Election 2022: School Board District 9

Headshots of Annabel Henley and Kristi Kristy

Election 2020: School Board District 9

The South Knox contest pits Republican board Chair Kristi Kristy against Democratic challenger Annabel Henley.

By Jesse Fox Mayshark • July 7, 2022
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Headshots of Annabel Henley and Kristi Kristy

Annabel Henley, left, is challenging incumbent Kristi Kristy in the South Knox district.

In many parts of Knox County, the boundaries of school board districts and school zones do not align neatly — students often attend elementary school in one board member’s district and middle or high school in another.

A partisan race with two candidates who don't love partisanship.

Not so in the 9th District, which covers South Knoxville and South Knox County from the Tennessee River to the Blount and Sevier county lines. It used to be even more geographically defined by waterways than it is now, but last year’s redistricting extended a portion of the district northeast across the French Broad River, reaching all the way to Interstate 40 in some places.

Still, all of the schools in the district are south of the rivers, and they form a unitary feeder pattern: Its seven elementary schools all send students to South-Doyle Middle and from there to South-Doyle High.

The district is currently represented by Kristi Kristy, the sitting board chair, who is running as a Republican for a second term. She was first elected in 2018 in a nonpartisan race. After easily fending off a primary challenge from the right in May, Kristy now faces Democratic candidate Annabel Henley in the Aug. 4 county general election.

The 9th District overall leans Republican, but the more densely populated precincts inside Knoxville city limits have been trending Democratic for a while. Kristy had a significant but not overwhelming fundraising advantage at the end of April, with $12,724 on hand to $5,010 for Henley. (Henley filed an updated report this week showing she had raised $9,108 during the most recent quarter and had $10,918 on hand. Kristy has not yet filed her second quarter report.)

Because the pace of new development in the district has been relatively slow, constrained by topography and utility access, it has not seen the kinds of crowding issues experienced by schools in the western parts of the county. But that may be changing as a new wave of housing arrives, both inside city limits near the popular Urban Wilderness area and outside in formerly agricultural areas.

Here’s a look at both candidates. (Portions of the section about Kristy previously appeared in our primary coverage.)

Annabel Henley

Henley works as the program manager for women’s health at the Knox County Health Department. She started attending meetings of Knox County Commission regularly — and occasionally speaking during public forum — during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

During that time, she said, she had conversations with her friend Tommy Smith, who serves as City Council representative for South Knoxville, about how to get more engaged in local issues. He suggested running for office, and she considered her options. County Commission, with all of its zoning battles, didn’t feel like a good match. But school board?

“When my kids were little I even thought about being on school board,” Henley said. “But when you have five children …”

Her kids are now grown — they range in age from 21 to 33 — but she had ample opportunity to experience a range of local schools during their childhoods. They went to public school, but Henley withdrew one daughter who was being bullied because of a physical condition and enrolled her in private school. A son, who was adopted and is African-American, transferred to Vine Middle School rather than attend South-Doyle.

“I did what was best for all my kids and what they needed,” she said.

Henley said she is running to help restore a sense of common goals and common good to the board after the fractious pandemic debates of recent years.

“I have always styled myself as a peacemaker, somebody who brings people together,” she said. “Managing large offices, you have to find things that bring people together. I have women of all cultures and races and backgrounds that work for me. Our big thing at the Health Department is we have to be rowing the boat in the same direction.”

Henley was born in Nashville and grew up there and in Louisville, Ky. But she had grandparents in Knoxville and spent a lot of time here. Her grandfather played football at the University of Tennessee in the 1920s. She ended up at UT herself, after two years at Sewanee, and graduated with a degree in deaf education.

While in college she worked at the Tennessee School for the Deaf in the Island Home neighborhood, where she met her husband, who was also working there. He is deaf, as is his brother, and is still well-known in South Knoxville as “Dr. Rebound” because of his basketball prowess at the old South-Young High School.

They moved to Memphis for some years and then back to Knoxville. Henley, who had been a swim coach while their children were swimming competitively, ended up working as operations director for UT swim Coach Matt Kredich. From there, she eventually found a position at the Health Department, where she has worked for the past seven years.

“I have quite an eclectic résumé,” she said with a laugh.

At the Health Department, she works on initiatives like reducing neonatal abstinence syndrome (which occurs when babies are born to mothers with drug addictions) and birth-control education, including for women who are incarcerated or in drug rehab programs.

As a school board member, she said she would want to continue the district’s work on addressing educational and disciplinary disparities. She said she is especially concerned about discipline that removes students from classrooms and interferes with their learning. 

Restorative intervention, which focuses not on punishment but learning and redressing the harm that some particular behavior has caused, is used in Knox County Schools, but Henley thinks it needs to be bolstered.

“I really do want to focus on those priorities and really educate our teachers on restorative discipline practices,” she said. “It is hard for teachers to teach when they have unruly kids in their classes. So how do you set up a successful classroom? Restorative practices is the way to do that.”

She also wants to find ways to reduce teachers’ workloads so they can focus on classroom instruction.

As for new Superintendent Jon Rysewyk, Henley said the jury is still out.

