In a unanimous vote Monday among its nine members, the Knox County Board of Education selected Bob Thomas to be the school system's next superintendent.
Thomas has served in the Knox County Schools system for his entire career. He taught for Knoxville City Schools beginning in 1973, before the city and county school districts merged. He has served as assistant superintendent since 1990.
He applied to be superintendent in 2008 but was passed over for Jim McIntyre, who stepped down in 2016. Buzz Thomas has been serving as interim superintendent since June.
In this most recent superintendent search, 24 people applied. Hamblen County Superintendent Dale Lynch was the other finalist, along with Thomas.
Before Monday's vote, board members discussed the two men, saying both were well qualified for this position. Board members said it came down to which finalist each member felt was the best fit for Knox County Schools.
When it came to the vote, however, each of the nine board members voted "Thomas."
"Something I was basically overwhelmed by," Thomas told media members after the meeting, which he did not attend. "I just appreciate the board very much. I feel so honored to have the opportunity to serve our students and our community, our board, our educators, our employees."
Board member and superintendent search committee chair Amber Rountree said Thomas has told the board he wants to evaluate existing programs - a point she and other board members like.
"Basically-- are we getting the best bang for our buck for all of our programs that we have in place for Knox County Schools? From Emergent Literacy to CTE programs, really drilling down and seeing that we are getting the best for our money that we're paying and making sure that our kids are prepared for a great future," Rountree said.
Asked what he wants parents in the district to know about his leadership, Thomas said, "I guess what's really important for me is just creating a positive culture in our schools. That's not to say we don't have a positive culture, but I think we can improve, whether that's teacher relationships with students, teacher relationships with parents, principal relationships with their students, their teachers and their parents."
Thomas said communication is one of his strengths.
"That plan is to get out into our schools and meet with our educators," he said.
He'll talk with them about, among other topics, his top priorities when he steps into his new role as superintendent.
"I think first and foremost on everyone's mind is increasing student achievement," Thomas said. "Also, building a positive culture and eliminating disparities."
Thomas said his wife Beckye retired after more than 30 years of teaching choral music at Central High School. Altogether, she worked for the district for some four decades. The Thomases' son was educated by Knox County Schools, and he went on to earn two degrees from the University of Tennessee, Thomas said.
“Knox County Schools has been our life, and it’s been great for us," Thomas said. "I'm so fortunate and so blessed to work in Knox County Schools."
Thomas also cited his strong working relationship with the Knox County Education Association (KCEA), the district's teachers union.
"Our MOU is going to be coming to the board here soon for approval, and I feel like I've always had a pretty good working relationship with the Knox County Education Association," Thomas said. "I look forward to continuing that and even strengthening it in the future."
At Monday's meeting, two people addressed board members before the vote. Both spoke in favor of Thomas, and one of those people was Lauren Hopson, KCEA president.
"We need a superintendent who can lead administrators to have a commanding presence in their schools while fostering an environment of fairness, concern and respect for the professional educators in each building," Hopson said in her comments. "We need a superintendent that remembers the needs of our students come first, over generating test scores...We need a superintendent who has dedicated his life to education and has shown loyalty to Knox County, even in the face of difficult times, one who has chosen to remain when it would've been easier and quite justified to quit."
"We need a superintendent who sees this position as their dream job," Hopson continued, "one who is committed to developing staff that will continue to improve Knox County's legacy for years to come. That person is, unequivocally, Dr. Bob Thomas."
Board members will work on Thomas' contract, which they hope to present at next month's meeting. They're looking at a salary between $200,000 and $240,000, per a January decision.
Thomas has served as assistant superintendent since 1990, and that term is not without controversy.
He supervised the transportation department in 2014 when a texting bus driver caused a crash that killed two students and a teachers aide. Two separate employees were also prosecuted for misuse of funds from nutrition and accounts payable under his watch.
Former Knox County Mayor Mike Ragsdale worked with Thomas extensively during his time in office.
"I think he's been an excellent administrator. He's a gentleman who truly cares about children and their future and I applaud the job he's done for the citizens and students of Knox County," Ragsdale said.