Advice on "Teaching" Your Kids at Home

A professional home-schooling parent is here to calm you down

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This doesn’t have anything to do with politics (besides the fact that it was politics that has made our current mess as bad as it is), but knowing that many of you are parents, I thought this might be a helpful read.

I’ve known Katie Boyle and her husband Bill since 2009, when I moved to Oxford, Miss., for a reporting gig. Since I left town, Bill’s published a string of critically acclaimed novels (including one out last month that would make great quarantine reading), and Katie turned her experience as a professional outdoor educator into running a small forest school called Wonder Walks for pre-school and home-schooled children. But not only has she done that the past five years, she’s also home schooled her own two children, aged 9 and 5, since they were old enough to learn.

I thought I’d ask her if she had any advice for parents suddenly forced to play teacher, and her advice was so great that I’m printing most of our entire conversation. And if' you’re on Instagram and looking for projects to keep your kids occupied, Katie is posting weekly nature experiments and lessons; you should check them out.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

So if you could only give parents new to homeschooling just one piece of advice, what would it be?

Don’t try too hard to mimic your child’s environment in school. I would say, be flexible and sensitive, especially now. In normal times, that would be my advice as well, but right now we’re all under stress, and we’re out of our routines, unsure about what’s going to happen next. We’re all trying to rework our lives, and I think there’s going to be a lot of grace that’s required from all aspects of [our] education and work to get us through that. And I think if we’re gentle about our expectations with our children and don’t try to get too caught up in the need to be educating them at every minute, they may return the favor when we may (or probably will) lose it a bit and be gentle with us.

For example, right now my kids are staying up pretty late, like 10 p.m. And that’s when Bill and I are usually done working for the day and we’re trying to watch a show together or something while the kids sleep, but instead we’re having that time together. And the kids drift off to sleep, and they’re sleeping really late, until 9:30 or 10. And Bill’s getting up at 5 a.m. to work and I get up a little later, while they’re still sleeping, and prepare what we’re going to do for the day. And I find having time for myself in the morning is much more productive than at night when I’m already tired and want to relax. But it also means the kids might relax in the afternoon for a couple of hours, and we can still do school later in the day. Like, school doesn’t have to be, “Everyone get up. Have breakfast. Brush your teeth. Get dressed. Come to the table.” We can create a different environment, and take all those things that are wonderful about school, but also take the comforts of home and adjust our schedules in the way that we need to. If that’s helpful. 

Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Relatedly, I know that structuring schedules greatly depends on the age of the child and the attention span of the child.

And what grown-ups have to do, too!

Yeah, people are working from home! So for parents trying to set that balance between like, “We’re going to do reading here, we’re going to run around this afternoon or do a online yoga class,” how do you do that where there’s some kind of structure, but it’s not overwhelmingly structured to where it’s just gonna fall apart after a week?

I think that, yes, a routine is important. The way that we typically would do it is that after breakfast, we have a solid little time for doing our math. And we always do reading in the morning as well. And then before you know it, it’s lunchtime. I think one of the important things is to remember that in a school day, the kids are there for that chunk of time, but they’re not doing education that entire time. You can condense what they do in school into a couple of hours in your house, because they spend time getting to school, they spend time walking between classes or getting to the lunch room, and all of that can be condensed. We do most of our schooling in a couple of hours.

After that, again, I would say to be gentle with yourself. These are stressful times. So if you pick up a chunk of time during the day that you’re going to do sort of the nitty gritty [work], if someone has to write an essay or something like that, for us it works [better] after breakfast. We do better with most things in the morning. And then, you know, if you need the kids to watch a movie in the afternoon, or play one of the hundreds of thousands of educational apps that are available, I would encourage people to not feel guilty about that.

We’re all under stressful times. And I can’t emphasize enough, as someone who went through a childhood trauma, that kids cannot learn when they’re stressed out. They can’t. They can’t do it. They can’t take in as much as you think that they should be able to. So I think being aware of those emotions that might be happening would be really helpful. And giving a lot of time — as much as you can as a parent who is working from home. I know some parents have really intense jobs. My sister is one of them and really needs a ton of time to do it. But giving yourself time to have that family time and to have time to play outside or to take a walk together or to play a board game.

I think that for Bill and I, one of the things that we realized in our homeschooling experience is that learning is everywhere. We play board games a lot. We play Yahtzee and Scrabble and this card game SET that is an amazing math game. We do puzzles together a lot, which is activating a different part of your brain. But also if you need a break, and you need to have them turn on the TV, there are so many wonderful things for that kind of break period that can be learning.

