This one got to me

Robin Williams did a lot of stuff that I’ll never forget, but there’s one standup bit that my wife and I have consistently borrowed over the past 30 years. It’s the one where he puts Mr. Phallus on the witness stand and asks him what he remembers about the night in question. Mr. Phallus answers, “Let’s see, it was light, it was dark, it was light, it was dark.” Today, it’s definitely dark. Really dark.

I didn’t know Robin Williams, and I rarely get choked up when a celebrity shuffles off for his backstage pass. But I’m not ashamed to be part of the mob that says, “this one got to me.”

I can understand a little of what Robin Williams must have been going through, I think – the soul’s dark implosion; hope, will and desire sucked dry of momentum; no reason to live, no reason to try, microwaves of pain constricting and expanding in a nasty mockery of rhythm, and the nagging persistence of a beating heart to mark the endless hours. Or something like that. I’ve pulled over when the convulsions of depression rendered driving impossible, when I wanted to cry or scream, or die where I sat, alone, forgotten and hopeless.

I’ve also suffered a rotator cuff injury patting myself on the back for finding whatever courage or common sense it took to get back on the highway and show up for whatever I was driving to.

So, 11 years ago I wrote a magazine story titled, ‘Down Time: The High Cost of Depression.’ It was written by a breadwinner, a husband and father whose infant son had recently been diagnosed with cerebral palsy – his little boy, who seemed to be facing insurmountable, unfair challenges.

It was written by a man taking some sudden sharp turns in his life, a guy who loved and loves his family with a gut-punching fury, a self-pitying, miserable man who felt well suited to approach the subject of depression with a measure of understanding.

The story focused some on the financial toll depression had on businesses, and some on the personal struggles of a few big shots, CEOs and the like, and these dudes shared their serious-shit depression stories.

“I felt enveloped by a darkness. I was going down, down, down, down. It was like being in a deep well that I couldn’t climb out of,” Tom Johnson, the former head of CNN and publisher of the Los Angeles Times, told me. He described times when the anxiety was so smothering, he sought refuge in the safe place under his desk. Hey, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

Turns out, depression is a great equalizer – CEOs and regular shmoes stand side-by-side and front-to-back in the Prozac line. According to the experts I interviewed at the time, environment (the stress of raising a child with profound disabilities, or a demanding job, for example) accounts for about 60 percent of the risk for major depression, and genetics (dad was depressed, so you might be, too) about 40 percent. Those are risk factors. It’s not the job’s or the kid’s or your old man’s fault that you’re bummed out. It’s more than that. Basically, it’s your biochemistry, which doesn’t always react to those factors in a healthy way.

Anyway, the lions of industry that spoke with me faced their depressions with different arsenals. Drugs, therapy, even shock treatment were part of their assorted proverbial toolboxes. They all agreed on one thing. There was (and still is, God help me) a stigma associated with depression. “Even in today’s enlightened society, you tell someone you’re going to a psychiatrist or taking an antidepressant pill, and you are sort of singled out,” said J.B. Fuqua, an Atlanta businessman and philanthropist who died in 2006.

Boy, was he right on. A lot of so-called enlightened people still have a hard time accepting the validity of the vice-like choke hold that depression can have on another person – even if they’ve experienced it themselves (depression doesn’t come with the automatic power of empathy, unfortunately). Often, it’s quite the opposite – there are plenty of depressive narcissists walking around in their wide-awake nightmares, blaming the world and everyone else, including other depressive narcissists (which describes a lot of narcissists) for their pain and sorrow.

That article from long ago ends with the contention from Johnson that treatment – drugs, therapy, whatever – isn’t necessarily a cure. “Sometimes, you just have to make a change,” he said. “Sometimes you just have to get away from whatever is pulling you down.”

It only occurred to me today, when I dug up the old article, what a chilling statement that is. Johnson didn’t meant it that way. He meant, distance yourself from the thing that is destroying you. For Tom Johnson, it meant leaving CNN. But for Robin Williams, and way too many others, it means leaving everything.

I’ve heard people say – people I otherwise respect – that ‘hope’ is for the lazy, that ‘hoping’ is a passive way to avoid the responsibility of actually ‘doing.’ Misanthropic bullshit. Emily Dickinson wrote, “Hope is the thing with feathers/That perches in the soul.” For a lot of people, hope is the thing that keeps them going. Hope is life.

It’s heartbreaking to think that someone as gifted and beloved as Robin Williams, an artist who unleashed such a positive spirit and energy on the world, can be so incapable of drawing hope from the big love and admiration that surrounded him. This powerful, positive presence in the universe was utterly hopeless. And if it could happen to him …

That’s why this one got to me.

Babe as Babe: Nobody does it better

This is one of those things that I would’ve written when I was sports columnist on deadline and hadn’t done any actual work and needed something fast to fill that slot on the left side of the page. And those were usually my favorite columns …

“Sue baseball? No, kid, that would be like suing the church.”

  • Williams Bendix as Babe Ruth in The Babe Ruth Story

“I didn’t mean to hit the umpire with the dirt, but I did mean to hit that bastard in the stands.”

  • The real Babe Ruth

Babe Ruth was the Jesus of baseball: a hero born into rough and humble circumstances to become a superstar, the idol of millions, saving the game after the Black Sox Scandal, visiting sick kids at their bedsides, promising to hit home runs for them, performing baseball miracles, eventually falling from grace to become the target of fan and player derision, but suddenly rising from ignominious career death to triumphantly belt three home runs in his last day as a player, before dramatically removing himself from the lineup for the good of the team – nay, for the good of the Game. And as he lay dying, he volunteered to be a guinea pig and test a new serum that would likely kill him, or be used to save millions. He did it for us. The Babe. Thou shalt have no other gods before him.

That’s the Hollywood version, anyway.

Couldn’t sleep late last night, so I fired up the old Mac, and found The Babe Ruth Story on YouTube. Figured it would be timely, since I’d read something earlier in the day about this being the 100th anniversary season of the Babe’s big league debut. Hadn’t seen the movie in years, always enjoyed it, even though it might be the worst baseball biopic ever made. Is it the Plan Nine from Outer Space of baseball films, or the Babe Ruth of bad baseball films? Doesn’t matter. It’s too easy to pick this movie apart, since it’s mostly fiction that hit theatres a few minutes before the real Babe died from throat cancer. So, I’ll take the coward’s way out and just throw this movie into the mix for a quick and easy ranking of movie Babe Ruths.

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The real Babe Ruth demonstrates his grip to the fake Babe Ruth, a considerably smaller William Bendix.

William Bendix, who played the Babe in The Babe Ruth Story is my personal favorite, for nostalgic reasons. I first saw the movie with my dad, who was a sucker for this kind of schmaltz. And it’s a fun movie to watch, with just the slightest hint of authenticity – Bendix was a Yankees batboy during Ruth’s prime years in the 1920s. In the movie, his over-the-top, obstinate pointing to outer space (as opposed to center field) before hitting the famous 1932 “called shot” home run against the Cubs in the World Series is hilarious. The pitch Bendix hits comes down like a slow-pitch softball floater, and his uppercut would have made Mike Tyson proud.

Half of the movie is spent in various hospitals or at various bedsides – an injured dog, a sick kid, a dead Miller Huggins, a dying Babe Ruth – plenty of opportunity for Babe to bare his soul against a backdrop of drippy music. Plus, there’s a drunk version of Ruth dressed as Santa Claus lurching into an orphanage so he can tell a bunch of kids about “the three bears that were all Chicago Cubs.” And he gets the girl. The filmmakers completely ignore Babe’s first marriage, which ended tragically (his estranged wife died in a fire), so the love story within the story is a contrived version of his relationship with Claire Hodgson (a North Georgia girl, by the way – I’ve seen her girlhood home, it’s right here in White County).

Goodman as Ruth. Tough to get around on the ball when your swing describes the Earth's orbit around the sun.
Goodman as Ruth. Tough to get around on the ball when your swing describes the Earth’s orbit around the sun.

Honestly, I don’t remember much about the other Babe Ruth movies, so I’m completely unreliable as a critic of the films, but I remember the actors. Love John Goodman, but he was too fat to play the egg-shaped Ruth in The Babe (1992) in my opinion. He totally captured what I imagine Ruth’s character to have been like, but Goodman was about 40 when he played the Babe, and he looked 50, and his waistline looked like something that a moon might revolve around.

