By Steve Hunley
For those of you who don’t think elections, especially local elections matter, take the case of Mike McMillan, East Knox County’s member of the Board of Education. When McMillan entered the primary for the Board of Education literally at the last minute in 2010, he was the underdog of all underdogs. McMillan faced Roy Mullins, who had twice been interim superintendent of Knox County Schools. Mullins was at the top of the vaunted old school machine and never since 1946 had any superintendent lost control of the Board of Education. Roy Mullins was believed to be enormously popular inside his home district and in the first primary election, that belief seemed to be confirmed when he won quite nearly 46% of the vote. McMillan lagged behind with around 27% of the vote and most everyone believed Mullins was certain to win. A former County Commissioner who had lost his seat during the term limits turmoil, McMillan was thought by many to be a political has-been while Roy Mullins was considered to be a powerhouse despite never having run for office before.
What Mike McMillan did have was name recognition, a lot of friends and supporters in the 8th District, and not being tied to the old school machine. McMillan also had freedom of action since he had recently retired. McMillan campaigned in a way that was at first derided as hopelessly old fashioned. McMillan talked about issues that were important to the people of his district, discussing taxes, school finance, and promised to work for a new Carter Elementary School. Mullins relied on the old standby of the school machine, constantly singing the refrain, “It’s all for the children.”
News of Roy Mullins’s enormous pension didn’t help his campaign nor did his failure to promise to work for a new elementary school for the Carter community. Mullins preferred renovations to a new school. Eventually Ol’ Roy did finally catch on that folks in and around Carter were enthused over a new elementary school; Mullins’s conversion came too late. Roy Mullins was also blindsided by the notion of discussing taxes, as the old school crowd had always been known for their free spending. The idea of including the taxpayers in the conversation was a new concept to Mullins. Still, as the campaign came to a close, virtually no one believed Mike McMillan would win. The returns came in after the polls had closed showing McMillan leading Roy Mullins, leaving more than a few people utterly stunned. After all the votes were tabulated, McMillan had won with 53% of the vote.
McMillan set the tone with his very first meeting as the newest member of the Board of Education. McMillan kept the Board from adopting a set of policies that had never been questioned until he became a Board member; one of the policies forbade Board members to be openly critical of a decision reached by a majority of the Board. Another discouraged any criticism of the superintendent. Mike McMillan flatly said the majority of the Board could adopt whatever it liked, but he put them on notice he had no intention of adhering to those absurd rules. McMillan said the Board could begin every meeting by censuring him and then move on to official business. Quietly, the rules were dropped and never again adopted.
Despite being a minority of one, McMillan persistently continued to hit those points he had campaigned on: spending and taxes. During a Board of Education retreat, McMillan spoke up to say the Board should strive for better relations with the County Commission and pointed out the Commission retained sole control over the county’s finances and ultimately decided what the school system would receive to spend. Fellow Board member Karen Carson snarled, “So what?”
McMillan, with considerable help from Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett, continued to push for a new Carter Elementary School and saw the project approved. McMillan had to run again in 2012 and faced an opponent from the PTA who astonishingly tried to take credit for the new elementary school. McMillan pledged to fight for a new middle school for the Gibbs community and was reelected handily.
McMillan continued to be demeaned, ignored and denigrated by most of his fellow Board members for his refusal to follow Jim McIntyre’s lead. McMillan’s was one of the loudest voices against McIntyre’s proposal to outsource the school custodians and became a hero to many of the janitors. McMillan said at the time it was poor grace for the highest paid official in county government (and McIntyre was paid more than Vice President Joe Biden, more than every member of Obama’s Cabinet, the Members of Congress and Chief Justice of the U. S. Supreme Court John Roberts) to sacrifice the benefits and pay of the lowest paid employees of the school system. The Board finally balked and it was the first time the Knox County Board of Education refused to go along with McIntyre. Mike McMillan was at the center of Jim McIntyre’s first real defeat, although the Board continued to be populated by McIntyre puppets.
Twice the Board’s Ethics Committee met over trumped up charges that were laughable had they not been so venal; the one instance was so clearly contrived to embarrass Mike McMillan that Indya Kincannon should remain ashamed of her role in that plot for the rest of her life. McMillan never lost his good humor, noting the Ethics Committee only seemed to meet to charge him with something or the other.
