News Release from Middle Tennessee State University, April 18, 2019:

Link: https://mtsunews.com/healthcare-tech-jobs-report-2019/

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — App developers are the most in-demand tech jobs in the Middle Tennessee’s burgeoning healthcare industry and demand for healthcare tech workers overall “grew steadily” in recent years, according to a new MTSU report.

Released Thursday at the latest tech talk hosted by the Greater Nashville Technology Council, the “Healthcare Tech Middle Tennessee” report was developed by the Department of Information Systems and Analytics in MTSU’s Jones College of Business in partnership with the tech advocacy organization.

Report author Amy Harris, associate professor in information systems and analytics, moderated a panel of experts from area healthcare tech companies to discuss the report findings and what they mean for the region’s healthcare sector.

“Health care is such a strong economic driver in this region that we felt it was important to understand more about its contribution to tech workforce demand,” said Harris, who released a report late last year about the state of tech jobs overall in the Midstate.

“The study’s findings provide evidence of healthy — and growing — demand for health care tech workers. Of the 38,000-plus postings for tech jobs in Middle Tennessee last year, one-third were associated with healthcare. That’s just over 12,500 healthcare tech jobs. This is strong evidence that the increasing use of technology in healthcare delivery is fueling job growth in our region.”

The report — which includes breakdowns in areas such as most in-demand occupations, job titles, and skills — covers the Nashville-Davidson-Murfreesboro-Franklin and Clarksville, TN-KY metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs). You can download the full report at http://www.middletntechjobs.com/healthcare-tech-2019/.

“Understanding the specific tech talent needs of our major industries is vital to the success in growing our tech workforce,” explained Brian Moyer, president and CEO of the Greater Nashville Technology Council. “We want to thank Dr. Harris and the MTSU Department of Information Systems and Analytics for their continued efforts to shed light on the unique facets of region’s tech community.”

Other report highlights:

  • When comparing healthcare tech job demand to overall tech job demand, there was a high degree of consistency in the top occupations, job titles, skills, and qualifications. However, there was considerable variation in the proportion of overall tech demand driven by healthcare when looking at individual occupations and job titles.
  • Demand for healthcare tech workers grew steadily through 2017 and 2018, peaking at 3,072 active job postings in December 2018.
  • The most in-demand healthcare tech occupation was Software Developers, Applications with 12.7 percent of postings associated with this occupation group. The Management Analysts and Computer Systems Analysts occupation groups followed close behind, with 12.5 percent and 11.8 percent of postings, respectively.
  • SQL (a software programming language) is the most in-demand skill for healthcare tech workers with 23 percent of postings referencing this skill. Agile Software Development and Business Requirements followed, appearing in 15 percent and 9 percent of postings, respectively.

This report is part of the Middle Tennessee Tech research program, which has the goal of providing industry, economic development, and academic audiences with data on the current state of the Midstate technology workforce. It is a partnership between MTSU’s Department of Information Systems and Analytics and the Greater Nashville Technology Council.

The Tennessee Legislature this week approved a measure that proposes creating a nine-member statewide commission to authorize new charter schools and oversee their subsequent performance.

Republican Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, a school-choice proponent, has been promoting the legislation.

Under the provisions of Senate Bill 796, the “Public Charter School Commission” would act as an appeals board for hearing challenges to a local board of education’s decision to reject a charter school application. If the commission reverses the local board’s decision and subsequently approves the charter school, then the commission members would thereafter serve as that charter school’s oversight authority.

The legislation passed by decisive margins in both General Assembly chambers — 61-37 in the House and 27-3 in the Senate. State Reps. Kelly Keisling, R-Byrdstown, and John Mark Windle, D-Livingston, were the only Upper Cumberland lawmakers voting against the bill.

The new commission would supersede the charter-school oversight responsibilities currently administered by the State Board of Education, according to one of the legislation’s primary Senate sponsors, Germantown Republican Brian Kelsey.

The State BOE would, however, ultimately oversee the Charter School Commission.

“Most public charter schools in our state are offering a great education to our lowest income children for free,” Kelsey said in a press release. “We are hopeful that this legislation will encourage more high-quality schools to open in Tennessee.”

Kelsey predicts that the measure will create an environment wherein charter schools are held to higher standards. Senate Bill 796 will also ensure that “low-performing charters” are more effectively weeded out, he said.

Press Release from the Office of Republican Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, April 4, 2019:

Gov. Bill Lee Works with General Assembly to Temporarily Reinstate Paper-Based Student Testing in 2019-2020 School Year

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced that his administration, in coordination with the Tennessee General Assembly, is temporarily reinstating paper-based assessments for students in the 2019-2020 school year.

“We must ensure the utmost quality in our annual assessment,” said Lee. “Commissioner Schwinn and her team at the Department of Education are doing outstanding work to get testing on the right track, and we thank the General Assembly for their thoughtful approach on this matter.”

