There are two more weeks until Election Day. That’s it.
Yes, it probably seems like the primary should have already happened by now, but somehow it hasn’t. This means you still have time to make up your mind about the Knox County Schools Board of Education races, if you happen to live in one of the four contested districts. (If you live in the 7th District, on-the-verge-of-retiring elementary school teacher Patti Lou Bounds is the only candidate.)
Since the school board primaries are nonpartisan, any candidate with 50 percent of the vote, plus one, will win outright in May. This means all the races could be decided in two weeks—and one, the 9th, most definitely will be.
We reported on the candidates running in the 1st and 4th Districts in last week’s issue, so now it’s time to cover hotly contested 6th and 9th Districts. With four candidates in the running, the 6th seems almost assured of a runoff. But with only two candidates competing in the 9th, a victor from that district will be declared May 6.
Questionnaires on a range of issues from all 13 candidates, including the unopposed Bounds, are posted online, along with links to campaign websites and Facebook pages. Our endorsements can be found right here.
Northwest Knoxville’s 6th District might not seem like a hotbed of political activity, but don’t let that mix of suburbs and rural back roads fool you—all four candidates vying to replace Thomas Deakins are fighting tooth and nail to get elected.
Former schoolteacher Brad Buchanan and political gadfly Tamara Shepherd are running on a similar platform, one of dissatisfaction with current KCS Superintendent Jim McIntyre and the board that has extended his contract. Sandra Rowcliffe, the president of the Knox County Council PTA, is running in support of the administration. Finally, Terry Hill, the mother of former KCS board member Cindy Buttry, is taking a somewhat centrist stance, echoing some dissatisfaction but not all.
All four candidates don’t agree on all the issues, but each brings a breadth of knowledge about education and the workings of the school system to the table. Hill retired from KCS just over a year ago, after 30 years as a social worker in the schools. Buchanan taught high school in Hawkins County several years ago, and his wife is currently a teacher at Amherst Elementary.
Rowcliffe, 50, hasn’t taught, but she’s been involved in PTA for 15 years and has lobbied on the group’s behalf in Nashville. Shepherd, 55, a longtime volunteer for youth and education causes, has studied education policy in her free time; she also has a daughter finishing up her first year teaching at Cedar Bluff Middle School.
Each candidate says it was her or his prior experience with the school system that led them to jump into the race.
“A lot of it was having a wife that’s a school teacher and hearing about her frustrations,” the 40-year-old Buchanan says. “I feel like our superintendent is not doing a satisfactory job, and the board is out of touch. The turnover rate of teachers is very troublesome.”
Shepherd is even more passionate.
“For 15 years I looked at the people who did run, and thought maybe I should run,” Shepherd says. “And I had thought about seriously from the time I came to understand what Race to the Top was really about, four years ago. … It was humility that held me back. But recently my anger has trumped my humility.”
Rowcliffe says she’s been in almost every school in the county, which gives her an invaluable outlook.
“I kind of have a unique perspective in that I see boots on the ground but I also work really well with the central office personnel,” Rowcliffe says.
Hill, 63, is the only candidate who decided to run before the contentious board meetings of last fall. She says her family suggested she run after her retirement, and she made the decision last Labor Day.
“It’s not something you can enter into lightly,” Hill says. “If you take a look at the other candidates, it’s very polarized. I’ve always been squarely in the middle. I do not feel like, if we’re going to initiate positive change, that kind of [negative presence] on the board will work.”
Shepherd strongly disagrees. When asked if she might be divisive on the board—as she has been known to be when commenting on the News Sentinel and KnoxViews websites—Shepherd nods.
“I would certainly hope so! That’s why I’m running, to be of effect,” Shepherd says. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve contacted a school board member that didn’t know the information that I know, and they’d voted on it! … If calling a board member out for failing to be informed is divisive, you can tattoo it on my forehead.”
Shepherd is the only candidate who says she doesn’t currently support building a Hardin Valley Middle School. But all four candidates expressed concern with the infrastructure of other schools in their district, like Pleasant Ridge Elementary and Northwest Middle.
“There is no question there is an issue system-wide,” Hill says.
All candidates also mentioned that the school zoning district lines as currently drawn in the 6th are problematic. Shepherd says the entire school system zoning should be rethought.
“I think in our heart, we know our hometown is still segregated,” Shepherd says. “It may be beyond our purview to solve the problem entirely, but we have to acknowledge it and try to address it.”
