Election 2022: School Board District 4
An open seat in a politically mixed West Knoxville district draws two parents as candidates — one with a lot of money to spend.
by jesse fox mayshark • July 8, 2022
Republican Will Edwards is running against Democrat Katherine Bike.
Knox County’s 4th District is the place where this year’s shift to partisan school board races has made the biggest impact.
Both draw on their experiences as parents of children with special needs.
After initially announcing that she would seek reelection as an independent candidate, incumbent board member Virginia Babb decided to withdraw from the field entirely. That created an open seat in one of the county’s most affluent and politically engaged districts.
The 4th District covers a swath of West Knoxville from Sequoyah Hills to Bluegrass, primarily south of Interstate 40 but crossing it to take in most of West Hills. It is a traditionally Republican area, but in the past few decades the precincts closer to the city center have trended to Democrats. In the 2020 presidential election, the district as a whole went for President Joe Biden, although by fewer than 100 votes.
The boundaries have shifted since then thanks to last year’s redistricting, with the 4th picking up a few more Republican-leaning precincts and dropping some Democratic-leaning ones. But it remains one of the county’s most politically mixed districts.
Entering that divided partisan landscape are Democratic candidate Katherine Bike, a technology specialist, and Republican candidate Will Edwards, a tax attorney. Both have children in District 4 schools, though both have also at different times enrolled children in private schools because of their particular needs.
Besides their party labels, one big difference between the two is their campaign finances. Edwards has raised a nearly unheard of amount for a school board race, reporting $83,779 on hand at the end of April. Bike reported almost exactly 10 percent as much, at $8,379.
But the race is apparently perceived as close enough to draw some outside attention. Many voters in the district have reported receiving phone calls purporting to be political surveys on behalf of a company called CCG Research, which include questions evidently designed to cast Bike in a negative light.
Bike issued a statement last week condemning the push-poll calls and calling on Edwards to apologize for them. Edwards said his campaign is not involved in the calls and said he didn’t even know about them until contacted by a reporter. That suggests a third party is underwriting the effort, though no organization has acknowledged responsibility for it.
Here is a look at the two candidates.
Bike was born and largely grew up in central Florida, but moved to East Tennessee just before high school when her parents retired and bought property in Hawkins County. She graduated from Cherokee High School there in 2001 and then completed an associate’s degree at Walters State Community College before transferring to the University of Tennessee.
While enrolled in UT’s architecture program, Bike discovered two things: She didn’t really want to be an architect, but she liked working with the school’s technology. That led to an in-house job at the College of Architecture as a media specialist and website coordinator, working with students and the college’s information technology team.
“I would go into (students’) first classes at the beginning of the semester and install (software) for them, teach them how to use it and what's going to be important,” she said. “I really loved working with them, and I realized that I love connecting with people and showing them how things work, and just connecting the dots.”
She also spent several years helping out at the Birdhouse community center in the 4th and Gill neighborhood, where she got to know people from an array of backgrounds.
“I really loved seeing all walks of life come together,” Bike said. “You have your older retired affluent people mixed in with young art kids that have no idea what they're going to do, and then also the (mixed) socioeconomic status, color, just everything all together was really magical.”
Her focus shifted with the birth of her two children, a daughter in 2012 and a son in 2014. She soon noticed some developmental delays with her son, which led to a long series of tests and consultations with assorted doctors and specialists. Her son qualified for free services from the state, but even accessing those was complicated. She realized she was lucky to be able to shift her schedule around to take her son to all of his appointments.
“There’s no way that I could have had a full-time job and gotten him to all the services he needed,” she said. “I really think that that's part of the key to the success that he's having today, is my ability to be able to get him to those services. That’s probably the first time I really recognized disparities.”
Now a divorced single parent, Bike works as a trial technology specialist, helping attorneys prepare media presentations for the courtroom. An avid mountain biker, she’s also a cycling guide at Blackberry Farm and volunteers with Little Bellas, which teaches girls to mountain bike.
After some time in Montessori schools when they were younger, her children are now both enrolled at Sequoyah Elementary.
“It has been amazing and wonderful, and they have been so helpful,” Bike said. “I definitely see the parent involvement, the community involvement, both in time and money. That's where I feel like it really shows, if you have those resources, what you can do with those resources. And it's very clear that all of the schools need those resources.”
She still doesn’t have a definitive diagnosis for her son’s learning challenges, but along the way of having him evaluated she got curious about some of her own characteristics. She was eventually diagnosed with high-functioning autism and an audio processing disorder.
“As much as it was kind of devastating to get a diagnosis, also it was so wonderful, because it was like, ‘Oh, this is how I work,’” she said. “Now I just have to work with it.”
She said she was drawn to run for office after Babb announced she wouldn’t seek reelection. Among her top concerns are students and families who struggle, whether it’s with learning disabilities or socioeconomic disadvantages. She said she was disappointed in the school board’s refusal earlier this year to approve an equity policy committing the district to addressing disparities.
“I feel like they're not recognizing the disparities, so I think that’s the first thing, to recognize that they exist,” Bike said. “And then start finding the resources to put in that direction. So I think an equity policy is really important.”
She said she wished there had been “more transparency” in the superintendent search process this past winter, especially in how candidates were recruited and narrowed down to a group of finalists.
