Primary 2020: 3rd School Board District
In diverse northwest Knoxville, an iconoclastic incumbent faces the director of a well-known nonprofit.
by jesse fox mayshark • january 29, 2020
incumbent tony norman, left, is facing challenger daniel watson.
When Tony Norman ran unopposed for the 3rd District seat on the Knox County school board in 2016, it signaled an impending change. Combined with Jennifer Owen’s primary win in the 2nd District that year, Norman’s candidacy was enough to persuade then-Superintendent Jim McIntyre to resign.
The 3rd District stretches across northwest Knoxville, from Norwood to Cedar Bluff.
Both Norman and Owen were retired teachers who were sympathetic to the teacher-led opposition to McIntyre’s top-down management style. They formed part of a new board majority made up of former educators, which subsequently selected veteran administrator Bob Thomas to succeed McIntyre as superintendent.
Four years later, the school board landscape has changed again. Although five of the nine board members are still former teachers — Norman, Owen, Terry Hill, Patti Bounds and Mike McMillan — they rarely vote as a unified block. (And Hill will almost certainly be departing the board later this year, since she is running unopposed for the 6th District County Commission seat.)
In his bid for re-election, Norman faces nonprofit executive director Daniel Watson in the March 3 primary. Watson and his wife founded Restoration House, which provides housing and support to single mothers and their children.
School board races are nonpartisan, so all registered voters in the 3rd District are eligible to vote. If either candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote — almost inevitable in a two-person race — his name will be the only one on the ballot in the Aug. 6 general election.
The 3rd District stretches from Norwood through West Haven and other northwest Knoxville neighborhoods to the Cedar Bluff area. It is an economically and racially diverse district, mostly middle class with median household incomes ranging from about $41,000 in areas closer to downtown to $82,000 farther west. The nonwhite population of the district also varies from 10 to 20 percent, depending on the neighborhood.
Norman: A Dedicated Skeptic
Norman, who is 66, taught science in Knox County classrooms for 30 years before retiring in 2014. Among the schools he taught at was his own alma mater, West High. He earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Tennessee.
He was first elected to office in 2006, representing the 3rd District on County Commission. He served two four-year terms on that body, surviving the turmoil of Black Wednesday and the subsequent reduction in Commission’s size from 19 to 11 members. He became known as an environmental advocate, co-chairing the city-county task force on hillside and ridgetop development.
As a commissioner, he was often critical of the school system’s Central Office under McIntyre, accusing it of being out of touch with the needs of students and teachers. He carried those concerns into his 2016 campaign for school board, although McIntyre had already departed by the time Norman took office in September of that year.
As a board member he has been independent-minded and sometimes contrarian, expressing skepticism about a range of different issues and initiatives.
He has raised concerns about the board’s emphasis in recent years on diversity training for teachers, wondering if it’s really valuable. Last year, he voted against the board’s five-year strategic plan because of its “emphasis on race.”
Norman said that in his 40 years of association with the school system, “not one time have I ever heard anything or seen anything that I would categorize as racist.”
He also sought to ban cellphone use between classes and at lunch for high school students, a position the majority of the board declined to embrace.
Last month, he voted with a 5-4 majority against allowing release time for religious instruction during the school day. Although he said he is a Sunday School teacher himself, Norman said he worried about the impact on students left behind in the classroom while their friends went off to Bible classes.
“The thing that I can never get over is the kid that’s left behind,” he said during the board discussion. “What about that kid? What about how they feel?”
He has expressed doubts about moving the school system’s Central Office into the Tennessee Valley Authority’s East Tower, a move promoted by County Mayor Glenn Jacobs. Norman suspects that position may have played into his being fired this month from a part-time stormwater position he had held with the county since 2014.
“It’s totally out of the blue,” he said of his dismissal by Jim Snowden, the county’s senior director of engineering and public works. His personnel file indicates that Snowden cited Norman’s failure to clock out of his county job while performing school board duties as cause for termination.
