be generational to undo.

“You have a divided community that’s divided along racial lines, that’s divided along class lines, that’s divided along geographical lines. And so there would have to be … something that would cause the glue to come together and create that cohesive framework and cohesive attack on those things that would have a negative impact on Shelby County.

“Right now that’s not happening because in some cases it appears some of our legislators may be aligned in other places.”

Words spoken more like a diplomat than a Marine, proving Parkinson can speak softly and carry a big stick.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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