Shepherd says an influx of charter schools will only continue to resegregate the school system, but she acknowledges that since the Legislature just passed a statewide charter authorizer, it will be hard to keep them out of the district. Buchanan says the authorizer means the board will need to work even harder.
“We have to make sure those students are taken care of,” Buchanan says. “It’s important for us to fully exercise that oversight, because charter schools do not have a good history.”
Hill says she’d rather have successful community schools than charters, but she does support the proposed Emerald Academy (which the existing board will vote on this summer).
“As a school social worker, I have seen how Emerald Youth Foundation has been a tremendous support in the community,” Hill says. “The community trusts this organization. So for a school board to say no … is extremely short-sighted.”
Rowcliffe says she has an “open mind” regarding charters, although she’d rather see KCS spend the money on its own schools.
“I’ll be honest, I think Knox County Schools is an A-B school system working on a D-F budget. If we invested as much into our public education system as we probably should to obtain the school system we as a community have said we want, then I’m not sure we would even be having a conversation about charter schools,” Rowcliffe says.
Shepherd and Buchanan, however, are less positive about the gains the system has recently made.
“We were starting at the bottom. It’s easier to demonstrate growth when you’re at rock bottom,” Shepherd says. “We have not succeeded in closing the achievement gap.”
Buchanan adds that the extra testing McIntyre has implemented is hurting students, whatever the scores say.
“Being trained in an education program, I hold those values of educating the whole child. That’s not happening here,” Buchanan says.
Hill says she’s “never seen such unhappiness and discontent” among KCS employees.
“The system is extremely micromanaged to the point it’s in a knot,” Hill says.
Still, Hill says the board needs to do a better job of ensuring that textbooks and other assigned reading are grade-level appropriate. When asked if she agrees with her daughter’s attempt in 2010 to ban a biology textbook that characterized creationism as a “Biblical myth,” Hill is noncommittal.
“I am not my daughter. I will make my own decisions,” Hill says. But when asked specifically if she thinks creationism should be taught in high school biology alongside evolution, Hill is unequivocal.
“Absolutely,” Hill says. “I absolutely support creationism.”
Shepherd and Buchanan do not support creationism or “intelligent design” in the classroom. Rowcliffe said she didn’t feel like she could offer her opinion because she didn’t “have the expertise” in designing curricula.
Rowcliffe also dismissed concerns that a 2006 misdemeanor assault charge makes her unfit for office. (In 2006, according to a story in the News Sentinel, Rowcliffe pled guilty to assault after slamming a car door on a her husband’s mistress’ knee. She was granted judicial diversion, but the other woman filed a civil suit. Although the suit was settled in 2009, further legal action on both sides dragged it out until this February.)
“It was a private family matter, number one,” Rowcliffe says. “Not everything in that article has been interpreted completely accurately.”
And Rowcliffe’s prior legal troubles certainly haven’t hurt her when it comes to fund-raising. (It also probably doesn’t hurt that her husband Gary is a big donor to the University of Tennessee’s athletic department.) According to her latest disclosure filing, Rowcliffe has taken in $10,575, including $1,000 each from Dee Haslam, both Randy and Jenny Boyd, both Rodney and Dee Lawler, and both James and Kathleen Thompson, plus $500 from Diane Jablonski, the legislative chair of the Knox County PTA. Rowcliffe has also deployed robocalls with former UT men’s basketball coach Bruce Pearl endorsing her.
Second in fundraising is Hill, who took in just $1,724 this reporting period, but has $7,951 on hand, thanks to a $5,000 loan to herself last fall. Her largest donations have come from her family—$1,000 from both her daughters, Buttry and Jacqueline Cody, and $1,500 from her husband Steve. There’s also a $720 in-kind donation from her daughter Buttry for yard signs. (Of note, Hill also paid 7th District Commission candidate Bo Bennett a total of $675 for website and computer set up.)
Buchanan took in $1,820 this reporting period, and his two itemized donations are from himself and his wife, totalizing $900 (and $1300 for the entire election). Shepherd took in $1,740, but only one donation was large enough to be itemized—a $500 donation to herself. (She also gave herself $500 in the previous reporting period.) Charles Jensen of Diversified Technologies Services, a local nuclear waste management company, has been Shepherd’s largest donor, with donations totaling $1,500.
