Long­time boss of Gen­try schools nears re­tire­ment

Siloam Springs Herald Leader - - NEWS - By Dave Perozek NWA Demo­crat-Gazette

GEN­TRY — Randy Bar­rett refers to him­self as part of the “sup­port staff” when he dis­cusses his role as the School District’s su­per­in­ten­dent.

It’s mainly the teach­ers who carry out the district’s mis­sion of ed­u­cat­ing the stu­dents. Ev­ery­one else — from the bus driv­ers to the su­per­in­ten­dent — is in a sup­port­ing role, Bar­rett said.

“I try to be re­spon­si­ble for tak­ing care of the puz­zle pieces that al­low us to have a good day of school for our kids,” he said.

Bar­rett, 62, has been Gen­try’s su­per­in­ten­dent for 25 years, the sec­ond­longest ten­ure among su­per­in­ten­dents in North­west Arkansas, trail­ing only Jim Rollins of Spring­dale. Bar­rett plans to re­tire at the end of this month, bring­ing an end to a 41-year ca­reer in ed­u­ca­tion.

He started as Gen­try’s su­per­in­ten­dent in 1992, com­ing from Du­mas, where he’d been a ju­nior high school prin­ci­pal for five years. The School Board hired him on a 3-2 vote, he said. It was his first su­per­in­ten­dent job.

Bar­rett no­ti­fied the board in Novem­ber of his in­ten­tion to re­tire this sum­mer. In Fe­bru­ary, the board chose Terrie Metz, the district’s fed­eral pro­grams and cur­ricu­lum co­or­di­na­tor, to take over as su­per­in­ten­dent July 1.

The Gen­try district con­sists of four schools with a to­tal of about 1,400 stu­dents. Bar­rett, while re­flect­ing on his time in Gen­try, ad­mit­ted he hasn’t been per­fect.

“I have made some good de­ci­sions, some medi­ocre ones, and a few that just stunk,” he said.

Suc­cess at the polls

Bar­rett did achieve perfection in at least one area: He never lost a mill­age elec­tion.

Vot­ers ap­proved six mill­age in­creases dur­ing his time. They also agreed to re­new one of those in­creases. The district’s mill­age rate has grown from 27.0 to 46.0 un­der Bar­rett’s watch, plac­ing Gen­try in the top 10 high­est rates among the state’s 235 school dis­tricts.

The lat­est of those in­creases came just last year, when vot­ers ap­proved a 3.1-mill in­crease. That will raise money for, among other things, an ad­di­tion at the in­ter­me­di­ate school and a ca­reer and tech­ni­cal ed­u­ca­tion build­ing.

“First you have to have a real need,” Bar­rett said. “And then you have to be able to com­mu­ni­cate that need to the vot­ers.”

It also helps to be hon­est and trans­par­ent and make sure the pub­lic un­der­stands what a pro­posed tax in­crease will cost them, he said. Gen­try raises about $171,000 from 1 mill. Some other dis­tricts, like Ben­tonville and Rogers, col­lect about 10 times that amount.

Bar­rett is pleased he’s been able to raise the district’s min­i­mum teacher salary from $18,000 in 1992 to $35,000 to­day.

There’s still a sig­nif­i­cant salary gap, how­ever, be­tween Gen­try and some neigh­bor­ing dis­tricts. The min­i­mum teacher salary in Ben­tonville, for ex­am­ple, was $44,708 this past school year.

“I want our staff to be com­pa­ra­ble in terms of what they earn to ev­ery­one else,” he said.

Fis­cal dis­tress

One of the low points of Bar­rett’s ca­reer was when the state put Gen­try on its “fis­cal dis­tress” list in 2008.

The an­tic­i­pa­tion of an en­roll­ment surge con­vinced him the district should build more class­rooms. Those ad­di­tional stu­dents he had ex­pected never ac­tu­ally came, caus­ing the district to get be­hind in its fi­nances, he said.

“Will I for­ever feel ashamed for let­ting us do that? Ab­so­lutely. Ab­so­lutely. That will be a per­ma­nent mem­ory,” Bar­rett said.

Fis­cal dis­tress is like a “badge of shame,” he said.

“Your com­mu­nity, be­cause they don’t know all of the ins and outs, it gives them a chance to start doubt­ing you. It’s an em­bar­rass­ment to your school board,” Bar­rett said.

Gen­try re­mained in fis­cal dis­tress for 18 months while the district made some changes. A 3-mill tax in­crease, ap­proved in 2007, cer­tainly helped the bot­tom line. The district also cut po­si­tions and re­quired its coaches to ob­tain com­mer­cial driver’s li­censes that en­abled them to take ath­letes on lo­cal trips.

High praise

First-year su­per­in­ten­dents in Arkansas must com­plete a men­tor­ing pro­gram. Bar­rett served as a men­tor to Jeff Gravette, De­catur’s su­per­in­ten­dent, and Deb­bie Jones, whom the Ben­tonville School Board hired as its su­per­in­ten­dent last sum­mer.

