Primary 2020: 2nd School Board District
One of the board’s most outspoken former teachers faces a well-funded Central High parent and businessman.
by jesse fox mayshark • february 10, 2020
school board incumbent Jennifer Owen, left, faces John Meade in the March 3 primary.
Knox County’s 2nd District takes in most of North Knoxville from downtown through Fountain City, stretching from Clinton Highway and Interstate 275 in the west to the now-shuttered Knoxville Center Mall in the east.
The North Knoxville district has been a political football in recent years.
It is a politically dynamic district, with precincts closer to downtown having some of the city’s most Democratic voters and some outlying precincts tilting Republican. Observers of city politics will note that Knoxville’s last two mayors — Indya Kincannon and Madeline Rogero — both got their political starts in the 2nd District.
The seat Kincannon used to hold, 2nd District school board, is up for election this year. (So is the Commission seat that Rogero used to hold, but there are no primary contests in that race so we will return to it in the general election.)
School board incumbent Jennifer Owen, a former teacher elected to the board in 2016, is facing John Meade, a business executive who has been heavily involved as a parent in Fountain City schools.
School board races are nonpartisan. If either candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote in the March 3 primary — likely, with just two candidates in the race — their name will be the only one on the ballot in the Aug. 6 general election.
The 2nd District has been a bit of a football during the past decade. Kincannon held it from 2004-14 and stepped down to accompany her husband on an academic year abroad in Slovenia. She had been a strong supporter of former Superintendent Jim McIntyre, whose tenure had become turbulent by that point.
Tracie Sanger, Kincannon’s chosen successor, held the seat in a special election in 2014, despite the efforts of former County Mayor Tim Burchett, who campaigned for Sanger’s opponent. (Burchett made no secret of his efforts to oust McIntyre as superintendent.)
In 2016, as the anti-McIntyre wave crested, Owen faced Compassion Coalition director Grant Standefer for the seat. Standefer was backed by some of the Chamber/West Knoxville establishment names that had long supported McIntyre, and he massively outspent Owen. But the 2nd District’s views of the superintendent had shifted and Owen won easily with two-thirds of the vote.
Four years later, with the McIntyre turmoil receded, Owen is again facing a better-funded candidate.
Owen: A Need for Empathy
Sitting in the Time Warp Tea Room on North Central Street, Owen reflected on the experiences that led to that first campaign in 2016. She retired as a teacher in 2014 after 23 years, 18 of them in Knox County. She said she experienced increasingly bureaucratic systems of testing and evaluation coming into the classroom for both students and teachers.
At one point, Owen said she was told it was a waste of time for her to have students do coordinated physical exercises for a few minutes at the start of her music class, despite studies showing the value of the movements.
“However, they wanted me to spend some time — in all our related arts classes, we were told this — they wanted us to spend time helping kids bubble (their) answer sheets, so they could transfer their answer from the tests to the bubble sheets,” Owen said. “So they wanted me to spend the students’ music class time helping them test better, and not in music at all.”
As a teacher, Owen had been active in the Knox County Education Association, sometimes traveling to Nashville to track state legislation. Since joining the school board, she has continued her advocacy, serving as the board’s legislative liaison.
She helped lead board efforts to speak out against state testing mandates, including a controversial kindergarten portfolio assessment system. And she strongly opposed Gov. Bill Lee’s Education Savings Accounts voucher program.
“Learning how to address those issues in a way that they’ll be listened to is very tricky,” Owen said. “I think as long as we’re discussing, ‘Here’s why,’ as long as we’re showing them the whys of things, most of our legislators are very open to discussing.”
She was part of the majority that hired Superintendent Bob Thomas to succeed McIntyre. She gives the veteran administrator credit for helping to smooth the waters and improve faculty and staff morale.
“He is incredibly kind,” she said of Thomas. “He has all the kindness that all the previous folks lacked. I think that’s what we needed at that point. I think things had gotten to the point where nobody felt that anybody cared about them. Students didn’t feel like anybody cared, teachers didn’t feel like anybody cared, parents didn’t feel like anybody cared.”
Thomas has not announced if or when he’ll retire, but most people expect it will be within the next several years. If it comes to hiring another superintendent, Owen said, she will first of all look for someone who can also show and persuade people that they care.
