Stockard on the stump: Kelsey throws down challenge to Shelby County Schools

By: - February 12, 2021 4:42 pm
Tennessee State Capitol (Getty Images)

Tennessee State Capitol (Getty Images)

Retired Capitol Hill reporter Tom Humphrey for years wrote a column called “Humphrey on the Hill.” In his stead, I am taking up the mantle with a new report called “Stockard on the Stump,” a collection of briefs, anecdotes and quotes from the latest week in the Tennessee General Assembly.–SS

Pouring gas on an argument between the state and Shelby County Schools, Sen. Brian Kelsey pushed legislation through the Senate Education Committee this week ensuring a governor’s executive orders to open classrooms during a state of emergency would supersede local decisions.

Despite tough words from Gov. Bill Lee during a recent special session on education, Shelby County Schools did not reopen classrooms to students because of the COVID-19 pandemic, nor did it set a date. In contrast, Metro Nashville Public Schools started sending students back to class once virus rates fell to a certain point.

Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Kelsey’s legislation, most of which is already state law, isn’t as notable as the reasoning he used to present it.

The Germantown Republican who chairs the Senate Education Committee said during this week’s committee meeting Shelby County Schools “immediately reversed” a plan to reopen Feb. 8, the day after Lee’s address.

“It is purely out of spite that they are keeping these schools closed, purely out of spite. It’s purely political. They are listening to the (teachers) union and not to the parents,” Kelsey said after the committee heard from a Shelby County parent who spoke about the hardships of running a small business while children are at home for virtual classes.

Sen. Raumesh Akbari, a Memphis Democrat, took exception to Kelsey’s comments.

“With all due respect to Chairman Kelsey, I think that is a truly unfair characterization of the Shelby County School Board and of our superintendent, Dr. (Joris) Ray. I have been in constant communication with them. Their decision not to reopen on Feb. 8 had absolutely nothing to do with the governor’s statements during the education special session,” Akbari said.

Akbari pointed out Metro Nashville Public Schools, which is phasing students back into classrooms, and Shelby County Schools are “incredibly large” districts and much bigger budgets than those across the state. She noted the Shelby County district has a large number of children who live with grandparents “who could potentially get sick and die.”

Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

The bill, which is sponsored in the House by Rep. Kevin Vaughan, a Collierville Republican, moves to the Calendar Committee and then to the Senate floor for consideration.

Fastest man on hormone treatment?

State Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, introducing a bill restricting transgender high school athletes to sports based on their sex at birth (in other words, no transgender girls playing girls’ games): “When you look at the sports, the fastest man in the world, Usain Bolt, if you put Usain Bolt against the fastest woman in the world, it wouldn’t even be close. All we’re doing here is trying to make sure we maintain the competitive balance, the safety and the opportunities for advancement for our female athletes.

Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville: “If you gave Usain Bolt puberty blockers or hormone treatment when he was a teenager, how would he compete against women? Do you know the answer to that?”

Cepicky: “I don’t understand where you’re going? … Are you saying Usain Bolt would be slower?”

Clemmons: “Would he have as much testosterone if he received puberty blockers or hormone treatments?”

Cepicky: “I don’t personally know Usain Bolt. There’s no way for me to determine that. But if you look at the scientific data, the hormone treatment doesn’t change the bone structure.”

If you gave Usain Bolt puberty blockers or hormone treatment when he was a teenager, how would he compete against women? Do you know the answer to that?

– Rep. John Ray Clemmons, D-Nashville, to Rep. Scott Cepicky, R-Culleoka, on transgender athletes

Cepicky’s bill passed the House K-12 Subcommittee on a voice vote and moves on to the House Education Administration Committee.

How much is too much?

State Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge, to Allie Chapman, parent of a transgender child, in the House K-12 Subcommittee meeting: “Do you disagree with any of the whereas clauses?”

Chapman: “I disagree with this bill in its entirety.”

Ragan: “Specifically.”

Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Rep. John Ragan, R-Oak Ridge (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

Chapman: “Specifically, the bill in its entirety.”

Ragan: “Ma’am, that’s not the question. Do you disagree with any of the whereas clauses?”

Chapman: “What I disagree with the whereas clause is it carves out an exemption and just all of the language is very manipulative and inappropriate and does not belong.”

Apparently, Ragan could not understand the parent’s position and asked her several times. Or maybe he was trying to intimidate her.

Finally, she said, “How can I help you understand?”

Who’s got next?

State Sen. Becky Duncan Massey passed Senate Joint Resolution 10 in the Judiciary Committee, a constitutional amendment setting up the line of succession in case the governor is incapacitated.

In case the governor is unable to perform the duties of office, the Speaker of the Senate would be acting governor, followed by the Speaker of the House. Either of those speakers would not have to resign their office but would not be able to act in that capacity while serving as acting governor.

Sen. Becky Duncan-Massey, R-Knoxville (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)
Sen. Becky Duncan-Massey, R-Knoxville (Photo: Tennessee General Assembly)

If the measure receives two-thirds support from the Legislature this session, it would go on the 2022 November general election ballot where a majority of those voting in the gubernatorial election would have to support it for it to be embedded in the Constitution.

Attorney costs on the rise

Attorney General Herbert Slatery is requesting $700,000 next fiscal year to hire five attorneys to handle litigation involving abortion restrictions, the education savings account program, the governor’s executive authority during states of emergency and other lawsuits.

Gov. Bill Lee: “I’ve said we should spend whatever is appropriate within the attorney general’s office to defend the rights of the unborn children in this state, and we should also spend the appropriate dollars to make certain that the children in our state, including low-income children and those in the most struggling districts, have an opportunity to have a high-quality education, and that’s exactly what the education savings account legislation will do.”

Senate Minority Leader Raumesh Akbari, left, and House Minority Leader Karen Camper, right. (Photo: John Partipilo)

House Minority Leader Karen Camper, D-Memphis: “While I want the state attorney general’s office to have all the resources they need to represent the people of Tennessee, I also want to make sure his office is representing the people of Tennessee and not just the governor. The governor has his own counsel. AG Slatery and his team represent the citizens. The hiring of additional staff who will be tasked just with handling lawsuits around vouchers, women’s health and other subjects that have had a tough time in court for the administration is not a good use of resources when our state has other budgetary priorities, like fully funding education, getting vaccines in the arms of our citizens and working to return our state to pre-pandemic levels of prosperity.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial from the Tennessee Press Association.