Stephen Lang, a chameleon of an actor, is about the same age as Goodman (both born in 1952, thank you IMDB), and played the lead in Babe Ruth, a 1991 TV movie, and probably the least-seen of the bunch. But you know, Lang really nailed it. The makeup people did a great job – he looked like Ruth, by God. He’s athletic. Plus, one thing I remember from the movie that stands out – Pete Rose plays Ty Cobb. If you can find this one, give it a look.

Stephen Lang calls his shot. Look at the terrific job they did on Ruthenizing his nose!
Stephen Lang calls his shot. Look at the terrific job they did on Ruthenizing his nose!

Even though he was the least seen, Lang might have been the best film Babe Ruth. But he wasn’t. The best was the Babe, who played himself in Pride of the Yankees, the Lou Gehrig story. Not surprisingly, Babe has the look and mannerisms of the Babe.

The Babe consoles "Lou Gehrig" (Gary Cooper playing the doomed first baseman in "Pride of the Yankees"). Ruth playing Ruth. Nails it.
The Babe consoles “Lou Gehrig” (Gary Cooper playing the doomed first baseman in “Pride of the Yankees”). Ruth playing Ruth. Nails it.

He’s certainly the most authentic. So, he wins. Of course, it isn’t nearly as interesting or exciting as watching Sophia Loren play Sophia Loren (dude, it’s Sophia Loren!). But, there’s no argument here: Babe Ruth is the Babe Ruth of actors who have played Babe Ruth, and he always will be.

There, I’ve called my shot.

Ghent Redefining Sacred Steel

AJ Ghent had no idea who the bearded white dude in the beanie hat was, even when the dude walked up and introduced himself.

“I didn’t have a clue who Zac Brown was,” says Ghent, whose eponymous band was dressed in its typical black and white formal attire, rolling into a midnight set of originals on a Thursday last summer when the Grammy-winning Brown entered the mostly-empty Dixie Tavern.

After the gig, Ghent and Brown hung out all night, talking plans. They didn’t leave the tavern until seven the next morning. “We clicked right away,” says Ghent. Since then, the AJ Ghent Band has opened for the Zac Brown Band across the country, introducing audiences to the evolution of an African-American musical gospel style, “sacred steel,” which was basically invented by Ghent’s great uncle, Willie Eason, grandfather, Henry Nelson, and father, Aubrey Ghent Sr.

“They’re like the kings of sacred steel, but I didn’t want be defined by what they’d done, or be stuck inside the box of a church environment,” says Ghent, 27, who moved to Atlanta from Fort Pierce, Fla., in early 2012, developing his chops and a regional following while playing with bandleader Col. Bruce Hampton, the influential Socratic chameleon of southern jam rock.

Now, when he isn’t conjuring James Brown on vocals, Ghent makes the custom 8-string lap steel guitar hanging from his neck sound like a spectral woman singing praise to heaven, often harmonizing with the vocals of his front-line band mates, wife MarLa Ghent and sister Tiffany Ghent Belle.

Will Groth (drums), Seth Watters (bass), and Gary Paulo (rhythm guitar/sax) bring rhythmic funk to the band’s sweaty, bluesy rock, and they’re all at work on the group’s debut album for Brown’s Southern Ground Artists label.

“I’d like to create the energy of a live experience with a studio album,” says Ghent, for whom the live experience has changed. “I knew small clubs and pizza joints. Then we played the Georgia Dome with Zac, and it was like adjusting your ears to the sound of a million people screaming.”

They Are Economically Essential

This one appeared in the February 2013 edition of Georgia Trend. It’s about a new and growing body of research focused on “the essential economy.”

Simona frequently is the first or last person you see upon entering or leaving Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite. She’s got short, black hair and large, dusky eyes, speaks broken English with a dense Eastern European accent, and when you notice her at all, she’s never more than a few paces from a cart loaded down with cleaning supplies.

“I can’t get much different work right now, so this is what I do,” she says while sweeping the lobby area near the parking lot elevators, just outside the Emergency Room waiting area. “Maybe later, when I have time to go for English class.”

She had a clerical job at an accounting firm back in her native Romania, but says her educational credentials don’t match up with the requirements of an American firm. So for the past five years, she’s helped support her growing family by working in CHOA’s environmental services department. It’s not the kind of work she and her husband dreamt of when they came to the U.S., but it’ll do for the time being, she says.

“It was old story. Everybody was talking about America because, you know, America is … America is energy. That’s why we came,” she says. “For right now, work is OK.”

Simona’s work, tedious as it may seem, is a critical component on the universal job ladder – the low rung, a small but foundational element in the overall American economic machine. She and her husband (he installs kitchen tile), and about one quarter of the Georgia workforce – nearly one million workers – are the focus of new research by The Essential Economy Council (TEEC), a nonprofit organization aiming to reframe the state and national immigration policy debate by broadening the focus.

Former state senator Sam Zamarripa, who co-founded TEEC and serves as its co-president with another former state senator, Dan Moody, coined the term The Essential Economy (TEE) to describe an occupational cluster that includes cooks, crop pickers, dishwashers, housekeepers, janitors, landscape crews, nursing home aides, poultry workers, stock clerks and so forth – low-wage, low-skilled, labor-intensive jobs that often are held by immigrant workers.

“This is a big, big part of our overall workforce. These jobs don’t go offshore, and there’s only so much you can do with technology. You can’t outsource these jobs,” says Zamarripa, who served in the state senate from 2003 to 2006 and runs his own private equity firm, Zamarripa Capital Inc.

Now he and the council want to use their ongoing research to enlighten elected officials and business leaders on the impact of TEE.

“Lawmakers should be thinking about this as hard as they do the Knowledge Economy,” Zamarripa says. “We’re talking about a structural part of our economy that has never been understood in a useful way.”

Zamarripa, a Democrat, was the first Hispanic person elected to the state senate. He co-founded and chaired the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials (GALEO) and has been an outspoken advocate for immigrants in Georgia. But he says the work of TEEC isn’t really about immigration. When he says it, you can almost see him winking.

“There’s not a discussion in America that doesn’t come back to immigration. Education comes back to it. Healthcare comes back to it. Transportation, driver’s license, security,” he says. “So, is this discussion about immigration? No more than those other discussions.”

Zamarripa says he isn’t being sly or ironic.

“No, I’ve bent over backwards trying to think this through,” he says, “because I’m not interested in debating immigration.”

Basically, TEEC is changing the discussion without really changing the subject.

“The elephant in the room is the immigration question,” says Moody, a Repub-lican. “But immigration is going to affect all sorts of sectors in our economy, from top to bottom.

“We’re a bipartisan research organization. We don’t have a policy agenda. We don’t have legislation that we’ve drafted. What we want to do is provide good information about an important sector of our economy that has been largely overlooked and not really understood.”

Moody and Zamarripa insist that they’re not out to change or repeal current immigration policies – they just want lawmakers to think a little deeper before leaping into something like HB 87 again.

Demand and Supply

Karen Bremer spent 35 years owning or operating restaurants and knew the lay of the land well enough so that she could hit full stride, with clear intent, when she became executive director of the Georgia Restaurant Association (GRA) in the summer of 2010.

“The whole immigration issue is the first thing I had to deal with when I started as executive director,” says Bremer, a founding member of GRA who serves on the TEEC board. “We were the first organization to speak out against the proposed legislation. I definitely feel like I have battle scars.”

In the spring of 2011, her fight clearly lost as the Georgia legislature was giving HB 87 an enthusiastic thumb’s up, Bremer wanted to understand the possible impacts on the restaurant workforce and long-term growth prospects.

She asked for counsel from someone she knew, Zamar-ripa, who came to realize that the workforce supply issues facing the restaurant industry went beyond immigration policy, went beyond restaurants into widespread realms, like agriculture and healthcare, for example. These issues include, among others, an aging workforce, the cost and time associated with increasing government regulations, changing aspirations of the available workforce, and the difficulty of the work itself.

Zamarripa says the aging population is the No. 1 threat to maintaining the Essential Economy, because younger generations aren’t coming forward to do the work. He lists immigration no higher than fourth.

But one of the council’s economic advisors, Tom Cunningham (vice president, senior economist and regional executive for the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta), says, “Immigration is central in all of this. That’s kind of what it comes down to.”

