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Publisher’s Position: School Board Races: A Referendum on McIntyre?

By Steve Hunley
With the arrival of the New Year, politics will heat up in Knox County.  Virtually every office in the county is up for grabs, with the exception of the Law Director and Property Assessor’s office.  Oddly, the races seeming to draw the most attention are well down the ballot; those for the Knox County Board of Education.  Usually campaigns for the Board of Education generate little interest or attention, but clearly something is different this year.  With staggered elections, there will be races for the First, Fourth, Sixth, Seventh, and Ninth Districts this year.  Incumbents Gloria Deathridge, Lynne Fugate and Pam Trainor are all seeking reelection while incumbents Thomas Deakins and Kim Severance have announced they will not run again.  Candidates seem to be coming out of the woodwork to run for the Board of Education, as every incumbent has at least one opponent.

Most everyone agrees South Knoxville Board member Pam Trainor is likely the most vulnerable incumbent.  First elected in 2010, Trainor had been a candidate against then sitting County Commissioner Paul Pinkston in 2008.  Pinkston was under fire from County Mayor Mike Ragsdale’s administration for Pinkston’s determined opposition to the implementation of the wheel tax.  Trainor ran as a Democrat and managed to attract significant funding through friends of the Ragsdale administration.  In spite of having more than enough money to wage a solid campaign, Trainor lost badly.

Two years later, Trainor came back to win a seat on the Board of Education when incumbent Robert Bratton was vulnerable.  Community activist Tammy Summers also ran and came up short.  Since her election to the Knox County Board of Education, Trainor has been a faithful follower of Superintendent James McIntyre.  Trainor’s support for McIntyre has translated into very little support in South Knoxville and South Knoxville schools.  When the Board spent an almost $14 million windfall in a single night, not a penny was spent South of the river.  Later, McIntyre did authorize saving the stadium at South-Doyle Middle School, which is to date Trainor’s single accomplishment as a member of the Board of Education.  Relatively speaking, investing in the crumbling stadium was a pittance, especially when compared to the money flowing into the districts of those Board members who have been McIntyre boosters.

Trainor’s performance as a member of the Board of Education has been somewhat erratic and while she howls about political machines and politics, she is not a newcomer to politics herself.  Her vulnerability in the coming election is evidenced by her former campaign manager picking up a petition to run against her.  Jim McClain, a former school administrator and one time Chairman of the Knox County Board of Education, strolled down to the courthouse and picked up a petition to run again. There had been rumors McClain wanted to run again, although he had backed Trainor four years ago.  McClain had voluntarily retired and former County Commissioner Robert Bratton had been elected to succeed him.  Four years after Bratton’s initial election to the Board, McClain decided he was ready for a comeback and lost in a close race.

Just days ago, McClain was quoted in the Knoxville News Sentinel as saying although he picked up a petition, he did not intend to actually run.  Instead, he will again manage Trainor’s reelection campaign.  McClain’s explanation for having picked up a petition to run in the first place was that he merely wished to “stir things up,” one of the more bizarre explanations so far of the political season.

As of now, Pam Trainor has at least two opponents in the coming election; Larry Clark, a former Knox County Commissioner and retired teacher, is seeking support all across the district.  Clark and his wife, Barbara, were both teachers for years.  Barbara Clark is the former principal of New Hopewell Elementary School and was an administrator downtown before retiring.  After leaving the Knox County Commission, Larry Clark has been employed by the Knox County Sheriff’s Department.  Clark will almost certainly have support from many old-time politicos.

Amber Rountree, an outspoken opponent of many of Superintendent Jim McIntyre’s policies, is a fresh face and new to seeking office.  A professional educator, Ms. Rountree has made quite an impression on many objective observers as highly intelligent and able, as well as articulate.

It is entirely possible there will be other candidates to file before the February 20, 2014 deadline.

Gloria Deathridge is facing retired educator Marshall Walker, who may prove to be a formidable candidate.  Deathridge will have the backing of the remnants of former Board member Sam Anderson’s machine inside the First District community.  Faced with failing schools, some of which have been entirely reconstituted, Deathridge may also suffer for having backed Superintendent McIntyre’s bid to privatize the school custodians, a move that was highly unpopular inside her district.

Lynne Fugate has slowly moved up the ladder on the Board of Education, finally moving up to Board Chair last year.  The Board chairmanship had been passed back and forth between Karen Carson and Indya Kincannon, both of whom have been lockstep supporters of McIntyre and his administration.  Fugate is equally committed to McIntyre and has attracted three opponents thus far.  Just how serious those opponents are remains to be seen.  Fugate is fortunate to represent a district where McIntyre’s numbers are higher that other districts, if not overwhelming.

Thomas Deakins is retiring in the Sixth District and there will be a familiar name on the ballot; Teresa “Terry” Hill is the wife of Steve Hill, frequent candidate for elected office and a former Chairman of the Board of Education.  Hill will face Tamara Shepherd, Bradley Buchanan and Sandra Rowcliffe in the election.  The Board of Education has been a family affair for the Hills, as his step-daughter Cindy Buttry served on the School Board for several terms.  Ms. Shepherd is one of the best informed people in the county about the school system and a critic of Superintendent McIntyre.

In the Seventh District, Kim Severance has accepted a new job recently and announced she will not be a candidate this year, but there is no dearth of candidates running to succeed her.  Current County Commissioner Larry Smith, who is winding up his term on County Commission, should start out, as the actual favorite with the highest name recognition.  Patti Lou Bounds, Zachary Wishart, Danny Kirby and Andrew Graybeal have all also picked up petitions to run as well.

If no candidate in teh School Board race receives 50% plus one vote in the primary election, the top two candidates will go on to a run off in the general election in August.

Superintendent Jim McIntyre’s insistence on having his contract extended seems to be the spark that has ignited real interest in the races for the Knox County Board of Education and the central issue in the campaign cycle may well be McIntyre himself.  Only Board member Mike McMillan voted against extending McIntyre’s contract, which had three years to run before the extension.

Clearly there already seems to be more interest in the campaigns for the Knox County Board of Education and it is entirely possible there could be a majority of new members who will not rubber stamp McIntyre’s policies.

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