As­sis­tants con­nect schools, com­mu­nity

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NORTHWEST ARKANSAS - BRENDA BERNET

The ad­min­is­tra­tive as­sis­tant is one of the first voices parents hear when they call with ques­tions for school su­per­in­ten­dents.

Paula Neal has been that voice for 17 years in the Fayet­teville School Dis­trict. Neal has been a con­stant in the dis­trict’s top ad­min­is­tra­tive of­fice even as the per­son sit­ting be­hind the su­per­in­ten­dent’s desk has changed four times in her ca­reer there. Neal re­tired Fri­day. The ad­min­is­tra­tive as­sis­tant to the su­per­in­ten­dent sup­ports the head ad­min­is­tra­tor and School Board mem­bers, Neal said. She and her coun­ter­parts in the Ben­tonville, Rogers and Spring­dale school districts con­nect the com­mu­nity, school board and su­per­in­ten­dent.

“Parents will need help with certain things,” Neal said. “A lot of things need to be han­dled at the school level. We try as much as we can to get the parents the help they need at the schools.”

Most is­sues are re­solved when Neal con­tacts the school sec­re­tary and links the school sec­re­tary with the par­ent, she said.

A key part of the job is learn­ing how best to sup­port the su­per­in­ten­dent, Neal said. Some su­per­in­ten­dents have wanted her to take care of their email, alert­ing them to mes­sages that need their at­ten­tion and writ­ing some of their cor­re­spon­dence. Oth­ers have pre­ferred to han­dle their email and cor­re­spon­dence them­selves.

Neal was hired un­der Su­per­in­ten­dent Bobby New and re­mained in the of­fice un­der Su­per­in­ten­dents Vicki Thomas, Paul He­witt and now

Matthew Wendt, who joined the dis­trict a year ago.

“Dr. Wendt and I met ev­ery Mon­day morn­ing,” Neal said.

Neal would dis­cuss most mat­ters with Wendt at that time to avoid in­ter­rupt­ing him dur­ing the day, she said.

“Time is prob­a­bly their big­gest as­set,” Neal said. “You just have to learn how to help them make the best use of their time. Ev­ery­body wants to see him, talk to him, visit him.”

A POINT OF CON­NEC­TION

The ad­min­is­tra­tive as­sis­tant for a su­per­in­ten­dent pro­duces the agenda for the monthly School Board meet­ing and writes the min­utes for those meet­ings. The doc­u­ments are posted on­line for pub­lic ac­cess.

“You think of the min­utes of the board meet­ing,” Fayet­teville School Board mem­ber Tim Hud­son said. “That doc­u­ment that is main­tained on­line is sup­posed to cap­ture what did that elected body do June 22, 2017?”

That was Neal’s last School Board meet­ing as the su­per­in­ten­dent’s as­sis­tant.

Hud­son will go back to the min­utes of pre­vi­ous School Board meet­ings to re­fresh his mem­ory on board ac­tions and the in­for­ma­tion shared.

“You’ve got to get it right. You’ve got to get the votes right. It’s one of those things we take for granted. She takes that role very se­ri­ously,” he said.

Neal has re­minded School Board mem­bers of rou­tine an­nual ac­tiv­i­ties and dead­lines, in­clud­ing dead­lines for in­for­ma­tion due to the county clerk dur­ing an elec­tion, Hud­son said. Neal also is the one who plans around the sched­ules of seven board mem­bers.

When Hud­son couldn’t find an email or couldn’t re­mem­ber a date, Neal was a go-to per­son, he said.

“We try not to abuse that point of her po­si­tion and her aware­ness of so many things,” Hud­son said. “She knows where things are. She knows what the dead­lines are. She’s so pa­tient and willing to en­ter­tain the ques­tion or do what she can to be of help to us.”

In Rogers, Wilma Barnes works closely with School Board poli­cies and pro­duces the monthly meet­ing agenda, Su­per­in­ten­dent Mar­lin Berry said. She also as­sists board mem­bers with in­for­ma­tion they need for meet­ings.

Berry de­scribed her as pro­fes­sional, ex­pe­ri­enced and a “wealth of in­for­ma­tion.” She’s ded­i­cated to the dis­trict, the students and the teach­ers.

“Be­ing a su­per­in­ten­dent new in Arkansas, that was very com­fort­ing to know the clerk was go­ing to be re­turn­ing,” Berry said. “That re­ally helps the tran­si­tion.”

