Knox 2018: Knox County Schools

Main Assembly Room

Knox 2018: Knox County Schools

The balance shifts on a fractious board. What's next in the post-McIntyre era?

by scott barker and jesse fox mayshark • September 4, 2018


This story is a part of a Special Report. Read the rest here.

The Knox County School Board is in something of a muddle.

To understand the current state of confusion, it is necessary to rewind a few years to the tenure of former Superintendent Jim McIntyre.

Three seats turned over in this year’s elections. In South Knoxville’s 9th District, mellifluously named challenger Kristy Kristi defeated mellifluously named incumbent Amber Rountree. In East Knoxville’s 1st District, newcomer Evetty Satterfield takes the place of two-term incumbent Gloria Deathridge, who decided not to seek another term. Similarly, in the West Knox 4th District, Virginia Babb steps in for the departing Lynne Fugate. The board they join has been fractious for years, and the new line-up seems likely to affect its balance.

To understand the current state of confusion, it is necessary to rewind a few years to the tenure of former Superintendent Jim McIntyre. Hired by a 5-4 school board majority in 2008, the technocratic McIntyre presided over a tumultuous eight years before resigning in anticipation of the 2016 school board elections. A former COO in the Boston school system with scant classroom experience, McIntyre was championed as a results-oriented reformer by supporters (including Mayor/Governor Bill Haslam and the Chamber leadership) but painted by opponents as an elitist egghead more comfortable with spreadsheets than students.

His difficulties arose from several variables: rising federal and state standards that required more of both students and teachers; a built-in local skepticism toward those not from around here (particularly brainy Yankees with know-it-all tendencies); and McIntyre’s own difficulties building support for his platform. His managerial and political struggles alienated what should be the natural base for any superintendent -- parents and especially teachers -- and left him vulnerable to the rhetorical firepower of Mayor Tim Burchett and others in County government. (Law Director Bud Armstrong, in particular, has shown keen interest in school board affairs.) Most tellingly, when McIntyre tried to rally community and Commission support for a 35-cent property tax increase in 2012, he couldn’t even get the backing of the Knox County Education Association, the local teachers’ organization.

Burchett’s obvious personal dislike of McIntyre dovetailed nicely with his political instincts and gave him a foil to burnish his man-of-the-people image. The county and city governments have been in a largely civil detente in recent years and the sheriff has been mostly minding his own business, leaving the school system as Burchett’s most attractive sparring partner. He led a successful push for the construction of new schools in East Knox County that McIntyre and the majority of the school board initially said they didn’t need. And he not only swatted aside McIntyre’s proposed tax increase, he has used his defeat of it as a talking point in his current congressional campaign.

McIntyre did himself few favors with efforts to appear more relatable, culminating in a Christmas greeting video that attempted to humanize him but left him looking out of touch with the concerns of teachers who had taken to flooding school board meetings. Those teachers, dressed in symbolic red shirts, protested what they called unnecessary overtesting of students and unfair assessments of their classroom performance. They found vindication in 2014, when three former educators won seats on the board (joining the 8th District’s Mike McMillan, also a former teacher).

The influence of Knoxville Focus publisher Steve Hunley on the school board and on county politics in general is one of the less appreciated features of the local landscape.

The insurgents were supported by an odd-bedfellow coalition that included progressive-minded teachers and parents alongside Burchett and Knoxville Focus publisher Steve Hunley, a Republican former school board member who ran a yearslong anti-McIntyre campaign in his weekly paper and through his North/East Knox County network of influence.

The influence of Hunley on the school board and on county politics in general is one of the less appreciated features of the local landscape. His name elicits a range of reactions inside the City County and Andrew Johnson buildings, but outside his home territory it might not ring much of a bell. The peak of his power may have come in 206-2017, when his allies simultaneously chaired both the school board (McMillan, Patti Bounds) and County Commission (Dave Wright), while also running the county Law Department. The new Gibbs and Carter schools that opened in recent years represented longtime goals for Hunley, who had fought against the rezonings that accompanied the school system’s desegregation plan from the early 1990s.

On the other side of the equation is the nexus of well-heeled West Knox Republicanism that generally goes by the name “the Haslams,” regardless of that family’s direct involvement. (The catch-all also includes local donors like construction magnate Raja Jubran and former Cornerstone Foundation Director Laurens Tullock.) They supported McIntyre and pro-McIntyre candidates in multiple school board races.