For example, my kids a couple of months ago turned on The Kid Who Would be King. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of it, but it’s a retelling of the King Arthur story. And they were so into it. So it kind of led us down this journey of thinking about all of these things related to King Arthur. First of all, we looked for more King Arthur stories, and we read and listened to other stories about the same thing. And we started talking about castles, and we found this amazing multi-part PBS documentary about a group of people who are building a castle exactly as they would have in the Middle Ages. And we talked about knights and their codes, and the kids made their own shields and crests. And we talked about the Round Table, and how it compared to our democracy, and what do we do better now, and how could we learn from the system Arthur created. And we also talked about other myths and read other myths from other cultures and times and talked about why were they created and what do they tell us about that time and place — you know, specifically, but also about humankind. Anyway, this is all to say that they watched this two-hour movie while I worked or read or took some personal time, and it sparked this amazing learning journey.

I love the idea of this one thing — exploring all of it, hitting all of these different criteria of education. So we were reading, and we were learning about history, and we were learning about the math that they use to create these castles before they had modern technology. And we were learning about myths and culture. So I think sort of seizing those opportunities when you see it makes education so much easier. 

So what mistakes do you think are most common with parents just starting out homeschooling? 

I think that there is a stress that they are not enough. That parents are not the best teachers for their children or that they don’t know how to do the right things. And I think — I don’t know how some people would feel about this, but I think homeschooling is for most of us, how you would parent otherwise.

So, most of us want the best for our children. We want to expose them to things that might speak to them and spark an interest and create joy in them. And homeschooling is really about creating those opportunities to do that. So we just cast a really wide net and see what sticks.

And I think that I’ve often heard from people going into homeschooling, like, they just don’t think that they can do it. But they in fact are doing it for the other hours of the day that they’re with their kid. They’re reading to their kid. They’re talking about interesting things. They’re always there. They’re getting them interested in music. You know, that’s just what parents do who want to do the right thing by their kid.

And thankfully, during this time of social isolation or distancing, we like never before have the resource of the entire world at our fingertips. So there are museums giving free tours. There are colleges that are giving free courses. But also just Google is your friend. We have a question wall in our kitchen, and anytime my kids ask a question — doesn’t matter how crazy it is — we put it up on the question wall. And then eventually we get to it and look it up. And, you know, maybe it starts something from there, and we go on.

But I think just not putting too much of a burden on the teacher aspect and more just focusing on the learning and the opportunities to be together and to read the books together that you don’t have time for. You can take a whole chunk of time in the afternoon to start the Harry Potter series. Reading out loud and cuddling on the couch and having that connection brings me such relief in normal times. But especially now just having that physical contact and sharing something with my kid is so important.

And I swear, if they look, they will see that spark of learning happening in their child’s eyes. And they’re not just learning about whatever you’re talking about. And they’re not just learning about what you’re reading about. They’re learning how to be an adult from you. Or learning how to be a person in the world. 

So that’s what I would say — for parents to look at the big picture, to try not to focus on, “How am I going to teach trigonometry?” and focus on what you can do, and use the abundance of resources out there for the rest. Then just make sure that your kid knows that you just want to be with them.

I know you’re a great believer in getting your kids out into nature to learn and discover, but for parents who might not be particularly outdoors-y, what advice do you have for them? Or for families who might be in an apartment without a yard in a city where maybe the parks are closed?

I would say that if you have a window, you have access to nature. Right now, all across the country, migration is happening. It’s an amazing time to literally just look out your window. And if you do that, you will see birds. You can see how they behave. You can probably, if you have a tree around, see a squirrel.

But for sure with bird migration, it is an exciting time to be learning about birds and to be watching for birds and to be listening. Certainly if you open your window and listen for birds, you’ll hear how they each make a different sound. How they call back and forth from one another. And some of those are like songs, and some of those sound like calls, and some of them sound like warnings. You’ll see them doing a dance of trying to figure out a mate, trying to figure out a place to meet, or you may see different birds fly by every day. And I think that a connection to nature is really important. Even for someone who is not outdoorsy.

Maybe you go and buy a plant from the store with your kid — when it’s safe to go to the store, of course. Or maybe you get a package of seeds, and you add a little bit of dirt — and it doesn’t take much. And you can actually put seeds in a plastic baggy with a little drop of water and tape it to a window, and they will sprout. (I think it might be bean sprouts that do that.) And that’s super exciting to watch. It’s also an important conversation about the water cycle and how that works. But just being able to see life and how it works, I think is important. Even if you don’t have access to the outdoors or even if you don’t like being outside.

But I think for most cities in our country, a great effort has been made to at least make sure there is a tree nearby. If you start with one tree and start thinking about that tree and start noticing — right now is a great time, because in the more Northern States, the leaves haven’t even budded out yet — and you can watch as the tree gets ready for spring. And every single day, since now all we have is time, you can go and check your tree every single day and watch the littlest teeny things happen daily that make that tree ready to have leaves and to practice photosynthesis. And you know, even if it’s not something that you’re particularly into, I would just keep in mind that it might be something that your kid is into.

