Election 2022: School Board District 7
An independent candidate faces off against a Republican with a troubled track record for the open seat serving Halls and Powell.
by jesse fox mayshark • July 14, 2022
Independent candidate Dominique Oakley is running against Republican Steve Triplett.
The 7th District school board race is not like any other on the Knox County ballot this year.
Two first-time candidates vie to represent a district with a strong Republican lean.
It features an open seat, thanks to the decision of incumbent Patti Bounds not to seek reelection after two terms on the board. It has two political newcomers, Republican candidate Steve Triplett and independent candidate Dominique Oakley. And it has a possibly significant X factor — the disclosure just before the May primary of problematic past actions by Triplett.
As Compass reported in late April, Triplett was obliged to leave a position as principal of a private Christian school in Ohio nine years ago because of financial improprieties. As he eventually posted on his campaign Facebook page, “While serving as principal, I chose to misuse funds for personal benefit and when confronted I repaid the school for any and all expenditures and resigned.”
Triplett never faced any charges and has since built a successful career as a general manager for Chick Fil-A. The disclosure did not appear to affect the outcome of the May 4 primary, in which Triplett defeated anti-mandate activist Sherri Garrett by a 65-35 percent margin. Whether it provides any opening for an independent candidate in a strongly Republican district remains to be seen.
It may have affected Triplett’s fundraising efforts. Although he had $15,174 on hand at the end of April, he reported raising only $234 in the year’s second quarter and had $5,551 on hand at the end of June. Oakley, meanwhile, had $1,917 on hand in April and added $1,731 in the second quarter — outraising Triplett by a 7-to-1 margin during those months — and had $2,247 on hand as of June 30.
Both candidates are parents and both have experience working in education, although only Oakley has children in Knox County Schools.
Here’s a look at the contenders. (Portions of the section on Triplett appeared in our coverage of the Republican primary.)
Oakley grew up in East Tennessee, shuttling between her parents’ homes in Gatlinburg, where she attended school, and Cedar Bluff, where she spent her weekends. She also spent a lot of time with her grandparents, who were in education — her grandmother taught at Fulton High School, and her grandfather was an electrical engineering professor at the University of Tennessee.
“My great-grandmother was also (a teacher) here, at schools that don’t exist anymore — schools that are now retirement facilities,” Oakley said with a laugh.
It may not be surprising that she gravitated toward the classroom herself, although it took a while to sink in during her undergraduate career at Maryville College.
“Everybody was like, you know you want to be a teacher, just get your teaching degree,” Oakley said. “I sat in on a couple of classes and I rebelled.”
She ended up with a degree in religious studies, but after moving to the Atlanta area post-graduation she eventually did get her teaching certification through the University of Georgia, with a concentration in special education.
Oakley said she has spent a total of eight years teaching public school students, five in Georgia and three in Tennessee after she moved back here. Those have been in different roles, from full-time schools employee to outside specialist working with autistic students. (She also runs a side business, repurposing old license plates as artwork.)
She has two sons in Knox County Schools, one of whom is autistic. One of her biggest concerns as a parent is the district’s communication and transparency with families. As a parent who has had to advocate for services, she said KCS doesn’t do enough to inform parents of their rights and available resources.
“It is where we are falling down the most,” Oakley said. “We do a terrible job of singing the praises of our school system. Most parents don’t even know all the advantages that they get. Most parents have no clue what their rights as parents are.”
She said the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the district’s challenges in effectively communicating its plans and options.
“Parents often don’t even know that there is a (school) board meeting, much less that they could attend,” said Oakley, who has attended many of them in the last few years. “They don't know how to communicate with anyone, nobody comes out and speaks to them. Especially now that we're in such an isolated tower downtown where parents can't even come and visit.”
Several schools in the 7th District have had renovations or improvements in recent years, including the ongoing construction of a completely new building for Adrian Burnett Elementary. But Oakley said there are still more needs to address, like an aging trailer housing extra classrooms at Copper Ridge Elementary.
Additionally, she said, “We have some weird (school) zoning issues particularly on the north end that are really affecting kids between Halls and Gibbs.”
Oakley said her accumulated experiences and frustrations as both a teacher and parent prompted her to run for the seat after Bounds announced she was not seeking another term.
She joined the race before the state Legislature passed a law last fall opening school board races to partisan contests. But she said she didn’t feel comfortable running with a party label, preferring to identify with what she called an Appalachian tradition of independent-mindedness.
