Counties may return to electing school directors

By Thomas Wilson

   The Tennessee General Assembly passed a law in 1992 changing the election of directors of schools by popular vote to appointment by a district's board of education.
   The legislation created the Basic Education Plan and vastly changed the face of education in Tennessee. Now, a movement by county legislative groups could put the superintendents of county school districts back on the voting ballot.
   A bill introduced during the Legislature's last session by state Sen. Charlotte Burks, D-Monterey, would grant county's the right to elect a director of schools rather than have one appointed by the county's board of education. One upstate lawmaker says the legislation could be one of the most controversial of the next legislative session.
   "It is a very, very controversial issue," said state Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City. "It is a very, very difficult vote. And it is going to see a lot of debate."
   Crowe said he had talked with many constituents about the issue, with a majority wanting a return to the election format.
   The Burks bill permitted a county commission to approve the election of a director of schools. The superintendent's office would be on the ballot in county general elections held in August. The elected superintendent would have a four-year term and take office Sept.1. County executive and county commission groups are campaigning for the legislation.
   Crowe said many professional educators saw the measure as taking away a piece of executive authority in the Basic Education Plan -- the centerpiece of the 1992 legislation. If that happened, interest groups could chip away at the entire BEP.
   The process of appointing rather than electing school directors was intended to make the superintendent a chief executive officer of a school system. The bill sought to eliminate small town politics that frequently decide who makes the decision that affects the education of a community's children.
   "They feel like they have lost a little freedom and lost a little electoral power," said Crowe. "The board members feel like the people elect them and they are electing a person to do the job."
   Only three states in the country -- Alabama, Florida and Mississippi -- continue to participate in the practice of electing school superintendents. Only 136 out of the more than 15,000 superintendents in the United States are elected, according to the Tennessee School Boards Association, which opposes the legislation.
   Burks' bill was ultimately referred to the joint Select Oversight Committee on Education. Crowe, who sits on that committee, said if the bill moves to the floor of both houses, it could become law.
   "If it gets to the floor of the Senate or House, it will pass," he said.
   Burks' bill is not the first attempt to return the superintendent's office to election by popular vote. Legislation has been repeatedly introduced to allow counties to revert to the process of electing school superintendents practically since the BEP law was passed.