Last question: Do you have any other general advice for being stuck at home with your kids for who knows how many weeks or months to come?

I don’t know if there’s anything more than I’ve already said, but just take breaks as you need to. Try to be understanding that it’s very hard for them not to see their friends as well. We’ve been FaceTiming our friends, which I’m sure lots of people are doing. My kids are talking to their friends for like an hour in the afternoon, which has been really great.

And don’t be afraid to just leave something for a little while. My general rule is if it’s making a kid cry, then it’s time for me to let it go. And it’s usually because the kid is not ready. Ending in tears? That’s a good sign that you don’t need to be doing that. And having the confidence that that’s okay. It’s okay to take a break. It’s okay to say, “You all go watch a movie.” It’s okay if something’s not working to try something new, and it might spark a new idea.

Oh, one more thing I would say would be to include your kid in their education. Like I said, everyone’s going to have a ton more free time, and I think a really important question is, “What are you interested in?” There’s this writer called Julie Bogart who wrote a book called The Brave Learner. And she gave me this idea that you make this map of all the things that your kids are interested in, and you just do it on a big piece of paper and everyone in the family gets a different color marker, and they can write down what they’re interested in. And then you figure out ways to do them, and you also relate them to the subjects that they need to learn for their education. And my kids get super excited about that stuff, and it’s things that I would have never engaged them with because I hadn’t thought they were really interested in them.

Like, my daughter wanted to learn how to sew, and my son wanted to learn how to play the ukulele. And I was like, “Oh, I don’t know to do either one of those things. So let me figure out how we can do that.” And use the resources in your community. You would be surprised, I think, if you put out a call like, “Does anyone know how to sew? Maybe you could take some time FaceTiming with my kid and teach them how to do it.” I think that we’ll all be surprised at how willing people will be to create those connections in a time when we can’t physically be together. So that would be my advice. 

Okay, well, thank you so much, Katie! This is all really great. 

Oh, good. Oh! And also, just reading! If all else fails in your house, and you’re having a terrible, terrible morning or afternoon or whole day, just getting a book and cuddling up on the couch and reading until everyone falls asleep — that has saved our day many, many times. And I feel like it’s totally legitimate. Reading out loud is one of the great pleasures that often get lost as we get older. So I would even encourage people who have older children to make a time for that every single day, where everyone reads out loud. Of course people can pick shorter things, or maybe you have an older kid who can read to you. It’s such a lovely way to connect with your family, especially during a hard day. 

If you want to send me tips, I’m on Signal, Confide, Twitter and Facebook. You can also reply to this email. And if you’re a newsletter subscriber, you can see the P.O. Box to which you can mail me any documents you want to leak! (Or you can contact me, and I can give it to you.)

I’m also on Venmo @cgervin if you want to help fund my reporting. I’m not here to run puff pieces for “access.” No one else in this state is covering Tennessee politics from such an uncompromising stance.

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An Urgent Plea from Italy

A missive from a nurse in Milan, via a Nashville resident

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Most Nashville readers will know (the voice of) Natasha Senjanovic, the longtime All Things Considered host at WPLN, who left the station last last year to pursue other reporting opportunities. A reporter for over two decades, Senjanovic is also a former resident of Italy, so she’s had the unfortunate ability to witness the trauma that COVID-19 has wrought from friends and family who are in the country.

Senjanovic recently translated a missive from an emergency call center nurse in Lodi, and she decided to pass it along to Gov. Bill Lee and Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey, in the hopes they might take decisive statewide action to require, not encourage, social distancing. With her permission, I am sharing the letter and the translation.

Whether or not it sways any minds in the state’s administration, the horrific descriptions from Italy could sway the mind of someone you know, in Tennessee or elsewhere, and convince them to stay home. Please share with your friends and family members and, perhaps, your local elected officials who have not yet become convinced of the threats facing all of us in the weeks to come.

Dear Governor Lee and Commissioner Piercey, 

You may know me as a former host at Nashville Public Radio. But I’m also an adopted Italian: I lived in Rome for 16 years, until shortly before moving to Nashville, and my father and most of my closest friends live in Italy. 

I know the decisions before you are momentous; a balancing act between saving lives and saving the state’s economy, often one and the same thing. But the longer social distancing is encouraged rather than enforced, the greater the risk of infecting more people, and the greater the toll it will have on our medical workers and facilities. 

The consequences of COVID-19 have been dire in places, like Italy, with a unified and freely accessible health care system. What will they look like here? 

