Primary Focus: School Board

Year of the Woman

The safest prediction in local politics is that 2010 will go down in Knox County Board of Education history as the Year of the Woman.

Six of the nine districts are on the ballot this year, and all of the incumbents in those districts are men. Two, Sam Anderson in the 1st District and Dan Murphy in the 4th, are not seeking re-election and will be succeeded by women who are running unopposed. Gloria Deathridge is the only candidate who qualified for Anderson's seat and Lynne Fugate will be Murphy's successor. Add Deathridge and Fugate to the three female incumbents whose terms are not up until 2012—Indya Kincannon, Cindy Buttry, and Karen Carson—and it's a certainty that five women will be board members come September 1. Women are also making strong runs in two of the three contested races. (Thomas Deakins is running unopposed.)

Tammy Sommers and Pam Trainor are challenging incumbent Robert Bratton and perennial candidate Max Houser in the 9th District, and Kim Sepesi and Charlotte Dorsey are running in the 7th District for the seat now held by incumbent Rex Stooksbury, who is not seeking re-election. This is an interesting turn of events for a school board that has been embarrassed twice in recent years by male board members being accused of sexual harassment (Bratton) and domestic violence (Bill Phillips, who resigned earlier this year under pressure after pleading guilty to assaulting his wife in 2008).

School board races are non-partisan, and unless a candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote in the May 4 primary, the top two finishers in each district will face off in the August general election. There are lively contested races being waged in the 7th, 8th, and 9th districts.

The 7th district encompasses Powell, Halls and most of Fountain City. Stooksbury, the incumbent, is hanging it up after serving one term. He is a retired principal. In addition to Dorsey and Sepesi, Matthew Jones and Bill Warwick are also candidates. Jones, 31, is a juvenile probation officer and a graduate of Maryville College who was spurred to run for a County Commission seat two years ago by the Black Wednesday scandals. He is married and has two children who will be attending Knox County schools this fall. Jones has been visiting every school in his district. Warwick, 71, is a retired city firefighter who has long been active in Democratic politics. He prides himself on his stability—he's been married for 58 years, lived in the same house for 38 years and held down the same job for 35 years. He is a past president of the Fulton High School Alumni association and says he wants to be an advocate for Career and Technical education.

Dorsey, 66, is a retired principal who started her career in education as a PTA mom and became so involved with her children's school that she went back to college and earned three degrees, including a doctorate. She has experience running both urban and suburban schools and is soldiering on with her campaign despite the April 7 death of her husband, Dr. Larry "Doc" Dorsey.

Sepesi, 40, is a Powell resident who probably has the most district name recognition of the four candidates. She is a married mother of two young children, a graduate of the University of Tennessee and the public information officer for Rural Metro, which has its main office in Powell. She was a founder of the Teen Driver Awareness Program at Powell High School, which was a community response to a long and tragic string of traffic accidents involving Powell High students and young alumni.

These four candidates are running the most amicable race imaginable. Jones says he's grateful that he's gotten to know the others as friends. Sepesi says if she is elected she'd like to invite the other candidates to be on her advisory committee. The tone they have set is respectful and even friendly.

This is not the case in the 8th District, which wasn't supposed to have a school board election this year. Bill Phillips took office without opposition two years ago, but he soon found himself embroiled in controversy after he was charged with pulling a gun on his wife in December 2008. He resisted calls for his resignation, and a recall movement fell short of getting the signatures necessary to force a referendum, but he was censured by his colleagues in 2009 and resigned under fire earlier this year. His appointed replacement, Patrick Richmond, is not seeking election.

Candidates for this seat are retired administrator Roy Mullins, retired principal Tommy Everette, former County Commissioner Mike McMillan, and Harvey Boles, a retired railroad engineer whose main issue is getting a middle school for the Gibbs community. This far-flung east Knox County district stretches from Gibbs southward through Corryton, Ritta, Carter, and over to Thorn Grove and contains many communities with distinctly different (and sometimes competing) needs and desires.

Mullins, who lives in Corryton and has 45 years experience as a teacher, principal, administrator, and interim superintendent of Knox County Schools, has all the major endorsements and is generally considered the favorite, although he could be hurt by lingering resentment over the Gibbs middle school issue. McMillan, who served three terms on Knox County Commission after being appointed to serve out the unexpired term of his late father, Joe McMillan, taught school in Knox County for nearly 35 years, most of that at Gibbs High School. He resigned after being notified that his tenure had been revoked in 2008, and said that Mullins "was the one who made the decision." But that's not why he's running, McMillan says.

"When it comes to running a school system, there's no school board candidate who could even come close to having the credentials that Roy's got," McMillan says. "But we're talking about somebody representing a district and carrying the concerns of the people to the board."

McMillan enjoys the support of former board member Steve Hunley in this election, something that was not the case when McMillan was a county commissioner. "Like they say, politics makes strange bedfellows and Hunley and his group were going to support somebody other than Roy, so why should it not be me?" McMillan says. "I got a petition, had a week to get it back and thought I'd get negative feedback, but it was quite the contrary."

In the 9th District, three challengers are seeking to unseat two-term incumbent Bratton, a former county commissioner who served two terms on that body before mounting an unsuccessful bid for the state House of Representatives. He made an unsuccessful run for trustee in 2008 and was hobbled by a school custodian's 2007 sexual harassment claim that was settled for $24,000—$21,000 of which was paid by Knox County Schools and $3,000 by Bratton.

Max Houser is making another run, as are Sommers and Trainor, both strong progressives who have long been active in PTA issues. Trainor, 47, may have a name recognition edge, since she is a lifelong South Knoxvillian. She also made a run for County Commission in 2004 against Paul Pinkston. She is a graduate of South-Young High School and the president of the Knox County PTA Council. She owns River Dog Bakery, which bakes confections for pets, and is the mother of two teenagers.

Sommers, 39, is the chief operating officer of a downtown commercial real estate brokerage. A former teacher and guidance counselor with master's degrees in education and educational psychology, she has been involved in education, professionally and as a parent, for nearly two decades. Common wisdom in this district is that Bratton, who has a reputation as a tough campaigner, isn't as visible this year as is his usual wont, but that Sommers and Trainor might split the Southside progressive vote.

It's not a stretch to say that Sam Anderson is one of the most influential school board members in history, nor is it a stretch to say that Gloria Deathridge—former Austin-East PTA president and secretary of Project Grad, a real estate broker, married and a mother to two children—is Anderson's handpicked successor. Anderson, who has served five terms and in 1993 became the first African-American elected as chair (he would subsequently serve in that capacity 1993-1996 and 2002-2006), has decided to retire. He has been a champion for the children of his inner-city district and Deathridge is expected to pick up that torch.

Lynne Fugate, a banker who ran the Nine Counties, One Vision project, is running unopposed for the 4th District seat that will be vacated when Murphy steps down. Fugate is married, has two sons at West High School and is president of the West High School Foundation.

School board vice-chair Thomas Deakins is running unopposed for a second term representing the 6th District.