by Jon Styf
A bill that will give local school boards the sole authority to close schools was approved Thursday by the Tennessee House and is on its way to Gov. Bill Lee.
Senate Bill 103, which passed the House, 85-2, makes it clear local school boards can close public or charter schools in the state, not the governor through executive orders or local health departments.
The bill, sponsored in the House by Rep. Kevin Vaughan, R-Collierville, aimed to clarify who had the authority because during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was unclear in some locales whether the county health department or local school board held the authority.
“Regardless of the situation, the local school board is in control of the situation when it comes to weather,” Vaughan said. “It shouldn’t be any different during the pandemic.”
The bill allows the governor to issue an executive order to open schools to in-person learning, but the governor cannot close schools. That power will become completely local.
The Senate passed the bill, 27-5, in February. The bill sponsor, Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, said he proposed the bill because of the outcry from Shelby County parents and students after schools had remained closed for nearly a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Vaughan said during committee discussions that school boards will take into account what health departments advise during a situation such as a pandemic.
Rep. Antonio Parkinson, D-Memphis, reiterated that point during committee discussion and said it was clear local school boards would take local health department recommendations seriously.
“We all learned a lot during COVID, the things that we did right and we did wrong,” Vaughan said earlier this month during the House Education Administration Committee discussion of the bill. “What this bill attempts to do is to add local LEA control into the decision of whether or not they close the schools.”
Vaughan said he believed the bill would clarify any issues of authority on school closures, which includes areas with independent health boards. Kelsey said he also believed it was important that those making the decisions are publicly accountable.
“The people who hold these officials accountable are the voters, so ultimately it should be up to elected officials to make these decisions,” Kelsey said during February discussion of the bill.
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Jon Styf contributes to The Center Square.