Empty Seat: Knox County Commissioner Dave Wright is Usually Wrong

I've criticized or poked fun at lots of elected officials in this column over the years, but I've never before singled one out for ridicule.

However, County Commissioner Dave Wright's inane performance at February's Commission meeting has finally provoked me to do so. For a long time, I've chafed at Wright's tedious, often pointless ramblings, but as long as they were inconsequential I've tended to just tune them out.

At the February meeting, though, Wright sponsored two resolutions that were of great concern to me. One would have urged the state Legislature to enact a bill allowing for the election of school superintendents in counties that opted to do so. The other endorsed another state Legislature measure that would allow counties to conduct their school board elections on a partisan (i.e. party line) basis.

Provisions mandating appointment of all school superintendents and making school board elections non-partisan were two of the cornerstones of the Education Improvement Act of 1992 that then Gov. Ned McWherter shepherded to fruition. Both have contributed, in my view, to the strengthening of public education in this state, especially in more recent years, and to depart from them would represent a giant leap backward.

But it wasn't so much Wright's sponsorship of these regressive resolutions that bugged me as it was the ill-informed, nonsensical way he went about presenting them.

When his resolution asking Commission support for legislation allowing counties to elect their school superintendents first came up, Wright stumbled and bumbled in his inability or unwillingness to explain to his fellow commissioners what the bill in question would provide.

His resolution, as set forth in the Commission's agenda, called for "expressing support of SB916/HB744 providing for elected School Superintendents in the State of Tennessee." But Wright told his colleagues, "This is one of the bills that's bubbling up.... It's should the discussion take place. That's all it's about."

When Commissioner Richard Briggs asked him, "What's proposed?" Wright responded, "Now we're beginning to speculate. In my opinion, it would then be up to Knox County to take a direction on it. As it is right now, there is no election of the superintendent. This is strictly an issue of whether or not we would like to see them discuss the issue in the Legislature." Huh?

Commissioner Ed Shouse finally interjected an explanation that the bill, sponsored by state Sen. Frank Niceley, would allow County Commission, by a two-thirds vote, to opt for an elected superintendent, subject to voter approval in a referendum.

If Wright were a little sharper, I'd accuse him of being disingenuous. But I'll refrain from that. It did come out in the course of further discussion, though, that he purports to speak for his East Knox County constituents in favoring an elected superintendent.

A check with two East Knox activists disputes this claim. Lisa Starbuck advises that, "I'm not in favor of an elected superintendent, and I don't think there's a consensus for one in the 8th District." To which Erin Lonas adds, "I think it would be a terrible idea. I can't imagine why we would limit our pool of candidates to someone who has time to run a political campaign."

But wait. Wright has other indications of support: "I think the most informed phone call I received was from a former roads commissioner in Union County who said that if it was important enough for the state to allow that the road commissioner be elected, then surely the superintendent of schools was an important enough position that the citizens of Union County be allowed to make that choice."

Yes, Union County (which might be a better fit for Wright) does indeed have an elected road commissioner—and Knox County did as well until 1980 when it got rid of a fragmented form of government in which the positions of welfare commissioner and finance director were also elected posts.

Fortunately, County Commission rejected Wright's resolution by a vote of 10 to 1. But that didn't deter him from pursuing a companion measure urging the Legislature to allow counties to have partisan school board elections, starting with party primaries (thus putting them on the same footing with county commission elections).

Wright's attempt at an explanation for the change was even more disjointed and dissembling. "The only reason I think it's important," he started, then followed with, "I've got to back up now to last year's Charter Review Committee where we had discussions that the primaries were so early in the year and the elections were so late in the year, let's just go ahead and get the school board installed earlier in the year... there's not many races in which there are races." But it turns out that wasn't his point after all because after a lengthy pause he added, "I look at that as being an indictment of us not having people on the ballot"—implying that provision for party primaries would yield more candidates.

Per usual, Wright was mostly wrong. For starters, the only school board election issue raised in the Charter Review Committee was a proposal by former board member Diane Jablonski that would have done away with primaries altogether. Instead, Jablonski sought without success to get to the practice in every other county in the state whereby school board members are chosen in a single, non-partisan election in August in which the candidate with the most votes wins. As for a dearth of candidates, the last time Wright ran for his 8th District Commission seat in 2010, there were four candidates seeking that district's school board seat. The neighboring 7th and 9th Districts each had four candidates as well.

Wright's white beard makes him look almost Lincolnesque. But behind that imposing facade, there's a lot to be desired.