BLOUNTVILLE — Educator David Cox is coming home to Northeast Tennessee after a quarter of a century.
The Sullivan County Board of Education Wednesday voted 5-2 to offer the Hawkins County native and Maryland 2016 Superintendent of the Year the position of director of schools, a post from which Evelyn Rafalowski is retiring after four years as director and nearly 42 years working in the school system.
Cox earned his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from East Tennessee State University.
Board members said all three finalists were great candidates, but Cox’s experience, including 20 years as a superintendent dealing with school building projects, budgets and finance, made him the top choice.
“I’m just so ecstatic to be coming home and working for the boys and girls of Sullivan County,” Cox said Wednesday night by phone from Maryland.
“I will work hard every day to raise every student up and be a collaborative leader,” Cox, a 1979 graduate of Surgoinsville High School, said during his Tuesday interview with the board.
“You’d better not be lazy. You’d better not be a liar,” Cox recalled his parents and grandmother telling him.
He also said his Surgoinsville teachers made a lasting impression and a difference in his life.
“I know the power of public education. I know the difference teachers made for me.”
Chairman Michael Hughes, Vice Chairman Randall Jones, Randall Gilmore, Matthew Spivey and Jane Thomas voted for Cox, who has been superintendent in Allegany County (Md.) Public Schools for 10 years. Mark Ireson and Paul Robinson voted no. Before that vote, the five who voted yes chose Cox as their top pick, while Ireson voted for Elizabethton Superintendent Corey Gardenhour and Robinson for Greeneville High School Principal Patrick Fraley.
WHAT MADE COX THE TOP CHOICE?
“We were blessed to have three good candidates,” Spivey said after the vote. “But no one matched Dr. Cox’s experience.”
Spivey and Hughes cited Cox’s work with school systems in which the school board depended on an outside funding body (as is the case in Sullivan County with the County Commission) and with capital projects and overall experience.
“Dr. Cox has more experience in the things we’re doing now,” Hughes said of budget issues and building new schools. “I graded them out really close.”
Hughes said Cox impressed him with experience in dealing with declining enrollments like Sullivan has had. Cox has worked in Hawkins County; Kingsport; Appomattox County, Va.; Dodge City, Kansas; Pulaski County, Va.; Culpepper County, Va.; and Allegany County schools.
Cox told the board in an interview Tuesday that he has overseen the building of about 1 million square feet of school space, including an elementary school in Dodge City; elementary, middle and high schools in Culpeper County; and a new high school that opened this year in Allegany County, a system with declining enrollment like Sullivan.
Assuming Cox takes the position, he will add nearly 400,000 square feet to his career construction total. The new Sullivan East Middle School to open in January of 2020 is to be about 89,000 square feet, while the new West Ridge High School to open in August of 2021 is to be about 300,000 square feet.
The initial plan was for each board member to give his or her top choice to Pat Hull, the school board attorney, to compile. However, Hull said having each board member declare a top choice was “a better way” to go.
“It’s a little bit murky on them giving me the choice ahead of time,” Hull said.
“I don’t think among these three there was a wrong decision,” Hughes said after the meeting.
WHAT ARE THE LOGISTICS MOVING FORWARD, LOOKING BACK?
Hughes said that Hull and he likely will begin negotiations with Cox and Cox’s lawyer Thursday, with board approval of a contract to come at a regular or called meeting depending upon the timing of the agreement. Cox said he wants to make his transition work well for both school systems and he needs to talk with his board in Maryland before proposing timing in the negotiations.
The plan had been to have a top finalist offered the job by May 1 and someone on the job by June 1 so the new leader would have a month to spend with Rafalowski, who is to retire June 30. Hughes said if Cox has to give a full 60 days notice in Maryland, possibilities could include appointing an interim director or asking Rafalowski to stay on a bit longer.
“We’ve still got to negotiate a contract,” said Hughes, who said he wanted to retain Rafalowski if that were possible. “She was still my first choice.”
Longtime teacher Teddi Adler of Rock Springs Elementary during public comment spoke in favor of hiring a candidate who went to school in the system, was a high school cheerleader, had worked in the county system and had children go through it, eventually saying that person was Rafalowki, a high school classmate of hers.
Rafalowski said she looks forward to her final high school graduation ceremonies as a director later this month, May 23-24, as well as the Pinnacle Awards for employees May 14 at Northeast State Community College. Come June 30, Rafalowski said she will have spent 54 years in Sullivan County Schools, 12 as a student and 42 as an employee. She said her favorite thing to do is to recognize students for achievement, which she and the board did Tuesday with Tennessee SkillsUSA winners who are headed to national competition in June.