County Mayor Chad Graham Discusses Education and the Future of Bedford County


Live from Music Row Tuesday morning on The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. – host Leahy welcomed Bedford County Mayor Chad Graham to the newsmaker line to talk about his background, goals, and accomplishments in education.

Leahy: On the newsmaker line right now, the mayor of Bedford County, Chad Graham. Good morning, Chad.

Graham: Good morning. Thanks for having me on.

Leahy: So we’re looking at your bio, Chad. And we were surprised to learn that in 2018, when you were elected Mayor of Bedford County – just south of Nashville, population 50,000; most people know Shelbyville as the big center of the county seat there – you are the first Republican elected county mayor in the history of Bedford County. Wow!

Graham: It appears to be that way, or at least all the way back to reconstruction, as I’ve been told.

Leahy: Wow! That’s something. You have been in Bedford County for years and years and years. Tell our listening audience a little bit about your background.

Graham: Yes, great. Thank you for that. I did grow up right here, actually, in the Bell Buckle, sort of the greater Bell Buckle area of Bedford County. I graduated from high school right there at Cascade. I served in the military, came home, and wanted to do public safety.

And I found my passion to be in emergency medical services, emergency ambulance, and did that role. And went to the University of Alabama in Huntsville, graduated from their paramedic program.

I was promoted through the ranks to the director position of the county government and served there till 2014. From there, I stepped into the private sector because you really can’t run against the government when you work for the government. So it was my idea to come back in 2018 and be your county mayor. And by God’s grace, we’re here.

Leahy: Well, good. I do want to mention this, and again, this was very surprising to me. You had personal sadness in your life just recently.

Your wife of 29 years, Sherry Denise “Punkin” Graham, passed away on December 29th just recently. So we certainly give you our condolences on that. That must be very difficult for you.

Graham: It is. And I thank you for that. And we’ve got a good family base. We’ve got a good Christian church family base. The community has really rallied around us. And so we’ll get through this, but it was certainly something that we didn’t anticipate and certainly did not want to face at this time in our life.

Leahy: She was a mother and a grandmother and, all around, has had a tremendous life. Now back to your re-election campaign. What have been the big issues in Bedford County over the past four years and what are your major accomplishments?

Graham: Let me start by saying that I had planned for this. I’d served on the school board for about 10 years prior to this, thinking that if I ever got the opportunity to serve, I wanted to have some base knowledge of what I was getting involved in, as opposed to just coming in and being indoctrinated, you might say, by the prior ways of doing things.

But I ran on three issues: education, public safety, and infrastructure. I believe that is the foundational core of the county government structure. The whole purpose behind that is that I was really trying to re-establish, or what I want to firmly establish here in Bedford, is a strong middle class.

And so we found ourselves wobbling a little bit in Bedford over the last many years because I don’t think we’ve made the strong investments we really needed to in education and public safety and infrastructure.

So people have choices about where they live and wouldn’t necessarily choose [to live] in Bedford. Now, we weren’t having any trouble attracting folks to come here, but they weren’t necessarily folks that could really, as I like to say, pull on the wagon instead of getting over in it.

Leahy: (Chuckles) I like that phrase, Chad.

Graham: Thank you. Thank you for that. I wanted to see us actually double down, you might say, on K-3 education. We’ve got to get kids out of portable classrooms.

On the public safety side, having come from that world, it’s important that we make investments in the equipment, the training, the professionalism, and give them the resources to be successful in the roles that our public safety people serve as you see today, with this defund and all the things going on, that’s just ridiculous and not practical. And then, of course, lastly, was infrastructure.

And I guess in the old days, I’ve been whispered in my ear many times that the way we used to do business to attract industries, apparently it was based on a promise or a handshake.

Well, we will get water lines out there. We’ll move the sewer system there. We’ll buy land for an industrial park if you’ll come. That’s just simply not the world we live in today. So when you lean in on these issues, you find yourself needing to kind of ask people to rethink what’s important to them.

But I believe at the end of the day, quality of place is how we’re going to get where we want to go. And if we have strong education, if we have that public safety component where people are comfortable then those entrepreneurs, those business professionals, those millennials, are going to be interested in a place like Bedford.

We’ve got a lot of land. We’re still rural. We want to preserve that every way we can. We must have broadband access for these folks to work remotely. Even if they come to Nashville a day or two a week, they’ve got to have that access.

If we can get these things right, we can get some of these amenities in our downtown, then I believe that we’ll be successful in actually attracting folks who, again, as I say, could really support the system. Now, I’m not trying to dilute people that have challenges in their life.

