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Construction plans for $26 million arena approved by Searcy School Board

One of the first jobs Dr. Bobby Hart will inherit when he takes over as superintendent for the Searcy School District in July is a $26 million arena project.

At the same meeting Friday where the Searcy School Board announced the hiring of the Hope School District superintendent, it also approved the construction of a new arena for the high school for its basketball and volleyball games and more.

Superintendent Diane Barrett, who will retire at the end of June, told the School Board that Phase 2 of the project, with a maximum cost $26,232,658 for construction, is expected to begin June 1, but “might be moved up a few weeks” based on the board approving it now. She said the substantial completion of the project is expected Dec. 6, 2022. Because the cost is the guaranteed maximum construction cost, it could end up being lower, she said.

Barrett said the project is going before the state Board of Education on Thursday.

“We are asking to get approved for a little over $10 million in second lien bonds,” she said. “Beardsley Finance, our financial adviser, is taking those before the state Board of Education to get approval for use to issue those bonds.

“It may be that we don’t want to put all that out there for bid. It may be that we want to do $5 [million] or $6 [million]. We have to look and see where we are. We also should have $20 million or a little more in the building fund. Every year, we put additional money on the building fund.

Barrett said the project is expected to take 18 months, “so it is a pretty tight project, but we will probably have carryover next year that we can continue to put back to either replenish the building fund or just go on and apply it on this project. We also ... have that capital outlay of $1.7 million that we have not touched. I really do feel like we are OK.”

Barrett told the School Board to keep in mind that the cost so far is just for the construction contract with Baldwin and Shell Construction Co. of Little Rock. “It doesn’t include architect fees; it is not going to include furniture,” she said. It is going to have additional costs.

She said there has probably been talk of a new arena for the high school for about the past five years. “We have actually been working toward that, visiting other arenas, gathering information and been in the design phase of it, for a little over three years.”

Barrett said she believes the current facility was built in 1968 and renovated in 1983, adding a couple of end sections to it.

The new arena “will be behind Sullards Annex, our high school cafeteria,” she said. “It will be recessed into that hill side and it will come out to what is now the student parking lot right behind the high school. It won’t take up the whole parking lot; that’s why we built that new parking lot because it will take up part of the current student parking lot.”

Right now, Barrett said the sports programs are sharing an annexed gym for the girls and boys physical education, so the district will be able to separate out the PE classes.

“We also have other various sports that need practice areas and areas for competition,” she said. “We will still be using that gym. It’s still in good shape. It’s just smaller and just does not meet the needs we have right now.”

The new arena, Barrett said, is being built “even larger than is required to host a state tournament, but the reason we are doing that is because we want it to be large enough that we could hold graduation ceremonies in it as well as other events.”

Barrett said one of her goals during her time as superintendent has been to make sure there was the financing and a design ready to go for a new arena.

“I wish I could have worked a little longer to see it finished, but I just decided that that might not be the best for my family and that is was time for me to retire,” she said. “I did want to make sure that everything was secured for this project moving forward.”

Hart, who has “coached everything, basketball, football and track” and coached for about 10 or 11 years, said Barrett has “done the heavy lifting already” on the arena project.

“As one of the board members said, ‘Now it’s my baby to rock it the rest of the way,’” Hart said.

Searcy School/Community Coordinator Betsy Bailey said in addition to being used for basketball and volleyball, the new arena will also be used for competition cheer and dance team events. "Also, building the arena will free up space for other facilities to be used for a number of programs. We are considering the possibility of a ROTC program but at this time, we don't have a location to house it and once the arena is built, we will have more space available. The plan is for wrestling to use the current gym, but we will have freedom to schedule multiple sports and activities at the same time once it is built and can better determine where each sport should be housed. We will also have a special cover that can be used on the floor of the arena in order to host large venue events."

Making strides at Spring Park

ABOVE: More than 300 people took part in the Stride to Prevent Suicide 5K at Spring Park on Saturday. The event was sponsored by the Dr. Robert E. Elliott Foundation. Executive Director Kimberly Brackins said the organization did not get to hold the event last year because of COVID-19 so “it was a real shot in the arm” that so many people came to participate this year. Marilyn Elliott (seated), the widow of Dr. Robert Elliott, her son and daughter also participated in the event. The foundation’s goal is to educate the community by “shining a light on the disease of depression.”