Testing for the 2018-2019 school year, the final year with the current vendor, begins on Monday, April 8 and the online version of the test will be delivered as scheduled. In preparation for testing, 100% of districts reported as meeting the criteria for technical readiness to give the online assessment.

The move to temporarily reinstate paper-based testing next year will allow the new vendor to establish an accountable, long-term solution to be put in place for students, teachers and taxpayers.

“One year of paper-based testing will give the new vendor a full year to properly stand up a Tennessee office, hire exceptional talent, and make sure the assessment is ready for Tennessee classrooms,” said Commissioner Schwinn.

Legislative leadership offered support for the move:

“I fully support this amendment because our students and teachers deserve a system that works. I look forward to working with legislative colleagues and the Lee Administration to build a solution.” – Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson

“I am proud to work with House Education Chairman Mark White and the Lee Administration on this amendment so that we may ensure that the Commissioner of Education has the flexibility needed to do what is in the best interest of our children during the continued phase of planning toward the best system possible.” – House Majority Leader William Lamberth

“Our priority is to act in the best interest of Tennessee students. This amendment is a step in the right direction. I look forward to working with the House and the Lee Administration in these efforts to ensure our students are set up for success.” – Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham

“Our teachers and students deserve our best and this will give the Department of Education time to ensure that everything is running smoothly.” – House Education Committee Chairman Mark White

A new study from the state comptroller’s office reveals a pervasive connection between underperforming teachers and lower-than-optimal student test scores.

Tennessee’s Office of Research and Education Accountability released a report this week seeking to assess the negative impacts that underachieving teachers may have on student performance and academic success.

The report determined that students’ performance demonstrably suffers when they’re taught by a subpar-rated teacher for two consecutive years.

Graphic Source: Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury’s Office of Research and Education Accountability (March 2019)

A press release from the office of Comptroller Justin P. Wilson, who oversees OREA, indicated that the study’s results show that students who endure “ineffective teachers” for consecutive years “were less likely than their peers to be proficient or advanced on the state’s assessments.”

“Student achievement also suffered with the largest effects found for the highest and lowest performing students,” the press release stated. “These results are consistent with other research indicating that ineffective teachers have negative academic impacts on students.”

OREA’s research into the issue — which was conducted at the request of Tennessee Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville — showed that between 2013 and 2015 more than 8,000 students in Tennessee were taught in consecutive years by teachers with low evaluation scores in math or English or both.

Students in need of special education efforts or enrolled in “high poverty” school were much more likely to receive instruction from underperforming teachers, the report found.

The OREA report suggests that altering education policy in Tennessee to ensure an “increase equitable access to effective teachers for all students” is something for the Legislature to consider. The report also recommends that policymakers contemplate establishing provisions to ensure students are not assigned to classrooms run by ineffective teachers in consecutive years, and that the Tennessee Department of Education be required to track the problem and report back to lawmakers on it annually.

Press Release from the Office of Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, March 21, 2019:

Praise for education savings accounts, charter schools

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee’s charter school bill passed in both the Tennessee General Assembly House and Senate education committees just one day after Gov. Lee’s education savings account proposal advanced from the House curriculum subcommittee.

“With the legislature’s hard work, school choice has momentum and we are working together to put students first and strengthen our public education system,” said Lee. “Low-income students deserve the same opportunities and we have a bold plan that levels the playing field while also focusing improvement on the lowest-performing school districts.”

Parents, legislators, educators and advocates from across the state praised Gov. Lee’s efforts to focus on students and expand educational opportunity.

Support for Gov. Lee’s School Choice Agenda:

“Gov. Lee’s full education agenda is exceptional for students in Memphis and across our state. By investing $71 million in teacher pay raises and an additional $5 million into improving student and teacher support in our priority schools, he is making clear he is willing to do whatever it takes for Tennessee’s students. While I’ve always been against vouchers, Governor Lee’s comprehensive approach to giving more freedom and flexibility to students and families through Education Savings Accounts and further investment in our schools is the bold and innovative reform our state needs to ensure every child has access to a quality education.” – Cato Johnson, former Chairman of Tennessee Higher Education Commission and former member of the State Board of Education, Shelby County

“I support Gov. Lee’s bold plan to introduce a better way to educate children in Tennessee. As a mother and grandmother, I believed that we must create a better way especially for minority children. Charter schools and ESAs will continue to open doors for students that have been marginalized by educational opportunities.” – Latonya Bell, concerned Nashville parent

