NASHVILLE - Two Bradley County school board members said Tuesday they will resign their posts at next week's meeting.
The move comes after state Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Mike Bell said they had forfeited their elected positions by moving out of the districts from which they were elected into other areas within the county.
Bell, R-Riceville, drew attention to the issue Tuesday by introducing Senate Joint Resolution 1528, which would direct District Attorney General Steve Crump to remove both men if they won't step down.
"I am not doing this lightly," Bell told the Times Free Press on Monday night as he prepared to file the resolution. "I think the rule of law is important, and we wouldn't allow a legislator to continue to serve if they moved out of the district."
School board Chairman Troy Weathers moved from the 4th District he represented to the 3rd District about two months ago. He is running in the state House District 24 GOP primary in August.
Rodney Dillard, meanwhile, moved from his 5th District to the 6th District about 18 months ago.
Both told the Times Free Press by phone they thought they had legal authority to move within the county, having received information to that effect from the school board's attorney.
In a subsequent Times Free Press phone interview, Weathers said he called Bell and told him he would resign his school board seat.
"I don't need the controversy," Weathers said. "I want to serve the people of Bradley County. I don't want to have to fight to serve them, OK? So I have decided I will step down from the school board next Thursday at our next meeting. There's just no reason to cause controversy.
"It's not worth going to court over."
Weathers said he is looking forward, "hopefully," to serving Cleveland and Bradley County in the House.
"I'm running for the House, we don't need negative things looming over anybody. I followed what I believe the law says, and that's OK," he said.
Board member Dillard said in a Times Free Press telephone interview Tuesday he, too, went by the school board attorney's advice.
"That's what I went by. Again, that's our school board attorney," Dillard said. "But I serve for the children of Bradley County, and it's not worth fighting."
Dillard said he had no idea there was any problem and never heard from Bell or anyone else that there was.
"I had no clue, buddy, but I am disappointed I've not gotten one call from anybody. We could have sat down with a cup of coffee and come up with the best decision for our schools without all the drama," Dillard said.
He said the controversy is disappointing.
"But it is what it is," he said.
Both board members said school board attorney Scott Bennett told them some time back the law permitted them to remain on the board because, while they no longer lived in the district they were elected to represent, they still lived in Bradley County.
That is how at least one, possibly two, provisions in state code, read.
But in 1992, legislators added yet another provision when amending a separate code section, according to Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery in a 2021 legal opinion. TCA 49-2-201 included an additional qualification that "members of county boards of education shall be residents of and elected from districts," Slatery wrote.
Slatery also cited a 2014 decision rendered by the Tennessee Court of Appeals in a Shelby County case, noting the court recognized the amendment establishes, as a qualification for school board members, "residency in the district from which the member is elected."
Both need to be followed, Slatery wrote.
Bennett said in response to a Times Free Press email that he had heard about Bell's resolution but was away at a conference and had not been able to read it - or a Times Free Press email detailing Slatery's 2021 legal opinion.
"I am in a meeting with limited service, so I cannot double-check. If that's the correct reference, it specifies that a board member's seat becomes vacant when he leaves the county, not when he leaves his district," Bennett stated.
Bell said in a Times Free Press interview Monday evening in his legislative office that his move was aimed at ensuring election laws are upheld on matters of membership to a local legislative body.
Bell said he has discussed the issue with Slatery and added in a subsequent text to the Times Free Press regarding Weathers and Dillard's situation that "somebody gave them some bad legal advice."
Bradley County Schools said in a statement that both Weathers and Dillard consulted not only with the local school system's attorney but with the Tennessee School Boards Association.
"Both the attorneys for TSBA and the school board advised that the language of Tenn. Code Ann. 49-2-202(a)(4) states, 'If any member ceases to reside in the county, the office of the member shall become vacant.' This statute does not provide that a board member loses his seat from leaving the district that elected him.
"It is the job of the government and the courts to follow the law as it's written," the district's statement continues. "Based on the plain reading of the law, these board members believed they could continue to serve the people of Bradley County and fulfill their elected terms. Within that same vein, no one in the county government advised these board members that they could no longer serve."
The statement said Weathers and Dillard decided to resign their positions to allow the Board of Education to continue "their good work ahead. Troy Weathers and Rodney Dillard were acting in good faith but chose to step down so students can remain at the center of our mission and not on political controversy."
In his earlier statement, Bell said that state statute was unambiguous.
"An attorney general opinion speaks directly to this situation," he said. "Troy Weathers and Rodney Dillard are not qualified for the offices they hold and are in violation of state law. This law exists so that the members who sit on local governing bodies can best represent the needs and concerns of their constituents by living in the same community."
Bell said in response to a Times Free Press question during an interview that his filing of the resolution is not political.