We Must Have a Better School Board

I’ve never endorsed political candidates on this webpage. I’ve interviewed them a number of times, and covered events and forums, always attempting simply to present the facts and urge every eligible voter to get out and live up to their civic obligation. It’s not always been easy. I have political opinions and some of them are strong.

I’ve decided to depart from past practice in a very limited way. If there is anything we’ve learned over the last two-and-a-half years, it is that locally elected officials make a tremendous difference. This is true where we’re talking about County Commission, City Council, either of the mayors and others. Too often, these positions have been ignored by most voters out of a mix of apathy and ignorance. We’ve paid a price for that.

The current ballot in Knox County is massive. If you look at the sample General Ballot you’ll find about forty choices, not including the state and national level Republican Primary Ballot or the Democratic Primary Ballot. To be fair, some of the races only pertain to specific districts, while others are not competitive, but feature only a Republican nominee. There are numerous questions regarding retention of judges.

Early voting has begun. You can find early voting locations here. Early voting continues through this Saturday with hours for most locations 10:00 am to 6:00 pm Monday through Friday and Saturday, 10:00 am to 3:00 pm. Election Day is Thursday, August 4. So far, 11,111 people have voted either through absentee ballot (about 1,000) or at early voting locations (about 10,000). There are just under 300,000 registered voters in Knox County. Trends indicate most who vote will vote early and that only a very small percentage will bother, with many of those ignoring smaller races.

One of the races that I’ve tended to overlook through the years is School Board, which is odd because public education is extremely important in my family. My mother was a school health nurse for about twenty years in a public school system. My wife and I worked in public schools for the bulk of our working years. She worked as a librarian for about twenty years, while I worked as a guidance counselor for sixteen years and a librarian for thirteen. Our daughter attended public schools and is now in her seventeenth year as an English teacher in a public school system. Both our grandchildren attend Knox County Schools.

I feel public education is threatened in the country and in this state in a number of ways. Under the guise of “parental involvement,” there are calls to have parents determine which books libraries can carry and which books teachers may have in their classrooms. There is a push to allow more non-professionals to teach. Elements of American History which make us look bad as a country, such as the history and reality of slavery, are being reduced in emphasis. Sex education has been diminished.

Probably the biggest threat to public education is the charter school movement. Designed at its heart to divert funding from public schools to private, often religious, schools, it serves as an existential threat to a free and equal public education in the United States. While “school choice” is an appealing phrase, the reality is that these schools diminish funding where most middle and lower socio-economic status children attend to give a tailored, often much less regulated, experience for those who desire their children to be segregated.

Knox County now has a Superintendent of Schools who left public schools briefly during his career to head a charter school. He clearly supports the idea. As does our governor. Governor Lee has publicly stated that he wants Hillsdale College, from Michigan, to establish as many as one hundred charter schools in Tennessee.

Hillsdale College is a small Christian college in Michigan. They do not operate schools but provide the curriculum for them. They promote themselves as proponents of “character, faith, and freedom.”

Their “1776 Curriculum” offers history and civics lessons for students K-12. They proclaim that the college “considers itself a trustee of our Western philosophical and theological inheritance tracing to Athens and Jerusalem, a heritage finding its clearest expression in the American experiment of self-government under law.” The curriculum has been criticized for its fairly blatant addition of the groups’ own political perspective onto historical events, like the following:

As for federal laws opening up lunch counters and outlawing discrimination in restaurants, hotels and theatres, Hillsdale’s curriculum says, “this was where the line between private conscience and government coercion began to blur.”

“Does such force violate the right to assembly and to private property?” the curriculum asks.

Most recently, Governor Lee’s relationship with Hillsdale President, Dr. Larry Arnn, has come under scrutiny when a secretly taped conversation revealed Dr. Arnn making a series of statements of his beliefs about teachers and education. Governor Lee did not contradict him on any count and later praised him publicly before the recording appeared. He has not disavowed any of the statements after they were made public. Here are some of the quotes:

  • “The teachers are trained in the dumbest parts of the dumbest colleges in the country.”
  • “They are taught that they are going to go and do something to those kids…. Do they ever talk about anything except what they are going to do to these kids?”
  • “In colleges, what you hire now is administrators…. Now, because they are appointing all these diversity officers, what are their degrees in? Education. It’s easy. You don’t have to know anything.”
  • “The philosophic understanding at the heart of modern education is enslavement…. They’re messing with people’s children, and they feel entitled to do anything to them.”
  • “You will see how education destroys generations of people. It’s devastating. It’s like the plague.”
  • “Here’s a key thing that we’re going to try to do. We are going to try to demonstrate that you don’t have to be an expert to educate a child because basically anybody can do it.”

It breaks my heart to hear these kinds of statements made about teachers. I’ve known and worked with hundreds of them. They are smart, dedicated to children, and sacrifice greatly to make sure our children can function successfully in this country. For many children, they offer a rare ray of hope. Without a robust public education system, I believe democracy crumbles.

