The conversation around the (real or metaphorical) water cooler since the May 6 elections has seemed to return to a certain theme again and again: How representative, exactly, was Halls Elementary School librarian Amber Rountree's decisive victory over Knox County Schools Board of Education incumbent Pam Trainor in the 9th District?
If you ask the chair of the school board, Lynne Fugate—who easily won reelection in the 4th District over two candidates campaigning against Superintendent Jim McIntyre and the board's policies—the election results weren't any kind of referendum.
"I think that each district makes their own decisions," Fugate says.
But if you ask Lauren Hopson, the third-grade teacher (and colleague of Rountree's) who has brought national attention to the current malaise of KCS educators, Tuesday night was a victory for more than just Rountree.
"Now I think they realize they're going to have to take us seriously," Hopson says. "It's nice to feel validated."
Hopson might have a point. In the 1st District, incumbent Gloria Deathridge faces an August runoff against Marshall Walker, who edged Robert Boyd by 26 votes. But Walker and Boyd, who each have worked in public school systems and were running on very similar platforms, together totaled 100 votes more than Deathridge, despite barely campaigning.
In the 6th District, retired KCS counselor Terry Hill had 42 percent of the vote—in a four-way race. She isn't running on the reform agenda of Rountree, Absher, and others, but she also raised far less money than the challenger she'll face in August, Sandra Rowcliffe, who had Haslam family donations and Bruce Pearl robocalls on her side.
Mike McMillian, the 8th District board member, is currently the only retired educator on the body. But KCS teacher Patti Lou Bounds ran unopposed in the 7th District, and with Rountree's win, that makes three. When all the winners are sworn in come September, there might be five.
Referendum or not, things are about to be shaken up.
Most of the Election Night festivities happened at the Knox County Republican Party party at Crowne Plaza, but many of the school board candidates held their events elsewhere—the races are (ostensibly) nonpartisan, after all.
Over in the 6th District, Brad Buchanan ordered pizza at home, and Tamara Shepherd hung out at Cheddar's. In the 4th District, Sally Absher met her supporters at Sullivan's. And in the 9th District, Amber Rountree had a backyard cookout at her house.
There were 30 to 40 people there (it was hard to count the kids running around). Everyone was eating burgers and potato salad and Rotel dip. Hopson was there, along with a number of other educators and activists involved in the SPEAK group. State Rep. Gloria Johnson, a KCS teacher herself, showed up. So did County Commissioner Tony Norman, a retired teacher.
Rountree got the news early that she probably had the election in the bag. She had campaign volunteers at eight of the nine precincts in the district, and one by one, each texted her the results posted at that location. Rountree won them all, handily, except Mount Olive, which she lost by three votes—although once early and absentee votes were added in, Rountree topped Trainor there by 20 votes.
(It is, by the way, perfectly legal for a campaign volunteer with his or her campaign shirt removed to enter the precinct once voting has ended and get the results from that precinct. They're completely unofficial "unofficial results"—as even the official Election Night results are themselves unofficial until certified—but they can give you a pretty good idea of what will happen.)
In fact, once everything was tallied, Rountree topped every precinct in the 9th except for 10-S, a precinct on the University of Tennessee campus that had a whopping four people vote in the board elections. (Three of the four went with Trainor.)
More significantly, though, Rountree beat Trainor in her home precinct, the 26th/Dogwood, where the former had 61 percent of the vote. Overall, Rountree won with 58.46 percent of the vote—not just a sizable margin, but a clear mandate from voters in South Knoxville that they wanted Trainor out.
Norman, for one, wasn't surprised.
"I just think it's very representative of how South Knoxville feels about current administration policy," Norman said.
But when it came to everyone else? Well, it was the day's biggest upset, by far. Even pundits who predicted a Rountree win didn't think it would be by that margin, not when Trainor had double the money from supporters like Jimmy Haslam and Randy Boyd.
It took Trainor by surprise too. The News Sentinel reported "she was at a loss of words about the race" and quoted her as saying, "I don't know what to say really … It's just hard to see it go to somebody that doesn't know my kids. … I just hope it doesn't set my schools back because they've been moving so swift and so fast and I just want them represented and I fear that's not going to happen."
