By Steve Hunley

Lord have mercy! To read the editorial penned by Buzz Thomas in the Knoxville New Sentinel a week and a half ago, one would think the world as we know it was coming to an end. Fortunately, it’s more of a case of Chicken Little and “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!”

Thomas, once the abundantly well-paid head of the Greater School Partnership and one-time interim superintendent of the Knox County School system, is fading away into long overdue retirement. Yet before departing for distant shores, Thomas wrote a bitter editorial castigating the Knox County Board of Education basically for failing to continue the “model” that he and former superintendent Jim McIntyre put into place.

In fact, one thing Thomas seems miffed about in particular is the fact the Board of Education severed its ties to the Leadership Academy, which is still run by Jim McIntyre. McIntyre evidently earns $180,000 at the University of Tennessee to teach one class per week, while Knox County was providing a whopping ten participants to go through McIntyre’s Leadership Academy at the bargain basement price of quite nearly $1 million annually.

There was a time when Buzz Thomas stoutly maintained Jim McIntyre was the best superintendent in the country and continually warned one and all we must be mighty careful lest some other system come in and swoop him up right from under our noses. Ol’ Buzz would have us believe McIntyre was an innovator of the first order, if not an outright educational wizard. As it turned out, nothing McIntyre proposed was new and he simply Googled this, that or the other thing, all of which had been tried in other places. Now mind you, McIntyre never bothered to find out whether it worked well or worked at all, but it was new to Knoxville and therefore needed to be tried and price was no object, like McIntyre’s “balanced calendar,” which he estimated to cost somewhere between $2 and $20 million. That was a pretty big gap and despite some assistance from Survey Monkey, McIntyre never did manage to convince much of anybody it was a good idea, much less a bargain at the price.

During the last two years of McIntyre’s reign he overspent the budget by $30 million, likely thinking the county commission would bail him out. Instead, McIntyre finally ran the school system’s financial ship onto the rocks and was forced to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with Mayor Tim Burchett and the county commission, requiring some fiscal restraint. That same overspending depleted the school system’s financial reserves, which has landed the school system in the tight spot they are in today. The school system has a shortfall of $3.5 million, causing current Superintendent Bob Thomas and the board of education to look for areas to cut. Buzz failed to mention that in his editorial.

Jim McIntyre’s leadership style proved to be toxic and his imperial style of governing the school system caused him to be loathed by the teachers and other school system employees while barely tolerated by the mayor and the county commission, and thoroughly disliked by many parents and taxpayers.

Nor was McIntyre’s Leadership Academy the great success Buzz Thomas would have you believe it was; it matters little whether some educational bureaucrats thought it to be a model program.

The fact is, after a thorough researching of the academy program, Knox County discovered it couldn’t tell a significant difference between those principals who had graduated from McIntyre’s academy and those who hadn’t spent a day in McIntyre’s Leadership Academy.

Another fact is that a mentoring program for new principals by successful principals doesn’t have to cost $1 million, nor does it have to include Jim McIntyre’s approval. Virtually any school system can set that same system up on their own. Ol’ Buzz also ignores one other very pertinent fact: when people don’t have any confidence in the person running an outfit, they tend not to buy its product.

Buzz Thomas shrieked in print that it is disgraceful board members have publicly criticized or “attacked” central office staff. In recent months there have been two egregious examples of fraud and graft inside the school system that run well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. At least one supervisor seemed to notice nothing and at the same time a mechanic managed to spend almost $200,000 buying auto parts for luxury vehicles for his private business and Knox County owns no luxury automobiles in its fleet. Apparently Ol’ Buzz thinks a restorative practice session for central office staff members too busy to do their jobs would be more appropriate than a good old-fashioned chewing out.

Project GRAD, like Topsy, is an idea that kept growing and growing. It’s not a fundamental aspect of the school system yet the Executive Director of Project GRAD has earned as much as $140,000 annually while the taxpayers shell out around $1 million to support it. The executive director’s salary is roughly 14% of the total amount provided by Knox County taxpayers. The vaunted scholarships bragged about by supporters of Project GRAD amount to approximately  $80,000 out of an appropriation of $1 million. That’s pretty measly compared to the $140,000 salary of the executive director.

Another point refuted in Buzz’s editorial is that the Knox County Board of Education never ordered the removal of the plaque (and it was a banner, not a plaque) proclaiming the Knox County School system to be exemplary. Nor did the current board of education drive the ox into the ditch by overspending. Two-thirds of every tax dollar spent in Knox County is spent by the school system. The school system’s current budget amounts to almost one half of a billion dollars. It’s not that the school system doesn’t have enough money; it’s how they choose to spend it, always thinking they can get more whenever they want it, irrespective of the fact they have wasted huge chunks here and there. One of McIntyre’s favorite gambits was to take one-time money and put it in the budget as a continuing expense. Any accountant worth their salt would tell you that it is a “no no” to use one-time money for recurring expenses.

Ol’ Buzz himself was caught in a meeting plotting to figure out how to squeeze more taxes from you in a meeting that was video taped. If you’ve forgotten my editorial about that, you can find it right here:

Ol’ Buzz has tried to draw a vivid image of screaming children being driven off a cliff by evil and irresponsible board members. Not true at all. The folks who drove the bus over the cliff were pluperfect free-spending and mighty well paid bureaucrats like Jim McIntyre and Buzz Thomas.