Bring Back Elected School Superintendents

Tennessee did away with elected school superintendents as part of the education reform effort years ago. There is a growing movement across the state to revisit that decision and let counties decide whether to bring them back. It may come up during the education special session in January.

Good-government types, who hate elections, will oppose the measure. It would allow any county commission to vote to hold a referendum and let voters in the county decide whether to elect superintendents or to retain the system of having the school boards hire a school administrator.

Here are some of the reasons people want elected superintendents back:

One: There is no major political figure in a county that speaks for education—no one elected countywide, with a political base, to fight for education funding or "sell" education to the populace. No county commissioner would take on the likes of Mildred Doyle, Earl Hoffmeister, or Allen Morgan (three former elected superintendents in Knox County) because they were popular political leaders who led on education issues. School board members, part-time and elected in districts, can be ignored by county commissioners at will.

Two: In many rural counties, an appointed superintendent who tries to bring reform, enforce discipline, or raise standards runs the risk of angering teachers and administrators. The teachers, and their families, lean on the local school board member. The superintendent quits in disgust or is fired. The only people paying attention are in the education establishment. The average voter can't even tell you the current school superintendent's name. One local county has had four superintendents in five years.

Three: If a county prefers hiring the superintendent rather than having an election, nothing prevents it from keeping that system. The law would be changed to allow locals to change back only if the people vote for it.

Four: An appointed superintendent only has to keep five out of nine school board members happy. One of the arguments for hiring superintendents was to get politics out of education. One criticism was that superintendents devoted resources to parts of the county to shore up his or her political base rather than making sound financial or education-based decisions. If a hired superintendent has the support of a majority faction and members of that school board faction demand resources for schools in their district—at the expense of other districts—how is it different?

The public prefers elected school superintendents. We know this because opponents of elected superintendents have fought hard over the years to prevent giving them a choice. Bills to allow elected superintendents have been bottled up in the House education committee. Efforts to offer floor amendments to education bills have been stymied by procedural moves.

New House Speaker Kent Williams has promised Republican legislators they will get a vote on the bill at some point and he will not kill the effort in committee. If it gets to the floor, I think it will pass handily, because the majority of the House, Republicans and Democrats, are members from or are sympathetic to rural areas. And it is in the rural counties where dissatisfaction is highest. Grainger County, Union County, Hancock County—these school boards can't go to Boston and hire an expert. And in these counties they need a countywide elected advocate for education. County commissions are loathe to fund new schools or find the money for education improvements.

The state Senate may block the elected superintendent bill, but it appears to have a lot of support in the House. It will be one of those bills that may give Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey heartburn. He punted on the election of judges, angering some conservatives. He'll have the same choice here—caught between the education establishment and a popular conservative idea.

The special session is supposed to only last a week. The speaker may prefer for this idea to wait for the regular session; it could gum up the works. Or it could pass as part of a compromise on education reforms. It's a toss-up at this point.