General Assembly must address elected Superintendent

By Richie Beeler

Ask anyone who knows me. I am an advocate of elections. I believe the right to vote for government officials is the single most sacred one we hold as citizens of a constitutional republic. It has been fought for; it has been died for. In this country, the people get to choose who governs them. And lest we forget, the public school system is part of the people’s government.

Yes, the school system does have its own governing body, which is elected by popular vote. The Board of Education is the legislative body that makes most of the big decisions regarding schools. Unfortunately, the biggest decision they make is one that should never have been theirs.

Since 1996, counties in Tennessee have been prohibited from choosing their school superintendent by popular election. By act of the State Legislature, school directors for the past 17 years have been appointed by the local school boards. This method ensures only limited accountability to the people, further distancing them from one of their most important public officials.

It is an anomaly within the structure of local governments. City councils do not appoint the city mayor. County commissions do not appoint the county mayor. Other county wide officeholders are elected by the people. But the one in charge of spending the lion’s share of the people’s money is not.

It was said by proponents of the current appointment process that it would take politics out of the schools. What it has done is created an unapproachable, impenetrable kingdom that is very political indeed. The power structure that can potentially exist among five or more school board members and one unelected superintendent is immensely harmful to the open democratic process that should define all government, but especially that of the local level.

Local government is closest to the people, and is therefore the level of government in which the people should have the loudest voice. And no branch of local government more profoundly affects the community as a whole than the public school system.

As one of my mentors, Steve Hunley, once said, “Some offices simply rise to such a level of importance that they cry out to be elected.”

The former school board member’s words make tremendous sense. But as it stands today, five people can determine who your local director of schools is, as well as how much he is paid. That’s all it takes to gain a majority on the Board of Education. Add a superintendent to that majority and you have a political force that is virtually invincible.

Such a structure is not what the founders of our state and local governments intended. And it is definitely not the will of most Tennesseans today. Polls consistently show citizens are overwhelmingly in favor of returning to an elected school superintendent. Some 70% support such a change in Knox County, according to a recent Focus poll. The margin is likely greater in rural counties across the state.

Efforts have been made in the past by legislators to introduce bills for an elected superintendent, but none have made it to the floor. In the past, Democratic leadership – mostly from the Memphis area – has effectively killed it. But more recently, a measure failed in committee by one vote – a vote cast by a popular local area legislator. He was defeated in his next bid for election.

The people are demanding to see this ill-conceived law changed. They are tired of being deprived of the right to vote for one of their most important public officials. They are tired of seeing a school system run by liberals in a state with strong conservative values. They are tired of being dictated to by a legislature that they elected.

I think I speak for a lot of citizens like myself when I say that it’s time some politics got returned to the school system. By that I mean the right kind of politics. Political ideology is extremely important to me in public officials. That’s especially true for school officials. It is no secret to conservatives that the greatest bastion of liberalism in America is the public education system. Conservatives within the system itself will tell you that, albeit usually in private for fear of repercussions.

So what can the people do? They can do what they should always do: hold their elected representatives accountable. Get on the phone and call their state representatives and senators. Tell them how important it is that they get this done. The ball has been dropped too many times in the past.

Last week the Knox County Republican Party passed a resolution stating it would be the official position of the local GOP to advocate an elected superintendent. It just so happens the Republicans are in charge on Capitol Hill as well. And this is no time for them to take their majority lightly. This is the time for decisive action.

The people are demanding it.