9th District School Board Race Pits Experience Against Change

School board candidates Robert Bratton and Pam Trainor agree, more or less, on the choices their election campaigns present to the voters of South Knoxville and South Knox County. But not surprisingly, they put the emphasis in different places.

Bratton, the two-term incumbent for the 9th District, sees it as a simple matter of experience versus inexperience. With veteran board members like Sam Anderson in the 1st District and Dan Murphy in the 4th stepping down this year, he says it is important to retain as much institutional knowledge as possible.

"We need to have people on the board that understand the history," says Bratton, 47, who served two terms on County Commission before running for school board. "A lot of people will tell you they've been in the trenches, and they have, but most of them get there after the trenches have been built. I built the trenches."

Trainor, also 47, claims a fair amount of experience herself. She has been active in South Knoxville PTO and PTA groups since her children started school, and she is the sitting president of the Knox County Council PTA. But she also lumps Bratton in with what she sees as a moldering political establishment.

"Nice guy, he really is," she says. "But effective in representation, not so much. When you're a school board member or a commissioner or a councilmember or whatever, your job is to bring your community together, as a voice. And that has not been done."

Building a sense of community in the 9th District is no easy thing. It rambles from industrial urban neighborhoods just south of the river out to rolling farmland and tucked-away hollows near the Blount and Sevier County lines. The consolidation that happened after Knox County absorbed the old city school system eroded long-standing local loyalties—to South-Young High, where Trainor went to school, and Doyle High, Bratton's alma mater—creating in their place the single sprawling zone of South-Doyle. The high school, far out on Tipton Station Road, is remote from much of the population it serves. Trainor, who lives in the South Haven neighborhood, notes that it takes less time for her to get to Austin-East, Fulton, or West high schools than to her own children's school.

To counteract all that, she proposes to host regular town hall meetings throughout the district, bringing administrators from the middle and high schools into neighborhood elementary schools so that parents across South Knoxville can feel more connected to each other and the school system.

"That's never happened," she says. "I think that would ease a lot of tension."

Bratton, for his part, talks about bigger-picture goals. "We need to continue working on getting all our children on grade level by third grade," he says. "Math, spelling, all the subject matter. That's the single biggest indicator whether a child's going to be successful. I was an early supporter of the pre-K program, which a lot of people aren't for."

He boasts a grasp of the budget process and the complicated relationship between Commission and the school board that he believes will be valuable through what look to be continuing tight budget years.

Bratton was not a supporter of hiring Superintendent Jim McIntyre in 2008—he preferred Assistant Superintendent Bob Thomas for the job—and has remained something of a McIntyre skeptic. Trainor, on the other hand, sees a lot to like in the current administration, including its outreach to parents. "This guy came into a world of mess," she says of McIntyre. "He seems to have a stick-to-it-ness."

Trainor finished first in a field of four candidates in the May primary, taking 33 percent of the vote to Bratton's 29 percent. Combined with the 24 percent who voted for Tammy Sommers, a businesswoman and former teacher, that would suggest a sizable anti-incumbent sentiment in the district. But Sommers has not endorsed either candidate, and Bratton says he has three times before finished second in a primary and then won in the general election.

One possible factor, barely mentioned by either candidate, is a sexual harassment case against Bratton that the school system paid $21,000 to settle in 2008. (Bratton paid $3,000 of his own money.) A maintenance worker at South-Doyle Middle School complained that Bratton had grabbed her and made sexual advances. Bratton declines to discuss the case on the record, but he has always denied that any sexual harassment took place. Trainor says people raise the issue while she's out campaigning—"It's still a very hot topic in the community"—but says, "I try to stay away from that."

She thinks the race will come down to dissatisfaction with incumbents of all kinds this year. "The old guard, we're sick of it all over the county," she says. "I think it's across the board."

Bratton, meanwhile, says he thinks voters understand his commitment to schools and to students. "Everybody campaigns for education," he says. "I think my record shows I have supported education my whole life, with my votes."