Election 2020: 6th School Board District
Three contenders vie to finish Terry Hill’s term in the fast-growing Northwest Knox County district.
by jesse fox mayshark • october 5, 2020
hannah kirby, betsy henderson and rob gray are running for school board.
All three candidates for the open 6th District seat on the Knox County Board of Education can claim close connections with the schools in the northwest sector of the county. Two are parents with children currently enrolled in Hardin Valley and Karns, while the third just graduated from Karns High School six years ago.
On the ballot: two parents of current students and one recent Karns High graduate.
The contenders — Rob Gray, Betsy Henderson and Hannah Kirby — are vying to fill the last two years of former board member Terry Hill’s term, which runs through August 2022. Hill, who had held the seat since 2014, had to step down from the board last month to take her new seat as the 6th District representative on County Commission.
Because this is a special election, there is no primary. That means that unlike regular school board races, whoever gets the most votes will win, even if nobody receives more than 50 percent.
School board races are nonpartisan, so even though two of the candidates have some experience working or volunteering in politics, nobody is running with party affiliation.
The 6th District runs west from Clinton Highway and north of Ball Camp Pike and Interstate 40 to the Anderson and Loudon county lines. It includes some of the fastest-growing areas of the county, and school crowding and public infrastructure are among the most common concerns of local residents.
Knox County Schools is building a new elementary school in the district on Coward Mill Road, which is supposed to absorb some students from the Karns and Hardin Valley zones.
None of the three candidates has run for public office before. Compass talked to all of them about their backgrounds and their priorities. (You can also see them live tonight in a virtual forum hosted by the League of Women Voters of Knoxville and Knox County, moderated by Blake Stevens of WATE-TV. The event begins at 6:30 p.m. For information, click here.)
Rob Gray: Blowing the Whistle
The most pressing need Rob Gray sees for Knox County students is more attention to their emotional and mental health needs.
“The issue in the schools that kids brought up is they want to be able to have kind of like group therapy,” said Gray, who works with young people extensively as a local sports official and a cheerleading coach in Karns. “Having like a little group, and having a parent or an adult come in that’s not associated with the kids. Whether it's a minister or someone who's had some sort of training in guiding those kids in a conversation.”
Gray grew up on a farm in Dandridge and earned two degrees at East Tennessee State University, including a Master’s in Public Administration. He works as an independent insurance advisor, and he devotes a lot of his free time to sports officiating in both college and recreational leagues.
He and his wife lived in Raleigh, N.C., for about eight years and then moved to Knox County in 2014 to get closer to home for both of them. (His wife is from Oak Ridge.) They have two children, a daughter in second-grade and a son in preschool, both at Karns. Gray’s son was born with chromosomal deletion syndrome, which has delayed both his physical and speech development.
“He’s opened my eyes to things I hadn’t thought of,” Gray said of his son. Among other things, he wants to ensure that schools are accessible and welcoming to children of all abilities.
He said his idea for some kind of structured group therapy came from conversations during his campaign. He said many kids have told him they wish they had a way to talk through emotions and uncertainties with their peers.
“I want to make sure that the kids and the teachers and schools are well represented, bringing my background to the school board,” Gray said. “You know, kind of getting the stuff out there at that actual board meeting and discussing hard topics and actually bringing things to the forefront, instead of waiting back and waiting on which way the political wind’s going to flow.”
Gray said he wants to continue the school system’s emphasis on early childhood literacy. He is especially concerned about lingering academic effects from the shutdown of school in the spring and the overall stress of the pandemic.
“That's the reason I want to get in there and look at K-2 and empower those teachers in kindergarten, first- and second-grade to look at the subjects and not give these kids three years of self-defeat,” he said.
He thinks the state should suspend standardized testing for the next two years, since the data will be hard to compare to a more normal year anyway.
Gray said he thinks efforts like Gov. Bill Lee’s to introduce school vouchers into Tennessee will be inevitable unless public schools improve. Lee’s Education Savings Account program, which would only operate in Nashville and Memphis, has been blocked for the moment by a court ruling. Gray said competition for public dollars from private schools would force public schools to be better.
“You’ve got to be innovative,” Gray said. “Competition just makes you develop a better product.”
Betsy Henderson: From D.C. to PTO
Betsy Henderson says she wants to bring a parent’s perspective to the school board.
“I want to ensure that parents’ voices are heard,” said Henderson, who has a son in 6th grade and a daughter in 4th grade, both in the Hardin Valley schools. “I’m in school every week, so I have first-hand knowledge of what’s going on in the schools. I’ve worked closely with teachers, I’ve worked closely with administration.”
