Buzz Thomas likes to say, “the community with the best schools wins.”
And he’s all in for Knox County to have the best schools in the south. He was relaxed on Monday, wearing polo shirt and slacks in his small office on the lobby level of the Andrew Johnson Building. Thomas had a bigger office and much more stress when he served as interim superintendent of schools for almost a year, bridging Dr. Jim McIntyre and Superintendent Bob Thomas (no relation).
Now Buzz is back as president of the Great Schools Partnership – the think tank, start-up funder and innovation partner of Knox County Schools. We could write more than you want to read about the GSP programs – Community Schools, Leaders for Readers, Parents as Teachers, Muzology, TeacherPreneur, Shakespeare in Shades, Code TN, AVID and more. You can read about them at http://www.greatschoolspartnership.com/
Buzz Thomas has the work ethic and reform bent of Jim McIntyre, but with a Southern drawl. He would have made a good permanent superintendent.
Now he says he’s like an ex-pastor. “You don’t want to show up on Sunday for a few weeks.”
School board chair Patti Bounds called Buzz the definition of a servant leader. “He values people and makes people feel valued. …This was one of his greatest assets.”
Bounds said Buzz was never considered for the permanent job. “The board took him at his word when he said from the beginning that was not his intent. In the final days before the vote (to hire Bob Thomas), there was a huge push and a lot of pressure from outside sources to do that.”
Rezoning to accommodate the politically-charged construction of middle schools at Gibbs and Hardin Valley was a major challenge during the Buzz tenure. He scheduled multiple public meetings and produced a recommendation that most people accepted.
Dr. John Butler was local president of the NAACP during this time. He filed a complaint (still pending) with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Butler said that facilities must be equal across Knox County – we cannot build new schools only in far-flung suburbs – and black kids should not be bused out of their neighborhood.
Now a candidate for City Council, Butler is hesitant to comment on the OCR complaint or on Thomas’ tenure. Did Buzz keep his word to zone kids to the school closest to their home?
“That happened,” said Butler.
Thomas conceded “mixed messages” with extensive security fencing around schools that he wanted to open as after-hours community centers. “The fences send the message that we don’t want people (on school property). That school belongs to the community. It’s your school, too.”
But Buzz is not wearing the superintendent’s hat anymore. He’s getting ready to open a community school at Maynard Elementary. “We’ve got them in urban, rural and suburban areas.” He has to raise about $120,000 to open each community school, and Maynard is his 15th.
He’s ready to expand his network of 600 partners and to recruit more volunteers to work an hour a week, listening to first- to third-grade students read. He’s heading out to talk with teachers, where he gets his best “research and development” ideas.
Godspeed, Buzz Thomas. We can’t wait to see what’s next.