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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / The Hamilton County school board meets Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, at the Hamilton County Department of Education.

NASHVILLE — Partisan elections will be on tap for Hamilton County school board contests going forward.

The move was made possible under a new law passed by the General Assembly at a special session in late October, but lawmakers left the local rollout to the discretion of county party organizations.

Local Democratic leaders say they have reluctantly chosen to follow Republicans, who have already moved to hold party primaries for the current nonpartisan boards.

"We do not believe that our public education system should be partisan — we shouldn't have partisan politics in our children's education system, our public education system," said Rachel Campbell, local Democrats' new party chair, in a phone interview Monday.

"But," said Cambell, who became chair last week, "since the Republicans decided to make our public education system a political minefield, we had no choice but to approve a Democratic primary."

Republicans approved the partisan entry into school boards at the special session, called for lawmakers to rein in mask mandates and vaccine requirements that have been imposed to stop the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 17,000 Tennesseans. The new law ties into the special session because it may foster partisan school boards that are more responsive to the political base, such as conservative voters opposed to school mask mandates.

The local decision to hold primaries could be authorized by majority vote of the local party committee.

Tennessee Republican Party Chairman Scott Golden and many fellow Republicans are solidly behind the effort. Golden said the deadline for a party to seek a primary for the 2022 cycle was Dec. 10.

Hamilton County Republican Party Chairman Arch Trimble IV said in a telephone interview Monday he sees "overwhelming support" for it locally.

"I believe it's a good change," Trimble said, pointing to feedback he's gotten from "both sides," not just from fellow Republicans. "Everything on a school board is political, and it's good to let people know where they stand."

It's best to "lay the battle lines," Trimble said. He added that "parental choice and making sure we run CRT [critical race theory] out of the building are two of the things that are at the top of the list."

Earlier this year, Tennessee Republican lawmakers banned the teaching of certain racial concepts in public K-12 schools. Although critical race theory was not mentioned in the legislation, it's been used as a shorthand to describe the ideas banned in the legislation. The race theory is taught in law schools or college graduate levels, not in K-12 schools, officials say. It teaches that racism may be fundamental to the legal system, not just an individual phenomenon.

Campbell said local Democrats plan to have a Democrat in every school board race in 2022.

"If there is a school board seat on the ballot we will have a Democrat run. Again, this is not what we wanted. Our children should not be political chess pieces for the GOP's partisan games. It's not healthy for our public education system."

(READ MORE: Most Hamilton County Board of Education members say they'd rather leave party affiliation out of school board races)

The current Hamilton County school board has nine members who serve four-year terms that are staggered. But the Republican-led nine-member Hamilton County commission, which plans to increase its membership to 11 commissioners, is doing the same for the school board seats.

Hamilton County School Board Chair Tucker McClendon of East Ridge told the Times Free Press in October he felt school board elections should remain nonpartisan.

"I think the world we live in right now is so hyper-partisan about literally everything that school boards don't have the pressure of partisan elections, and it should stay that way," McClendon said again in November. "I think anyone that runs for school board can tell you, you have to have a heart for children, you have to have a heart for education, and I think once you allow that to turn into partisan politics, it opens a gateway for it to be not such a good thing."

A number of county-level Republican parties are moving to hold GOP school board primaries next year. Among them are Bradley County's GOP. Efforts to reach Bradley GOP Chairwoman Emily Beaty were unsuccessful. But Bradley County Democratic Party Chairman Stan Hurder said the county GOP intends to have a primary. So do Democrats, Hurder said in a phone interview.

Rhea County Republican County Chairwoman Elizabeth Gryder said in a phone interview that the county party also intends to hold school board primaries going forward.

"Every voter has a right to know" with which party a school board candidate is affiliated, Gryder said.

Tennessee Democratic Party Chairman Hendrell Remus told the Times Free Press in a recent interview that making school board contests partisan has been a "hot button issue" for us, adding that the state party has told county-level Democratic groups that if Republicans call for primaries, "we'd like our parties to answer with one of their own."

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

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