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Opinion - Elected superintendents are bad for schools

• Updated Mar 25, 2019 at 4:05 PM

There is no doubt that taxpayers and their school-age children are best served by Tennessee’s requirement that superintendents of schools be appointed rather than elected. Why? Because elected superintendents gain office on the basis of popularity, while school boards appoint superintendents on the basis of merit.

The difference can be day and night. Elected superintendents must be a resident in the county where educational achievement or previous experience may be unavailable. They have to spend much of their time raising money and running for re-election. They may be pressured to make decisions based more on winning votes than in the best interest of students. And in rural counties where the field of candidates may be very limited, they may even be incompetent.

School boards seek the most qualified candidate the system can afford based on proven experience in managing significant budgets and hundreds of employees as well as demonstrated successful performance. Often, they have doctorates in education because the search can be nationwide.

The reason Tennessee joined all but three other states in requiring appointed superintendents is because of increasing disappointment with the state’s education system, which led to the 1992 Education Improvement Act. That act eliminated elected superintendents. It was a move out of the dark age of good-old-boy local politics.

And yet, we have a Sullivan County Commission that wants to return to elected superintendents. The commission recently went on record supporting elected superintendents legislation unless a bill giving taxpayers a retention vote on an appointed superintendent passes.

Why on earth would they do that? The answer is multi-faceted and 100 percent misguided: They cannot control appointed superintendents, while they might have some leverage over elected superintendents sharing the same constituency. Because appointed superintendents and boards of education may have an agenda contrary to that of the commission, particularly regarding the use of revenue for the school system. And because they want more control over the school system’s budget as demonstrated in the battles over funding the county’s systemwide renovation and building plan.

But what about the lawmakers who have introduced this bill to require retention votes? What’s their interest? 

“This bill is a response to the requests from mainly rural citizens who want our directors of schools to be elected as in the past,” said Sen. Rusty Crowe, Senate sponsor. “They feel they have lost a vote they used to have.”

Indeed they have, and for good reason. Rural counties are least able to elect highly qualified superintendents. Sen. Crowe knows this, yet introduced legislation that would set the state back 50 years.

His bill is facing huge opposition, which is why he proposes to amend it so that while it would allow a county commission, city council or board of mayor and aldermen, by a two-thirds vote, to place a superintendent or director of schools appointed by a school board in that locality on a retention question in an August general election ballot, the vote would not be binding on the school board to dismiss the superintendent.

Of what use is that? Do taxpayers know better than the school board how well the superintendent is performing all of his or her duties? Clearly not. And such a vote would be an egregious interference by one political body over the duties and affairs of another. If commissioners want to control the superintendent, they should run for the board of education.

Thanks for the offer to amend your bill, Sen. Crowe, but the amendment is pointless. Best for all that you just kill the bill entirely.

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