Ellen Smith for Oak Ridge Rotating Header Image

Tennessee: Please don’t take these two backward steps

I expected the state budget to be the main topic Monday morning at the League of Women Voters’ monthly Breakfast with the Legislators, and I was right (as Bob Fowler reported in the News Sentinel). I didn’t predict the discussion that occurred over reauthorization of the Tennessee Plan (the procedure that Tennessee uses to select judges for the state’s highest courts) and proposals to return to the days when most school superintendents were elected, not appointed. When asked about these topics, neither State Senators Randy McNally or Ken Yager gave clear and forthright statements of support for the status quo. Both hemmed and hawed a lot, and Yager’s comments suggested that may be leaning toward returning to direct election of appellate court judges (but only in non-partisan elections — he said he opposed having appellate judges elected in partisan elections) and that he might want to let counties go back to electing school superintendents.

I found myself with the sinking feeling that the Republican majority in the State Senate is committed to restoring direct elections for these positions, and that our two local Senators were reluctant to say anything contrary to their party’s position.

Direct election of senior judges and school superintendents is a bad idea. We need to maintain an independent judiciary that makes decisions based on the law, not on popular opinion or the wishes of big campaign contributors. Also, we need for our public schools to be run by professional educators who are motivated by the needs of children, not the need to be re-elected.  I hope the General Assembly members recognize that changing back to direct election of these offices would be a major step backward — no, make that two steps backward — for Tennessee.



  1. Ray Kircher says:

    The appellate courts will not be an easy election for voters. The daily grind of our local cases are time consuming to keep up with. I do not support this direction.

    The election of a school superintendent is the only way to keep education a top priority. Have you noticed the current trend to not discuss what happens with students and how they are learning? Current news articles reflect the downturn our schools have taken: local minor tries to reclaim a rifle left outside Wal-Mart, physically damaging fight in a high school alcove, graduation rate too low so a recount is needed…etc. This is compounded by an out of control school board member. What is part of my experience with Dr. Bailey, he has not tried to look at my issue with a school board member having a blog site with 18 instances advocating beer and continues to turn business away from my company. Lately, I have learned of very unethical actions by her spreading her opinion of students and community members within the community and a very scurrilous group conspiring to defraud a campaign or anyone who stands up against her. Has our school board members, including Dr. Bailey, signed the Tennessee School Boards Association ethics policy? An effort to stop such behavior:

    Board ethics: in states and communities, the ongoing struggle to codify appropriate behavior of school board members.

    “The videotape contains a series of 12 three- to five-minute vignettes about school board ethical dilemmas They all deal with a school board member named Andy who runs afoul of his board in one way or another. In one Vignette, called Sour Grapes, Andy runs into friend at the grocery store and grumpily bad-mouths his fellow board members for voting to build a middle school in what he believes is a bad location. The moral of the vignette is that once a vote is taken, members should accept it rather than succumbing to bitterness and sowing discord throughout the community.”

    That wasn’t exact, but it covers her actions. This association is for them to improve, Can a parent bring the evidence of bad behavior by a school board member in front of this association? Dr. Bailey knows I do not put him into his job with my vote, it is a board’s appointment that unduly protects his position and keeps parents from disclosing poor behavior by any school board member. The appointed superintendent is of no use to a citizen, and the school boards guidance by the state association leaves each school board member in an underlying disinterest in other school board members. So an elected schools superintendent will leave the door open in the office for caring citizens and parents who find it their responsibility to report bad behavior by officials, teachers, students, even hired contreactors.

    Do you know of Dr. Bailey’s history running or performing in any school district?

  2. Ellen Smith says:

    I guess we’ll have to disagree regarding the election of school superintendents, Ray.

    I don’t want to get into arguing about personalities. It’s unfortunate that you have had problems with a school board member. Interpersonal difficulties can occur with either elected officials and professional staff. All in all, I’d rather have our kids’ schools directed by a professional educator who is hired by an elected school board than have them directed by a single person who was elected by the public. (If you think you have problems with a school board member, imagine what it could be like for kids in your household if that same person were the elected superintendent.)

