Despite a plea for passage from Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett, the state Senate Education Committee has rejected the latest attempt to authorize popular election of school superintendents in some Tennessee counties.
“This bill does not mandate anything. Instead it eliminates a mandate,” Burchett testified before the panel last week in support of SB1606. “How can we tell Washington to leave us alone when our own state issues mandates to local government?”
The bill sponsored by Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, would allow school systems to hold elections for school superintendents if the local county commission or city council approves the idea by a two-thirds majority vote. It would apply only in counties — including Knox — that had popular election of superintendents before a 1992 change in state law that requires the school director to be appointed by the local school board.
Burchett said refusing to let residents vote on a school superintendent is “insulting to the citizens who elected each of us,” then added: “In my opinion, it’s arrogant.”
He referred with approval to Niceley’s description of those opposing popular elections as “urban elitists.”
While requiring appointed superintendents was touted as taking politics out of the process, Burchett said, “What you’ve really done, you’ve consolidated power among some of the wealthy unelected power brokers in our communities.”
The mayor cited Knox County’s dealings with Jim McIntyre, who has announced he is resigning as county school superintendent in July. Burchett said he is “not knocking” McIntyre and that “to his credit” the outgoing superintendent moved to resign before new school board members took office.
Burchett said that if McIntyre had waited and been fired by the board, as seemed likely, a “golden parachute” contract would have cost taxpayers far more than it is costing now — about $800,000 by Burchett’s estimate.
“He makes more than the vice president of the United States of America,” said Burchett, noting McIntyre’s benefits include a “$700-a-month automobile allowance” and “$1,000 to spend as he sees fit.”
In the debate following Burchett’s remarks, two Republican senators — Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga and Joey Hensley of Hohenwald — vigorously supported Niceley’s bill.
Hensley said board members who choose school superintendents are chosen in low-turnout elections and often have “no idea what they’re doing” insofar as education issues go, given there are no educational requirements to qualify for a board seat beyond holding a high school diploma or GED certificate.
Gardenhire said the school systems in his district — which include the city of Cleveland and part of Bradley County as well as part of Hamilton County — are in “total disarray” because of appointed school superintendents.
Cleveland City Schools Director Martin Ringstaff resigned last month after acknowledging — following an initial denial — that he sent sexually explicit messages to women, according to media reports. Legal maneuvering is underway on the cost to taxpayers of covering remaining years on his contract. Hamilton County’s school board is engaged in buying out the contract of its school superintendent.
Ben Torres, lobbyist for the Tennessee School Boards Association, and Chuck Cagle, general counsel and lobbyist for the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, testified in opposition to the bill.
Torres said it would be inappropriate for a school superintendent “to be running a political campaign rather than running a school district” and that an elected school superintendent would create accountability issues.
Cagle offered similar views and, in response to questioning from Gardenhire, said if the superintendent of Cleveland schools had been elected, there would be no way to remove him from office without an expensive and potentially long-running ouster lawsuit. Cagle is also attorney for the Cleveland school system.
Niceley, who has pushed similar legislation for many years, said at one point that he initially thought there was enough support for committee passage this year. But he named two senators who had changed their minds and were now ready to vote no — Republican Rusty Crowe of Johnson City and Democrat Reginald “Reggie” Tate of Memphis.
As it turned out, only Gardenhire and Hensley voted for the bill while all other panel members voted no — Crowe adding the comment, “with apologies to Sen. Niceley” in doing so. Last year, a similar Niceley bill failed in the same committee on a 4-4 tie vote.
After the vote was taken, Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, chair of the committee, asked Niceley whether he would return next year.
“Ma’am, as long as I’ve got breath in me, I’ll be here with this bill,” he replied.
In the course of debate, Niceley at one point declared Nashville, with its appointed superintendent, has “one of the worst school systems in the free world.” That brought a protest from Sen. Steve Dickerson, R-Nashville, and Niceley replied the comment might have been “overly dramatic.”
“Apology accepted,” Dickerson said.
“Well, that’s as close as you’re going to get,” Niceley said.
“Sen. Dickerson, you must remember that Sen. Nicely tends to hyperbole and it’s best that you leave it alone,” Gresham said after the exchange.
She added a request that Niceley be “more prudent” in his commentary.
“I’ll try,” Niceley said.