At our local level, I’ve had the opportunity to watch large numbers of school board meetings over the last two years. To say that it has been an appalling experience is to vastly understate. It’s been horrifying and often embarrassing. One board member is routinely seen on camera sleeping.

Board members have gone directly to County Commission to undercut a vote by the full board with which they disagreed. Policies are often floated which are counter to Tennessee law or are obviously impossible to implement to anyone with a passing understanding of the manner in which schools function. The board makes commitments and then reverses them when political winds shift. National style politics has become a norm for several members. Several of them refused to attend candidate forums.

This needs to change. I’m longing for smart people, who understand and care about public education, to represent us on the board. It doesn’t seem like that high of a bar, but experience indicates it is. With the stunningly low turnout for local elections, only a few votes may determine any one of these races. The following are my recommendations for each district race for Knox County School Board. I believe these candidates can restore dignity and sense to our school’s governance.

Knox County School Board Districts

District 1: (Burlington, East Knoxville, Downtown, Fort Sanders, Mechanicsville, Londsdale)

I endorse John Butler.

The candidates in this race include John Butler, Breyauna Holloway, and Reginald Jackson*. The three each bring something to the table, but with John Butler’s background as Presiding Elder of 9 AME Zion churches in Knoxville as well as a former president of the local branch of the NAACP, he knows his community well and will make a good representative. His campaign has focused on equity.

*I searched for links for each of the candidates in every district and linked them if I found them. With so many of these campaigns operating on little-to-no funding, they often do not have a strong web presence.

District 4: (Bearden, Rocky Hill, Bluegrass)

I endorse Katherine Bike.

The candidates in this race are Will Edwards and Katherine Bike. Either will be an improved addition to the board. Will is an attorney, while Katherine works in the legal/technical field as a trial technology specialist. She is also a mountain bike guide at Blackberry Farm. While each advocate for underserved children, she has made opposition to vouchers a part of her campaign. He has condemned Dr. Arnn’s statements above but has also expressed support for charter schools and said an equity policy is “unnecessary,” for Knox County Schools.

District 6: (Hardin Valley, Karns)

I endorse Phillip Sherman.

The two candidates are Betsy Henderson and Phillip Sherman.

This is a race I feel very strongly about. Betsy Henderson was a part, if not the driving force, behind much of what I found embarrassing in the last two years. She does not understand how schools function and she is overtly politically driven. It’s been poisonous for the atmosphere in the school board. She and others cost the system significant money by reversing their stance on masks and then countersuing when a judge enforced a mask mandate. She supports vouchers and charter schools.

I’ve known Phillip Sherman for many years, and I know him to be honest, compassionate, bright, and informed. A professor at Maryville College, he has children in the Knox County Schools and his wife is an employee of the school system. He will be non-partisan and will work well with his colleagues, if elected. He would represent a breath of fresh air for his district.

District 7: (Powell, Halls)

I endorse Dominique Oakley.

The two candidates here are Steve Triplett and Dominique Oakley. Mr. Triplett is running on parental rights, which is a theme for Republican candidates nationwide. He is currently employed as a manager at Chick-Fil-a. He is from Knoxville and graduated from Crown College, a Christian school in Powell. He worked after graduation at Temple Baptist Church, while operating Teens for Christ Bible clubs in public schools in Knox County. His children attend Christian schools. He supports charter schools.

He previously served as a principal of a Christian School in Ohio, a job from which he was forced to resign for theft of school funds. When asked about the episode by WBIR, he said, “I don’t know that there’s any real justification,” Triplett said. “I think excuses and trying to justify when we make wrong choices doesn’t really get you anywhere.” Despite the revelation, he won the Republican nomination with 65% of the vote.

Dominique Oakley (who I have known for several years through her involvement with Knox Makers) is running as an Independent and is supported by the Knox County Education Association. She is a small business owner and was previously a special needs teacher. She lists her priorities as “expanding educational opportunities, fostering a stronger sense of school community, and rebuilding trust in the Knox County School board.” She has two children in the Knox County Schools.

District 9: (South Knoxville)

I endorse Annabel Henley.

The candidates running in this district are Kristi Kristy, Annabel Henley. Ms. Kristy, often an ally of Ms. Henderson on our dysfunctional school board, is the incumbent. She is a pediatric nurse and says she is focusing on literacy rates and vocational education. She has not responded emphatically one way or the other on charter schools.

Annabel Henley is the Program Director for women’s health in the Knox County Health Department and a former teacher with the Tennessee School for the Deaf. She has focused her campaign on reducing the achievement gaps seen between schools. She is opposed to vouchers and to diverting money from public schools to the private sector.

Final Editorial Note:

Please do your own research and vote accordingly. It is critical that we become informed about local races and act on our knowledgeable evaluation of the candidates. Find your voting district here

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