LEFT: Former Arkansas first lady Ginger Beebe releases a butterfly at Spring Park on Saturday after the awards ceremony at the Stride to Prevent Suicide 5K. Brackins said the number of participants may have set a record for the event.

Former Arkansas first lady Ginger Beebe releases a butterfly at Spring Park on Saturday after the awards ceremony at the Stride to Prevent Suicide 5K. Brackins said the number of participants may have set a record for the event.

Retiring Harding Academy superintendent reflects on 12 years at helm

“This year has been like 20 years in one,” Harding Academy Superintendent James Simmons said in response to being asked about when he thought about retiring from the school.

Harding University recently announced the decision to retire by Simmons, who also serves as Harding Academy’s vice president and athletic director, at the end of the school year and said a search committee would be formed to seek his replacement. Simmons has served 12 years as the academy’s superintendent.

“My wife [Janet] and I started talking about it back in the December-January time frame and then decided it is time to do something different,” Simmons said concerning retiring, “so I finally just decided after weighing all the options, seeing what the future could look like there financially and all that kind of stuff you got to do when you reach this point. I found out that I could go to the house with all my monies totaled up and be in pretty good shape, so that is what we decided to do.”

Simmons made it a point to say how much he appreciates his wife always being at his side to support him. “I am excited about what the future can hold, spending more time with my wife, my grandkids, my kids ... .”

He also has some special plans concerning canine therapy.

“A few years ago, we had a gentleman come speak at our chapel and he spoke about this dog he was raising named Grace,” Simmons said. “So while I was sitting there, I said, ‘Hey, I can do this. One of these days when I retire, get me a dog not just to raise, but a dog to train to be a therapy dog.’ So I am going to get me a dog – and it takes a while to get them all of the certifications to that point – but I want to get me a dog that can be certified to take into hospitals, schools and all that kind of stuff, so that is what my goal is right now.

“... My wife and I are going to get this puppy and tag team on that, and this little puppy will eventually grow into an adult dog and we will have that to enjoy. I am going to get my grands to be a part of this process. We will name our new dog Hope.”

Simmons and his wife have two grandkids with a third one on the way in September.

He said he and his wife are looking for a new home in the Greers Ferry, Heber Springs or Fairfield Bay area, where they plan to train the therapy dog after they find the dog they want.

“We will be bringing Hope,” Simmons said. “Lots of people in this world just don’t have much hope.”

Sharing memories

Simmons spoke about his memories from his time at Harding Academy, including his first day on the job. He said then-Harding Chancellor Dr. Clifton L. Ganus Jr. spoke on the past and then-Harding President Dr. David Burks spoke on “challenging the present,” “and I spoke following those two awesome guys on creating the future.”

“That was a pretty exciting day,” he said.

Simmons said he also has worn a tuxedo on each first day of school “for now about 35 years.”

“It is just a little fun thing to do to let the kids know that we want to welcome them and invite them to the schools, so those are always some positive memories and experiences to welcome those first days,” he said.

Simmons recalled over the years that student association groups also have done different things to welcome kids back to school.

“The kids at Harding Academy actually got up on the rooftop and they were sitting up there throwing off suckers and stuff to the kids, candies as the kids were coming in the door,” he said. “The kids here are super great kids, creative and very determined. It has been great to work with some wonderful kids and many, many great faculty and staff, many good parents, so it has been a pleasurable experience for the most part.”

While his tuxedo routine has carried on throughout his time as an administrator, an area that has seen definite change has been technology.

He said within about the fourth or fifth year that he got to Harding Academy, an attempt was made to phase in one to one devices.

“We started out years ago with what we thought was going to be cutting edge stuff; they now call them iPads,” Simmons said. “Every place has devices and things nowadays. The public schools have all kinds of federal monies coming in to fill their coffers for that, but it is another expense for our parents here at Harding Academy in addition to their tuition to try to afford some of those things, so we have phased in Chromebooks and we start with them in third grade and kindergarten; first and second grades are still iPads.

