By Focus Staff
In an act of desperation, Board of Education Chairwoman Karen Carson called a meeting with Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett, Knox County Commission Chairman Tony Norman, and Knox County School Superintendent Dr. Jim McIntyre in order to close down criticism of the school system and Dr. McIntyre as it pertains to the school security debacle- which has dominated headlines for weeks. Carson called the meeting a week ago Friday for the following Monday. Although she claimed, at the time, that she doesn’t like closed-door meetings… she proposed one nonetheless.
Burchett immediately announced he would not attend any meeting closed to the press and the public- a stance which should have surprised absolutely no one. The mere idea of a closed door meeting further perpetuated the idea that something just isn’t kosher- a perception the school system can ill afford right now. The open meeting was finally held last Friday and provided local media with exactly the bonanza Carson hoped to avoid. At the heart of the problem is the controversy surrounding the discovery of a serious lapse in security at Hardin Valley Academy and Powell Middle School. The shoddy work that had been done at those two schools caused PSCD, the firm performing the work, to be sued by the Public Building Authority. None of the details surrounding the security lapse were mentioned by Superintendent James McIntyre to Board members when he was first notified of them. Since then, he has spent more time on endless quest of self-promotion than he has detailing information on the actual security lapse. Few Board members have faulted McIntyre for his failure, with the exception of Mike McMillan, who represents East Knox County on the Board.
In fact, most members of the Board have gone to extraordinary lengths to either assume the blame for McIntyre’s failure or at the very least reassign the blame to someone else. During last Friday’s meeting, Carson did exactly that. She attempted to pass blame to anyone but McIntyre and quickly discovered her ability to dominate the discussion of Board of Education meetings didn’t work with the Mayor, Commissioner Norman, or Law Director Richard “Bud” Armstrong. During one of her interminable monologues, Burchett interrupted and asked her to get back to the topic at hand. Carson bellowed she wasn’t finished, which caused Burchett to snap, “Ma’am you’ve talked enough…”
Although quite astonished to be told to her face not everybody enjoys her endless soliloquies, Carson finally shut up.
Dale Smith promptly contaminated the community punch bowl by offering a practical school safety audit- which could be completed in 6-8 weeks. It was abundantly clear both Carson and McIntyre didn’t like the idea at all. Burchett has offered to pay for just such an audit, despite the fact the school system gets approximately two-thirds of every tax dollar spent inside Knox County. Carson immediately threw up road blocks, at one point saying the Board had “already decided” it would do its own audit- although the Board has never voted to move ahead with such an audit. If that decision has been made, it was never made in public.
Burchett pressed a decidedly squirming Carson for some sort of answer as to why she could not support an independent audit. Fumbling for an excuse that at least sounded plausible, she finally blurted out she didn’t trust the Mayor to pick those schools that would be audited. Again, if the security at all schools is in proper working order and working effectively (as we’ve repeatedly been assured by both Carson and McIntyre), what difference does it make?
By and large, the entire meeting was driven by Carson and McIntyre’s desire to get the school system off the front pages of the Knoxville News-Sentinel. In reality the meeting deteriorated into an argument over just who would control the audit. Smith’s proposal calls for the audit to be done independently by a contractor who does not currently conduct business with Knox County government or schools.
Eventually Carson and McIntyre were worn down, precisely the opposite effect they hoped the meeting would have. Carson petulantly agreed to take Dale Smith’s audit proposal to the Board. Any rational person could easily bet whatever proposal reaches the Board of Education will have been significantly altered by the time Board members review it. In fact, the baby will likely not even be recognizable to its father. The administration hens, Carson, Indya Kincannon, Lynn Fugate, and Pam Trainor will do their best to peck the baby to death before it’s all said and done.
If every school is safe and secure, as Carson and Dr. McIntyre maintain, it matters little who performs the audit- so long as the company conducting it is unbiased and competent. The Board’s fight to keep control and have the audit done in-house doesn’t give the appearance of transparency, nor does it reassure parents, despite Dr. McIntyre’s assertions that it does.
The McIntyre administration moved with all the speed of a two-legged elephant in its reaction to the revelation of the security scandal which subsequently caused school security Chief Steve Griffin to be placed on suspension. The News-Sentinel has continued to print story after story; and McIntyre, accustomed to a steady diet of favorable headlines, seems both stunned and immobilized. Of course McIntyre has been accustomed to merely issuing a serene statement and expecting it to be accepted as the gospel. With the News-Sentinel pressing harder, Lord Jim’s memory has apparently suffered some impairment, and Karen Carson’s attempt to establish a timeline absolving McIntyre has consistently failed. The superintendent was warned about security failures in 2009.
After sullenly admitting he had filtered the information provided to the Board of Education (coincidentally at time when he was under review by the Board), McIntyre sourly said had he to do it all over again, he might have made a different choice. Even after that forced admission, virtually every member of the Board pretended not to have heard McIntyre’s confession. Like a group of hysterical nannies fussing over a much adored and even more spoiled child, they tried to deflect attention and place blame elsewhere… never an effective strategy in the midst of a public relations nightmare. And the louder Lord Jim cried, the more the nannies want to provide him with a comforting cookie.
The fact that the situation has become a public relations nightmare is a precise reflection of McIntyre and the Board’s initial reaction to the revelations and how they have handled them since. Nothing has changed since PBA Chief Dale Smith pointed out the apparent relationship between Steve Griffin and the owner of PSCD to McIntyre in 2009 until his suspension a few weeks ago, save for the fact the News-Sentinel broke the story. Obviously desperate to close down the bad publicity as quickly as possible, every choice they have made has simply added fuel to the fire.
And all of this comes at a most inconvenient time, as McIntyre had expected to be perceived as the champion of improved security and fully thought he could ride that pony right into a successful demand for higher taxes and more money for the school system. The budget is right around the corner and Dr. McIntyre is set to unveil his proposal (which will certainly include a demand for more money and higher taxes), but the squandering of money on so important a topic as the safety of children isn’t going to impress either the tightfisted Mayor Burchett or the County Commission.
One thing is certain; Superintendent Jim’s credibility has been shot. Any hope he had to become Commissioner of Education under Governor Bill Haslam is as dead as John Wayne Gacy. It is difficult to perceive just how McIntyre will recover from this series of blunders, ineptitude, and half-truths. Much of this is likely to carry over into the next election cycle, affecting candidates for both the County Commission and the Board of Education.