Mixed bag on electing school chiefs

Jeremy Styron-News-Herald

A contentious piece of legislation that could politicize the position of school superintendent is again making its way through Nashville.

Although similar bills have been considered by the state in the past, local lawmakers, educators and school board officials have said the current bill stands a better chance of passing than in previous years.

"Right now, it's nonpartisan," Lenoir City Schools Board of Education member Rick Chadwick said.
"And it needs to be nonpartisan because we're not running for Republicans or Democrats. We're running for the kids."

The bill, which is now being considered by the Tennessee Senate Education Committee, would provide the option for cities or counties to vote on whether to put the position of school superintendents on the ballot box. The legislation, SB452, was sponsored by Sen. Jim Summerville, R-Dickson.

Rep. Jimmy Matlock, R-Lenoir City, said based on surveys his office has conducted in Loudon and Monroe counties, 72 percent of participating residents were in favor of elected superintendents.

"I'm just looking at it from the people I'm hearing through emails and phone calls," Matlock said. "That doesn't necessarily reflect my opinion, but it is important I think to know where the public seems to come down on this. (They are) not just a little bit in the majority; they're almost 3-to-1 in majority of elected superintendents."

In 1992, the state deemed superintendents would be chosen by appointment. The current law under consideration would allow county commissions or city councils to institute an elected superintendent system by a two-thirds majority.

Alabama, Florida and Mississippi are the only states in the nation that still allow school executives to be chosen by a vote. According to the Southern Legislative Conference, 27 county superintendents are appointed in Alabama, while 40 are elected. In Florida, 44 county school heads are elected, and 23 are appointed.

While the public may be in favor of the legislation, the opinion of local school boards have been mixed. The Monroe County Board of Education voted this month in favor of elected directors of schools, while the Sweetwater Board of Education voiced its opposition to the new legislation.
Educators and school board members in Loudon County and Lenoir City seem overwhelmingly against putting the position of superintendent on the ballot box.

"I think since the early 90s when that passed we've had a decided improvement in the quality of superintendents across the state," Loudon County school board member Gary Ubben said during a recent meeting. "My feeling is it does need to be a professional position. We don't need a superintendent out there campaigning for office and spending all his time going door-to-door. He needs to be running the school system."

Lenoir City Superintendent Jeanne Barker said having elected superintendents is not tenable given the educational track record of Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.

"If you look at where they are in achievement, it would not be a model to follow," Barker said.
Lee Harrell, director of government relations with the Tennessee School Boards Association, said having appointed superintendents establishes clear roles between school board members and the director of schools. With an elected superintendent, those distinctions are blurred.

"If all the sudden the director of schools is elected and the school board's elected, they really don't have any motivation to work together because they're all accountable directly to the people," Harrell said. "You'll have directors of schools who are campaigning, who are having fundraisers rather than working with teachers, working on instruction, working with curriculum. You'll have teachers call the superintendents office and (say), 'Oh, he was having a barbecue this afternoon.'"

Harrell said in a perfect world, the best applicant for the job would be a local person, but that's not always the case.

"If you have an elected superintendent, you're basically saying we can never hire someone to run our schools who doesn't live in the county," Harrell said. "You can't go one county over or two counties over or anything. Your applicant pool is narrowed and limited to simply the residents of that county, which again may be great for systems, but it may be a huge hurdle for other systems."

Of the 15,000 school districts in the nation, only 146 have elected superintendents. Harrell said that statistic should send a message.

Matlock, who doesn't serve on the House Education Committee, said he was "non-committed" on the issue at this time.

"Let's say this, I'm keeping an open mind," Matlock said. "I just want the numbers to be presented. I understand the rationale for appointing superintendents. I follow that and understand that completely." 

Rep. Kent Calfee, R-Kingston, a former county commissioner in Roane County before being elected to the state House of Representatives, said he was also taking a wait-and-see approach, noting that the final bill may be different than the one currently being considered by the education committee.

"I think most of the people back when I was on county commission would really like to see an elected school superintendent by the people," he said. "Of course, that greatly limits your pool of candidates."

Harrell said he understood the argument in favor of voting on school superintendents, but, in this case, that would not be the best way to proceed.

"We always tell boards, 'Make sure you talk to folks and educate them on the process and let them know the pros and cons of that system' because again, on its face, most people would think, 'Do I want to elect - insert anyone here? Yes,' but there are some legitimate concerns with that process if we were to revert," he said.