Legislation setting the stage for election of school superintendents in some Tennessee counties faces key votes this week in both the state House and Senate with U.S. Rep. John J. Duncan Jr. among its supporters.
“When the state went to appointed school superintendents, it did not take the politics out of the process,” Duncan wrote in a March 14 letter to state Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains. “It simply put political control into a very small group of people.
“The overwhelming majority of citizens who have discussed this with me feel that they should be allowed to vote on this very important position,” Duncan wrote, saying he had been asked to do so by Claiborne County Mayor Jack Daniels.
The Claiborne County Commission has approved a resolution urging passage of the bill (SB916) Niceley is sponsoring. It is among several county commissions that have done so, although the Knox County Commission refused last month with some commissioners saying they wanted more public input and Commissioner Mike Hammond saying discussion of the issue is “a waste of time” until the bill becomes law.
A state law enacted in 1992 requires that all superintendents be appointed by school boards once those in office had served out their terms. Before that, the system for choosing superintendents varied from system to system, but many — including Knox and most other East Tennessee counties — held popular elections for superintendents.
The bill sponsored by Niceley and Rep. Kelly Keisling, R-Byrdstown, would apply only in counties or cities that had elected superintendents before 1992. In those places, the bill would authorize a local referendum on returning to elected superintendents — if the local county commission, or city council in cases of city school systems, approves the referendum by a two-thirds majority vote.
Niceley said House Education Committee Chairman Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, has drafted an amendment that would further limit the elected superintendents option to school systems that fail to meet their “annual measurable objectives,” which involves student test scores and other standards. He said that move would apparently exclude Knox County, but still permit a vote in some counties Niceley represents.
At the time the present law was passed, then-Gov. Ned McWherter and other supporters contended that the superintendent, as day-to-day manager of schools, should be an educated and qualified professional hired by the elected school board and subject to its oversight.
But Niceley, Keisling and other legislators argue that appointed superintendents over the ensuing years have not been any better — and in some cases worse — than elected superintendents. Niceley says they are often recruited from outside of the area and paid high salaries, then leave for a higher salary elsewhere after a short tenure — or are dismissed for poor performance, sometimes requiring the school system to pay off their contract while hiring another superintendent.
He said Jefferson County, where he lives, had five superintendents in a five-year period while Union County has had seven in an 11-year period and Claiborne three in five years. In contrast, he said Knox County had just three superintendents from 1946 until 1996, when the term of the last elected school superintendent expired.
There have been repeated attempts in the Legislature to return to elected superintendents since 1992, all failing and all opposed by the governor at the time.
Gov. Bill Haslam also supports appointment of school superintendents.
“The governor told me he prefers the business model, where the board of directors appoints the CEO,” Niceley said in an interview. “I told him, well, if we follow that model, the Legislature should appoint the governor. … He didn’t like that too much.”
Some have speculated the bill may be more likely to pass now that a Republican supermajority controls the General Assembly.
“It’s been really close the last few years. I sort of expect it to pass this year,” said House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, who opposes the measure.
House Speaker Beth Harwell said she has “been on both sides of that issue” over the years and is currently inclined to “let the committee system work” to decide the bill’s fate.
Keisling’s bill is scheduled for a vote Wednesday in the House Education Subcommittee, the same day Niceley has the bill up in the Senate Education Committee. Niceley had the bill before the committee last week, but agreed to a postponement at the request of the panel’s chairman, Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville.
“I think I’ve got the votes,” Niceley said.
Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, an opponent of the legislation, was absent at last week’s meeting; but Gresham indicated he is expected to be on hand for this week’s meeting. Niceley noted that Kelsey is from Shelby County, where superintendents were appointed even before the 1992 enactment and therefore would not be impacted by his bill.