And for the business and industry leaders who make up most of TEEC’s board, immigration is the reason they are involved.

“I’m interested [in the Essential Economy] because of the immigration topic, and specifically because HB 87 was put in place,” says Steve Simon, TEEC board member and a partner in Atlanta-based Fifth Group Restaurants. “There was already a workforce shortage before HB 87. In my opinion, the laws currently in place do more harm than good.”

There’s always a labor shortage in the restaurant industry. High turnover has been a chronic condition for decades. Apparently, low wages, meager benefits and long hours aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Still, about 10 percent of the total workforce (in Georgia and the U.S.) toils in the restaurant industry (374,000 people in Georgia, 12.9 million nationally). Nearly 30 percent of all workers in the $632-billion national restaurant industry are immigrants, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics.

“We can’t outsource washing dishes to China, we can’t outsource the hostess to India,” Bremer says.

One of the fastest-growing segments in the restaurant industry is contract feeding for medical facilities, retirement communities, assisted living facilities and other institutional settings – essential work for an aging population that is living longer.

“The restaurant industry is one of the most labor-intensive industries. There are many hands that go into putting that plate down in front of you,” Bremer says. “And the pool of workers is declining.”

Her fellow TEEC board member, Charles Hall, is seeing the same workforce issues affect his membership at the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association, where he is the executive director. That’s why he’s thrown his hat in with the council.

“We’ve got to know how we’re going to fill these harvest worker jobs if U.S. citizens won’t fill them,” says Hall. “There aren’t many Georgians raising their kids to be cucumber pickers.

“So, if we’re not raising our kids to do this kind of work, whether it’s washing dishes, housekeeping in a nursing home or picking cucumbers in a field, we’ve got to figure out how to create policies that support growing [the Essential Economy]. The U.S. economy depends on it.”

Low Rung, High Impact

It’s a recurring theme, says Cunningham, the scramble to find workers to do the basic stuff that holds everything together.

“A lot of businesses just can’t find the workers they say they need, especially in the hospitality industry. If they can’t find the workers to support these hotels and resorts and restaurants, you’ve got a problem,” Cunningham says.

Cunningham, who travels the state visiting different groups and businesses on behalf of the Federal Reserve Bank, was struck by a recent conversation with a businessman in Brunswick.

“He told me that increasing the wage rate doesn’t even change their pool of applicants, a pool that shrank considerably with Georgia’s new immigration reform law,” Cunningham says.

“How we think about immigration and the economy in a deeper sense really matters,” he adds. “We’re not talking about high-skilled, high-wage stuff. It’s straightforward stuff, but if you don’t do these jobs, you’re really stuck. You can screw up the whole economy.”

The council claims the Essential Economy is exactly that – essential, to everything above it, like the Knowledge Economy (scientists, researchers, technicians and teachers), or skilled trade workers, specialized manufacturing workers and office workers. The agricultural, hospitality, construction, personal care and other workers in the Essential Economy are foundational to economic development, because no high-wage executive in the Knowledge Economy wants to move to a place where the hotels aren’t clean, the coffee is cold, hospital floors aren’t swept and the fruit rots on trees.

“The Essential Economy feeds our lifestyle. So if you don’t have it, you don’t have the amenities of the modern world,” Zamarripa says. “And the expectations around the Essential Economy worker are the same ones you have with your doctor.

“You want your coffee when you want it, you want the best treatment you can get, and you want it on time. You hold them all to the same standards. You don’t distinguish between the hourly wage earner and the person who has a degree from Johns Hopkins.”

That timely, hot cup of coffee, or that woman sweeping the hospital floor, or the guy washing dishes at the Olive Garden are all elements in an economic development campaign designed to grow something else.

“We often focus on the promise of the high-tech economy and focus our efforts on that singular goal without remembering that building a high-tech economy is a process,” says Jennifer Clark, associate professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Public Policy and an economic advisor to the council, whose work “underscores the importance of analyzing and understanding the labor market as a whole.”

Clark, whose field is regional economic development policy, says policymakers often fail to appreciate the contributions of the Essential Economy when trying to attract “the creative class.” She thinks in terms of pathways composed of “ladders that provide opportunities for people to pull themselves from the bottom rungs to the top.”

Strictly Business

The data compiled for The Essential Economy Council by Clark’s Georgia Tech colleague, economist Alfie Meek, as well as early data pulled together by Boston Consulting Group, defines the substantive bottom rung jobs. Those numbers were given to Juice Analytics, who went to work making the data presentation user-friendly.

Now, Joe Legislator will be able to log into the council’s research and see how many people work in The Essential Economy in his district and compare it with other counties and regions, based on job numbers and wages and occupational clusters.

It’s a massive amount of information, much of it assembled together for the first time, and it’s anybody’s guess how or if Joe Legislator will use it, but according to Meek’s data, about 25 percent of the workers in Georgia – almost one million people – work in these bottom-rung occupations.

“In other words,” Clark says, “this is a considerable employment sector and one that passes largely under the radar when policymakers propose economic development strategies intended to serve the state as a whole.”

Zamarripa and Moody have taken their message on the road, to Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Speaker of the House David Ralston, among others.

“The first order of business is just laying out the fact that there is this cluster of job sectors that have these characteristics, and it’s very big and it produces a lot of jobs, contributes a lot in wages and sales tax and GDP,” Zamarripa says.

When they visited Ralston, his reaction to their initial spiel was, “so what.”

Zamarripa explained further, showed off Juice Analytics’ work, the easily digested and organized information the council hopes legislators will use as a new tool for making constructive policy decisions.

He explained to Ralston that TEE work wasn’t going anywhere, that these jobs have to be done by people, and having enough people to do the work was both a challenge and also critical to maintaining an established American way of life. It sunk in.

“I’m very impressed with their research,” Ralston says. “They’ve looked in a comprehensive way at an important segment of our economy in Georgia, studied its characteristics and needs. I think it’s something that was long overdue.

“Any information that helps us understand the total economic landscape is useful and important, and I think it’ll be very helpful to the General Assembly.”

But Zamarripa does not believe the Gold Dome is a large enough toolbox. From the start, he’s had his mind on something bigger.

“I’ve always had national ambition with this work,” he says. “I think it’s creative, constructive, and I think it will help people make better decisions.”

The council raised about $800,000 through December, and the research so far has looked at the past and the present. Work continues on the Essential Economy forecast. Meanwhile, Zamarripa has pitched the Knight Foundation for support of a national study, and he hopes the council’s work will evolve into an ongoing research program with a permanent home at a university, maybe Georgia Tech.

Whatever becomes of this thing he started, Zamarripa still insists it’s not about immigrant people working on American soil – it’s economics, strictly business.

“The outcome of this work is not immigration reform,” he says. “The outcome of this work is an understanding of an economy that’s going to be with us for the foreseeable future.”

Solar Flare …

This appeared in the July 2013 edition of Georgia Trend. Its one that I would have included in the ‘Body of Work’ package, because it was pretty timely (at the time), and it’s pretty thorough. Hope you enjoy it.

It’s the sun, the sol of our solar system, to which everything that lives and moves, including the wind, owes its existence. Without the sun, there is no us, no Earth. You can’t miss it. It’s the biggest thing in the sky, the biggest thing for at least 24 trillion miles, and at 4.5 billion years old it is middle-aged and remains the most abundant source of power between here and Alpha Centauri, zapping our planet every minute with more energy than humanity can consume in a year.

The best thing is, the sun is free. Still, for most of those eons, capturing the sun’s energy for human consumption has been like picking crops with a catcher’s mitt.

But over the past few years, photovoltaic technology (“photo” for light, “voltaic” meaning electricity) has gotten way more efficient, and the previously prohibitive price has fallen dramatically, setting the stage for what’s happening now in Georgia: Solar deployment and interest are increasing dramatically.

“This is a very dynamic time for solar energy, and it demonstrates a pent-up demand and interest in solar energy for Georgia,” says Mark Bell, chair of the Georgia Solar Energy Association (GSEA) and president of Atlanta-based Empower Energy Tech-nology. “There’s a great potential here for real, sustainable economic development.”

Technical colleges have expanded solar course offerings for would-be installers in anticipation of job growth, and the cost per kilowatt keeps diving down. Meanwhile, public demand, improved technology, corporate investment, government incentives, entrepreneurial nerve and some provocative proposed legislation drive the state’s sun-soaked prospects toward supernova.