Bar­rett is a “fab­u­lous” man, Jones said. He helped her un­der­stand the im­por­tance of see­ing the per­spec­tives of a va­ri­ety of peo­ple, which helps a lot in the su­per­in­ten­dent’s job, she said.

“He un­der­stands that when par­ents are re­ally up­set, they’re re­ally just watching out for their chil­dren. That’s prob­a­bly the great­est les­son I took from him,” Jones said.

He also cel­e­brated her suc­cesses. Af­ter the Ben­tonville and Rogers school dis­tricts both won their re­spec­tive mill­age elec­tions last month, he sent a con­grat­u­la­tory email to Jones and Rogers Su­per­in­ten­dent Mar­lin Berry.

“Good job, my friends and col­leagues! Now the real fun be­gins, huh!” he wrote.

Ken Ramey, su­per­in­ten­dent of the Siloam Springs School District, said he­and Bar­rett have worked well to­gether over the years.

“He’s been a great men­tor to me, a great am­bas­sador for Gen­try schools,” Ramey said. “Randy is a very in­sight­ful per­son, very re­flec­tive. He gives re­ally good, solid ad­vice. I can’t tell you how much sup­port I had from him when we had our school bus wreck.”

That wreck oc­curred May 19, 2003, dur­ing Ramey’s first year on the job. A Siloam Springs school bus ran off the high­way, turned over and crashed into some trees, killing a 14-year-old stu­dent and in­jur­ing sev­eral oth­ers.

Stay­ing power

The av­er­age ten­ure of a school district su­per­in­ten­dent na­tion­ally is about six years, ac­cord­ing to Richard Aber­nathy, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Arkansas As­so­ci­a­tion of Ed­u­ca­tional Ad­min­is­tra­tors.

A su­per­in­ten­dent must deal with par­ents, staff mem­bers, leg­is­la­tors and other com­mu­nity mem­bers, so any su­per­in­ten­dent must have ex­cel­lent peo­ple skills, Aber­nathy said.

“To jug­gle all the dif­fer­ent as­pects of that is dif­fi­cult. It’s stress­ful,” Aber­nathy said.

There may be some su­per­in­ten­dents who al­low com­pla­cency to set in af­ter be­ing on the job too long, but Aber­nathy said he’s seen new su­per­in­ten­dents get com­pla­cent as well. Bar­rett, he said, has never been that way.

“Randy is pro­gres­sive,” Aber­nathy said. “He’s al­ways

tried to make the school district bet­ter for his com­mu­nity.”

Charles Cud­ney is di­rec­tor of the North­west Arkansas Ed­u­ca­tion Service Co­op­er­a­tive, based in Farm­ing­ton. The co­op­er­a­tive’s board of di­rec­tors is made up of su­per­in­ten­dents in the area. Bar­rett served as the board’s chair­man two years ago.

Cud­ney, a for­mer su­per­in­ten­dent, said it’s a “huge accomplishment” to last in a su­per­in­ten­dent’s job for 25 years like Bar­rett has.

To be suc­cess­ful in the job, a per­son must be able to build re­la­tion­ships with all kinds of peo­ple, re­gard­less of their views on cer­tain is­sues, Cud­ney said.

As long as res­i­dents — no mat­ter what their views — see de­ci­sions are made with the best in­ter­est of stu­dents in mind, they’ll re­spect that, he said.

“I think that’s what Dr. Bar­rett projects,” Cud­ney said.

Fam­ily feel­ing

A few peo­ple have worked in the Gen­try Pub­lic Schools cen­tral of­fice for most or all of Bar­rett’s time there.

Tamhra Shawver, district trea­surer, has worked for the district since 1986.

“He’s not only been my boss, he’s been a very good friend,” Shawver said. “Our of­fice here is a fam­ily. It’s not just a place to go to work.”

Bar­rett uses “fam­ily” to de­scribe his em­ploy­ees as well. Some of them lit­er­ally are fam­ily mem­bers. His son Ja­son Bar­rett is the district’s trans­porta­tion and main­te­nance su­per­vi­sor. His wife, Re­ge­nia, is an early child­hood reading in­ter­ven­tion teacher; she plans to work at least an­other year, her 27th in the district.

Randy Bar­rett said he was not in­volved in hiring ei­ther his wife or his son.

“I’m a good guy. But I’m not a good ol’ boy,” he said.

Bar­rett isn’t cer­tain what he’ll do in re­tire­ment, other than work on his golf game, per­haps. He said he told Re­ge­nia he’d prob­a­bly get up each morn­ing to make her break­fast, then go back to bed.

“And she said — and I quote — ‘You need to get a job,’” he said. “So maybe I will.”

NWA Demo­crat-Gazette/JA­SON IVESTER

Gen­try School District su­per­in­ten­dent Randy Bar­rett is seen June 1 at the for­mer in­ter­me­di­ate school.

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