Henderson grew up in Louisville, in Blount County, and attended Maryville city schools. Her mother was from South Knoxville and her father was a Greek immigrant, whom Henderson said infused her with respect for the importance of education.
“He came over here by himself and started opening up restaurants,” Henderson saud, “He taught himself English and worked really hard to give us an amazing childhood. And public education is important to me because of the fact that he didn't graduate high school and gave us all that he could, for which I'm very grateful.”
She completed her own education at the University of Tennessee, with a double major in journalism and public relations, and along the way she had a junior-year internship in the office of then U.S. Rep. John J. “JImmy” Duncan. That led to a job offer after she graduated, and Henderson packed her bags for Washington, D.C. — arriving what turned out to be one week after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“I contemplated it, but I thought, it's the right thing to do to serve the people of East Tennessee,” Henderson said of the move.
After a stint in Duncan’s office, she worked as a political fundraiser in Virginia and then in the office of U.S. Rep. Connie Mack IV, R-Fla. She met her husband, Scott, in Washington, and the two of them moved back to East Tennessee six years ago with their two young children.
As her children entered school, Henderson became active as a parent volunteer and room mom, and eventually became president of the Hardin Valley Elementary PTO. She said she worked closely with Hill as the local school board member.
“I served as PTO president for two years, so the past year has been kind of a down year for me,” Henderson said. “I really had time to think and reflect on what I want to do next to serve the community. And this just kind of seemed like an extension of all that work I’ve done with PTO, all that work I’ve done with the community.”
On the school board, she said she would advocate for “child-centered education” that is flexible enough to identify and meet the individual needs of students.
“We do have really great schools, and I've seen the successes, but I’ve seen the challenges too,” she said. “And so I just want to be a part of that, to make sure that our teachers and administration are empowered as well.”
On vouchers, Henderson said, “I am for school choice. And I think that comes in many forms, whether it's through vouchers, through charter schools. You know, my family got the choice to live anywhere in Knoxville that we wanted to. And I think that every child should have the choice of where they go to school, or the school that meets their needs.”
Hannah Kirby: A Grad Returns
When Hannah Kirby was little, her single working mother couldn’t afford to pay for childcare after school.
“Her boss let her leave work in the middle of the day and come pick me up, and I would go hang out in their conference room for the last few hours of the day,” said Kirby, who at 24 is the youngest candidate on the slate. “That’s not an option for the vast majority of families.”
That’s one reason Kirby would like to see an expansion of the community schools model already in place in 16 Knox County schools, which provides a range of services and afterschool activities. She would also like to see the state approve universal pre-kindergarten.
“The pandemic has shown that schools provide so much more for children than a learning environment,” she said.
In an area of the county these days associated with growing affluence, Kirby grew up with limited means.
“We were evicted from our trailer when I was 4,” she said, “and moved into a house that we affectionately called the Swamp House, because when it rained, our basement was filled with 2 feet of water and red mud.”
Her mother eventually was able to buy a home, and Kirby said, “I never felt any different from my classmates. I never knew that we were less well off.” She attended Karns schools from kindergarten through her graduation 2014.
She then enrolled at Maryville College, where she majored in environmental studies and political science. She graduated in 2018. While in college, she got a taste of politics volunteering for the legislative campaign of one of her professors, Jay Clark, who ran as the Democratic nominee in the 8th state House district in 2018 and is running again this year.
After an internship in Chicago, Kirby worked at a domestic violence shelter in Blount County. She now works at the University of Tennessee in the Department of Supply Chain Management. She entered the race, she said, because she thinks she can bring a crucial perspective.
“There have been a lot of young people across the country that over the last few years have entered the activist scene and tried to become more involved in political discourse,” Kirby said. “So that was the opportunity that I saw here at exactly the time when I was really feeling concerned for my own teachers who were still teaching in Karns schools, and for the students.”
Kirby said she thinks teachers remain underpaid and underappreciated and are being stretched thin by the pandemic.
“A lot of really, really fine educators who I felt lucky to learn from have retired in the last few years, between when I graduated and now,” she said. “And I understand that it's because they were feeling really unheard, kind of beaten down by the bureaucratic system.”
She is opposed to vouchers and charter schools. “We need to be able to say, ‘No, public schools deserve full adequate funding,'” Kirby said. “These are public tax dollars, and the fact that you aren't willing to allocate them to public schools before channeling them to private institutions via vouchers is wrong.”
CORRECTION, 2:50 p.m. 10/19/20: Story has been corrected to clarify Rob Gray's position on school vouchers.