Tennessee Legislature passes bill to allow for partisan school board elections

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The Tennessee Legislature passed a measure Friday that will allow local school board races to become partisan.

School board races and some municipal elections have not included a party affiliation. The new legislation – House Bill 9072 – will allow county parties to declare whether a race will become partisan.

If a party decides that, it could hold a primary election or a caucus to determine candidates. If a party decides to create a partisan race, the affiliations for that party will appear on the ballot. Any party also can decline to include the party – either Republican, Democrat or Independent.

Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, said 77 counties conduct primary elections and 18 determine candidates by caucus.

The measure passed the House before the Senate amended and passed the bill, 20-10. The Senate amendment gives county parties that already have filed petitions 30 days to re-petition to add school board members. The House concurred, 57-23.

Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, said that a “great awakening” occurred when parents were home with children and heard what they were learning in class, including topics such as critical race theory.

“How in the world is this being taught to our children?” Cepicky said. “You have no idea what values or beliefs those people have. … We are just adding another layer of transparency.”

Others believed, with continuing disagreements at school board meetings over mask mandates and curriculum, making school board races partisan will cause fewer candidates to run.

“The state establishes the curriculum in the classroom,” Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, said. “Not school boards. … We are going to have a chilling effect on those willing to enter public service.”

Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, said she was against the bill because it would make it more difficult to run for school board. In the last race in her county, she said it cost about $40,000 to run and adding a primary would add to that cost.

“I think, by doing this, that we are implementing another hurdle for school board members to cross,” Hazlewood said. “I think that we all want good school board members. … My concern is that we would be closing the door to potentially good candidates.”

Other Republicans also voiced concern the bill could cause some candidates to not run for a school board.

“I hope that these candidates have education at heart,” said Brandon Ogles, R-Franklin. “I hope that this does not turn into a platform for political office down the road.”

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