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Shelby County Schools

In 1998, David ran for and was elected to the Shelby County Board of Education, with the strong belief that every child deserves a quality education. For 12 years he served as Chairman, setting off a chain of incredible events. forever putting him in the national spotlight in the education space. David service on the school board instilled in him a never ceasing desire to ensure public education excellence across the nation.


David’s previous work with the PTA, Boy Scouts, Germantown Soccer Club, and Leadership Germantown served as the crux for his next evolution as a leader. David always believed that leadership is about character and should reflect your passionate beliefs. As one of David’s deep-rooted beliefs, public education excellence and advocacy was regularly on his mind and heart once his children began school. And because of this reoccurring drive to make a difference in the lives of children across his city, he took action. An action that would change the course of his life.

In 1998, David ran for and was elected to the Shelby County Board of Education, with the strong belief that every child deserves a quality education. He served on the Board for 16 years and was the School Board Chairman for 12 years, from 1999-2011. He was the 10th person to serve as Chairman in the board’s history, and was the final to serve before the merger and subsequent demerger.


During his time as board chairman of the Shelby County Board of Education, despite the fact the district remained one of the least-funded school districts in America per pupil, the Shelby County School District could boast of being one of the only districts in the United States in the top 100 in size and academic quality. Under David’s leadership, they undertook an incredible process to improve the quality of their teacher training and educational excellence that empowered them to become one of the only districts in the nation to receive system-wide accreditation.

David’s work as Chairman of the Shelby County Board of Education would lead to his powerful efforts with the Tennessee School Boards Association, the National School Boards Association, the American Public Education Foundation, and the Tennessee Business Roundtable.

Setting off a chain of events and forever putting him in the national spotlight in the education space, David’s action of running for the school board shows the power of the possible. But more importantly, it shows how following your instinct is a powerful instrument that can, and will, change the course of your life.

Below, you will find instances of leadership and taking a stand for what you believe in – no matter the consequences.


The Infamous Merger and Demerger

During David’s tenure as Chair, constantly lurking just beneath the surface, was the possibility that Memphis City Schools would vote to surrender their charter as a special education district—something they’d been threatening to do for decades.

Doing this would mean Shelby County Schools would have to absorb Memphis City schools. It would cause the Shelby County School District to no longer exist. Memphis City still had the population advantage in the county. City residents and their elected representatives would be able to outvote SCS and to install their leadership on the unified school board. The suburban communities would lose their voice, autonomy, accountability, and quite likely, academic excellence.

David had been bracing himself for this possibility for a while.

Over the years, as school board chairman, David worked with attorneys and local leaders, and gone to the state legislature on several occasions to get a special law passed that would allow them to retain their independent school board even if Memphis “surrendered” and tried to force them into a unified district.

For several years, David spent hundreds of hours in multiple meetings every week trying to preserve Shelby County’s autonomy and to forestall the potential calamity of a “hostile surrender.” He began to view the school board as his unpaid full-time job although he was still running his growing investment business!

Sooner than expected, the calamity arrived disguised in the form of the 2010 Midterm Election. On that November night in 2010 when Republican “Tea Party” candidates swept to power in D.C., a similar transformation took place in the Tennessee legislature. Democrats lost, Republicans won—signaling a seismic shift in state power.


The change created an opportunity for the Shelby County School Board because it meant that they might finally be able to get enough support among the newly elected Republican Legislature to get their independence codified in state law—something they’d tried for so long to do.

Instead, the power shift provoked the Memphis City School Board to finally do what they’d been threatening to do for a long time. On December 20, 2010, the Memphis City School Board held a lame duck meeting and voted 5-4 to surrender their charter. When Thomas Jefferson said, “You don’t get great change by narrow majorities,” he was right.

It was a hostile surrender leading to the largest school district merger in United States history.

This ill-conceived vote to surrender their charter created the long-awaited catalyst that would empower David and other legislators to pursue the creation of six municipal school districts. While the road to independence was rocky, it was successful. The six municipal districts would continue excellence, reflecting local community values.


Taking Inspiration from Miracle on 34th Street

During David’s tenure as board chairman, capital funding had to be secured from the local county commission. It was a marriage made far South of heaven. Any time Shelby County Schools (SCS) needed funding, they had to convince the commissioner of their needs and submit a significantly larger amount for Memphis City Schools (MCS), whether or not there had been a demonstrated need by MCS. This funding dilemma would reoccur on an annual basis as SCS was constantly working to build new schools to handle the growth of Shelby County.

In one particularly challenging funding battle during his tenure as Chairman, David and the board recruited more than 50,000 children and 100,000 parents in their district to help create and send out “property tax increase” permission slips to every home in the district. Their efforts couldn’t have been more successful.

Remember the movie Miracle on 34th Street? There’s a scene at the end where they brought bags of mail addressed to Santa Claus to the courthouse and dumped them on the judge’s dais to prove Santa’s existence.

Similarly, David’s board collected more than 100,000 individually signed permission slips from voting parents and other stakeholders. Then their parent advocates delivered bags filled with the slips to the county commissioner’s meeting. Seeing more than 100,000 voters giving them permission to increase their taxes, as long as funds went to improving public education, no doubt gave the commissioners some extra courage. They got the votes. They freed the funds to more adequately provide for students in the district.

