Knox County 2020: A Primer
As we mark our 2nd anniversary, we survey what’s changed, what hasn’t and what to watch in the local political and economic landscape.
by jesse fox mayshark • September 4, 2020
Today marks the 2nd anniversary of Compass’ debut on Sept. 4, 2018. The first thing we want to say about that is thank you. If you are reading this, you are part of what has made it possible for us to produce independent local journalism in Knoxville for the past two years.
Today: a look at Knox County, the school system and the University of Tennessee.
We have plans to continue building over the coming year and expand our reach in different ways. But the core of what we do will always be detailed, contextual coverage of local civic life, personalities and events.
When we launched, we published a “User’s Guide to Local Government and Politics,” with an overview of the structure and recent history of Knoxville and Knox County government and a look at major looming issues and changes.
So for this anniversary, we thought it would be helpful to provide an updated primer reflecting the changes that have occurred during the past two years and looking ahead to what comes next.
In 2018, we described Knoxville as “a moderate-progressive Southern Appalachian city in a libertarian-conservative Southern Appalachian county,” and events since then — including the COVID-19 pandemic — have if anything only reinforced that thumbnail sketch.
We also highlighted the many changes of leadership that were looming for institutions across the county and region, and most of those have now taken place. We began publication just as a new county mayor was taking office, and since then we have seen new leaders elected or appointed at the City of Knoxville, the University of Tennessee, the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Knoxville Chamber and the Knoxville Utilities Board.
So here’s the first installment of a two-part look at where we are in September 2020. (We have provided links to our coverage of various issues throughout, in case you missed them the first time around.)
Knox County: Kane Country
Two years into his term, County Mayor Glenn Jacobs has put his stamp on county government. The former professional wrestler has shepherded two proposed budgets through County Commission with only minimal questioning or alteration. He has used the public pulpit the office affords him to advocate for causes like childhood literacy and treatment for drug addiction.
Jacobs has also taken on some complex challenges. He went to court to stop former Law Director Bud Armstrong’s lawsuit over the pension system for Sheriff’s Office employees, winning a ruling from Chancellor John Weaver that established the mayor and County Commission’s prerogatives to direct county legal action.
He also led a contentious and successful effort to lease the Tennessee Valley Authority’s East Tower, with the goal of moving Knox County Schools administration out of the Andrew Johnson Building. The move will free up the A.J. Building for private redevelopment.
Jacobs had to overcome skepticism from schools Superintendent Bob Thomas and then satisfy a series of questions and objections from Armstrong about the legality of the deal (including getting a state law passed to clarify that the county was allowed to lease federally owned property). He also brought in the University of Tennessee as a partner to sublease the upper half of the building.
The multi-party arrangement required diplomacy, legal maneuvering and the courting of votes on both the school board and County Commission. It occasionally appeared threatened by one obstacle or another, but Jacobs and his team — especially Finance Director Chris Caldwell and outside attorney Mark Mamantov — managed to put the pieces together.
Jacobs came in as a self-identified libertarian, and he has stuck to his philosophical guns. His Twitter feed is full of retweets from Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, the Mises Institute and other libertarian leaders.
More substantively, his first budget slashed the county’s funding of its indigent care program, on the grounds that taxpayers should not be on the hook to provide medical care for some of the poorest people in the county. He also sought to loosen the reins of the county’s Growth Policy Plan to make it easier to develop rural areas of the county, although that effort was upended when the Town of Farragut would not go along.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created the most strain for Jacobs’ small-government orientation, as he has found himself unhappily overseeing restrictions put in place by local and state health authorities. At every step, Jacobs has emphasized the importance of protecting and promoting the local economy and has advocated for as light a government hand as possible.
Early on, tensions about how aggressively to respond to the coronavirus created friction between Jacobs and Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon. In more recent months, he was the only member of the county Board of Health to vote against a countywide face mask mandate. (He was also slow to wear a mask in public himself, although he seems to have largely acclimated to it.)
Rumors abound about Jacobs’ ambitions for seeking a second term and/or another office, but for now he seems settled into the job. Apart from his tussles with Armstrong, he has largely avoided public political fights while cultivating a warm public persona via efforts like his reading of children’s books on Facebook Live. He has also leveraged his celebrity as Kane — his WWE wrestling perona — to build a national political profile, appearing on Fox News and at gatherings like Politicon.
Jacobs looks set for an interesting time ahead with County Commission, which has just seated four new members (including a doubling of the total number of Democrats, to two out of 11 commissioners).
Newly elected Commission Chair Larsen Jay has supported Jacobs on many issues, including the pension lawsuit and TVA building, but he has also been willing to challenge him — most notably during budget deliberations in June, when Jay successfully moved to take nearly $1 million from county reserves to pay a bonus to uniformed officers with the Sheriff’s department. Jacobs opposed the move but was overridden by a Commission majority.
Issues of growth, development and planning seem likely to remain on the front burner for both Jacobs and Commission. Commissioners resolved at a retreat last summer to update the county’s plans and find ways to provide infrastructure to support future growth — but so far that hasn’t led to much by way of action.
Attempting to hold them to account on that front is the Knox County Planning Alliance, a coalition of homeowners’ and residents’ groups from across the county that came together last year. The group has been persistent, if not always successful, in urging the county to plan for both growth and conservation.
