Under his leadership as president of the National School Boards Association, David created the “Army of Advocates” – a movement that gained more than 50 million members in less than one year. He also initiated the “Stand Up 4 Public Schools” campaign and helped recruit celebrity spokespeople to carry the message that public education is more than a civil right – it is a vital national security interest. Inspiring the organization’s board through a three-day “bootcamp” in Gettysburg, David lead NSBA to new heights all in the name of the 54 million children of America’s public schools.
NATIONAL SCHOOL BOARDS ASSOCIATION
When first elected to the Shelby County Board of Education in 1998, David automatically became a member of both the Tennessee School Boards Association (TSBA) as well as the National School Boards Association (NSBA.) NSBA serves as an advocate for School Boardmanship, focusing on legal advocacy and board development.
In 1999, David was officially introduced to NSBA and their work by attending the annual conference in Orlando, Florida. He could not have possibly realized how his attendance at this conference would set him on a path of public-school advocacy on a national level for the next quarter century.
When David was elected to serve on TSBA’s board in 2004, he worked closely with NSBA on policies. Through this work, becoming more familiar and engaged with this national organization, David was encouraged to serve on NSBA’s board, representing the Southern Region. This particular region was large and covered 12 states, spanning from Texas to Florida, and from Louisiana to the Virginias.
In the fall of 2008, David was selected as one of three Southern Region Directors on the NSBA board.
David’s joining of the board came at an interesting time in NSBA’s history. Due to the financial crisis, between 2008 and 2009, the organization faced significant financial challenges. As a result, NSBA’s pension fund was under substantial distress. As a problem solver and advocate for the organization, David convinced NSBA’s leadership team to reform the pension plan. Without this reform, a bankruptcy would have been imminent. Convincing the board and entire staff, however, wasn’t easy. NSBA didn’t realize the magnitude of the situation, and that they were on a fast track to oblivion. Facing great opposition from every side, and being seen as a villain of sorts, David pushed through and performed diligent research on the matter. His dedication to the cause proved worthy, eventually finding 100% buy-in from the board. The pension plan was eventually frozen and the financial structure was greatly enhanced.
In 2010, David was elected to the role of Secretary/Treasurer, working alongside President Earl Rickman and Vice President Ed Massey. Shortly after overcoming the financial crisis, the board faced another looming issue: a membership emergency. State school boards across the country were displeased with the lack of communication from NSBA. Working with the board, David assisted with restructuring methods of engagement for state members, rebolstering confidence in the organization.
Creating an Army of Advocates
In April 2013, David was elected the 66th President of the National School Boards Association, leading 90,000 school board members serving the country. His focus as President centered on ensuring that every child, regardless of zip code, has access to high-quality public education. As 66th president of the National School Boards Association, David spearheaded several transformative initiatives to carry the message that public education is more than a civil right – it is a vital national security interest.
Throughout his tenure as a local school board chair, as state school board president, or as a national school board president, David became acutely aware that advocacy for public education would always be an uphill climb, as public education did not possess the same financial resources as the more well-funded advocates of private and charter schools, and the privatization of public schools. Furthermore, advocates for public education often were isolated from one another in their individual silos. Their focus was primarily on their own local or state needs and issues. Rarely, if ever, would you see all of the organizations in public education unite in advocacy.
As a state and national leader, he knew it would be pointless to actively engage in a tug of war with the privatization forces as there was no way we could compete dollar-wise in our lobbying efforts. So how could they compete?
Then it hit him … while the organization could not rely on the virtually limited resources of other stakeholders, they had within their grasp the potential of over 100 million advocates with a powerful, unified voice. There were more than 54-million children who received their education through public schools, and as many as 100-million parents of those children, and another six-million stakeholders in public education – educators, administrators, policymakers and advocates. Just as he had seen on the local level, if David and NSBA could tap into those natural constituencies, they had the power of the people behind them, the power of the voters!
During his NSBA presidency, David cultivated this natural army of advocates. They reached out to teachers’ groups, parents’ groups, even Chambers of Commerce nationwide to secure their support for public education. Under David’s leadership, NSBA created a manifesto and had each organization take a vote within their membership to agree to join the army of advocates – to join the cause. Their goal was to combine and leverage their voices whenever they approached lawmakers and legislators.
David recognized that hundreds-of-thousands businesses had a stake in public education as vendors and suppliers for the schools. When NSBA held its annual meeting in New Orleans in 2014, the Louisiana Chamber of Commerce joined “the cause” with its 25,000 members, and more than 3,000 teacher association members in the state also join their efforts. Ultimately, the national PTA joined them with its 40-million members. This immense collaboration of state and national organizations around a common cause had never been done before, and never again since.
They then mobilized all these stakeholders to make phone calls and to reach out to their elected officials to lobby for their causes. In so many cases, NSBA found that the most effective campaign for school support did not occur in the halls of the state capital, but actually gathered more support at the grocery store on a Saturday afternoon when people are out doing their shopping, at the 4th of July picnic or at the youth soccer, basketball or football games.
David and NSBA had begun building their “advocacy army” community by community, state by state, and in the end received some incredible recognition and support for their efforts. Within 12 months, they’d built partnerships from the ground up with more than 50 million supporters for public education. Montel Williams and Magic Johnson are just some of the celebrities who support the campaign.