“We are adding a new level, a new grade every year. The ones that they had come down to the next level down. We are all the way down to third grade and all the high school kids have other versions.”

Simmons said in his second year at Harding Academy, the school hired a robotics teacher, Brian Jones, who has brought the school national acclaim.

“Brian has been absolutely great. We started from nothing to being one of the teams that is nationally recognized, Team Breakaway,” he said. “They canceled all the competitions this year because of COVID. We can’t do a large gathering of any kind. You would have several thousand people at those competitions.

“We qualified nine out of 10 years to go to the national competition. It was in Houston, Texas, the last few years and prior to that it was in St. Louis, Mo.”

Virus impact

Simmons spoke more specifically about the challenges caused by COVID-19, saying he saw something the other day with the question: “Where were you when they came along with the message about schools closing for the rest of the year?” He said when he was a kid the question was, “Where were you when John F. Kennedy got killed?,” but now the question is “Where were you when the pandemic started? Where were you when you started hearing about COVID cases?”

“I don’t think anybody in the United States of America had ever had this in any kind of professional training in schools, schools of education or schools of medical ... whatever you went to school for to be a professional, you were not fully prepared for a pandemic or COVID-19 specifically,” Simmons said. “It is all things that our faculty and staff and our kids and parents have had to pivot to try to make happen. I would say the determination that our kids have had, our parents have had and our faculty and staff have definitely had to try to still be able to have face-to-face school has been phenomenal.

Simmons shared that he read an article recently that said “over 50 percent of the nation’s children have not been in school for over one year; they had not attended school at all.”

“During that time, we were closed when they said you have no choice to be open last year,” he said. “This year, we were one of the first schools in the start of Arkansas that opened on August the 7th ... .

“It was rough to start right out of the chute, from the get-go, when they fired the gun on our second day of school we have seven or eight positives [COVID-19 cases] and had a bunch of students that had to be quarantined from close contacts with those people. So the first probably month and a half, two months of school was horrendous every day.”

He said “four to six hours a day” had to be spent “dealing with that issue and all of the contact tracing that was part of that, notifications to the Department of Health.”

“We had to do every case that occurred, either quarantined or positive, we had to notify the Department of Heath within 24 hours, so my secretary and I served as the point of contact for our school,” Simmons said. “There were many days when projects I had on my list to do, I couldn’t even touch them because this became the predominant thing to get done because of regulations and guidelines, stipulations we had from the Arkansas Department of Health. It was a royal nightmare.”

He said the enrollment at Harding Academy, now at 565, “was impacted significantly” by COVID-19.

“We are adding more students almost on a daily basis for next year ,so I am hoping we can get back to where we were seven years ago. At that point in time, we had 699 students,” Simmons said. “It has been a challenge this year. Public schools this year have even fewer students in them then they have had before almost all over the United States because kids are just out there somewhere and they are not attending school.

“We have a bunch of kids that went to public school and or went to home school or moved out of the area. We are still doing online and in person. This semester, we only have 19 full-time online. The main thing is we have a phenomenal group of people, faculty and staff that have been super cooperative to do whatever we needed to do to try to continue with great educational experiences for kids, so my experience here has been heavily influenced with that.”

Expectations level

Kids generally rise to the level of expectation, according to Simmons. “If the expectation is low, that’s what you get.”

“So I challenged the faculty when I got here,” he said. “I showed them a video about an eagle pushing her young baby out of the nest when it was ready to fly. She just didn’t leave it in the nest to stay up there to keep her company. When that baby got ready to fly, she knew that she could get out there and fly. She didn’t do that to kill one. She did that to say, ‘You are ready for the challenge, you are ready to soar.’

“We looked at what that looks like for us as educators. How can we more do that challenging activity with our students.”

He said in his first two years, the highest ACT score in the history of the school had been 23.2. He said over 25 is now the academy’s average.

“That is one of the top-performing schools in the state of Arkansas,” Simmons said. “They have accepted a challenge. They wanted it. Our kids get away from us and we ask them, ‘What else could we have done to get you ready?’ I don’t want to hear them say, ‘It was a blow off. It was cheesy. I could have done that.’

