Endorsement by Hamilton County's teachers union draws criticism

photo Donna Horn

Hamilton County's teachers union has made its recommendations for several local political contests, but two longtime members didn't earn its endorsement.

The Hamilton County Education Association's political action committee interviewed candidates in several local and state races. HCEA endorsed retired principal and band director Ralph Miller in the District 7 race for the Hamilton County Board of Education. That move shocked Donna Horn, a recently retired teacher and active HCEA member who is running against Miller.

Horn said she never heard back from the committee and had to reach out to HCEA several times to finally hear who they endorsed.

"I was mad. I was very mad," she said. "He's been out of teaching 12 years."

Miller has taught music at Boyd-Buchanan School for about a decade. Before that, he worked in Hamilton County and Georgia public schools as a teacher, band director and principal.

Horn, who retired this year from teaching at Wolftever Creek Elementary, said she was a longtime HCEA member and was a union representative while she worked at Mountain Oaks Elementary. She said the endorsement process was unfair, but she still believes she has strong support among teachers.

"Most of my support is teachers," Horn said. "I have a lot of good teacher friends."

Gil Highlander, a Soddy-Daisy High School teacher and PAC chairman, said the interview and questionnaire process was the same for all candidates. While it's a tough process, he said it's designed to give all candidates a fair shot. Highlander said the committee tries to pick candidates who would make the best decisions for teachers and students.

"It's the process. We try not to bring anything else into it. It's how they respond to questions we have. And the questions are how they would impact public education," he said.

The PAC also endorsed retired Hamilton County technology worker Katherine Benefield, who is challenging incumbent Rhonda Thurman for the District 1 school board seat. Highlander said Thurman declined to meet with the union.

HCEA did not make a pick in the District 2 race, where Mike Harvey is waging a write-in campaign against Jonathan Welch, the only candidate on the ballot.

Longtime union member Sandy Smith also lost an HCEA endorsement. The group recommended competitor Brock Bennington for the House District 30 seat. Smith previously was in charge of the endorsement committee and served as a Tennessee Education Association board director for several years.

Smith said the endorsement process seemed to start late this year and she was never informed by HCEA that she had lost the endorsement. Still, she said, she has support from many local members and TEA members.

"I can't help but say I was disappointed because that organization is really close to my heart," Smith said. "My friends at TEA and here locally would be some of my closest advisers regardless of what endorsements I get."

Other HCEA endorsements include:

• Democrat David Testerman for state Senate District 10.

• Republican Jim Coppinger for Hamilton County mayor.

• Democrats Tommie Brown and JoAnn Favors for House District 28.