For elections that aren't even countywide, the Knox County Schools Board of Education races have drawn outsized attention this year. In stark contrast to 2012, all three incumbents face challengers, and only one district, the seventh, is uncontested.
There's been a groundswell of dissatisfaction with the current board after it approved an extension to Superintendent Jim McIntyre's contract in December. Inflamed rhetoric on all sides has pitted what are basically two camps against each other: If you're a supporter of McIntyre, you're in the pocket of the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce and don't care about teachers. If you're critical of the administration, you're a divisive outsider who doesn't understand how the school system actually works.
There will be some people who will cast their votes based solely on a candidate's pro- or anti-McIntyre stance, but that shouldn't be you. Each of the 12 candidates running in the four contested districts have their strengths and weaknesses, and you should decide which one deserves your vote after careful research.
To help you out, we're presenting an overview of all the contested races. Below, you'll find a rundown of the District 1 and 4 races; on Thursday, April 17, we will post our look at District 6 and 9 online, along with extensive questionnaires that every candidate answered, including the 7th District's unopposed Patti Lou Bounds. Our endorsements will appear in next week's issue.
Unlike all the other races, the school board primaries are nonpartisan, and any candidate with 50 percent of the vote, plus one, will win outright in May. Is is probable that a couple of the races will go to runoffs? Yes. But it's not a given. Turnout will make the difference, so don't forget to vote.
East Knoxville's 1st District may set up the best chance for incumbent Gloria Deathridge to win outright over challengers Robert Boyd and Marshall Walker, but that's only because this district has seen the least campaigning of any of them.
Even though Deathridge has taken in $5,525 in contributions, including $1,000 each from Rodney Lawler and Randy Boyd (the PetSafe magnate; no relation to Robert), she's only spent money on postcards and a campaign kickoff party—no signs, no stickers, no website. But as Boyd hasn't taken in or spent any money, and Walker's only raised $852, Deathridge hasn't had to outspend her opponents.
That's not to say, however, that Deathridge's seat is necessarily safe. The 61-year-old Realtor has drawn criticism for her support of McIntyre and her lack of communication with her district—until she launched a new campaign Facebook page a few weeks ago, her previous one hadn't been updated since 2011.
Walker and Boyd both say that was a large part of their decision to run.
"I've never heard Gloria speaking about her concerns in District 1," Walker says. "Transparency in District 1 does not exist."
Boyd says that when he was serving as vice-president of Town Hall East, he tried to set up a meeting with Deathridge.
"I tried and I tried, and I never did hear from her. No response at all," Boyd says.
Deathridge says she does try to return every call, but sometimes things fall through the cracks.
"Some people just call and say, ‘Call me,' and I don't know if it's about a house or about the school board or what," Deathridge says. She promises to do a better job of communicating if she gets a second term.
Boyd and Walker also point to their experience working in schools as a qualification that would make them more suited to serve on the board than Deathridge. Walker, 65, retired from KCS after 11 years as a social worker in the school system. (Prior to that, he worked with Child Protective Services and the Board of Parole.) Boyd, 80, is an English professor at Pellissippi State, where he has taught for almost 20 years. He retired once in 1994, after more than 20 years teaching in public schools on Long Island, but he couldn't take it.
"That lasted three months," Boyd laughs.
Boyd looks much younger than his age, and although he'd be the oldest board member by several years if elected, he says he suspects he's likely healthier than some current members.
"If people want me to submit my medical records for inspection, I will. The only thing I take daily is an aspirin and a vitamin pill," Boyd says. "I feel much younger than 80. And I see a need here to serve."
A Knoxville native, Boyd moved back to town after the retirement that didn't stick. During his time in New York, he served on a school board in Nassau County, and he served on the state board of the teachers' union. He says his educational and organizational background will provide the leadership the district needs.
"I'm not going to sit there and rubber-stamp [the agenda]," Boyd says. "That's not good for the schools."
Walker echoes Boyd in his questioning of the board.
"It appears that the board is accountable to the superintendent here, and that's where I have a problem," Walker says.
Walker says the board's lack of questioning the administration has resulted in the district-wide low morale among teachers.
"The evaluations are setting teachers up unfairly to appear as very bad teachers, when that might not be the case," Walker says.
Walker also grew up in East Knoxville, and he says the persistent poverty in the area isn't going to change unless the schools improve, and the schools won't improve with Deathridge on the board.
"Why do we expect things to change in District 1 when there is no voice coming from District 1?" Walker says. "How do you create the support that you need when you aren't responsive to your constituents?"
But Deathridge says that she does understand what the neighborhood needs.
"My children were raised in this district and went to school in this district. I have been active in schools in the district for years," Deathridge says. "I'm a child who grew up here when we didn't have anything, and I had to work for what I have. … I wasn't raised with a silver spoon in my mouth."