“Solar power is the fastest-growing industry in the world, and it’s growing along in the same way the Internet did,” says John S. Quarterman, a Harvard-educated author and Internet pioneer who launched the first commercial online newsletter, among other things, and who lives in rural Lowndes County.

“Think back 20 years to 1993. How many people had heard of the Internet? And look at how far we’ve come. What I’m seeing with solar energy is the same kind of exponential growth. It’s clean energy that works, and it generates jobs.”

Quarterman writes about solar energy, environmental issues, agriculture, technology and a lot of other stuff, often with a local slant, on his various web sites (like http://www.l-a-k-e.org, for Lowndes Area Knowledge Exchange, and http://www.okraparadisefarms.com). He believes Georgia has barely stuck its big toe into the solar pool at this point, but he’d prefer jumping in with both feet.

“We have a lot of sun in Georgia, especially South Georgia – a lot more than Germany, the world leader in solar energy, and a lot more than New Jersey,” Quarterman says, adding indignantly, “Why are we lagging behind New Jersey?”

He knows why. He’s making a point. New Jersey gets less sunlight than Georgia, but has way more solar capacity installed. In a study by Arizona State, Georgia ranked third among states that would benefit from generating and exporting solar energy and fifth among states that would benefit from solar deployment just for self-sufficiency.

New Jersey didn’t make either list, but it is third in the nation (first among Eastern states) in cumulative installed solar capacity with 971 megawatts and third in solar installations last year.

Georgia is 21st in cumulative installed capacity, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA), with 22 megawatts (enough to power 2,000 homes). That lumps us in with a bunch of states that get a lot less sunshine than Georgia, but it represents a four-fold increase since 2010.

By 2015, Georgia’s total solar capacity should multiply more than 10 times, thanks to the initiative of the mammoth public utility corporation usually cast as renewable energy’s staunchest opponent.

“We always look for cost-effective ways to add renewables to our portfolio, and when we move, we do it in a significant way,” says Ervan Hancock, manager of renewable and green strategies for Georgia Power, the investor-owned utility that is adding 210 megawatts of solar capacity over the next two years through its Advanced Solar Initiative (ASI). That’s in addition to the 61 megawatts that were already under contract in November, when the Georgia Public Service Commission (PSC) approved the ASI.

Those 271 total megawatts of solar power would vault Georgia up to fifth place in solar installed capacity (just ahead of Colorado) if all the other states do nothing else. Don’t bet on that. It’s like Quarterman says. Solar is growing really fast, just not in Georgia, not quite.

In 2012, the U.S. solar industry grew by 76 percent, with more than 3,300 megawatts (or 3.3 gigawatts) of photovoltaic (PV) capacity. The industry supported 119,000 jobs in 2012 (a 13.2 percent increase over 2011), and total solar electric installations were valued at $11.5 billion. By comparison, according to SEIA, in 2012 there were 800 solar industry jobs in Georgia (41st in the nation, per capita), where about 90 companies invested $18 million to install residential and commercial solar energy systems.

But Georgia seems ready to catch plenty more rays. According to Hancock, Georgia Power’s ASI promises an investment of $750 million to $1 billion. And if an upstart Macon-based solar company gets its way when the state legislature convenes in 2014, Georgia could soon be thinking in terms of multiple gigawatts.

New Solar Rising

Robert Green says he was born with a wrench in his hand.

“Running backhoes and trenchers and building utility systems have been in my blood from the get-go,” says Green, who ran a Florida-based construction company that built utility infrastructure, just like his father before him.

He got into the solar game about six years ago and recently served as a lead consultant on Dublin High School’s 4,900-module PV system (provided by MAGE Solar, a German company with U.S. headquarters in Dublin), a 1.1-megawatt system financed through local development authority bonds.

Now Green and Shane Owl-Greason, his partner in Georgia Solar Utilities (GaSU, based in Macon), are trying to circumvent a 40-year-old law with new legislation that would create the state’s first regulated solar utility.

House Bill 657, the Rural Georgia Economic Recovery and Solar Resource Act of 2014, was introduced by Rep. Rusty Kidd late in the 2013 session. Its main thrust is “to authorize the Public Service Commission to establish a rural community solar initiative and oversee and manage a responsible expansion of solar energy in this state,” according to the bill’s language.

The idea grew out of GaSU’s frustration with Georgia Power’s (and other utility companies’, like the EMCs’) geographic monopoly, as prescribed under the 1973 Georgia Territorial Electric Service Act, which protects utilities from competition within their defined service areas.

“That territorial act is the biggest hurdle we have for deploying a real solar industry in Georgia,” says Quarter-man, who likes the fact that HB 657 focuses on rural solar development, but he doesn’t like the idea of another regulated utility monopoly, which is what the bill suggests.

It’s hard to find anyone who does like the idea of a new monopoly.

“It’s completely unnecessary,” says attorney Bobby Baker, who served on the PSC for 18 years and is now a partner at Freeman Mathis & Gary in Atlanta. “We don’t need a whole new comprehensive layer of regulatory restrictions on an industry that’s ready to take off.”

GaSU, of course, wants to be the community solar provider, a statewide utility with the aggregate buying power to get dirt-cheap corporate bond rates to finance solar installations. Their initial plan to build a $320-million, 80-megawatt solar farm near Georgia Power’s waning coal-fired Plant Branch in Milledgeville is part of a campaign to deploy two gigawatts (or 2 GW, or 2,000 MW) of solar capacity in Georgia by 2016.

“HB 657 has emerged as the conservative solar bill that satisfies the progressive mind,” says Owl-Greason. “It’ll provide rate reductions for Georgia consumers, but the ultimate goal is to clean up our energy production so future generations can enjoy the planet.”

The GaSU folks believe their solar energy system would pay for itself in 25 years and ultimately generate more than $7 billion in dividends for ratepayers and another $2 billion in profits (through grid access and distribution fees and so forth) for Georgia Power which, naturally, is skeptical (and which last year passed on GaSU’s plan for the big solar farm at Plant Branch).

“We are growing from 4.4 megawatts of solar to 271 megawatts in just a few years, within the existing regulatory construct and the legal territorial services construct, without a mandated RPS [renewable portfolio standards, which exist in most states], without putting additional pressure on customers’ rates,” Georgia Power’s Hancock says. “What we’re struggling with is, why is this bill necessary when we’re demonstrating significant growth without putting upward  pressure on rates and without putting pressure on the legislature?”

The answer probably depends on your definition of “significant growth” and your thoughts on the concept of free market competition.

For many renewable energy advocates, Georgia Power (and its parent, Southern Company) has been public enemy No. 1, mainly because of the utility’s historically heavy reliance on dirty coal and large investments in nuclear, its state and national lobbying power and its bottom-line shareholder interests.

But HB 657, a direct assault on Georgia Power’s traditional territory, has created an “enemy-of-my-enemy” situation, a strange bedfellows sort of thing, with the utility company and some of its staunchest foes standing on the same side as naysayers, albeit for different reasons.

“The bill absolutely is intended to benefit one company and one company only, and as such, does not comport well with the long-term best interests of electricity customers,” says Lee Peterson, an Atlanta-based attorney who has been a tax advisor in more than $2.4 billion of renewable energy projects, whose client list includes the U.S. Department of Energy and who is usually openly critical of Georgia Power and other big utilities.

“The biggest obstacle we have for solar energy is a regulated utility,” Peterson says. “So adding another one, as HB 657 suggests, to further suppress the free market is not what I’d call a good idea.”

Solar Sense

Some of the state’s leading solar industry advocates and practitioners are taking a wait-and-see attitude with HB 657.

“My goal, as an active industry participant and supporter, is to remove barriers that restrict solar energy,” says James Marlow, CEO of Atlanta-based Radiance Solar, one of the 2012 Top 100 Solar Contractors (according to Solar Power World), and one of the companies contracting with Georgia Power on ASI projects.

“That doesn’t mean I support every aspect of every bill. I support the idea of a community solar provider, but other than that, I’d rather not say anything else about this one until we move a little more down the road.”

GSEA also took a seat on the fence.

“Regarding the idea of a monopoly, or quasi-monopoly, I’m not sure we understand the implications of that and what it would do to pricing and competition,” Bell says. “We favor a market-based solution, but I think there’s still a discussion to be had.”

So the state’s leading solar advocacy group hasn’t taken a position on what might be the most significant solar legislation ever proposed in Georgia.

