Opinion: Retirees make Hamilton County school board races even more important

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / The Hamilton County Board of Education meets at the Department of Education campus on the Hickory Valley Road in 2022.

Presidential politics have consumed newsprint, television and radio talk shows and social media for months, and there are months to go before the November 2024 showdown. The presidential primary will top the ballots on March 5, 2024, however, it won't be the most important race Hamilton County voters will influence.

That honor goes to the Hamilton County Board of Education partisan primary races. Next year, six of the 11 school board seats are up for election. So far, Republican Rhonda Thurman, the longest serving school board member, said she is not running again. She was first elected in 2004.

In addition, independent Marco Perez, elected in 2020, said in a social media post that he is not running.

"I have 44,000 reasons to run. But I keep coming back to one major reason not to, which is simply the time and season in my life," Perez said in the social media post in October. "This coming summer, my family will be entering a new station in life. If over the next four years (nearly five from today), I could no longer serve in that capacity, the County Commission would appoint my successor. I believe my position should be democratically and not politically elected."

Republican Joe Wingate, first elected in 2016, also said he won't seek a third term.

That's a lot of institutional knowledge leaving the board that oversees a school district serving 44,000 students and a $400 million-plus budget.

But that's not all: Board member Tiffanie Robinson, an independent elected in 2016, and Republican Faye Robinson, elected in 2022, have not said whether they will seek another term.

Jill Black, D-Lookout Mountain, who was elected in 2022, is the only incumbent to pick up a petition to qualify to run next year.

Candidates have until Dec. 5 to file their qualifying petitions. Ten candidates (six Republicans, two independents and two Democrats) have picked up papers to run as of Tuesday.

Know where they stand

In 2021, Tennessee legislators passed a bill making school board races partisan, a move some criticized. Opponents argued partisanship has no place in schools and said qualified candidates might balk at running.

But partisan politics have been embedded in public education for several years. The frenzy over mask mandates during the COVID pandemic, panicked fury over gender issues and bathroom use, book banning and critical race theory catapulted K-12 education to the forefront in politics. It became the frontline in the culture wars.

The freakout over these issues, highlighted by the extreme antics of groups such as Moms for Liberty, takes away from what really matters to students and their families.

What matters is: Are students learning and growing? Are teachers adequately compensated and supported? Are school facilities up-to-date and conducive to learning?

Voters need to know where candidates stand and what they will do to improve education outcomes here. The primary races next March offer voters their first chance to evaluate candidate values and views, and their partisan nature will give voters a clear understanding of policy positions.

Hopefully, the primary races will produce robust general election contests in August. Our democracy fares better when voters have clear choices on the ballot.

Primaries are not about divisiveness but giving the voter options. Now, local liberals may think "we don't have that many options," but that's when the Hamilton County Democratic Party should step in and recruit candidates — and give them the support they need to run effective campaigns.

The more local, the better

Local elections shape our communities; they have more direct impact on our daily lives than anything else.

And what is the foundation of every community? Education. The quality of public education determines the future not only for students but also the community at large. Whom we elect to lead our schools is critical.

The Hamilton County school board has plenty on its plate, notably a $200 million school facilities plan that includes recommendations to build three new schools, close six schools, relocate three schools and renovate/expand seven schools over seven years in a two-phase process. The overall aim is to improve efficiency and the overall student learning experience.

While the current school board will make key decisions about how to proceed with the bulk of the plan, the reconfigured school board will have to ensure the plan is executed fairly.

So, let's do our research on the candidates, get registered to vote (the deadline is Feb. 5, 2024, but don't delay!). Find out where your polling location is, and make a plan to vote next March.

You know, like a democracy.