All five members of the Kingsport Board of Education are elected by city residents to “at large” seats. All seven members of the Sullivan County Board of Education are elected “by district” by all county voters — including city residents. The five-member Bristol Tennessee Board of Education are elected using a combination of “at large” (two members, elected by voters citywide) and “by district” (three members, elected by voters only in those districts).
We asked Sullivan County Administrator of Elections Jason Booher to help us explain why city residents get to vote not only for their city’s school board, but also that of the county.
The short answer is city residents pay both city property taxes (spent by the city school board for city schools) and county property taxes (spent by the county school board for county schools).
“Eligibility to vote in any election is typically determined by two factors: geographic boundaries and taxation,” Booher responded. “For example, all citizens of the state of Tennessee are eligible to vote for governor and U.S. senator. However, in order to ensure local representation in government offices such as the U.S. House of Representatives, state Senate, and various local offices, districts are defined by geographic boundaries from which citizens that reside in those districts elect their representation in government.”
Sometimes, however, our focus on geographic boundaries can cause us to forget the other component, taxation, which ties us all together with regard to government, Booher said.
“In Tennessee we have two divisions of local government: counties and municipalities. Counties are defined and set forth in the state constitution; whereas, cities are established by charter and therefore exist in constitutionally established counties.”
Counties vs. cities
• The state constitution requires that counties, not cities, provide various government services and protections. Examples include registration of deeds, assessment of property, administration of elections, a jail and schools. Everyone in the state of Tennessee is a resident of a constitutionally defined county, but based on the physical location of their residence may or may not reside in a city. Cities are not required to provide, and many do not provide, the services that counties are constitutionally required to provide. Put simply, counties and their services are required; cities and their services are optional. As a result, everyone is required to support the services required by the constitution of the state in the county they reside.
• Because a city is not required by the constitution to be in existence, any of the government services offered by a city are also not required to be offered, and only the residents of a city are required to pay the taxes to support those optional services. The best example is with the three cities in Sullivan County: Bluff City, Kingsport, and Bristol. All three levy taxes, but only two, Bristol and Kingsport operate a separate school system. At any time either Bristol or Kingsport could choose not to continue operating its school system.
• But because all counties are required by the constitution to do so, they do not have the liberty to make that choice.
• All citizens of a county are eligible to vote for all county offices — including the county school board — because the constitution requires their existence.
Source: The Sullivan County Election Commission; Sullivan County Administrator of Elections Jason Booher.