Owen’s secret campaign plan: ‘Just tell the truth’

Betty BeanKnox Scene

‪School board member Jennifer Owen doesn’t like the county mayor’s proposal to sell off the Andrew Johnson building and lease TVA’s East Tower to house school administrators.

Actually, that’s not strong enough. If forced to choose, she might prefer the TVA tower move to a barbed-wire enema – but not by much.

Her most pressing objection is restricting public access to 80 percent of the building because of the heightened level of security in buildings managed by the federal government. She is unpersuaded by promises that the TVA security guards will allow limited access for those who won’t have the Real-ID driver’s license that will be required to enter federal buildings (and airplanes) by October 2020. There will be lots of them – a recent New York Times story reports that only four percent of Americans have gone through the process of getting the enhanced identification.

It’s safe to speculate that Owen is not making many friends on the sixth floor of the City County Building.

No one in elected office is crazy about the notion of opposition, but if Owen doesn’t seem overly concerned about the prospect of facing a well-funded opponent next year, she’s probably not bluffing. She already did that in 2016 when the usual suspects ponied up for her opponent. She beat him handily with a few teacher volunteers and a ramped-up phone banking operation.

Here’s an observation on her Facebook page about a county commissioner with whom she had a spirited discussion about the move.

“What’s he going to do, get me out of office? (Jim McIntyre got me out of my classroom and that didn’t work out well for him.) If they put somebody else in my seat, I will have a LOT more time to look into things.”

Word to the wise: She’s not kidding. She was serving on the executive board of the Knox County Education Association and edited the KCEA newsletter in 2011 when McIntyre and the school board asked Knox County Commission for a $34 million tax increase to fund an ambitious reform plan and got turned down flat, in part because teachers declined to support it.

“We chose the position of ‘no position,’” she said. “And boy, was he angry. We knew we needed more money in the classroom, but we didn’t trust that was where it would go.”

In 2013, Owen joined colleagues who were speaking out about high-stakes testing and the ever-expanding evaluation system that was being imposed on teachers and students. It was during this period that her classroom performance was found wanting, and she was placed on an “improvement plan” that was well down the slippery slope to dismissal.

By 2014, she’d been a music teacher at Dogwood Elementary School for 10 years and had taught at Karns and Cedar Bluff Middle Schools and in Morgan County before that. She decided that she couldn’t face another year at Dogwood, so she sent McIntyre a letter of resignation that she posted on her personal blog. She mentioned harassment, intimidation, coercion, retaliation and threats of dismissal among her reasons for leaving. Then she watched her readership numbers explode.

“The evaluation system had gotten to the point that I couldn’t teach music anymore, she said. “They wanted me to teach kids how to bubble in answers so they could do well on tests. My whole time at Dogwood I did not have any evaluations by anyone qualified to teach my class.

“In 2014, a friend got screwed, and I thought, ‘I’m going to have to run for school board.’ I had 14 hours (to get a petition signed), but I ended up three signatures short. I was not prepared to run at that time. That was just the Lord looking out for me. …”

Two years later, she was ready. She ran an underdog campaign, got elected from District 2 (Old North and most of Fountain City) and McIntyre submitted his resignation (with a substantial negotiated golden parachute) before she and the other new board members were sworn in.

Owen is a staunch opponent of voucher (and charter) plans, and burned up I-40 between here and Nashville last winter trying to fend off the governor’s Educational Savings Account. It passed by one vote, but Owen is undaunted. She plans to stand for re-election next year and knows she will again be in for a tough fight against well-funded opposition.

Her campaign plan sounds pretty simple.

“Keep telling the truth.”

Betty Bean is a veteran reporter for Knox and Sevier counties. She writes Knox Scene each Friday. Reach her at [email protected]

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