And then there were four.
The last of eight candidates for Grainger County director of schools were interviewed by the Grainger County Board of Education Tuesday night. Shortly after the final interviews in the Board Conference Room, a special called meeting took place upstairs in Finley Auditorium where candidates were scored.
Selected as finalists are Technology Director Dr. James Atkins, Grainger High Principal Mark Briscoe, Supervisor Kip Combs and Walters State Community College Professor Tommy Sewell.
All school board members, except for Vice Chair Karen McNish, who abstained due to her son, David Bishop, bing a candidate, scored the candidates with their top choice getting three points, second choice scoring two points and the third choice getting one point.
Atkins received 17 points, including four top scores and a second place score. Combs scored 10 points, with three top scores and a third-place score. Briscoe and Sewell received seven points each. Briscoe received a first-place score, a second place score and two third-place scores. Sewell received three second-place votes and a third-place score.
“This is a hard decision for all of us,” an emotional board member Larry Turley said. “I wish it was left up to the people of the county. What I’ve done is I’ve kept up with every phone call I’ve gotten. I’m close to all of these (candidates). I thought all eight struck the interview. I just wanted to tell you that we’re so lucky to have eight applicants to apply with all of this education in our school system. I know I’m speaking for everybody, but it’s a hard decision for all of us.”.
“It’s been a trying time for all of us,” Chairman Harold Frazier said. “We’re going to do our best and continue to do so for the children, teachers and faculty of Grainger County, We thank every applicant for your concern and this position. We do not take it lightly.”
A vote for the new director will be held at the regular board meeting at 7:30 p.m. on Oct. 22
In interviews conducted Tuesday night, the remaining four candidates expressed their thoughts on the position.
CTE Supervisor Lisa Setsor kicked off the second night of interviews.
“I work hard, I’m dedicated to the system and I work well with other people,” Setsor said. “I won’t back down from a challenge.”
Setsor said that the system needs to improve academic rigor in the next five to 10 years.
“I work with 85-95 percent of the teachers because a lot of special needs students get teaching in the regular classroom,” she said. “We should focus on the right thing, a high level of learning every day in every classroom.”
She said that the biggest challenge is complying to the rigorous demanding state standards.
“Our teachers rise to the occasion and do what they’re supposed to do,” Setsor said. “I became a teacher to make a difference.”
Setsor also favors principals hiring within the school system.
Rutledge Elementary School Principal Tim Collins was next and touted safety as his main goal.
Collins was assistant principal at Maury Middle School in Dandridge when a school shooting incident happened.
“My view of school safety changed that day,” Collins said. “The greatest thing we can do for our schools is safety. The school resource officers are a great thing. We’re dealing with things that we’ve never seen.”
Collins wants to provide the kids more help for physical safety and emotional safety.
“We are blessed to have the people we have working in our system. We need to be about trying to keep those people here,”
Collins said that God gave him a mission for the job.
“My first goal is to bring the Lord in. This is the greatest thing we can do as Christians,” he said.
He makes sure that children in his school have dental treatment, glasses if needed and food. Collins said that the school sends backpacks of food home with children who need it on Fridays.
He referred to 99 percent of bullying in elementary school as a product of conflicts.
“We try to realize that we have differences,” Collins said.
The school has an anti-bullying week during homecoming each year.
Dr. Tommy Sewell
Walters State Dean of Technical Education Dr. Tommy Sewell is seeking the director’s position to interact with students.
“I enjoy what I do, this position would be to get to interact with students,” Sewell said. “I see it as an opportunity to give back.”
Sewell has been Dean of Technical education for 14 years. He sees being director of schools as a chance to impact a larger number of students.
“I think I’ve got a breadth of experience. I’ve dealt with so many situations and I’ve worked with all K-12 systems in our 10-county area. I think I can bring a different perspective,” Sewell said.
The first thing Sewell would do as director is to go into the schools.
“Each school represents the community it is in,” Sewell said. “We need to spend time talking to teachers, students and parents to make sure the education we are providing is best for the students. We have a group of students who don’t know the opportunities they have.”
Sewell proposes to draw in the best people to draw up a long-term education plan.
“I like to be hands-on,” Sewell said. “Teachers could benefit from collaborative work groups.”
He also proposed a more thorough evaluation process for teachers, saying 30 minutes in the classroom doesn’t tell al lot about a teacher’s performance.
Dr. James Atkins
Atkins has been with Grainger County Schools for 34 years, including the last 27 in the Central Office.
“My goal is to make sure the system is financially secure,” Atkins said. “We have 3,230 students, 70 students less than last year. That means $420,000 in lost funds from last year.”
Atkins also thinks that there is too much time spent on testing. He based this on input received from teachers, administrators and others.
“We need to provide teachers more instructional time,” he said.
Atkins said he is driven by the allure of education
“I don’t care about the pay raise,” Atkins said. “I care about these students. My dad said, ‘Junior, it’s important you do something you love.’ I love education.”
When asked about his experience with budgets, Atkins said that he has plenty of experience.
“I started 13-14 years ago preparing a budget for Dr. Vernon Coffey and I’ve had my hand in it ever since,” Atkins said. “Grainger County spends $6,180 per student. It’s extremely important we focus on the budget since we have fewer students. I’m passionate on the budget.”
Atkins wants more focus on the American College Test scores in the county. Currently, county students score 18.3 with 20.2 being the state average.
“We have a great deal of responsibility to our students,” Atkins said. “You should surround yourself with good people.”
Atkins said that the mark of a good leader is that the system would run well if he is not there.