Standing Up 4 Public Schools on the Red Carpet
In 2014, Under David’s leadership, NSBA partnered with Fox Searchlight and Penguin Books to bring “12 Years A Slave” educational materials to every high school in America – NSBA’s largest corporate partnership to date.
At that time, NSBA had started a campaign under the Army of Advocates banner called “Stand Up 4 Public Schools.” In this campaign, anyone who supported public education could purchase a red, rubber wristband from NSBA and proudly wear it, declaring their passion for the cause.
Because of NSBA’s partnership with Fox Searchlight and Penguin Books, David was invited to the 86th Academy Awards as a guest of Steve McQueen – the director of “12 Years A Slave” – who was nominated that evening.
While David was honored by this incredible invitation, he was also deeply convicted. He and his team had been working for nearly a year on an NSBA leadership conference in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania that same weekend. For David to be able to be in L.A. Sunday night, it would not only require a massive logistical restructuring, but it would also require significant planning for the leadership workshop to continue, as planned, in his absence. Despite these overwhelming challenges, all the stakeholders involved in the event encouraged David to make every effort possible to be in L.A. and represent NSBA at the Academy Awards. It was an exercise in contingency planning and logistics that would have made George Patton proud.
David’s last act, before leaving Gettysburg at 3:00am Sunday morning, was to grab a handful of bright red Stand Up 4 Public Schools wristbands.
After a crazy series of cab rides, multiple flights, little sleep and the coordination of their tuxedos being delivered to the hotel, David and his Communications Officer, Cameron Spann, found themselves in a limo heading to the Academy Awards. Shortly thereafter, while experiencing the almost out-of-body experience of walking the red carpet, David’s phone began to ring. It was Melanie from Fox Searchlight. “Steve wants to know where you are!” she exclaimed. David and Cam made their way over to a separate area of the red carpet dedicated for Academy Award nominees. Upon arrival, the British-born Steve McQueen proclaimed, “Man, can I give you a hug?!” After brief comments between the two of them, David offered him one of the red wristbands as a token of friendship and good luck charm for the ceremony.
The whole experience seemed like a dream. David continued to walk the red carpet and rubbed shoulders with Goldie Hawn, Amy Adams, Anna Kendrick, and other movie stars he’d previously only seen on the big screen. It was surreal.
Shortly after the ceremony began, David’s phone began blowing up with messages saying, “Steve is wearing the wristband!” – the red NSBA wristband he had gifted Steve earlier.
That evening, Steve was nominated for two awards: Best Director and Best Picture. As the ceremony progressed, David started asking himself, “how cool would it be if Steve won and was pictured with my wristband on?” It came time for the Best Director category, and Alfonso Cuarón’s name was called for his film Gravity. Then came time for the final award of the evening: Best Picture. In the blink of an eye, it happened … Steve won the hallowed award for his film 12 Years a Slave to thunderous applause. However, the ultimate payoff for David occurred when McQueen went on stage to accept the award. He, as well as Brad Pitt, approached the podium to accept the Oscar. Steve lifted the award into the air in a display of triumph. Lifting the award exposed the bright red “good luck token” on his wrist to millions of viewers worldwide. David’s phone lit up in a flurry of excited messages as pictures from the event began to post online. Social media and entertainment reporters started picking up on this small promotional opportunity for public education. Even the local newspaper ran a story about it above the fold with the title “Pickler Wristband Oscar Worthy.”
It was the perfect, star-studded ending to a perfect, pro-public education partnership.
A Board-Centered Bootcamp
Mere days before the exciting win at the Academy Awards, another powerful event was taking place 2,500 miles to the East…
In 2014, David invited his friend, Mike McGough, who he met at an NSBA conference a year prior, to host a leadership seminar for the 30-plus board members. Mike, a Pennsylvania native, was a Gettysburg historian who gave riveting speeches on leadership through the lens of the Battle of Gettysburg. Having experienced these invaluable speeches, David hopped on the phone with Mike to share his vision for NSBA. After a brief discussion, the two of them were excited to announce to the board about a leadership “bootcamp” that would take place on the historic battlefield.
David’s presentation of this idea to NSBA’s leadership was met with concerns about budgeting for an event of this nature. After quickly realizing that NSBA couldn’t afford this boot camp, David agreed to raise funds to front this important leadership seminar for his board. David got to work, partnering with education-focused corporations. With those funds raised, as well a personal donation from David, plans were set to host this event.
On February 28th, 2014, 30 NSBA board members from across the country descended upon the quaint town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. For three days, Mike and company traversed the battlefield, hearing stories of leadership displayed during the notorious battle. During the evenings of the bootcamp, at the historic Gettysburg Hotel, the board enjoyed a formal seminar from Mike. While this inspiring event was happening, the red carpets were, quite literally, being rolled out at the Academy Awards.
On the final day of the bootcamp, through a series of communications from the Executive Director and leadership team of NSBA, it was made clear to David that he needed to attend the event as a guest of Steve McQueen. Not eager to abandon his board at an event he had planned for months, he was strongly encouraged to head straight to Los Angeles for the show. The following morning, at 3:30 am, David and his Communications Director, Cameron Spann, hit the road for the airport and were Hollywood-bound.
Once the Academy Awards concluded, David felt a sense of accomplishment. Not for himself, but for his board, for NSBA, and for public education in America.