“We’re mountain independent,” Oakley said of the region’s political heritage. “It’s not that we’re RINOs, it’s not that we’re Republicans even. It’s just, we’re independent. It’s closer to that libertarian line, but it’s not all the way out there either. We understand the value of TVA, but we also understand the drawbacks to something as big as TVA.”
One institution she embraces wholeheartedly is public education, which she believes should take precedence over charter schools or vouchers to send children to private schools.
“I am for fully-funded public schools paid for with public tax dollars,” Oakley said. “If we ever reach the point that our schools are fully funded, which I think we can all agree should be our first goal, at that point we can begin investing in other forms of education. But we have to fully fund the public schools with public dollars before we begin giving public money to private enterprises, no matter their goals.”
Triplett, who is general manager of the Chick Fil-A restaurant in Fountain City, approaches the school board from a somewhat novel angle: as a parent and former school administrator whose experience has been largely outside public schools.
Triplett graduated from Crown College, the Bible college and seminary in Powell, and his children attended Christian schools, including one he worked at in Ohio. His most direct interaction with Knox County Schools came after his graduation from Crown College, when he went to work for its affiliated Temple Baptist Church and ran Teens for Christ Bible clubs in middle and high schools across the county.
“First and foremost, I'm a believer, I'm a Christian,” Triplett said. “I try to live my life by those principles and follow the Lord in what I do.”
He spent several years working as a school administrator at Heritage Christian School in Cleveland, Ohio, which his two children also attended. When he decided to move back to Knox County, he said it was a “faith-based decision” to keep them in Christian schools.
Triplett was not originally forthcoming about the reasons behind that move, however. In an initial interview with Compass he portrayed it as just a career change. Toward the end of the primary contest, supporters of Garrett, his opponent, began circulating reports that his departure from Heritage had been under a cloud.
The school is affiliated with Cleveland Baptist Church. Pete Folger, the church’s pastor, confirmed to Compass that Triplett was obliged to resign in the fall of 2013 because of fiscal improprieties. Although Triplett said that he had left the job “with my head held high,” Folger said, “It was a very difficult time, and we have moved beyond it. But there was a reason why he left, and it was not a good thing."
After initially addressing the reports through a Facebook post that called them “a desperate attempt to slander my name,” Triplett later amended the post to include the admission quoted above. But, he added, “I moved on with my head held high and all concerns fully settled.”
Folger confirmed that no charges were filed and that Triplett had made restitution. “It is true that everything was returned that was taken of a financial nature,” he said. “But there was a lot of heartache that you can’t put a monetary value on."
After relocating to Knoxville, Triplett ended up at Chick Fil-A. Although he’s no longer in education, he said that in his current role he actually interacts with young people almost as much as in his school and ministry work.
“I feel like in a lot of ways I do more impacting of young people in that environment even than I did in the others, just certainly in a different way, with careers,” he said.
Over the past eight years, Triplett said he has interviewed more than 1,000 Knox County students for jobs and hired and worked with hundreds of them. He said it has given him an up-close understanding of their lives and their challenges.
“I’ve watched some of their struggles,” he said. “You watch kids who struggle to count change. We have a scholarship process and application, I’ve watched them filling out FASFA (the federal financial aid application) and working with Tennessee Promise and figuring all those kinds of things out. I've had the opportunity as part of my leadership role just to be able to assist in some of those things.”
Like Oakley, he said that Bounds’ decision not to seek reelection felt like a reason for him to step forward.
“My wife and I've often talked, I wish I could get to them, or have an impact on what they learned before they turned 15, 16, 17 coming to me for their first job,” Triplett said. “And when Patti decided not to run it just kind of felt like a natural next step.”
As priorities, he listed access to good schools and teachers for all students, and transparency and accountability for the school system.
“I think all parents should have the right to hold their schools accountable for the education their child receives,” Triplett said. “I feel like I want to hold not just the school, the school system, the school district, the school board (accountable). We’re employed by parents. We're employed by the citizens of Knox County, and so they have a right to hold us and hold that system accountable for that education.”
That includes the opportunity for parents to review the curriculum and materials that their children will be learning from. Triplett said he didn’t support some proposals for teachers to make all their lesson plans available publicly ahead of time, because it would be too burdensome. But he suggested “a transparency tab with a curriculum page” on the school system website, which would show how the curriculum relates to state academic standards.
He is also open to more charter schools opening in Knox County, telling the News Sentinel, “Because charter schools can provide high quality academic instruction addressing student performance outcomes, then the answer must be yes.”