'Yes' or 'no' on retaining directors of schools

Robert Houk • Feb 10, 2019 at 6:00 AM

Legislation has been filed in the Tennessee General Assembly to give voters a say on whether a local schools director’s contract should be renewed.

The measure is being eyed closely by state lawmakers, local government leaders and school officials, who suspect the bill could be the first step to placing the schools director/superintendent position back on the ballot. State law now requires the director of schools position to be filled by the local school board.

“It’s definitely a leap toward electing the director of schools,” said state Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, who serves as a member of the Senate’s Education Committee.

Setting The Table

As currently written, SB0019 /HB0301 would allow the governing bodies of counties and cities that operate a school system — following a two-thirds vote by members — to “require the director of schools face a retention election at the next regular August election immediately preceding the expiration of the director of schools’ contract.”

The outcome of the “yes” or “no” retention vote would determine if the local school board renews the schools director’s contract.

The bill states: “If a majority of those voting on the question vote against retaining the named person as director of schools, then the local board of education shall not extend a contract or term of a director of schools.”

The primary sponsor of the bill is state Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville. She is the chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, where the bill is slated to be heard.

The House sponsor, state Rep. Micah Van Huss, R-Jonesborough, told the Press last week he was carrying the bill at the request of Gresham, and would be “following her lead on this bill.”

Gresham declined to directly comment on the bill, but Darlene Schlicher, press secretary of the Senate’s Republican Caucus, released a statement on her behalf noting “K-12 stakeholders have not had an opportunity to come to the table to address the proposed provisions. This is the beginning of a process that will take time, so it is too soon to discuss the legislation.”

Politics And Education

One of those stakeholders is the Tennessee School Boards Association, of which Kathy Hall, a veteran member of the Johnson City Board of Education, serves as president this year. Hall said last week the TSBA has not taken an official position on Gresham’s legislation — that’s likely to come before the end of this month — but it has “historically been opposed” to any legislation that would return the director of schools position to the ballot.

She said Gresham’s legislation looks to be an effort to do just that. Tennessee legislators passed a law in 1992 that requires schools directors to be appointed by school board members, who are elected by the voters of the school district. The idea was to bring a greater degree of professionalism to the position by insulating the job from politics.

“We are putting the best interests of our students first, not politics,” Hall said.

Hall said only voters in Florida, Mississippi and Alabama continue to elect local directors of schools. She said the idea of holding a retention election on the position would take away a very important job of school board members.

“The board of education is elected by the community to represent them on school matters,” she said. “The school superintendent is the only employee of the school board, and he or she should answer to it.”

Hall said board of education members answer directly to the voters. The TSBA president said she is afraid Gresham’s bill could make for an “adversary relationship” between school boards and local governments.

Moving The Ball Forward

Local lawmakers said they are curious to learn how a retention vote on the director of schools’ position advances education in Tennessee. Lundberg, who represents Sullivan, Johnson and part of Carter counties in the Senate, has had little feedback on the issue.

“I’ve had all of two of calls from Johnson County,” Lundberg said.

The senator believes leaving the appointment and retention of the superintendent of schools in the hands of board of education members is the correct way to deal with the issue. He said the current process has given local communities, particularly more rural counties, a “wider field” when it comes to finding and hiring “the most qualified” candidates for the job.

State Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, is also a member of the Senate Education Committee. He believes many of his constituents in “rural communities feel there isn’t enough balance between schools directors and parents and teachers as there is now with school board members.”

Crowe, who represents Unicoi, Washington and part of Carter counties, said he would like to see the retention vote used as an “evaluation tool” for school board members at contract time.

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