The Knox County school board had a remarkably open and thorough process in picking a new superintendent. It confounded school-system cynics who saw it as a farce with a predetermined outcome—as in teachers already talking about Superintendent Donna Wright.
There was some tension at the end with a 5-4 vote on hiring Bostonian James McIntyre and a 5-4 vote on approving his contract.
Tension is inevitable on the Knox County school board. The growth of new homes in West Knox County in the past three decades has meant a corresponding increase in young families with children. Children require schools and the new ones have been built where the children live.
While most of the growth has been west, it doesn't mean there hasn't been growth elsewhere: in the city, or in less populated South Knox County or East Knox County or Northeast Knox County. The existing schools in these areas need repair, and new schools for Gibbs and Carter are also badly needed.
From the conversations I've had with various school board members, the votes on McIntyre and his contract did not reflect any negative feelings toward the last two candidates to receive votes. Assistant Superintendent Bob Thomas is respected by those who voted for McIntyre. Those who voted for Thomas have said nice things about McIntyre. The central issue seemed to be those who wanted someone from "here" as opposed to the majority who wanted to go "outside."
The vote reflects the different demographics of Knox County. West Knox County growth has included people moving from Knoxville, but it also consists of a lot of newcomers—newcomers in the sense of the last 15-20 years, which is like yesterday in East Tennessee years.
Karen Carson, Dan Murphy, Thomas Deakins, and Indya Kincannon ain't from around here, in the sense that I'm not from around here—I've only been here 27 years. They do represent "immigrant neighborhoods" in the west and northwest part of the county, and in Kincannon's case, Fourth and Gill. They voted to go outside.
The older schools, in the city, south, east and north, are represented by Robert Bratton, Rex Stooksbury, Cindy Buttrey and Jim Williams. They voted to go inside.
Thus we have a 4-4 tie between high-growth and low-growth areas, and yes, the immigrant versus native populations.
Sam Anderson was the swing vote to hire McIntyre and approve the contract.
Anderson is definitely from around here. But he is, in many ways, a special case. He is the longest-serving board member and has skillfully used his vote on the school board to see that the predominately white school system, with its West Knox bias, still gives the schools in his East Knoxville district their fair share. He sided with Chair Carson and set the majority for votes going forward.
The key issue in approving McIntyre's contract was allowing him to fire central office staff without a vote of the board. Most of the central office staff consists of longtime Knox County school employees—from around here.
McIntyre's challenge, aside from having a board split 5-4, is to win over the natives. He has to put together a management team of existing staff—or replace them and face a firestorm from half the school board.
Knox County has the best metro school system in the state. Many of its schools are competitive with Oak Ridge and Maryville. The new superintendent does not face the grim challenge of saving a failing school system. He has the rewarding task of helping a good school system get better.
The "natives" in the central office have institutional knowledge. They know who the good principals are, the schools that have special needs. They also know Knox County Commission—the body that approves the school budget.
But as an outsider McIntyre may be able to bring fresh ideas and shake up the status quo.
Let's hope for a "tension-less" and seamless blend of skills going forward.