7th District School Board Candidates Don't Disagree on Much, Including Each Other's Qualifications

So who's ever heard competing candidates approaching the final stretch of a long campaign saying stuff like this?

"I think the 7th District will be well represented by whomever becomes the school board representative. We both have good intentions."

Or this?

"It has been a blessing to me to be able to begin a political career with people that really care about what they're doing…. Before the primary, we all said we wish we could all be on the board and be in different districts."

The first quote is Bill Warwick. The second is Kim Sepesi. They are competing for the 7th District school board seat and were the top vote-getters in a four-person May primary, winning the right to have their names on the ballot in the Aug. 5 county general election. Sepesi got 2,261 votes, Warwick 1,353 in what had to be the most amicable campaign ever.

So amicable, in fact, that when fellow candidate Charlotte Dorsey's husband died just a couple of weeks before the primary, the other three (Sepesi, Warwick and Matthew Jones) pitched in together and sent flowers.

School board races are non-partisan, and having four strong candidates in the field meant that no one was able to get the 50 percent of the vote (plus one) that would enable the frontrunner to win the race outright in the primary. Sepesi, who has long been active in the vote-rich Powell community and is a Republican (yes, party affiliation still matters, and the 7th District rarely elects Democrats) finished with 43 percent of the vote.

Warwick—in a turn of events that shocked many 7th District politicos—came in second, despite being a Democrat and living near Cedar Lane, on the southern fringe of the district, which includes Halls and parts of Fountain City.

"From what I understand, I think it was a little bit of a surprise," says Warwick, 71 and a retired captain with the Knoxville Fire Department. "But I think I got some attention when I opened up a subject that most folks weren't aware of—and that's the attrition of the career and technical programs in our schools. I think these are as important as the rest of our programs. I applaud academic achievers, but we've also got to have in place programs for students who may not feel that they want to go through four years of college.

"We also want to have in place the programs for students who want to be electricians, mechanics, or carpenters. We only graduate 79 percent of our students anyway. That right there tells you that we've got some work to do."

Sepesi, 40, is a longtime Powell community volunteer and says she was somewhat surprised that Warwick finished so strong. "But really, I didn't know what was going to happen," she says.

If she is elected she says her main focus will be on the issue of school overcrowding.

"All of the high schools in the 7th District and many across Knox County are facing overcrowding, so I'm very interested in what we can do to ease that situation."

During the primary season, Warwick emphasized his steady habits and dependability. "I am a very dull person," he says. "I've been married to the same woman for 54 years, lived in the same house for 38 years, had the same job for 35 years, belonged to the same church, Gillespie Avenue Baptist, since 1944, been a deacon for 16 years, spent the bulk of my career at one firehall, Burlington, and was president of the Knoxville Firefighters Association for 16 years."

Despite once being told he was going to go to hell for being a Democrat, he doesn't consider his party affiliation a major handicap. "I'm an ultra-conservative Democrat and I've voted for lots of Republicans," he says. "I vote for Jimmy Duncan every time he's on the ballot and I've voted in Republican primaries and will do it again in August.

"Coming out of a labor organization, you have to hold hands with Democrats, and we have some great people in the party."

Warwick served as president of the Fulton High School Alumni Association and says that kept him involved in and informed about the school system. He is proud to have been endorsed by the Knox County Education Association and to have gotten a vote of confidence from a group he knows well. "For some reason, the firefighters chose to endorse me," he says, laughing.

Sepesi has also been very involved in school issues. The married mother of two young children, she is a graduate of the University of Tennessee and the public information officer for Rural Metro, which has its main office in Powell. She is a Republican and was a founder of the Teen Driver Awareness Program at Powell High School, which was a response to a series of traffic accidents that have killed and injured a shocking number of PHS students and recent alumni. She has joined Warwick as an advocate for career and technical (vocational) education.

"I would like to see another vocational school here in five to seven years," she said. "But I'm a pragmatic person and I know that the main thing is, where does the money come from? I would like to see us put back money within the next five years. We spend a million and a half per day. If we could save just one day, we could go into [building a new vocational school in North Knox County] debt-free in five-seven years. I'd like to see the school board more proactive than reactive."

Sepesi knows that many Powell residents are still smarting from a hotly protested school rezoning two years ago, but she says overall, she supports schools Superintendent Jim McIntyre.

"So far, Dr. McIntyre has done a very good job. Being in the heart of Powell, I was not affected by the rezoning, but lots of families around me are. I don't single him out for blame, though. I think he's tried to be a good caretaker of the budget. He's been asked to come in and keep a flat budget and that's just hard to do. At some point in time, we're going to have to address that. We can't be flat."

Warwick agrees: "I see education as an investment in our future, not a cost."