Commissioners weigh in on school elections, security

11:56 AM, Feb 27, 2013   |    comments
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There was lots of talk but no action at Knox County Commission Monday on several key issues impacting schools, including making superintendents an elected position, creating partisan school board elections, and the extent of Knox County School security.

Commissioner Dave Wright proposed a resolution to support efforts at the state level to change state law, giving voters the chance to elect superintendents.

Although the resolution's language is drafted to affirm Knox County's support on the issue, Wright insisted the purpose of the vote was only to inform state elected officials whether Knox County wishes to see the issue move forward.

"This is not about the qualifications or the process" Wright. "This is just about whether or not this should be killed right now out right at the state level."

Wright says he thinks it's an issue voters deserve to weigh in on.

"The message we have here before us is we can't afford to say the electorate 'you're incapable of making an informed decision,'" said Wright in response to the opposition.

Other commissioners said the vote felt rushed.

Wright says that State Senator Becky Duncan Massey is eager for the county to weigh in on the subject. He says she doesn't intend to take it before the legislative body without local support.

Commissioner Mike Hammond, who successfully proposed tabling the issue, said it's best left in the hands of the state-for now.

"Let's let the state decide this," said Hammond.  "If it passes and the governor vetoes it, and they override his veto, and it comes to us- then we can have all kinds of robust discussion."

Many school board and PTA members seemed eager for robust discussion. Several dozen people showed up, many holding signs discouraging electing superintendents.

Currently, it's up to the school board members to hire a superintendent.

Many argue this provides a greater degree of accountability than an election, because the school board can fire the superintendent if their work is unsatisfactory.

They argue making the job an elected position could mean voters had to wait several years before replacing a ineffective or unsuccessful leader.

Great Schools Partnership staff member Virginia Babb told commissioners if their goal is to represent the will of the people, they ought to carefully consider their vote.

"For your body to pass a resolution at this point saying you represent what Knox Countians believe in, I don't think is truly representing what everybody in Knox county believes in," said Babb.

Wright also called for a vote on a resolution he proposed in support of state efforts to allow for partisan school board elections.

That also prompted several commissioners to ask for more time.

"I do think we need to take care of our own house, we have several pressing issues. This isn't one of them," said Commissioner Sam McKenzie.

"I would like for us to step back for a moment, because we're looking at something that's going to affect all of Knox County," said Mike Hammond, who said he wanted more public and school board input.

Commissioner Richard Briggs said he felt partisan elections would offer voters more information on their candidates.

"It's just another piece of information that can be found out," said Briggs. "They can check the voting records."

He also called it a "meaningless vote" at this point.

Briggs encouraged commission to hold off on having lengthy discussions about the issue unless the state passes it.

Commissioners also questioned Superintendent Dr. Jim McIntyre, School Board President Karen Carson, and Public Building Authority President Dale Smith about whether the McIntyre and Carson had overstated to the public last week the extent to which school security issues had been remedied.

In recent weeks there has been much scrutiny of school security systems, especially the ones at Hardin Valley Academy and Powell Middle School after an audit revealing system deficiencies came to light.

Hammond asked Smith about the contents of a PBA board meeting where it might have been suggested that Carson and McIntyre had represented the security issues at the two problem schools had been fixed, contrary to what the PBA learned.

Smith said he was informed by the Knox County Law Office last week that, while firewall issues were fixed at the schools, "no other work had been done at those two schools."

Carson and McIntyre responded that they had never maintained the other issues were entirely resolved, which is the reason there is an ongoing lawsuit against the contractor.

But both maintained that all security systems at buildings across the school district, including surveillance systems, are "functioning" but Carson said functioning encompasses a wide range of performance.

Both said systems may need improvement.

Carson said she was "shocked" to hear an audio recording of a PBA board meeting where they asserted that one surveillance camera at a main entrance of Hardin Valley Academy was so deficient, a teacher or administrator wouldn't be able to tell if a shooter entered the building.

"I called Dr. McIntyre up and said 'I want to go to Hardin valley now, I want to see,'" said Carson.

She said she went with the superintendent to the school and tested the camera herself.

"I could absolutely see down hallways, I clearly would be able to identify if there was somebody," said Carson.

McIntyre said along with firewall issues, both schools now have working key-less entry systems.

Carson said there will be a meeting on Tuesday attended by the police chief, sheriff, county mayor, PBA chairman, school board president and McIntyre to further discuss school security.

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