But it’s not like the GSEA hasn’t taken a stand before. In 2012, they spent the first part of the year fighting Georgia Power under the Gold Dome, and the last part in intense negotiations with the utility to help craft a better ASI.

During the legislative session, GSEA lobbied lawmakers to pass a bill supporting third-party financing, such as power purchase agreements (PPAs) – financing arrangements that solar advocates believe will open the floodgates for a new energy market, but which are also in violation of the 40-year-old Territorial Act.

Basically, a PPA allows property owners and tenants to lease PV equipment from a solar develop-er/operator (a third party, i.e., not the utility company) and pay him for the electricity (often at a rate lower than the utility’s) for a pre-determined amount of time, typically 10 to 20 years. At least 22 states have authorized PPAs, according to the U.S. De-partment of Energy.

“It’s like leasing a car or a photocopier – but you can’t lease solar panels because of artificial restrictions,” says Baker. “Makes no sense.”

Anyway, Georgia’s PPA bill, introduced year after year by State Sen. Buddy Carter, gets crushed year after year. (Carter, who recently announced his bid for Jack Kingston’s seat in Congress, expects someone else to carry the ball from now on.)

“So we fought hard for PPAs, and we got our butts kicked,” says GSEA’s communications director Julie Hairston. “But, even though we lost, we sort of won, because it elevated both the breadth and depth of the conversation about solar energy.”

Around the time GaSU was petitioning to become a new regulated utility, Georgia Power came forward with its 210-megawatt ASI (which was basically launched to replace a failed biomass project). Initially, the plan called for only 30 MW to be distributed solar (smaller installations, up to 1 MW, like on your roof or in your front yard), and the rest to be utility scale (large solar farms).

But GSEA’s leadership negotiated with Georgia Power to increase distributed solar capacity to 90 MW. This is important because more distributed generation means more jobs – a lot of smaller projects equals more employment opportunities around the state.

Even with the ASI, the billion-dollar investment (give or take a quarter mil) and the sharp and sudden climb in solar megawatts on its grid, not everyone is convinced that Georgia Power – or many shareholder utilities, for that matter – has really seen the light.

“Georgia Power is undoubtedly one of the best-run utilities in the country,” says Public Service Commissioner Lauren “Bubba” McDonald Jr., who applauded the ASI back in November, when he also encouraged GaSU to take its case to the state legislature (and the PSC approved by a 3-2 vote), which led to HB 657.

“That said, I’m also disappointed in Georgia Power’s long-term ap-proach in regards to renewables, especially solar energy. In this commissioner’s opinion, it isn’t aggressive enough.”

Which is why, in May, McDonald (and others, including GaSU and the Atlanta Tea Party) were pushing Georgia Power for more solar energy. Specifically, when the utility submitted its 20-year plan to the PSC earlier this year and it didn’t have any new provisions for solar energy, McDonald suggested Georgia Power include at least 500 megawatts of solar-generated electricity to the portfolio. (The PSC is sched-uled to vote on the plan this month.)

The reasoning is, for a mega-utility that generates 16,000 megawatts, 271 MW of solar is a pretty small number (less than 2 percent of the whole). But it’s just the beginning. Peterson believes Georgia Power’s solar surge is indicative of a utility industry, “caught with its pants down.

“They hung onto coal too long,” he says, “waited until the combination of fair market and free market mechanics and federal pollution regulations essentially proved to them they made the wrong bet, and they might have waited too long.“

In January, Edison Electric Institute (EEI, the association of shareholder-owned electric companies) released the report Disruptive Challenges: Financial Implications and Stra-tegic Responses to a Changing Retail Electric Business, which warns its members of potential “irreparable damages to revenues and growth prospects” because of “disruptive challenges” – such as renewable distributed energy resources, that growing number of rooftop arrays, and im-proved, affordable technologies that may inspire consumers to use the grid only for backup power, or leave it entirely.

“I think it confirms my belief that the electric utility industry is in the initial stages of a major transformation,” Baker says, one that will ultimately mean, “more independence for smaller electric customers.”

Jack Star, who has the perfect solar energy name, hasn’t seen the report yet, but he doesn’t really care at the moment, because time is running out and he sees millions of square feet of someone else’s opportunity around him, massive warehouse rooftops, perfect for solar arrays (like the 1.5 MW system IKEA installed at its distribution center near Savannah last year).

“Most commercial and industrial building owners don’t know there is a 50-percent first-year depreciation for installing solar panels, but that program is over at the end of this year, and given the current makeup and attitude of Congress, it probably won’t be renewed again,” says Star, a retired science journalist who launched an organization called Solar Champions, which he describes as “a small group of people enthusiastic about actually doing things.”

Star is a community activist with no interest in the economic benefits of renewable energy for himself. He’s in it for the good of the whole and sees solar as a win-win for the environment and the business community. He says that solar, and renewables in general, are inevitable, but the really big stuff is still a few years away.

Look out for 2016, “the first year of explosive growth of renewable distributed alternate energy,” says Star, who has always prided himself on being ahead of the story. “There are a number of technologies that are moving out of the lab phase and into demonstration-size facilities. It will take about 18 months to two years for them to shake out and be able to identify which will go into full commercial development.

“At that point, we’re off to the races.”

Shrinking the University System of Georgia

This story appeared in the July 2013 edition of Georgia Trend. It explains why and how the University System of Georgia consolidated, which created a ruckus in Augusta. One member of the Board of Regents told me, off the record, that the name change to Georgia Regents University (and how the name was changed) was a dumb move.

Back when Shirley Strum Kenny was transforming the State University of New York at Stony Brook into one of the nation’s top research institutions, she learned a lesson about the virtues of patience from renowned architect John Belle, who was working on one of the many campus improvement projects she was responsible for during her 15 years as president.

Belle had designed a spectacular new academic mall in the heart of the sprawling campus near the north shore of suburban Long Island. But he left one task unfinished, for a while – there were no designated paths crossing the spacious commons area.

Kenny explains that Belle wanted to see where the human traffic naturally strode. Only then could he pave some permanent paths that would meet the needs of the people the campus was supposed to be serving – you know, students, faculty and so forth.

In the six months she spent as interim president of Augusta State University, Kenny pondered Belle’s patient design methods while ASU fitfully endured a whirlwind, ambitious, often contentious consolidation with nearby Georgia Health Sciences University, in an effort to make the resulting Georgia Regents University (GRU) a top research institution, sort of like Stony Brook.

“Of all the consolidations that were done, this is by far the most challenging and complex, but it could have the biggest payoff,” says Kenny, hired out of retirement to be, in essence, a temporary caretaker.

“Birthing a research university is not easy,” she adds, stating what has become painfully obvious to the University System of Georgia (USG) and the consolidated GRU’s President Ricardo Azziz, among others. “It takes a lot of heavy lifting. It’s very exciting, but it really takes the commitment of the state if they’re going to bring it off.

“That could be tough, because the state government has a slash mentality, and you can’t build a research university on the cheap.”

When Kenny left her post, as planned, on January 10 of this year, ASU no longer existed, per se. In its place was GRU, one of four reorganized institutions to emerge from the USG’s historic plan to consolidate eight colleges and universities, inducing a new era in the state’s public higher education scheme.

The other consolidations: Macon State College and Middle Georgia College became Middle Georgia State College (MGSC), Waycross College and South Georgia College became South Georgia State College (SGSC), and Gainesville College merged with North Georgia College & State University (Dahlonega) to create the University of North Georgia (UNG).

It’s all part of living in “the new normal,” says Azziz, who was president of Georgia Health Sciences University before the merger.

Tax revenues have been down during years of recession, with repercussions. “State support has declined sharply, and increasingly we’ve seen cuts to other avenues of funding for academia,” Azziz says. “The goal of consolidation, as clearly stated, was to free up resources and become more efficient so that those resources could be redirected toward student education.

“We can’t just tax and put the cost on the backs of students. It’s important to find other, more cost effective ways to improve education,” he says. “We know a larger enterprise can be more cost effective – there are synergies related to size.”

And there are ramifications when you pave something too quickly, or when the public perceives it that way. Which is what has happened in Augusta, where many who identified with and supported ASU have likened the merger there to a hostile takeover.

“There’s been a lot of angst,” Azziz says.