“As a mother, wife, entrepreneur, and native Tennessean, I know firsthand the power of education, and the tremendous impact it has on generations of Tennesseans. I believe we can not only rebuild a stronger foundation for our youth by creating new pathways for education, such as utilizing educational savings accounts; we can deliver innovative regional solutions that meet the specific needs of students and parents across all of Tennessee. By supporting the ESA program, we can provide an essential piece to the puzzle and empower parents to provide customized solutions for their children’s future.” – Tessa Eades, concerned Nashville parent and advocate

“I am grateful for Gov. Lee’s efforts to provide alternatives for students who might otherwise be denied an opportunity for a great education. As Senate Majority Leader, I am the proud and enthusiastic sponsor of this important legislation.” – Sen. Jack Johnson, Senate Majority Leader, District 23

“I fully support the governor’s initiatives on expanding educational opportunities for children and look forward to our continued collaboration going forward.” – Rep. William Lamberth, House Majority Leader, District 44

“Having been on the education committee for seven years, I appreciate that Gov. Lee is focused on ensuring Tennessee’s education system is serving every student in our state. His bold agenda supporting students, teachers, families, and education leaders will help Tennessee lead the nation with a strong educated workforce and a stronger economy.” – Rep. Mark White, House Education Committee Chair, District 83

“I’m excited that the opportunity for families to have a choice in securing the best education for their child is moving forward.” – Rep. Bill Dunn, District 16

“I applaud Gov. Lee’s bold education agenda to invest in our state’s students, teachers and families. From pay raises for teachers, support for rural school leaders, investment in CTE and STEM, more choice for families with accountable charter schools and education savings accounts, Gov. Lee is spurring innovation so that all our schools improve in preparing every student for the jobs of tomorrow.” – Marlon King, educator, leader and parent

“I have a really hard time telling parents that their money shouldn’t be used for their students, their children. I have a hard time explaining to them why they have to continue to leave their child in a school that has been failing for the past 30 years.” – Rhonda Thurman, Hamilton County School Board Member

“I support any move Gov. Lee can make toward giving more parents more choices in the educational process for their children. Parents have had too few choices for too long. We need significant change for there to be significant progress in results for our children across our state. I fully support Gov. Lee’s Tennessee Education Savings Accounts.” – Dan Chord, Board Member of Independent School in Bradley County

“Tennessee students are so lucky that Gov. Lee is taking a ‘by any means necessary’ approach to ensuring that all children will have access to great schools. His charter school authorization legislation will accelerate the creation of highly effective schools across the state, just as our charter school program has done in Nashville. And for those students still without excellent options, Education Savings Accounts will empower our most economically disadvantaged families with the means to secure good schooling for their children, just as more affluent parents already do. Both proposals make it clear that Gov. Lee is applying as much concern for the state’s children as he has for his own children and grandchildren. We can’t ask for more than that.” – David Fox, Former Chairman of Metro Nashville Public Schools

“According to the Tennessee Department of Education’s report card, only 35.8 percent are college ready. That number is cut in half when you look at black, Hispanic and Native American students and students who are economically disadvantaged. Gov. Lee’s approach in using ESAs will reach those regardless of zip code.” – Tommy Vallejos, community activist and pastor, Clarksville

“This charter school proposal by Gov. Lee would take the politics out of the process and put the focus back on kids. We have seen our local district deny applications for charter schools we believe would work for our students. The bottom line is we need more great schools.” – Sarah Carpenter, Executive Director of The Memphis Lift

“As educators, we should be driven by what is best for students. The ESA bill is 100% student-centered. It allows parents the choice to help their children get a better education at a school that is the best fit for their child.” – Sean Corcoran, Head of School at Brainerd Baptist School in Chattanooga

“Giving parents greater access to additional quality options for their child’s education is always beneficial. Making education savings accounts a reality for families in Memphis and across the State would be a good thing. We must do everything we can to help all students succeed.” – Tom Marino, Executive Director at Poplar Foundation

“At the Tennessee Charter School Center, we believe that establishing a high quality independent statewide appellate authorizer, founded on best practices, will ensure that decisions to open charter schools in Tennessee are based on what is best for students, not politics.” – Maya Bugg, CEO of Tennessee Charter School Center

“Tennessee’s public charter schools are spurring innovation that is helping to drive greater achievement and success for thousands of Tennessee students. Gov. Lee’s initiative that would create the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission would help expand great public school options that have proven to be effective for students and continue the fast student achievement growth we have seen since 2011.” – David Mansouri, President & CEO, SCORE

Press Release from Professional Educators of Tennessee, March 19, 2019:

Op-Ed by JC Bowman
Executive Director
Professional Educators of Tennessee
jc.bowman@proedtn.org

In Tennessee, we appreciate straight talk and candor. So, to the point: statewide testing has taken a wrong turn in public education, not to mention Tennessee has failed in our statewide testing administration since 2012. Now we are about to start over, possibly with a new vendor. There is no guarantee this will work any better than previous attempts.

