School chiefs reflect on busy first years
Jones:‘It was fast and furious’
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.
FAYETTEVILLE: GOOD YEAR, BAD DAY
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,’”
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.
ROGERS: FACILITIES A FOCUS
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.”
BENTONVILLE: MANAGING GROWTH
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