There are a lot of contested primary races in the county elections this year, and many of them will be decided in the Republican primary. But one of the most contentious elections—and arguably, one of the most important for the county’s long-term future—is the one for the Knox County Schools Board of Education. Consequently, we’ve put more of our time and effort into reporting on those races than any of the others, and we feel we can make informed endorsements for them.
The school board races are nonpartisan, so whether you’re opting for the Democratic or the Republican primary, you’ll be able to vote—if you live in the 1st, 4th, 6th, or 9th District. (The 7th District is open but uncontested.) Any candidate receiving 50 percent of the vote, plus one additional vote, will win outright. And since only two candidates are running in the 9th, there will definitely be one winner in May.
Each of the candidates responded to a lengthy questionnaire on issues such as the candidates’ opinions of the state Department of Education, KCS Superintendent Jim McIntyre, charter schools, Teach for America, teacher evaluations, student surveys, and boring PowerPoint presentations. (You can read all the questions and responses for yourself on our website.) We also researched the candidates, studied their websites and campaign literature, asked people in the community about them, and asked them tough questions during the interviews for our overview of the races. After much deliberation, here are our four choices as the best people to represent their community on the board. Whether you agree with us or not, you should definitely go vote. In these races, turnout will be everything.
1ST DISTRICT: ROBERT BOYD
The 1st District pits incumbent and Realtor Gloria Deathridge against Pellissippi State English professor Robert Boyd and retired school social worker Marshall Walker. Deathridge clearly has the connections and the funding to win, and she’s a likable person, too. But time and again at board meetings, Deathridge has sounded like she has little idea what she’s voting to approve. We think she should be replaced on the board not because of her support of McIntyre, but because with so many recent and complicated changes to education in the state, East Knoxville deserves a representative who understands policy. Walker comes across as an engaged candidate, but we think Boyd’s prior public service, albeit in New York, makes him the most qualified choice to represent the 1st District.
4TH DISTRICT: LYNNE FUGATE
Incumbent (and board Chair) Lynne Fugate leads all the candidates (in all the races) in fund-raising, with large donations from some of Knoxville’s most prominent names. For some, this alone will be reason to vote against her. For others, her support of McIntyre will lose their votes. But we think Fugate’s leadership experience and business connections make her a better choice to represent West Knoxville than her competitors, Sally Absher and Scott Clark. Absher swears she’s renounced the tea party, which she helped launch in the area in 2009, and she disavows a speech she gave last year in which she compares Common Core State Standards to Obamacare and implies both will lead to a socialist state. But her very recent support of these kinds of conspiracy theories, including Agenda 21, gives us pause, despite her obvious intelligence and passion for education. Clark also seems like a smart guy—and one whose sense of humor might liven up the deadly dull meetings—and we are more likely to concur with his stance on charter schools than Fugate’s wishy-washy response. We also hope that, if re-elected, Fugate adopts a less divisive (and derisive) tone at future meetings. Nonetheless, we think Fugate knows the most of any candidate in the 4th District, and her connections will be needed if KCS is ever to succeed with future increases in funding.
6TH DISTRICT: BRAD BUCHANAN
The 6th District has four names on the ballot, but only two of the candidates seem balanced enough to consider voting for. Terry Hill is an impressive candidate who knows her district and the school system. However, her support of creationism in the public-school classroom is counter to the tenets we hold most dear. Brad Buchanan may not have quite as many connections as Hill, but with a wife and three (soon to be four) children in the school system, the former teacher has the means to make them. As the past few months have shown, the board clearly needs some representation that has more of a boots-on-the-ground approach, and we think Buchanan would succeed at this. Although Sandra Rowcliffe has pulled in impressive donations and knows the schools through her years with the PTA, her history of vindictiveness is troubling. And while Tamara Shepherd is easily the most knowledgeable of the candidates, her unwillingness to compromise doesn’t bode well for an elected official. We doubt she cares, though, since, over on KnoxViews, she told us, “You can stick your endorsement process and whatever conclusion it may lead you to … in your ear.”
9TH DISTRICT: AMBER ROUNTREE
KCS librarian Amber Rountree impressed us with her intelligence and passion when we first interviewed her last fall, but we weren’t sure if she knew what she was doing when she jumped in 9th District race against incumbent and lifelong South Knoxvillian Pam Trainor. But as the campaign has progressed, Rountree has impressed us time and again, and not just in her outstanding performances versus Trainor at candidate forums. Although Rountree is running on an anti-McIntyre platform and has been vocally critical of current school-board members, she’s also a rational and likable person. We think she’ll be able to win votes when necessary and compromise when she can’t. We are also pretty sure she’ll read the agenda package every time, which we suspect is not the case with Trainor, who sometimes seems confused about what she’s voting for. Trainor’s lack of concern over her friend Kristi Kristy’s destruction of newspapers at South-Doyle High School also perturbs us, especially as Kristy somehow almost succeeded in pushing a nonsensical ethics complaint against board member Mike McMillan. Trainor may know the schools of South Knoxville more deeply than Rountree, but the latter is the better pick—by far—to represent schools across the entire county.