When Michelle Treece ran for the Johnson City Board of Education in 2018, she intended to serve just one term.
“I always have concerns about how people are perceived when they stay in the office continually,” Treece told the Johnson City Press in an interview this week.
People told Treece there would be projects or issues that would keep her engaged in public service, and although she has found initiatives that continue to excite her, there is one chief reason Treece isn’t running for reelection this year: The introduction of “nasty politics” into a previously nonpartisan body.
“I call it nasty because to me there is no reason for school board members to have to identify what political party they are part of,” said Treece, a Democrat who spent 30 years as an educator before serving a four-year term on the school board.
Prompted by a state law passed in November, school board races across Tennessee will be partisan in 2022, and Treece is the only incumbent on the Johnson City BOE who has opted not to run for reelection this cycle.
School board members run on staggered four-year terms. Four seats are open this year, those belonging to Treece, Chair Kathy Hall, Robert Williams and Tom Hager.
Williams and Hager are running as Republicans and Hall as an independent. They’re joined by four challengers: Republicans Jonathan Kinnick and Paula Treece and independents Sam Pettyjohn and Brian Squirek.
“When I taught I didn’t get to pick ‘I just want to teach Democratic kids,’ or ‘this semester give me all the Republican kids,’” Michelle Treece said. “I didn’t get to do that. No educator in public education gets to pick based on political parties, so why in the world do we want school board members who are forced to some extent to pick a political party? Politics has no place in a public school system.”
Northeast Tennessee is already a Republican stronghold.
“I’m predicting five, six, seven years we’re going to have a Republican school board, and it’s going to be a Republican agenda,” Treece said, a trend she is concerned could impact how history is taught in schools and negatively influence kids from traditionally marginalized backgrounds.
Partisan elections also discourage more thoughtful examination of each individual candidate, Treece said, making it easy for voters to choose just Democrats, just independents or just Republicans.
Last May, the Tennessee General Assembly passed a law banning the teaching of critical race theory, an academic concept that describes race as a social construct and proposes that racism is embedded in policies and legal systems, according to Education Week.
Looking forward, Treece wants to know the district is clearly supporting teachers so they know what they can and cannot say in the classroom.
Treece supervises student teachers with East Tennessee State University and visits several high schools and middle schools in the region. She often asks teachers what they think about the furor over critical race theory.
“Every teacher has told me, ‘I am scared to death,'” Treece said. “I don’t want our teachers to have to go forward scared to death that they’re going to say something wrong.”
Treece specifically cited the case of Matthew Hawn, who was fired from his teaching job in Sullivan County Schools after assigning a Ta-Nehisi Coates essay called “The First White President” and a spoken word poem, “White Privilege,” by Kyla Jennée Lacey .
School officials said he used materials with offensive language and failed to provide a conservative viewpoint during discussions about white privilege, according to the Associated Press.
There are atrocities like slavery or the Holocaust and concepts like systemic racism and white supremacy that can’t be taught from “both sides,” Treece said.
Treece said she loves Johnson City Schools and wants to see more diversity among teaching staff. Board members are getting ready to review a draft five-year plan for the system that includes the goal of recruiting a “high-quality staff that reflects the diversity of the community.”
“We are losing minority teachers due to retirement — lots of Black women within the last four or five years — and I want to see those faces replaced,” Treece said.
But she also wants to ensure there’s a thorough cross-section of cultures and backgrounds represented in the classroom. That includes Asian teachers, Hispanic teachers and openly gay teachers.
“I want to see those diverse faces so that our students can look into those same faces and say, ‘I see me in you,'” Treece said.