But by the next round of school board elections in 2016, it was clear that McIntyre would be facing a hostile board majority. He chose to step down rather than be marched to the guillotine, and promptly landed an assistant professor position at UT’s Center for Educational Leadership. While a search for a successor was underway, the board named Buzz Thomas as interim superintendent. It was an interesting choice, because Thomas was Executive Director of the Great Schools Partnership, a nonprofit group that as the brainchild of businessman Randy Boyd was deeply tied to the Republican business/Chamber establishment that had backed McIntyre for so many years. But Thomas had maintained careful relations with the various factions on the fractious board.

Back when McIntyre was hired, the guy he beat out in that 5-4 split decision was Bob Thomas, a longtime local administrator. Thomas started teaching for the old Knoxville city schools in 1973, and he had been an assistant superintendent since 1990. He served under superintendents Earl Hoffmeister, Allen Morgan and Charles Lindsey, and when the board picked McIntyre over him, Thomas gamely stayed on anyway. He is from theold school, literally, a coach-turned principal-turned Central Office bureaucrat, and his persistence paid off after McIntyre’s exit when he again offered himself as a candidate for the top job. This time the board vote went in his favor.

At the time, Thomas had the distinction of being the second-best-known Bob Thomas in county government, after the radio host-turned county commissioner-turned county mayor candidate. That was probably all right with him. He is a political survivor, and a cautious one, not much for public oration or table-thumping. In school board meetings, he is carefully deferential to his employers in a way that McIntyre rarely was.

That has left the school board in a position of unprecedented power, and it has sometimes struggled to exercise it. Its six-teacher majority for the last two years has remained focused on reducing and questioning mass student testing and assessment, but they have been surprised and sometimes derailed by other issues. A proposal to drop an International Baccalaureate program planned for Bearden Middle School prompted an outcry from parents, as did perceived lack of concern for transgender students. When the board considered a proposal from Armstrong’s Law Department to strip protection for “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” from the system’s anti-harassment policy, board members found themselves again confronting rooms full of angry parents and teachers, but for different reasons than during the anti-McIntyre outpouring. (The board reversed course and left the policy as it was.)

The lack of cohesion was most evident in this year’s budget battles. The board initially voted to accept the superintendent’s proposed budget, which included cuts to center city magnet programs and Project GRAD, a public-private partnership that provides extra resources and college scholarships to lower-income students. The optics were, as they say, problematic: The board was cutting programs that primarily serve kids in schools with low-income and high minority populations. It didn’t help that the proposed cuts came at the same time the board was opening two new schools, Gibbs Middle and Hardin Valley, in rural/suburban areas with predominantly white populations, and the Gibbs school in particular prompted a civil rights complaint from the local chapter of the NAACP. Parents, students and teachers flooded board meetings to protest the budget and save the endangered programs. A proposal to ask County Commission for more funding was voted down 5-4, with most of the support coming from urban district representatives.

Project GRAD and the magnet schools were ultimately saved, at least in the short term, thanks to an infusion of extra revenue from the state and some one-time county funds orchestrated by Burchett. But the Project GRAD funding is conditional on continued monitoring of the program’s results.

It’s hard to measure what impact the budget debate had on May’s school board primaries, but the unrest didn’t appear to help Rountree. Four years ago, the young and energetic former school librarian was the only school board candidate to defeat an incumbent, when she trounced the pro-McIntyre Pam Trainor. This year, she was the only incumbent to lose -- to Kristi, a friend and supporter of Trainor’s. Rountree helped oversee the selection of McIntyre’s successor, longtime Central Office administrator Bob Thomas, and rose to Vice Chair of the board. Kristi is a former PTA leader, and she arrives with the backing and blessing of members of the Haslam family and other supporters of the departed McIntyre.

Satterfield, a 2006 graduate of both Austin-East and Project GRAD, will be the youngest school board member in years -- maybe since the Reagan era, when boyish Harry Tindell joined it at the age of 26. Satterfield at one point also worked for Project GRAD, and she criticized the proposed cuts to the program this year. She had the support of Deathridge, who had been reliably pro-McIntyre during the conflicted years of his tenure. She also had financial contributions from David Colquitt, the son-in-law of Gov. Bill Haslam. And Babb, a real estate agent with a long history of parental involvement in her children’s West Knoxville schools, ran unopposed in the 4th District, with Fugate’s support.

That means none of the three new members are obvious allies of the recent board majority. With a superintendent currently on a single-year contract extension, leadership and direction of the school system are once again up in the air. Another reversal a la the last about-face seems unlikely, but the distrust and discontent that brought down McIntyre may have lost their urgency.