The Tennessee General Assembly knew that in 1992 when it converted elected public school superintendents to appointed directors of schools as part of a sweeping reform act.
But in the years since, lawmakers repeatedly have tried to roll back that common-sense approach in favor of a return to good-old-boy cronyism. Why? Armchair quarterbacks — backroom political brokers, parents and even teachers — with unsatisfied agendas often rally legislators to revert the state into politicized schooling.
As Senior Reporter Robert Houk reported in Sunday’s edition, the latest attempt is from state Sen. Dolores Gresham, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, who proposes giving voters the ability to retain or reject their local director with a “yes or no” ballot. Washington County’s own Rep. Micah Van Huss, R-Jonesborough, told the Press last week he was carrying the bill in the House at Gresham’s request and would be “following her lead on this bill.”
Your children deserve better than “following.” Partisanship, rabble-rousing and political whims are no way to operate schools. We have enough of those manipulations at the federal, state and local governing levels without sneaking them back into daily decision-making.
Voters already have a significant voice at the ballot box in how schools are operated. They elect the Boards of Education tasked with appointing, evaluating and ultimately choosing whether to retain school directors. As Johnson City Board of Education member Kathy Hall put it, each school board is elected by the community to represent them on school matters.
“The school superintendent is the only employee of the school board, and he or she should answer to it,” said Hall, who also serves as president of the Tennessee School Boards Association.
At least one local lawmaker agrees. Sen. Jon Lundberg, R-Bristol, who also serves on the Senate’s Education Committee, thinks it best to leave the director’s employment in the hands of school board members. 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.
On the other hand, Sen. Rusty Crowe, another Education Committee member, said he would like to see the retention vote used as an “evaluation tool” for school board members at contract time.
Voters already have that tool on election day.
In our experience, parents are not shy about holding school board members accountable when it comes to controversial or underperforming school leaders. Experience also tells us that these situations usually resolve themselves via self-selection. Directors often hit the road when major heat is applied.
There’s good reason only three states — Florida, Mississippi and Alabama — still have elected superintendents in 2019. Two of the three consistently fall below Tennessee in K-12 school performance standards.
Daily school operations should not be a popularity contest. Results should be the chief test of a school leader’s effectiveness, and a school board member unwilling to follow such standards has no place in office.
This wrongheaded bill is just a backdoor step of eventually putting the director’s position back on the ballot altogether. The Legislature should reject it.