USG leadership never said it would be easy. In fact, they didn’t say much at all until the decision to merge – and who to merge – was pretty much made.

“The consolidation of colleges and universities is a very tough thing to do, and very few are successful. Most of them crash and burn,” says USG Chancellor Hank Huckaby. “So when you do something like this, you do it cautiously.”

In other words – in Huckaby’s words, in fact – there were about 600 discreet decisions that had to be made concerning this significant reorganization of the state’s public university system.

“We didn’t consult with the institutions,” says Shelley Nickel, associate vice chancellor for planning and implementation. “The Board of Regents approved the eight we recommended for consolidation at their January [2012] meeting. A few days before that, the chancellor notified the presidents, to let them know the board was about to take action.”

She says that secrecy was important because, according to Nickel, “In other states, where there was more dialogue and discussion, consolidation didn’t go as well.”

Shifting Zeroes

Anyone who paid attention saw this coming, so it isn’t as if the potential for college and university mergers was a state secret. It’s been part of the “what if” discussion under the Gold Dome for years.

“The consolidation idea didn’t exactly come out of thin air,” Huckaby says.

He was on the job only a few months in September 2011 when he suggested to the regents that consolidation was worth serious consideration, given the economic realities and ongoing budget cuts. Since FY 2009 – because of declining tax revenues combined with the political unwillingness to raise tax rates – the state legislature has cut the USG budget by a cumulative 20 percent (more than $1 billion). The USG had some considering to do.

“The question kept popping up, ‘How can we reduce administrative costs and invest more in the education of our students?’ Strategic consolidation seemed like a good approach,” says Board of Regents Chair Dink NeSmith.

Huckaby and his staff presented their ideas, and the board voted unanimously in favor of the consolidation plan.

“We believe 31 institutions versus 35 will allow us to be better stewards of the resources available,” NeSmith says.

There was a precedent for consolidation close at hand that Huckaby admired. By the time the regents began discussing consolidation in earnest, the Technical College System of Georgia (TCSG), facing annual steep budget cuts of its own, had already merged 15 schools into seven (they’ve since merged two more tech colleges).

“Each of those [first 15] mergers saved us at least $500,000 in administrative overhead, and I know that’s true because they took $7.5 million out of my budget for that purpose,” says TCSG Commissioner Ron Jackson. “At the end of the day, we saved $7.5 million for the taxpayers of Georgia, and no student went underserved.

“We had some college name changes, which was of great concern in some communities, but we promised we wouldn’t be closing campuses, and we haven’t. Those communities still have their colleges.”

Same with the USG deal; they’re not closing campuses. But they did reduce overhead quickly when eight presidents became four. Huckaby estimates initial savings of $6 million to $8 million in administrative costs, money that is already expanding course offerings and degree programs (at UNG’s Gainesville campus, for example).

“The first mandate was to reduce overall operating costs to reinvest in academics,” Azziz says. “And we’ve already begun to do that by cutting the cost of administration and administrators. That represented about nine percent of the budget at ASU and five and half percent at GHSU before consolidation. Now, at GRU, it’s around four and a half percent.”

Huckaby says the money they save from cutting all of those assistant vice dean positions will help meet the academic goals being placed on the higher education system, such as Gov. Nathan Deal’s “Complete College Georgia” initiative, created to address the state’s needs for a well-trained, educated workforce.

The idea is to improve the rate of graduation (get students to earn their certificates or degrees on time) and produce an additional 250,000 graduates (combined, between both systems) by 2020 – doing more without the promise of more resources by robbing Peter to pay Paul or, as Azziz says, “shifting resources.”

In the short term, it’s tough to shift what you don’t have.

When word came to the college presidents from the USG office in January 2012 that the recommended eight institutions would be folded into four, there was a postscript: “We didn’t give the institutions any money for consolidation,” says Nickel. “They had to support that on their own, with their own resources.”

Once the plan was approved, consolidation committees were formed at each college, comprising faculty, staff, students, alumni and community representatives. And there were work groups, lots of them.

“We had 65 groups dealing with every issue you can imagine,” says Bonita Jacobs, president of UNG, who also says the timing of the regents’ vote in January 2012 was planned with a SACS deadline in mind.

“We had a lot of deadlines in order to meet the target date. SACS was the umbrella to everything we were doing. Accreditation is a cornerstone. If we have accreditation problems, we’re not doing our students any good.”

SACS (the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, the accreditation agency), signed off on the mergers in December. The eight could become four. And this past January, just one year after the regents approved the mergers, the colleges began operating as consolidated units.

“Twelve months is a quick timeline for something of this magnitude,” says Virginia Carson, president of South Georgia State College (SGSC). “But my team has been amazingly resilient in the face of considerable demands.”

Merging Realities

As a new legislative session began and digressed, a vocal gaggle of politicians was giving an enthusiastic “hell, yeah” to a bill permitting guns on college campuses (it stalled) while four new-named institutions of higher learning grappled with real-world challenges, such as how to keep doing more with less, which has become kind of an unofficial slogan throughout the university system.

“We’re doing everything we ordinarily do as faculty and staff, with consolidation as a layer on top of that,” says Carson, who is based in Douglas. “Really good people are being asked to stretch considerably beyond their expected roles, and, you know, people get tired.”

At the four new combined colleges, faculty and staff are griping about the new email system, or they’re assuming new roles, meeting new students from other campuses, trying to plan five years ahead while the ground is moving beneath them. The IT guys are being run ragged while the presidents try to make all the pieces line up the way they’re supposed to.

There are new departments that didn’t exist before, as new degree programs are phased in across the miles; there are new student tuition and fee structures to implement and salaries and tenured positions to deal with.

“We’ve created one faculty now, so there’s got to be one pay structure, one tenure policy,” says Jacobs. “That will mean taking the money we have and trying to bring faculty and staff salaries to an equitable rate.”

UNG is now a wide-ranging institution of 15,000 students, the largest enrollment of the four consolidated colleges, with campuses in Cumming, Dahlonega, Oakwood and Watkinsville.

“We’re one university now with one mission, but we’re four different campuses with four different histories and cultures,” says Jacobs, who now helms a college with campuses that are 70 miles apart (Dahlonega to Watkinsville).

The smallest of the combo-colleges is SGSC, with 3,000 students spread over its two campuses, Douglas and Waycross, about 35 miles apart. The two schools that formed SGSC were traditionally two-year colleges. The new combined college will now offer bachelor’s degrees.

“You have to appreciate the concerns that some people in the communities have about changing the direction,” Carson says. “But in the main, I think almost everyone sees the value of increased educational opportunities.”

Over at the new Middle Georgia State College, John Black is balancing his role as interim president with the honey-do list back at his 100-year-old house in Augusta, where he was enjoying retirement when Huckaby came calling last summer.

Now he’s presiding as temporary trail boss for a school of 8,800 students on five campuses (Macon, Cochran, Dublin, Eastman and Warner Robins). The consolidation of so many parts has brought plenty of anxiety for employees, Black says, “but we’ve worked through that. I’m not going to tell you we’re all in agreement on every solution, but we’re a whole lot farther down the road than we were in July.”

The best news he’s had since last July might be the peace treaty between the two foundations that once supported two different colleges – they’ve successfully merged to form the Middle Georgia State College Foundation.

“Now there’s one instance of two different groups that not only got together and started walking in the same direction, but they’re actually holding hands,” says Black, who graduated high school in Macon, taught at Augusta State, and earned a Ph.D. in endocrinology from the Medical College of Georgia, which changed its name to Georgia Health Sciences University, which consolidated with Augusta State to become Georgia Regents University.

Open Letter

In January, just before her last day on the job, Shirley Kenny delivered the letter personally to Ricardo Azziz. She hadn’t even shown it to her secretary. It was something from her heart, she says, but straightforward, for his eyes only, confidential, not quite a manifesto, maybe a warning, and filled with her philosophy, advice and firm recommendations culled from decades as a college president and educator, written more in the tone of a considerate mentor than an accuser.

It didn’t really become an indictment until everyone else saw it.

“Ricardo accepted it very graciously. He thanked me for it, appreciated my insights and recommendations,” Kenny says. “The fact that it became public still astonishes me. That was never my intent. I was trying to be helpful, and I had been so careful.”

The Augusta Chronicle obtained the letter through an open records request, published it in print and online, and angry locals got angrier. Among other things, they’d been spitting razor blades over the name change since the previous summer.