When asked to address criticisms that she doesn't question the superintendent's recommendations, Deathridge says she often does, just not in public.
"If I have questions, I will call the superintendent before the meeting," Deathridge says. "I don't feel the need to say something just for saying something. I don't want to take everything out in the public eye."
Deathridge also says that if sometimes she seems unprepared at board meetings, it's because the administration has a bad habit of adding things to the agenda packet at the last minute—a criticism every incumbent candidate mentioned.
"Sometimes we don't get it until the day of, which makes it hard," Deathridge says. "But we work very hard to be prepared."
Deathridge says if she gets a second term, she'll push McIntyre to do a better job communicating with both the board and with teachers. But Walker and Boyd say that doesn't go far enough.
"District 1 needs someone who knows a lot about education on the board," Boyd says.
Walker agrees, adding that he would host regular community forums to address issues specific to schools and neighborhoods in the district.
"I'm legit. I'm not going to come to an event for show," Walker says.
Over in west Knoxville's 4th District, there's a lot more campaigning going on. Incumbent and board chair Lynne Fugate is battling hard to keep her seat against opponents Sally Absher and Scott Clark.
Fugate's raised quite the war chest, with almost $25,000 on hand at last report, including sizable donations from Jim, Jimmy, and Dee Haslam, Ann Bailey, Rodney and Dell Lawler, Raja Jubran, Randy and Jenny Boyd. To Absher and Clark (who have raised just over $5,400 and $2,550 respectively), that's only more proof Fugate needs to go.
"She is out of touch," Absher says.
But Fugate, 52, says just because she's taken in money from some of the Chamber's biggest supporters, she's not on their payroll.
"I'm not! I'm not!" Fugate laughs. "People make that assumption about me, but I don't agree with the U.S. Chamber's policies. I'm not for vouchers. I'm not for privatization."
Fugate says she thinks people are misdirecting frustrations with state policies like Common Core and teacher evaluations tied to test score at the KCS board because it's here and not in Nashville. But Clark, 50, a former KCS teacher and flight instructor, says, "The system is broken."
"I am concerned about McIntyre's leadership," Clark says. "The testing of grades K-2 isn't mandated by the state. Kids that age are just learning—they don't need to be tested. I'm so tired of hearing about data."
"It's also expensive to give those tests. It takes up class time that could be better served to expand our fine arts program or things to truly educate the whole child, rather than just the math and language arts child. That's a very two-dimensional child that comes out of that type of academic setting," Absher says.
Absher, 56, has been active in politics for the past few years, first as an organizer of some of the earliest tea party protests and then on the state Republican Executive Committee. She says she stopped activities with the tea party groups when more extremist elements began taking over, and her disagreements with the GOP's education policies have led her to consider herself more of a libertarian these days.
"I'm not going to deny my past, but I think I've settled down a whole lot. I have loved campaigning for this job because I'm so freaking tired of partisan politics," Absher says.
Absher is vehemently opposed to Common Core and other education reform mandates that have affected her husband, who's been a KCS teacher the past 14 years. But it wasn't his frustrations that prompted her to run, Absher says.
"Being at those board meetings—I think it was when Kenneth Yi came up to give his talk—and he said, ‘Madam Chairwoman, may I have an extra minute so that I can get all my points in?' and Lynne Fugate looked down at him and said, ‘No.' And I just thought, ‘Wow,'" Absher says.
The moment was widely noted on social media at the time, especially as speakers throughout the night had regularly exceeded their allotted time. It may be what got Absher into the race, but it's a moment Fugate now says she regrets.
"Until you've been sitting in the chair with 200 angry people in a room, you don't know what it's like. And you may make a mistake in terms of how friendly you state things," Fugate says, admitting that she probably should have allowed Yi the extra minute.
But Fugate says the public perception of her as a supercilious leader is inaccurate.
"We don't respond to the public forum at all. I haven't been curt to anyone who's disagreed with me," Fugate says.
Still, Clark says, the current board's tenure has shaken the public's trust in its accountability.
"I want to work for complete transparency. The board is not asking for it from the superintendent, and when there are taxpayer dollars involved, it should not be like when your parent gives you an allowance to spend on whatever you want," Clark says.
Clark's wife is a teacher at Whittle Springs Middle School, so he says he's still in touch with what's happening inside the schools. But Clark says his leadership experience in the U.S. Air Force would also help him if elected.
"I'm exceptionally good with money because I've been in charge of million-dollar budgets before. And I know how to do more with less because I was ordered to do more with less," Clark says.
Fugate, a banker with a finance degree, says she also knows how to negotiate funding.
"People are complaining about testing—we do that because people ask for accountability with public tax dollars. When we go to Commission and ask them for more money for our budget, we have to have something to show them, to let them know what they're getting with their money," Fugate says. "There are absolutely things the administration has to work on. But I want to keep us moving forward."