Below is my translation of a plea from an emergency call center nurse in one of Italy’s hardest-hit areas. I urge you to read it. 

Thank you,

Natasha Senjanovic

Radio producer - Writer/editor - Consultant


From Paolo Baldini, emergency call center nurse (SOREU, Lombardy region):

Do you know what’s happening in the area around the [Italian town of] Lodi, where everything began? Residents are calling 118 [Italy’s 911], where I work [in Milan].

Do you know what they ask for? They simply ask for help. They don’t demand anything. Incredibly, they don’t scream, threaten or insult us. They’re polite, they apologize for disturbing us and patiently and calmly wait for hours for someone to listen to them and, they hope, help them even over the phone.

Those of you not experiencing this won’t immediately understand why they’re so compliant and resigned. I do. I’ll try and explain it to you.

Lucia calls me. She lives in a two-story house. Lucia is 55 and lives on the top floor, quarantined with her two sons. I ask her who needs help. She says her mother, who lives below them. I ask her if she’s been in contact with other people who tested positive for coronavirus.

She begins. Her 57-year-old husband Gianni is intubated in the ICU. Her 49-year-old brother Stefano died the day before yesterday in the ICU. Not the same one her husband’s in, because there wasn’t enough room for him when he got sick. Her husband was taken away in an ambulance a week ago, he had a fever and trouble breathing.

Lucia hasn’t seen or talked to him since. Every day she waits for a phone call from ICU staff to find out if her husband is still alive and if there’s been any progress. Her voice trembles when she tells me and I don’t have the courage to interrupt her.

I don’t want to interrupt her even though I have twenty other callers waiting. It’s been this way for days and it will continue to be this way for many days, I’m sure.

Finally, she takes a breath and I can continue trying to figure out how to help her. She says she’s calling about her mother, who lives on the bottom floor of her house. She’s 88. She’s been febrile for a few days now, weak, coughing, wheezing.

Her family doctor has been taking care of her. Lucia and her mother are lucky. Their doctor isn’t sick or quarantined. In the past few days her doctor X-rayed her and brought her oxygen because for the past day she hasn’t been able to breathe. She tells me the doctor was just there and recommended her mother be taken to the hospital because he can’t help her at home anymore. She says the doctor wanted to speak to us, but after waiting on hold for an hour he had to go see another patient.

I apologize for the long wait, trying to explain that we’re literally flooded by emergency calls and we’re struggling to keep up, but she interrupts me to say: “None of you need to apologize. You’re already doing too much.”

She is consoling me. Fucking hell.

I tell her I can send an emergency vehicle to take her mother to the hospital, but that it will be a while and that I’m not sure they’ll be able to take her to the hospital in Lodi where her husband is.

She stops me. Her voice is calm, but decisive. I get ready for an argument. I’m tired and, selfishly, don’t want to talk to any more people. I’m nauseous from hearing the same stories, the same suffering, the same pain. Then I think how my shift will be over in an hour and, even more selfishly, I picture myself asleep in bed.

Instead, Lucia gives me a life lesson that two days later is firmly embedded in my mind and heart. Lucia tells me she doesn’t want to take her mother to the hospital. She explains she’s already lost one brother she couldn’t say goodbye to, whose funeral she couldn’t attend, and she hasn’t seen or talked to her husband for ten days. She says she doesn’t want her mother to die in the hospital.

She adds: “I know perfectly well that you can barely keep up with patients in the hospital and I know perfectly well that if I send my mother to the hospital you all will let her die alone because you won’t have time to treat her.”

She says it without bitterness but with an awareness that freezes my blood. I stay silent because she’s absolutely right but I can’t tell her that. She understands my silence and continues: “I just want someone to tell me that I’m doing the right thing and to allow me let her die with dignity at home without suffering.”

I’ll stop here. I won’t tell you any more. Except that Lucia’s mother died at home an hour later. Maybe one day I’ll go to Lucia’s house, to give her a hug and tell her she did the right thing. Because if I were a father I’d want a daughter like her.

Lucia is just one drop. None of you have any idea the enormous ocean of sickness, suffering and pain this pandemic is creating. And don’t delude yourselves that it can happen to others, but not to you.

When we beg you to stay home and tell you we’re collapsing, we’re not joking. There aren’t any more beds in the hospitals for young people even. We medical professionals are getting sick and the epidemic keeps spreading

Lodi and Codogno are small towns. Have you seen today’s photo of the truck taking caskets away from Bergamo? Do you know how big Milan’s population is? Milan’s hospitals are already full of patients. But none of those patients live in Milan. Guess where they’re from? Do the math, even if you’re not an expert on the subject.

