Election 2022: School Board District 6

Photo portraits of Betsy Henderson and Phillip Sherman

Election 2022: School Board District 6

An independent religious studies professor is taking on the Republican incumbent in the fast-growing district that includes Hardin Valley and Karns.

by jesse fox mayshark • July 6, 2022

Photo portraits of Betsy Henderson and Phillip Sherman

Republican incumbent Betsy Henderson is running against independent candidate Phillip Michael Sherman.

Knox County’s 6th District anchors the northwest corner of the county, stretching from Clinton Highway to Karns and Hardin Valley. It has been the fastest-growing district for more than a decade, with no signs of slowing.

The shift to partisan school board races shapes the West Knox contest.

Schools in the district tend to perform well academically, reflecting its generally affluent demographics, but have struggled for years to have enough physical space to keep up with the student population. A new elementary school on Coward Mill Road is supposed to help alleviate some of that crunch.

Voting precincts in the district lean reliably Republican, which may explain why there is no Democratic candidate on the ballot in this year’s return to partisan school board elections. (They had been nonpartisan for two decades, until a change in state law last year.)

Instead, there is a Republican incumbent, Betsy Henderson, facing an independent challenger, Phillip Michael Sherman. Henderson has served just two years in the seat, after winning a special election in 2020 to complete the term of former board member Terry Hill. Hill stepped down after being elected to County Commission that year.

Henderson has been an outspoken critic of public health mandates imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic, arguing to lift the board’s mask mandate in 2020-21 and leading the board’s fight against the court-ordered mask mandate during the past school year.

Sherman, on the other hand, was motivated to run partly by the board’s fractiousness of the past two years, and by disappointment in the change to partisan races, which he is afraid will exacerbate it.

Both Henderson and Sherman are parents of children currently enrolled in Knox County Schools, and both are generally supportive of new Superintendent Jon Rysewyk’s initial steps since taking charge of the district last month.

Henderson, who had no primary opponent, entered the Aug. 4 county general election in a much stronger campaign funding position than Sherman — she had $30,482 on hand at the end of April, to $1,418 for Sherman.

Here’s a look at both candidates.

Betsy Henderson

Although Henderson ran in 2020 in a nonpartisan race, her political affiliation was never in doubt. Before moving back to Knox County with her husband in 2014, the East Tennessee native spent more than a dozen years in and around Washington, D.C., including stints on staff in the offices of two Republican members of Congress, former Knoxville Rep. John J. “Jimmy” Duncan Jr. and Florida Rep. Connie Mack IV.

But her priorities are largely the same running as a Republican as they were in her first campaign: parental engagement and empowerment, and success for students that prepares them for life after high school.

“The last few years have been really hard on students, families and our teachers,” Henderson said. “But now that we are getting back to normal, I think we have a great opportunity to build on the successes of our schools.”

She served on the board committee that oversaw the superintendent search this past winter, which led to the hiring of Rysewyk. Henderson said she had been impressed with Rysewyk in his role as the district chief academic officer, but she went into the search with an open mind.

“I have always been impressed with him, we have a great working relationship,” she said. “So I was happy to support him when we went through this process and I saw he was definitely the person for the job. He has such great energy. I think he has a great vision for our schools.”

Henderson has two children in Hardin Valley schools, one in elementary and one in middle school. During the mask mandates, she became the most outspoken board member advocating for parents who wanted a choice of whether to send their children to school masked.

“I did hear from both sides,” she said. “But the majority felt like they wanted choice. They wanted to be involved more in this decision-making in their children's schools.”

That advocacy reached a peak earlier this year when Henderson led an effort for the school board to hire an outside attorney to assist the county Law Department with the federal lawsuit that produced last year’s court-ordered mask requirement. She publicly challenged county Law Director David Buuck for what she saw as not working hard enough to get the mandate lifted.

“I think it got to a breaking point for a lot of Knox County parents,” Henderson said. “A lot of people were taking their children out of Knox County Schools. And we want our schools to be somewhere where parents want their children to be — we have great schools. So it got to a point where I just needed to step up in a leadership role and be a voice for those parents. And I’m a parent, too, so I was feeling those frustrations as well.”

Henderson’s online critics have accused her of being a member of the conservative activist group Moms for Liberty, which has stirred controversy with efforts to remove books from Williamson County schools, because she follows its Facebook page.

“I’m not a member of Moms for Liberty,” she said. “Some partisan Democrats saw that I follow them on Facebook and they decided that makes me a member. I support any parent that wants to get involved in the process.”

With the mask lawsuit resolved through a settlement reached in April, and Rysewyk settling in as the new superintendent, Henderson said she wants to see renewed emphasis on childhood literacy and post-secondary preparation.

On the former, she and Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs partnered to create the “One Book Read City” program, part of Jacobs’ countywide reading initiative that provided more than 30,000 free copies of a children’s book called The Chocolate Touch to elementary school students and staff across the county.

