Technology Talk Dominates Knox County School Board Races

The Republican presidential primary is getting all the attention for the upcoming March 6 election, as early voting gets underway this week. But while not as high-profile, the three local school board races are swinging into high gear these last few weeks of campaigning.

Incumbents Karen Carson and Mike McMillan are up for reelection in Districts 5 and 8, respectively, while District 3 has three political newcomers vying for the seat. (It's true, there is a fourth race, but incumbent Knox County Schools Board of Education vice-chair Indya Kincannon is running unopposed in District 2.) Here's what the candidates have to say about the local education issues they feel are most important.

District 3

Two-term school board member Cindy Buttry decided not to run for reelection in West Knoxville's District 3, but she has given her support to candidate Gina Oster. Oster, 42, is a Realtor and a special-education assistant at Karns High School, and is running against businessman Doug Harris, 51, and military veteran Bobby Edington, 38. All three have children enrolled in Knox County Schools.

Oster is running on her PTA background of 16 years. "It's just a passion that I have! [The school system] is something I want to see grow and get better because it directly impacts our community," Oster says.

She adds that her experience teaching will help her serve on the board. "I feel like I know what teachers are up against," Oster says. "I have the firsthand knowledge to know what we can do and what we can't do."

One of the things Oster thinks the school board can't do is something that Harris has made a big part of his platform—iPads (or a similar tablet computer) in every child's hand, in every classroom in the county. "There are eight schools that don't even have wireless [Internet]," Oster says. "You can't put the cart before the horse."

But Harris strongly disagrees.

"To me, if we are going to get significant education gains, the iPad is the only way we're going to get there," Harris says. "It's a tool—it's not going to replace great teachers."

Harris points to the Mooresville school district near Charlotte, N.C., as an example of a district in which every student has a laptop and test scores have dramatically improved. "It's a no-brainer, but it's going to take great leadership to make it happen," Harris says.

Harris, who owns franchises of Papa John's Pizza restaurants in Columbus and Augusta, Ga., thinks he can provide the same leadership he's used in the business world to the school board. Edington says the same thing, but his experience comes from serving in the United States Air Force, in which National Guard he still serves.

He agrees with Harris that the STEM—science, technology, engineering, mathematics—program should be expanded to all high schools, but he says teachers need to be taught how to utilize the smart boards in their classrooms before every students gets a tablet computer. Edington says his concern as a parent of a kindergartner is that over half of third-graders in the school system aren't reading at grade level.

"We're not doing a good job of educating our kids," Edington says. He also stresses that he'd like to look at reorganizing the central office and says he'd work to cut the pay of school board members by 75 percent, to around $5,000.

District 5

District 5 mostly encompasses Farragut, and Carson has represented the area since 2004. She says she is running for her third term because she feels she finally has "the foundation really in place to push for family and community engagement," which she sees as necessary for an excellent school system.

Carson, 53, is a pediatric nurse with one child still in high school, and she says her work experience gives her a different perspective as to the emotional needs of children. She says the school system really needs to look at all of its programs and determine if they're effective or not.

Her opponent, Elaine Davis, 44, is a preschool teacher with three children in the school system. Davis was an interim Knox County Commissioner in 2008.

Davis is running on a pro-technology platform: iPads in schools, STEM programs at all high schools, and working with the local business community to make internships available to provide students with real-world learning. David says the latter program could work as a dual-enrollment program like that for students who currently take classes both in high school and at Pellissippi State Community College.

"I want to race to the top. I don't want to limp along the bottom," Davis says. "What concerns me is that ... 53 percent of third graders are not reading at grade level. These are statistics that absolutely have to change, and I believe we can do that with iPads in the classroom."

For her part, Carson says she loves her own iPad but she doesn't think "a material fix" will solve everything. She also says STEM programs aren't practical at all high schools, nor can the district afford to implement them.

District 8

Incumbent McMillan, 62, is a retired school teacher who formerly served on County Commission and has been on the school board since 2010. He says he's running again because he feels that as a retiree, he has plenty of time to focus on the issues.

"I want the very best schools for the schools in my district," McMillan says. "It's important that each child read up to grade level. It seems like everything comes back to that."

McMillan says he knows technology in the schools is important, but "all these things cost money ... it's not whether you want it, but how much can we afford." On this, at least, he agrees with his opponent, Conley Underwood, who says, "I think technology is great as long as it doesn't replace the teachers, but some schools aren't even equipped with wireless."

Underwood, 45, is a small business owner who was an outspoken advocate of a new Carter Elementary School. He has two daughters at Carter Middle School, and he says he views the school board position "not as a job, but a calling."

"I have a passion for wanting to see kids learn and grow," Underwood says. "I come from a PTO/PTA background."

Underwood thinks STEM should expand to every Knox County high school. He also says the community in his district needs to work together. "We need team building. There's too much Carter versus Gibbs—we need to work to help the entire district. I think I can bring a team-first concept to the district."

McMillan says his experience on Commission will help him further serve the community when it comes to budgeting. "I know what the Commission is facing."