Faith and Finance for Making a Difference

by Jay P. Goldman

For most of his professional life, Tom Shelton crunched numbers or managed the work of others who did. He was a certified accountant, whizzing up the competitive corporate chain performing internal audits and financial analyses for firms that manufacture aluminum products and garden tools.

So Shelton certainly didn’t make the most likely candidate to be named in July 2004 to the superintendency in Daviess County, Ky., a well-oiled school system that had been led by one of the acknowledged gems in the field of school leadership, Stu Silberman, for the previous nine years.

Now entering his fourth year at the helm of the 11,500-student system, Shelton has only grown more comfortable and confident dealing in the affairs of teaching and learning that made Daviess County one of the state’s most accomplished districts on academic scales. He had the benefit of a front-row seat observing the leadership of Silberman during the five years he worked as the district’s assistant superintendent for finance and operational support.

“I know it’s a little illogical how I ended up here,” says Shelton, who worked in the private sector for a decade. “God had a plan and it worked its way out.”

A native of Princeton in the Bluegrass State, Shelton holds an abiding faith in the power of spirituality and prayer. He’s the deacon chair at Owensboro First Baptist Church, where he continues to teach religious studies to 16 teen-age boys, not the least challenging of audiences. “Every time I teach I get as much out of it as the students,” says Shelton, several of whose forebears served in the ministry. His father is director of missions with Ohio County Baptist Association in Kentucky.

Paul Strahan, the Owensboro church’s pastor whose two children attend Daviess County schools, sees Shelton’s poise in front of others. “When I’m with him, whether he’s talking about school issues or Baptist history, Tom is the kind of guy who speaks from experience and confidence and makes you want to listen to what he has to say. ... He’s got a sweet spirit but great influence.”

Shelton’s own thirst for knowledge seems unabated. (“He reads four books at once,” marvels Mary Tim Griffin, the school board president.) Without prompting from the board of education that hired him over more traditional candidates, he is pursuing a Ph.D. in educational leadership at University of Louisville.

As someone grounded in the practices of business and armed with an M.B.A., Shelton says he finds himself frequently asking his colleagues in the teaching and administrator ranks to justify practices and policies that just keep getting passed along, year after year. “The question ‘Why?’ in education isn’t asked,” he says. “In business it’s asked a lot.”

As such, he’s pacing the school system through a digital revolution, putting laptops in the hands of every teacher by June and every high school student within the next two years. He believes, as a tool, technology is the means to engage students who are so electronically connected through the rest of their lives in relevant instruction. Teachers in Daviess County are being trained to integrate the laptops into daily lessons.

Shelton also leads the district’s involvement in a Wallace Foundation partnership on transferring a vision into concrete ways the Daviess County schools can prepare students for jobs that don’t yet exist, technology that’s yet to be invented and problems still be to recognized.

Tom Buffett, a consultant working with the district on the partnership, says he’s impressed by the superintendent’s eagerness to be a learner in the process, what he describes as Shelton’s “willingness to publicly state that not everything is perfectly clear in his head.”

Says Shelton: “You find an area where you can contribute and help others to make a difference [so] adults aren’t caught up in adult issues but fulfilled by what they do with kids.”

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail:


Currently: superintendent, Daviess County Public Schools, Owensboro, Ky.

Previously: assistant superintendent for finance and operations, Daviess County

Age: 43

Greatest influence on career: My Christian faith. It sustains me during difficult times and helps me stay focused on my goals. After a strong heritage as a child, I made a conscious decision at age 19 to live a life of servant leadership based on integrity.

Best professional day: For a door prize at the opening day program, I offer to do the jobs of two staff members for a day during the upcoming year. Two winners last year were classroom teachers — a primary teacher and a special education teacher. These two days were especially memorable. I’ve reflected on those experiences many times to help me stay focused on why we do what we do.

Books at bedside:The Holy Bible;Change Leadership by Tony Wagner et al; Leadership on the Line by Ron Heifetz and Martin Linsky; and Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott

Biggest blooper: After a meeting at a district facility undergoing major renovations that stressed the importance of keeping students and others safely away from areas where construction was taking place, I promptly drove right over a construction sign in the parking lot — earning me the nickname of “Crash” for several months afterward!

Key reason I’m an AASA member: AASA provides tremendous resources for members. I’m particularly excited about the Professional Library, which recommends and shares books and publications addressing school leadership topics. I rely on networking with AASA contacts for their insights, experience and perspective.