by Mel Griffith
Recently there has been a bit of controversy in Bradley County about something we actually have no control over. That's the question of whether the Director of Schools should be appointed by the school board or elected by the people. Historically school superintendents (now called directors) in Tennessee have been chosen in a variety of ways, but in the early '90s the legislature passed a law which required that all school directors be appointed by school boards. This law was phased in over time so that by about 2000 all were appointed by school boards.
Earlier in Bradley County I believe that school superintendents were chosen by the county court (now county commission), but about a generation ago, the law was changed to let the voters elect the superintendents. This system lasted until the present director was chosen by the board in 2000 at the end of the last elected superintendent's term.
Now there is a campaign across the state to have the law changed so that each county could decide to elect or appoint the director of schools. As usual, the county commission and school board have taken opposite positions. There are good arguments on both sides of the issue.
Those who favor an appointed director point out that the director cooperates with the school board much better when they have his job in their hands, that he doesn't have to spend time campaigning, and that he can make unpopular decisions without fearing the voters. If the local system runs out of talent an 'expert from afar' can be brought in to shake things up.
Those who favor electing the director feel that since the school system spends over half the county budget and the director is the one in charge of the day-to-day operations, the citizens should have a direct say in who gets the job. An elected director is apt to be more responsive to public opinion, has to be familiar with the county and its citizens in order to get elected, and since he or she has to get the most votes to be elected, at least starts off with the support and respect of many citizens, while an appointed director may be unknown to most residents.
Of course, all the arguments for an appointed director, such as better cooperation with the board, and less politicking, could be made for having many other elected positions become appointed. For example, identical arguments could be made for having the county commission appoint the county mayor. If that sounds strange, remember that many Georgia counties do it exactly that way. The elected county commission hires a county manager to run county government, who then does pretty much what our county mayor does. You could also prevent a lot of disputes by having a county mayor and no commission at all. About a dozen Georgia counties do it that way. They call it "sole commissioner" instead of mayor. It sure saves a lot of controversy when one person makes all the decisions and some people like it that way, because this system has to be voted in by the citizens, but most of us like a little broader representation.
We could have the legislature appoint the governor and cut out a lot of political infighting in Nashville. That's not so far fetched. The state senate already elects the Lieutenant Governor, an office elected directly by the voters in most states, and across the border in Canada, provincial parliaments elect a prime minister who is more or less the same thing as our governors.
Then we could have congress select the president and cut out gridlock in Washington and those long, expensive presidential campaigns. That's not strange either, because of all the countries in western Europe, only France has a direct election for a powerful president. All other heads of government are elected by parliaments.
While reasonable people may differ about exactly who should be elected and who appointed, there is no question that one of the major strengths of our democracy is a balance of power between different branches of government. This sometimes causes bickering and gridlock and may slow down good things, but it prevents a lot of bad things from happening. Generally, the more people paying attention to what the public wants, the more likely the public's wishes will get carried out. Some people think that the school system should be an exception to the general rule, and others don't. That's really what the controversy over choosing a director of schools comes down to.