BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) — During Thursday night’s Sullivan County Board of Education meeting, several members strongly criticized Gov. Bill Lee for not standing up for Tennessee’s teachers.
Board members also unanimously approved a resolution declaring “support and appreciation” for educators.
The resolution and board members’ comments were about disparaging remarks made by Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn, an education advisor to the governor, and Lee’s response to those comments.
During an event, Arnn was recorded on video saying that teachers come from the “dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges” and that “you don’t have to know anything” to get an education degree. Lee was on stage with Arnn when he made the comments, but the governor said nothing in defense of Tennessee’s teachers.
When reporters confronted Lee about Arnn’s comments last week, Lee said the conversation was “about the influence of left-leaning activists in the public education system in this state” and said he fully supports teachers and public schools. However, he has not publicly renounced Arnn’s comments, leading to backlash from educators and others across the state.
“I am saddened by the comments made last week by Larry Arnn, president of Hillsdale College in Michigan,” Sullivan County BOE Member Dr. Mary Rouse, a former teacher and principal, said during Thursday night’s meeting. Rouse was the board member who sponsored the resolution supporting teachers.
After reciting Arnn’s disparaging comments, Rouse said: “Now, I’m even more saddened and disappointed in our governor, who sat there and did not defend our teachers. Shame on you Governor Lee. Shame on you.”
Rouse called teaching a “talent and a calling,” but said Arnn “missed that calling.”
Director of School Evelyn Rafalowski challenged “all of our Tennessee leaders to take a stand and support our educators.”
Board Member Matthew Price also had a challenge.
“I would challenge Gov. Lee to come down here and work a week with any teacher in this department. Come up here and work,” Price said.
Board Chairman Randall Jones voiced his concern about the governor’s silence.
“Sometimes silence is golden. In this case, I don’t think silence was golden for our governor as he allowed our teachers to be abused and put down,” Jones said. “And it’s disappointing to sit on the board and to have to endure those types of comments from our leaders.”
Vice Chair Michael Hughes said the governor “demonstrated not only his lack of concern, but his lack of knowledge.”
“On behalf of the governor, I apologize to all of our teachers, not just in Sullivan County but everywhere,” Hughes said. He called teaching the most important job in society.
Board Member Mark Ireson said he was glad to see the resolution come before the board.
“Our teachers are fantastic, some of the hardest-working people I know,” Ireson said.
After agreeing with other members’ comments, Board Member Matthew Spivy mentioned the governor’s school voucher plan and his push for more charter schools, which includes partnering with Arnn’s Hillsdale College to open dozens of charter schools in Tennessee. Spivy compared the governor’s plans to opening fast food franchises.
“Public education is not McDonald’s hamburgers,” Spivy said. “And to everybody else’s point, all I can say is I’m pretty sure that everybody that has been through a public school can remember their teachers’ names, not many people will remember Bill Lee’s name in a few years.”
Board Member Paul Robinson said it takes a special, strong, and loving person to be a teacher.
“I’ve seen these teachers work and it’s amazing,” Robinson said. “I’ve seen teachers do fundraisers, I’ve seen teachers take food to kids, do clothes drives for them. It’s amazing. And for somebody to bash our teachers, it’s pretty sad.”
Robinson also said he would like to see the governor apologize.
“It takes a weak man to sit there and let people, our teachers get bashed,” he said.