The Buzz from Buzz: July Edition

By Sally Absher

 

A few weeks ago, The Focus had an opportunity to spend a few minutes chatting with Interim Superintendent Buzz Thomas. We talked about the new school year, administrative appointments, and some announced and rumored changes in Central Office staff.

Thomas plans to continue the tradition of visiting schools across the district during the first few weeks of the school year. The first day of school he will be visiting Halls High, Rocky Hill, Maynard, and South Doyle Middle. Thomas gave a shout out to Halls, saying, “I feel like Halls High School is one of the best kept secrets – not in Halls, but in Knox County.” He added, “Halls is right up there with Hardin Valley, West High School, the Stem Academy, Farragut, and Bearden, in terms of student achievement and graduation rates.”

Summer is a time of both excitement and uncertainty for school administrators, as they “serve at the pleasure of the Superintendent” and can be moved at his/her will. Thomas told us that most of the administrative appointments were made by outgoing Superintendent Jim McIntyre, but that he was involved with several appointments, including principals at Farragut High School and South Doyle Middle School.

“I felt like the faculty at Farragut wanted a change… my philosophy is you listen to teachers, and I was heavily involved in the decision at Farragut and I drove the decision at South Doyle Middle.” Thomas said that more than 90% of the decisions were made by Jim McIntyre and his leadership team.

“I’m not a quick to move principals around as Jim was…My sense is the chemistry of getting the right administrator in a particular building is a very precise kind of thing. When we find success – a principal who creates a great culture, has a great team, the community loves…the last thing in the world I’m going to do is move that principal. When I find somebody in the right seat on the bus, I’m going to leave them alone,” Thomas said.

We also talked about changes in Central Office Staff. You may recall that several weeks before his official start date of July 8, the newly appointed Interim Superintendent clearly laid out his plans for the first 90 days in an open letter to the community. Two of the priorities Thomas identified concerned Central Office:

  • Making our schools and central office more transparent, collaborative and customer focused. Knox County’s public schools belong to you – the students, parents and taxpayers; and
  • Getting our own operations in order. The Knox County Schools has declared its intention to provide “excellence for every child,” yet recent studies by outside individuals and organizations suggest that we have not held ourselves to that same standard of excellence when it comes to managing our own operations. We have experienced significant problems with transportation, public information and human resources, for example. We have asked our students and teachers to meet the highest standards of accountability. Those same standards will be applied to those of us in the central office.

What surprised some, however, was how quickly Thomas began implementing changes to address these priorities, particularly with regard to Central Office personnel. By the end of July, key staff in the transportation, public information, human resources, and curriculum and Instruction departments had resigned or will be leaving KCS in the next month or two.

But given the priorities listed above, this really shouldn’t be surprising. There were “significant problems with transportation, public information, and human resources.” In his first month as interim Superintendent, Thomas has shown that he is serious about holding his staff accountable as much as our students and teachers.

The current BOE majority (Gloria Deathridge, Tracie Sanger, Doug Harris, Lynn Fugate, and Karen Carson) frequently compared former superintendent Dr. Jim McIntyre to a football coach. When a new coach comes to town, he brings in his own coaching team. Butch Jones didn’t keep Derek Dooley’s staff, and Dooley didn’t keep Lane Kiffin’s staff.

Thomas was a bit surprised to hear that not everyone supports his efforts to clean house, particularly some current and former teachers, who decried the lack of transparency and “due process.” Thomas said, “The last thing I want is for teachers to be nervous. They need to know that we’ve got their back, and we are listening to them.”

Perhaps Thomas felt some members of McIntyre’s executive team just don’t “fit the vision” of Knox County Schools’ new leadership – something many non-renewed teachers were told over the past several years.

 

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