If this pandemic actually gets to Milan, that which is happening in Bergamo will seem like a stroll in the park. I regret not being in China where the army can shut everything down. Because that’s what’s needed.

So I’m begging you. Those of you who are healthy, take a step back. Because you all may have COVID without knowing it, and you’re all going out.

We’re not asking for much. Just for you to stay home. Please. We won’t fucking give up, but give us a hand and do your part.

If you want to send me tips, I’m on Signal, Confide, Twitter and Facebook. You can also reply to this email. And if you’re a newsletter subscriber, you can see the P.O. Box to which you can mail me any documents you want to leak! (Or you can contact me, and I can give it to you.)

I’m also on Venmo @cgervin if you want to help fund my reporting. I’m not here to run puff pieces for “access.” No one else in this state is covering Tennessee politics from such an uncompromising stance.

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Did Staples Spend Campaign Funds on his Wedding?

Also: Two mysterious "donations" are likely partial rent payments

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There are dozens (or thousands, if you want to use the monetary value) of questions about the campaign finance spending by state Rep. Rick Staples (D-Knoxville), as I reported earlier this week. But since I published my story, I’ve discovered a new wrinkle: It appears very likely Staples used campaign funds to pay for part of his wedding and honeymoon last fall. It also seems probable that two odd “donations” to a man named Larry Thompson in 2017 were for household rent. All of this spending, if verified in an audit, would be blatantly in violation of state law.

For as long as I’ve reported on Staples — which goes back to 2013, when he first ran unsuccessfully for Knoxville City Council — there have been questions about his finances. In 2016, a warrant for his arrest was issued when he failed to show up in court over a case involving unpaid child support. The year prior, he told the court he was not making payments because he was indigent and only making $400 a month.

During those same seven years, Staples had been unmarried. His official page on the legislative website even says he is “single.” So when the Knoxville News Sentinel said that Staples had been evicted from the house he shared with his wife, I was surprised to see that he had gotten married. In the course of searching for more information about his wife, Lateesha Fritts, I found the couple’s wedding website. And that led me to review Staples’ campaign expenses once more.

What I found is several expenses that seem probably tied to Staples and Fritts’ Oct. 3, 2019, wedding and honeymoon. On Oct. 1, Staples paid one of his most-frequented Knoxville restaurants, Jackie’s Dream, $1,201.75. Then, on Oct. 7, there’s a stay in the Holiday Inn at the Atlanta airport for $177.47. There’s a second stay at the same hotel on Oct. 10, for $130.35. On those same dates there are two $60 charges to Spirit Airlines — likely baggage fees. There’s also a $410 car rental fee in Knoxville on Oct. 10. It seems likely Staples used campaign funds to cater his wedding, then rented a car to drive to Atlanta with his bride, staying in a hotel the night before their flight and the night they returned. Facebook and Instagram posts on Staples and Fritts’ personal pages show them in Jamaica on Oct. 9.

Five days after their return from tropical romance, Staples was evicted from his home for non-payment of rent, owing $8,875, plus court costs. (Which are, to date, still unpaid.)

Speaking of rent, I learned that Staples used to live at 1970 Locarno Drive, in a townhouse owned by one Lawrence Thompson. That address is the one Staples used when he ran for office in 2018. In January 2018, Staples made a $350 “donation” to Larry Thompson of 1968 Locarno Drive, and in June he made a $950 donation to the same person at the same address. Knox County property records don’t show any residence at 1968 Locarno, but Thompson owns the townhomes at both 1966 and 1970 Locarno. It’s possible Staples gave Thompson money for something related to a charity, although it still seems like a violation of campaign finance law. But it’s also very possible Staples gave Thompson campaign finance funds to help cover rent, which is absolutely prohibited.

Staples has posted on Facebook that my and the KNS’s reporting on his eviction and spending is an “attack” on his “integrity.” But he has claimed “character assassination” every time he’s been accused of wrongdoing, including last year when he was found to have violated the legislature’s sexual harassment policy. (And if you think he was unfairly targeted over that, talk to some Knoxville women who have had him slide into their DMs.)

Staples has one primary challenger so far, political newcomer Matthew Park. But as a young, white and openly gay candidate, Park faces a challenging race in a district with a large African-American population. But it’s possible Staples’ turmoil will lead to one or more other candidates jumping in, as the deadline for entering the primary is still six weeks away.

UPDATE, 6:30 p.m. ET: The Staples and Fritts wedding website has apparently been deleted, but you can still find the happy couple’s registry here. And below is a screenshot with the wedding details, if you are just now seeing this.

If you want to send me tips, I’m on Signal, Confide, Twitter and Facebook. You can also reply to this email. And if you’re a newsletter subscriber, you can see the P.O. Box to which you can mail me any documents you want to leak! (Or you can contact me, and I can give it to you.)

