BRISTOL, Tenn. — At its Monday night board meeting, the Bristol Tennessee Board of Education unanimously voted to begin the process of offering Tom Sisk, current superintendent of Limestone County Schools in Alabama, the position of new director of schools.
The board spent more than an hour publicly interviewing Sisk on topics including leadership styles, his experience with career and technical education, his thoughts on the place of technology in the schools and safety measures he implemented at Limestone County Schools, among other education administration-related topics.
The interview with Sisk was the only one the board held publicly with any candidate during the two-month search process that began in May, when Gary Lilly, the director of schools for the city since 2009, accepted a job as director of schools at Collierville Schools in a suburb of Memphis, Tennessee.
Board Vice Chair Jim Butcher said the board interviewed a total of seven candidates, including Sisk, in separate one-on-one sessions between individual candidates and individual school board members before whittling the list down to just Sisk.
Sisk’s credentials prior to 2012 include positions at other school systems, such as supervisor of human resources, assistant principal, special education teacher and various coaching positions, among others. He also has national superintendent certification from the American Association of School Administrators and has received awards for his work as an administrator.
During the course of the Monday night interview, Sisk answered questions in great detail and with little or no hesitation.
When asked about career and technical education (CTE), Sisk touted efforts he made to attract industry to Limestone County, like Toyota Motor Corp. and Mazda Motor Corp., as well as setting up partnerships with industry that helped fund CTE programs in schools that led to students being employed directly right out of high school in jobs where they were making $40,000 to $50,000 a year.
On school security, he highlighted safety initiatives he oversaw, like the placement of school resource officers and advanced technological security systems, but he said the most important thing is training school staff to know how to handle a situation where they need to protect students. He said the programs he directed included training teachers on how to use police batons and pepper spray.
He also said he believes in administrators having an active role in schools, and he tried to make more than 800 visits a year to classrooms in Limestone County. However, he said it’s not for the purpose to observe and evaluate teachers, which he believes is the principal’s job, but because he’s an educator first and wants to interact with students and teachers. He also said he believes strongly in delegating.
As for his other accomplishments, he said when he started as superintendent of Limestone County Schools, five of their six high schools were failing, but now none are failing, and one is ranked in the top six in the state. He has experience getting creative with funding by hiring a professional grant writer and looking for power-saving measures that allowed the Limestone County school system to do $65 million worth of renovations in schools in the last six years, all while staying on budget.
When asked about a letter of reprimand issued against him by the Limestone County Board of Education in 2018, he responded and shared the details. He said the circumstances involved his daughter, who sought employment as a teacher at Limestone County Schools. Sisk said he encouraged his daughter to look for a job elsewhere and distanced himself from the candidate referral process by delegating responsibility to the executive director of human resources. Ultimately, Sisk said, the human resources director missed some vital steps in the process, which resulted in the board withdrawing the job offer for Sisk’s daughter. He said he publicly acknowledged the errors made, and though he can delegate work, he can’t delegate the accountability, so he accepted responsibility for the mistakes and the reprimand letter.
“I follow the rules that I expect every other principal in my system to follow,” Sisk said.
Butcher said, when looking for a candidate, they had many priorities beyond experience, but Sisk would likely be the most experienced and credentialed director of schools Bristol Tennessee City Schools has ever had.
“There were times we were wondering, ‘Is this too good to be true?’ But it is true,” Butcher said.
Following the interview and the vote to move forward with contract negotiations, other board members also expressed how impressed they were by Sisk.
Board member Derek Linkous thanked Sisk for being open and said he looks forward to working with him. Eric Cuddy, another board member, said Bristol Tennessee City Schools has the best teachers and students and asked Sisk to take good care of them.
Board member Jill Harrison will work with outside counsel to negotiate the employment contract with Sisk. Butcher said it has not yet been determined when Sisk will start, but he said Sisk has already made arrangements so he can begin as soon as possible.
Annette Tudor, the school division’s supervisor of secondary curriculum and instruction, has served as the interim director since she was appointed to the position by the board at its June general business meeting. At the same June meeting, the board also enlisted the services of Wayne Qualls, the consultant who scouted Lilly for the Collierville Schools spot, to find them their next director of schools.
Sisk’s resume is currently available for inspection upon request by members of the public at the BTCS administrative building at 615 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., Bristol, TN 37620 during regular operating hours.