Last fall, in a move opposed by many nonpartisan educational organizations such as the Tennessee School Boards Association, the General Assembly voted to allow school board partisan races. The two local parties in Knox County chose to support the school board candidates, staging several partisan battles throughout the district. In the first local election since the law was passed, every seat with an election this year will see at least one partisan candidate.
District 1 School Board (East Knoxville, Lonsdale and Mechanicsville)
This open seat is disputed by 3 candidates: the democrat Rev. John Butlerindependent Breyauna Hollowayand independent Reginald Jackson. Butler is the past president of 9 AME Zion churches in Knoxville as well as a past president of the local NAACP branch. He campaigns to increase equity in the school district and equip 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 seeks to increase the impact of her advocacy by serving on the school board. Jackson is an Army veteran and a seventh-generation Knoxvillian. He is campaigning for an increase in business training programs in middle and high schools as well as an improved financial readiness program.
Butler is certainly operating and spending on a shoestring, but that’s not unusual for school board campaigns: Former board chairwoman Patti Bounds won two terms with little money. Moreover, Butler’s opponents neither raised nor spent any money.
This district race will likely be one of the sleepiest for elections this year. Butler’s party affiliation will certainly help him in the more Democratic part of the county. What will help even more is the lack of spending from his opponents. He should be an almost certain winner.
District 4 School Board (Bearden and West Knoxville)
The incumbent for that district, Virginia Babb, elected not to run again, creating an open seat. Only 2 candidates ran for the race: Democrat Katherine Bike and republican Will Edwards. Bike is a trial technology specialist and volunteer MTB guide. His campaign is focused on increasing equitable access to public education in our community and fighting school voucher programs. Edwards is a local tax attorney and advocate for children with developmental disabilities. His campaign focuses on supporting parents’ rights and strengthening literacy intervention programs in elementary schools.
Bike raised a respectable amount of money in the second quarter, drawing from a large pool of donors and receiving financial support from Knoxville Councilman Andrew Roberto and former Vice Mayor Finbarr Saunders. She spent little in the last quarter and has plenty of money to push hard in the final weeks of the campaign.
Edwards’ model represents the reverse; he spent over $15,000 on direct mail in the second quarter while raising very little. Most of its 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 shifting to the 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, but Bike’s campaign has a strong contingent of energetic volunteers who have pounded the pavement. There have been some accusations of pro-good groups spending big bucks on negative ads against Bike. The last two weeks will be crucial for the outcome of this election: can the enthusiasm outweigh the expense?
District 6 School Board (Hardin Valley and Karns)
The holder, Betsy Henderson, is running under the Republican banner. President of the PTA, she has served on the board since December 2020 and campaigns on her achievements. Since being elected in 2020, the council has approved an 8% raise for teachers and a new elementary school in the growing community of Hardin Valley. Henderson was a leading figure in the fight against the district’s masking policy for students, working to have it reversed. The action turned into a costly and drawn-out lawsuit for the school district.
Philip Michael Sherman, an independent candidate and professor of religious studies at Maryville College, takes on Henderson. Its campaign focuses on technical education, teacher recruitment and retention, and transparency. Sherman pledged to “fully fund” public education before committing to charter schools or voucher programs.
Henderson raised little money in the second quarter but has plenty of money. She collected most of her donations in the last quarter of 2021. She spent more than $7,000 this quarter on direct mail.
Sherman 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 school district funding. His biggest expense was on traffic signs.
Henderson’s tenure and cash advantage make her the likely leader, and Sherman’s financial disadvantage does not help her candidacy. However, due to Henderson’s controversial rhetoric regarding COVID-19 policies, Sherman presents an intriguing candidate for voters looking for a less partisan representative.
District 7 School Board (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 Oakleysmall business owner and former special education teacher, and Steve Triplet, a general manager of Chick-fil-A. Oakley, who is running as an independent candidate, is campaigning on three priorities: meeting the unique educational needs of each student, creating new partnerships with community organizations that serve students and families, and increasing school board transparency. Triplet, the Republican candidate, focuses on advocating for parents’ rights in the school system as well as improving low literacy rates.
Oakley was neither a big fundraiser nor a big spender, and its largest expenses were for campaign materials and campaign gift items. She received a $750 donation from the Knox County Education Association, the local teachers’ union. Triplett raised little money in the second quarter, but after spending $10,000, he keeps more than $5,500 before the election. Most of Triplett’s spending has been on advertising and voter outreach, with a focus on Facebook ads. He raised most of his money in late 2021 and early 2022, allowing him to focus entirely on the campaign.
Despite Triplett’s revelations embezzled funds at a Christian school in Ohio where he served as principal, Triplett is well on his way to being elected. He has a fundraising advantage over Oakley and is the Republican nominee in a very conservative part of the county. Oakley’s campaign platform has merit, but more voters in that district are likely to be won over by Triplett’s emphasis on parental rights.
School District Board 9 (South Knoxville and South Knox County)
Incumbent Republican Kristi Kristy, a pediatric nurse and school board president, was elected in 2018. She continues to focus on improving Grade 3 literacy rates and expanding district vocational 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, director of the Women’s Health Program at the Knox County Health Department and former teacher at the Tennessee School for the Deaf, is running as a Democrat. She is campaigning to address the academic disparity seen among schools in the school district and to increase funding for the district to better equip teachers. Henley opposes school voucher programs that divert public education funding.
Henley enters the final weeks of the campaign with nearly $11,000. Its most notable donor was the Knox County PAC for Education, which cut a check for $750. Its biggest spend was on advertising, both through Facebook and signage. In contrast, Kristy raised little in the second quarter, spending over $6,000 on direct mail in the second quarter and has less than half the cash in hand than her opponent.
This district is difficult to assess without survey data. While the southern portion of Knox County is majority Republican, the portion of Knoxville District proper is Democratic. Neither candidate overspends or raises the other. Kristy over-bred Henley, but Henley has more on hand for the final weeks of the campaign. If Kristy were a less controversial incumbent, she’d likely be in a stronger position, but the school board has been fraught with difficulty in her four years in office. This race is one to watch as Election Day approaches.