Efforts To End Election of Superintendents Stymied

By Peter Schmidt — March 29, 1989 6 min read

The Tennessee Senate last week deferred action on a bill that would have ended the decades-old tradition of electing local school superintendents in 79 of the state’s 139 school districts.

The deferment came after the bill had been heavily amended by rural interests.

Their amendment, approved by an 18-to-9 vote, essentially exempted eight thinly populated counties from the measure’s provisions. Fearing that the change would render the proposal unconstitutional, the bill’s backers withdrew it from the floor and returned it to the rules committee, where its fate is uncertain.

The measure, which is the top legislative priority of the state school-boards association this year, is the latest in a wave of efforts in Southeastern states to abolish a practice that many school administrators criticize as a harmful intrusion of politics into education.

“If [there] has been a hot election, then any action the superintendent takes is judged to be political,” said Daniel J. Tollett, executive director of the Tennessee School Boards Association.

Mr. Tollett claimed it is not unusual for elected superintendents to demote or fire staff members considered disloyal, to coddle ineffective but politically powerful administrators, and to give promotions and pay raises to potential challengers to discourage them from seeking office.

Proponents of change, however, acknowledge that they face an uphill battle. Previous attempts to switch to board-appointed superintendents in Tennessee and five other states in the region--Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina--have been dealt overwhelming defeats by voters in statewide or local referenda.

“The Southeast leans toward the popular election of officers,” noted Albert D. Brooks, executive secretary of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, which backs the bill in its state. “There is a strong feeling, particularly in the rural counties, for the election of officials.”

But as the population of these states becomes more urbanized, opponents of election say they are confident voters will eventually accept their argument that appointed superintendents are more competent in dealing with large school systems.

In its original form, the Tennessee bill, sponsored by Senator Douglas S. Henry Jr., a Nashville Democrat, would have allowed incumbent elected superintendents to run for one more term. After that, all superintendents would have had to be appointed by local school boards.

Advocates of the appointment system--which also include the Tennessee Business Roundtable and the state education department--hoped that their cause would be helped by the results of last year’s elections, in which three out of four incumbents who faced opposition were turned out of office.

But their optimism was tempered by the fact that bills to change the system had been rejected by the legislature in three previous sessions.

“There’s more politics in appointing a superintendent than there ever would be in electing one,” said Senator Frank P. Lashlee, who offered the amendment to exempt the counties in his legislative district.

“There’s no minimum qualification for school-board members,” he continued. “Some of them can’t even read or write. Are you going to tell me they are capable of going outside the realm of politics and appointing a superintendent?”

Senator Lashlee called the bill “just a blatant attempt by the school-boards association to put the superintendents under their thumb.” He said he doubted it would ever be passed by the Senate and predicted that, in that unlikely event, it certainly would be killed by the House.

Senator Henry, meanwhile, said he removed the bill from the floor because he questioned whether it would withstand a constitutional challenge if it became law in its amended form. Exemptions from compliance with a law, he explained, must have a logical, and not a political, purpose.

Mr. Henry said he would attempt to remove the amendment in the rules committee, adding that he was still optimistic about its chances.

“It will take some persuasion of certain members, but that can be done by the associations that back the bill,” he said.

In Alabama, meanwhile, the state board of education has directed Superintendent of Education Wayne Teague to push for passage of a recently introduced bill to abolish an election system affecting 39 of the state’s 130 superintendents.

“I think it will pass by an overwhelming vote” if the proposal is placed on the state ballot, said Representative Stephen A. McMillan, chairman of the House education committee. “The largest counties all have appointed superintendents. Most of your elected superintendents are from the small rural counties that don’t have as many votes.”

Advocates of similar measures in other states say resistance to the appointment of superintendents remains formidable.

“The elected superintendents are a pretty potent lobby against it in most states,” observed Linton Deck, director of educational services for the Center for Creative Leadership, a North Carolina-based research group that promotes innovative management practices. The concept of appointing superintendents, he added, “sounds anti-democracy” to some.

In many rural areas of Mississippi, “people feel that the first step to losing their rural identity is to take an elected official off the ballot,” said Andrew P. Mullins, special assistant to the state school chief.

The 65 Mississippi districts that have elected superintendents held referenda last November to determine if they would switch to systems of appointment. In every district, the change was defeated.

In Florida, where 48 of 67 districts elect their superintendents, proposals to change to systems of appointment were defeated in five of the six districts that held referenda during the past four years.

And in Georgia, where 113 of 186 superintendents are elected, education officials say hopes of changing the system at the local level were dampened by the results of a state referendum, held last fall. In that balloting, 61 percent of the voters opposed a proposal to allow for the appointment of the state superintendent.

Proponents of change say the debate over election versus appointment essentially involves the issues of experience and accountability.

Donald S. Van Fleet, director of the Florida education department’s divi4sion of public schools, said districts that appoint their superintendents are able to look beyond their borders for potential candidates, and thus have a much larger and more experienced pool to select from.

That does not stop highly qualified local administrators from rising to the top in elected districts, he noted.

In addition, Mr. Van Fleet said, “the people who like the idea of elected superintendents will tell you they are more responsive because they have to get re-elected. An appointed superintendent can be more aloof.”

Proponents of appointment challenge that argument, saying that elected superintendents are less accountable because they frequently sacrifice long-term goals for short-term political gains and may try to pass the blame for their failures onto the elected school boards.

In addition, the proponents say, because the challenger to an incumbent often comes from within the school system, elections can leave a district politically divided and lead to civil suits from teachers and administrators who claim their careers were harmed because of their failure to back the winner.

But according to Robert W. Hughes, the elected superintendent in Seminole County, Fla., “politics is not something that’s totally reserved for elected superintendents.”

“Anyone who says that appointment is immune from that is naive,” he said. “It is an insult to the intelligence of the voters of any school district to say they are not capable of deciding who they want to work with their children.”

A version of this article appeared in the March 29, 1989 edition of Education Week as Efforts To End Election of Superintendents Stymied