School boards from across Southeast Tennessee came to Cleveland Thursday for the Tennessee School Board Association’s fall district meeting at Bradley Central High School.
Lee Harrell, TSBA director of government relations, labor relations and policy, stressed the importance of connecting with legislators.
With all of the lobbyists in Nashville, Harrell said school boards need to make sure their voices are being heard.
Some of these lobbying groups scout out candidates to support up to a year before an election, Harrell said.
“We have so many legislators that have been working with these groups for so long, they may think they have all the answers. They know the pros and the cons. They are not looking for the answers, or asking questions like they used to,” Harrell said.
He emphasized that silence from local school boards equals indifference on an issue in the eyes of a legislator. Harrell said many times legislators have not heard from a local school board before they take a vote.
Harrell also encouraged school board members to connect with community education groups. He said boards can use local groups that agree as a greater support to their position.
“As far school boards and school superintendents, we need to be the biggest cheerleaders for our school systems,” Harrell said.
Changing charter schools authorizers and vouchers were anticipated to be the biggest education votes, Harrell said. The voucher issue was pulled and the charter school bill was voted down resoundedly in the Senate. The bill would have taken the authority to approve charter schools away from the local school boards and given it to the state.
Also during the meeting, TSBA solicited input from the boards on three education legislation issues that are thought to be coming up in the next year or so.
These questions deal with school safety, rule waivers and school budgets.
Amendments to school budgets from one major category to another have to be approved by a school system’s funding body. Harrell asked those present to vote “yes,” “no” or “other” to whether they felt school boards should have the authority to move money in the school system’s budget from one major category to another, without going to a county commission or city council. The majority of school board members voted yes.
In support of a change, Harrell told a story about a school board needing to hire three additional teachers to meet state requirements for classroom size. The board proposed moving unused funding from transportation to fund the positions. Initially, the local funding body said the board could not move the funds. After the school system was listed as in violation of state regulations, the funding body changed its vote.
School systems can apply for waivers to state rules and regulations. Charter schools can apply for waivers to state laws they feel hinder the mission of educating children. When polled by Harrell’s legislative survey, the majority of those present felt local school systems should be able to apply for the same waivers as charter schools.
Another poll question asked if a school’s safety plan should be subject to open records laws. The majority said the safety plans and meetings discussing these issues should not be subject to the laws, because then anyone could potentially see when and where school resource officers are stationed. This could become a security issue for school systems that do not have a resource officer at every school.
“I’ve actually had a few legislators come to me and say those conversations should not be subject to open records,” Harrell said.
In the coming year, Harrell expects vouchers and charter schools to be discussed once again. He also anticipates legislations to change the current regulations regarding when a school system has to stop using a school bus. Current regulations determine this by mileage only. Some are in favor of moving to more of an automotive and safety checklist model. Common Core State Standards will also be discussed.