  3. Ray Kircher says:

    I’m glad to read you don’t want an argument while evidence is in hand. I thought you might help with direction on who to contact. Anyway, what does an appointed superintendent provide that an elected superintendent doesn‘t have? Appointment of leadership is very stagnating.

    Since this direction has been established, more students are not receiving the quality education that once existed in Oak Ridge. I am very happy legislators are reviewing this leadership of all schools in Tennessee. This will change how parents and citizens can help schools.

  4. Ray Kircher says:

    It is interesting to have this conversation, Ellen. Looking at the Electoral College and Congress, does your appointment leadership cover U.S. Presidents? Do we need to bring back the idea that Congress should choose our U.S. President?

    The voice of the people of The City of Oak Ridge is needed in leadership roles, and the schools superintendent is not a position to be left in the hands of elected officials.

  5. Mike says:

    Ellen: For those that believe in true democracy, judges for the high court should be “elected.” It is true that this issue was once decided by a “special court” but I have a feeling (and hope) that it is so again.

    There is not really much difference in a governor versus a commission appointed by government selecting judges. Using a Yes/No vote to remove a judge is not the same as electing judges from a set of candidates. I hope the Senate at least studies the measure fully.

    Personally I am not in favor of electing school supers.

  6. Ray Kircher says:

    I would like to say, Mike, about your yes or no vote for appellate judges, how many citizens keep track of the case loads in a region? Or is there even fewer citizens that keep track of a school district’s performance?
    Is your thought of democracy limited to adults actions only? Have you investigated the history of educational instruction, direction, and implementation of Dr. Thomas Bailey? A better student measure comes from the voting public and not a 5 person board.

    Putting appellate candidates up for a yes or no vote is less time consuming with the current Tennessee Plan and is currently simplified to keep voter interest, yet putting a school superintendent back into the public for a vote would drive up voter attendance. It is the citizen’s money he controls, and it is democratic to vote for the leadership direction of a school.

  7. Ellen Smith says:

    When it comes to appellate judges — the judges whose interpretation of the law and the state constitution often determine how other judges interpret the law — I think that judicial independence is very important. These judges should make decisions on the basis of what the law says, not what they think voters want — and definitely not what deep-pocket campaign contributors want.

    I do believe that the people who are likely to be elected as high-level judges are fundamentally honest, but if they had to stand for re-election in contested elections, people could never be sure that they were free of political influence.

    In our democracy, we elect the people who make laws and sometimes the people who administer them (we elect the president and governor and county mayor, but not the city manager), but we have an independent judiciary to interpret the law. The Tennessee Plan gives the people a chance to weigh in regarding high-level judges without making those judges vulnerable to public whims.

    As for the school superintendent, the unfortunate truth is that election of superintendents has a long history of being associated with mediocre schools. If you want your kids to be taught by capable qualified teachers, the school system needs to be led by a professional educator. Plenty of good people have been elected as superintendents (not in Oak Ridge — our schools have never had elected superintendents) and school boards have been known to hire bad apples to appointive positions. However, on the whole the hired kind are far more likely to deliver consistent quality — and insulate both teachers and kids from politically-based retributions and favoritism.

  8. Mike says:

    Disagree, why shouldn’t the people who interpret law answer to the “whims” of the people! The “Tennessee Plan” violates the intent of the TN Constitution. Hopefully it will be rectified this year.

    I agree totally on your assessment of mediocre schools being one of the results of electing superintendents.

  9. Ray Kircher says:

    This topic will bring some interesting discussion. I would like to know how many OR citizens know of Dr. Bailey’s qualifications and of the applicants who were available for school’s superintendent, much less appellate judges and the Tennessee Plan?

  10. Mike says:

    Ellen: I thought about the “Tennessee Plan” more and also did some more research – thanks for prompting us to check in to things. While I support election of high court justices I do now share some of your concern about abandoning the Tennessee Plan for pure election by candidates. My main concern would be the “politicalization” of the justice system. Good job invoking us to research, not just to react.

    So for now, without a more compelling reason to do otherwise, I agree that the Tennessee Plan should be retained.

    I have never favored election of school supers for the reasons you gave.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Connect with Facebook