“I know people who think that he is awesome and he’s done wonderful things, and I know people that don’t like him at all,” she said. “I’m going to reserve my judgment until I get to know him. I’ve met him several times, and he’s been very pleasant.”

Henley said she has “no beef” with Emerald Academy, the county’s only charter school, and she knows parents whose children have thrived there. But she noted that it was started by the Emerald Youth Foundation, which has its roots in Knoxville. She is skeptical of outside operators seeking to come to town to open new charter schools.

“I don't want somebody coming in from someplace else that's not part of our community,” Henley said. “We can do the things that need to be done through the Community School programs.”

She lamented the shift to partisan school board races and said she is running as a Democrat partly because she was recruited for the race by county Democratic Party Chair Matt Shears. She describes herself as a former “staunch Republican.”

“I have evolved and progressed in my views on these things,” Henley said. “I like to say, I didn’t leave the Republican Party, they left me. And I think a lot of people feel that way.”

Kristi Kristy

Kristy, whose first run for school board was under the old nonpartisan system, said she didn’t initially have strong feelings about the shift to partisan races when the state Legislature passed it last fall.

But after finding herself on the receiving end of pointed social media posts, she had some second thoughts.

“I didn’t even know the Knox Dems had a Twitter account until the partisan school board races came in,” she said with a rueful smile. “But it is what it is. It’s one of those things you can’t control.”

She was a parent volunteer and PTA leader in her three children’s South Knox schools before running for the school board the first time in 2018. At the time, her election was seen as some degree of blowback against the board majority that had chased off former Superintendent Jim McIntyre.

She defeated former board member and former teacher Amber Rountree, who had been part of that majority. The News Sentinel editorial page, which had supported McIntyre, endorsed Kristy that year and said she would “add a strong voice for parents and students” to the teacher-centric board.

The makeup of the board has changed significantly since then. It now has a majority of parents of current or former Knox County students, and just three former teachers. (That number will drop to two former teachers this year, with Patti Bounds stepping down from the board.)

Kristy, who was outspoken in her criticisms of former Superintendent Bob Thomas, was elected board chair last September — just after Thomas announced his plans to retire at the end of this school year. Kristy voted along with the majority of the board to hire Rysewyk as Thomas’ successor.

On the district’s response to COVID-19, she has been right in the middle of the board. She supported public health measures including mask-wearing during the 2020-21 school year, and then voted against them at the start of the 2021-22 year — the swing vote in 5-4 decisions in both directions.

That helped fuel a conservative challenge to her in the May 3 Republican primary, from local music teacher Phil King. He positioned himself as a Christian conservative standing up to liberal forces in public education. Kristy dispatched him by a 64-36 percent margin.

She said one of the biggest lessons of her time on the board to date is that any individual board member can only do so much in a district as big and complicated as Knox County.

“You get a lot of calls about things you can’t control,” she said. “I think there’s a perception out there that you run things in your schools, and that simply isn’t the case. I mean, I can connect people with other people that can help them — and they may or may not be able to help them.”

She added, “Sometimes it’s a struggle for me, because I want people to be happy. I want to fix things.”

The last two years in particular have been full of situations where it was not only impossible to make everyone happy, it was impossible not to make some people really angry. Having been on both sides of the mask debate, Kristy has made different people mad at different times.

Still, she said, the district did manage to move to 1-to-1 technology as a result of the pandemic, meaning every Knox County student has a take-home laptop to work on. The district used its first round of federal COVID relief funds to buy the computers.

“I ran on a platform of wanting 1-to-1 technology,” Kristy said. “Granted, we kind of got it in an unconventional way. I don’t know that we would have achieved that otherwise.”

She said she was glad Knox County managed to keep schools open in-person throughout most of the 2020-21 year, when other large systems in Tennessee and around the country did not.

Looking ahead, Kristy said she thinks having more focused leadership from Rysewyk will help the district and the board present more coherent messages to the community — “Having that strong leadership team that can talk through some of the bigger issues with board members, because we can't speak to each other about things we vote on,” she said. 

Thomas sometimes seemed reactive and deferential to the board, rather than setting clear directions. 

“I think that you might start to see more cohesiveness of the board with that as well,” Kristy said. “Regardless of how elections go, I think you're probably going to see more of a shift where it doesn't look so awkward.” 

Like just about everyone running for school board, Kristy said she wants to continue the district’s focus on improving third-grade literacy achievement. Third grade has come to be seen as the point where students need good reading comprehension skills in order to succeed in higher grades.

“Up until third grade, kids are learning to read,” Kristy said. “After third grade, they’re reading to learn.  And we know that if they don't have that good foundation, it pretty much sets the tone for the rest of their academic careers, statistically speaking.”

She is also a big supporter of the Ford Next Generation Learning project, which aims to redesign high schools to provide clear career paths and options for students.

“Hopefully, you'll see multi-level things,” she said. “I think you're going to see the talk of careers and technical training and opportunities being discussed at an earlier age, you're going to see it dipping down into the middle school more. So kids can start thinking about what they do or do not want to do.”

As for charter schools, Kristy said the school board doesn’t have that much control over them — even if it turns down an application from a group that wants to open one, that decision can be appealed to the state Charter School Commission.

“We have to make our schools the ones the kids want to be in,” she said. “That’s my focus.”