2018 Revue: School Board Battles

Knox County school board workshop

2018 Revue: School Board Battles

The most contentious Knox County Schools budget in years precedes an electoral shift on its governing body.

by jesse fox mayshark • december 28, 2018


Knox county school board members at their annual workshop, Sept. 27, 2018. 

This story is part of a series looking back at 2018. See also:

The leadership of Knox County’s public schools has felt somewhat conditional ever since former Superintendent Jim McIntyre was chased from the top post in 2016. This year, a tumultuous budget fight and the election of three new school board members contributed to the sense of a system in flux.

With new faces and plans, trying to move beyond the McIntyre divides.

After McIntyre’s resignation, Great Schools Partnership leader Buzz Thomas served a brief but energetic stint as interim superintendent, followed by the appointment of longtime Knox County administrator Bob Thomas. Bob Thomas, who joined the school system as a teacher in 1973 and has been in Central Office since 1985, was hired on a two-year contract that the board has since extended for one year.

The school board coalition that united against McIntyre and hired Thomas was tested this year by the budget battle and diminished by electoral turnover. But a series of initiatives being prepared for rollout, with a revamped strategic plan, suggest that 2019 may bring more coherence to the system’s long-term goals.

Budget Fight

The year began with the school system facing its usual fiscal constraints in preparing a 2018-19 budget, exacerbated by the planned opening of new middle schools in Gibbs and Hardin Valley. The resulting budget crunch led to proposals to cut magnet programs in several urban schools and to reduce funding by $1 million for Project GRAD, a program aimed at increasing graduation and college-attendance rates for economically disadvantaged students.

Whatever the reasoning, the optics of opening new schools for mostly white suburban and rural students while cutting programs that serve urban schools with high minority populations were, as they say, problematic. Angry parents and community advocates packed school board public forums, with local civil rights icon Rev. Harold Middlebrook staying past midnight at one meeting to speak his piece.

In the most divisive vote of the affair, a proposal to ask County Commission for more funding failed by 5-4. It didn’t quite break down along suburban-urban lines, but close enough -- the four in favor of asking for more funding were East Knoxville representative Gloria Deathridge, North Knoxville’s Jennifer Owen, West Knoxville’s Lynne Fugate, and Northwest Knoxville’s Terry Hill.

In the end, the crisis was averted with an influx of state funding that came in higher than anticipated, and one-time funding from the county general fund at the direction of then-County Mayor Tim Burchett. But several board members said they expect to see better performance metrics from the magnet and Project GRAD programs to justify continued support, so the issues could resurface in the coming budget discussions.

Among those who chimed in publicly during the fracas was Buzz Thomas, who resigned this spring as director of the Great Schools Partnership and sent an alarmed letter to community leaders, subsequently printed as an op-ed in the News Sentinel. He decried the proposal to eliminate Project GRAD and warned, “Friends don’t let friends drive off a cliff. Especially when they’re driving a bus full of school children.” (The accusatory tone left some fence-mending to be done by his successor at the nonprofit partnership, City Councilwoman Stephanie Welch.)

School Board Turnover

The budget fight may have taken a toll on then-school board Vice Chair Amber Rountree, who supported Bob Thomas’ proposed cuts and lost her bid for re-election in the May primary. Rountree was defeated in her South Knoxville district by PTA activist Kristi Kristy, a friend and ally of former board member Pam Trainor, whom Rountree had ousted four years earlier. Kristy also had the support of members of the Haslam family, who had been supporters of McIntyre, and some saw the election as payback for McIntyre’s departure.

Of the other seats up for election, Virginia Babb and Evetty Satterfield won their bids to succeed Lynne Fugate and Gloria Deathridge in West Knoxville and East Knoxville respectively. Former board Chair Patti Bounds easily won a second term. The result was a board that is now a step removed from the battles that led to McIntyre’s departure. The pragmatic Terry Hill was elected chair, with West Knox County representative Susan Horn as vice chair. (Hill is the third member of her immediate family to serve on the school board after her husband, Steve Hill, and her daughter, Cindy Buttry.)

Building Bridges?

School board members have worked with County Commission to reactivate the Joint Education Committee, which includes four members of each body and had lapsed into near-dormancy. The goal is to build better communications and head off the kind of stark budget decisions the board faced this year.

Observers who have seen multiple iterations of such efforts in the past may be forgiven a certain skepticism, because so much of the tension between the two bodies is structural: County Commission approves the budget, but the school board decides how to spend it. But the meetings of the new committee so far have been substantive and wide-ranging, including a not-at-all-comforting explanation of how the state’s Basic Education Program reaches its funding decisions.

Whether the Joint Committee can make a dent in perennial board-Commission finger-pointing is among the interesting questions heading into this spring’s budget discussions.

Future Plans

At its annual retreat in September, the board essentially sent back a strategic plan that had been presented by the superintendent and his staff over the summer. Board members said the plan seemed rushed and needed more fleshing out. It is intended to follow on the heels of two five-year plans adopted under McIntyre, the latter of which expires in 2019. The revised plan will come to the board early next year.

Significant pieces of that plan have already been presented as a package of programs and priorities under the rubric “Knox Leads.” They include continued focus on early reading proficiency, graduation rates, eliminating racial disparities in student performance and expanding the availability of advanced programs like the International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Among the goals is to have 75 percent of all third-graders reading at or above grade level by 2025. If that sounds modest, it is a big leap from the 39 percent who met that standard last year.