Sullivan County Commission, two school boards at odds over superintendent retention bill

Rick Wagner • Mar 13, 2019 at 8:30 PM

KINGSPORT — Political battle lines are increasingly being drawn in the local sand over a bill before the Tennessee General Assembly. It would allow local governing bodies to force a retention vote on appointed school superintendents.

The Kingsport Board of Education Tuesday voted 5-0 to oppose any moves to have elected superintendents again in Tennessee, although no bill to that effect was filled this year, and to oppose a bill that would allow a two-thirds vote of a city council or board of mayor and aldermen to force a retention vote on an appointed superintendent or a county commission to force a retention vote on an appointed director of schools.

If the vote was not to retain the superintendent or director, the school board in question would have to appoint a new one after the contract expired for the school head who failed to be retained.

“It’s tying the hands of the school board if they (funding body officials) think the superintendent has done something they don’t care for,” city school board member Susan Lodal said.

The bill is opposed by the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents and the Tennessee School Boards Association.

HB 0301 is sponsored by Rep. James “Micah” Van Huss, R-Jonesborough, and SB 0019 is sponsored by Sens. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, and Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City.

Gresham and Crowe could not be reached for comment Tuesday or Wednesday by email or phone, while a spokeswoman for Van Huss referred questions to Gresham, since she is the main sponsor and originator of the bill and chairs the Senate Education Committee, to which the bill has been assigned. In a late February article in The Tennessean in Nashville, Van Huss referred comment to Gresham, but the article had no comment about the bill from her.

The bill summary indicates the retention vote would be held in the August general election after the school head’s contract had expired, the Tennessean reported. If the bill isn’t voted up or down this year, it could carry over into the second year of the two-year session in 2020.

The Sullivan County Commission recently went on record supporting elected superintendents legislation unless the retention bill passes. No bills filed in the current legislative session would allow an elected superintendent or director, but Kingsport BOE President Carrie Upshaw said that 86 caption bills could provide a way to get one in at the 11th hour of the session. The Sullivan County school board recently voted on a resolution like one the Kingsport board approved, opposing the retention legislation in particular and elected directors in general.

The county vote was 5-2, with Mark Ireson and Paul Robinson voting against the resolution and, thus, for the retention legislation.

“We are the board of directors. The CEO is who we hire,” Lodal said in reference to the superintendent. “The CEO hires all other employees.”

Lodal said that only three states allow elected superintendents and that most systems in those states don’t opt for that, meaning less than 1 percent of superintendents are elected. Upshaw said those states are Alabama, Mississippi and Florida.

“That’s certainly not a model we’d like to follow,” Upshaw said. “If you don’t like our decisions, you can always vote us out.” She also said “campaigns the best” is not sufficient to choose a superintendent. “This is just a very, very bad idea.”

Lodal said some information upon which a superintendent or director makes decisions because of its nature cannot be made public or shared with a governing body. 

City BOE member Eric Hyche said school boards come up with a vision and goals they hire a superintendent or director to implement and reach. He said the legislation to him reflects “power struggles” between funding bodies and school boards more than dissatisfaction with superintendents or directors.

“I don’t think there’s much of an appetite for that in the state,” Kingsport BOE member Todd Golden said of the legislation. “It’s a step backwards.”