State Reps. Brandon Ogles (left) and Sam Whitson (right) and Sen. Jack Johnson met with board members and staff from the Franklin Special School District to talk hot topics in education. / Photo by John McBryde
By JOHN McBRYDE
Board members and staff from the Franklin Special School District got their Saturday started with a panel discussion from three of the four state legislators from Williamson County during a kickoff retreat at the district’s teacher center at Moore Elementary School.
As one might expect, the hot button issues of education were addressed by the Republican legislators — Sen. Jack Johnson, 23rd District, Rep. Brandon Ogles, 61st District, and Rep. Sam Whitson, 65th District. Rep. Glen Casada, R-63rd District and newly elected House speaker, had another obligation and wasn’t able to attend.
With the 111th General Assembly having just convened last week and the state having a new governor and no named education commissioner yet, much of Saturday’s discussion served as a sounding board of sorts. The lawmakers said bills are already being drafted on topics such as school safety, vouchers, homeschooling and grading, among others, but most are still rather fluid.
“I can go to Gov. (Bill) Lee and spill my guts out to him, and you can imagine what he has coming at him right now,” Johnson said. “But once a new commissioner (of education) is announced, then at the appropriate time we’ll be sitting down with him or her. And that’s why it’s very important for us to walk away from this meeting today with your top priorities that you want us to convey to the new commissioner.”
School safety emerged as the lead item of discussion. Ogles, first-year legislator who replaced the late Charles Sargent in his district and became the first freshman lawmaker to be elected vice chairman of the House Republican Caucus, said a bill is already in the works for funding safety measures at schools across the state.
With a fiscal note of around $54 million, the bill proposes that every school in Tennessee receive $30,000 for a reimbursement grant for safety. The total for schools in Williamson County would be about $1.5 million.
“A lot of the (legislative) members recognize that it’s time to engage in funding for safety,” Ogles said. “How we do that and how quickly we do that is going to be measured in our political will and how we set our priorities for new revenue.
“It’s a heavy lift. The bill so far has good support, but it’s a complex issue.”
The idea of arming teachers is also still in the kettle, despite opposition from many school administrators and law enforcement officials.
“As far as arming teachers,” Ogles said, “my biggest argument at this point is — as much as I’m very pro-Second Amendment and I’m a Republican and I love my firearms and I have a lot of them — I do not want the Second Amendment being debated at my local level and determining who is on our school boards and who is on our county commissions. … You’ll literally have people run for school board because they feel they should be able to carry a gun in a school.
“I think a trained law enforcement officer is the best option because they have less than lethal options on their belt. They have mace, they have a Taser, they have handcuffs, a radio to call for help. When you allow a teacher to carry a firearm, you’re going from 0 to 900 feet per second and there’s no break in between.”
Legislators also discussed school resource officers, vouchers, high-stakes testing and school buses. They talked about the layers of issues facing schools, and that solving them isn’t always an easy path to take.
“In the Army we call it friction,” said Whitson, a retired Army colonel. “Any time you try to plan something or do something different, you run into all kinds of friction. … It’s a lot of give and take, and taking on education issues is tough.”
Saturday’s FSSD retreat also gave board members and staff the opportunity to discuss and review the district’s Strategic Plan 2019-2024 and the 2019-20 school calendar, among other topics.
The board will have its first monthly meeting Monday at 6:30 p.m. at Freedom Middle School.