Assistants connect schools, community
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
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.