Delivering a targeted message to the right people at the right time was the most effective strategy for getting things done. On two other occasions, they secured funding for their $60-million high school. In both of those situations, David was told it couldn’t be done. However, both times the board accomplished their goal by enlisting advocates and swinging the votes their way.


Placing God and Patriotism in the Classroom

In 1999, while just beginning his service on the Shelby Country School Board, David learned what it takes to push through inertia and stand up for what you believe in the face of indifference or outright hostility.

At that time, David felt honored to become acquainted with a fellow board member, Ron Lollar. Ron and David immediately bonded over a common passion – patriotism and love of country. As a retired Marine, Ron had worked as an underwater demolitions expert. He later took an assignment at the Pentagon for five years, and ultimately served as an Honor Guard at the White House before retiring. With their shared passion for patriotism and traditional American values, Ron and David fought for some very important issues during their tenure on the Board, many involving how to properly honor the country they both loved so passionately.

For instance, during their first year, they identified several trends that seemed to be moving in the wrong direction. As the district had scrambled to accommodate student growth and create enough classroom space, they had overlooked a simple but significant daily exercise in their schools: the Pledge of Allegiance. Students no longer recited the Pledge. Even more shocking, David discovered there were few American flags in the classrooms or in communal areas.

To fix this omission, David and Ron set out to place American flags in each classroom in all 50 schools in their district, as well as on the school grounds—and to reinstate the reciting of the Pledge. With an average of 40 classrooms in each school, plus the common areas, that meant buying a lot of flags—more than 2,000 to be exact. To make it happen, David reached out to Memphis’ own Fred Smith, founder and CEO of FedEx, who generously agreed to buy the flags, brackets, and flagpoles. Then, by a unanimous vote, the board passed a policy that they would begin every day with the pledge. In accordance with that policy, they placed plaques in each classroom inscribed with the Pledge of Allegiance and our country’s motto, “In God We Trust.” Not only had they re-introduced patriotism back into the schools, but they’d brought back God as well.


A Veteran’s Day Victory

While David loved seeing his patriotic vision become reality, he wasn’t finished fighting for traditional American values. The next battle arrived when the superintendent proposed the district’s calendar for the following year and recommended dropping Veteran’s Day as an official school holiday. He argued that by sending kids to school that day, fall break could be extended an additional day.

A serious discussion ensued as he attempted to convince the seven-member board to approve this calendar modification. Ron and David passionately objected. They were deeply offended. After all, Veteran’s Day honors everyone who has ever served our country in uniform. Our country owes its existence and continued freedoms to our Vets.

Ron and David decided to fight to preserve the significance of this important day. They knew their fight wouldn’t make them popular with some members of the board or the superintendent. However, this was not about being popular. It was about doing what they felt was right.

In the end, their passion won — the board eventually voted unanimously in favor of retaining Veteran’s Day as a school holiday. At the same time, knowing that the number of World War II veterans was diminishing each day, they launched an initiative encouraging teachers to assign students to collect oral histories from vets as a Veteran’s Day project. Not only did the students learn about the sacrifice these men and women made to ensure their freedom, but also, they helped preserve these stories for future generations.

The media picked up on David’s Veteran’s Day victory. Moreover, David knew members of the community shared his passion for this important day when he and Ron started getting calls thanking them for standing up for this important group of heroes.


Honoring our Veterans

As a poignant addendum to this Veteran’s Day story, David and Ron took an opportunity to give back to Vets in a way they did not expect. When the local schools began collecting oral stories from area vets, David learned many of them had never graduated from high school. Instead, when Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, many of them chose to leave school and to serve our country in WWII. When they returned home from the war, the door to a high school education had closed for many of them as they married and took on jobs to support their families. David and Ron felt it was important to find these individuals and to rectify the situation.

The board worked tirelessly with the State Legislature to pass a bill allowing schools to thank vets by presenting them with official high school diplomas at a special graduation ceremony, solely for the purpose of honoring them. Unfortunately, because so many years had passed, finding the individuals to award these belated diplomas to proved to be extremely difficult. Each diploma had to be granted by the school they had attended; however, many of those schools had changed names and some had even changed locations making it very challenging, to say the least. Through an incredible process of researching school histories and reaching out to the community, they eventually found 28 veterans who had never graduated, but instead fought in WWII.

In an inspiring, locally televised Veteran’s Day ceremony at the Memphis Rock and Soul Museum, the Navy band played, the Commanding Captain of the Naval Support Activity Mid-South (NSA Mid-South) spoke, and nationally acclaimed singer and songwriter, Reverend Al Green, sang the national anthem. After some of the veteran’s inspiring stories were shared, David felt privileged, as chairman of the school board, to personally hand each of these heroes their diploma.

It truly connected everyone in attendance to the sacrifices made so long ago as these American patriots proudly walked across the stage to accept a diploma—awarded with the name of their original high school. Participating in this process marked one of the pinnacles of David’s life. Those men, who may previously have felt inadequate because they hadn’t graduated, now held a real diploma that would fill that void in their souls.

Energized by this experience, David and the board continued to award diplomas to the vets they discovered for the next few years. Then, when it what found out that there were 10 to 15 WWI veterans still alive in the area, David worked with the state legislature to pass a bill to award them with diplomas as well. The board felt ecstatic when other school districts in the state followed their lead, choosing to honor their veterans in the same way.

Shelby County Schools
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