VITAL POLICY – OPINION Elected School Directors Back in the Legislative Meat Grinder for 2022, Local Impact Examined, Questions Raised

Until 1992 the voting citizens of Tennessee had the power to elect school directors. The time to return that constitutional power to the citizens is long overdue.

Prior to the “Education Improvement Act of 1992”, potential school directors had to campaign, one-on-one with voters, and get acquainted with the citizens whose tax money they were going to spend and whose children they were charged to educate. School director candidates were forced to hear the concerns of citizens as they worked the campaign trail. Their election was a topic of discussion at church, in the office break room, and on construction sites and farms. Everybody in the community knew the candidates and expected accountability and consistency. Elected school directors were part of the local woodwork, organic to the county, and usually served multiple terms because they had to account for their leadership decisions to the voters every 4 years. If they made unpopular decisions or mismanaged their workforce or finances, they knew their days in office were numbered. It was not a perfect system; but it was a healthy exercise in public policy making.

Conversely, appointed directors do not fear the taxpaying public and are far less connected to the citizens. In Jefferson County, that means that the director of schools must keep only 4 out of 7 school board members happy to remain employed. The other 54,000 citizens have no direct power to hire or fire the director of schools. Citizens have a direct choice for Sheriff, County Mayor, and Road Superintendent; but they have no direct choice when it comes to the person that manages over 77 million dollars ($77,541,035) of taxpayer money. That is about 64% of the 120-million-dollar Jefferson County FY 21-22 budget. It is not just money; it is school system policy, administrative appointments, and daily decision making that impacts every child that attends Jefferson County Schools. School directors have far-reaching implications in the community.

School directors are consequential to much more than schools, their role has other implications within the community they serve, economic health, cultural factors, taxation levels, community cohesion, long-term debt, and workforce development to mention a few.

Local taxpayers just saw the cancellation of the Jefferson County Fair, an educational event that highlights agriculture and industry within the county, and a proposal to push taxpayers another 20 million dollars in debt. Would this be the case if Jefferson County had an elected school director? Would a proposal be floating to plunge Jefferson County another twenty million dollars in debt for a new school that would displace, if not eliminate, the county fairgrounds? Would local voters affirmatively exercise their choice to elect school directors if they were given the opportunity?

With the fairgrounds targeted by the school board and it’s director for the location of a new school, the following statement was issued by Sam Thompson.

We are sad to announce that the 2021 Fair has been canceled due to the School Board’s lack of a motion to approve a lease. The Fair requested a clause be added that would guarantee we would be allowed to have the fair and the School Board Members would not even make a motion to accept. The problem is they own the property and are actively pursuing funding from the Jefferson County Commission to build a new Jefferson Elementary School on the property which will cause an end to the Jefferson County Fair. We are still hopeful that building a new school on the fairgrounds will not happen and something can be worked out for the re-start and continuation of the Fair in 2022. We had high hopes for this year’s fair as everything was canceled due to COVID last year. We encourage you to please contact your Commissioners and School Board Members to let them know how you feel about spending $20 Million Dollars of your money at this unsettled time to build a new school. I have voiced my opinion, not only as President of Jefferson County Fair, but also as a tax paying citizen of Jefferson County. You should do the same! Stay safe and we will miss getting to see you at the Fair this year!”

Sam Thompson, President, Jefferson County Fair

Representative Paul Sherrell (R-Sparta) and Senator Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma) have pending legislation to give local governments and their citizens the choice of elected school directors. The proposal is grounded in House Bill 1228 and Senate Bill 1010. The link provides the actual text of the bill that sets candidate qualifications and provides local legislative bodies the authority to place the question of elected school directors on a referendum ballot, essentially a double safety to provide local voters with a choice. Under the proposed legislation, voters may also decide to keep appointed directors if they deem it appropriate. Background on the bill is provided here.

According to Representative Sherrell’s office, House Bill 1228 will be back in the K-12 Education Sub-Committee for consideration when the legislature reconvenes in January 2022.

It is long past due for Tennesseans to have the choice of elected school directors.

Source: David Seal is a retired Jefferson County educator, as well as a recognized artist and local businessman. He has also served Jefferson County as a County Commissioner and is a lobbyist for the people on issues such as eminent domain, property rights, education, and broadband accessibility on the state level.