October 25, 2021 6:00am

Knoxville Power Poll: Schools Superintendent Search

A majority of Power Poll members want the next superintendent to have a mix of classroom and administrative experience.

Photo of Scott Barker
Knoxville, TN Correspondent

When Knox County Schools Superintendent Bob Thomas announced last month that he will retire at the end of the current school year, the Board of Education launched a search for his successor.

The school board hired the Tennessee School Boards Association (TSBA) to conduct the search, with oversight by a three-member committee of board members.

In this month’s Power Poll, members were evenly split on whether the system’s next leader should be an external candidate or promoted from within the ranks. A clear majority, however, would prefer a candidate with a blend of classroom and administrative experience.

The district has hired both external and internal candidates in its most recent superintendent searches, hiring Jim McIntyre away from the Boston school system in 2007 and promoting Thomas from within in 2016. Thomas had been a finalist for the job when McIntyre was selected.

The job is certain to attract a pool of candidates from across the nation. With about 59,000 students, Knox County Schools is larger than the public school systems in Boston, San Francisco and Seattle. Internal candidates could include Chief Administrative Officer Jon Rysewyk and Chief of Staff Renee Kelly.

Power Poll respondents were evenly split in their preferences, with about one-third in favor of an outside candidate, a little less than one-third supporting an internal candidate and slightly more than one-third who had no preference.

The survey’s respondents showed a clear preference — 63.4 percent — for a candidate with a mix of classroom and administrative experience. Extensive administrative experience was the main concern for 27.7 percent of respondents.

McIntyre, a career administrator, had scant classroom experience when he arrived in Knox County. He alienated many teachers and left when voters elected a majority of school board members who were former educators displeased with his performance.

Thomas, on the other hand, had extensive experience in the field as a teacher and principal before moving into the Central Office in 1985. Still, he has spent 36 of the 49 years he has worked in Knox County Schools in an administrative capacity.

School board member Jennifer Owen, a former teacher, said Thomas restored trust among teachers over the past five years. He also laid the groundwork for the Central Office’s impending move from the Andrew Johnson Building to the Tennessee Valley Authority's former East Tower.

That might not have prevented the school board from forcing his retirement next year when his contract ends. Two of the nine board members, including new board Chair Kristi Kristy, voted against extending his contract last year, and there has been dissatisfaction from several others over the handling of the start of the current school year.

Power Poll members gave Thomas mostly good marks for his leadership of the district. More than half rated his job performance fair to excellent, while fewer than one in five indicated they thought he had done a poor job.

School board members have said they want broad input from the public during the search. The TSBA’s process is to hold community input sessions all in one day, featuring hourlong sessions with stakeholder groups and a public forum in the evening, plus online surveys.

But some board members have said they want more community outreach — possibly with help from the nonprofit Knox Education Foundation, which has offered to help with the search process.

The Power Poll is not a scientific poll but a survey of views and attitudes among community leaders from government, business and nonprofit arenas.

This month’s Power Poll surveyed 534 people. One hundred twelve responded, for a response rate of 21 percent. Here are the questions and the results:

Power Poll Members: Do you have a friend or colleague who should be on Power Poll? Please invite them to join!

About Power Poll: Power Poll asks questions of the most powerful, influential people in U.S. cities. It is not a scientific survey. But because the people responding to the surveys comprise the leadership structure of their cities, the results afford a fascinating glimpse into the thoughts, opinions, and beliefs of those in a position to make change. Power Poll is distinctly nonpartisan.

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