State education officials say they will oppose any attempt by rural lawmakers to hijack the upcoming special legislative session to change the law to allow the popular election of school superintendents.
Gov. Phil Bredesen has called the special session beginning Jan. 12 to consider a reform agenda that includes mandating the use of student achievement scores in evaluating teachers and principals. His plan is to enact the reforms in one week just in time to bolster the state’s application for hundreds of millions of dollars in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competition.
But Rep. Frank Niceley (R-Strawberry Plains) could complicate that timetable. He says he also will ask lawmakers to allow the election of superintendents, who now are appointed by school boards across the state.
Niceley predicts the change would enjoy widespread support among rural lawmakers, and he might try to pass it as an amendment to the Bredesen administration’s package of legislation.
“If it’s such a good idea to elect the school board and let them appoint the superintendent, why don’t we elect state legislators and let them appoint the governor, or let the U.S. Congress elect the president? There’s nothing inherently wrong with having a system where the superintendent is elected,” Niceley said.
Under Niceley’s plan, county commissions could vote by two-thirds majority to put the issue to a public referendum. If voters approve, then that county’s superintendent would be elected rather than appointed by the school board.
He says the change is necessary because many superintendents now are lasting in their jobs only a year or two because of political pressures from school boards.
“If you go into a school district and do what needs to be done to help the test scores and the children, the teachers will put pressure on the school board to see that you are fired,” Niceley said. “Sometimes it’s just petty personal politics. If you make the majority of the school board mad, you’re out of there. You can’t run a company if you’re changing the CEO every year.”
State education officials long have opposed electing superintendents. The idea has come up frequently since 1992 when the legislature ended superintendent elections as part of reforms by then-Gov. Ned McWherter. Education officials say elections politicized school districts and made superintendents unaccountable to school boards.
“We will very much work against passage of elected superintendents,” Education Department spokeswoman Rachel Woods said. “If you have an elected superintendent, you have someone who has complete power and the board has no controls to make the superintendent do anything at all. The accountability structure gets completely messed up. Obviously, we would be against that.”