Cash, Rysewyk make final pitches to BOE

By Ken Lay

The search for the next Knox County Schools Superintendent has entered its home stretch. The two candidates to replace the retiring Bob Thomas made their final pitches to the Knox County Board of Education Friday in Downtown Knoxville.

Dr. Jon Rysewyk and Dr. Linda Cash had their final interviews and now all that remains is for the board to vote at a called meeting Tuesday afternoon at the Andrew Johnson Building.

The meeting begins at 5 p.m. and will culminate the search process, which began after Thomas, who has been KCS Superintendent since 2017, recently announced his intentions to retire in June. Thomas has spent five decades in public education in East Tennessee.

Cash is the director of schools in Bradley County, a district that serves approximately 10,000 students while Rysewyk is an assistant superintendent at KCS and serves as the district’s chief academic officer.

While each finalist has a unique vision for the future of Knox County Schools, both agree that the students must be the primary focus and that they must have a team of solid people to do the job successfully.

They also agree that board and the superintendent must work together and stand united on controversial decisions.

“When we have an issue and we have to make a decision that could be unpopular, I meet with my team and we discuss it,” Cash said. “You can complain in my circle and you can whine in my circle, but when we come to our decision and we leave the circle, we’re all on board.

“There should never be a voice from my office that says,’ I don’t think they should have done that. I think the voice should be, ‘We are so proud that our board had to take a hard stance and we are 100 percent behind them.”

Rysewyk said that the board and the superintendent must work together even if a disagreement exists.

“You’re going to disagree sometimes,” he said. “It happens but we have to work together. Our job is to execute the board’s will when that happens.”

“I want to be the superintendent in Knox County. This is the only place that I want to be.”

Both expressed the importance of teamwork in a district the size of KCS, which serves 60,000 students and has 7,000 employees.

“I’ve been a team builder everywhere I’ve been,” said Rysewyk, who served as assistant principal at Fulton High School and as director of Emerald Academy, Knox County’s only charter school. “This is not a one-man job in a district the size of Knox County.

“You have to have a team of people that you trust.”

Cash, too, said she couldn’t do the job alone.

“If you try to micromanage people and you try to do it all alone, you will fail.”

Both candidates said that the district’s next superintendent must put students and teachers first. Teacher morale has been a topic of discussion, especially with the county, state and nation still in the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The candidates’ definitions of morale differ.

“We have to celebrate our wins, no matter how small they may seem,” Cash said. “We need to celebrate our principals. Sometimes, you just have to tell people when they do a good job.

“I have a heart for children and I have a heart for our teachers and our administrators.”

Rysewyk defines morale as having meaning and being purposeful.

“To me, morale is not about feeling good all the time. It’s about being meaningful and being purposeful,” he said. “If a person feels like they have purpose and are meaningful, then they will feel good about what they do.”

Both Rysewyk and Cash expressed the need for community involvement and business partnerships in public education.

Rysewyk said that he hopes to maintain partnerships with local colleges and businesses that have already been established by the district and Cash spoke of her district’s community and business partnerships.

Both also said that they recognize the need to expand CTE options in Knox County Schools.

Rysewyk said that if selected, he’ll be ready to work from his first day on the job.

“I feel like I have the experience in Knoxville and Knox County and I’ll be ready to hit the ground running,” he said.

Cash said that if she should be tapped to be the next superintendent, she will have an open-door policy for parents, teachers and administrators and that she’ll be present at many school events.

“I will always meet with board members, teachers, administrators and parents,” she said. “You may have to make an appointment to make sure I’m there, but I have board members and administrators that text me to see if I’m available, and they stop by.

“I will never not return a phone call. If a person is angry, I might wait 24 to 48 hours to give them time to settle. You also need to go to school events so the students know that you care, and they’ll be willing to approach you.”