Trying to be Neutral: Assaying County Commission's Surprise New Chairman, Tony Norman

When, to the surprise of nearly everyone, including himself, Tony Norman was elected chairman of the Knox County Commission in September, it appeared to give impetus to his effort to strike back against forces that had provoked him as a commissioner, especially the Knoxville Chamber.

Earlier in the year, the Chamber had succeeded in getting Commission to emasculate a Hillside and Ridgetop Protection Plan that Norman had championed. Then the Chamber spearheaded a lobbying and advertising campaign to get a big increase in funding for the Knox County school system, which Norman views with skepticism.

In August, Norman sought to withhold county funding of the Chamber's economic development efforts until it provided a full accounting of its uses of the money. At the same time, he decided to challenge the heir apparent to the Commission chairmanship, then-Vice Chairman Brad Anders, who had sided with the Chamber on all of the above.

"I put my name in there because Anders was opposed to everything I stood for, and to let him have it in a walkover was just not right," Norman relates. "So I decided to provide a choice, and I thought I probably had three votes." (In addition to himself as an environmentalist Republican, that would be the only two Democrats on the 11-member body, Amy Broyles and Sam McKenzie.) But to Norman's surprise, three of Commission's most conservative Republicans—Jeff Ownby, Larry Smith, and Dave Wright—also voted for him, producing a majority of six.

"I know there were folks out there doing the political side of making that happen because Anders had generated some discontent in some places, but I don't know what that was and I did not participate in that," says the retired high school biology and ecology teacher who, unlike Anders, has no further political ambitions once he becomes term-limited as a commissioner in 2014.

Be all that as it may, once elected chairman, Norman quickly established that he perceives his role differently than when he was just representing a district. "My role as chairman is to moderate the meeting and to make sure all sides get heard, with me trying to be neutral," he says, while adding that, "I've got to be careful because I'm so passionate about land-use issues and schools. My challenge is to be effective on both these topics without tainting the role of the chairman."

As an initial manifestation of his new-found neutrality, at Commission's next meeting, Norman withdrew his resolution that would have withheld county funds from the Chamber. (It helped that in the meantime the county's finance director, Chris Caldwell, had vouchsafed that the money was all being used for intended purposes.)

"It crystallized to me that this is an opportunity for me to offer a peaceful statement to get over that adversarial stuff and hopefully start to have some dialogue that's on a different plane," Norman says. And the very next day, he relates, "I attended a meeting at the Chamber, and the environment was totally different. You know when you go to places and there's tension and animosity. That was all gone—and that's a nice way to start anew."

Whether Norman can reach a similar rapprochement with the school system remains to be determined. It's not that he's opposed to spending more on education, but he retains a widely-held teacher's belief that too much of the school budget is spent on administrative overhead, and not enough on teachers and the classroom.

Last March he wrote Superintendent Jim McIntyre that, "the whole notion that the central office is too large needs to be put to bed." McIntyre's response stressed three points: 1.) that a 2001 assessment by a firm selected by County Commission to address similar concerns concluded that "the KCS' Central Office administration is understaffed when compared to its peers"; 2.) that since McIntyre took office in 2008, the central office budget has been cut by more than 8 percent; and 3.) that according to statistics compiled by the federal Department of Education, "among the 100 largest school districts in America, (KCS is 74th) the Knox County Schools ranks seventh in the percentage of its budget that is dedicated to instruction and instructional support."

But Norman has not yet been disabused of his suspicions. "I think there needs to be an objective look at the size of the central office as compared to other school systems of similar size and composition," he asserts. "If I'm wrong about its size, I'm fine with that. I just want to be sure, and I don't think we can be sure unless we have somebody come in and do some kind of objective look."

Beyond that, Norman is deeply concerned about teacher evaluation systems that are based, in part, on student achievement gains on standardized tests. "There are so many things beyond the control of classroom teachers and you've got all these complex systems that are trying to measure whether teachers add value. It makes my head hurt to even think about it," he exclaims.

Equally troubling in his view is the school system's recent introduction of teacher incentive pay based, in large part, on these evaluations. "I don't like any differentiation for performance-based measures that I don't think are valid to begin with. I want to step back for a few months and really investigate." One investigative tool he has in mind is a teacher survey that Norman had been urging before he was elected chairman. He remains one of three Commission members of a joint committee named, along with three school board members, to address how to conduct the survey.

Norman recognizes that the teacher evaluation system was imposed top-down from the state and by extension the federal Race to the Top program, which is providing the funding for teacher performance bonuses. He insists he doesn't blame Jim McIntyre, but that doesn't mean he's content to let what he considers a travesty for teachers go unquestioned. Rather, he is urging an independently conducted teacher survey, and he believes, "The teachers should be the ones who design the survey and input to a company that does that kind of work—not input from the school system."

It's debatable whether a county commissioner should, or is even entitled to, intrude into the school system's domain. Yet while Norman says he's amenable to compromise, he doesn't seem to be looking for the sort of modus vivendi he achieved with the Chamber. And that's unfortunate.