That's not to say Rountree wasn't in shock either.
"This is crazy!" Rountree said shortly before her supporters popped the one celebratory magnum of champagne they had on hand. After pouring one or two fingers of bubbly in clear plastic cups and passing them around, Rountree thanked her campaign volunteers, her friends, and her husband. Then she raised a toast, while literally jumping for joy.
"Teachers kick ass!" Rountree shouted, as Hopson, beside her, and others cheered loudly.
(For the record, Rountree wasn't drunk, only exuberant—that tiny bit of champagne was her entire alcohol consumption for the evening. She's pregnant with her first child, due right around the time she'll be sworn in.)
As a current KCS librarian at Halls Elementary, Rountree will have to quit her job at the end of the school year to serve on the board, but as of Election Night, her concerns weren't yet about finding a new gig.
"I've got to get through the chorus program Thursday," Rountree said. "I can't think about anything else until after that."
Meanwhile, the shock of losing apparently still hadn't worn off 24 hours later for Trainor. When Hopson spoke at Wednesday's school board meeting, wearing a Rountree campaign T-shirt, Trainor got up and walked out of the meeting.
Over in the 4th District, Fugate was surprised by her results too.
"I didn't think this would happen," Fugate said late Tuesday night. "I am happy."
Fugate won 54.5 percent of the vote in her district, while Absher tallied just over 34 percent and Scott Clark garnered 11 percent. Fugate also won every precinct except Pond Gap, which Absher took by 12 votes. But Fugate admitted that while she might have a mandate in her district, that might not be the case in the county after the two runoffs.
"I do want to continue the work we've started with teachers and educators. I think we've made progress, but there's more to do," Fugate said. "When I joined the board there were five new members, so we'll probably need to have a couple of retreats or something. And I do plan to reach out to Amber and meet with her one on one—before she's sworn in, and we can't do that."
Absher, on the other hand, isn't quitting her activism. On her campaign Facebook page she wrote, "I know that I made Fugate and the Chamber people absolutely SCARED TO DEATH. ... I will work to see that Terry Hill is victorious in the 6th and Marshall Walker in the 1st in the General election. I guess you could say I lost the battle but we may have won the war!"
Absher's not the only one volunteering to help Walker campaign. He says that now that he's in the runoff, he wants to build up grassroots support.
"I have more work to do before August 2014, and will greatly appreciate your help and support in aiding me to realize a serious goal in 2014, and that is to win the Knox County School Board, District-1 seat," Walker posted in the SPEAK group on Facebook.
If all the other former candidates do help him mount a plausible campaign, Deathridge could be in trouble. That said, Deathridge won every precinct outright except for the 20th, which she tied with Boyd. Still, some of those wins were only by a handful of votes—if Walker can pick up Boyd's supporters, and if enough of those supporters turn out, anything could happen.
But in the 6th District, only one thing seems likely to happen—Hill will get elected in August, and it probably won't be close. Buchanan and Shepherd ran on an anti-McIntyre platform; combined, they got 1,113 votes. (Hill had 1,394, and Rowcliffe had 742.) As much money as Rowcliffe might raise, and as many ads and signs and robocalls as she might get out over the summer, the likelihood of any of Buchanan's or Shepherd's supporters voting for her is nil.
It's true, some of those supporters might just choose to not vote for anyone at all, and it's possible that some votes for Hill could turn to Rowcliffe if she campaigns hard enough. But this race has always been Hill's to lose.
Activists in SPEAK are saying that if they can get Walker and Hill on the board, they'll have a 5 to 4 majority. It's true, if that happens, they'll have a 5 to 4 majority of people who were once employed by KCS to those who haven't been. But it seems naive to assume that Hill and Bounds, conservative and Republicans both, are always going to be in agreement with Walker and Rountree, nonpartisan elections or not.
It also seems silly to assume the current board is always a solid voting block. Current board member Indya Kincannon, who does support McIntyre but isn't a fan of everything he's done, isn't always going to vote in agreement with board member Doug Harris, a huge fan of charter schools (and vouchers).
What does seem likely, going forward, is that the new configuration of the board will be one slightly more likely to ask questions and slightly more likely to listen. We only hope this means meetings aren't now slightly more likely to last even longer.