Mike McMillan doggedly remained the lone member of the Board to question McIntyre, as well as the continual over-spending. McMillan spoke up for the rights of teachers and decried McIntyre’s imperial superintendency and dictatorial style of leadership. Then came the 2014 elections and Terri Hill, Patti Bounds and Amber Rountree, all of whom ran for office as opponents of McIntyre, despite being opposed by the political establishment, the Knoxville News-Sentinel, and the Chamber of Commerce. With the resignation of Indya Kincannon and the appointment of John Fugate, the worst possible scenario for the establishment loomed on the horizon. There was a possibility Mike McMillan could become Chairman of the Knox County Board of Education. The establishment mobilized and despite vicious personal attacks from the Sentinel and WBIR-TV, McMillan defeated Doug Harris for the chairmanship. The hysterical opposition to McMillan, which predicted McIntyre would resign, was proved wrong. Ironically, McIntyre quit, not while McMillan was chairman, but while his supporter Doug Harris was Chairman of the Board of Education. McMillan conducted himself professionally and with dignity. In fact, McMillan treated his opponents on the Board with far more graciousness than they had ever extended him, or many members of the public for that matter. Mike McMillan was scrupulously fair during his term as Chairman of the school board.
McMillan continued his efforts to have a new middle school for the Gibbs community built, never losing his normal calm demeanor and good nature. And once again, McMillan looked like a prophet when it became clear McIntyre (with considerable help from the McIntyre rubber stamps on the Board) had continued to overspend and it was catching up to them. In the last two years of his reign, McIntyre spent $30 million more than had been allocated by the County Commission, adding layer after layer to the existing bureaucracy.
Both Mayor Burchett and the County Commission had had enough. McIntyre was forced to sign a Memorandum of Understanding, which the Board adopted, promising the Board and the school system would live within its means and McMillan won a new middle school for the Gibbs community while Hardin Valley got a middle school of its own. Had the MOU not been recommended by McIntyre and approved by the Board, the alternative for McIntyre and his minions was to make deep cuts in the existing school budget, a prospect he did not want to face.
Mayor Tim Burchett deserves a great deal of credit for the new middle schools in Gibbs and Hardin Valley and even more for standing his ground when literally attacked by the establishment. Nobody did more to derail a proposed tax increase demanded by Jim McIntyre and his allies in the establishment. The Chamber types raised over $50,000 for a TV advertising campaign and the Sentinel railed daily for more money for education. The public response was swift and terrible. The telephone system in the City-County building crashed from the deluge of telephone calls in opposition to the proposed tax increase. The email boxes of Commissioners filled up with letters of opposition. Then-Commissioner Mike Hammond weakly acknowledged at the time, “We got the message.” Profoundly angered by Burchett’s refusal to support a tax increase, a disgraceful vendetta was carried out by the Knoxville News Sentinel after Burchett refused to give ground on a huge tax increase for Jim McIntyre to spend, colluding with the mayor’s ex-wife to ruin him. Big businessmen growled that Burchett had better find a good job when his term as mayor expired. Yet Burchett was reelected almost unanimously and was more popular than ever.
With the elections of 2016, the rout of the McIntyre Board members was complete. Karen Carson was soundly beaten when she tried to move up the ladder and go to Nashville. Doug Harris opted not to run again and Tracie Sanger retired as well. The McIntyre majority had reversed itself from 8 -1 when McMillan was first elected to a now 7 – 2 majority with last week’s reelection of McMillan and the election of newcomers Jennifer Owen, Tony Norman and Susan Horn. McIntyre himself had fallen, abruptly announcing his resignation after seeking and winning yet another extension of his contract by the remaining rubber stamps on the Board. Astonishingly tone deaf to the public, isolated in his own protected echo chamber and blind to public sentiment and opinion, McIntyre had finally ascertained he would no longer be able to control the Board and spend as much as he liked. He retreated to the safety of his Leadership Academy at the University of Tennessee.
One can make a compelling case it all began with Mike McMillan’s election in 2010. Mike McMillan has remained true to the people who elected him and he has never forgotten it. Against all the odds, Mike McMillan never gave up, never surrendered and persevered.
This country would be a far better place if more public officials had the same caring attitude and perseverance as Mike McMillan.