KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Educators with Knox County Schools are expected to choose who they want to lead them as the next superintendent. As Bob Thomas prepares to step down from the role, they are looking at people to take his place.
The two candidates are Dr. Linda Cash, the director of Bradley County Schools, and Dr. Jon Rysewyk, the current assistant superintendent of KCS. They addressed community questions Thursday night before speaking directly to the board during interviews on Friday.
The questions board members asked them are below, along with responses from each candidate. You can watch them vote on the superintendent here.
Could you tell us about your ability to build, inspire and develop your leadership team at the highest level?
Dr. Rysewyk: He emphasized that the superintendent of Knox County Schools would require help from many other people. However, he said he wanted to make sure his senior staff were qualified and planned to vet them similar to how he himself was vetted. And once his leadership team has been vetted and hired, he said he would give them guidelines on their expectations. They would also be expected to regularly report on their jobs.
Dr. Cash: She said she would have weekly meetings with teams and try to identify the strengths of each member, before identifying rooms for team members to grow and improve as leaders.
"Looking at them and saying, 'How do I help you?' And then, 'How do we help each other?'" she said.
How will you build and maintain high morale among employees?
Dr. Rysewyk: "Any human, if they have purpose and meaning, feels fulfilled, right?" he said during the conversation with board members.
He said he wanted to build clear priorities centered around student success for employees and create resource strategies to help them do their jobs. As the district makes progress towards those goals, he said he thought that morale would naturally go up among KCS employees.
Dr. Cash: First, Dr. Cash said she would celebrate every victory employees see, such as improvements in student success and grades. She said in Bradley County Schools, they hosted receptions and luncheons for teachers after the school district saw massive improvements. She also said she would try to celebrate successes from teachers on social media, while also sending personal messages to the district staff.
"Believe it or not, a lot of times with teachers, they just want to hear that you care, that you appreciate what they do," she said. "In keeping that morale up, that's part of it, is recognizing them. Often, I will just go to the schools and spend time in the classrooms telling them how proud I am of them."
What strategies, in your experience, significantly enhance your ability to build relationships with diverse student populations and multicultural groups?
Dr. Rysewyk: He said representation is an important part of making good decisions for students, guaranteeing that multicultural groups are a part of the decision-making process. He said diverse groups bring experiences and ideas to the table that enhance education. He also said he would focus on maintaining relationships with multicultural communities in Knoxville.
"We also have to understand what the role of the school system is, and when we need to partner with other folks and not try to be everything if other people are already in that window," he said.
Dr. Cash: She said it is important for superintendents to show up at student events and interact with students, so they feel like they can approach leaders with issues. She also said student advisory groups would be made up of students from several backgrounds.
"My student advisory groups are always asked for them to be very diverse," she said. "I don't always want your best and your brightest, I want the kids that struggle. I want the kids that may have gotten in trouble."
Tell us about a time when you failed. How did you deal with it, and how did you grow from it?
Dr. Rysewyk: He described an idea he had as a principal when educators were assigned children to check up on periodically. Later, he found that many kids on some educators' lists were truant. He said that he had a tendency to be too focused on goals and missed small details that later made a difference. And to avoid it, he said he listened to the people around him.
Dr. Cash: She described a time during the COVID-19 pandemic when teachers were in short supply, and she decided to close schools. She said she decided to close schools too late in the day, and she received a lot of blowback from principals, teachers and families.
"That break in the norm was a failure on my part," she said. "Some principals were saying, 'Can you wait till after school is over?' In my head, I was like, 'No, because time parents have to prepare for childcare. Well, it didn't work like that."
What is the single most difficult aspect of developing a school district budget, other than funding level challenges?
Dr. Rysewyk: In his answer, he said the toughest part was developing a resource strategy to guide budget decisions. He said it involves identifying prioritizing some parts of education over others, and the process of determining priorities could be challenging.
Dr. Cash: She said a majority of the budget will likely go to personnel. Then, she said she would have to allocate money for insurance, along with specific needs from schools. Then, she said the budget will need to go towards maintaining buildings.
"One of the best decisions, but the hardest decisions that we ever made, was purchasing equipment for our maintenance department so that they could do the material in-house instead of always outsourcing or bidding," she said. "When we bought that equipment, it was a huge expense. Over the 5-year span that we've done, it has saved the district hundreds of thousands of dollars because now we do it in-house instead of bidding it."
Discuss your process for ensuring the district's budget aligns with its mission, vision and strategic plan.