At no point were any of the previous testing problems the fault of students or educators in Tennessee. The state has simply failed students, teachers, parents, and taxpayers. We understand mistakes are made by individuals, by companies, and even by our government. Clearly, there is a problem with testing in Tennessee. It is a flawed testing system, which could be addressed if we were to pilot innovative approaches that encourage our schools and their communities to work together and design solutions without bureaucratic hurdles. That would be a sensible strategy to pursue.

This is why some legislators have argued for allowing LEAs to use the ACT, ACT Aspire, or SAT Suites as a means of assessment. This request continues to be asked for by several high-performing districts across the state frustrated by state failures. We must also break down the bureaucratic barriers that have kept educators and school districts from pursuing solutions to the unique challenges of their communities. We should pursue reliable tests that provide accurate feedback for educators, parents, and students, or perhaps allow districts the opportunities to use these alternative assessments.

The current testing culture has killed the enthusiasm of many educators. No single test should be a determinant of a student’s, teacher’s or school’s success. Although we need testing to measure the progress of our students, we should recognize that these tests are often unreliable in evaluating teachers and schools. True measurement of progress should instead consist of several benchmarks, not just testing. However, testing goes beyond the purposes of entrance or placement into courses in postsecondary education or training programs.

With each testing failure, educators and districts have unfairly been the ones who bear the brunt, quite unfairly, of parental anger. Students also suffer, with everything from loss of instruction time to not understanding their educational progress. When we make education decisions on the basis of unreliable or invalid test results, we place students at risk and harm educators professionally. This is especially unfair to the hardworking teachers in our state.

We must listen to educators on the ground, and continue to champion innovation in public education. Educators want that chance to be inventive, and they understand the need to challenge the status quo to get results for the students in their community. Therefore, the state should not stand in the way of any LEA that wishes to use an alternative that is comparable to state-mandated assessment. The LEA should be required to notify parents or guardians of students that the LEA is using an approved testing alternative. In addition, the LEA, before using an approved testing alternative, should be required to notify the Tennessee Department of Education, in writing, of the grade level and subject matter in which the LEA intends to use an approved testing alternative. Senator Mark Pody and Representative Clark Boyd have proposed legislation (SB1307/HB1180) to allow districts this testing flexibility. It is similar to legislation that Senator Janice Bowling and Representative Terri Lynn Weaver have introduced previously (SB488/HB383).

High-quality assessments convey critical information for educators, families, the public, and students themselves and create the basis for improving outcomes for all learners. However, when testing is done badly or excessively, it takes important time away from teaching and learning, and limits creativity from our classrooms. It is important that Tennessee improves postsecondary and career readiness for all Tennessee students. Flawed testing does not move us toward that goal. It is time we allow our districts the flexibility that they have requested.

Note: State Representative Terri Lynn Weaver represents District 40 in the Tennessee General Assembly. Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited. For more information on this subject or any education issue please contact Professional Educators of Tennessee.

Press Release from the Office of Tennessee Comptroller Justin P. Wilson, March 19, 2019:

Link: https://comptroller.tn.gov/news/2019/3/19/new-report-examines-impact-of-ineffective-teachers-on-students.html

The Tennessee Comptroller’s Office has released a new report that explores how students in Tennessee’s public schools are impacted when they are taught by an ineffective teacher for two consecutive years. The report was prepared at the request of Senator Dolores Gresham.

More than 8,000 Tennessee students (1.6 percent of students included in the study) had a teacher with low evaluation scores in both the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years in math, English, or both subjects.

Students were less likely than their peers to be proficient or advanced on the state’s assessments when they were taught by ineffective teachers in consecutive years. Student achievement also suffered with the largest effects found for the highest and lowest performing students. These results are consistent with other research indicating that ineffective teachers have negative academic impacts on students.

Students in certain districts, grades, subjects, and subgroups were more likely to be taught in consecutive years by ineffective teachers. English language learners, students in special education, and students in high-poverty schools were over 50 percent more likely than other students to have consecutive ineffective teachers. Students who had two ineffective teachers represented over 10 percent of the examined students in two school districts.

The report includes three policy considerations that address how to increase equitable access to effective teachers for all students, how to ensure that no student has ineffective teachers in consecutive years, and whether an annual report from the Tennessee Department of Education on this issue should be required.

To read the policy considerations and a more detailed analysis of the conclusions, please click here: https://comptroller.tn.gov/content/cot/office-functions/research-and-education-accountability.html

New governor looks to spur country-style commerce

In one of his first official acts after taking the oath of office as Tennessee’s newest chief executive, Gov. Bill Lee issued an executive order mandating that state agencies do a better job serving country folks.

The order directs state agencies to take steps toward improving rural economic opportunities, especially in areas deemed “economically distressed.”