Barnes, who has worked for the dis­trict for 14 years, said the su­per­in­ten­dent could have made a smooth tran­si­tion into the dis­trict with­out her help. Berry was hired to suc­ceed Janie Darr when she re­tired in 2016.

LIFE OF A SCHOOL DIS­TRICT

Vicki Lunsford, the Ben­tonville su­per­in­ten­dent as­sis­tant, knows the an­swers when ques­tions arise about the his­tory of cam­puses. Her pre­de­ces­sor Rose­mary Green kept a his­tory of the dis­trict in a 1-inch bin­der.

Lunsford has worked for the School Dis­trict for 14 years, spend­ing the past six years as the su­per­in­ten­dent’s ad­min­is­tra­tive as­sis­tant.

The bin­der has dates of when build­ings opened, who the School Board mem­bers were and why the names were cho­sen. One ques­tion that comes up is why Thomas Jefferson El­e­men­tary and Su­gar Creek El­e­men­tary are next to each other, Lunsford said. Thomas Jefferson started as a kinder­garten cen­ter. The dis­trict’s growth led to Su­gar Creek El­e­men­tary be­ing built.

Now they are both el­e­men­tary schools.

“I work on hav­ing a record and get­ting a his­tory of the dis­trict down,” Lunsford said. “I want to make sure ev­ery­one knows how awe­some we are and where we came from.”

In Spring­dale, Cyn­thia New­man, the as­sis­tant to Su­per­in­ten­dent Jim Rollins for 33 years, pro­duces a 12-month printed cal­en­dar for the dis­trict and a quar­terly news­let­ter of the dis­trict for parents.

“She has an enor­mous abil­ity to write well,” Rollins said. “She clearly is a gram­mar­ian. She helps me im­mensely to or­ga­nize cor­re­spon­dence and com­mu­ni­cate with all the par­ties of the dis­trict, es­pe­cially the School Board.”

New­man proofs and con­trib­utes when she’s com­fort­able to nearly ev­ery piece of his writ­ing, he said. She is con­cerned that ev­ery piece of cor­re­spon­dence leav­ing his of­fice is done at a pro­fes­sional level, is tech­ni­cally cor­rect and con­veys the mes­sage in­tended, Rollins said.

He has fun chal­leng­ing New­man with the cor­rect pro­nun­ci­a­tion of words, with New­man win­ning most chal­lenges, he said. They have de­bated whether “in­cen­tivize” is a word, Rollins ar­gu­ing it is. He thinks the word “forte” should have an “ay” sound at the end, but New­man pro­nounces it with a silent “e.

“Per­haps she won that one, too,” Rollins said.

In Fayet­teville, each school year be­gins with a back-toschool meet­ing for staff. The con­vo­ca­tion meant a lot to the staff last Au­gust be­cause the clas­si­fied staff — in­clud­ing all of the sec­re­taries and clerks — were in­vited to at­tend with the teach­ers and ad­min­is­tra­tors, Neal said.

There’s also the Hall of Honor lun­cheon and home­com­ing and the pa­rade, she said. Neal is in­volved in get­ting the lunch ready. She as­sists the Stu­dent Coun­cil in or­der­ing the cars.

“You get in the spirit when you help plan things,” she said. “It’s fun.”

The most sig­nif­i­cant time for Neal in­volved the con­struc­tion and ren­o­va­tion of Fayet­teville High School. Her role is to sup­port the su­per­in­ten­dent, get in­for­ma­tion and help as needed, Neal said.

Dur­ing the con­struc­tion, that meant in­ter­act­ing with ar­chi­tects, the con­struc­tion com­pany and David Tate, the dis­trict’s di­rec­tor of phys­i­cal plant ser­vices, she said. There were con­tracts and change or­ders to keep track of.

“It was re­ally, re­ally ex­cit­ing when it was fi­nally fin­ished,” Neal said. “I had the fun part. I didn’t have to make any de­ci­sions, but I got to see it un­fold.”

“Be­ing a su­per­in­ten­dent new in Arkansas, that was very com­fort­ing to know the clerk was go­ing to be re­turn­ing. That re­ally helps the tran­si­tion.”

— Mar­lin Berry, Rogers su­per­in­ten­dent

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/ANDY SHUPE

Paula Neal, ad­min­is­tra­tive as­sis­tant to the su­per­in­ten­dent, records notes June 22 dur­ing her fi­nal school board meet­ing be­fore her re­tire­ment. Neal served as as­sis­tant to four su­per­in­ten­dents and served the dis­trict for 17 years.

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