According to Nickel, each consolidated institution was asked to submit three names to the regents, who in GRU’s case had to choose among University of Augusta, Georgia Arts and Sciences University, and Georgia Regents University (considered the least favorite by members of the name committee).

Azziz, who maybe isn’t helping his case with the locals, says, “I do think they picked the best name possible. It reflects the statewide entity that the university is. And it’s important to note that the regents removed the city name from every single consolidated school.”

Nonetheless, the name has been trouble. Regent University in Virginia has sued the USG over it. Huckaby says, “We don’t ever comment on any litigation,” then adds, “That’s the name the board approved.”

Besides, a new name had little to do with the USG’s goals in Augusta. Besides the whole “our main goal is to serve students better and more efficiently” stuff, they wanted to create a fourth research university (with Georgia Tech, the University of Georgia and Georgia State), this one focused, mostly, on the health sciences.

But the sudden transition of a medical college filled with grad students and a liberal arts college filled with undergrads into a research university means tuition hikes for the liberal arts crowd. A complex formula of rate increases is happening gradually over the next few years.

This probably isn’t the end of it, though. There will likely be more consolidations. Black thinks it’s inevitable, Huckaby can’t say when and Azziz says it’s an idea that’s here to stay.

“Georgia’s ahead of the curve on this issue,” says Azziz, who now presides over a university of 9,500 students, most of them from the former Augusta State. “This is the beginning of a national wave.”

A gathering of officials from other institutions from around the country – Minnesota, Oregon, Texas, Virginia, etc. – met with USG leaders and presidents of the consolidated universities to study what’s happened here, because maybe they’d like to try it.

And the thing about stuff like this, fidgeting with college names and loyalties and traditions, is that even if the intentions are noble – and even if it works well – it’s bound to be a disruption, and it may even hurt in places. It’s supposed to. Nothing ventured and all that.

“Consolidation,” Azziz says, “can be a painful process.”

So maybe Azziz, an obstetrician and gynecologist, should acquaint himself with and adhere to, with hope, something Freeman Dyson once said. According to Dyson, a venerable big-shot scientist at Princeton, one of those research universities, “The pain of childbirth is not remembered — it’s the child that’s remembered.”

The Charter School Story

I’m pretty sure this one was submitted as part of the ‘Body of Work’ package, because it’s one the boss was particularly interested in. Nothing world-changing or spectacular here, but this is the story I think of when reading the AABP judge’s kind comments about my work, “… he writes a compelling narrative out of a topic that could’ve been a dry, talking-heads dispatch.” As my wife often says about her cooking, I hope this isn’t too dry. Her cooking isn’t, but she says it anyway … just wanted to put that out there.

Barbara Grimm couldn’t imagine sending her son Will to their Savannah neighborhood’s middle school, where the academic expectations were low and discipline was almost nonexistent – not the combination she was looking for.

Grimm, a teacher who left the classroom to raise her four kids, and her husband William, a guidance counselor, didn’t find many options for their academically gifted son. They considered private school, but the Grimms have always been staunch supporters of public schools.

“I heard about some parents who were trying to start a new charter middle school in Savannah. This was 1999, and the Georgia Charter School Act was only a year old. We didn’t know much about charter schools, but this sounded interesting,” she says.

So they joined the effort, heart and soul, putting in 250 volunteer hours to help launch the state’s first parent start-up public school in Georgia, Oglethorpe Charter School. And that’s just the first part of Grimm’s epic charter school journey.

She sent her three oldest children to Oglethorpe, and her youngest is there now, in the 8th grade. Grimm eventually returned to teaching in the Savannah-Chatham Public School System, and she didn’t like what she found.

“There were huge deficits in reading when I came back,” says Grimm, who then became principal at a small private school. Sometime during that two-year stint, she had her big light-bulb moment.

“I saw a strong academic foundation and literate students who were good writers and great communicators – stuff I wasn’t seeing in the public schools. Tuition at the private school was $6,000 per student, about the same amount that was being spent in public funding on poor kids in the city’s public school system.

“That’s when it really hit me, how unfair it was.”

She thought that kids in economically challenged inner-city neighborhoods deserved the same opportunities as kids in private schools. So she started Savannah Classical Academy, which opened its doors for the first time in August, one of the state’s newest charter schools.

Momentum

The charter school concept has been steadily gathering converts in Georgia over the past 15 years. There are 314 charter schools (including 206 of them that are part of Georgia’s 16 charter systems) serving 225,800 students in the state (about 10 times what it was in 2000-2001).

Charter schools are public schools that operate under a contract with an authorizing body (the local school district or the state commission). They promise to raise student achievement and attain higher degrees of accountability, and in return they receive flexibility and freedom from many state and local rules.

The easy passage last November of an amendment creating a new state government office, the State Charter Schools Commission of Georgia (SCSC), may boost the popularity of these publicly funded, privately run schools, which many Georgians apparently see as part of the solution to improve Georgia’s perpetually lagging public school system.

“The reason we pushed so hard for this amendment last year was to make charter schools available to more people,” says Tony Roberts, president and CEO of the Georgia Charter Schools Association (GCSA), the nonprofit state-wide lobbying group.

Opponents of the legislation, including teacher and administrator professional associations, saw the amendment and creation of the commission as unnecessary – local school boards already were empowered to approve charter school applications, and if the applications got a thumbs down there, applicants could turn to the state Board of Education.

Opponents also saw the piles of money coming from out-of-state sources, such as for-profit education management organizations (EMOs), Alice Walton (daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton) and Americans for Prosperity (the Tea Party group founded by the billionaire Koch Brothers) and other donors who saw Georgia as either a potential business opportunity or a key battleground in the movement to give parents more choice in education.

“There are great schools and great teachers in Georgia’s public school system, but the aggregate statistics on educational performance in Georgia are what they are, and people are looking for better alternatives for their children,” says Charles Knapp, the former president of the University of Georgia (and current interim dean of its business college), who is chairing the new state commission.

“I don’t think charter schools are a blanket panacea for what ails public education in Georgia and America,” Knapp adds. “But if you look at educational performance in America relative to other countries that were once way behind us and are now in front of us, I’d say we’re going to need to try something else; and one of the things that will help, in certain circumstances, are charter schools.”

New Authority

The first charter school law in Georgia was passed 20 years ago. It allowed existing public schools to convert to charter status with local and state board approval. In 1998, the legislature passed the law allowing for the creation of startup charter schools.

In 2008, House Bill 881 created the Georgia Charter Schools Commission, a charter-authorizing body that could approve charter schools over the objections of local school boards. But in 2011, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled the commission unconstitutional, saying, in part, “no other constitutional provision authorizes any other governmental entity to compete with or duplicate the efforts of local boards of education.”

The commission had already approved 16 charter schools by that time, including several online schools. Knapp, who served on that short-lived commission, says the commission only approved, “something like 20 percent of the petitions that came in front of us. They had to clearly show that their plan was going to offer a better educational opportunity.”

When the commission went away, those 16 state chartered schools fell under the direct authority of the state Board of Education (BOE).

But the commission wasn’t dead a year before state legislators, led by Speaker Pro Tem Jan Jones, early in the 2012 session introduced House Resolution 1162 (Amendment One). Local superintendents and school boards lined up against it, but the amendment passed easily in November (58 percent to 42 percent).

“The first month after it passed, we got something like 367 calls from parents all over the state, which was unprecedented,” Roberts says. “They were asking, ‘Where’s my charter school?’”

Like the previous commission, the SCSC has the authority to override a local school board’s decision. But it isn’t as if the new commission threw the doors open and invited all comers. This fall they’re considering 16 petitions for new charter schools, says SCSC Executive Director Bonnie Holliday, who previously ran the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement.

“About half of the petitions are from the Metro Atlanta area, as you might expect; but the other half are from around the state, places like Macon and Bibb County, the Augusta area, Savannah,” says Holliday, who manages a small government agency of five employees.

Interview panels – commission staff, commissioners, state and national education professionals and so forth – will do their digging and make a decision on which petitions to approve this month, and those schools passing muster will be eligible to open for the 2014-2015 school year.

“But if the state board of education feels we’ve made an inappropriate decision, they can overturn us with a simple majority,” Knapp says. “I served on the first commission, and this process, I believe, offers a more comprehensive review process.”

Systemic Change

Typically, charter schools operate under five-year contracts, after which the school’s performance is reviewed and the charter may or may not be renewed.

