Sponsor on COVID, other matters: ‘I don’t think a legislator’s in a better position to make those decisions than our school board members’

WASHINGTON COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Call it a respectful reminder. Washington County commissioners will consider a resolution Monday night whose sponsor wants the local legislative delegation to reconsider some recently discussed state-level decisions — particularly surrounding schools and public health measures — that he said should be left to local elected school boards.

Commissioner Jim Wheeler proposed the “Resolution Supporting Local Decision-Making Authority with Respect to the Delivery of Learning Opportunities in Local Communities” at the Aug. 5 Health, Education and Welfare Committee meeting.

“I just felt like it was time for the commission to consider the opportunity to weigh in and ask our legislative delegation to support decisions regarding the schools being made at the local level,” Wheeler told News Channel 11 Monday.

Jim Wheeler (Courtesy Washington County)

The meeting was three days after Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton (R-Crossville) said he might ask Gov. Bill Lee to call a special session if any Tennessee school districts mandated masks or closed due to COVID spread. Sexton suggested at the time that the state could withhold funding from districts that imposed such mandates or enacted virtual learning.

“When you have the leader of the house telling the entire state school systems to do something one way or they will call a special session, that’s disruptive to the local decision-making process,” Wheeler said.

The resolution lavishes praise on the local delegation — Sen. Rusty Crowe (R-Johnson City) and representatives Rebecca Alexander (R-Jonesborough) and Tim Hicks (R-Gray) — for its “service and leadership” and “willingness to hear and work with local governments and our citizens.”

But it mentions “difficult positions” local school boards could face in coming months to provide in-person learning for K-12 students and asks the legislators “support local authority to make decisions that are independent of the State, rendering local governments as self-governing as possible.”

And it asks the local delegation — Hicks and Alexander both signed a letter supporting the potential need for a special session — not to support any legislation “that would hamper the ability of local school boards to make the best decisions possible to keep Washington County students healthy, and to deliver in-person learning opportunities to the greatest extent possible in our county.”

Wheeler said that extends to imposition of mask mandates without general parental opt-out provisions. Currently, Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order of Aug. 16 provides a blanket opt-out for parents in any Tennessee school district that passes a mandate.

“I hope that it helps our local legislative delegation pause and give some thought to some of the proposed legislation that they’re being asked to look at in Nashville that limits the ability of local governments, local school boards, to govern local schools,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler said he is “a Republican that believes in smaller government and local decision-making, so that is really where this comes out of.”

Superintendents questioned at HEW meeting Aug. 5

Wheeler asked Johnson City superintendent Steve Barnett and his Washington County counterpart Jerry Boyd the same question during the Aug. 5 HEW meeting: how they felt about the state making decisions at a state level or whether they should be made at the local level.

Both leaders said those should be at the local level.

Wheeler said COVID-related issues aren’t the only ones that have concerned him on that front. He mentioned the legislature considering whether to intervene on how students transfer between high schools.

“It seems to just be ramping up that the state legislature’s in a better position to make decisions about local schools when we have an elected local school board that’s specifically put in place to do that and that’s here locally, been there, served its time exclusively on schools,” Wheeler said.

“I don’t think a legislator’s in a better position to make those decisions than our school board members.”

He said despite Lee’s Aug. 16 executive order allowing parents to opt out of any school system mask mandates, the resolution remains relevant and he hopes the commission will consider it Monday night.

“I think it has a lot less to do with the immediate issues than it does with the bigger picture of supporting local decision-making.”

As for the order, Wheeler said Lee has drawn undeserved criticism for some of his executive actions that have been taken “when he had to act.”

The mask order, though, “at least appeared to be more a reaction to the demand for a special session in the legislature, and I think that what he did serves us better than a legislative session because he can rescind that at any time if it’s necessary.

“However, with that said, I still think this should be a local decision and should have been left to local school boards.”

Courts a better place for resolving disputes

Wheeler said local elected bodies like school boards are governed by the same state Constitution and state laws as the legislature and governor are. When those local boards take actions that could be unlawful or unconstitutional, citizens can go to court.

But when they make decisions people don’t like, getting the legislature involved isn’t the appropriate response, Wheeler said. He said the system is set up for those types of disputes to be settled through the courts, not by legislative or executive fiat.

“People have an avenue to explore whether there’s been something decided wrongly but to not disrupt the operation of the school system.”

Wheeler said the types of decisions local elected bodies are having to make in the current environment “are the toughest decisions being made by any level of government right now with respect to the pandemic.

“There are certainly people that are going to differ strongly with whatever the majority is, whichever way they come out on it,” he said. “I think the tendency when that happens is for people to look to the next level of government what they perceive is a poor decision at the local level.”

The kind of messaging present in Sexton’s letter suggesting a special session could easily influence school systems to err on the side of caution to avoid getting crossways with the legislature, Wheeler said.

“I think the governor at least helped clarify what the state’s message was going to be on that … rather than a ‘we may unfund you if you do this, but who knows whether we’re going to have a special session or not.’”

He brought up the case of Johnson City’s Indian Trail Intermediate School as an example of how even Lee’s order limits the local board’s ability to make decisions.

“Normally the school board would be able to look at that individual school even and react to that and deal with that,” he said. “The governor’s certainly not in a position, much less the state legislature, in a position to look at, ‘okay, this is the situation we have at Indian Trail.’”

The resolution includes language detailing how local property taxes and sales taxes collected locally represent the vast majority of local schools’ budgets. Wheeler said he included that in the resolution intentionally.

“That particularly concerns me when they don’t even want to say, ‘you’ve got to do this or that,’ they’re just going to tie it to, ‘if you do this we will allow funding to be moved from your system.’”