The McNairy County school district began appointing the superintendent, or director of schools, in 2000. Currently, forty-eight states in the nation appoint chief executives. Although this has been the subject of frequent debate, most feel that appointments offer communities a better option to select a professional rather than a politician. Not everyone sees it that way. 

McNairy County’s last elected director of schools was Judy Turner in 1996. Only two states in the nation–Alabama and Florida–allow for elected school district superintendents. According to local records, the McNairy County Commission has almost annually requested a return to elected superintendents.

The Mayor executed a called meeting of the Resolution Committee to discuss writing a resolution in support of a bill that would be sent to the Tennessee legislature. The bill would allow each county in Tennessee to elect its superintendent, giving the taxpayers the opportunity to again vote for the director of schools. This resolution will be crafted by the county’s attorney and go before the full commission for a vote. Both the county and the school board are represented by the same counsel, but the former is charged with writing the resolution. 

According to the state, Tennessee school board members are elected by the community to make and to oversee critical decisions about the school district.  In McNairy County, we have seven elected school board members who represent each county district. Even though the State Department of Education is the primary responsible agent for overseeing education in Tennessee, local school boards are charged with overseeing the governance of education within each district or school community. School boards work with the individual needs of their district, following guidelines and laws set forth by the federal and state governments, the State Department of Education and the State Board of Education.

The relationship of the school board to voters and to their superintendent are as follows: VOTERS elect the local board of education; the BOARD OF EDUCATION selects the superintendent/director of schools, adapts policies, budgets and goals and communicates with the community; the SUPERINTENDENT hires staff and implements goals, objectives and policies of the school board.

The resolution committee heavily discussed both concerns over performance and philosophical issues covered in a story covering the meeting. Ultimately, however, no definitive reason was given. 

The primary concern is that elected superintendents are required to be a resident in the county, which limits the school board’s ability to search outside of the county if no local candidate is deemed suitable. Opponents worry that the superintendent, if elected, will devote more time to raising money for re-election and serving private interests rather than serving the interest of our children. The 1992 law was determined as the ideal way for rural school boards to select the best person for the job and to hold them accountable with swift action, rather than awaiting another election cycle to address a performance issue.

In recent years, McNairy County has even seen this in action, when our elected school board fired an appointed superintendent. 

Proponents of an elected superintendent argue that voters will feel they have lost their rights: the director of schools is often charged with the largest budget in the community and is frequently its largest employer. 

Many question if this decision might be one of control, as appointed superintendents and our elected board of education may have an agenda contrary to that of the county commission in the use of revenue for the school system’s budget. 

“McNairy County has, on several occasions, let it be known their desire to elect a superintendent. I shared that, for any of us to consider this, it would require a resolution to make if official. I am 

here to present the wishes of the county to the legislation. If the resolution is submitted to me by the commission, then I will take it to the legislative body. This would have to be introduced as a general 

bill and would have statewide impact,” stated Senator Page Walley, District 26, representing McNairy, Chester, Decatur, Fayette, Hardeman, Haywood and Henderson counties. Walley confirmed McNairy as the only county from his district to have requested such a bill. In any case, Senator Walley stands willing to introduce the bill and affirms his respect for the processes of local government. 

“I voted for the 1992 bill under the McWherter administration while serving as representative, but [I] was not serving McNairy County at that time. There is a lot of detail that would have to be considered with dialogue and debate on the change,” admitted Walley.“I have the highest esteem for the McNairy County school board and superintendent. I worked closely with him during this very unusual special session. I have called him and all my superintendents on many occasions and have worked with them well,” Walley confirmed. No matter what side of the debate one is on, such a bill would likely face opposition. But one thing is for sure: debate and dialogue have a place in democracy. We all want what is best for our children, but we do not need interference by one political body with the duties and affairs of another.

In the early 1990s, Tennessee joined all but three other states–one of these, Mississippi, has since moved to appointed superintendents–in requiring appointed superintendents. Increasing disappointment with the state’s education system led to the 1992 Education Improvement Act, which eliminated elected superintendents and remains in effect today. 

From our vantage point, there are a plethora other issues that should take priority over the conversation to move to an elected superintendent. The greatest of these priorities is to facilitate communication among our elected officials, a number of whom cannot share the same air in the room. Furthermore, one cannot expect high-quality education to be cultivated in McNairy County if the Education Committee has never met under the current administration where a healthy discussion should start. 

I trust that the majority of Tennessee legislators and forty-eight other states have good reasons for requiring that directors of schools be appointed; regardless, we encourage any dialogue that will make McNairy County better.

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