“Across the country, states have taken a parochial view of what needs to happen in the schoolhouse,” says Kenneth Zeff, chief strategy and innovation officer for the Fulton County School System (the largest charter system in the state). “So they’ve passed laws that tell you how many minutes students need to be in seats, laws about appropriate courses and what it means to be a teacher – all of those things are baked in state laws.

“At one point in time, they may have made sense; those laws were reactions to bad things happening in schools. But over time, as you can imagine, those things can become straightjackets, stifling innovation.”

Zeff joined the Fulton County system in August 2012 from Los Angeles, where he was chief operating officer for Green Dot Public Schools, a charter management company that served more than 10,000 students. In Fulton County, he’s the charter point person for a system of 95,000 students with a waiver from many state education laws.

Each of the schools in the Fulton County system will select governance councils and develop strategic plans, much like independent charter schools have done.

Fulton is a wildly diverse system with some of the state’s top-ranked schools in the affluent north part of the county and a swath of underperforming schools in the south, a more economically challenged area. So Zeff isn’t expecting a one-size-fits-all approach. That would defeat the purpose, he says.

“There will be different solutions in different schools. Some of our high-functioning schools want early release on Wednesdays, reducing institutional minutes so more students can work on self-directed projects,” he says. “Then we have schools that are struggling that want kids to come in on Saturday for core academics. If all of our schools wound up looking the same, we will have missed an opportunity.”

But, like every charter school, whether it is an independent entity or part of a charter system (again, 16 county or city systems in Georgia are chartered), the students will all be held to the same measures as traditional schools. They all have to take the standardized tests. They all have to demonstrate yearly progress. How they get there is where the flexibility and innovation come in. Teachers and schools have flexibility in how they deliver the curriculum. So far, the results have been mixed.

A national study by Stanford University four years ago looking at charter schools in 27 states (including Georgia) showed that many charter school students weren’t performing as well as their counterparts in traditional neighborhood public schools. According to the 2009 study, 37 percent of charter schools were rated worse than other local public schools. But Stanford revisited the study this year, and there’s been improvement – the figure fell to 31 percent.

The new study shows charter school students outpacing their peers in reading and performing at roughly the same level in math. The conclusion: slow and steady improvement, with students from poor families, black students and Hispanic students benefitting the most. The charter schools’ freedom to direct resources toward specific needs has had something to do with that.

Not surprisingly, Atlanta has been the heart of Georgia’s charter school movement, and one of the best success stories has unfolded in what was one of the city’s most economically challenged neighborhoods.

The halls are quiet at the Charles R. Drew Charter School a week before classes. It’s an unusual sound, the silence, because this is a school where the youngest students are encouraged to speak out.

“The kids here are encouraged to talk and interact. It’s part of our literacy foundation,” says Cynthia Kuhlman, who chairs the Drew Board of Directors. “Children in poverty are, on average, about 30 million words behind other children by the time they’re three years old. That’s a huge gap that we’d like to eliminate.”

They’re doing a good job of it. The kids who started in Drew’s pre-K literacy-focused program are now in fifth grade, and their scores last year in English and language exceeded state standards.

Drew is in the heart of the revamped East Lake neighborhood and serves a student population that is at least 85 percent African American; about 62 percent of the student body is on the free and reduced meal program. And Drew, the oldest charter school in the Atlanta Public School System (opened in 2000), is outperforming the state.

According to state DOE figures, Drew’s third graders (2011 figures) far exceeded the state performance in CRCT scores. Same thing with fourth, fifth, sixth and so on.

“A student who matriculates at Drew gets exposed to golf, swimming. Every third grader takes violin, and everybody gets exposed to a foreign language,” says Drew Principal Don Doran. “Because of our charter, we have a longer school day, a longer school year, and by the time a student has gone from kindergarten through eighth grade, he’s ended up having about two more years of instructional time.”

Charter schools are considered public schools of choice, and the kids in the nearby Villages of East Lake, the largest mixed-income apartment community in Atlanta, are choosing to go to Drew; and the Drew charter compels the school to take them.

Charter schools can’t, by law, screen applicants based on academics – they’re public schools. So local kids get first priority, and when there are more applicants than seats, a lottery is held. This year, according to Kuhlman, Drew received about 1,600 applications for 300 new slots.

Drew added ninth grade this year, but the first freshmen class will spend its first year of high school at a temporary campus (they’re using Kennedy Middle School for now), then move into the 200,000-square-foot Junior and Senior Academy taking shape across the street from the current elementary school campus – a $55-million project, part of a $73- million capital campaign.

It’s all part of a 10-year plan that will result in 600 high school students at Drew Charter, which used to be run entirely by a for-profit EMO, EdisonLearning (formerly called Edison Schools). The company provided pretty much everything, including curriculum, at first. But the EMO’s role has been phased down and now Edison is basically responsible for back office services.

“Edison did a really good job for Drew, and they were necessary at the start,” says Knapp, who served on the Drew board for a time. “But the best outcome is when the constituent groups – staff, faculty, board – build up their own capacity and the EMO phases out.”

There are some fine EMOs, Knapp says, such as the nonprofit KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program), which operates some successful charter schools in Metro Atlanta. And there are some with a history of problems and poor performing schools.

“I’m not against for-profit EMOs. Some are excellent, some aren’t,” Knapp says. “When I served on the previous state charter school commission, we were always careful that the impetus for starting a school came from parents, local people interested in education. We never want EMOs to be the driver, and we turned down some petitions when we suspected that was the case.”

Works in Progress

Pataula Charter Academy serves five counties – Baker, Clay, Early, Ran-dolph and Calhoun (where Pataula is located, in the city of Edison). But the school’s demographics differ greatly from the traditional schools in the area, where most of the county systems serve a student population that is more than 90 percent African American (it’s 76 percent in Baker, 63 percent in Early). Pataula’s student body is only about 25 percent African American, according to Principal Kylie Holley.

And unlike Drew, which earned its charter through the local system, Pataula got state approval (from that first commission) when none of the five districts in its service area would approve the charter. Pataula not only drew students from the underperforming local public schools, but from local private schools.

So far, the growth of charter schools in Georgia hasn’t had a dramatic effect on the state’s private schools, according to Jeff Jackson, president of the Georgia Independent School Association (GISA), who doesn’t seem worried about his industry’s continuing viability.

“Independent schools have been around in Georgia for 200 years. We have about 74,500 students in 163 schools. One closed this year, one out of 163 [GISA schools],” Jackson says. “We are all about school choice, and our schools have to be worth what parents are paying. If we’re not, we’ll cease to exist, and we don’t see any signs of that.”

Charter schools are not compelled by law to offer transportation like their local public brethren, but Pataula does run limited bus service, picking up students at central locations, rather than door to door.

“We had to go to the state commission, so we don’t report to any of the local systems around here, and we don’t receive any local tax money,” Holley says. “We’re very rural around here, and all of the counties we serve only have one elementary, one middle and one high school, and they’re all small. We felt like, in order to be a sustainable school, we needed to branch out and serve a wider area.”

So far, so good, she says, regarding academic accountability.

“We’re consistently above the state average, especially in science and social studies,” Holley says.

The Pataula learning model, like Drew’s, is built on the project-based (or expeditionary) learning approach, which grew out of the Outward Bound outdoor education program. (Drew’s principal, Don Doran, worked in Outward Bound.)

Across the state from Pataula in the “Queen City,” the Savannah Classical Academy (SCA) is following a classic liberal arts model with a strong civics component and instruction in Latin, and they’re hoping to generate a school culture heavy on moral virtue, decorum, respect and discipline – the things that Barbara Grimm noticed were sorely missing when she returned to the public school classroom.

And they’re going to do it all on their own, without the aid (or expense) of an education and/or charter management organization.

“Our district is very anti-management company,” says Grimm.

They’ll use a vacant school district building this year, then move into a permanent home at the renovated St. Pius X Family Resource Center next August. They’ll start as a K-6 school this year and gradually become K-12, and they’ll be a Title I school from the start, serving an economically disadvantaged, mostly African American student body.

“We have some struggles ahead of us, but if we really want to make our city better, it begins with providing the same educational opportunities for all students,” says Grimm, who will keep her teaching job at another school so she can serve on the board at SCA. “I see this as a chance to be part of something that is truly transformative.”