Replacing Thomas tops agenda

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Superintendent Bob Thomas (shown here at a recent meeting of the Board of Education) is reminding parents that Knox County employees aren’t responsible for the mask mandate.

Exactly how to go about replacing Knox County Schools Superintendent Bob Thomas will likely be one of the two main topics tackled at today’s meeting of the Board of Education.

The other is the court-ordered face mask mandate that is opposed by what seems to be an exceedingly vocal minority who have staged protests and encouraged students to refuse to comply with the policy, even at the cost of their academic standing.

 Thomas, who was appointed to the post of superintendent in 2017, has announced he will be retiring in June 2022. A career educator in the Knox County system, Thomas took over in the wake of the contentious seven-year term of Jim McIntyre, who stepped down in early 2016 and was temporarily replaced by Interim Superintendent Buzz Thomas.

At last week’s work session, the School Board weighed their options regarding how they could conduct the search for a new superintendent. 

They decided to retain outside help to actually conduct the search, which effectively means choosing between two options: using an RFP to look for an executive search firm, or going with the Tennessee Schools Boards Association (TSBA).

Matt Myers, Knox County’s Director of Procurement, gave a rundown of the RFP (request-for-proposal) process. He said 21 days would be spent looking for firms to apply for the search and it would take at least 60 days to evaluate the applicants.

“We develop significant evaluation factors, such as the qualification of a firm, the experience of their personnel, their methodology for selecting candidates, delivery schedule, references, price, and you can choose others that may be more important as you go through the process,” Myers said. “Price is not the determining factor in an RFP process. In that process, you’re looking at proposal against proposal on a qualitative basis, not necessarily a cost basis.”

TSBA Executive Director Dr. Tammy Grissom, on the other hand, described two plans that her organization could offer. One plan, which would cost $6,500, doesn’t include any meetings to solicit community or employee input. The School Board would determine the qualities they wish for in a superintendent and hand the criteria over to TSBA, which would then handle advertising for the post and screening applicants.

“We develop the interview questions for the board if they choose to use our sample interview questions,” Grissom said. “Our questions are directly related to the criteria the board adopted.”

After the interview, TSBA could also assist in contract and salary negotiations for the chosen candidate.  

The Board could also choose to go with an $11,500 plan that would rely heavily upon gathering input from the community. “This plan involves us conducting employee and community meetings, gathering input from students, teachers, faculty, staff, administrators, the mayor, county commission, city officials,” Grissom said.

 TSBA would then use the community’s input to make a proposal to the Board, which would have the option of revising the criteria. From that point forward, the plan would proceed in the same manner as the first.

“Most folks that are looking for superintendent jobs know to come to the state’s school board association website, so we can make this search whatever time frame you want to accomplish,” Grissom said.

Several Board members stressed the importance of community input in the search process. Virginia Babb, for instance, proposed the idea of having roundtable discussions with community leaders associated with the University of Tennessee and Pellissippi State Community College.

A few board members, however, expressed concerns about the filtering process the TSBA uses to select candidates. Evetty Satterfield asked if TSBA would be transparent when it comes to informing the Board why certain candidates don’t qualify for the position.

“I know that we are mitigating risk on the lawsuit end, but I want to see what we can do to mitigate bias from the filter process,” Satterfield explained. “But I don’t know if there’s an answer to that or not, so maybe that’s something we can create.”

Satterfield then added that she was inclined to support the RFP process rather than TSBA, although she added that TSBA was welcome to apply.

“I just feel that this [TSBA’s process] just might be a little cookie-cutter, and Knox County Schools is a very unique district,” Satterfield said. “Having a cookie-cutter approach might not get us to the direction that we need to go.”

After the meeting, Daniel Watson was the only Board member to return phone calls seeking additional insight on the search process.

Watson also expressed his support for the RFP process over TSBA. 

“I think their [TSBA’s) process for community engagement is really designed more around rural, smaller counties. With a system our size, I do not know if it’s adequate for a community engagement process,” Watson explained in a phone interview. “I would rather us go the RFP route, and it’s nothing against TSBA, but right now we’re comparing TSBA against themselves. We haven’t looked to see what else is out there so far as potential search firms. I think we need to do that work to see who else is out there and what they can offer.”

Watson also discussed what he believes the county needs from its new superintendent based on the TCAP report presented at the work session that showed how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected student proficiency across Knox County Schools.

“I want to see a superintendent that really understands and values equity in our education system,” he said. “One of the things that we also saw in our meeting this past Wednesday was data around proficiency for the district, and as we can see in that data (that) our minority students, economically disadvantaged students, and ESL students are continuing to have an ever-widening gap in terms of their proficiency, and I believe it is not a zero-sum game.”

He added, “If we can help our students who have historically not performed as well as our other students, then our whole system will be better for it. I want to make sure that our superintendent really has a focus on equity work and understands that.”

Although the mask mandate isn’t on the agenda for tonight’s meeting, it’s likely to be brought up during the superintendent’s report or the public comment section.

Last month, the parents of four disabled Knox County students filed a lawsuit in federal court against the school system, arguing their children’s rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) have been violated by the system’s lack of a mandatory mask policy. 

U.S. District Judge J. Ronnie Greer — a Republican who was appointed by George W. Bush in 2003 — handed down a temporary order requiring Knox County to re-institute the mask policy it used in 2020-21 until the lawsuit is resolved.

Greer’s order has triggered both praise and derision. Parents and students opposed to the mandate have taken part in protests that include refusing to wear a mask, staying home from school, and picketing with signs.

Many students who took part in the initial protests appear to have decided to go along with the policy, after all, according to numbers provided by the school system.

On September 28 — the first day of the mandate — 722 students were isolated from their peers for refusing to wear a mask, including 207 elementary, 235 middle and 280 high school students. 

On Tuesday, however, that number had dropped to only 373, including 107 elementary, 117 middle, and 149 high school students, Harrington said. 

There are over 60,000 students enrolled in the system’s 88 schools.

Today’s meeting is scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. in the Main Assembly Room of the City-County Building. 

Moira Charnot can be reached at news@hardknoxwire.com.

Published on October 6, 2021.