One of two Senate sponsors of a Tennessee bill that would allow local funding bodies to let the public cast a retention vote on school board-appointed superintendents wants to amend the legislation to make the vote advisory instead of binding.
The legislation as written would allow a county commission, city council or board of mayor and aldermen, by a two-thirds vote, to place a superintendent or director of schools appointed by a school board in that locality on a retention question on an August general election ballot. If the retention vote failed, the superintendent or director could not get a contract extension, and the school board would have to appoint a new school system head.
WHY THIS BILL?
“The bill would be a retention vote, but I would amend the bill so that the percentage received through the vote of the people would only be used as a measure for the board to use when evaluating the director’s performance,” said state Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, and Senate sponsor of SB 0019, which is carried by prime sponsor and Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville. “The director would not run for office, have to raise money, state political party, etc., but would simply be placed on the ballot to see how the people feel about the director’s performance.
“The bill is a response to the requests from mainly rural citizens who want our director of schools to be elected as in the past,” said Crowe, chairman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee, but a member of the Education Committee, along with state Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol. “They feel they have lost a vote they used to have. The feeling among many is that this bill would balance a director's approach to his or her job knowing that he or she not only reports to the board as per hiring, firing and job evaluation, but also to the parents, PTA, teachers, etc., through being on the ballot as well.”
Rep. James “Micah” Van Huss, R-Jonesborough, is sponsor of the companion HB 0301. Van Huss’ office Wednesday referred comments to Gresham, who could not be reached for comment this week. The bill was assigned to her committee in January with no further action so far and could be rolled to next year, the second half of the 2019-20 legislative session.
WHAT IS OPPOSITION?
The Kingsport Board of Education Tuesday voted 5-0 to oppose the bill specifically and the general concept of an elected director or superintendent. Under Tennessee law, school boards appoint directors for up to a four-year contract. No elected superintendent bill was filled this year, but caption bills could be amended to get that matter before the General Assembly, too.
“It’s the responsibility of the school board to hire the superintendent,” city BOE member Susan Lodal said, adding that the board gets input from school system employees and the community before hiring or extending the contract. “It would seem an expensive route to take to have the Election Commission oversee a referendum or poll of the community.”
She also said the general public would not know all the facts behind some superintendent decisions.
The Sullivan County BOE recently voted 5-2, with Mark Ireson and Paul Robinson voting no, on the same basic resolution as the city board.
“That’s a lot different than what they have now,” county BOE Chairman Michael Hughes said. “I think most people in the county would like to elect directors of schools. I would have been one of those until I got here and saw the job.”
Vice Chairman Randall Jones said current law, under which elected boards appoint superintendents or directors, is working fine.
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Kingsport BOE President Carrie Upshaw Thursday said she doesn’t believe Crowe’s amendment idea will make the legislation more palatable to groups, including the local school boards and the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents and Tennessee School Boards Association, that oppose it. Only three states still allow elected superintendents, and she said less than 1 percent of superintendents are elected in the United State.
“There are so many people that just don’t have a clue about education that it’s not even funny,” Upshaw said.
“We get opinions from the BMA (Board of Mayor and Aldermen), the mayor and (City Manager) Jeff Fleming,” Uphaw said. “The same thing with the citizens.” Aside from calls and emails, she said every two years, because of staggered school board terms, voters can show their approval or displeasure with the board’s direction and hiring of superintendents.
“If they (voters) are unhappy with decisions, they can make major changes every two years,” Upshaw said. “I think it’s political over reach.”