JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – For the first time this May, voters in Tennessee will be able to choose school board candidates in a political primary.
Previously, school board candidates appeared in Tennessee general elections as independent candidates. But last year, the Tennessee General Assembly gave political parties the ability to hold primaries in school board races and candidates the choice to run as members of a political party.
Gov. Bill Lee approved the change after a year that saw anger-filled school board meetings across the state over issues like mask mandates prolonged pandemic school closures.
But while lawmakers agreed on the change, the heads of the state’s two major political parties have very different opinions about the introduction of “D’s” and “R’s” after candidate names.
“It gives people a choice,” said Scott Golden, Tennessee Republican Party Chairman who says he’s crossing the state in hopes of supporting school board candidates.
Hendrell Remus, Tennessee State Democratic Party Chairman, sees it differently.
“It’s a disastrous decision to make school board races partisan,” he told News Channel 11.
“I think it’s unfortunate that school boards have become the new partisan battleground where vitriol will take the place of actually getting something done for our kids,” Remus said.
But Scott Golden who spoke to a Republican group in Johnson City this week said he encouraged the change and welcomes what he calls increased transparency.
“When you want to know who you are voting for on a ballot, the first indication is whether they’re running as an “R” or a “D,”” Golden said. “With every other election on the ballot having that opportunity, we didn’t see any reason that should be different.”
The change doesn’t require candidates to declare their party affiliation. They can still opt to run as independents. And county political parties don’t have to hold primaries.
Local Republican parties did responded by calling for school board primaries, and Remus said he’s encouraging county Democratic parties to do the same.
“If Republicans are to hold a partisan primary then it would only benefit us to do the same – to put our names on the ballot and stand up for those Democratic values that we believe in,” he said.
Remus says he thinks Republicans one day will regret the change. “I think it’s going to come back to bite them,” he said.
He believes the introduction of political parties into school board races is an attempt by Republican lawmakers to flush out Democrats and make it harder for to them to win in areas like Northeast Tennessee where there’s a strong Republican base.
Golden doesn’t disagree.
“This is political,” Golden said. “Make no mistake. It’s just not been partisan political. It’s about time that we injected the ability for people to have a right and say what happens in their local school board.”