“This administration recognizes that Tennessee’s economic growth and prosperity has reached historic levels,” reads Lee’s order, issued Jan. 29. “Despite such growth and prosperity, Tennessee’s rural citizens face challenges unique to their geography that often require a unique response.”

“Educational attainment and labor workforce participation are continuing to lag within our rural communities,” the order states.

Of Tennessee’s 95 counties, 80 are deemed rural by the state. Those around the Upper Cumberland designated “economically distressed” include Jackson, van Buren, Clay and Fentress, as well as Bledsoe, Grundy and nine others in the state.

Lee’s order notes that Tennessee has among states with the highest percentage of distressed counties in the country. The governor observed during a press conference soon after taking office that much of what the state does in the way of corporate recruitment and business project development “automatically happens in urban areas because the vast majority of economic development is occurring in our urban areas.”

“My administration will place a high emphasis on the development and success of our rural areas,” Lee said. “Our first executive order sends a clear message that rural areas will be prioritized across all departments as we work to improve coordination in our efforts.”

Lee’s pledge to focus on rural issues isn’t without precedent. One of the executive order’s mandates is that all 22 state department formally sum up progress they’ve made as a result of Gov. Bill Haslam’s Rural Task Force initiatives.

Their assessments, due by the end of May, must include “a comprehensive description of the department’s initiatives adopted or funded in the last four years to specifically address challenges unique to rural communities.”

Lee’s executive order declares that by June 30 all agencies must provide “recommendations for improving and making more efficient the department’s service of rural Tennesseans.”

Enticing Hinterland Tourism

Lee’s tourism development commissioner, Mark Ezell, says he’s “bullish” on tourism in Tennessee. Tourism’s scope and potential as a driver of economic activity has “community-changing ability” for small towns and rural populations, he said.

Ezell replaces Kevin Triplett, who served in the role under Haslam. He’s no stranger to rural commerce, having worked as a brand development executive with Purity Dairies prior to taking over as the state’s top promoter of Tennessee travel, leisure, entertainment and recreation.

Ezell calls himself “a brand builder.” He says Tennessee is already a “remarkable product.” The goal of his agency now is to get people to visit Tennessee, spend money, then “do that over and over and over again.”

“What is great about tourism is that the size is big and the growth is massive.” Ezell said. “Tourism drives economic impact. Over $20 billion is the new number that we will achieve with growth of over seven percent — beating the national average.”

Tourism bolsters local quality of life throughout the state and has great capacity to do more, he said. “Tourism pays hundreds of millions of dollars for the critical services that help all Tennesseans have a good job, a good school and a safe neighborhood,” he said.

During budget hearings before Gov. Lee in January, Ezell expressed a desire to raise the visibility of seemingly out-of-the-way Tennessee towns and counties endowed with visitor attractions. One of his priorities will be to encourage more travel off the beaten path in order to help share the wealth of tourist dollars flowing into Tennessee.

“Because so many of these counties are rich in scenic beauty or natural resources or adventure tourism opportunities or agritourism, this is a key development piece for us,” he said.

Ezell said his office will try to help rural communities take better advantage of the Adventure Tourism Act “that promotes rafting and kayaking and biking and rock climbing.” The Department of Tourist Development can also lend towns and counties technical and financial assistance in planning and promoting recreation-oriented infrastructure — which is often one of the top ways business and community leaders in economically underperforming regions say the state can help them, he said.

Thirteen of the 15 distressed counties have indicated to the new administration that expanding tourism is their No. 1 priority, said Ezell. For example, Jackson County’s top long term goal is to “leverage the Roaring River and other scenic rivers in the county,” said Ezell.

‘People Relocate Where They Recreate’

Appreciating the benefits of expanding recreation-based tourism is a perspective that makes a lot of sense to Marvin Bullock, president of the Sparta-White County Chamber of Commerce. He says he often encounters transplanted Upper Cumberland entrepreneurs who tell him “our outdoors are why they moved to our area.”

“I am proud that Tennessee recognizes the value of tourism,” he said. “Rural communities with recreational opportunities benefit beyond the dollars spent on tourism and retirees. People relocate where they recreate, and that includes business owners.”

“In the case of Sparta and White County, tourism has substantially contributed to industrial growth and attracting workforce as well,” added Bullock, who points to Jackson Kayak as the best local example of what leveraging nearby recreation potential can achieve in the realm of business and industry development.

Not only is world-champion kayaker Eric Jackson’s company White County’s largest employer, but it regularly helps attract major kayaking events that splash visitors’ dollars around the area.

Just this spring alone, the Upper Cumberland is playing host to two major paddle-sport competitions — the U.S. Freestyle National Team Trials at Rock Island March 16-17, and the inaugural Pan-American Kayak Bass Championship from May 28-31 in Cookeville. The latter is billed as a first-of-its-kind in the world, and will bring more than 100 of the most elite kayak bass anglers from around the globe to Center Hill Lake.

