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Staff file photo by Robin Rudd / School board members Rhonda Thurman and Tiffanie Robinson take part in an Oct. 26 Hamilton County Board of Education meeting. Future school board races will be partisan.

Why does everything have to be about party politics? Many school board races in Tennessee will now be about which political party a candidate belongs to, not about the education of our children.

With the rest of the COVID-19 nonsensical mandates against mandates the General Assembly passed in late October and Gov. Bill Lee signed Friday, is this new push by Republicans to allow school board candidates to run as Republicans, Democrats or members of other political parties.

You can guess where this started and where it's going. It began with school boards making plenty of headlines this past year as they were inundated with heated debates over mask mandates, COVID-19 restrictions, critical race theory and even LGBTQ issues.

On those issues, board decisions didn't always follow party lines, and that angered many Republicans. Some boards in rural, conservative areas of Tennessee defied Lee's executive order and implemented mask mandates. Others ignored pressure to ban certain curricula or loosen COVID-19 restrictions. Making school board candidates declare a party affiliation adds pressure to these questions and debates. And it gives the GOP short-cut routes to fund and push school board candidates that voters used to have to get to know through their questions, answers and ideas.

It's already begun. On Saturday, the Hamilton County Republican Party's Executive Committee approved partisan races for school board elections.

And the same kind of debate and decision looms for the county's Democratic Party leadership by the end of the month, said Chris Anderson, an interim co-chairman of the group.

Anderson said "the overwhelming opinion" of the Democratic Party is that partisanship does not belong in our schools or in our school board elections, "but our hand has been called. Because we can either have Republican candidates and independents — and in some cases multiple independents — on the ballot next year, or we can have a Republican nominee and a Democratic nominee and play on a level playing field. "

Anderson spells it out pretty clearly: "Republicans have made it clear through Tom Decosimo and others that they intend to buy this school board in a partisan election. And some of them have clearly placed political power and partisanship over the quality of our education and the safety of our children. I'll go ahead and predict: You're gonna see Tom Decosimo back financially and endorse candidates in most of the school board races next year. What does it look like if he puts a million dollars into an account that just focuses on four school board seats? That's a lot of ad money."

[Decosimo, a co-founder of the conservative-leaning Hamilton Flourishing, railed against equity in education in his own failed 2020 school board run. He did not respond for comment Monday evening.]

Anderson says the Democratic Party will play aggressively.

"Every person who pulls papers to run as a Republican for school board better be prepared to talk about banning books. They better be prepared to talk about their inability to keep our kids safe when they simply just want to go to school and not be infected with COVID because some parent doesn't want to mask their kid. They better be prepared to talk about keeping our children alive."

Bring it on, folks. Our kids need all the help we can demand.

Most of the members of the Hamilton County Board of Education told the Times Free Press they oppose the new partisan school boards law.

Karitsa Jones, Jenny Hill, Tiffanie Robinson, all of Chattanooga; Marco Perez of Signal Mountain, and Tucker McClendon of East Ridge think it is bad idea.

Robinson termed it "a path toward really destroying our public education system" and added: "I look at education as the most common asset that everyone has rights to, and I think that putting party politics in place will start to align viewpoints or wants that parties have that shouldn't be associated with education."

Hill noted, aptly, that partisan races will narrow voter choices: "Partisan elections typically yield one or two candidates who have effectively been elected by a very small base of primary voters, whereas nonpartisan elections bring people with ideas who have to be able to serve voters with greatly diverse opinions in order to be elected."

James Walker of Birchwood and Rhonda Thurman of Soddy-Daisy, however, are all in.

"I think it's only fair to the community to understand where our candidates come from, and where they stand," Walker said.

Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, suggested it will "increase transparency and accountability." Here's what he meant: "It just takes a short review of the news nationally and what's happened in a few districts here in Tennessee to know that I think it's more important than ever for our citizens to be able to know the underlying political philosophy of the people who are representing them on school boards," he told the Nashville Tennessean on Friday.

Not all Republicans agree: State Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, accused the Tennessee Republican Party of "going off the rails," telling The Tennessean he worries that with Republican Party members often dictating who could be considered a "bona fide Republican," voter options will be more limited.

Off the rails, we go.

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