After eight long years of Jim McIntyre as superintendent of Knox County Schools, the people of Knox County were ready for something very different. The board of education appointed Buzz Thomas to serve as the interim superintendent and one could begin to feel the tensions ease.
Following the election of a new board, which saw most of the McIntyre puppets and rubber stamps either defeated or opt to retire, the members began the search for a new superintendent. After a lengthy and exhaustive process, the selection narrowed down to two candidates despite the efforts of Buzz Thomas and the Chamber of Commerce crowd to insert Jon Rysewyk into the mix. Rysewyk’s candidacy needed life support before finally expiring.
The two finalists were Bob Thomas and Dale Lynch. The two men were quite different in styles and approaches; Lynch has a gregarious personality that begs a comparison to the term “good ol’boy.” Bob Thomas is friendly, yet not one to push himself on others and epitomizes graciousness. Lynch is the superintendent of the Hamblen County school system, while Bob Thomas has been an assistant superintendent in the Knox County school system since 1990.
Bob Thomas’ candidacy was doubtless aided by the disastrous superintendencies of Dr. Charles Lindsey and Jim McIntyre. Lindsey came from South Carolina and McIntyre from Boston. For decades the Chamber-types, the self-proclaimed “good government” folks have lectured us we should seek out the “best” possible candidate, which was merely another way of saying they thought the superintendent ought to be hired from some place besides Knox County and they should do the picking. McIntyre’s reign was so toxic it soon became readily apparent the people living here were completely opposed to the idea of hiring another person who knew nothing about Knoxville, Knox County or our community. Say what you will, but with every passing day, I become more convinced institutional memory should be treasured. Bob Thomas has the institutional memory of the Library of Congress for things Knox County. While Thomas did not make final decisions, he was usually present when the hard decisions were made. As a result, Thomas knows the background of most everything that has occurred inside the Knox County school system since 1990—the who, the how and the why.
No less important is Bob Thomas’ knowledge of local government. Never one to tilt at windmills, I believe Bob Thomas will be able to accomplish more with quiet persuasion than a hundred indignant press conferences, a million marches and ten million protests. All too often folks tend to forget, it really does make a difference just what kind of relationship a school superintendent has with the county mayor and the county commission; the mayor submits a budget to the commission and the commission, like it or not, remains the board of education’s funding body. That was something Jim McIntyre ignored until he had spent down the school system’s reserves and couldn’t force through a tax hike. Faced with financial difficulties, McIntyre and the board were forced to agree to live within their means and sign a Memorandum of Understanding with Knox County. It was not the sort of foolish and arrogant mistake Bob Thomas would make; for one thing, Bob Thomas is a practical man. Secondly, Bob Thomas is about as arrogant as a twenty-year old shoe.
After McIntyre’s resignation, what Knox County Schools needed more than anything else was a person at the top who could usher in a period of healing. Thomas has worked with just about every group imaginable—students, teachers, parents, grandparents, legislators and taxpayers. That may well explain why so many different people and groups supported Bob Thomas for superintendent. Bob Thomas has always listened, given honest answers, and tried to help if he could. Even while having broad support, Bob Thomas comes into office without owing any special interest group anything. If any special interest believes it can receive special favors or treatment from Bob Thomas, that group is sadly mistaken.
A true public servant is one who does it for love of people and community, making it a genuine service to others. Bob Thomas is the kind of man who values every child and sees no difference in a custodian as opposed to a banker as a human being. The Board of Education could not have made a better choice than Bob Thomas precisely because anyone who knows him will readily tell you, Bob is one of the finest human beings there is anywhere. Bob’s heart belongs to his work and we the people.
Bob Thomas’ selection as superintendent of the Knox County school system really does usher in a new era. That era, I firmly believe, will be marked by common sense, courtesy, and genuine concern for one and all. The people of Knox County should be grateful to the Knox County Board of Education for their unanimous vote to hire Bob Thomas as the next superintendent of Knox County schools.