It's 20-some miles from Harbison's Crossroads to Tuckahoe. These far-flung points of reference—one near the Union County line, the other not far from Sevier County—hint at the difficulties of representing a school board district that is simultaneously the county's largest, geographically speaking, and smallest, population-wise. Eighth District residents complain about not getting their share of good schools, roads and amenities and more than their quota of jails and landfills. And they've also been known to engage in some pretty fierce infighting amongst themselves.
Which should come first, a new Gibbs Middle School or a new Carter Elementary School?
So far, the answer appears to be neither.
Eighth District school board politics can be brutal. There is finger-pointing and discontent in the wake of former school board member Bill Phillips, who was pressured into resigning earlier this year after pleading guilty to a domestic violence incident involving a death threat and a loaded gun. An interim replacement, Patrick Richmond, was appointed as a placeholder, and a heated primary race produced two candidates who appear not to like each other very much at all.
Mike McMillan, who lives in the Thorn Grove Community on the south end of the district, is a former county commissioner and former teacher. He finished second in the four-person primary on May 4 with 27 percent of the vote.
Roy Mullins, a retired school administrator who lives in Corryton and served two stints as interim school superintendent, led the field with 43 percent of the vote.
Both candidates seem wary of the second phase of the campaign.
"I don't know what Roy will do," McMillan says. "I just have no idea. Maybe he does what he did in the primary, which seemed to work pretty well for him—just put up signs and rely on teachers' organizations to do the rest for him."
"Mike sort of got into the race at the last minute," Mullins says. "There's no question that Steve Hunley [a prominent Republican activist and former school board member who lives in the Gibbs community] is behind him. They make no bones about that. And it's certainly no secret that I worked hard for Jim Williams," a retired principal who defeated Hunley in his 1998 re-election bid. "They just decided ‘We'll make Roy work for this one.'"
In a district with so many budget-busting capital needs and desires, McMillan's hottest-button issue going into July seems to be whether Mullins told a Knox County Education Association panel that he'd support a big tax increase. McMillan says he did and Mullins says he didn't say what McMillan says he said.
"Does it strike you as a little strange that Roy would go and tell the teachers that, and then deny it—the tax deal?" McMillan asks. "I agreed with them that they could use more money. But I didn't say anything about taxing. He said we've gotten by too cheap for too long and that we need to raise taxes and raise them significantly…"
Mullins says McMillan's allegation is a distortion.
"We were interviewing for the KCEA endorsement and they had a whole litany of questions," Mullins says. "I said I would support more money for teachers, but I strongly disagree with Mike's letter saying that I would support a major tax increase or something to that effect."
Another heated primary issue that could be revisited before Aug. 5 is an anonymous flyer that linked Mullins to the disgraced Bill Phillips via a Mullins quote declaring Phillips a friend of education. Mullins says this is a distortion of something he said when he thanked Phillips for purchasing bulletproof vests for school security officers after Halls High officer Russell B. Kocur was shot to death in a school parking lot in 2006. Phillips was known for generous gifts to causes he supported.
An additional issue that may come up is McMillan's 2008 resignation from his teaching job at Gibbs High School. A longtime social studies teacher, McMillan was accused of encouraging students not to show up on the day of state-required evaluations and telling them that he'd administer a "make-up" test later. The situation was complicated by the discovery of more testing irregularities and a titillating magazine that McMillan said he'd confiscated from a student and forgotten to discard. Although McMillan disputed the charges against him, he resigned before the school system moved to revoke his tenure. Mullins was the interim superintendent when the McMillan investigation started, raising questions about McMillan's motivations now.
McMillan says, however, that he doesn't hold Mullins responsible for his teaching career's abrupt ending.
"He was the one who wrote the letter and made the final call, so to speak," McMillan says of Mullins, "but I don't hold him responsible. Back when I was a commissioner, I asked some pretty tough questions from time to time and I think there was some resentment about that. He and [former Gibbs Principal] Janice Walker worked against me in my Commission races, I guess because I'd been critical of the school system and would not support a tax increase and they were in favor of it.
"But that's not the reason I decided to run. I decided to run because it felt like people were not going to have any choice."
Both candidates say they will work to get new schools in Carter and Gibbs.
On the basis of the numbers, Mullins appears to firmly in the driver's seat. The third-place candidate, retired principal Tommy Everette, got 18.2 percent of the vote and took out an ad in a community newspaper asking his supporters to vote for Mullins in the primary.
But lingering discontent over unfulfilled needs makes the outcomes in the sprawling district difficult to predict.