As for the result of that process, she said she has some concerns about new Superintendent Jon Rysewyk’s priorities. In particular, she said she fears he might not carry on the district’s efforts to reduce disparities, and may be geared toward supporting charter schools and vouchers. (Rysewyk was the founding director of Emerald Academy, the county’s only charter school.)
“It seems like that’s the direction that he’s OK with it going,” Bike said. “And I would hope if I’m on the board that I might have some influence with that.”
Of charter schools and vouchers in general, Bike said she wants to protect public funding for public schools.
“I feel like all of the examples of that show that it’s bad, that this is something that is not going to go well,” she said. “The privatization of things has always gone bad.”
Bike attended a rally last Friday with teachers, officeholders and other candidates — most of them Democrats — protesting derogatory statements about public education and teachers by Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn. Gov. Bill Lee has encouraged Hillsdale, a private Christian school in Michigan, to launch as many as 100 charter schools in Tennessee. Even before those inflammatory remarks, she said teachers were feeling burned out by the pandemic and the constant stress of the job.
“They’re exhausted, and they want to find another job,” Bike said. “I know several that have already quit, and others that are applying for jobs, and that makes me afraid.”
She added, “I think that’s also what Knox County has to refocus on. I think a lot of teachers don’t feel supported.”
Edwards, a native of Jackson, Tenn., was brought to Knoxville by a job after finishing law school in 2008. He works for a local firm on tax and business law, including estate planning and mergers and acquisitions.
“A lot of people who are in my district are already clients,” he said with a laugh.
He described himself as “a Republican with a big heart,” to assuage any concerns that he is approaching the school board with an ideological agenda. He has a long track record of engagement with educational issues already, and it comes from his own family’s experience.
He and his wife have two sons, both of whom have special learning needs. The younger one has autism, and the older has identified learning disabilities. The younger is at Northshore Elementary, while the older one is enrolled in a private school that Edwards said is best suited to his needs.
“We needed a more individualized approach and collaborative approach for his learning,” Edwards said. “And we didn't feel like Knox County had a true plan to respond with respect to students with disabilities.”
Advocating for his own children has also made Edwards an advocate for children and people with disabilities more broadly.
“We realized very early on, if we're advocating for our child we're also advocating for children across the county, who may not have parents that understand the process, understand their rights, or perhaps they aren't engaged at all,” he said.
His efforts have been noticed. He was appointed by former Gov. Bill Haslam to the Tennessee Council on Autism Spectrum Disorder, and reappointed by Gov. Bill Lee. Lee also recently appointed him to the Tennessee Council on Developmental Disabilities. Locally, he has served as co-chair of a Knox County parent advisory council for special needs students and their families.
He said navigating the school system’s services and resources for students with disabilities is an ongoing challenge.
“I would say it’s a struggle,” he said. “It's not because our educators in the schools aren't innovative, and it’s not because they’re not engaged and not trying. It’s just a struggle from a system level. And I hope that is something that I can work on as a board member.”
That said, Edwards said he is not running as a single-issue candidate.
“I’m not running as the special education candidate,” he said. “I just happen to have a background and that’s my body of work. I don’t want to give voters the impression that that’s all I’m focused on.”
He listed four priorities:
- Literacy — in particular, focusing on early intervention to identify and support children who are struggling in early grades.
- Career and technical education — exposing students early on to a variety of career options, including those that don’t require a college degree.
- Parental rights and engagement — making sure parents are welcome in schools and have opportunities to participate as they are able.
- Teachers and support staff — making sure they are valued and treated as professionals.
“We need to be focused on the best educators and retaining the best educators in Knox County Schools,” Edwards said. “That's a challenge when we are a metro area with great schools around us.”
Surrounding school districts like Oak Ridge and Maryville aren’t just competitors for teaching talent, he said — they also serve as draws for businesses and their employees.
“As people move to Knox County and they look at our schools, they should say, ‘We're proud to bring our business to Knox County because of the quality of your schools,’” he said.
He decried Arnn’s statements about teachers and public education, calling them “incredibly disappointing and degrading to our teachers.”
Edwards said he is impressed with Rysewyk’s energy and optimistic about his potential to make needed changes within the system.
“Obviously it's always a challenge to have an internal candidate promoted to superintendent,” he said. “But I think that Dr. Rysewyk’s track record within Knox County Schools, his accomplishments at Fulton (High School), will be important for us as a board to rely on his expertise moving forward.”
On school choice, Edwards said he wasn’t taking a position on vouchers because it’s an issue that will be decided at the state level. But he is supportive of choices within the school district, including the possibility of more charter schools.
“School choice can look like a number of things,” he said. “It can be out-of-zone schools. It can be magnet schools. And it can be charters as well. I’m in favor of parents having the options to select from a menu there. Let me be clear, though — I have a child that's always going to be in Knox County Schools. And I want Knox County schools to be the best option that any parent has.”
He said that he didn’t think the equity policy rejected by the board earlier this year was necessary, since the district has already prioritized addressing gaps between different demographic groups. He also said it could have committed the board to funding specific needs or schools that couldn’t be sustained. But he said the district should continue collecting and responding to data on disparities.
“I think that's something the board should be reviewing and looking at, it's not something we should ignore in any form or fashion,” he said.
Edwards said his sizable campaign fund balance was mostly a product of the district's affluence and a surge of interest in education among many voters. "I didn't expect to raise that much money coming into the campaign," he said. "However, people were excited about our message and our priorities, and really concerned about the direction education is going."