This year's school board elections pose the starkest set of choices that Knox County voters have been called upon to make in many years.
The contests for four of the five seats that are on the ballot in the May 6 non-partisan primary pit candidates who are supportive of the transformative but traumatic changes in public education that have been wrought over the past five years against dissenters.
If the dissidents prevail in all of them, it would undermine the base of support on the nine-member board that Superintendent Jim McIntyre has commended as the galvanizing force behind the changes locally.
While most of the impetus for more rigorous curriculum and student assessment standards, along with more stringent teacher evaluations, have been mandated by the state, it's been McIntyre's leadership in stressing student achievement gains that has earned Knox County Schools all A's on its state report card. His strategic planning skills and management of the school system's $420 million budget have also been exemplary.
Yet McIntyre has also become a lightning rod for teacher angst over what many consider to have been heavy-handed implementation of the new state standards. And he's compounded their resentment by imposing some evaluation and testing protocols that go beyond the state requirements and by a perceived lack of sensitivity to teacher concerns.
The school board member who appears most threatened by the anti-McIntyre fervor is Pam Trainor in the conservative 9th District comprising South Knox. Her opponent is a young elementary school librarian, Amber Rountree. When pointedly asked on WBIR's Inside Tennessee program whether she would vote to retain or discharge McIntyre, Rountree responded, "I would vote to discharge him." And she went on to rail against the Common Core State Standards that have become the subject of an incredible amount of ill-informed controversy. "Common Core was never field-tested and to use our Knox County students as guinea pigs for this program is wrong," Rountree asserted. To which Trainor responded, "I really would hate to see us move backward because we have moved so far with Common Core." (The standards have been phased in over the past three school years and are believed to have contributed to Tennessee's unprecedented student achievement gains in the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress.)
In the more moderate West Knoxville 4th District, school board chair Lynne Fugate is being challenged by tea party-affiliated Sally Absher. The strong-willed Fugate supports McIntyre because, "he has done everything the board asked him to do when he was hired and he has moved his strategic plan forward." When Absher addressed the board at a public forum last December, she posed the question, "Why do the people in front of me keep telling the emperor that his clothing is lovely, refusing to recognize that the emperor is wearing no clothes?"
The incumbent McIntyre supporter who appears least threatened is Gloria Deathridge in East Knoxville's 1st District. Her two opponents, Robert Boyd and Marshall Walker, haven't mounted campaigns with anything like the intensity of Rountree and Absher.
This year's other two school board elections are for seats that are being vacated by Thomas Deakins and Kim Severance, who have both been supportive of McIntyre and his strategic plan.
The 6th District, which is centered in Karns and Hardin Valley, features a free-for-all among four candidates whose outlooks run the gamut from strongly supportive of McIntyre to stridently opposed. Consider these excerpts from their comments about his leadership at a recent candidate forum:
• Sandra Rowcliffe, who is president of the Knox County PTA: "In looking at our achievement results...we are making huge strides. Is that all due to Dr. McIntyre? Clearly not. It's great teachers in every classroom. It's our great principals. But you have to give him some credit for moving our kids in the direction that we as a community have said we wanted then to go."
• Terry Hill, who is the wife and mother of former school board members (i.e., Steve Hill and Cindy Buttry): "I think Dr. McIntyre genuinely believes what he's doing is in the best interest of this school district. But I don't agree with a lot of what he's done.... When your employees are unhappy that doesn't speak to leadership."
• Brad Buchanan, a systems architect and former teacher: "Leadership connotes that you have followers. Dr. McIntyre is not producing the educational leadership that is needed in Knox County. If he did, you would have the teachers lining up behind him."
• Tamara Shepherd, a longtime whistle-blower and gadfly on school issues: "I think Dr. McIntyre's leadership is indicative of his indoctrination by the Broad Foundation and the Aspen Institute. Those organizations tend to choose superintendents from the business sector...as opposed to any classroom exposure...and that doesn't necessarily mean he's a good match for us."
By stark contrast, in the 7th District, which encompasses Halls and Powell, there is only a single candidate. She is Patti Bounds, a veteran teacher at Brickey-McCloud Elementary School, who is more guarded in her comments: "I have served under five superintendents and each of them brought a different dynamic to the schools. I think Dr. McIntyre's leadership style is very much in line with the Broad Academy, which he attended. So I think that could be the board's concern with his decisions as superintendent." (Broad Academy alumni also serve as superintendents in Charlotte-Mecklenburg, N.C., Fulton County, Ga., and Dallas, Texas, just to name a few.)
Any candidate who receives a majority of the votes cast in the non-partisan May 6 primary will be elected. If no candidate gets a majority (as seems most likely in the 6th District), then the top two finishers will be on the ballot in the Aug. 7 county general election.
The four board members whose terms run until 2016 include three who have been aligned with McIntyre (Karen Carson, Indya Kincannon, and Doug Harris) and one who hasn't (Mike McMillan). The alignment resulting from the year's election will be crucial to the future of public education in Knox County.