James Johnson, left and Morris Merriweather

By Malorie Paine

JACKSON, TN — State control of local decisions may be at the heart of recently introduced bills in the Tennessee General Assembly.

The bills “would cause our board to be more decisive and take away the focus from serious issues that affect our students,” School Board Member James Johnson said.

Others are also not pleased with what the bills represent, such as Harrell Carter, president of Jackson Madison County’s National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The representatives who introduced the bills seem to have not fully thought through the ramifications, Carter said.

“What is done to one could be done to another,” Carter said.

If passed, the bills would allow elected officials to be recalled through a petition process. Representative Chris Todd, R-Madison County and Senator Ed Jackson, R-Jackson introduced bills in their respective houses.

“(The bills) would set a bad precedent,” Johnson said.  “Any board member that would be outspoken concerning inequalities would be a target especially if they are part of the majority vote that does not align with special interest groups.”

Both Carter and Johnson said they believe the bills directly target Morris Merriweather, a Jackson Madison County School Board member, who has been vocal about his desire to see improvements within the school system.

Merriweather’s outspokenness was definitely a factor in introducing the bills, Johnson said. 

“He is outspoken about some of the poor decisions made in our school district and the lack of urgency addressing turnaround of our priority schools,” Johnson said.

Carter says Merriweather’s passionate approach played a major role in the bills.

“(This) is because he is a passionate African American male who has educational experience,” Carter said. “He came in with a lot of passion, and he certainly has made some hiccups, but it’s not anything that should amount to a law being passed.”

Merriweather has continually challenged the current system’s equity among Jackson Madison County School System students. 

Inequities within the school system are not new, but ones that span decades dating back to the 1970s, Carter said. Merriweather is simply the latest to take a stand for equity. Problems in the district include lack of funding in the majority minority schools, failure of the system to provide textbooks and what Carter calls “intentional overcrowding.”

Carter also warned that legislators should be careful when considering their votes on the bills.

“The Constitutionality of this kind of stinks,” Carter said. “This legislation can’t just be for one … it has to be for every elected official in the state of Tennessee. I think they need to be very careful because there are a lot of people who a lot of folks would like to recall. … Is it about race? Yes, it is about race, there’s no question about it. Race matters.”

Johnson said he absolutely opposes the bills and representatives are overstepping their boundaries. 

“This is a local issue and also a district position and a district issue that should have never reached this level,” Johnson said. “It’s a political ploy to control the majority vote on our local school board.”

Todd’s bill has advanced to the Election Subcommittee for further review.