School Board picks TSBA; masks draw fury

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Protesters gather for Wednesday’s Knox County Board of Education meeting in the Main Assembly Room of the City-County Building. Photo by Moira Charnot.

The Knox County Board of Education voted 5-4 Wednesday to hire the Tennessee School Board Association (TSBA) to conduct the search for a new superintendent.

The closely split vote pitted the supporters of TSBA against those who backed using the Knox County Division of Procurement to solicit a selection of outside firms through a request for proposal (RFP) process and then picking the best of the lot.

Superintendent Bob Thomas, who was appointed to the post 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.

Also Wednesday, the Board approved a three-member search committee to work with TSBA comprised of Board members Betsy Henderson, Patti Bounds, and Evetty Satterfield.

TSBA is a nonprofit organization that specializes in assisting school boards throughout the state by conducting superintendent searches, evaluations, and contract reviews.

Satterfield was vocal in her support for a RFP process over TSBA throughout Wednesday’s meeting. She said that she preferred having a slate of options to choose from rather than being stuck with a single one from the beginning of the search process. 

“Knox County as a whole gets a lot of flack regarding us not doing business with diverse populations, and while it sometimes might be intentional it could also be the process that happens right now, in the decision-making that we’re doing here,” Satterfield said. “I think we have to do our job as governing bodies to cast that net wide to ensure that we’re not excluding anybody, but more importantly, giving access to people who would’ve never even had the opportunity to if we go with the same tried-and-true individuals.”

Babb concurred, reasoning that if the board didn’t end up wanting to work with any of the firms selected through the RFP process then TSBA still wouldn’t be completely off the table as an option.

“This really is, for most of us on the board, one of the most important decisions we’ll be making going forward, and I do think that we’ve just got to put the best due diligence into it,” Babb said. “I think the RFP process will widen the net of firms to look at. And should we not like who is coming this way, it gives us the option to then go to TSBA.”

Susan Horn, however, argued that the RFP process could end up being a waste of time in the end.

“We have eight or nine months, but that’s gonna fly,” Horn explained. “I think it’s entirely possible that if we went with a national firm, they’re gonna be calling TSBA to see if TSBA has any candidates that they would suggest from Tennessee. TSBA is a resource for search firms across the nation who do this kind of work.”

Susan Horn is currently on the Board of Directors at TSBA and works with them regularly. At the previous week’s work session, it was determined that her relationship didn’t constitute a conflict of interest because she receives no payment for her work at TSBA. 

“I like the idea that I know them, and that they’re trustworthy, and we know without a doubt that they have Knox County’s best interests at heart, because we’re a member of that organization, so I think they will have good intentions with trying to find the best superintendent for us,” Horn added.

Patti Bounds was blunt in her criticism of the RFP option, saying that she didn’t feel confident in Procurement Director Matt Myers’ presentation during last week’s work session. She characterized TSBA’s presentation as more confident and competent, and she felt they  were better able to answer the Board’s questions about the search process. 

Bounds also noted that repeated national searches by the University of Tennessee’s Board of Trustees haven’t resulted in stability.

Mike McMillan also voiced support for TSBA over the RFP process. He seemed to think it likely the Board would end up choosing TSBA even if they went with an RFP first, then went on to suggest the organization’s personnel might feel insulted if they didn’t appear to be the Board’s first choice. 

“In reference to Ms. Babbs’s comment that maybe we could go and see what’s out there, if we didn’t like the two, three, or whatever [firms], I couldn’t help but think that this is simplistic, that it speaks to the point that it’d be like being the third person that was asked to go to the prom. Would you like that?” McMillan asked. “I don’t know that Ms. (Tammy) Grissom from TSBA would feel that way, but if we did that scenario, they would have every right to.”

Board Chair Kristi Kristy, Betsy Henderson, McMillan, Bounds, and Horn all voted to hire TSBA for the search. Jennifer Owen, Daniel Watson, Babb, and Satterfield voted against it.

After the vote, the Board then had to choose which of two TSBA packages to choose from. One came with a price tag of $6,500 dollars but offered no community or staff meetings to help gather opinions outside the Board. The second plan, priced at $11,500, included several meetings over the course of a single day to solicit public input. 

Members of the Knox County Board of Education during Wednesday’s meeting. Photo by Moira Charnot.

After the vote to hire TSBA, Horn made a motion to buy the second plan. Watson, Babb, and Owen then tried to negotiate a more extensive community engagement process, perhaps by using assistance from another outside firm such as the Knox Education Foundation (KEF), which the Board has worked with in the past. 

McMillan shut down the conversation, saying they had already voted to use TSBA and accusing Watson, Babb and Owen of trying to “hack it up.”

The Board ultimately voted 9-0 to fund TSBA up to $11,500, but retained the option to do more later if deemed necessary. 

Once the matter of the superintendent search was wrapped up, the Board members could turn their attention to deal with the elephant in the room — or, more accurately,  the 65 or so  elephants in the room, almost all of them with an axe to grind regarding a recent court-ordered “mask mandate.”

Furious about the ruling that forced the school system to impose a mask policy to protect medically fragile children from COVID-19, scores of anti-mandate protesters signed up to speak their minds during the meeting’s Public Forum.

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 daily protests and acts of defiance by students and their parents who oppose a mask mandate. Students who refuse to wear a mask are separated from the rest of their classmates, and many have been sent home from school early. 

In addition to sharing concerns over the mask mandate itself, Wednesday’s speakers also worried over the treatment of children who have been “segregated” due to their refusal to wear masks.  Under the current school policy, students who defy repeated requests to don a mask are isolated from others, often in the library or gym.

“Certainly, this is not how Knox County defines success,” said Stacy Rowe, one of the anti-mandate protestors. “I see both masked and unmasked faces in this room, but our children don’t have this choice. They can’t remove their masks to speak or ask questions, so that they can be heard and understood. They don’t have that choice.”

While the vast majority of the speakers were against the masks, a few people from the other side of the aisle voiced concerns with the ongoing protests. One parent of a student from Farragut Middle School, Stacy Gruhn, spoke about the effect the constant protests have had on her and her daughter.

“For over a week, my child has been afraid to walk the path to school,” said Gruhn. “After she Face-Timed me during one of her walks, I was in disbelief to see a group of anti-mask protestors gathered outside her school’s doors.”

Gruhn continued, “If KCS continues to allow anti-mask protests on school grounds, you are setting a precedent, and will be required to allow all future protests from any political party or special interest group. You are officially making our schools into protest zones. Is that what you want?”

Before the meeting was adjourned, Board members Henderson and Bounds made it clear their sympathies were with those opposed to the mask mandate.

“I promised that I would be a voice for parents, and I believe that each family has the right to make that decision for their own children,” Henderson said. “I’ve been working with the county attorneys, and I believe that there’s a lot more that we can do, and I want you to know that I will never stop fighting for the parents and children of Knox County.”

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

Published on October 7, 2021.