In an unprecedented move, school directors across Tennessee are calling for the governor and legislature to put the brakes on Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman and his reform ideas.
The superintendents are tired of being treated like stumbling blocks on Huffman's road to reform and want their opinions to be heard, according to a letter that about 60 of them signed this week and will deliver to state officials.
Dan Lawson, author of the letter and director of Tullahoma City Schools, stopped short of calling the document a vote of no confidence but said many of Huffman's moves are "counterproductive and hurtful" to the educators on the ground in local schools.
"We are not content with the current leadership and feel that we are not best serving our state in this manner," Lawson wrote in the letter.
He and the others want Huffman's boss, Gov. Bill Haslam, to put a stop to the changes and assess progress before making more changes. If Haslam won't agree to rein in his appointee, the group hopes the state legislature will be able to help during the next session.
Huffman had not seen the letter on Wednesday, but spokeswoman Kelli Gauthier said his "sole focus is on student achievement and improving education in Tennessee, and he will continue, as he has in the past, to seek input and feedback from Tennessee educators."
Through his spokesman, Haslam on Wednesday reaffirmed his confidence in Huffman and pointed to test scores that indicate Tennessee students are achieving more than they ever have.
It was the second time this year Haslam has been asked to confirm confidence in Huffman. He also defended Huffman several months ago when a social media campaign called for his firing after changes were made to the state's teacher pay system.
Around that time, elected Democrats promised to introduce legislation designed to override Huffman's power.
The long, simmering tension between Huffman and local educators began almost immediately after his appointment in April 2011 with the adoption of a controversial teacher evaluation system. The relationship was made worse by changes to teacher pay and came to a head recently when he led a successful charge to tie teacher licensing to student test scores.
The final straw for Lawson, he said, was a State Board of Education meeting held by conference call last month in which board members could barely be heard and were interrupted by numerous noises including a dog howling. During that call, board members approved Huffman's teacher licensing plan even though they were not satisfied with the policy and knew they would make changes.
"It was detestable and disconcerting as a superintendent and one who works with a board that makes policy on a daily basis," said Lawson, who described himself as a rogue. "If nobody else says anything, I'm old enough to not really care what folks think about me."
Lawson had originally planned to pen the letter as an individual, but began to solicit opinions from other directors during the annual Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents conference that ended Wednesday.
Robertson County Director of Schools Mike Davis said he signed the document.
"There is a lot of concern that the Department of Education doesn't consult with superintendents enough before it puts the wheels in motion to require these new reforms," he said. "They need to study how it's going to impact the district first."
In the letter, Lawson said education officials feel disrespected and unable to lead their systems because they are so busy addressing morale issues caused by teachers feeling "voiceless and powerless."
Williamson County Schools Director Mike Looney confirmed that he signed the letter and said it is a result of the troubled relationship between Huffman and local leaders.
David Snowden, director of the Franklin Special School District, also signed the letter. "It was pretty obvious that we had the same concerns," he said of those at the TOSS meeting. "And one person put it into words. It conveys what many superintendents are feeling — the lack of timely input from professional educators."
He echoed many of the concerns written by Lawson about the lack of educator input into the changes Huffman advocates.
Metro Schools Director Jesse Register also signed the letter, said his assistant Meredith Libbey, but was not available for comment.