“I wish someone would have challenged me more.’ I credit the faculty and staff with that enormous amount of achievement gain over those years and then sustaining that over a period of five years where it was over 25. That is not easy to do. They gave the blood, sweat and tears to make it happen.”

White County Fair to return in September due to declining COVID-19 numbers

The White County Fair Board has decided to hold the fair this year “because things have gotten better” after having to cancel last year’s annual event because of COVID-19, according to board member Gail Snyder.

“It will be from Sept. 13th through Saturday the 18th,” Snyder said, adding that making the decision to go forward with the fair was difficult but the fair board considered the fact that COVID-19 active case numbers are going down.

She said plans could “change between now and then if things got worse again. Because conditions are improving, we have decided to have it.”

Currently, the thinking is that there will not be a national headliner act this year, according to Snyder.

“The funding for a big headliner is just not here right now, but if somebody wanted to step up and say, ‘I’ll pay for a headliner,’ we might be able to look at it. But for finances, right now we are just not able to do a big headliner.”

She said acts from the area are being looked at to provide the entertainment at the fair instead.

Because financial struggles aren’t just a problem for the fair, the board will be offering a dollar night on Sept. 13.

“Admission is a dollar and parking is a dollar,” Snyder said. “We are doing everything for a dollar because we just felt like we needed to help the community. Everybody has struggled with finances for the past year, so we decided to do a dollar night to help everyone out.”

All of the fair’s regular rides will be back as well as the community groups that have booths, she said.

“It was a little depressing not seeing the fair [last year] but all the fair board members are glad to see it returning,” Snyder said.

The White County Fair Board meets the second Thursday of every month at its office at the White County Fairgrounds.

54-year-old Searcy resident facing 15 felony drug-related charges
  • Updated

A 54-year-old Searcy resident is set to appear in White County Circuit Court on Tuesday to begin facing 15 drug-related felonies stemming from a traffic stop in January and home search in early March.

A warrant was issued recently for Todd Hill at the request of the 17th Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney’s Office on charges of class Y felony simultaneous possession of drugs and firearms; class A felony possession of 10 to 200 grams of a schedule II controlled substance, namely methamphetamine; class B felony possession of drug paraphernalia with purpose to package methamphetamine; class C felony possession of less than 2 grams of a schedule II controlled substance, namely cocaine, with purpose to deliver; class C felony possession of less than 2 grams of a schedule II controlled substance, namely amphetamine/dextroamphetamine with purpose to deliver; class C felony use of a communication device; class D felony possession of less than 200 grams of a schedule IV controlled substance, namely clonazepam/alprazolam, with purpose to deliver; class D felony possession of firearms by certain persons; and class A misdemeanor possession of less than 14 grams of a schedule VI controlled substance, namely marijuana.

Another warrant issued for Hill was on charges of class A felony possession of 10 to 200 grams of a schedule II controlled substance, namely methamphetamine, with purpose to deliver; class B felony possession of drug paraphernalia with purpose to package methamphetamine; class C felony possession of less than 2 grams of a schedule II controlled substance, namely cocaine, with purpose to deliver; class C felony possession of less than 28 grams of a schedule III controlled substance, namely suboxone, with purpose to deliver; class D felony possession of less than 200 grams of a schedule IV controlled substance, namely alprazolam/clonazepam, with purpose to deliver; class D felony possession of less than 2 grams of a schedule II controlled substance, namely oxycodone; and class D felony possession of less than 2 grams of a schedule II controlled substance, namely amphetamine/dextroamphetamine.

Hill remained incarcerated Monday afternoon in the White County Detention Center on $125,000 and $75,000 bonds.

According to one of the affidavits, two Homeland Security Investigations Task Force officers and two Arkansas Community Corrections probation officers executed a search warrant at an apartment on West Beebe-Capps Expressway on March 8 at 9:06 a.m.

They reportedly found a .22-caliber pistol and ammo in a bedroom closet and a black pouch in the bedside table containing “approximately four small plastic baggies and a dollar bill containing an off-white crystal-like substance suspected of being methamphetamine, a dollar containing a green leaf-like substance suspected of being marijuana and plastic baggie containing multiple pills of different shapes and colors.”