Strengthening Farming, Forestry

Tourism may be a little more flashy and seemingly open-ended in terms of capacity for growth, but farming, ranching and timber-harvesting are still backbone industries in much of rural Tennessee.

That’s especially true around the Upper Cumberland — and in particular the “Nursery Capital of the World,” Warren County.

“Warren County boasts more than 160,000 acres of farmland, with more than 300 nurseries operating in McMinnville and the surrounding vicinity,” according to an economic assessment published last year by the Upper Cumberland Development District. “In 2012, nursery sales totaled $17,691,000, making Warren County the top nursery stock crop producer in the entire country.”

Nevertheless, like in rural areas across the state, farming in general has been diminishing in profitability.

“Agriculture is undoubtedly important in Warren County, however with the industry on a steady decline for the last fifty years, farmers have been struggling to sustain locally owned agribusinesses,” the UCDD report states.

Lee’s new agriculture commissioner, Charlie Hatcher, said his department will be looking to “facilitate or create an environment that is better for farmers or ag businesses” across the state, especially in counties and communities where farming has played a significant role in the local economy

“We are at a time when we know that farm income is down 50 percent,” Hatcher said during Lee’s state budget hearings. He added, “We know that government is not the answer.” Even so, he said “whatever money we have available for cost-shares and grants we would like to use” to make it easier to make a living on the farm.

Gov. Lee is hinting that he might like to see farmers in distressed counties receive “premium scoring” on applications for agriculture enhancement funds and farm-enterprise grant requests with the department.

The Tennessee Department of Agriculture is in the process of forming an internal task force to counsel the agency on rural economic development, said Hatcher. The task force will advise on “all commodity groups throughout the state,” he said.

In addition, the agency will host an online “suggestion box for ag ideas” to promote outreach and communication with farmers, rural communities and ag-focused businesses and entrepreneurs, said Hatcher.

PRESS RELEASE from the Office of Tennessee Comptroller Justin P. Wilson, December 19, 2018:

The Tennessee Comptroller’s Office has released a performance audit of the Tennessee Department of Education detailing many of the problems that led up to the difficulties in executing the spring 2018 TNReady tests.

The online student assessment tests were plagued with numerous issues including login delays, slow servers, and software bugs. The first signs of trouble began on April 16, 2018 and continued through the end of the month.

Auditors determined that many of these issues occurred primarily because of Questar Assessment, Inc’s performance and updates to the student assessment system. Auditors also found the Department of Education’s oversight of test administration fell short of expectations.

The performance audit’s nine findings include five issues surrounding TNReady. These findings include:

  • The department’s lack of sufficient, detailed information on its Work Plan with Questar rendered it less effective as a monitoring tool to ensure Questar met all deadlines.
  • Questar’s decision to make an unauthorized change to text-to-speech software without formally notifying the department. This change contributed to the online testing disruptions.
  • Questar’s failure to sufficiently staff customer support, resulting in lengthy call wait times and high rates of abandoned calls.
  • A failure to track, document, and provide status updates to districts to let them know when students’ tests would be recovered, leaving districts unaware if their students completed the required tests.
  • Inadequate evaluation and monitoring of internal controls implemented by external information technology service providers, such as Questar.

Over the course of the audit, the department and Questar worked constantly to address the issues that caused or contributed to the spring 2018 testing problems. On October 1, 2018, Questar and the department signed a contract amendment introducing new requirements and accountability measures for Questar. The department also made adjustments to improve its contract management.

The Comptroller’s Office will present its audit findings to the General Assembly’s Education, Health, and General Welfare Joint Subcommittee of Government Operations on December 19. The meeting is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. in House Hearing Room III.

To view the audit report online, go to: http://www.comptroller.tn.gov/sa/

Conservation carve-outs added to Upper Caney Watershed

The rural lands that make up White County have long been recognized and appreciated for their remarkable geological features and timeless sense of hardy frontier vitality.

Over the last several decades, more and more people from outside the area have come to love and admire White County’s abundance of beauty, wildlife and recreation potential, especially southeast of Sparta, where the Cumberland Plateau fuses with the Highland Rim in the cave-pocked boulder-strewn realm of Virgin Falls.

In his essential 1999 survey of scenic regional hikes and Tennessee cultural heritage, “The Historic Cumberland Plateau; An Explorer’s Guide,” outdoor writer Russ Manning observed, “The unique features of this area are the waterfalls that plunge from great heights and disappear into the ground.”