I’m also on Venmo @cgervin if you want to help fund my reporting. I’m not here to run puff pieces for “access.” No one else in this state is covering Tennessee politics from such an uncompromising stance.

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Evicted from House, Staples Can't Stop Spending Campaign Funds

An October eviction plus $44,000 in expenses over six months may equal an audit

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State Rep. Rick Staples (D-Knoxville) might not reside in his district. It’s not clear where he lives — he wouldn’t tell me — but one thing is certain: Staples does not live at 112 Holston Court in East Knoxville.

That’s the address Staples put down as his residence when he picked up a petition from the Knox County Election Commission last week to run for re-election in House District 15. It’s also the address listed on his campaign finance filings. But Staples was evicted from the four-bedroom, three-bath home on Oct. 15, 2019, for non-payment of rent. Staples’ former landlords declined to comment, but legal proceedings filed in Knox County show that Staples owes $8,875 to QB Realty Team, plus court costs. A bank levy was issued Nov. 5 in an attempt to get partial payment, and in January they unsuccessfully attempted to serve Staples in Nashville to garnish his legislative wages.

Yet the eviction hasn’t stopped Staples from blowing through some $44,439 since last July. There’s just one problem — all that money came out of Staples’ campaign account, and a full breakdown of his spending raises numerous questions as to how many were legitimate expenses. If you go back further to when Staples took office in late 2016, there are even more questionable charges — expenses far out of line with other legislators, especially as Staples had no opponent in either the primary or general election in 2018.

Staples, to be clear, denies any wrongdoing.

“We’re comfortable with what’s listed. I have an excellent treasurer,” Staples said last night, expressing great surprise at the questions.

Staples also denied that financial problems contributed to his eviction, or that he was using his campaign finance account for personal spending.

“There were issues with the upkeep of the home,” Staples said. He declined to go into specifics with me, but he later told the Knoxville News Sentinel that the house had “fungus.” (The house is currently under contract to a new buyer; QB Realty’s Facebook page says they are a couple who specialize in flipping houses.) Staples said that my reporting on his eviction was “character assassination” and asked who had put me up to this. (The answer is no one. I just got a tip.)

“I’ve never been a nefarious or shady individual!” Staples told me, repeatedly. (The same quote, verbatim, was given to the KNS.)

But Staples’ campaign spending appears to be not quite on the up-and-up. There are three trips for “sports betting research” in the months after the Staples-sponsored legislation to legalize limited gambling on sports passed last spring. Staples said a $614 stay at the W Hotel in the Buckhead neighborhood of Atlanta last June was because “sports betting vendors wanted to meet me.” He declined to name any of the vendors, and Georgia does not have a legalized gambling industry (other than the state lottery). A $946 stay at the Hard Rock Cafe resort and casino in Las Vegas last July, with an additional $693 in food, beverage and entertainment charges, was for the same purpose, Staples said. So was an early January jaunt to Jacksonville, with $285 in hotel costs at the Omni Hotel and $163.50 in dining expenses.

The Senate sponsor of the legislation, state Sen. Steve Dickerson (R-Nashville), has taken no such trips, either before or after the legislation passed. Staples is not on the Sports Wagering Advisory Council, which will issue guidance to the Tennessee Lottery Corporation as it sets up sports betting, so it’s unclear why vendors would be interested in meeting with Staples after the legislation had been signed into law. Staples would not elaborate, but insisted the three trips were part of his legislative duties.

But it is clear that Staples has been repeatedly double- dipping since 2017 — that is, charging airfare, hotel rooms, food, drinks, gas and Lyft rides to his campaign account while either receiving a per diem and mileage expenses for legislative work in Nashville or being reimbursed for travel to a conference. This is prohibited. Cross-checking his campaign finance reports with legislative per diem and travel reports appears to show 107 itemized charges totaling $9,785.76 for which he seems to have been reimbursed. (This tally does not include December or early January, during which Staples has charges for several trips to Nashville. The state has not yet posted those reimbursements online, and they declined to scan and email them to me yesterday.)

In that total, there are two hotel room charges, one for $341 at the Cambria Hotel downtown and one for $100.47 at the La Quinta Inn on Sidco Drive, on the same day, Oct. 24, 2018. Staples was paid a $960 per diem from state for the same Oct. 23 - 26 Nashville trip. Another Nashville trip from July 29 - 31, 2019, received a $720 per diem. However, during that same time period Staples has a $326.16 charge at the Hotel Indigo in Memphis, along with $229 in Memphis dining charges. It’s entirely possible the trip was legislative business and he simply reported the wrong city, but it also raises the question as to why he would only report and be reimbursed for mileage from Knoxville to Nashville.

