School chiefs re­flect on busy first years

Jones:‘It was fast and fu­ri­ous’

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NORTHWEST ARKANSAS - DAVE PEROZEK

Deb­bie Jones laughed when asked about her first year as the Ben­tonville School District’s su­per­in­ten­dent.

“Oh, man,” she said. “It took me about five years to complete my dis­ser­ta­tion.

I prob­a­bly learned in one year what took me five in my doc­tor­ate study. It was fast and fu­ri­ous.”

It was a year ago last week the Ben­tonville School Board named Jones the district’s su­per­in­ten­dent. She joined two oth­ers — Mar­lin Berry in Rogers and Matthew Wendt in Fayet­teville — who were just start­ing as school su­per­in­ten­dents in North­west Arkansas. The three dis­tricts they over­see serve more than 40,000 stu­dents com­bined.

The 201617 school year was Jones’ first year as head of any district. Berry pre­vi­ously was chief of schools in Olathe, Kan., for six years. Wendt had 10 years of ex­pe­ri­ence as a su­per­in­ten­dent in Iowa and Illi­nois.

The three su­per­in­ten­dents all said their first year here passed quickly. They noted suc­cesses, ar­eas re­quir­ing im­prove­ment and chal­lenges that lie ahead. Two of them achieved mill­age in­creases. An­other one con­tended with a tragedy that rocked the com­mu­nity.


Wendt said he en­joyed ev­ery day of his first year in Fayet­teville — ex­cept for one, which he called the worst of his 28-year ca­reer in ed­u­ca­tion.

Wendt was hav­ing a lunch meet­ing March 7 with an el­e­men­tary school prin­ci­pal at the Vil­lage Inn restau­rant on North Col­lege Av­enue when he got the call.

“I heard the words, ‘Van­der­griff,’ ‘stu­dent,’ ‘pool,’ ‘drown­ing,’”

Wendt said.

He jumped in his car and drove to Van­der­griff El­e­men­tary School, about 10 min­utes away. He called back the per­son who had just called him, seek­ing clar­i­fi­ca­tion.

“All I could think was, we don’t have a swim­ming pool at Van­der­griff El­e­men­tary,” he said. “It wasn’t mak­ing sense to me.”

Adron Ben­ton, 7, was at re­cess on Van­der­griff’s play­ground with 16 class­mates and five class­room aides when he went miss­ing. He was pulled from the swim­ming pool of a home ad­ja­cent to the school.

Wendt said he spent more than six hours along with other School District em­ploy­ees at the hospi­tal. Adron died the next morn­ing.

The district “lost some in­no­cence” that day, he said.

Fayet­teville in­stalled fenc­ing where needed at its el­e­men­tary schools. There was no fence around the play­ground at Van­der­griff.

Aside from that tragedy, Wendt called his first year re­ally good.

He lis­tened to thou­sands of peo­ple in more than 300 meet­ings with in­di­vid­u­als, small groups and large groups, he said.

“Peo­ple de­serve the op­por­tu­nity to pro­vide in­put and feed­back, and I have learned over time that the more peo­ple en­gage in the process, the bet­ter the de­ci­sion,” he said.

He learned, for ex­am­ple, about the district’s ag­ing bus fleet. They im­ple­mented a plan to re­place the buses. The board in April ap­proved spend­ing $1 mil­lion on 10 new buses that will be de­liv­ered next month.

Staff mem­bers called his at­ten­tion to the lack of air con­di­tion­ing in the gym­na­si­ums at Wood­land and Ra­may ju­nior high schools. Air con­di­tion­ing is be­ing in­stalled in both gyms this sum­mer.

Fac­ulty also iden­ti­fied a need for im­proved cur­ricu­lum across the district. Ad­min­is­tra­tors de­vel­oped, and the board ap­proved, a mul­ti­year plan to re­view and up­date all of the cur­ricu­lum for both core and non-core classes, Wendt said.

Like his coun­ter­parts in Ben­tonville and Rogers, Wendt made changes to his ad­min­is­tra­tive team he said will bet­ter re­spond to stu­dents’ and teach­ers’ needs.

Wendt wants to re­main Fayet­teville’s su­per­in­ten­dent as long as the com­mu­nity and board want him there.

“I have no plans on hav­ing an­other first year,” he said.


Berry’s first big chal­lenge in Rogers pre­sented it­self quickly when en­roll­ment last fall turned out to be much higher than orig­i­nally pro­jected, about 2 per­cent higher than a year ear­lier.

In May, the district earned vot­ers’ ap­proval of a 3.5-mill tax in­crease to build two more el­e­men­tary schools and make im­prove­ments at ex­ist­ing schools. It was the district’s first mill­age in­crease since 2003.

The first of those new el­e­men­tary schools is planned to open in Au­gust 2019 on the south­ern por­tion of 80 acres the district owns at West Gar­rett and South Bel­lview roads. It hasn’t been de­ter­mined where or when the sec­ond school will be built.

