Sullivan school board to vote whether to oppose superintendent retention bill

Rick Wagner • Mar 1, 2019 at 8:00 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — Should appointed school superintendents in Tennessee face the possibility of ouster by the ballot box?

Sullivan County’s school board plans to vote Tuesday on a resolution by Chairman Michael Hughes opposing legislation that would empower county commissions or city councils, by a two-thirds vote, to force a retention vote on appointed superintendents or directors of schools.

The vote next week would come on the heels of a Feb. 21 Sullivan County Commission vote to support the General Assembly changing the law to allow the outright election of superintendents if the legislation Hughes opposes does not pass. The commission resolution, as amended, passed 18-5 with 1 absent.

“We’re proposing a resolution to oppose that,” Hughes said during a Thursday evening work session about the legislation before lawmakers this session. The legislation has two Tri-Cities sponsors. “It was hard for a director (who was popularly elected) to make hard decisions” and be re-elected.

HB 0301, sponsored by Rep. James “Micah” Van Huss, R-Jonesborough, and SB 0019, sponsored by Sens. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, and Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, would give county commissioners the power to have a retention vote at the next regular August election for a school board-appointed superintendent, much as Tennessee has retention votes for judges. If retention failed, a city or county school board could not renew a contract with a director or superintendent.

“I even campaigned saying they (directors) should be elected,” Hughes said. However, once he got on the school board, he said he saw the flaws in electing directors of schools. The only one of seven school board members to challenge the Hughes resolution on Thursday was Mark Ireson.

“A director of schools has to only make four people happy,” Ireson said, although member Matthew Spivey said voters can use the ballot box to keep or oust school board members who appoint the director. 

Spivey also said perennial legislation has sought to turn back the clock on elected superintendents since the law requiring that appointed ones be phased in was approved in 1992 — and especially since Republicans gained control of the General Assembly in 2000.

Hughes said he believes tough decisions directors statewide have made have led to political pushback, but he said it would be difficult to attract good director candidates if a county commission could simply set in process a public vote to oust whoever is appointed.

“You can’t change the financial reality of a (school) system through an election,” Hughes said, adding that the school board still would be responsible for replacing an ousted director with another appointed one. 

Sullivan County’s last elected and first appointed head of the school system was John O’Dell, who was last elected in 1994, first appointed in 1998 and retired in 2004.

Candidates for elected school system heads ran as Republicans or Democrats, although by law school board members have and continue to run non-partisan. City systems, including Kingsport City Schools, long have had appointed superintendents.

Spivey said the issue breaks up accountability since voters would elect school board members and the director of schools. 

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