“I’ve never used my card or my campaign funds in session,” Staples said. I said that his campaign finance filings repeatedly show the opposite. “They’re legitimate for whatever was filed,” Staples replied, denying that he had done anything wrong. When I specifically pointed out that he had received a $1,200 per diem for the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL) annual conference in Nashville last August yet had also spent $1,124.47 in campaign funds at the Omni, where the conference was held, Staples said again that his finances were in order.

But if Staples’ finances were actually in order, it seems unlikely he would have spent $29,322 in campaign funds on food and drinks in a three-year period. (Over $11,000 of those charges are unitemized.) Staples said all the expenses were campaign-related or in the course of his legislative duties.

“I have a lot of meetings,” Staples said. “I’ve sponsored a lot of large lunches.”

While that is almost certainly true, many of the charges are too small to be anything but one person eating or drinking. There are pricey meals at Nashville steakhouses Morton’s and STK, sure, but there are meals at Waffle House, McDonald’s, Cracker Barrel, and 24 meals at Knoxville soul food restaurant Jackie’s Dream totaling $2,394.76. And then there’s the drinking — multiple charges (including two over $100) at Blend Bar, a Nashville cigar bar; a dozen charges at the Over Under Bar in the lobby of the Clarion Hotel next to Nissan Stadium; $1,407 in charges at Knoxville’s Merchants of Beer; and additional charges at four different breweries in Knoxville.

But it’s not just dining expenses that seem extravagant. Staples has spent $1,899 at Petree’s Flowers, ostensibly for “office expenses” or “professional services.” He charged over $500 to Lyft in just the last six months. He has charged hotel stays in Knoxville at least three times. There are unexplained trips to Johnson City and Ames, Iowa, and two stays at a Holiday Inn near the Atlanta airport. There are two car rentals in Knoxville totaling over $700. There is $10,488 in spending on “office supplies.” This number includes part of the Petree’s amount, along with an additional $381 at two other florists; $153 at a Nashville jeweler; $411 at Mast General Store in Knoxville (which mostly sells clothing and shoes); and almost $140 at U-Haul.

Staples has also used campaign funds to purchase tickets for a Los Angeles Dodgers baseball game, in conjunction with the 2018 NCSL conference, and tickets for a November 2019 Memphis Grizzlies game, in conjunction with a legislative retreat in Memphis. There’s also a $107 ticket charge to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, on July 15 during Staples’ trip to the city, the same day that UNLV hosted the NBA’s summer league championship game. In most cases, campaign funds can only be used to purchase tickets for sporting, entertainment or charity events if they are given to someone else. In his most recent filing, Staples lists an in-kind donation from the Tennessee Titans for $756 in tickets; if he used any ticket to go to an NFL game himself, that would be impermissible.

As I asked Staples about his spending, he repeatedly stressed all that he had done for his community.

“Have you added up how much I’ve donated? I am committed to helping people in East Knoxville,” Staples said.

And it’s true, Staples has donated a lot of money since he’s been in office, even more than he’s spent on food and drinks. But there are questions about some of those donations, too. Staples has spent $36,641 on “donations” and “contributions” (itemized and not), and $9,176 on “sponsorships” since taking office. Of the donations, $1,915 went to the Knox County Democratic Party (in part for tickets to the annual Truman Day fundraiser), and another $250 was given to the Tennessee Democratic Party. Unlike the majority of legislators with sizable money in the bank, Staples does not appear to have ever donated to any candidates in competitive races or to the House Democratic Caucus PAC. (There are $390 in donations via ActBlue but no candidate is specified, so it’s unclear if those were for a Tennessee or a national race.)

Most of Staples’ donations have gone to churches and non-profits in Knoxville. If the donations were to attend a gala for the non-profit, it could be a questionable use of funds, but otherwise such donations are permitted. But there are two donations totaling $1,300 to a man named Larry Thompson — donations to an individual are not permitted — and there are multiple charges at Walmart and Sam’s Club (and one at a Holiday Inn in Knoxville) listed as donations or sponsorships. It’s possible the items are mislabeled, or it’s possible Staples donated what he purchased to a legitimate non-profit, but it’s unusual accounting in either case. (There are also a couple hundred dollars of “Christmas gifts to needy families,” listed separately.)

The most curious donation, however, is the $1,525 given to Turning Headz Beauty Explosion, a Knoxville hair salon. State law explicitly prohibits candidates from using campaign funds for “payments for grooming or enhancing one’s personal appearance unrelated to campaign activities,” and a hair salon is not a non-profit or otherwise a charitable organization. When I asked Staples about the donations to Turning Headz, he got incredibly angry and ended the phone call.