“Big Laurel Creek flows over Big Branch Falls and farther downstream washes over Big Laurel Falls before disappearing in an underground cave behind the falls. Farther in the wilderness a small creek running out of Sheep Cave cascades 50 or 60 feet until it disappears into a hole in the ground,” wrote Manning. “But the most spectacular is Virgin Falls, which emerges from a cave, runs about 50 feet, drops 110 feet, and disappears into the rocks at the bottom. The water from all these waterfalls apparently runs through the ground, finally draining into the Caney Fork River, which flows through Scott Gulf to the south.”

Courting Conservation-Friendly Commerce

Numerous groups and individuals have devoted time, energy and resources toward shielding the mostly untamed domain from large-scale commercial and residential development, or environmentally destructive industrial land uses.

Groups that have donated time, money, land, labor or expertise toward conserving the Caney Fork watershed include the Tennessee Parks & Greenways Foundation, the Open Space Institute, the Land Trust for Tennessee, the Nature Conservancy, the Conservation Fund,  the J.M.Huber Corp., Bridgestone Americas, as well as state parks “friends” groups.

State government also has partnered with private-sector nonprofits and businesses to promote “stewardship of thousands of acres of ecologically significant areas in the Cumberland Plateau with the goals of protection, preservation and public recreation,” said Kim Schofinski, a spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation.

Improving the public’s access to the many recreational opportunities the rugged lands and moving waters provide will hopefully open navigable pathways toward future economic growth in an area where nagging poverty has for generations presented a snag.

Tennessee’s Cumberland Plateau is home to many struggling rural communities that “need sustaining and need to be resilient,” said Brock Hill, deputy commissioner for TDEC’s Bureau of Parks & Conservation.

Inaugural Virgin Falls Thru-Hike Expedition. Pictured at left are those who participated on Sept. 15 in the first organized hike along the newly opened 9-mile Lost Creek to Virgin Falls thru-hike trail. Left to right: Bob Ragland, Michael Faehl, Lisa Faehl, Mark Engler, Ranger Stuart Carroll, Gretchen Weir, Phil Hodge, Greg Geer and TennGreen’s Steven Walsh, who organized the event.

Hill, who formerly served as mayor of neighboring Cumberland County, asserted that “place-based economic development” not only stimulates job creation and small-business growth by drawing in visitors, it “adds a tremendous level to the quality of life for the people who already live here in this area.”

Stuart Carroll, park manager at the Virgins Falls State Natural Area, figures there’s a pretty basic and reliable formula for upping tourist visitation to a place as unique and spectacular as White County’s section of the Cumberland Plateau.

“If you open up access to the public — and provide good parking lots, good trails and good maps — then it will pay dividends to the local economy,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to emulate Cummins Falls (near Cookeville in Jackson County), because that place gets hammered (from overuse), but who could have imagined the spike in sales tax collections they’ve seen in that area because of the added traffic since that park opened?”

Long an advocate for better utilizing the area’s natural potential to lure tourists and snare tourist dollars, Sparta-White County Chamber of Commerce president Marvin Bullock noted that “Virgin Falls is already somewhat of a national draw.”

But opportunities for outdoor recreation are now “growing leaps and bounds”, said Bullock. And the area’s adventure-recreation profile will only increase as conservation, trail-building and public-access efforts continue, he predicts.

“It will make it even more of a national draw because there are a lot more beautiful waterfalls up through there,” said Bullock. “There are going to be miles and miles and miles more trails in the future.”

Among the most recent additions is a new section of trail from Lost Creek to Virgin Falls — thus creating a new nine-mile thru-hike and an additional trailhead and parking to access Virgin Falls. The Lost Creek State Natural Area, which was donated for public use by the James Rylander Family, was used as a backdrop in Disney’s 1994 “The Jungle Book.”

Bullock is pleased there’s common agreement that “we are not looking to build a resort park,” or establish other high-impact developments.

“We want to maybe see some wilderness campsites and that type of thing, but nobody wants to see the area built up into something like Fairfield or Lake Tansi in Cumberland County,” Bullock said.

Of course, White County and Sparta businesses are always happy to accommodate daytrippers from those communities who want to come have a magnificent look-see at the dazzling western edge of the plateau, Bullock is quick to add.

Some counties are tempted to develop large wilderness tracts into upscale residential developments in order to increased property tax rolls, said Bullock. White County, by contrast, “gets to have its cake and eat it too — trail development attracts tourists and increases sales tax revenue,” he said.

“Rural, at-risk White County will see increase in revenue, yet the population will still have access to some of their favorite waterfalls and scenic overlooks,” said Bullock.

Communication and Collaboration

More than 100 people with ties or interest in White County conservation efforts gathered Aug. 25 on a fertile grassy plain known as “Big Bottom” along the upper Caney Fork to celebrate some notable recent victories in securing and adding new landscapes to the now nearly 60,000-acre “Mid-Cumberland Wilderness Conservation Corridor.”

