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At Large Elections of School Boards

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Reviewed Date: May 26, 2020

Original Author: 
Huffer, Dennis
Date of Material: 
Nov 28, 2001


At Large Elections of School Boards

MTAS was asked whether school board members may be elected at large under a private act amendment to the city's charter.

November 28, 2001

Re: School Board

Your letter of September 19, 2001, to Sid Hemsley has been referred to me for reply.

Your question is whether your current school board is “elected from districts” under Tennessee Code Annotated, ' 49-2-201(d)(1), so it must continue to be elected the way it is now, or whether the members may be elected at large under a private act amendment to the city’s charter. In my opinion, the members of your school board are not “elected from districts” under this section and therefore the charter may legally be changed to provide for at large elections. As you know, however, although at large elections of representative bodies are not per se unconstitutional, they are subject to challenge based upon minority vote dilution.

T.C.A. ' 49-2-201(d)(1) provides in pertinent part:

[M]embers of municipal boards of education may be elected in the same manner, either from districts or at large, or a combination of both, used to elect members of the municipality’s governing body, except that municipal school districts whose current board members have been elected from districts as of June 6, 1995, shall continue that method of election.

Your city’s charter provides that members of the board of education must reside in a district but that they are elected at large. Specifically, ' 6-2(a) provides that “The candidate from each district receiving the largest number of votes from all districts shall be declared to be elected as the board member from that district.” The charter specifically provides that all qualified voters of the city may vote for candidates from each district.

The cardinal rule of legislative interpretation, of course, is to give effect to the intent of the legislature. This is to be derived when possible from the plain and ordinary meaning of the language used in the context of the legislative enactment as a whole. See Worral v. Kroger Co., 545 S.W.2d 736 (Tenn. 1977) and Neff v. Cherokee Ins. Co., 704 S.W.2d 1 (Tenn. 1986). The language “elected from districts” is not ambiguous and has been used historically in the education statutes relative to school board elections to mean just that: elected by the voters of a district to represent that district. T.C.A. ' 49-2-201(a)(3) as it appears in the 1983 replacement volume before the Education Improvement Act of 1991 was enacted provided that “Members of the county board of education shall be elected by the county legislative body or by vote of the people from school or education districts... “ (underlining added). An optional provision in Subdivision (b)(2) provided that “The members shall be residents of and elected from districts of equal population by the qualified voters of that district.

The Education Improvement Act of 1991 carries this “elected from districts” language forward. Section 39(a) of that Act -- ironically, this Act was passed in 1992 and became Chapter No. 535 of that year-- provided in pertinent part that “Members of county and municipal boards of education shall be residents of and elected from districts of substantially equal population....” There was a provision in ' 39(b) that allowed municipalities and counties to defer implementation of this requirement until September 1, 1996. Before that deadline arrived, however, the General Assembly passed what became Chapter No. 404 of the Public Acts of 1995. This is the Act that placed the provision that is codified in ' 49-2-201(d)(1) and that is the source of your question into the law. The purpose of this law was to eliminate the requirement that municipal school board members “shall be residents of and elected from districts” with the exception that those who “have been elected from districts as of June 6, 1995, shall continue that method of election.” The wording in this statute must be read in the context of the previous provisions of law and the exceptions it is attempting to make. When one does this, it seems clear your School Board is not “elected from districts” as contemplated in ‘49-2-201(d)(1).

If it can be argued that the language of ' 49-2-201(d)(2) as interpreted with your charter provision is ambiguous, another rule of statutory construction comes in handy. This is the rule that statutes on the same subject matter must be construed together or in pari materia.State v. Blackstock, 19 S.W.3d 200 (Tenn. 2000). In interpreting such statutes, courts will try to avoid conflicts and promote the harmonious operation of the laws so that both can be effective. Carver v. Citizen Utils. Co., 954 S.W.2d 35 (Tenn., 1997). Since the general statute requires board members “elected from districts” to continue to be elected that way and since your charter provision specifically provides that your board members are not elected from districts but are elected by “receiving the largest number of votes from all districts,” it seems easy to reconcile and give effect to both provisions. The general statute is talking about elections from districts in the common and traditional meaning of those words and your charter is talking about your city’s hybrid system used to choose board members. Therefore, an amendment to the charter changing to pure at large elections for school board members should not run afoul of ‘49-2-201(d)(1).

The legislative history of Public Chapter No. 404 of the Public Acts of 1995 indicates that the main purpose of that law was to give municipalities more autonomy in deciding how members of municipal school board members were to be chosen. I am including with this letter a summary of the legislative history of the Act written by Ann O’Connell of our Nashville office. The only statement about the exception in question was made by the prime sponsor of the bill in the House, Rep. Bob McKee. He stated that the purpose of the exception was to require school boards currently elected by district to continue to be elected by district. Again, we must conclude that he was talking about districts in the common and traditional meaning of that word and as it applied to the statutes in place at that time. Certainly there was no indication in the legislative history that the exception was meant to apply to hybrid situations such as your city’s.

One of the big concerns expressed by legislators opposing local autonomy was that at large elections would dilute minority voter strength. I assume that you have concluded this would not be a problem in your city’s case.

I hope this information is helpful. If you have further questions, please call.


Dennis Huffer
Legal Consultant


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