“A person can break down anything and make it seem like what it’s not,” Staples said before going on to accuse me of attempting to smear his reputation with false allegations.

But staff at the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance agreed that Staples’ spending does raise questions for them, and they plan to mail a letter seeking more information from him regarding certain expenses. (They also noted that such a letter is regularly sent out to legislators reporting out-of-state travel expenses.) Whether Staples’ account will end up audited is up to the Registry itself. Normally action is only taken if a sworn complaint is filed, but in recent months the board has voted to audit the accounts of Rep. Glen Casada (R-Franklin) and former Sen. Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro) on its own after news reports documenting irregularities. The registry’s meeting is March 11, and no agenda is set as of today.

Meanwhile, Staples says that when he turns in his petition to run in August primary, he will have a different East Knoxville address on it. Despite being repeatedly pressed, he wouldn’t say where that would be or if he even has an address at all, and he gave similarly evasive answers to the KNS. Staples would only say that he’s mostly living in Nashville right now because the legislature is in session and he has family there, and that he only drives back to Knoxville for events in his district.

So he’s working over the weekends? I asked, as Cordell Hull is usually empty on Saturdays and Sundays, in or out of session.

“At times I do. Because I’m carrying really heavy legislation right now that I have to work on over the weekend,” Staples said.

The full reports of Staples’ spending can be found in a spreadsheet I compiled if you want to browse the expenses yourself. All data was dowloaded and imported without change from TREF files.

If you want to send me tips, I’m on Signal, Confide, Twitter and Facebook. You can also reply to this email. And if you’re a newsletter subscriber, you can see the P.O. Box to which you can mail me any documents you want to leak! (Or you can contact me, and I can give it to you.)

I’m also on Venmo @cgervin if you want to help fund my reporting. I’m not here to run puff pieces for “access.” No one else in this state is covering Tennessee politics from such an uncompromising stance.

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Where's Lee? (Dec. 9 - Dec. 15)

Keeping it close to home

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After some travel last week, Gov. Bill Lee is staying around Nashville this week (at least publicly). Given the almost nightly Christmas parties have started at the Governor’s Mansion (and, presumably those hosted by prominent GOP donors elsewhere in Nashville), I wouldn’t expect too much travel from Lee through the end of the year. Shockingly, he has not one but two media avails this week within easy reach of the Capitol Hill Press Corps after zero last week — a week in which he killed a blind man. Maybe he’s trying to butter them up before the (ostensibly) off-the-record holiday cocktail party?

In non-gubernatorial news, my first story for The New York Times was published last week, about a woman who has spent decades providing a safe home for others, even when she had to rely on governmental and non-profit funding to feed her children. Please read it, if you haven’t, and consider a donation to the Neediest Cases Fund or your local food bank, if you have the means to do so.

More stories coming later this week …


Monday, December 9

No public events

Tuesday, December 10

Tennessee Farm Bureau Annual Meeting

Embassy Suites Cool Springs

820 Crescent Centre Drive

Franklin, TN 37067

9:00 a.m. CST

MEDIA – Open, Photo only

Wednesday, December 11

Oak Cottage Groundbreaking Ceremony

126 W. Fowlkes Street

Franklin, TN 36064

9:25 a.m. CST

MEDIA – Open, Availability

Thursday, December 12

Tennessee Association of Recovery Court Professionals Annual Conference

Embassy Suites Cool Springs

820 Crescent Centre Drive

Franklin, TN 37067

11:20 a.m. CST

MEDIA – Open, Photo only

Lipscomb Life Program Graduation

Tennessee Prison for Women

3881 Stewarts Ln

Nashville, TN 37218

1:30 p.m. CST

MEDIA – Open, Photo only

Friday, December 13

Titans HQ Groundbreaking

St. Thomas Sports Park

460 Great Circle Road

Nashville, TN 37228

1:00 p.m. CST

MEDIA – Open, Availability  

Saturday, December 14

TN Highway Patrol Cadet Class of 2019 Commencement Ceremony

Hermitage Hills Baptist Church

3475 Lebanon Pike

Hermitage, TN 37076

9:00 a.m. CST

MEDIA – Open, Photo only

Sunday, December 15

No public events

If you want to send me tips, I’m on Signal, Confide, Twitter and Facebook. You can also reply to this email. And if you’re a newsletter subscriber, you can see the P.O. Box to which you can mail me any documents you want to leak! (Or you can contact me, and I can give it to you.)

I’m also on Venmo @cgervin if you want to help fund my reporting until subscriptions start in January. I’m not here to run puff pieces for “access.” No one else in this state is covering Tennessee politics from such an uncompromising stance.

Share The Dog and Pony Show

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