Dr. Rysewyk: He said he would make sure that the district's goals were clearly defined before discussing how the school district's budget would be allocated. He also said he would have conversations about the school district's current situation before making budget decisions.
Dr. Cash: She said first, the budget should address emergency priorities before leaders look at the strategic plan and its capital plans. She said she would also reach out for input from the board on how money should be spent in Knox County Schools. She would also want input from principals to email her about any needs their school may have.
The district's needs would be ranked. And she would also ensure that common expenses like textbooks are paid for.
Explain your experience in helping the community understand the needs and realities of your school system.
Dr. Rysewyk: He said in the past he has spoken with advisory councils, family advisory councils, done news interviews and similar kinds of jobs. He said that in one situation where the school district had to take a flood day, he organized a press conference to notify the public to directly tell people about the decisions they made.
"Always in those situations, your goal is, to be honest, and be truthful about it," he said.
Dr. Cash: She talked about a time when the school district needed a new building and she needed money for it. She said she approached both county commissioners and community members about it, discussing how important it was for students to have the building.
"I got a commitment from my commissioners with funding," she said. "I got that commitment first. That took a long time. Then we started from the board's prospect, 'Okay, there are extra things that have to go in that building, how are we going to fund that?'"
How do you direct your staff to implement a decision made by the school board, or other governing bodies, if either you or your staff disagree with the decision?
Dr. Rysewyk: He said it is the job of the staff to be informed and make recommendations to members of the board of education about upcoming decisions. He said that in times of disagreements, the job of the superintendent is "to execute the will of the board."
He also said many decisions made by the board are complex, and debating those decisions could improve them.
Dr. Cash: She said she previously discussed the board's decision with staff members, giving them a chance to speak about the concerns before following the law in the classroom.
"There should never be a voice that says, from my office, 'I don't think they should have done that,'" she said. "The voice should be we are so proud that our board had to take a hard stance on this and we are 100% behind them."
What is your plan for building relationships and sharing information with the board, the County Commission and the county mayor? How would go about asking them for a tax increase?
Dr. Rysewyk: He said he would want regularly scheduled meetings with the county and city mayors to build relationships with them outside of times of crisis. He said he also wanted similarly scheduled meetings with county commission members.
He also said he would want the school system to maximize its efficiency, cutting down on costs to avoid having to ask for more money.
Dr. Cash: She said she wanted to develop deeper relationships with members of the school board by going on retreats together and having collaborative messaging. She said she wants her voice and the board's messaging to be unified. She said she wants the superintendent and the board to cooperate with other government entities when it comes to agency.
"It's very rarely when I will not answer your call, and if I am in a situation where I can’t, I will tell you, 'I'm in a meeting right now, I'll call you back as soon as I can,'" she said. "I believe your presence is necessary. I believe my presence is necessary. It's not that we're just supporting the community. But we're operating as a full board."
Given learning loss from the pandemic, detail curriculum or instructional improvements that have occurred because of your leadership with evidence.
Dr. Rysewyk: He said he is proud of how Knox County Schools implemented virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. He said the county acted quickly to provide equipment and distribute it while helping teachers with online instruction. He also said he is happy to be considering how virtual learning can be implemented in the future.
Dr. Cash: She said she worked with her team to identify areas where students were struggling due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and embedded standards in lessons throughout schools. She also said they started high-powered interventions based on individual students' needs, which included after-school and before-school tutoring.
How have you developed, implemented and evaluated early literacy programs, and how did these programs improve the educational achievement of students?
Dr. Rysewyk: He said they used AIMSWeb Plus to identify issues among students with foundational reading issues. He said they found students struggled differently in different locations across the school district. He also said they rolled out reading specialist programs and other kinds of curricula to help students and boost literacy rates.
He also emphasized the importance of finding the best way to deliver instructional materials to students, such as identifying specific, regional needs in schools.
Dr. Cash: She said Bradley County Schools started a focus on developing literacy skills by reading a book, called "Catch Up Growth." It discussed accelerating kids and what teachers needed to do. Then, they started searching for a curriculum that would have helped boost literacy rates.
After some pilot programs, that curriculum was implemented in various forms in many schools.
"You can walk in a classroom, you'll see variations because teaching is an art," she said. "They put their spin on it. But you will see every kid responding to the same cues, you will see every kid knowing and understanding, because what we wanted as a team and as a staff, that if a student goes from kindergarten to first to second, they are building on the same routine."