By Sally Absher

The League of Women Voters (LWV) and Knox County Education Association hosted a candidate forum Thursday August 14 for applicants to the 2nd District Board of Education seat.

This is an interim position until second district voters elect a board member in a special election in November. Current 2nd District BOE member Indya Kincannon is resigning from her position effective August 18 to join her family in Slovenia, where her husband will be teaching for a year under a Fulbright U.S. Scholar grant.

Six of the original ten candidates for the appointment attended the forum. Tracie Sanger and Emma Ellis-Cosigua withdrew their applications at the beginning of the week, and Laura Kildare also asked to have her name withdrawn having just received a new job offer. Elizabeth Lane reportedly did not attend the forum due to a schedule conflict.

Participants in Thursday’s forum included John Fugate, Juanita Cannon, Diana Ray, Charlotte Dorsey, Jennifer Searle, and Rick Staples. Resumes for all candidates are available on the LWV website (

Most of the candidates said they were not planning to run for the seat in November. Both Dorsey and Staples said they were undecided, and it would depend on how the appointment process went. Staples said that he was surprised so many of the others said no, and that he might say yes based on that, but admitted, “I’m tired, because I ran (for City Council) last year.”

John Fugate, who until very recently was interested in both the appointment and the elected position, has decided not to seek the elected position, citing business and civic obligations.

When asked what is the most critical need in the district, Dorsey said, “We need to work together, stop grandstanding, stop the cliques, we need to stop people who are self-serving.” She added that working together was important “when we have a leader who is a little distant, and not always listening.”

Staples said there were two critical needs in the district: stopping the mass exodus of teachers from the district and improving teacher morale, and improving the implementation of Common Core. Fugate also listed two critical needs: communication between the board and teachers, and “preparing for the influx of immigrants from our southern border and the middle east that are fixing to get dropped on our doorstep.”

Most of the candidates support the recently approved 2020 Strategic Plan.  Cannon referred to it as a “road map,” adding there were “many opportunities for citizens to give input into the strategic plan.” Dorsey voiced strong support, saying, “As a board member it is my responsibility to support the strategic plan once it has been voted in.” She said the plan has “lofty goals” but that “We’ve always had five year plans in Knox County.”

Staples said he supported “more dialogue” on the plan, adding it needs more work, and it doesn’t appear that everyone’s opinions have been respected. John Fugate had a thorough analysis of the strategic plan, saying it was well written but falls short in terms of addressing what our needs are in the next five years.

Fugate said there were five things he thinks should have been included in the plan: 1) how the taxpayers are going to support some of these programs and ideas; 2) a building program that is equitable to the whole county; 3) a better relationship between teachers and administrators throughout the school system; 4) career/tech programs needs to be ramped up throughout the county; and 5) the immigrant situation. He ran out of time before he could elaborate on the immigration issue.

Another topic that drew out some differences between the candidates was charter schools. Staples, Cannon, and Searle see a risk of charter schools taking funds away from public schools. Staples said “we need to invest in our existing schools” adding that he would have probably voted against the (Emerald Youth) charter.

Cannon said charter schools have been a concern of hers for 25 years. She said taking away funds from public schools will take away teachers and reduce enrollment, adding “I don’t think it’s the right thing to do.”  Searle said “I wish we would be able to use those dollars in existing urban schools,” and acknowledged that many charters run into difficulty.

Fugate thinks charters can “help fill gaps in the local school system.” He said there may be a need for charters in certain areas but “we don’t have enough data on charter schools in our area.” Diane Ray does not see charter schools as a risk, saying “Change is hard,” it’s something for us to try, and she sees it as Knoxville “moving forward.”

Dorsey’s views on charters align most closely with the education reform movement. She sees little risk to public school funding, saying the funds follow the student. She said these are “specialty schools” and kids can “enroll in these schools and just soar.” She mentioned the Edison Project (Chris Whittle’s failed for-profit management program for public schools), and the KCS magnet program including the brand new CTE magnet, STEM academy, the high school academy program, as reasons why we should “give it (charters) a chance.”

When asked to what extent they felt obligated to continue Indya Kincannon’s positions, all candidates were respectful of Kincannon, but pointed out that they were independent thinkers who would work with the people in the second district to determine what the position should be going forward.

No clear winners or losers emerged from the LWV forum last Thursday. It is unlikely that any of the candidates for the appointment will seek election in November, which has already attracted Jamie Rowe and Tracey Sanger to announce their candidacy.

Citizens of the Second District (and anyone interested in education in Knox County) will have the opportunity to observe the candidates as they are interviewed by members of the County Commission at the end of their August 18 work session (approximately 3 p.m.) in the large assembly room of the City-County building.

The Commission will officially make the interim appointment the following Monday August 25 during their regular commission meeting at 2 p.m.