Thursday was the first day on the job for Knox County Schools' new superintendent Bob Thomas, and it began with a crisis.
A power outage caused Thomas to cancel school at Austin-East Magent High School.
"It’s been a busy day so far, but getting acclimated," Thomas said Thursday afternoon, when WBIR 10News sat down to chat with him about his new role.
The Board of Education approved his 2-year contract at its meeting Wednesday night, with a base salary of $200,000 per year.
Thomas has worked for Knox County Schools for more than 40 years, including as a teacher and principal. He has served for the past 25 year as an assistant superintendent.
Thomas anticipates his largest adjustment moving from assistant superintendent to superintendent will be re-focusing on classroom and curriculum matters.
"I've been involved in the operations area, primarily ... the last 25 years and not so much necessarily with curriculum and instruction, but that's what we're about: teaching and learning," Thomas said. "It's about our students and student achievement, and we want to have an immediate impact on the growth there."
Thomas has been working closely with now-former interim superintendent Buzz Thomas (no relation) for the past two-and-a-half weeks, ever since the Board of Education voted unanimously to name Bob Thomas superintendent.
"Buzz did a great job and the transition's gone well," Bob Thomas said. "He's worked with me and, I think, got me up to speed on things I need to know."
"I think Bob has all the right priorities," Buzz Thomas told 10News. "He's well positioned to be not just successful but super-successful."
Buzz Thomas will return to his role as president of the Great Schools Partnership, still working closely with Knox County Schools. He'll start back there on May 1, taking off the rest of April taking to spend time with his wife and their family.
On Thursday, Buzz Thomas was packing up his desk after 10 months on the job.
"It turned out to be the hardest year and the best year of my life, professionally," he said. "It's a hard job, and it'll be hard for Bob, and we need to support him and help him be successful ... We really are on the cusp of having the best school district in the South, and I think Bob can help us get there."
He cited the job's high stress level and 60-hour work weeks.
"You deal with everything from bomb threats to guns to, you know, low scores on something to communities being upset to, this morning, we had a power outage and Bob had to call school off at Austin-East High School his first day at the office," Buzz Thomas said.
Reflecting on the past year, Buzz Thomas points to four areas in which he is proud to have seen the district improve.
The first, he said, is reuniting the community.
"When I took this job in June, we were a pretty divided community, when it came to our school system," he said. "And our school board was that way. We had a pretty sharply divided school board."
He said district and community leaders, including Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett, worked together to "really put aside political differences, and we really focused on what was best for kids."
The second area in which he saw improvement was teacher morale.
"Teacher morale was pretty low when I came on board. It was better than it had been a year previous, but it was nowhere near what we wanted it to be," Thomas said. "We wanted Knox County not just to be a good school system; we wanted it to be a place where teachers wanted to work."
He pointed to a diverse group of educators he brought together, "to help us reevaluate our (teacher) evaluation system and make it their evaluation system, where it's reflective of where they feel is good teaching practice."
Thomas also highlighted improvements in disparities in outcomes among minority and low-income students, as well as students with disabilities.
"We had a lot of disparities based on race, economics and disabilities, and while we haven't completely eliminated those disparities, we have made great improvement this year," Thomas said. "For example, the number of arrests of our students has dropped by about a third. Suspensions are down."
He said the new superintendent plans on continuing improvements in this area.
"Bob is absolutely committed to making sure every single child, regardless of how much money they have or what part of town they live in, has the same opportunity," Buzz Thomas said.
Finally, Buzz Thomas said rezoning is an accomplishment during his time as interim superintendent.
"Building two new middle schools meant rezoning seven middle schools. Could've been more than that, and I feel like the plan that our folks came up with was a beautiful plan," he said. "It's been well-received in the community. There's still a few small pockets of concern."
He said he'll continue to help with rezoning and also with the budget approval, which he helped craft and on which Board of Education members will vote next Wednesday.