Amber Rountree’s big October

Betty Bean
Government/Politics columnist

South Knox’s Amber Rountree has every reason to “call in tired” for the Nov. 2 school board meeting, but here’s betting she will find a way to attend. The board will vote on her resolution to exempt Knox County from using standardized tests in students’ grades and for teacher evaluations.

The tests are not yet aligned with the curriculum, she says. A similar resolution passed the board last year, but this one has drawn fire from interim Superintendent Buzz Thomas and even Gov. Bill Haslam.

Rountree was elected the board’s vice chair Oct. 5, after a 4-4 deadlock between Terry Hill and Tony Norman with Mike McMillan absent. She’s a doctoral candidate at UT, and on Saturday, she and husband Bart added a second son to their family.

Just two days earlier, Oct. 27, Gov. Haslam brought astronaut Barry Wilmore to Mount Olive Elementary School in her district to celebrate two-year-old science scores. Rountree was there.

Haslam, as quoted in the daily newspaper, had a Lake Wobegon moment (…“where all the children are above average”) when he said: “Here’s the big deal: Tennessee is the only state in the nation to grow faster than the nation in fourth grade and eighth grade …. That makes Tennessee the fastest-growing state in the nation in science results.”

Knox County Education Association president Lauren Hopson, astronaut Barry Wilmore and school board member Amber Rountree at Mount Olive Elementary School
Knox County Education Association president Lauren Hopson, astronaut Barry Wilmore and school board member Amber Rountree at Mount Olive Elementary School

They didn’t get a confetti cannon, but everybody at Mount Olive knew something big was up, even before the VIP invitations went out on Wednesday. Long-requested repairs suddenly got done, and by the time the governor showed up, the school was spit-shined to a fare-thee-well and the teachers’ parking lot was full of bigwigs’ cars.

Going to Mount Olive was a two-fer for Haslam. He got to plug state Rep. Eddie Smith (fighting a stiff challenge from former Rep. Gloria Johnson) and he got in some licks against Rountree’s resolution.

The resolution was on the school board’s October agenda, but was bumped by her colleague Gloria Deathridge, who took a point of personal privilege so the Teachers Advisory Committee could take up the matter (which they did, and voted 12-8 to support Rountree’s position).

How was the Mount Olive event received?

Depends on whom you ask. Not everyone appreciated the last-minute school facelift. The term “dog-and-pony show” got a lot of use:

“If you don’t have nice stuff at your school, our politicians need to see that. You don’t need to clean up for company. Let them see how it is every day,” said one veteran teacher. “I kept asking myself, ‘Why Mount Olive?’ They never gave a reason.”

And what does Rountree think? Here’s an entry on her Facebook page:

“It’s too bad Haslam couldn’t see fit to personally speak to me about my resolution while he was visiting (Mount Olive).

“It’s hard to be a wallflower at nine months prego!

“I could’ve illuminated for him that NAEP and TNReady are vastly different assessments, and that in his analysis of the NAEP data he missed that our large ‘gains’ in science appear (to be because) in fourth grade over half the states flat lined and 34 states in eighth grade flat lined.

“Am I proud of our kids and teachers? Absolutely! But I am tired of political PR stunts that don’t paint an accurate picture of our work and use our students to further political agendas.”

It seems the votes are there Wednesday to pass the Rountree resolution.
What’s uncertain is, will she bring the baby?

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