Origin of County School Boards And Superintendents in Tennessee

Saturday, July 2, 2016 - by Harmon Jolley
Cover of the Tennessee Public Acts of 1925
Cover of the Tennessee Public Acts of 1925

Each of Tennessee’s 95 counties has a board of education (school board) and superintendent.  This wasn’t just  a good idea which began in one county and spread to others.  The oversight of public education across the state is something which was mandated by state legislation.    The requirement that every Tennessee county have a board of education and school superintendent can be traced to the work of Governor Austin Peay, Tennessee’s governor between 1923 and 1927, and the Sixty-Fourth Tennessee General Assembly in 1925. 

By the early 1900’s, availability of education depended greatly on where the student and his/her family lived.  Urban Tennessee counties were able to make a greater investment in public education than rural counties.  The inequity in education was considerable, with many rural Tennessee counties not even having public elementary schools.   Some counties still had all grades in the proverbial “one room school house”  like where Tennessee’s famous citizen, Sam Houston, held classes at Maryville, TN.

According to Paving the Way for Progress: The Governorship of Austin Peay (http://www.teachtnhistory.org/file/Paving%20the%20Way%20for%20Progress-%20Austin%20Peay.pdf),  “While education had been improved slightly by such governors as James B. Frazier and Malcolm Patterson, Tennessee continued to lag far behind national standards. Few rural legislators thought it affordable, thanks in large part to the state’s antiquated tax system which continued to place an unfair burden on these communities, to establish elementary schools in every county. “ 

In his second inaugural address on January 6, 1925 Gov. Austin Peay made a commitment to improve availability and quality of public education.   He said, “Children must be educated. Poverty is no crime in this country...The American child needs no inheritance of wealth, nor station to reach success in life. He does need, and he is entitled to be free from the handicap of ignorance.”

The Public Acts of 1925, Chapter 115 included a section sometimes known as the General Education Act.  There was a requirement for a board of education in each county.  “Be it further enacted, That in each county of the State there shall be a County Board of Education composed of seven members elected by the County Court at its July term, one each year, to succeed members now in office as their respective terms expire, each member to serve for a term of seven years; ...”    

Members of the board were required to reside in the county in which they served and to have a “practical education.”  Compensation was set at a maximum of $4.00 per day.  Duties of the County of Board of Education included holding quarterly meetings, electing one of its members as chairman, and preparing budgets. 

The Public Acts also mandated that each county have a school superintendent.  The County Superintendent was required to file with the State Commissioner of Education a copy of the school system’s budget as approved by the Quarterly County Court.  The superintendent was also charged with filing a list of teachers employed by the school system.

Tuberculosis was prevalent across Tennessee in 1925.  The Public Acts mandated that the Superintendent and all members of the Board of Education be free of tuberculosis, and stated that they should be removed from office after contracting the disease.  Mention was also made of the requirement to maintain a tuberculosis-free student enrollment.

Since some larger counties and cities in the state already had school boards, the Public Acts made exceptions so as not to change what those governments were already doing.  Hamilton County and Chattanooga already operated their own school systems with oversight by a superintendent and school board. 

The records available at the Public Library do not indicate when the local board and superintendent began meeting nor what the original mission was.  However, the Public Library does have excellent books containing the required annual reports on Hamilton County schools which were presented to the Hamilton County Court.  The books include detailed statistics on the system as a whole as well as on each school, often accompanied by photographs.

Since 1925, public education in each county of Tennessee has been guided by the administrative roles prescribed in the Public Acts.  Unfortunately, Gov. Austin Peay did not live long enough to see the outcome of his education reforms.  He became the only governor of Tennessee so far to die while in office, having succumbed to a cerebral hemorrhage on October 2, 1927.  For his role in leading education reforms, Gov. Austin Peay was honored by his name being given to Austin Peay Normal University (now Austin Peay State University) located in his home town of Clarksville, TN. 

If you have additional information on the early history of boards of education and school superintendents in Tennessee, please e-mail me at jolleyh@bellsouth.net.  I’ll update this article with some of your comments.  Also, if you have ideas for similar “origin of” articles, please e-mail those to me.  There are many things that we have today which are often taken for granted as to their origin.

Tennessee Gov. Autin Peay served from 1923 until his passing in 1927
Tennessee Gov. Autin Peay served from 1923 until his passing in 1927


John Shearer: Former American National Bank Building Turns 50

One of Chattanooga’s longtime depositors and loaners of money has collected its own form of gold this year.   The 20-story SunTrust Bank building downtown – originally built as the locally based American National Bank’s headquarters -- is reaching its golden anniversary with its 50 th  birthday.   In the early fall of 1968, the structure opened at Market ... (click for more)

The Signal Mountain Genealogical Society To Meet Aug. 7

The Signal Mountain Genealogical Society will meet at 1 p.m. on Tuesday, Aug. 7.  The meeting will be held at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1160 Ridgeway Ave. Signal Mountain.  The speaker, Susan Gruwell, will present a program entitled, "Spotlight on Family Search."  Visitors are welcome. (click for more)

Toned-Down UnifiEd PAC Effort Funds Coppinger, Fairbanks, Smedley, Sharpe, Gorman, Mackey

The UnifiEd PAC, which helped engineer a surprise County Commission election victory in May for political newcomer Katherlyn Geter, is not making public endorsements in the Aug. 2 election, but is putting its money behind a small slate of candidates. The financial disclosures for UnifiEd show the group strongly backing County Mayor Jim Coppinger over Democratic opponent Aloyse ... (click for more)

Juvenile Girl Who Was Shot On Doolittle Street Early Sunday Morning Has Critical Injuries

A juvenile girl who was shot early Sunday morning on Doolittle Street was in critical condition. Chattanooga Police responded at approximately 12:55 a.m. on to a person shot on the 2500 block of Doolittle Street.   Police were able to make contact with the victim at a local hospital where she was suffering from a critical, but non-life threatening gunshot wound. The ... (click for more)

Just Recuse Yourself

Pam Fleenor, have you ever heard the terms “conflict of interest” or “appearance of impropriety”? It’s a foregone conclusion that Robin Smith will be victorious in Chancellor Fleenor’s courtroom. Here’s another term you may want to re-examine, recuse yourself.   Rusty Munger (click for more)

Don't Let UnifiEd Take District 6

The UnifiEd APEX organization is working to remove Commissioner Joe Graham and has their poster candidate running in opposition to Michael Henry for School Board.   Please get the facts before you vote in the District 6 county races and reject the UnifiEd APEX candidates.   Hamilton County Commissioner Joe Graham and Michael Henry, School Board candidate District ... (click for more)