Coming home again: Superintendent David Cox set to take reins of Sullivan County Schools

Rick Wagner • May 12, 2019 at 12:00 PM

BLOUNTVILLE — For David Cox, becoming the new Sullivan County director of schools is akin to being a minister working away from home for a quarter of a century and then coming back home.

In that respect, Northeast Tennessee for the Hawkins County native is his home church, the place he went to secondary school and college and met his future wife and the place where family and friends still live.

“I consider public education to be my life’s work. I think it’s my calling,” Cox told the Board of Education in answering his finalist interview questions Tuesday. “It’s the profession that makes all other professions possible.” The BOE on Wednesday voted 5-2 to offer him the job of director, pending contract approval, choosing him over Elizabethton Superintendent Corey Gardenhour and Greeneville High School Principal Patrick Fraley. Cox is to replace 42-year county school employee Evelyn Rafalowski, who is to retire June 30 after four years as director.

Cox, whose latest position was superintendent of Allegany County Public Schools in Cumberland, Maryland, said in a nutshell he believes public schools must teach students problem solving, academic material and good citizenship.

“I really appreciate when we can see kids grow,” Cox said. “I had very strong public education teachers who did that for me.” 

Cox also told the board Tuesday that he is proud to have mentored two people who went on to become superintendents.


As previously reported, Cox said he leads in a collaborative manner and is strong as an instructional leader. That later included creating the Active Learning Lab in Allegany County for student engagement. He said learning how to learn, how to find information and how to apply that information is crucial. In addition, he is involved in his 20th budget as a superintendent and has dealt with systems with both increasing enrollment and declining enrollment, including losing 250 positions in Allegany County over 10 years but through attrition.

His mantra? In budget cuts do whatever “impacts the classroom the least” because “that’s where the magic happens.”


Of the three finalists, he was the only one who presented the board a packet of information before his interview. It was on the accomplishments of the Allegany County system.

Cox graduated from Surgoinsville High School in Hawkins County in 1979 and earned a bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from East Tennessee State University. He has been Allegany superintendent for 10 years; Culpeper, Virginia, superintendent for eight; and Pulaski County, Virginia, superintendent for two. Before that, he was an assistant superintendent and elementary principal in Dodge City, Kansas; interim assistant band director at Dobyns-Bennett; assistant principal of Church Hill Middle; band director at Rogersville Middle; and assistant director at Cherokee High; assistant director and choral music director at Appomattox County, Virginia. He met his wife, a Dobyns-Bennett graduate, attending a local church.

He was chosen Maryland’s superintendent of the year for 2016 and is active with the American Association of School Administrators, serving on its Region IV Executive Committee, and the Public School Superintendent Association of Maryland, for which he is an immediate past president.


Cox doesn’t like surprises as a superintendent, and he doesn’t plan to surprise the new school board for which he will work or others.

Cox said communications with board members likely would include emails, texts, phone calls and in-person talks, as well as an annual week in review. Communications with staff would include monthly meetings and separate monthly meetings with elementary and secondary principals with a quarterly meeting with a combined principal group.

As for teachers, he said he has held a roundtable with one teacher per school each month. He also said he tries to visit every classroom at least once a year to communicate with teachers and students.

Since the director is the face of the school system and communicating with the community, Cox said he always has been involved in the community on many boards and groups not directly associated with the school systems, such as chambers of commerce and civic clubs. He also has offered to speak to groups and has had a weekly “Take Five” podcast and said he would use the school system website and social media.

He also said transparency is essential when communicating in any fashion. 

“I think transparency builds trust,” Cox said.


Given the soured relations between the school board and the Sullivan County Commission, which has voted to ask the board to temporarily halt the new middle school and high school construction and last year took away $1.6 million in renovation/maintenance funds, Cox said he would work to develop good relationships with commissioners by giving them the best information available and as a system “do what you say” and be consistent, keeping a relationship going all the time, not just when asking for funding. He also championed working with higher education institutions with dual enrollment and articulation agreements.


Cox said that information gathered in standardized testing should be a “starting point” to look at ways to improve where improvement is needed.

“It needs to be used as a flashlight to illuminate the path forward, not ever as a hammer,” Cox said, adding that good or even mediocre school systems can become “a little bit better each day.”


Asked about concerns about comparative religion taught in seventh grade social studies and the choice of a new social studies textbook, he said: “Texts are not the curriculum. They are a resource for teachers to teach the curriculum.”

Although the system must adopt but not necessarily buy textbooks that meet Tennessee standards, he said the system must be sensitive to parental concerns while still teaching standards.

“Comparative religions can be a sensitive area,” said Cox, who said he is a Christian but does not proselytize as a school official. “It’s important we are not teaching religion” but teaching about religion. “You have to listen, but you have to follow the law.”



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