Legislative notebook: Elected superintendents bill killed; Rep. Kane takes heat for comments

By Tom Humphrey knoxnews.com

NASHVILLE — A House subcommittee has killed legislation that could have allowed some counties, including Knox, to elect school superintendents rather than have them appointed by school boards.

Only three members of the House Education Subcommittee supported Rep. Kelly Keisling’s bill (HB417) while six voted against it. After failure in the House panel, Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, did not put the Senate companion bill to a scheduled vote in a Senate committee.

Similar legislation has failed repeatedly in past years. This year’s version would have applied only in counties that elected school superintendents before 1992, when a law was enacted mandating that all superintendents be appointed.

In those counties, the bill authorized county commissions to set up a local referendum on returning to an elected superintendent system.

Keisling, R-Byrdstown, said turnover of appointed superintendents has been higher in many counties than under the elected superintendent systems. His home county of Pickett is currently paying for two superintendents, one who was fired as well as his replacement.

He also said the bill sets higher requirements for elected superintendents than those now in place for appointed superintendents — mandating a master’s degree rather than a bachelor’s degree and requiring at least five years’ teaching experiences.

A spokesman for the Tennessee Education Association testified in support of the measure, while spokesmen for the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, the Tennessee School Boards Association and the state Department of Education spoke against it.

Stephen Smith, speaking for the Department of Education, said superintendents should be appointed on the basis of ability, “not limited to someone who happens to live in the district and is willing to run.” He also said there is greater accountability to voters with an elected school board and an appointed superintendent. With both board members and superintendents elected, Smith said, accountability is “diffused.”

Those voting for the bill were Reps. Harry Brooks and Roger Kane, both Knoxville Republicans, and Rep. Harold Love Jr., D-Nashville. Voting no were Reps. John DeBerry, D-Memphis; John Fogerty, R-Athens; Debra Moody, R-Covington; Joe Pitts, D-Clarksville; Dawn White, R-Murfreesboro; and Mark White, R-Memphis.

Senate nominations: A proposal to have state legislators choose party nominees for Tennessee’s U.S. Senate seats, approved earlier by a state Senate committee, is advancing in the House as well.

The House State Government Subcommittee Wednesday approved the plan on voice vote, apparently with unanimous Republican support. Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, is sponsoring the measure (HB415) in the House, though Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, appeared before the House panel to explain the proposal, which he is sponsoring in the Senate.

“Right now, I don’t know how well our voices are being heard in Washington,” said Rep. Sheila Butt, R-Columbia. “This is something that could make a difference.”

Critical questions came from Rep. Johnny Shaw, D-Bolivar, and Kent Williams, an Elizabethton Independent. Both likened the proposal to the days, before passage of the 17th amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1913, when legislators directly selected a state’s U.S. Senators.

“The idea of doing business like we did in 1913 scares me,” said Shaw.

The bill is ready for a floor vote in the Senate, but still has another committee hurdle in the House.

Kane takes heat: A bill to strengthen the state’s anti-bullying law was sidelined for the year in a House subcommittee after a remarks by Rep. Roger Kane that are being criticized as insensitive.

Kane, R-Knoxville, read from a section of the bill (HB927), which would broaden the definition of bullying to include “any conduct that substantially interferes with a student’s educational benefits, opportunities, or performance, and that is based on the actual or perceived race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, ethnicity, academic achievement, sexual orientation, disability, gender, gender identity, gender expression, or physical appearance of either the student or a person with whom the student has an actual or perceived association.”

He told the sponsor, Rep. Karen Camper, D-Memphis, that he could see the broad language covering a seventh-grader “wearing a Texas Aggie T-shirt” being the butt of jokes from other students. Kane recalled himself “being the tallest fourth-grader and being picked on because my ears stuck out.”

“That which doesn’t kill us makes us stronger,” Kane said.

The latter remark was cited by Tennessee Equality Project, which advocates for gay, lesbian and transgender rights, in a news release declaring that Kane should be removed from the House Education Committee.

“He’s essentially saying that bullying is good for you because it toughens you up. Rep. Kane sends a terrible message to those Tennesseans who have forever lost a friend, a student, a son, or a daughter (through suicide after a bullying situation),” said Jonathan Cole with the Tennessee Equality Project.

Kane said afterward that he was simply pointing out that the bill is overbroad. Kane said his mother was Jewish and his father Catholic, which caused him to be criticized as “a Jesus killer” as a child.

“It made me a better person — able to got to a better place because of it,” he said.

Several other members of the panel criticized the measure in lengthy debate. It was ultimately sent to the state Department of Education for review with Camper’s agreement. That means it will not be further considered this year.

Kane said he would work with Camper on the bill “to refine it and make it better” for consideration next year.