The New Knox School Superintendent’s Mission: Impossible

In Perspectives by Joe Sullivanleave a COMMENT

Knox County’s search for a new school superintendent appears likely to discourage applicants who subscribe to the state’s mantra of raising student achievement on standardized tests and basing teacher evaluations partly on these test scores.

To judge by the composition of the school board’s search committee, it is clearly aligned against the state’s emphasis on what has been pejoratively termed “high-stakes testing” and can be expected to favor a new superintendent who shares that view.

It’s not just happenstance that the three-member committee is chaired by Amber Rountree, who sponsored a resolution that was approved at the board’s November meeting opposing any use of state assessment scores in student grades or teacher evaluations during the current school year.

Prior to naming Rountree at that same meeting, board chair Patti Bounds said she was torn on whether to support the resolution that was backed by many teachers.

“I guess we’re in a tough position as a board—do we alienate all these educators who spoke out or do we alienate the governor and the state representatives,” she was quoted as saying. Indeed, Gov. Bill Haslam had weighed in shortly before the vote with the following exposition of the state’s educational mantra: “It’s about raising our standards and expectations; it’s about having year-end assessments that match these standards; and then I think it’s about having assessments that are part of teachers’ evaluations.”

But Bounds supported the resolution, which carried on a 6-3 vote. Then, in addition to Rountree, she named two of its other supporters to the search committee. One of them, Tony Norman, has been loud and clear that, “The teacher evaluation is a disaster and we have to get rid of stuff that’s absolutely bizarre.” The other, Susan Horn, has been more muted.

In naming Norman and Horn, Bounds bypassed the four board members who had a prior term’s experience and went with two of its three newcomers. All three of them sought the office earlier this year as critics of former Superintendent Jim McIntyre (whom their predecessors had supported) and the impending election had a lot do with McIntyre’s resignation, which has led to the search for a successor.

The third newcomer to the board, Jennifer Owen, may be more off-putting to prospective candidates than the other two. No sooner had she taken office than the pedantic Owen began to fill the board’s agenda with a fistful of proposed policy changes aimed largely at making the superintendent more subservient to the board.

“We have a responsibility to manage the school system whether it’s administrative or managerial or whatever it may be,” she has asserted. But according to the executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, Wayne Miller, her assertion flies in the face of state law that vests management responsibility in the superintendent, subject to board oversight, of budgetary and policy direction.

One of Owen’s proposed directives would make any change in the school system’s organization chart, including who reports to whom, subject to board approval. Interim superintendent Buzz Thomas protested that, “To try to do it that way will tie us up in knots. We have 8,000 employees and if I have to wait weeks or a month [for a board meeting] to make a change it will hurt Knox County Schools and make it very difficult to manage.” After two veteran board members weighed in that Owen’s proposal smacked of micromanagement, she deferred action on it. But she hasn’t been deterred.

In a subsequent posting on her website, Owen acknowledged that, “There has been some discussion that these changes will not align with the interim superintendent’s contract and…he has stated that he will not work under these conditions. Therefore, additional consideration may need to be given to whether to make adjustments there or whether some of these should simply include a note that they will begin when the new superintendent is hired.”

Along with that prospect, the very composition of the board may give prospective applicants pause. While Bounds is a lovely lady, the board chair brings the perspective of a retired kindergarten teacher. The youthful Rountree is a former elementary school librarian who fought McIntyre at every turn during her first two years on the board. Norman is a long-retired high school biology teacher whose hostility toward the school system’s central office even predates McIntyre. Owen is a former elementary school music teacher who quit in a huff in 2014 with a public letter to McIntyre claiming “harassment, intimidation, coercion, retaliation and threats of dismissal,” which she said “have no place in attracting, building or retaining strong educators.”

When the search committee held its first meeting on Nov. 22 with Owen also attending, there was little discussion of desired attributes on the part of a new superintendent. Instead, the meeting mainly focused on setting timelines for advertising the position, accepting applications, screening candidates, and then inviting two or three finalists to come to Knoxville for interviews and public meetings—all with a view to having a new superintendent in place by next June 1.

At least three other major Tennessee school systems (Hamilton County, Jackson-Maury County, and Johnson City) are also in the process of conducting superintendent searches, and all three of them have engaged a search firm to identify and seek out prime candidates. But there was no mention of using a search firm at the Knox search committee meeting. So guess who is more likely to get the picks of the litter. 

For a board majority that abjures “high-stakes testing,” maybe that doesn’t matter so much. But in fact the stakes are very high. The last time the state conducted TCAP assessments in 2015, fewer than half of Knox County’s third-graders scored proficient in reading—a key indicator of their educational prospects. Another achievement measure on which the board has placed great emphasis in the past is ACT scores. A long-standing goal has been to get 70 percent of high school seniors scoring 21 or higher, which is widely deemed to be a benchmark for college and career preparedness. At last report, only 42 percent of Knox seniors met this mark.

Then again, to judge by what disgruntled teachers keep telling the board at public forums, the most important thing they can do for their students is to instill a love of learning. And in one of Owen’s ad nauseam postings, she opined that making students “society ready” is more important than boosting test scores. “It doesn’t matter what they score on a test if they go into the work place and can’t get along with other people,” she stated.

So anyone who is interested in the Knox superintendent’s job had better do as much due diligence about the school board as board members have in mind for applicants.

Joe Sullivan is the former owner and publisher of Metro Pulse (1992-2003) as well as a longtime columnist covering local politics, education, development, business, and tennis. His new column, Perspectives, covers much of the same terrain.

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