School board races haunted by specter of superintendent past

Betty BeanKnox Scene

Four years ago this week, Knox County Schools Superintendent James McIntyre called a press conference and announced his resignation. The first reaction was shock: who walks away from a $227,256 a year job? Then he answered the question himself:

A superintendent who can count to five.

“The current political environment has become increasingly dysfunctional… The focus of the conversation has all too often become about me… There is a new school board essentially coming in on Sept. 1. There will be several new members,” McIntyre said. “The new school board deserves to choose the leader that they want to have in place.”

A pre-negotiated golden parachute deal designed by board chair Doug Harris didn’t hurt, nor did the yet-to-be-revealed cushy job awaiting him at the University of Tennessee.

McIntyre came here from Boston in 2008 and enjoyed strong support from the business community and the school board for most of his tenure. By 2014, the bigwigs stayed in his corner but the board had started changing. He got a contract extension in December 2015 by just a single vote. His once-firm hold on the nine-member board was getting tenuous, and he was facing further shrinkage in the looming 2016 elections.

Teachers and students were speaking out against him. Three of his most dependable supporters – Harris, Karen Carson and Tracie Sanger – weren’t running again. Harris announced his decision not to seek reelection shortly after outspoken McIntyre critic Tony Norman announced his decision to run against him, although Harris claimed he’d never intended to run again, anyhow.

McIntyre probably wasn’t as concerned about Sanger’s departure – even though another outspoken critic, former teacher Jennifer Owen, was already in the race, because Grant Standefer, an ordained minister and the director of the Compassion Coalition had turned in his petition to run, as well. Standefer, a good-looking guy with a good-looking family, enjoyed the support of Sanger, Harris and the well-heeled business coalition that had supported Sanger in a special election two years before. Harris was a founding member of the Compassion Coalition’s board of directors.

Owen had a bunch of teachers and very little money.

But she won every precinct, rolling up a near two-to-one margin despite being outspent by almost 500 percent and confirming the wisdom of McIntyre’s decision to cut and run. Norman ran unopposed and Susan Horn, who was supported by the anti-McIntyre crowd, won the District 5 race over Buddy Pelot, the pro-McIntyre Cornerstone Foundation’s candidate.

This year Owen faces another tough challenger – Central High School Foundation co-president John Meade, a vice president of sales for Midwest Railcar Corporation.

Horn is running unopposed, but two of Owen’s anti-McIntyre colleagues, Norman and Mike McMillan, face contested re-election battles (more about them later), so 2020 could mark another referendum on McIntyre’s policies, particularly since two other board members elected during the anti-McIntyre years, Terry Hill and Patti Bounds, are looking to move on, as well.

Hill is unopposed in the race for the District 6 Knox County Commission seat being vacated by Brad Anders. Bounds is a candidate for the Republican nomination to the District 16 state House seat being vacated by Bill Dunn who (like Harris four years ago) said he’d long intended not to run again, but didn’t publicly share his intention until after Bounds announced. This means that county commission could have two vacancies to fill in the coming year.

And Grant Standefer? Technically, he will be eligible to be appointed to fill Hill’s school board seat, since he moved into the sixth district last February, as per KGIS records. Since he moved into the second district just in time to qualify to run against Owen last time around, this realization is sparking fears of a possible McIntyre comeback.

Meanwhile, Jennifer Owen will kick off her campaign 2-4 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 11, at the Time Warp Tea Room, 1209 N. Central.

Betty Bean is a veteran reporter for Knox and Sevier counties. Reach her at [email protected].

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