Sheriff Tom Spangler — who also took office in 2018 — has had both successes and challenges during his first two years. He won a salary increase for his employees in Jacobs’ first budget, and he was obviously pleased with Jay’s bonus proposal this year.
Spangler has also been the subject of repeated protests, rallies and exhortations from immigrant rights advocates, who have beseeched him to withdraw from a federal 287(g) agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The agreement delegates some immigration enforcement powers to trained KCSO officers at the county jail, who can initiate deportation proceedings for undocumented immigrants charged with criminal offenses. (Knox County is one of only two law enforcement agencies in the state that participates in the program.)
Spangler has renewed the agreement twice, and in response to stepped-up protests this summer — including some outside his house and the church he attends — he issued a statement that he will continue to renew the agreement for as long as he is sheriff. Depending on the outcome of November’s presidential race, Spangler may or may not get that chance — former Vice President Joe Biden has promised to end the program if he is elected.
KCSO this year lost a public records lawsuit brought by a University of Tennessee researcher studying the 287(g) program, who said the department had thwarted her efforts to obtain information. Spangler has not yet said what the department will do to comply with the judge’s order in that case to make its arrest reports and other records more publicly accessible.
Spangler has also had to deal with personnel issues, including taking disciplinary action against several high-ranking members of his department following a drunken brawl in the Old City. The department has also recently been sued in a case in which a man died of a drug overdose after reportedly being hog-tied by Sheriff’s deputies, who said they did not realize he was overdosing. The district attorney general’s office did not find cause to bring charges against any of the officers in the case.
Knox County Schools: A Good Year, A Hard Year
The Knox County school system has had the least upheaval of any local institution in the last two years, but that doesn’t mean it has lacked for drama.
This year’s school board elections brought only one new member — Daniel Watson, representing the 3rd District — while incumbents Jennifer Owen, Susan Horn and Mike McMillan were re-elected. A second new member will join after a special election in November to fill the seat vacated this month when Terry Hill resigned to take up her new role as county commissioner for the 6th District.
Superintendent Bob Thomas remains at the tiller, although his tenure may have an expiration date. Two board members voted against extending his contract this year, and even some who voted for it indicated that it was time to start thinking about conducting a superintendent search in the near future.
The school system had a good year in 2019 — with Jacobs’ support, Thomas and the school board secured a 4 percent salary increase for teachers and a commitment to build three new elementary schools. The relationship with the mayor turned a little rocky last fall when Thomas initially balked at moving Central Office operations into the TVA office block. But that was eventually smoothed over with the county’s promise of free rent for 15 years.
This year has been more difficult. The COVID-19 pandemic closed schools the day before spring break, and the remainder of the 2019-20 school year was eventually canceled. Thomas and the board came in for criticism from many parents for not offering online education through the spring, which school officials said was impossible because not all students had school-issued laptops.
The school board rectified that shortage with help from federal CARES Act funding, and by the time schools reopened on Aug. 24, Knox County was officially a “1:1” school district — meaning every student had a laptop to take home.
Concerns continued through the summer, with parents dissatisfied about the choices presented to return to school in-person or enroll for virtual schooling for the fall. And of course, it is too early in the semester to know how it will all play out.
The University of Tennessee: New Faces at the Top
It has been a busy couple of years on Rocky Top. Knoxville entrepreneur and former gubernatorial candidate Randy Boyd was named as interim president in the fall of 2018, and then — to nobody’s surprise — elevated to the permanent post this March. His contract runs to 2025.
Boyd has been energetic and ambitious, overseeing the merging of the Institute of Agriculture with the main Knoxville campus; establishing a new Oak Ridge Institute to oversee the university’s partnerships with Oak Ridge National Laboratory; creating the UT Promise scholarship program to essentially offer free tuition and cover fees for students from households making less than $50,000 a year; and brokering a change to the funding of student activities intended to quiet outrage among Republicans in the state Legislature about the annual Sex Week programming.
Boyd solved a longstanding conundrum with the sale of the Eugenia Williams estate on Lyons View Pike, property that had been bequeathed to the university but never put to use. And he struck the deal with the county to lease the top half of TVA’s East Tower, which will bring UT System leadership — including Boyd himself — into the heart of downtown.
He also oversaw the hiring in 2019 of Donde Plowman as the new chancellor of UT Knoxville. Plowman has followed Boyd’s lead in taking a hands-on approach to her job, holding regular office hours for students and staff at locations around campus — at least prior to the coronavirus outbreak.
Plowman’s public presence only increased with the onset of the pandemic. Even more than before, she became the public face and voice of the Knoxville campus, providing students, faculty and the public with a stream of updates and briefings as students were sent home and classes moved online for the second half of the spring semester.
In the subsequent months, UT wrestled like universities around the country with how, whether and when to reopen. As students returned to campus in August and classes resumed — some in-person — some faculty, students and staff have questioned whether UT was sacrificing safety for financial interests.
Plowman has been resolute about enforcing campus health guidelines, cracking down on students and organizations found in violation. Although active COVID cases are rising, the Knoxville campus so far has many fewer cases than several of its peer institutions.
Boyd and Plowman have both identified lofty goals for UT, but for at least the near future, managing the pandemic seems certain to remain the overriding concern for the institution.