Also found in the dresser was suspected crack cocaine, two syringes and two digital scales, while on a side table were multiple pills and under the bed was “a small box containing two glass pipes with burn marks and residue and a large amount of baggies,” according to the affidavit.

In the living room, a digital scanner was reportedly found while “another bottle of pills with somebody else’s information on them” reportedly was located in the kitchen. A small amount of suspected marijuana and pill also was found in a cigarette pack in the center console of Hill’s vehicle, according to the affidavit.

Hill had been convicted in December 2014 of two counts of possession with purpose to delivery and possession of drug paraphernalia.

The home search followed a traffic stop for expired tags on South Hickory Street around 12:16 p.m. Jan. 4. Hill reportedly revealed after being stopped that “he had some methamphetamine in his sock” and was arrested.

During a search of his vehicle, two plastic baggies containing suspected methamphetamine were found in the pocket of a jacket along with $1,070, according to the affidavit. In a black zipper bag, a digital scale reportedly was found along with a black zipper pouch containing a baggie with suspected crack cocaine in it. A pink zipper bag reportedly also contained plastic baggies with suspected marijuana and “different kinds of pills in them” and three glass pipes.

In the trunk, a black zipper binder reportedly contained 10 syringes and several plastic baggies. Around $245 was found in the driver’s door, along with “a notebook with prices listed for amounts of different narcotics in Hill’s possession,” according to the affidavit.

Another Searcy resident, Shelby Dell Smith, 30, also is facing drug-related charges that include class Y felony simultaneous possession of drugs and firearms.

The other charges against Smith, according to the warrant, are class C felony possession of a counterfeit substance purported to be a schedule II controlled substance, namely hydrocodone, with purpose to deliver; class D felony possession of less than 2 grams of a schedule II controlled substance, namely methamphetamine; class D felony possession of drug paraphernalia with purpose to inject methamphetamine; class D felony possession of a defaced firearm; and class A misdemeanor possession of less than 4 ounces of a schedule II controlled substance namely marijuana.

She was not in custody in White County on Monday, and no court appearance had been set.

According to the affidavit, Searcy Police Department Patrolman Robert Lisenbee noticed while on patrol a vehicle parked at a residence on North Maple Street with a stolen license plate. Smith, an occupant of the vehicle, reportedly told officers that she did not own the vehicle but was borrowing it.

However, while the passenger-side door was open, Lisenbee reportedly smelled marijuana, and a search turned up a fanny pack on the driver’s-side back seat with a defaced .380 semiautomatic, a clear plastic bag with a “large amount of white pills,” shotgun shells and ammo for a pistol. In a makeup bag next to the fanny pack, two syringes filled with suspected meth reportedly were found along with “several credit cards, a Social Security card, a driver’s license and several checks in Smith’s purse that did not belong to Smith.”

A 37-year-old Searcy resident who was reportedly driving the wrong way in the westbound lane of East Race Avenue in February also officially has been charged with fleeing.

A warrant was issued recently for Derrick Eli Langley on the class D felony charge. He was not in custody at the White County Detention Center on Monday afternoon, and no court appearance had been set.

According to the affidavit written by Searcy Police Department Detective Michael Mosher, Lisenbee pulled over a maroon Chrysler 200 in the parking lot of Discount Pipes and Tobacco on Race Avenue around 6:39 p.m. Feb. 9 for going to wrong way on the street. However, after initially stopping, the vehicle reportedly “rapidly pulled out in front of eastbound traffic, reaching speeds up to 97 mph as the pursuit continued onto Moore Avenue.

The vehicle reportedly passed others “on the wrong side of the road multiple times” and ran stop signs as the driver headed back and parked at the registered address of the vehicle on West Center Avenue. According to the affidavit, the vehicle was left running but no one was inside and “officers were unable to make contact with the suspect at the residence.”

However, prescription medication was found in the vehicle and the bottles had Langley’s name on them, Mosher wrote. Langley reportedly also was identified as the driver from his driver’s license photo and from dash and body camera footage.