Over the summer, properties of 582 acres and 76 acres were formally incorporated into the preservation zone as a result of donors, landowners and various conservation-focused intermediaries working together to acquire the properties.

And back in April, Bridgestone Americas donated all 5,763 acres of its richly forested and biologically diverse Chestnut Mountain property to the Nature Conservancy of Tennessee. It contains the highest point of elevation in White County. The donation was part of an innovative and intriguing project to allow the Nature Conservancy to “manage a carbon sequestration project on the property that will offset the carbon emissions of the Bridgestone Tower, the company’s corporate headquarters in downtown Nashville.”

Leaders of conservation groups and state agencies delivered remarks emphasizing a consistent theme during the event — that a vast and ecologically indispensable playground for preservation-minded outdoor enthusiasts is emerging, and the cooperative efforts to bring it into being have been genuinely historic in significance.

Steve Law, director of the Tennessee Parks & Greenways Foundation, or TennGreen, said the latest 600-plus acres of land acquired represents “a significant conservation achievement” that will help enhance and protect Caney Fork water quality in perpetuity.

“Geographically, this property joins the Bridgestone Firestone Centennial Wilderness Wildlife Management Area to the west, it adjoins Lost Creek State Natural Area to the north, and is bounded on the south by the Caney Fork River,” said Law. “From the perspective of conservation value, this property increases available migratory habitat for rare species, including the federally endangered Indiana and gray bats.”

Law contends that effective future conservation success efforts will increasingly involve cultivating and maintaining networks of voluntary collaborations among an ever-growing array of interests, individuals and entities.

“Collaboration is a fundamental element to TennGreen’s core mission,” said Law.

TennGreen has for two decades been raising money and working with landowners to acquire and protect tracts that hold or are adjacent to “natural treasures” in Tennessee.

Joel Houser, Chattanooga-based Southeast field coordinator for the Open Space Institute, reiterated the point. “I don’t think we can stress enough the importance of partnerships,” he said.

Houser, whose New York-headquartered organization promotes the preservation of geologically and ecologically unique landscapes across North America, described the Cumberland Plateau in Tennessee as “a globally significant place.”

“There are species here that live nowhere else in the world — and there are species that were forced here from the last ice age, and have persisted here ever since,” he said. “There are species here that are disjunct — the populations are disjunct from larger native ranges that may be along the coastal plain or the southern Blue Ridge or further northward at higher elevations.”

In addition to the environmental benefits, Houser said preserving Cumberland wildlands in the 21st Century “will provide recreationists a respite from the modern world, and also provides hunters and their families food.”

“It’s not just for the wildlife, the lichens, the mosses, the flowers and the birds, it is for people, too, and people are a part of the ecosystem — of this ecosystem and all ecosystems,” he said.

Tying It All Together

The growing system of trails in the area is envisioned to one day connect the Virgin Falls State Natural Area with the crown-jewel of Tennessee’s state parks system, Fall Creek Falls, and in the process tie in Scott’s Gulf, Lost Creek, Bledsoe State Forest, Bee Creek and the Boy Scout’s Latimer High Adventure Reservation.

“Linking Lost Creek and Virgin Falls has long been a goal for Tennessee State Parks to provide more recreational opportunities for visitors and protect more critical habitat,” said TDEC’s Hill.

State wildlife resources agency director Ed Carter observed that the area has “one of the highest concentrations of greatest-conservation-need species of anywhere in Tennessee.”

For Stuart Carroll, the Virgin Falls park manager, progress made over the past few years represent a gratifying culmination to his 30-plus year career.

Land-protection endeavors along the Cumberland Plateau date back to the early 1900s, but in the past 20 years the acreage acquired from willing sellers or set voluntarily aside for conservation and recreation has more than doubled, he said.

Efforts by nonprofits and landholding private corporations to preserve properties and open them for public recreation are especially important in the Southeastern United States, where “public land has not historically been a really large part of the landscape,” Carroll said.

“So it is very fulfilling to see the acreage added to the public land base so that people can get out and enjoy the recreation the lands provide — and at the same time we can take care of both the resources and the history for future generations,” he said.

Carroll has himself been instrumental in negotiating a number of key land acquisitions and conservation set-asides, not to mention providing the down-and-dirty hands-on labor required to blaze, build and maintain enjoyably traversable hiking trails. He’s also co-author of a book of trail and landscape reviews called “Hiking Tennessee: A Guide to the State’s Greatest Hiking Adventures.”

The most rewarding aspects of working around places like Fall Creek Falls and Virgin Falls is preserving not just the natural aspects, but also the historical and cultural artifacts that the land holds, said Carroll — and in turn teaching youngsters to appreciate the region’s extraordinary legacy.

“It is great to see so many people pulling together to make these type of projects happen,” he said.