National education leaders call Shelby County home

When Betsy Landers and David Pickler met 25 years ago, neither expected to be president of significant national education associations.

Betsy Landers, president of the National PTA, and David Pickler, president of the National School Boards Association, talk recently in Pickler's Collierville office.

Betsy Landers, president of the National PTA, and David Pickler, president of the National School Boards Association, talk recently in Pickler's Collierville office.

They were involved in PTAs at schools where their children attended near their Germantown homes. Now, Landers, who finishes this month a three-year appointment as the national president of the PTA, and Pickler, who just started his tenure as president of the National School Boards Association, realize how important each association is to local education in Shelby County.

“The great thing about the PTA is the leadership between parents and school board members,” said Pickler, a lawyer and financial adviser who has been a Shelby County Schools board member for 15 years.

Landers, who started as a PTA president in Shelby County and then moved on to the state association before her current post, said that’s one of the great things about public education.

“It brings everyone together,” said Landers. “There always has been a strong history between the PTA and the school board.”

Close to home

Pickler said the Shelby County school board was the first in the country to mandate an active and empowered PTA. He spoke recently about a time when the school board and PTA worked together to get the Shelby County Commissioners to increase funding for teacher salaries.

The district had to hire more teachers to meet the minimum standards, but that required additional funds – and a tax raise – from the county. To get commissioners’ support, the PTA gathered permission slips from parents to let the commissioners know they not only were OK with the county spending money for teachers, but they wanted them to do so.

“The PTA leaders brought in bags and dropped them at the county commissioners’ meeting,” said Landers, who was one of those PTA leaders. She said the move was much like the famous scene from the movie “Miracle on 31st Street” where the U.S. Postal Service delivered letters to Santa Claus to a judge.

Both have managed to leave their mark on the education of others. Landers remembers a time when she helped lead an effort to buy a suit for a 13-year-old who had won an award, but didn’t have the money for nice attire to accept it. Pickler recalls helping World War II vets earn their high school diplomas years after their service to their country.

They are among the dozens of examples each can recall about how both groups work toward the effort of providing parents and students with the best possible experience in public education.

National advocacy

Landers, who spends much of her time being called upon for opinions across the U.S., said the group has chosen to focus on issues of childhood obesity, safe routes to schools and the school lunch program. As an advocacy agency, she said she’s in charge of a group that e-mails, tweets and makes thousands of phone calls to members of Congress each year in support of their cause.

Pickler said those calls affect 50 million American school children, of which 90 percent will receive their education through the public school system. While president of school board members, he hopes to focus on legislation, legal issues and public advocacy affecting the 15,000 school boards throughout the country.

Both Pickler and Landers talked about the need for a unified voice among all those involved in the education process, from the local level through the nation’s top political leaders. Pickler said it’s a matter of national security, as much as it is educating a child.

Recent events demonstrate that need for more unification and better security, Landers said. Following the massive shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., in December 2012, Landers went to help the Sandy Hook PTA reach out to parents, teachers and students.

The PTA came up with the “Snowflakes for Sandy Hook” program that led to millions of boxes of snowflakes – some from as far away as South Korea – being delivered to decorate the halls when surviving Sandy Hook students started at nearby Chalk Hill.

Landers also said the national group helped the Connecticut PTA set up funds to help the students who lived through the Sandy Hook tragedy.

“There was a 13-year-old child who asked her parents to send in $150 to help these kids instead of getting presents for Christmas,” she said.

Meanwhile, Pickler hopes to lead the NSBA to enhance the power of local school boards.

“We still believe in local school board governance,” said Pickler. “Over the past few years, the president and the secretary (of education) have tried to rule through executive orders.”

He said he hopes his organization will work to restrict the powers of the national Secretary of Education and create strong, vibrant and relevant local school boards. He also said he believes that while public education remains strong – and public schools still outperform charter schools – there’s more that can be done.

“We acknowledge there are areas where we need to improve,” said Pickler. “We do a good job, but we can always do better.”

Getting started

Landers moved to Germantown from Little Rock, Ark., in 1989 and she and her husband, Ben, quickly became involved in the PTA. Pickler, a Shelby County native, got involved about that time, too, motivated through the actions of his wife, Beth, who was also heavily involved in the PTA.

It was several years before either extended their horizons beyond the PTA at their local schools.

Pickler was elected to the Shelby County School Board in 1998. He became chairman and served in that capacity for 12 years. During that time, Pickler also was named the top Tennessee School Boards Association President (2009) and remains a member of the TSBA Executive Board. In 2008, Pickler was elected as Southern Region Director for the National School Boards Association and took on as the organization’s president in April of this year. He’s only the second from Tennessee to hold that position.

After Landers severed in several PTA advisory and governing positions at her kids’ schools, Landers took on greater rolls at the Shelby County Council PTA, and then for the Tennessee PTA Board of Managers before becoming its president. She became the National PTA secretary-treasurer in 2007 and then president-elect in 2009. Landers finally became a full-fledged president in June 2011. Of the 52 presidents in the national organization’s history, she is the third from Tennessee and the second from Shelby County.

The future

While Pickler is just beginning to help shape the vision of the NSBA, Landers is ending her two-year term and her multi-year involvement with the national PTA.

Pickler will stay with the Shelby County Schools after its board narrows from 23 to seven later in a couple of months. He’s one of those who was able to secure his seat in a recent election. That’s a necessity for his post with the NSBA, because unlike the PTA, presidents must be members of a local school board.

As communities also turn away from the newly unified school district and work on municipal schools, Pickler said he will support the right to self determination and will advocate for “great schools, for the children.”

Meanwhile, Landers plans to take off much of the month of July once her service is over, then focus on another passion of hers: parliamentary law.

But she said that she isn’t going to draw away from her desire to continue to help students not only in Shelby County, but also across the country. It’s what’s she’s done the past 25 years.

“I’ll never step away from education,” said Landers.