Wilson County voters Thursday approved the addition of two new members to the Wilson County Board of Education, but exactly when that might take place remains unknown.
The referendum, which voters passed by nearly 2-to-1 Thursday, calls for the Wilson County Commission to redraw school board zones to allow for the two new members, and those would appear on the 2016 general election ballot in Wilson County.
At least two commissioners, both of whom pushed for the additions for nearly two years, praised voters for approving the referendum.
“I am extremely pleased there will be more representation,” said Commissioner Annette Stafford, who first brought up the idea in January 2013. “I never expected it to happen. I really want to thank the people who thought about why it needed to be changed. Wilson County is growing by leaps and bounds. We are always behind the eight ball and need to get in front of it when we can.
“It’s been a tough quest. I had some people tell me that it was the dumbest thing ever and cost us more money. But what cost do you put on education? If you have more eyes on the budget and things going on in education, it can only be better. It was not about a dollar amount. It was about representation.”
Stafford admitted her initial plans were to change the school board’s composition, which is comprised of white men. However, with voters adding Linda Armistead to the board following the Thursday election to replace Ron Britt in Zone 4, Stafford said it is a step in the right direction.
“My first goal was to get the first African-American member on the school board,” she said. “Wilson County is getting so diverse that I believe people would like to see school board members who look more like them. And that goes for everyone. I’d like to also see a Hispanic member on the school board.”
But Stafford wasn’t the only commissioner both surprised and pleased with the referendum’s approval.
“It was pretty overwhelming,” said Commissioner Jeff Joines. “That just shows overwhelming support that the folks in Wilson County want more representation.
“It won’t be long that we will redraw district lines, and the people will vote on two new school board members.”
Both commissioners, however, remain disappointed the language in the referendum was changed at the state level that prevents the commission from appointing the two new board members prior to the 2016 election.
An amendment made to the act by Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, prior to its passage in the legislature “specifies that this bill will apply beginning with the August 2016 election and that members will be elected not appointed.”
In May, the commission requested an opinion from the state attorney general asking whether it was within its rights to appoint two members if the public voted to increase the number on the board. The opinion said the two members could be appointed to serve until the August 2016 election.
“The last day of the committee was closing down before the attorney general’s opinion came in,” Rep. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, told the commission at the time. “[The committee members] felt it’d be best to just let the voters decide instead of appointing.
“If it would have been more day, I could have called the county commission and asked them about it; it was literally the very last moment we could do it.”
Pody said then he understood the commissioners’ point of view [that they wished to appoint the new members], “but I’m not going to say that letting the voters decide is a bad way to go.”
Both Joines and Stafford said they’d like to see the commission appoint two members sooner than later to fill the two vacant seats during the next two years.
“I would like to see us appoint two people until the 2016 election,” Stafford said. “But it was changed at the state level.
“I don’t understand who you listen to, the state attorney general or our state legislators. We got shafted because no one wanted to take the responsibility to get us what we wanted.”
“We didn’t have an opportunity to change it,” he said. “It was changed for us, and now we have to live with it.”
Joines said there could be another option rather than waiting two years.
“We could attempt to send another private act and change that law,” he said. “If something comes up during that time that requires a majority vote, it could be difficult for the school board with seven seats and just five total votes.
“It will be two years before they get more representation unless the commission does something to expedite it. I would support sending a private act to get that changed and allow us to appoint the two new members.”
And Joines followed that up by issuing a call to Wilson County’s legislative delegation.
“In fact, I would like for them to commit to it before November,” he said.