Tom Shelton takes over as superintendent of Fayette County Public Schools on Thursday, replacing, coincidentally, the same man Shelton succeeded in his last job.
Shelton, 47, follows Stu Silberman, who recruited Shelton to work for the Daviess County Schools and mentored him in the mid-1990s when Silberman was running that district.
Shelton learned the ropes so quickly that when Silberman came to Lexington in 2004 to become superintendent, Daviess County named Shelton as Silberman's successor.
Shelton, the 2011 Kentucky School Superintendent of the Year, is taking a big step as he arrives in Lexington. He's assuming responsibility for 56 schools and more than 37,000 students — more than triple Daviess County's enrollment — in an urban community where educational expectations are high and getting higher, and any decision a superintendent makes is likely to be scrutinized closely and analyzed, and possibly criticized.
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He also has a strong act to follow.
Silberman — who on Thursday becomes executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a non-profit education advocacy group — was the Fayette schools' most visible and charismatic leader in memory. "Stu" was the first Lexington superintendent known communitywide by first name alone, and whether you liked him or not, he put his personal stamp on public education here.
People who know and have worked with Shelton say he won't be that kind of leader. But they say he'll bring a unique set of skills to Lexington.
Shelton is a certified public accountant and purported math wizard whose first job in education was directing the Daviess schools' finances. He became an expert. But Shelton also has a Ph.D. in education and has been invited to speak internationally on his research.
Former co-workers say he's more than up to the job of running Lexington's schools.
They predict Shelton will build on strengths Fayette County has, attack any areas of weakness he finds, introduce ideas of his own and ultimately take the district to new heights.
The Fayette County Board of Education, which selected Shelton from among three superintendent finalists in early June, expects nothing less. Board members stressed throughout the hiring process during the spring that they wanted a superintendent who would push student achievement, and Lexington residents said the same thing in forums held during the superintendent search.
Daviess County posted high scores on the Kentucky Core Content Test during Shelton's tenure. As recently as 2007, for example, the percentage of Daviess County elementary students scoring at or above proficiency in reading, math, science, social studies and writing was well ahead of Fayette County's. However, Fayette caught or passed Daviess in elementary subject areas last year.
Daviess also got high marks in the recent Kentucky TELL survey of teachers' attitudes about their schools. The percentage of Daviess' teachers pleased with class size, their recognition as instructional experts, the availability of time for collaboration, and the trust and encouragement they received to participate in school leadership topped state averages.
If Shelton's job history in Daviess County and the insights of former colleagues are any indication, you can expect he will immerse himself in every aspect of Fayette's operations.
Don't be surprised if he even steps in to teach a class for a day or two.
You also can expect that Shelton, a self-described "technology geek," will push to strengthen instruction by pumping more and more technology into Fayette County classrooms.
Finally, those who know Shelton say you can expect him to be a consensus builder, a planner and an organizer who will encourage, recruit, persuade and, if necessary, push others to come on board to help creative ideas become reality.
"Tom will keep many of the practices Stu put in place, but he won't be afraid to put in his own," says Darrell Higginbotham, president of Independence Bank in Owensboro. "He's always looking to build partnerships in the community. He approaches issues and opportunities by seeking input, and if you don't provide it, he will seek you out and ask for your input.
"I've known people who were really outgoing, but they weren't strong on the financial and administrative side. Tom has a good grip on both."
Mary Tim Griffin chaired the Daviess County Board of Education when it named Shelton as superintendent seven years ago.
"Tom is not the kind of person who wants you to see how smart he is. He doesn't have to have that kind of acknowledgment for the things he's done," Griffin said. "When Stu was here, it seemed like he was just everywhere. Tom is very visible, but he isn't like that. He's quieter in the way he leads. He will be out there, but he really believes in working with the staff, and he'll bring them along if they need that."
Two strains run through Shelton's life: a belief in education and strong religious faith.
His mother is a former teacher; both of his grandmothers were teachers, and his paternal grandfather was a principal. Two of Shelton's aunts were teachers; one was a principal and school board member. His father, Thomas L. Shelton, is a Baptist minister and the 11th preacher in the family since 1740.
Fayette's new superintendent earned a bachelor's degree in accounting at Murray State University, became a CPA and went to work in private industry in Owensboro. He might still be there if Silberman hadn't recruited him as the Daviess schools' finance director in 1995.
The two immediately became close. Shelton, an avid bicyclist, introduced Silberman to the hobby.
"We clicked," Silberman recalled. "Tom was phenomenal as finance director, but I kind of pushed him to learn the other parts of the operation. Some people are natural leaders, and Tom is one of them. I thought he could become a superintendent at some point."
Julie Clark, director of secondary education for Daviess County Schools, said Shelton liked working for the school system.
"I think that once he got into it, he thought it was something of a calling," Clark said. "He really liked the idea that he was making contributions to the kids, to their parents and the community. But I don't think Tom anticipated where that path might take him."
During the next few years, Shelton expanded his expertise from finance to overall school district operations in Daviess County, laboring long hours to master everything from instruction to transportation. He earned a master's degree in business administration and then a Ph.D. at the University of Louisville. By the time Silberman left for Lexington, Shelton was "an obvious choice" to take over, Griffin said.
"He was always there. He was in on everything. He was a voracious reader. He soaked up everything," she said. "He would sit in meetings and ask lots of questions. He observed everything and he learned a lot that way.
"I think he just realized that he had a passion for education inside him, even though he'd never been in education before. He took his finance skills and built on them. It's a fairly unusual way to become a superintendent because they typically start as teachers and come up through the ranks. But it worked for Tom."
Matthew Constant, who was instructional technology director for the Daviess schools when Shelton was superintendent, said Shelton emphasized technology from his first day.
"He was always thinking about how technology might benefit students and he became even more passionate about that after he finished his Ph.D.," Constant said. "Tom was always pushing me and my staff to look beyond the here and now in technology and try to anticipate what was coming next. He wanted us to be to looking into that crystal ball all the time."
Constant said one of Shelton's first achievements was creating a social networking site for Daviess students. One of his last efforts was a plan to provide laptops and tablet computers for every Daviess County teacher. That's on its way to being a reality, Constant said.
Though Shelton has never been a classroom teacher, he liked to teach a business or math class occasionally, both to give a teacher a day off and to maintain personal contact with the instructional process, Constant said.
That's typical of Shelton's approach, says Lora Wimsatt, communications director for Daviess County Schools, who predicts Shelton's breadth of knowledge will bring dividends to Lexington.
"You can put Tom up against any school finance guy in the state, and he's around the top of the list," Wimsatt said. "He also understands the role of public education; he understands instruction. He has a depth that I think is really going to benefit the students of Fayette County now and beyond."