Local officials are divided on allowing partisan school board elections | News | #Education

School board members in Washington County and Johnson City say they are troubled by a bill passed by the Tennessee legislators to allow local political parties to decide if they want to make school board elections partisan.

Tom Hager, a veteran member of the Johnson City Board of Education, said he hopes making local school board races partisan doesn’t result in the same degree of division that is now prominent in national politics.

“It’s all right to have different opinions, but in the end we’re here to represent what’s best for our school system,” he said.

Likewise, Washington County Board of Education member David Hammond said partisanship has no place in school board decisions.

“In my 11 years on this board, the focus of each member has been on the children,” Hammond told his colleagues last week. “It has never been on political parties. I would hate to see that change.”

Giving Political Parties A Voice

The measure, which was backed by the Republican leadership during the state General Assembly’s special session on COVID-19 restrictions, is expected to be signed into law by Gov. Bill Lee.

The legislation allows local Democratic and Republican party officials to call for a primary or to hold a caucus to elect candidates who will appear on the general election ballot as their party’s nominees.

Dana Jones, Washington County’s administrator of elections, said six of the nine seats on the county’s Board of Education and four of the seven seats of the Johnson City Board of Education will be on the ballot next year.

Under the City Charter, elections for Board of Education and City Commission are currently nonpartisan in Johnson City. Seats on the Washington County Board of Education are also now nonpartisan, and board members want to keep it that way.

They approved a resolution on Thursday denouncing the idea of partisan school board races. The board voted to send a resolution to Republican and Democratic Party leaders in Washington County saying that “allowing school board elections to become partisan has the potential to create division among the board and shift the focus away from the needs of students.”

Keeping Politics Out Of Schools

Johnson City Manager Pete Peterson said he’s a strong proponent of nonpartisan elections at the local level.

“You keep national issues out of local elections,” he said. “You don’t have candidates that are running that are owing to a political party.”

Rather than attracting candidates only interested in advancing a political ideology, Peterson said, local races tend to engage people who are passionate about service and open-minded about the best course of action for residents.

He said he wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a bill introduced during the General Assembly’s upcoming session that requires partisan elections for all local races, including the City Commission.

Peterson added that school boards make decisions that are too specific to fall neatly on the political spectrum. Their responsibilities, he noted, can range from recognizing the academic achievements of students to approving attendance policies and budgets.

“None of that rises to the scope and breadth of needing … partisan politics,” he said.

Peterson said the bill seems to be a reaction to the pandemic.

“You have political parties that were more in disagreement with some of the local decisions, and as a result of that, you’ve got some partisan politics trying to be inserted into it,” he said.

Mask mandates in particular have been one of the biggest points of contention for school boards. The Johnson City Board of Education approved a requirement in August despite fierce opposition from anti-mask parents.

Hager agrees that school boards are not the place for partisan politics.

“We represent all the students and we represent all the teachers and we represent all the taxpayers,” Hager said.

Taking A Broader Look At Candidates

State Rep. Tim Hicks, R-Gray, voted in favor of the bill allowing local parties to decide if school board elections should become partisan contests. Hicks, a member of the state House Education Instruction Committee, said he feels “education is an important topic” with all levels of government in Tennessee making key decisions that impact students.

“So, shouldn’t we be able to know where those individuals stand regarding our educational boards?” he said.

Washington County Commissioner Suzy Williams, who is president of the East Tennessee Republican Club and serves as first vice chair of the Washington County Republican Party, said last week she is in favor of making local school board races partisan.

“I think it’s a good idea,” Williams said. “Members of the two parties see things in different ways.”

Suzanne Emberton, who is the chair of the Washington County Democratic Party, believes interjecting partisan politics into school board elections will only divide those boards and discourage people from running for the office.

“Traditionally, school boards have been focused on what was good for the school district as a whole and not petty partisan topics, so candidates did not feel that their feelings on hot button non school board-related topics would be detrimental to their candidacy,” she said. “Voters were able to look at candidates based on policies, rather than pure politics.”

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