The issue of education continues to be a contentious one in Wilson County, even at the Monday night’s regular County Commission meeting.
A resolution asking the county’s three state legislative delegates to work for the passage of a private act that would allow voters to vote on a referendum in the Aug. 7 County General Election ballot to increase the number of Board of Education members passed, but not without much debate over how the new members would be seated.
However, District 19 Commissioner William Glover made a motion to amend the resolution by taking the number of BOE members from five to nine, the maximum number allowed by state law.
“The reason why I believe that the more people that can be represented by the people on the Board of Education, just like we are, we have 25 represents there for our county, is if we go to nine people, there will be approximately 12,000 people per board member,” Glover said. “Honestly, we need a little bit more representation.”
Chair of the Education Committee Annette Stafford of District 20, who has led the effort to increase the number of BOE members for more than a year, said it really doesn’t matter to her if the number is seven or nine.
She explained that Wilson County has approximately 116,000 residents, meaning that with five members, each one has 24,000 people in his district.
“If we go from five to seven, each school board member would represent about 17,000, and if we go to nine, like Commissioner Glover's suggesting, that will bring it down to 12,000 people per each nine school board members.”
Glover added that “the schools, the children, are the most important asset we have in our community. I believe that the things that have happened over the last few weeks, I guess over the last year, just kind of proves that we need more people sitting on the board to make sure that everybody is represented; to make sure when people vote that there's more people there that's not controlled by a small amount of people.
“I just believe if we go to nine members that it's going to give us more representation on the board.”
District 1 Commissioner Becky Sevier, who was also voted in by the commission as the new member of Road Commission to fill the seat vacated by Adam Bannach who resigned in December after moving out of his district, asked how many BOE members do other counties the size of Wilson have?
Stafford said while she couldn’t recall the name of the county, there is one other in Tennessee the same size and it has nine BOE members.
Questions over redistricting and when
“Assuming that this does pass the legislation and comes back and the voters decide they do want to up it, how would those seats be filled and when?” asked District 17’s Gary Keith.
County Attorney Mike Jennings said it would depend on the language of the private act.
“Assuming it passes on the ballot and the people chose that they do want a larger number, then at the point what would be our process?” Keith asked. “Would this body be filling those two seats or will it wait until the appropriate time?”
While Jennings said he thought the Aug. 7 election would include both the referendrum and an election of the seats, Stafford said that was not her intention.
“The intent was to redistrict, and after which we would put two school board members on the board, and after that two-year period, they would get into the regular election cycle,” said Stafford.
However, not every commissioner shared Stafford’s intention.
District 22’s Wendell Marlowe, who is also the principal of West Wilson Middle School, said, “As a long-time educator, I'm not opposed to increasing the size of the school board at all. But if the people are determining whether or not we place additional people on the school board, they should also be the people who determine who those board members are.”
Jason Brockman of District 16 agreed. “I think they should be voted in, not just appointed.”
Brockman said he had talked to Administrator of Elections Phillip Warren earlier Monday and reported that Warren said “it would take a while for him to redistrict everything with the both elections going on this year.
“In order to get new cards and everything sent out to voters to know which district they're in. So I don't think we're going to have it by the November election. I'm just passing on what I know.”
Kenny Reich of District 6 called for the vote, and the amendment passed to increase the number of BOE members from five to nine.
More amendments over how to seat the members
However, before the final resolution would pass by a vote of 19-5, with Commissioners Chad Barnard of District 4, Frank Bush of District 8, Nathan Clariday of District 10, Billy Rowland of District 12 and Clint Thomas of District 13 voting no, two other amendments were introduced.
The first amendment would have allowed the people of Wilson County to elect the new school board members instead of having the county commission appoint them.
Jeff Joines of District 14 asked Jennings to clarify whether the law says that the county commission can appoint vacant seats.
“I thought under the law that the county commission appoints vacant seats. It may not apply to an elected vacant seat, but I know if something happened to a school board member, we'd appoint them. If something would happen to a judge, we'd appoint the judge,” he said.
“It's the charge of this body to appoint. That might not be the best way, but that's the way it is. And so, that's why I'm asking for a clarification. It would be considered an open seat, so why would that change what we're supposed to do?”
“It wouldn’t unless you put (it) in the private act saying it. Just make it clear in the private act,” Jennings said, adding that he believes it will be a “practical problem” if the referendrum passes in August to get it on the ballot by the Nov. 4 General Election.
Joines then asked about the staggered terms of the BOE members and how that would work.
Jennings said BOE members serve four-year terms and suggested that with two seats up for election in 2016, adding three of the additional four to the ballot that year, meaning a total of five school board members would be elected that year. Then in 2018, add the remaining new member to ballot, along with the three seats up for election that year, meaning four would be on that ballot.
“That would get three of them on the ballot as quick as you can.”
Both Barnard and Thomas said they’d vote for the increase, if the people could elect the four new members and not have the county commission appoint them. “I just think we ought to let the people in the county vote, whatever time it takes,” Barnard said, offering the amendment to do that, which ultimately failed by a vote of 6 to 18.
Thomas, who seconded Barnard’s amendment, said, “What it comes down to is letting the people decide who their representatives are instead of us appointing them. That’s what I think the people want.”
Voting in favor of the amendment to allow the people to elect the four new board members – if the referendrum passed – were Barnard, Clariday, Thomas, Terry Duncan of District 2, Jim Bradshaw of District 11 and Gary Keith of District 17.
Joines then offered an amendment that if the people approve the referendrum in August, then the county commission would appoint the four new members until the next General Election, which would be in 2016.
“I think that the majority of the folks that I've talked to want to vote on whether we want to increase. If that passes, that means that they want to increase now, not in four years,” Joines said. “That's a good way to put it off and keep what you got. That's a real good way to do that. As I've stated earlier, I think this body has done an excellent job in the past, before I got here and after I'm gone, in appointing qualified people especially to be on the school board.”
District 21’s Eugene Murray agreed.
“This commission board can appoint these new members until the next election for expediency,” Murray said. “If they don't like who we appoint, then by all means they'll elect someone else. But now, I'm with Commissioner Joines. We're very good at that, at appointing good folks.”
The amendment passed 19-5, with Barnard, Bush, Clariday, Bradshaw and Thomas voting against it.
Jennings spoke up and said to further complicate things, the commission could call for a special election, “but it’ll be at your expense,” instead of including it in an already established election.
Correspondent Amelia Morrison Hipps may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.