Tennessee governor: Partisan politics played no role in selection of school safety task force

Tennessee governor: Partisan politics played no role in selection of school safety task force

March 6th, 2018 by Andy Sher in Politics State

Gov. Bill Haslam gives his annual State of the State address to a joint convention of the Tennessee General Assembly Monday, Jan. 29, 2018, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Zaleski)

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

This story was updated March 6, 2018, at 9:59 p.m. with more information.

NASHVILLE — Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's office is pushing back against criticisms levied by a Democratic senator who questions why no Democrats were appointed to a just-named working group on school safety.

"The governor appointed experts in each of these fields [education, safety and mental health] from across the state. Political affiliation did not play a role in asking these people to serve on the group. Period," said Haslam Press Secretary Jennifer Donnals in an email Tuesday. "I cannot reiterate this enough."

Donnals called it "very disappointing that this baseless story gained any traction."

The criticisms were publicly raised by Senate Minority Leader Lee Harris, D-Memphis, after the governor on Monday appointed the 16-member working group.

Members are tasked with coming up with quick safety proposals for Tennessee schools to take following the deadly mass shooting last month at a school in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 students and faculty dead.

According to Donnals, the governor asked House Speaker Beth Harwell and Senate Speaker Randy McNally, both Republicans, to name two members each. They did. The two senators and two representatives are all Republicans.

In a statement, Harris blasted the panel, charging that "not only did the governor set up a solid Republican task force on an issue where bipartisan consensus is sorely needed, he went out of his way to exclude voices who are committed to evidence-based solutions to prevent gun violence."

He said the task force "also lacks representation for Shelby County schools, the largest school system in the state."

But Donnals said one of the appointments is from Shelby County. She said the governor did not ask members he appointed about their political affiliations.

"He sought out individuals with various, but relevant, perspectives to serve on the working group, which does, in fact, include a member from Shelby County," Donnals added.

McNally's spokesman, Adam Kleinheider, said the Republican speaker named Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville, and Transportation and Safety Committee Chairman Paul Bailey, R-Sparta, because their respective panels' "subject matter intersects most directly with the issue of school safety.

"On this important issue, he believed it was important to put subject matter expertise above any other consideration," Kleinheider added.

Harwell spokeswoman Kara Owen did not respond to a Times Free Press email on the House speaker's reasons for naming Republican Caucus Chairman Ryan Williams of Cookeville, and Rep. David Byrd, R-Waynesboro.

Byrd is pushing a controversial bill that would allow school districts to designate school personnel to be trained and carry firearms. The retired school principal says it's necessary because rural counties such as his cannot afford to hire school resource officers who are law enforcement officers who receive additional training to work in schools.

In an interview later, Harris was unapologetic about his criticism of the governor.

"You form your own committee and hand off the job of forming the committee to someone else? There's a leadership vacuum," the Memphian said.

Asked if it were not reasonable to have the speakers name some members, Harris, who is running for Shelby County mayor, said "it's the governor's initiative; the governor's formed this committee. You have to take responsibility for the population of the committee.

"I mean, he formed the committee. It's not the lieutenant governor's [McNally]. Don't pass the buck to the lieutenant governor. That is not the way to lead."

Haslam appointed state Safety and Homeland Security Commissioner David Purkey, his chief operating officer Greg Adams, state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, state Mental Health and Substance Abuse Commissioner Marie Williams and Mike Herrmann, executive director of Conditions for Learning in the state Department of Education.

The governor also named Montgomery Sheriff John Fuson; Blount County Sheriff's Sgt. Jeff Hicks, the school resource officer supervisor; Retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Keith Huber; Clinton City Schools teacher Abbey Kidwell; Metro Nashville Public Schools psychologist Cindy Minnis; Sevier County Schools Superintendent Jack Parton; Dr. Altha Stewart of the University of Tennessee and incoming president of the American Psychiatric Association; and Dr. Sonia Stewart, principal of Pearl-Cohn Entertainment Magnet School in Metro Nashville.

While all Tennessee schools have have safety plans in place, the Governor's School Safety Working Group is reviewing policies, procedures and the process of developing and implementing those plans, as well as other school safety measures, including communication and collaboration among law enforcement, educators and mental health professionals.

Haslam wants their recommendations quickly so that he can take any measures needing funding or legislation to the General Assembly prior to the end of their annual session.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.