McMillan to Retire From Board of Education

By Ray Hill

Mike McMillan, East Knox County’s member of the Knox County Board of Education, has announced he will not seek reelection next year. During McMillan’s tenure, the board of education has seen something like $100 million come through new buildings and improvements to area schools.

“The Bible says there is a time for seasons, and it’s time to hand this off to someone else.  I’ve accomplished most of what I set out to do on the school board,” McMillan said.

Mike McMillan, after a 10-year tenure as a Knox County Commissioner, sought election to the board of education in 2010.  The election was to fill the seat left vacant by the resignation of Bill Phillips. McMillan ran as an unabashed advocate for the 8th District and said he was strongly in favor of building a new middle school in the Gibbs community, as well as a new elementary school in the Carter community.  McMillan had credibility as he had been a big backer of a new middle school for Gibbs while on the county commission.

Mike McMillan hammered home his belief the 8th District needed someone on the Knox County Board of Education who would stand up for the people rather than the school system.  McMillan won the election, carrying virtually every precinct in the district, with 53% of the vote.

It was a new kind of campaign for the school board.  Before Mike McMillan’s comeback, campaigns for the board had been largely sedate affairs, pretty well devoid of real issues, with all candidates mouthing the same platitudes that they loved children and were for “good schools.”  The days of beauty contests for the Knox County Board of Education were over.  It was a high watermark in Knox County elections.

For the first few years of his service on the board of education, McMillan risked ridicule and became something of an outcast for his insistence upon representing the people of the 8th District. McMillan grumbled that the philosophy of his colleagues seemed to be largely the “protection, preservation and perpetuation” of the system rather than the children, parents and educators who made up the system.  Mike McMillan was the lone member who constantly invoked the “taxpayers,” a habit that frequently seemed to annoy his colleagues.

One woman posted on her social media that Mike McMillan was the “honey badger” of the Knox County Board of Education.  The nickname stuck precisely because it accurately summarized McMillan’s attitude and refusal to be budged from what he believed was right.

No other member of the board so closely questioned the superintendent at the time.  McMillan liked to say then-Superintendent Jim McIntyre was always chasing “the next big thing,” and constantly searching Google for what some other school system was doing.

McMillan was equally quick to demand to know just how much a new program was going to cost the taxpayers, a very unwelcome question most of the time.

When McIntyre request ed a large property tax hike, Mike McMillan was the single board of education member notable for his own opposition to the tax grab.  McMillan complained McIntyre was spending without regard for the community’s ability to pay. The proposed tax increase suffered a crippling blow when County Mayor Tim Burchett publicly opposed the tax hike and so did The Focus.

It was McIntyre’s overspending that Mike McMillan shrewdly used to the advantage of the people of the 8th District.  Caught with a shortfall, Mayor Tim Burchett, the county’s chief fiscal officer, reigned in McIntyre’s spending by giving the superintendent little other option but to sign a Memorandum of Understanding limiting spending.  The agreement also included a new middle school for the Gibbs community.

The new middle school had been on the burner for decades and time and again the community was thrilled to see it almost come to fruition, only to see it removed or discarded.  It is absolutely factual to say there would not have been a Gibbs Middle School without Tim Burchett or Mike McMillan. That same duo, Burchett and McMillan, also built a new elementary school for the Carter community.

The political complexion of the board of education changed dramatically and elevated Mike McMillan to the chairmanship.

It was Mike McMillan who fended off the effort to close the Career Magnet Academy in Strawberry Plains, which was bravely resisted by its students.  McMillan answered each individual student and fought on their behalf before the board.  Then-Superintendent Bob Thomas decided to leave the school alone.

The last time McMillan’s name was on the ballot, he was unable to campaign personally, following his recovery from pneumonia and two bouts of cancer, for which he underwent treatment.  Even while undergoing cancer treatment, McMillan almost never missed a meeting of the board.  Mike McMillan’s personal popularity continued to grow and he once tallied almost 7,700 votes just inside the 8th District.

It was McMillan’s greatest victory, winning by a landslide against two opponents while being unable to personally campaign.  Four years later, McMillan has seen his longtime partner’s health steadily deteriorate, which has its effect as he sorrows for her condition.

Mike McMillan’s decision to retire comes after he has accomplished everything he set out to do.  Going from an irritant on the board to the person who molded the new majority on the board, Mike McMillan became a respected elder statesman.

McMillan intends to serve out his term, which ends September 1, 2024.  Asked if he had any message for the people of the 8th District, after a moment of contemplation, McMillan said in his raspy voice, “I want the people of East Knox County to know how very, very grateful I am for the opportunity to serve them on the board of education.  I did my best to do things for the people.  I will always be grateful for the opportunity to serve.”