By Steve Hunley
Last week was an interesting one in politics and brings to mind either The Biggest Loser or perhaps Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader?
Choosing just precisely who is the biggest loser isn’t easy. The County Commission heard a resolution to have an elected superintendent and make the elections partisan; there was yet another resolution to have an elected superintendent. The resolution for partisan elections failed 6-5 and the Commission tabled the resolution for an elected superintendent 10-1.
The vote made little, if any, sense. If partisan elections don’t matter, then perhaps the Commission will come back and eliminate partisan elections altogether in Knox County.
Commissioner Larry Smith, after sponsoring and voting for the resolution to reinstitute partisan elections for the school folk, gushed with praise for McIntyre and hinted at a “windfall” of public dollars for the school system, an idea less popular than plague inside his own district. If a public official is going to pander, he would be wise to pander on the popular side of the question.
Also last week, former Commission Chair Mike “High Tax” Hammond dropped a hint that he might challenge Criminal Court Clerk Joy McCroskey in next year’s Republican primary. For someone who has always bemoaned the Courthouse Crowd, the fact that Hammond may be looking for a job in the Courthouse is kind of ironic.
Then, the burgeoning scandal in the school system with regard to security issues caused Board of Education Chair Karen Carson to go into a tizzy and abruptly summon County Mayor Tim Burchett, Commission Chairman Tony Norman and several others to a meeting. Carson, obviously in a big hurry, announced while she didn’t believe in closed door meetings, she wanted to have one with a host of public officials behind closed doors.
Mayor Burchett balked, as did Commissioner Norman. Burchett, a very savvy politician, announced he had no intention of attending any meeting that wasn’t open to the press and public. Carson’s meeting, intended to occur last Monday, was rescheduled for Friday after a bit of dithering. The school folks finally capitulated and agreed the meeting should be open to everybody.
The excuse used by the school people for the hasty and urgent meeting was the “finger pointing” being done in the press, largely in the pages of The Knoxville News-Sentinel in some excellent stories by Jamie Satterfield. Of course the school folks have tried to ignore that most of the finger pointing being done has been their own. Superintendent James McIntyre failed to inform the Board about the serious lapses in security at Hardin Valley Academy and Powell Middle School, perhaps because the timing was bad due to the fact that he was then being evaluated by the Board for a contract extension. Since the Sentinel broke the story, Board members have been falling all over themselves in their haste to find someone else to blame. One Board member, former Chairman Thomas Deakins, went so far as to hysterically proclaim that he was to blame, since he didn’t ask the proper questions. Of course Deakins has never explained just how he could ask the right questions on a topic the superintendent never told him much about in the first place.
McIntyre had previously ignored warnings from the Public Building Authority, as well as odd behavior by school security chief Steve Griffin who seemed to be trying to influence the PBA to use a particular contractor who just coincidentally employed his son-in-law. McIntyre reviewed the Griffin situation and declared it to be no conflict of interest, which is quite odd considering the superintendent has put Griffin on suspension while the matter is looked into after Ms. Satterfield’s stories.
Apparently McIntyre and his allies on the Board felt that an announcement from McIntyre saying everything was hunky dory would suffice. It didn’t. Satterfield has complained about access to the superintendent, not receiving requested information, etc., all of which gives the impression the school people have something to hide. McIntyre has even referred to the vendor who alledgedly did shoddy work, at best, as the responsibility of the PBA. At the same time, the PBA was getting emails from the school system’s security chief Griffin which seemed to be browbeating the Public Building Authority into using that particular vendor.
The Public Building Authority Board reacted with PBA Board Chair Winston Frazier referring to the cronyism and political back scratching in the school system being very much alive, something that was supposed to be as dead as a nit under the magical supervision of an appointed superintendent. The comments made by the Public Building Authority Board, which included the gem that the PBA could supervise the construction of school building projects for a fraction of that spent by the schools, evidently sent School Board Chair Carson over the edge. Sources say that McIntyre himself has made more than one call to the Sentinel offices in an attempt to shut down Jamie Satterfield and her stories. Thus far it hasn’t worked. Clearly, McIntyre and Carson are attempting to do damage control and the $500,000 public relations staff of the school system has proved to be ineffective, although to be fair about it, the PR gurus employed by the school system are powerless to do anything without the consent of McIntyre who obviously doesn’t know what to do when his authority is questioned.
The school folks finally seem to have realized all the bad publicity comes at a time when McIntyre had fully expected to ride improved security into cold hard cash, meaning millions of new dollars for his own budget. With the revelations by the Sentinel, McIntyre’s pronouncement upon protecting our children sounds, at best, a bit hollow. Also, it does not encourage the County Commission or the public to place much confidence in turning over more money to a system that already spends over half a billion tax dollars annually when they have demonstrated they have just wasted a sizeable chunk of taxpayer money. To be fair about it, nobody in the school system has publicly or otherwise stated the least remorse in wasted taxpayer dollars. The Board members instead have circled the wagons, bent upon protecting McIntyre from himself.
Indya Kincannon, a former Chair of the Board, has clattered on like a windup doll, issuing a torrent of words, posing and answering her own questions in an attempt to deflect criticism from McIntyre.
Thomas Deakins, as noted previously, already fell on his own sword and then noted a picture of a security system not working could have easily been faked. Right.
Karen Carson has lumbered about like a wounded elephant, staggering from one foolish notion to the next, hoping to close down the Satterfield stories, largely on the basis of she and McIntyre say so.
Various other Board members have contributed their own bits, largely taking every public opportunity to praise McIntyre’s vision, integrity and ability. The lone member of the Board of Education who has actually tried to revise the way the school people do business, Mike McMillan, has been treated like the unwanted uncle who has been shut away in the attic. Obviously, we can’t have that.
In choosing the biggest loser for the week, it is like a lush buffet. If forced to choose, I would say the biggest loser is Karen Carson who has not only failed to stifle discussion of the school scandal, but reinforced the notion that they have something to hide by trying to convene a meeting behind closed doors. The runner-up would likely be Mcintyre himself who has amply demonstrated he has no clue what to do when a public relations fiasco becomes a full-fledged nightmare.
Of course all of this could have been avoided if McIntyre had merely reported to the Board in full the exact nature of the problems at Hardin Valley Academy and Powell Middle School. McIntyre could have promptly dealt with security chief Steve Griffin and determined if there was any wrong-doing and all would have probably been well.
It has taken weeks for McIntyre and the Board to properly assess just how much damage has been done due to their own credibility. It has also revealed that an appointed superintendent is not in the least superior to an elected superintendent, as well as just how ineffective the Board can be when it is not at all objective about the performance of the superintendent it selected. It’s like watching an out of control merry-go-round populated by village idiots.