In seeking a second term, Norman said in an interview that he will continue to push for the same priorities he has been:
- protecting teachers from what he sees as unfair evaluation systems, testing regimens and anything else that interferes with the classroom;
- reducing standardized testing for students;
- and advocating for environmentally-friendly infrastructure on all school property.
“We do need to evaluate teachers, but it has to be a system that measures what they’re teaching,” Norman said, instead of monolithic standards or goals. “The old data-driven decision-making model, it’s just grown into a monster and it kind of runs everything.”
He is deeply skeptical of federal and state dictates that roll up every few years with a new set of jargon.
“Every time I hear the word rubric, I just cringe,” he said.
He gives Thomas good marks for improving morale among Knox County teachers. If, as many people expect, Thomas retires in the near future, Norman said he wouldn’t have a preference for promoting from within or hiring from outside the system — “It could be either.”
What he would look for, he said, is someone willing to examine all of the school system’s educational practices from top to bottom and be honest about what’s working and what’s not.
Watson: Serving Families
Watson, who is 41, grew up in Virginia as the son of a single mother in what he describes as a chaotic household.
“We never stayed any place very long,” he said. “I don’t remember a single school teacher from my youth, don’t know any of their names. We moved at least once a year growing up.”
But as a teenager, he got to know a family who were active in a local church, and he ended up moving in with them to finish high school. He met his future wife, Mandy, at a Christian camp, and both of them decided to come to Johnson Bible College (now Johnson University) in Knox County.
After graduating from Johnson in 2001 with a degree in youth ministry, Watson worked for seven years as an associate minister at West Towne Christian Church on Middlebrook Pike. But during a small group church discussion in 2005, he and Mandy were presented with the question, “If you could do anything in life, what would you do?”
The answer led them to found Restoration House on property they bought along Robinson Road in the heart of the 3rd District, to help single mothers raise their children in a stable and supportive environment. It was chartered as a nonprofit in 2006 and soon became a full-time job for both of them.
The Watsons live on site with their three children — ages 15, 14 and 10, all adopted — and currently provide housing for 17 families. A building under construction will expand their capacity to 22 families. Families stay two to three years on average before moving out.
“We’ve always felt like it was important for us to live there, in the sense of, it grounds us,” Watson said. “For me, Restoration House is not 9 to 5, it’s life. My kids’ best friends are the kids at Restoration House.” (Two of his three children are in Knox County schools.)
So with all that on his plate, why run for school board?
“I felt like a system that affects all of our families — not just the families we walk with at Restoration House, but all families across our community — is the education system,” Watson said. “And so I want to step in and see what I can do to help continue to move that system forward.”
He said he knows some people will view his religious background with suspicion. He said he would have voted to allow the religious release time, which Norman opposed, but only because he thinks it would be good to have a countywide standard for the practice. He said his goal in seeking office is not evangelical.
“I’m sort of known for my faith, I guess, and so I think people try to make assumptions about what that means,” Watson said. “It’s one of the reasons why we don’t have a statement of faith on our Restoration House website. It’s not because we’re not a faith-based organization, it’s because when you make statements like that in writing, people make assumptions about what it means.”
At Restoration House itself, he noted, no religious participation is mandated. Bible study is available, but not required.
Watson said, for example, that he doesn’t favor school vouchers, which are supported by many religious organizations.
“The reality is, you can’t voucher everybody who needs it,” he said. “So my concern is, if we continue to go that way, what inevitably ends up happening in competitive systems is people lose. And to me, public education is not a system where people should lose.”
On teacher and student evaluation, Watson said having measurable outcomes is important. He said the question is how it’s done and how the information is used.
“It’s not a punitive thing,” he said. “If something we’re doing is not working, we’ve got to change it. And the only way to change it is to test it.”
The primary election is March 3. Early voting begins Feb. 12.