I come from fairly humble beginnings myself and I’m not trying to displace them. We need to dilute them. If we could bring in folks that can enrich the community, enrich the classroom with those children that haven’t had the opportunities that some of us were given, I believe that again strengthens us and will lift the whole system up as opposed to just saying “I want to bring industry in” and “I just want to have a better school system” or “I just want to address public safety.”

Leahy: Chad, in the studio with me right now, is Grant Henry, the official guest host of The Tennessee Star Report. Grant has a question for you.

Henry: Hey, Chad, one of the items in your Better Bedford campaign is talking about better education. I wonder if you have an opinion at all on, you know our Governor Lee and Penny Schwinn are pitching this idea of moving the model of our funding in the state more towards something that’s student-centric or student-focused as opposed to how the BEP is currently funded.

Have you all spoken about that yet? How it’s going to affect Bedford County, and if so, do you have a particular take on that?

Graham: Yes. We’ve been getting the highlights, you might say. That thing is, I believe has been a work in progress, or at least what I’ve been able to be briefed about and looked at. It’s an interesting concept.

I do think that there is a need and room for improvement in how we do it. As you know, that’s one of the biggest costs of a $110,000,000 or so budget. I have about $80 million of that is education in one form or another.

So it is something that needs to be looked at. I don’t think we’re fully funding, practically, education. That BEP formula sits at the heart of some of the determination of that.

But I also think that we need to be wise about how we look at it because what I’m hearing from some of the counterparts or concerns related to this model might be is, if we identify these kids and figure out how much education is worse for them, does the private world come in and try to target through remote learning the ones that you might say are the cream of the crop? And then again, you leave the county governments or the local systems to educate the more difficult students.

Leahy: You talked about education being one of your priorities when you came in. I got a bit of a curveball. Are you ready?

Graham: Why not? (Chuckles) 

Leahy: I’m winding up. Here comes the curveball. So we hear everybody say we need to improve education all the time, improve education, improve education. And yet this is my view. I think our K-12 public education system is broken for any number of reasons.

They’ve gotten more into propaganda than teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic. You’ve had a lot of experience serving on the school board down there.

Your priority was to improve education when you were elected in 2018. When you look at it, what have you done practically that has improved education in Bedford County since you’ve been mayor?

Graham: I do think we made some improvements there. Now keep in mind, it lays at your school board’s, which are elected officials’, feet, really, to set the curriculum and to manage the budget once the funding comes in.

The mayor’s office is not really direct in the education daily, but we do work hand in glove with them, and we are the funding body for the resources that they need. But what we did do, and this was something that was a priority to me when I was on the school board but I wasn’t able to get it done, when I got on the County Commission, through a lot of good folks, we got it done.

Bedford County has the original Tennessee College of Applied Technology. They used to be called trade schools when they were first coming out. They were landlocked. They needed opportunities to bring new opportunities to students.

They didn’t have that. We came into office and worked with state and local and other officials, private sector folks, and we again committed some land in our industrial park.

And now we are going to be the proud recipient of a $42 million state-of-the-art TCAT facility that will be right there, as you’re coming into the city of Shelbyville. Direct thanks specifically to Representative Pat Marshall and Shane Reeves, our senator.

Leahy: What about, though, the K-3 through K-5 performance of Bedford County public school students in reading, writing and arithmetic since you’ve been mayor? Have they been up, down, or statewide, because of COVID it’s been way down? What’s been the results in Bedford County over that period of time?

Graham: I think you’d see our trends to be similar. We have now a new school superintendent that is really focusing and leaning in on K-3 as well as the entire system. But there’s a lot of reason to believe and important that we put our emphasis there.

I believe they’re doing that. We’re building a new elementary school. We have lots of kids in portable classrooms here in our community. And I think that’s unacceptable. They are our future and they need a rich learning environment to be in.

And so we have gotten funded now a new elementary school as well as an expansion at one of our rural high schools to add space there so we don’t find ourselves in that situation.

So that’s really more where the county mayor practically can lean in and be effective again. The school superintendent and the school board are responsible for the daily operation of the school.

Leahy: Chad Graham, the mayor of Bedford County, seeking re-election, thanks so much for joining us. Come back again if you would, please. And if you’ve got some time on your up here come in-studio with us.

Graham: I would love to do that. I think it was great. And I appreciate fast balls and curveballs.

Leahy: (Laughs) All right. There’s a man who loves baseball.

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Tune in weekdays from 5:00 – 8:00 a.m. to The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.
Photo “Chad Graham” by Bedford GOP. Background Photo “Chad Graham Campaigning” by Chad Graham. 




















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