“I think we still need someone who has empathy for others,” she said. “I think that’s always important.” Beyond that, she said, “We need to have someone who deeply understands the issues. They need to understand privatization. They need to understand what we’ve been through here, to some extent.”
As for her own priorities in a second term, Owen said she will continue pushing to support classroom teachers in their efforts to educate and care for students.
“I think one of our major priorities is really looking at what we’re asking our staff to do,” Owen said. “There’s a lot of data collection for the sake of data collection, that’s still going on. We’ve pulled that back a lot, but it still goes on. I think it’s important to figure out which data collection is useful.”
Owen has been a persistent skeptic of the proposed deal to move Knox County’s Central Office functions from the Andrew Johnson Building to the Tennessee Valley Authority’s East Tower.
She said no matter how many assurances are given that all members of the public will have access to the building, federal identification requirements are likely to scare away undocumented immigrant parents.
“In a federal building, our undocumented students can’t go there,” Owen said. “Our undocumented parents can’t go there. Grandparents who leave a document at home.”
In the first campaign fundraising disclosure of the race, Owen reported $1,000 raised, with half coming from a $500 donation she made herself. The most notable name on her donors list is longtime local Democratic Party activist Jim Jennings, who donated $100.
Meade: An Engaged Voice
Meade is, by his own admission, a political novice. But you might not know it to look at his own donor list. In his Jan. 31 filing, he reported $14,700 raised, from donors including Denark Construction CEO Raja Jubran, former school board Chair Doug Harris and Haslam family in-law David Colquitt.
“I want to be a more active, engaged voice for the schools in District 2,” Meade said, in an interview at the Panera location on North Broadway in Fountain City. “I was asked by parents, teachers and administrators to consider running for this seat.”
Earnest and enthusiastic, Meade said he has had “wonderful experiences” as a Knox County Schools parent. He has a son who is a junior at Central High School, where Meade is co-president of the school’s foundation, and a daughter (a Central High grad) who is a junior at Carson-Newman University.
Meade, who grew up in Chattanooga, went to Carson-Newman himself. It’s where he met his wife of 25 years. They lived in Memphis and Cincinnati before settling back in Knoxville to raise their kids closer to family.
Meade is vice president of sales and marketing for Midwest Rail Car, which leases railroad freight cars for shipping. Like Owen, he lives in Fountain City. He served as president of the Parent Teacher Organization at Gresham Middle School while he had children there.
He said he wants to fight to improve teacher salaries.
“Teacher pay is very important to me,” he said. “It makes me mad when we lose teachers to surrounding areas, because we are not paying the same as some of our surrounding school systems.”
He said the Central High Foundation worked with former Principal Mike Reynolds to establish “Above and Beyond” awards for teachers, in which the foundation each year gives cash bonuses to teachers nominated by their colleagues for extra effort and innovation.
“I think retaining good teachers is the most important part to having successful students,” Meade said.
On some of the recent controversies that have come before the board, Meade said he would not support proposed “religious release time” that would have allowed students to leave school for up to an hour a month for religious instruction.
“I went into that (issue) thinking I would vote yes for that,” Meade said. “And I’ve talked to a lot of parents, administrators and teachers about it specifically. They are limited on the amount of instructional time that they have. So to take more away, I don’t think is the answer. I believe you can do it before school, after school.”
On the TVA tower deal, Meade takes a more positive view.
“You’ve got the mayor and superintendent who support that move, and I support them” Meade said. “You are going to save $20 million as compared to the other alternatives. The A.J. Building is not good office space.”
On vouchers and charter schools, Meade said he doesn’t have hard and fast lines. A public-school parent himself, he believes parents should have access to an array of educational options.
“Charters is a state issue, and there’s not a whole lot we can do about that,” Meade said. “I will say, I am for is what is best for the kids, period. Charter schools have gotten a bad name, in many cases deservedly so. However, I look at what Steve Diggs and the Emerald Academy are doing just down the road, and I’m very impressed.”
Emerald Academy is currently Knox County’s only charter school.
Overall, Meade said he wants to build on the school system’s improved morale and openness. The way to head off another period of strife is to make sure people are engaged and feel valued, he said.
“It’s letting the teachers know that they are being heard, even if it doesn’t mean that you can act on every concern they have,” he said. “People knowing that they are being heard, and listened to.”
Early voting in the March 3 primary begins this Wednesday, Feb. 12.