Berry said he’s sen­si­tive to the needs of the district’s older schools from a fa­cil­ity per­spec­tive.

“There are some of our older schools peo­ple say, ‘Gosh, they need a fresher look.’ We’ve got to do some­thing to make them look more like our newer schools,” he said.

The district will open a $3.5 mil­lion fa­cil­ity for the Cross­roads al­ter­na­tive ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram on North Sec­ond Street this fall. Cross­roads will move from the An­nex build­ing, where it shared space with New Tech­nol­ogy High School. Ren­o­va­tion of the An­nex build­ing is un­der way to al­low New Tech to use all of the space.

The district also this past spring bought the prop­erty that be­longed to the Cal­vary Chapel in the Ozarks for al­most $1.48 mil­lion. The build­ing, lo­cated next to Rogers High School, likely will be used for pro­fes­sional de­vel­op­ment meet­ings and of­fice space.

Rogers launched Ex­cel mag­a­zine, which is de­liv­ered to 43,000 homes and touts good things hap­pen­ing in the schools. Berry also hopes to see the district’s web­site up­dated more of­ten.

The past school year also fea­tured the start of the Rogers Hon­ors Academy, a pro­gram that pro­vides guid­ance to the high­est-achiev­ing high school stu­dents on col­lege op­tions and helps them get into the col­lege or univer­sity that fits them best.

Berry said he’s most en­joyed the peo­ple he’s met.

“It starts with a re­ally good board of ed­u­ca­tion, and then I have a good ad­min­is­tra­tive team, good prin­ci­pals, and some re­ally strong teach­ers,” he said. “It’s just a nice area, it’s a good place to live and work. I’m very pleased to be here.”


Most school district su­per­in­ten­dents, both in Arkansas and na­tion­ally, are men. Only five of the 25 largest dis­tricts in Arkansas are led by a woman su­per­in­ten­dent.

Jones doesn’t dwell on gen­der.

“I think males and fe­males many times do things dif­fer­ently,” she said. “But I think that the skills re­quired for this job can be held by a male or fe­male. I think it’s more about find­ing the right per­son for the right com­mu­nity.”

Jones said she be­lieves Ben­tonville — the state’s third-largest district, be­hind Lit­tle Rock and Spring­dale — fits her well. She added the district’s di­ver­sity can make her job com­plex.

“This is a com­mu­nity that holds some very strong tra­di­tional val­ues,” Jones said. “At the same time you have many peo­ple that move in, and they have dif­fer­ent in­ter­na­tional be­liefs. And some­times that’s a chal­lenge where the two clash.”

Jones was hired by Ben­tonville in Jan­uary 2016 to be deputy su­per­in­ten­dent un­der then-Su­per­in­ten­dent Michael Poore.

Poore an­nounced a few months later he was leaving to take the su­per­in­ten­dent’s job in Lit­tle Rock. The Ben­tonville School Board ini­ti­ated a na­tion­wide search for his re­place­ment. Jones never ap­plied, but the board ended up of­fer­ing her the job.

She’s proud of the work she and other ad­min­is­tra­tors did last fall de­vel­op­ing a 10-year fa­cil­ity plan, which calls for con­struc­tion of six build­ings to meet growth. Vot­ers ap­proved a 1.9-mill tax in­crease in May to pay for four of those schools, rais­ing Ben­tonville’s mill­age rate to 48.5. That’s tied with North Lit­tle Rock for sec­ond-high­est mill­age rate in the state.

The last thing she wanted to do in her first year as su­per­in­ten­dent was go for a mill­age in­crease, Jones said.

“But once we started look­ing at time­lines in growth, we couldn’t put it off,” she said.

The mill­age ef­fort forced her to build re­la­tion­ships with peo­ple she would not have en­gaged much, if at all, she said. Jones es­ti­mated she and Fi­nance Di­rec­tor Janet Sch­wan­hausser par­tic­i­pated in more than 40 speak­ing en­gage­ments to in­form var­i­ous groups about the tax re­quest.

“We were kind of sad when it was over. Be­cause it was fun. It was a good ex­pe­ri­ence,” she said.

Jones also tack­led safety. She and law en­force­ment of­fi­cers took tours of ev­ery build­ing in the district to iden­tify se­cu­rity is­sues.

Jones said she’s learned she has to be ready for any­thing be­ing in charge of a school district of more than 16,000 stu­dents.

“One day you may be talk­ing about a build­ing project. The next day you’re talk­ing about a dys­lexia sum­mer pro­gram, and the next day you’re talk­ing about tax re­ceipts. It’s just so diver­si­fied. And while I have ex­cep­tional peo­ple, you still have to know what’s go­ing on, be­cause you’re the main mode of com­mu­ni­ca­tion back to your board when they ask ques­tions.”

“I heard the words, ‘Van­der­griff,’ ‘stu­dent,’ ‘pool,’ ‘drown­ing.’”

— Matthew Wendt, Fayet­teville School District su­per­in­ten­dent




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