Northwest Middle School in Knox County (Photo: Northwest Middle School Facebook)
Last fall, in a move opposed by many nonpartisan education organizations such as the Tennessee School Boards Association, the General Assembly voted to allow partisan school board races. Both local parties in Knox County elected to support candidates for the Board of Education, setting up several partisan battles across the district. In the first local election since the law passed, every seat with an election this year will see at least one partisan candidate.
Board of Education District 1 (East Knoxville, Lonsdale & Mechanicsville)
This open seat is being contested by 3 candidates: Democrat Rev. John Butler, independent Breyauna Holloway, and independent Reginald Jackson. Butler is the Presiding Elder of 9 AME Zion churches in Knoxville as well as a former president of the local branch of the NAACP. He is campaigning on increasing equity across the school district and equipping schools with more resources to succeed. Holloway is a small business owner and community advocate. Currently a member of the Austin-East High School PTA, she is looking to increase the impact of her advocacy by serving on the school board. Jackson is an Army veteran and seventh generation Knoxvillian. He is campaigning on increased trade training programs in middle and high schools as well as an improved Financial Readiness program.
Butler is certainly operating and spending on a shoestring budget but that is not unusual for school board campaigns: former board chair Patti Bounds won two terms with little money. In addition, Butler’s opponents have neither raised nor spent any money.
This district race is likely to be one of the sleepier ones up for election this year. Butler’s party affiliation will certainly help him in the most Democratic part of the county. What will help even more is the lack of spending on the part of his opponents. He should be a near certain winner.
Board of Education District 4 (Bearden & West Knoxville)
The incumbent in this district, Virginia Babb, has chosen to not run for re-election, creating an open seat. Only 2 candidates filed for the race: Democrat Katherine Bike and Republican Will Edwards. Bike is a trial technology specialist and volunteer mountain bike guide. Her campaign is centered around increasing equitable access to public education in our community and fighting against school voucher programs. Edwards is a local tax attorney and advocate for children with developmental disabilities. His campaign is focused on supporting parents’ rights and strengthening literacy intervention programs in elementary schools.
Bike raised a respectable amount of money in Q2, drawing from a large pool of donors and has received financial backing from Knoxville City Councilman Andrew Roberto and former Vice Mayor Finbarr Saunders. She spent little in the last quarter and has plenty of cash on hand to make a strong push in the final weeks of the campaign.
Edwards’ pattern represents the inverse; he spent over $15,000 on direct mail in the second quarter while raising very little. Most of his funding came in the last quarter of 2021 and the first quarter of this year.
District 4 represents an affluent part of Knoxville that is slowly moving left and has the potential to be the most competitive school board race this year. Edwards clearly has the advantage when it comes to spending and cash on hand, but Bike’s campaign has a strong contingent of energized volunteers that have been pounding the pavement. There have been a few accusations of pro-voucher groups spending serious money on negative ads against Bike. The final two weeks will be crucial for the outcome of this election: Can enthusiasm overcome spending?
Board of Education District 6 (Hardin Valley & Karns)
The incumbent, Betsy Henderson, is running as a Republican. A PTA president, she has served on the board since December 2020 and campaigning on her accomplishments. Since her 2020 election, the board approved an 8% raise for teachers and a new elementary school in the growing Hardin Valley community. Henderson was a prominent figure in the fight against the district’s masking policy for students, working to get it overturned. The action turned into an expensive and drawn out lawsuit for the school district.
Phillip Michael Sherman, an independent candidate and religious studies professor at Maryville College, is taking on Henderson. His campaign focuses on technical education, recruiting and retaining teachers and acting with transparency. Sherman has committed to “fully funding” public education before committing to charter school or voucher programs.
Henderson has raised little money in Q2 but has plenty of cash on hand. She raised most of her donations in the final quarter of 2021. She spent more than $7,000 this quarter went on direct mail pieces.
Sherman has neither raised nor spent nearly as much as Henderson; the only PAC to donate to his campaign was the Knox County PAC for Education, a group that regularly endorses and supports candidates dedicated to increasing funding for the school district. His largest expense was for yard signs.
Henderson’s incumbency and cash advantage places her as the likely leader, and Sherman’s financial disadvantage does not help his candidacy. However, due to Henderson’s divisive rhetoric regarding COVID-19 policies, Sherman presents an intriguing candidate for voters looking for a less partisan representative.
Board of Education District 7 (Halls & Powell)
Incumbent and former board chair Patti Bounds is not running for re-election after serving two terms, creating an opening for either Dominique Oakley, a small business owner and former special needs teacher, and Steve Triplett, a Chick-fil-A general manager. Oakley, who is running as an independent candidate, is campaigning on three priorities: meeting the specific educational needs of individual students, creating new partnerships with community organizations that serve students and families and increasing the transparency of the school board. Triplett, the Republican nominee, is focused on advocating for the rights of parents in the school system as well as improving low literacy rates.
Oakley has been neither a big fundraiser nor a big spender, and her largest expenses were for campaign literature and campaign giveaway items. She received a $750 donation from KC PACE, a PAC associated with the Knox County Education Association. Triplett raised little money in Q2 but after spending $10,000, retains more than $5,500 heading into the election. Most Triplett’s expenditures were for advertising and voter contact with an emphasis Facebook ads. He raised most of his money in late 2021 and early 2022, enabling him to focus entirely on campaigning.
Despite revelations Triplett misused funds at an Ohio Christian school at which he served as principal, Triplett is well on his way to being elected. He has a fundraising advantage over Oakley and is the Republican candidate in a very conservative part of the county. Oakley’s campaign platform has merit, but more voters in this district are likely to be persuaded by Triplett’s focus on parents’ rights.
Board of Education District 9 (South Knoxville & South Knox County)
Republican incumbent Kristi Kristy, a pediatric nurse and chair of the school board, was elected in 2018. She continues to focus on improving 3rd grade literacy rates and expanding the district’s vocational education programs. Kristy was an ally of Henderson in the battle against the district’s masking policy for students. However, unlike Henderson, she voted to accept the lawsuit stemming from their actions.
Annabel Henley, program director for women’s health in the Knox County health department and a former teacher with the Tennessee School for the Deaf, is running as a Democrat. She is campaigning on addressing the academic disparity seen between schools in the school district and increasing funding for the district to better equip teachers. Henley opposes school voucher programs that divert funding from public education.
Henley goes into the final weeks of the campaign with almost $11,000. Her most notable donor was the Knox County PAC for Education, which cut a check for $750. Her largest expenditure was on advertising, both through Facebook and yard signs. In contrast, Kristy raised little in Q2, spending more than $6,000 for direct mail pieces in Q2 and has less than half the cash on hand than her opponent.
This district is difficult to assess without polling data. While the southern part of Knox County is predominantly Republican, the portion of the district Knoxville proper leans Democratic. Neither candidate is outspending or out-raising the other. Kristy out-raised Henley, but Henley has more on hand going into the final weeks of the campaign. Were Kristy a less controversial incumbent, she would likely be in a more solid position, but the school board has been fraught with disagreement over her four years in office. This race is one to watch as election day draws near.
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