“I was really proud and excited to see how that program was embraced by our community and how successful it was,” Henderson said.

As for post-graduation readiness, she hosted a “Lunch and Learn” series over the winter focusing in particular on career and technical education. Henderson is a supporter of the Ford Next Generation Learning project to redesign county high schools with more opportunities for exposure to career options and hands-on training.

“I think partnering more closely with industries is going to be beneficial, just having these companies come in,” she said. “And I also think just having the children and students exposed to different careers that maybe they didn't think about before.”

Henderson has long been on record as a supporter of school choice for parents, including vouchers and charter schools. Vouchers will be decided at the state level — for the moment, the Legislature has approved only a pilot project in Nashville and Memphis — but local charter school applications will come to the school board for approval. (Any denials can be appealed to the state.)

“At the end of the day, to me what's important is every child should be reading, every child should be doing math,” Henderson said. “ And I think that if a charter school fits that child and that family's needs, then we should have those charter schools and be supporting them in our community.”

Phillip Michael Sherman

The state Legislature’s decision last fall to make school board races partisan persuaded some candidates and incumbents not to seek election this year. For Sherman, it had the opposite effect.

“I’m not trying to pretend like I don’t have political views,” said Sherman, who is an associate professor of religious studies at Maryville College and chairs the Division of Humanities there. “But I think there's a large difference between recognizing that you need to work together with others for the common good and starting out by planting your flag for the party and its platform, at least in what I consider to be hyper-local elections.”

Sherman grew up in Kingsport and graduated public school there. After living in Atlanta for eight years, he and his wife moved back to Tennessee for what was initially going to be a one-year position at Maryville College and turned into an extended contract and then a tenured position.

His wife has worked for Knox County Schools since 2006 and currently serves as an instructional coach for school librarians. They have two daughters, a rising senior at Hardin Valley Academy and an entering sixth-grader at Karns Middle School.

Sherman said that his overall experience as a Knox County Schools parent has been positive.

“Another layer of motivation for me doing this has been a real desire to sort of give back and to support the teachers and support staff and administrators who have taken care of my kids,” he said. “And make sure that they have everything they need to succeed.”

At the moment, he said, teachers are stressed, overextended and under pressure and scrutiny from parents and politicians alike.

“I think we are at the middle of a crisis in terms of recruiting and retaining excellent educators, for lots of reasons,” Sherman said. “I’ve watched our numbers (at Maryville College) as they’ve gone up and down. I’ve talked to folks at UT’s (education) program, and the number of people going into this profession is declining.”

He said increasing pay is important — and the district has boosted teacher salaries by 4 percent in three of the last four years — but not sufficient to stem the exodus.

“I think we saw during the pandemic, unfortunately, that sometimes parents and teachers were intentionally or not set against each other,” he said. “Challenges by groups like Moms for Liberty, who seem to believe they should be in charge of making curricular decisions over the expertise of teachers. There's a whole number of issues that are contributing to teacher burnout, that are contributing to real disrespect for the professional identity of teachers.”

Sherman said he would have liked to have seen a more aggressive national search for a new superintendent. The school board hired the Tennessee School Boards Association to conduct the search and ended up with just two finalists when a third one dropped out. 

Still, Sherman said, he was “comfortable” with the board’s selection of Rysewyk. “I am a strong believer in institutional memory,” he said. “I do think that matters, particularly in a system like Knox County Schools, which is so large.”

Speaking of Rysewyk’s administrative reorganization, Sherman said, “The decision to sort of break the county up into smaller units and to have individuals in charge of different zones made a lot of intuitive sense to me. The proof will be in the pudding, right? We’ll see what happens in a couple years. But the attempt to have a stronger focus on different regions and the different challenges and opportunities that they face, I thought that was a smart move.”

Although he is running to represent one of the county’s most affluent districts, Sherman said he wants to make sure equal opportunities and resources are available across the county. 

“I really would want to review the kinds of opportunities that currently exist,” he said, “and maybe think about some new ways to connect schools that have lots and lots of resources — whether they're financial resources or whether they're family involvement resources — with schools that struggle to have those.”

Speaking of opportunities, Sherman said he understands the appeal of charter schools: They promise new approaches to familiar problems of increasing student engagement and performance, particularly for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

“The challenge, of course, is that they don’t have to follow the exact same laws as a fully public school, but they get public dollars,” he said. “To me that's a question then of transparency and accountability.”

Overall, he said, he wants his independent campaign to signal that local decisions about education don’t have to get caught up in the endless churn of partisan politics.

“That kind of partisanship I think is really corrosive of goodwill and the ability of people who know each other fairly well to work together for common goals,” Sherman said. “And I didn't know any other way of articulating that or pushing back against what I thought was a move that was actually going to harm Knox County Schools — its students, its teachers and support staff, everyone involved — than to run for the office and to say, we don't have to do this. We don't have to choose to invite these kinds of partisan tendencies into our work as a community.”