School Board approves search timeline, rejects learning cottages

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Knox County Board of Education met Wednesday to discuss replacing Superintendent Bob Thomas (left). Source: Knox County Schools

The Knox County Board of Education took another step forward on the complex path to finding a new superintendent at its Wednesday meeting.

The Board also rejected a controversial proposal to gauge parental support for “learning cottages” as a means to sidestep a divisive court-ordered mask mandate.

Since Superintendent Bob Thomas announced he’ll be retiring in June 2022, much of the debate about how to replace him has centered around how to involve the public in the process.

Board members agreed to hold an all-day series of public meetings on December 2 at the Knox County Public Works Service Center on Morris Avenue. Each meeting will focus on a different category of stakeholders (teachers, parents, government officials, etc.) but those interested in attending can go to whichever group best fits their schedule.

The purpose of the meetings will be to gather the public’s input on what criteria the Board should use when selecting Thomas’s replacement.

The Board also approved a timeline to be published on the system’s website in order to keep the community informed on where they are in the process. 

According to the timeline, the Board hopes to appoint a new superintendent by March 14 of next year.

Board member Jennifer Owen suggested pushing back some deadlines by at least a month to ensure the community has more time to respond.

“I think our goal in looking for a good candidate shouldn’t be put in this box of getting someone quickly. I’m much more interested in getting someone who really wants to be here, and someone we really want,” Owen said.

“I think stretching out this timeline would be very valuable to us in ensuring that we have what we’re really looking for,” she said.

Board members Patti Bounds and Evetty Satterfield argued for additional community meetings to be held throughout December and January without changing the current timeline. 

Board member Betsy Henderson then proposed that all community input should be due by January 15, which the board approved unanimously.

Concerns were also raised over how students would be able to participate in the selection process, as none of the December 2 meetings are for students. It was ultimately decided that the Board’s student representative, Raymond Jin, could gather their responses.

“When mixing students with adults, some students might be a little intimidated and don’t want to speak out in that kind of setting,” Jin explained. “It would be very good if we could work out some kind of program, maybe in the schools. I think that would be probably the best way to get as much student input as possible.”

Board member Mike McMillan expressed his belief that too much reliance on community input could hinder the process of finding a new superintendent if too many conflicting views are present. 

McMillan also made it clear he thinks it’s essential that candidates understand East Tennessee values.

“I would hope that if they [the candidates] don’t know much about the values of Knox County, Knoxville, and the surrounding East Tennessee, that they would make every attempt to familiarize themselves with it,” McMillan said.

The schedule for December 2 is:

11:30 a.m.: City and county officials, community and business leaders, Knox Education Foundation leaders, and school board members (invite only).

1:30 p.m.: Classified Knox County Schools employees, which includes staff who do not have a teaching license such as cafeteria workers and custodians.

3:00 p.m.: Central office staffers, supervisors, and principals.

4:30 p.m.: Knox County Schools Teachers.

6:00: Parents and community stakeholders.

Those who are unable to attend any meetings on December 2 are encouraged to take KCS’s online survey, and additional comments may be sent via email.

The Board also took up a proposal by Henderson intended to address the mask mandate, which is clearly the most divisive issue currently facing the school system. 

The crisis was triggered by a federal lawsuit filed in early September by the parents of four disabled Knox County students who argued their children’s rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) were violated by the system’s lack of a mandatory mask policy. 

U.S. District Court Judge Ronnie Greer — a Republican who was appointed to the bench by then-President George W. Bush in 2003 — issued a temporary preliminary injunction requiring Knox County to re-institute the mask policy it used in 2020-21 until the lawsuit is resolved. Greer ruled that virtual learning wasn’t a viable alternative to in-person learning for disabled students, who have the right to be educated in a school building like other children.

Greer’s order has been met with hostility by parents and students opposed to mandates. A small but vocal number of them have taken part in protests or acts of civil disobedience that have include picketing, refusing to don masks in class, or even withdrawing from the public schools entirely.

The case — which has been appealed — is one of several around the country that have been attacked by Republicans as a threat to parental rights, and Henderson argued that so-called “learning cottages” might allow KCS to work around the mask mandate. 

Under Henderson’s plan, medically fragile students would be placed in the “learning cottages” as an alternative to in-person learning. Unused or portable classrooms would be converted into cottages under the supervision of a “caregiver,” allowing students with underlying medical conditions to learn virtually in an on-campus environment where they could also engage with their peers.

Henderson made it clear that she first wanted to conduct a survey to see how many parents would be interested in making the idea a reality.

She was met, however, with questions and criticisms from other Board members over its cost and feasibility.

Jennifer Owen, for instance, was concerned the project wouldn’t be within the school system’s budget and a survey might lead parents to believe that it was.

“I feel like it’s very disingenuous and unfair to our parents for us, as a board, to send out a survey for a program that we know cannot be implemented in a timeline that would make a difference,” Owen said. 

“It makes those parents think that this is something that can happen within this school year, when we all know that there’s no portable classroom that can suddenly go up, and certainly not within this school year,” she said.

While Board member Kristi Kristy supported Henderson’s proposal, she also voiced concerns with the lack of employees available to make the program work.

“My big concern is from the staffing side of it, because we have vacant positions now throughout the district that we’re struggling to fill,” Kristy said.

The vote ultimately split 4-4 over the question of whether or not to conduct a survey. Henderson, Bounds, Horne, and Kristy voted to approve the proposal while Babb, Owen, McMillan and Satterfield voted “no.” Board member Daniel Watson was absent. 

The evenly split vote meant the proposal failed because a majority of Board members didn’t support it. 

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

Published on November 12, 2021