Whomever wins, whether in May or in August, Buchanan says the competitive race is likely to improve the board’s performance.
“I think we’ve pushed the bar on how prepared you need to be at meetings,” Buchanan says.
Across the county, in South Knoxville, the 9th District race has quickly become an intense battle. Incumbent Pam Trainor is vying to keep her seat from newcomer Amber Rountree, and it’s gotten personal.
Rountree is a librarian at Halls Elementary who will resign her seat if elected. (Unlike Knox County Commission, the KCS board prohibits current KCS employees from serving.) She’s been one of the most vocal critics of McIntyre and the current board since last fall, attending and speaking at almost every board meeting with her Halls colleague Lauren Hopson.
But Rountree says her decision to run wasn’t solely driven by her concerns over testing and evaluations.
“Someone told me that they had counted, and at the meetings I’ve attended over the past several months, I had spoken and asked more questions than Pam has. Which just blew my mind,” Rountree says. “It’s nothing against her personally, but she’s not doing her job.”
Trainor, however, says Rountree doesn’t get it.
“I think if you ask a lot of questions, it shows you haven’t studied the agenda,” Trainor says.
Trainor says the current responses (like Rountree’s) to teacher dissatisfaction have taken her by surprise.
“This working against each other—it’s not helpful,” Trainor says. “I’m quite shocked it’s not us and the teachers working together for change.”
Trainor, 51, is finishing her first term on the board. She’s a longtime PTA volunteer who was just awarded the National PTA Life Achievement Award earlier this month. (Critics have pointed out that PTA president Rowcliffe and Trainor are close friends, and that any PTA chapter can purchase a National Life Achievement Award at any time for $125—$10 extra if you want it delivered in less than three weeks.)
“I’ve worked in Knox County Schools for 20 years, and I’ve never collected a penny until I was on the board,” Trainor says.
But Rountree says her experience as an actual KCS employee would be the more useful experience to have as a board member.
“My educational experience … would benefit policy decisions for not just South Knox students, but all students in Knox County,” Rountree says.
Rountree, just 32, would be the youngest board member by a number of years if elected. She says neither her age nor her lack of children in the school system—she and her husband don’t have any, yet—should be an issue.
“Like I’ve been saying, I have 700 children—my students at Halls. And I think considering I have a degree in early childhood education, that experience would allow me to relate to the concerns of parents as well as students,” Rountree says. She also notes that it is “important to be a voice for all the stakeholders in South Knoxville, not just those within the schools.”
But Trainor says Rountree barely knows the community she lives in.
“I’m a lifelong South Knoxville resident, so I know these schools. Amber is at a deficit there—she’s only met two principals that I know of. … I don’t think she knows the community and knows what it needs,” Trainor says. “I’m in the schools a lot. I know the names of the children and the grandchildren of everyone in every front office. The secretaries and the custodians—when they need something, they find me.”
However, Trainor voted on April 14 to approve a budget for the upcoming fiscal year that would eliminate 12 custodial positions. And Rountree says she has been out in the community meeting people.
“I have been getting out and meeting staff at South Knox schools as much as possible, considering I am teaching at the same time those folks are also working,” Rountree says. “I am certainly working on growing those relationships which can be developed, and I would continue to do so once I am on the Board.”
Trainor has taken in $4,425 over the last reporting period, and most of that came from four big-name donors—Jimmy Haslam, Rodney Lawler, Randy Boyd, and Jablonski. Rountree has received only $2,133 in cash donations, but most of those were under $100 and unitemized, suggesting she could have more grassroots support than Trainor.
Trainor also drew scrutiny when one of her close friends, Kristi Kristy, stole and destroyed all the copies of the Knoxville Focus from South Doyle High School because they featured campaign ads for Rountree—and then emailed the school board (except Mike McMillan) and McIntyre to let them know what she had done.
Although similar actions have been declared felony theft, Trainor says Kristy’s exploit wasn’t problematic.
“They’re giveaways,” Trainor says. “They’re not for sale.”
But campaign shenanigans aside, both Trainor and Rountree say they want to make KCS—and South Knoxville—schools the best they can be.
“We are focused on continuing where we’re going. It’s not time to go backwards,” Trainor says.
“I’m jumping off a cliff and giving up a big chunk of my financial means. I think that speaks strongly as to how committed I am,” Rountree says.