Thursday, July 2, 2015

Public Schools, Politics & Money.

Susan Curlee
by Susan Curlee

Two things are certain when the state legislature convenes again: conservatives will oppose a fuel tax increase in Tennessee and Senator Frank Niceley will introduce legislation to elect school superintendents. On the first issue, it is a no brainer. On the second, maybe the state really does need a full-vetting of the issue.

Since taking office as a member of the Williamson County School Board, I have identified activity from within the organization that clearly has no place in public education. This activity is highly political in nature, attacking not only candidates running for office, but also elected officials. Sadly, this activity also extended to members of the community who did not share the same views and opinions as a small, vocal minority. As questions about this activity were asked, attacks escalated to public meetings, social media, and in the local press by those who dared to raise the questions. These tactics did not silence the debate, rather it confirmed it was something that needed to be exposed and addressed.

In my community, the activity originally centered around a group formed to influence outcomes of recent elections, Williamson Strong. This is not my personal opinion, this is a fact as the Registry of Election Finance determined they acted as an unregistered political action committee (PAC) during last year's school board election and were guilty of violating Tennessee campaign finance law. At the center of this activity is the current superintendent. His involvement is public record because he and others used his official WCS email address to communicate their intent. As a matter of fact, the most damning evidence submitted to the election commission came directly from Dr. Looney’s own emails where he acted in his official capacity as superintendent.

Unfortunate as it is, this is not the only political activity of our superintendent. His engagement in political activity extends to his membership in the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents (TOSS). According to TOSS Minutes from September and November of 2013, our superintendent brought forth both the discussion and motion to form a PAC. Keep in mind, Dr. Looney’s dues of $6000/yr are paid by Williamson County taxpayers. Our superintendent generously offered to contribute the first $1000. The simple math is this: if all 141 school superintendents contributed $1000, it would allow this organization $141,000 a year for undisclosed political activity. Are TOSS strategic partners, businesses that contribute $2000 - $25,000+ also contributing? Would those dollars be used in future school board or state legislative races? If any superintendent is so passionate about politics, then perhaps they should go into politics professionally and not dabble in politics at the expense of their district taxpayers---a position that Senator Niceley’s asserts by continuously advocating for an elected superintendent.

Why is all of this important? In 1992, both Republicans and Democrats in Tennessee supported phasing out elected superintendents and instituting a system where superintendents are appointed by locally elected school boards. The intent was to refocus the efforts of superintendents, making their primary focus the education of children, not politics. If a superintendent has the ability to influence the election of a school board, the superintendent will wield incontestable and domineering influence over that board, his very employer. With that amount of control and influence, it will lead not toward accountability and transparency, but a dictatorship by one individual. This is unacceptable for a publicly funded institution. It also makes school system employees unwilling pawns in the political game. I would welcome both the acknowledgement and renunciation of past political involvement, as well as an abandonment of future activity by Dr. Looney in order to move forward in our community. Failure to do this gives those who support an elected superintendent further ammunition.

My sworn obligation as a Williamson County School Board Member is to ensure resources intended for educating our children are spent appropriately, not toward personal or political agendas. Our schools, teachers, and children should never be pawns or victims of any political or personal agendas. Our tax dollars should definitely not be paying for such distractions. The indisputable fact is an educated voter, an involved citizenry and a more transparent and responsive government will benefit our community and state---but not when the deck is stacked against them.

With the ever increasing demands made of our teachers and students, it is absolutely imperative we keep our focus and efforts on the classroom. Lifelong learning does not center around one superintendent, appointed or elected. Learning happens in the classroom, led by teachers who are passionate about what they do, making that connection with students, one child at a time. As a parent with children in public schools, I have a vested interest and fully intend to continue to fight for such a noble cause.

What are your thoughts on political activities by appointed superintendents? Does Senator Niceley make a valid argument? Transparency cannot be just another political buzzword. We should make public the money connections between special interests and those in office. It is the only defense citizens have against those trying to game the system.

Susan Curlee is the District 12 representative on the Williamson County School Board. She filed the ethic complaint against Williamson Strong and the Registry of Election Finance voted to fine Williamson Strong a total of $5,000, on two counts: failure to register as a PAC and failure to file campaign expenditures. For more on the issue, see this link, this link, and this link.    

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