Sullivan school director finalists talk about being instructional leaders and collaboration

Rick Wagner • Updated May 8, 2019 at 9:08 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — The three finalists for Sullivan County director of schools emphasized leading as part of a team in interviews Tuesday, with each spending 60 minutes answering questions and addressing the school board. They ranked themselves differently as instructional leaders, two as a 4 on a scale of 1 to 5, the other as a 5.

By Wednesday evening, however, the Board of Education plans to rank them overall by choosing one to lead the largest school system in Northeast Tennessee, with almost 10,000 students. The winner will replace 42-year Sullivan school veteran Evelyn Rafalowski, who is retiring June 30 after four years as director.

The finalists are Elizabethon Superintendent Corey Gardenhour, Greeneville High School Principal Patrick Fraley and Allegany County, Md., Superintendent David Cox. Fraley and Cox are natives of Hawkins County, Fraley has spent his entire career in Northeast Tennessee, and Gardenhour is a Pennsylvania native who has worked in Northeast Tennessee since he attended college here.

After the three one-hour interviews, Chairman Michael Hughes told the seven-member board to ponder the three finalists overnight and be ready to submit their top choice for the job to school board attorney Pat Hull at the Wednesday BOE meeting, which will start at 5 p.m. in the first-floor meeting room of the health and education building, 154 Blountville Bypass. Then, the board will get the results and entertain motions to offer the position to one of the three.


“I like to work with people to get things done,” Cox said when asked about his management style. “Decisions that require a lot of thought need a lot of people looking at it.”

Gardenhour said his leadership style is “very collaborative” and transparent, but he added that he would take responsibility for things. “I take responsibility for everything that goes on, the good and the bad,” Gardenhour said. “We’re going to fly the friendly skies. But when I need to land the plane, I’ll land the plane.”

Fraley said his management style is to hire and retain great people, empower them with resources to do a good job, hold them accountable and involve them in decisions. He said constant communication is essential, as is the ability to “act like a thermostat instead of just a thermometer” with employees.


Asked to rank themselves on a 1-5 scale as instructional leaders, Fraley and Gardenhour rated themselves as a 4 while Cox, a superintendent for two decades, ranked himself as a 5.

“You can’t have an expert in all things curriculum,” Fraley said, adding that literacy is the bedrock of any school system.

“I’d like to think I’m a 5. It’s something I’ve paid a lot of attention to,” Cox said, recalling that he was an elementary principal in a technology-focused elementary school and keeps up with the latest in instructional practices. He said learning is not just rote memorization, but learning how to learn, how to find information and how to apply information.

Gardenhour said, “I’d say a 4. I have a lot to learn.”

However, he said he has a passion for curriculum and engaging students who otherwise might not find success. 

“I was one of those students. People wondered, ‘What he’s going to do?’ ” Gardenhour said. 


Sullivan County is building a middle school to open in January of 2020 and a high school to open in the fall of 2021, so consultant Wayne Qualls asked the candidates on behalf of the board about their involvement in school building projects.

Gardenhour said his experience was limited to being involved in a football stadium construction project, as well as construction of classrooms and a music room. He said he understood going through value engineering to get the most value for the money. Fraley said he also didn’t have such experience, but was involved in a 12-classroom expansion of Cherokee High School when he was principal there. Cox said he was involved in building a new elementary school in Kansas, the technology-oriented one, and was superintendent during the construction of a new elementary, middle and high school in Culpepper, Va., to handle student growth and a new Allegany high school to replace a 1926 facility.


All three were each asked the same 13 questions, some with multiple parts, and did not see them until they arrived for their interviews. All said communication with the Sullivan County Commission, the system’s funding body, the general public and parents was important.

Asked to name a proud accomplishment, Gardenhour said it was hiring special education graduates to work in the school system through the Transition to Work program. Cox said it was the opportunity to have been a part of helping students grow, “especially for students who didn’t know what they could do” and opening the new school this year. Fraley said it was helping increase academic and athletic outcomes as a teacher, head coach and principal.

Asked their most difficult situations, Cox said coming up short on high school funding and having to rebid and get additional funding and having an elementary school student killed by being run over by a school bus. Gardenhour said it was having to make up a $500,000 stadium funding shortfall, which was done through fundraising. Fraley said it was limiting physical education credits for high school students. “In hindsight, we did what was best for the kids,” he said, adding that the plan was implemented with a lack of buy-in from students and parents.   


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