Class Struggle: Knox School Leadership Is Being Tested

 

The next few weeks are going to be pivotal for the leadership of Knox County Schools. Consider:

• On Aug. 18, the school board, as presently constituted, will hold a special meeting to render its annual evaluation of Superintendent Jim McIntyre. While eight of nine members have been supportive of McIntyre up to now, he’s drawn mounting criticism this past year, especially from teachers.

• On Aug. 25, County Commission is due to appoint an interim school board member to fill the vacancy created by Indya Kincannon’s resignation until a successor can be elected in November. 

• On Sept. 3, three newly elected school board members will take office, all of whom campaigned as critics of McIntyre and his school board supporters.

• On Sept. 4, the revamped board will elect a chairperson for the year ahead, and if the incumbent Lynne Fugate is not retained it could signal a schism in the governance of public education in Knox County.

In his performance self-evaluation submitted to the board, McIntyre concludes that, “While we clearly have much more work to do to ensure a truly outstanding education for every single child in our school system, and while I certainly have a number of areas for growth and improvement in the future, I am proud of the remarkable work we are doing for our children in the Knox County Schools.” He stresses: 1. consistent gains in student achievement; 2. effective use of resources; and 3. strategic planning and execution.

“We have demonstrated that our strategic plan is indeed our roadmap for the future, and I believe that our successful implementation over the past five years and inclusive process to thoughtfully develop our strategic direction for the next five years meets or exceeds the school board’s expectation in this essential area of performance,” McIntyre states. But he also acknowledges that, “As I reflect on my relationship with our school leaders, teachers and other staff, this is clearly an area with substantial room for improvement.”

It will be surprising if most of the present school board members, with whom McIntyre has related well, don’t largely share these views in their collective Aug. 18 assessment of his performance. But disappointing student performance on this year’s state assessments (TCAPs) needs to be taken into account.

One thing the superintendent isn’t seeking at this time—and won’t until next year—is an extension of his contract, which the board has approved in conjunction with each of his five previous annual evaluations. The most recent one last fall came amid a storm of teacher protests over the processes by which they were being evaluated and by what many considered to be excessive student testing. Their opposition to his contract extension at that time spurred on the candidacies of the newly elected school board members who sided with them.

County Commission’s selection of an appointee to fill the vacancy in North Knoxville’s 2nd District could be pivotal even though the appointment is only for three months. That’s because the appointee could cast a decisive vote in the election of a school board chair for the year ahead that annually takes place in September.

Fugate was selected by acclimation a year ago, and four of the five holdover board members (including Fugate) can be expected to support her reelection. The lone potential opponent among the five is 8th District’s Mike McMillan, who has been on the short end of many eight-to-one board votes including McIntyre’s contract extension. Although McMillan says he’s not seeking to become chairman, the three newly elected board members could gravitate to him, in which event the vote of the appointee from the 2nd District could determine whether McIntyre will have an ally or foe presiding over the board.

Eight candidates have submitted applications for the vacancy, including at least one who intends to run in the November election to fill the seat for the two-year balance of Kincannon’s term. At a County Commission workshop on Aug. 18, the applicants are due to make presentations and answer questions, leading up to a Commission selection on Aug. 25.

Three commissioners (Tony Norman, Mike Brown, and Jeff Ownby) have been vituperative in their attacks on McIntyre and intrusions into school matters that are beyond Commission’s purview. At least two other commissioners (Dave Wright and Larry Smith) appear aligned with them. And lurking behind the scenes is Knox County’s shadowy political operative, Steve Hunley, who’s been out to get both McIntyre and Fugate by any means.

The list of applicants to fill the vacancy includes several who seem worthy, others problematic. It’s not clear what kinds of litmus tests to which they may be subjected by various commissioners. Nor is it clear (to me at least) who Hunley may be backing. But watch out for him.

Fugate’s qualifications to serve as board chair are outstanding and will hopefully be recognized by both her old and new colleagues regardless of the Aug. 25 outcome. Over a decade ago, she served with distinction as executive director of the multifaceted Nine Counties/One Vision process before returning to a career in banking. One of her strengths has been her facilitation skills, and these will be much needed on a body as disparate as the school board has become. “During this time of so much change on the board, some consistency during the transition could be helpful to the functions of the board,” Fugate says. 

For his part, McIntyre professes to be undaunted by the ascendancy of new board members who’ve been dissident. “I assume that anybody who runs for school board does so for the right reasons, that they want to be good for our children,” he says. “So if that assumption is true, I can work with anybody who is there to support the education of our children.”

I deeply hope that proves to be the case.

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