The Searcy School District “wants Searcy to be the destination for everybody around,” according to new Superintendent Dr. Bobby Hart, who is tasked with trying to fix declining enrollment in the district.
Enrollment was mentioned by the consultants hired by Searcy to conduct the superintendent search and Hart said when he was interviewed by the board before being hired in early April and visited with the members in the last few weeks.
“We think we have got a good product and do a good job,” Hart said, “and we have got to do a better job of making sure everybody sees out there what we do well and improving those things we need to grow in.”
Last October, the Searcy School District reported that it had a total enrollment of 3,947, down from 4,017 in the 2019-20 school year. The 2020 enrollment included 1,023 students attending virtually because of COVID-19. The dip continued a pattern of slight declines over the past five school years from 4,106 in 2016-17 to 4,101 in 2017-18 to 4,054 in 2018-19.
Hart said that while he was superintendent for the Hope School District, school officials went through the process of making sure the district was being marketed well and things were being improved.
“The best way to market yourself is just to provide a quality education, be personable with parents and community members, and not just in the superintendent’s standpoint, but every person that works in the school system is a representative of the school system,” he said. “So, making sure our folks are approachable and that everybody has the same and quality information that when we go out, whether you are a custodian or principal or a teacher, that you know about what is going on.”
Hart said Hope’s enrollment was 2,250 while “we are 4,000 students here. There are a few more support staff [than in Hope] and about 1,800 more students.”
Hart took over as superintendent in Searcy on July 1, after Diane Barrett retired after being Searcy’s superintendent for 11 years and 45 total years in education.
Hart said Barrett “left a set of keys and a very nice note for me on the desk.”
“Diane was fantastic. She gave me access to anything I wanted to know about and anything I wanted to have conversations around” before he officially started, Hart said. “I was also conscious of the fact that a person can only serve one master at a time so I didn’t want to step on those toes definitely and I still had a job to do in Hope, so I had to keep that all balanced. It really was good.
“A guy told me one time when you change districts like this, he said it is really the best time you will ever have. I said, ‘What do you mean? It sounds stressful to me.’ He said, ‘No. Where you’re leaving from, they no longer care what you have to say. Where you are going, they can’t act on anything you’ve got to say, so really you just need to enjoy the time where nobody cares what you think.’ I can’t begin to tell you again how gracious Diane was and the whole staff to help me get up to speed.”
After reading the note from Barrett on his first day, Hart said he just started going over some financials and other things that he had access to already and then started scheduling conversations with his support staff, like his administrative assistant Lisa Mullins, Assistant Superintendent Sheena Williamson, the bus shop crew and Raymond Reynolds with maintenance.
“That’s really what the first week was,” Hart said Monday. “I have yet to set foot in Westside. I just haven’t had a chance to set foot in there.” Hart said he had the chance to go into Ahlf Junior High School and “it is very nice in there; that is a beautiful building. It is really neat inside.”
Trying to figure out “how we are going to do business” was really Hart’s first order of business, he said. He also met with all of the building principals. “We just tried to start formalizing and stabilizing our work.”
During the School Board meeting when he was hired, Hart said the board also approved a $26 million arena project for Searcy High School for its basketball and volleyball teams and more. “It’s kind of like, ‘Congratulations you’ve got a new job, now build a 20-something-million-dollar arena,’” he said.
Asked about the early building stages of the arena, Hart said “it’s going well.”
“We have been fortunate up until the last week we’ve had really good weather. The last few days, rain has been a problem,” he said. “They have dug out and the pad is just about ready, which is pretty fast. I think it originally was called for on the 28th of this month for the pad to be ready. I met with the architect [Cromwell Architect Engineers of Little Rock] and contractor [Baldwin Shell of Little Rock] last week and they are pretty close to that. They are right on schedule.”
If all go as planned, Hart said the arena should be ready to open in February 2023, “maybe as early as December of 2022.” He said it is “kind of scary because you want to make sure it is done well.”
“It’s going to be here long after I’m gone and you want it done right,” Hart said, “and it is a large investment but it is also a great opportunity for our community to market itself and to say, ‘We are here and we’ve got some really great facilities and some great things going on.’
“I am pretty confident that as soon as we can, we are going to bid on state basketball tournaments and state volleyball tournaments and anything we could hold there. I think its a great centerpiece and will be a selling point for folks moving into the community as well.”
Hart said he feels Searcy is “just a great, great town and great people.”
“When I interviewed for the job, I went into it with the idea, ‘Well, I’ve got a great family, I love Hope, close to family ...,” he said, adding that he was contacted by someone on the state level about the Searcy opening and told “that I should consider this. I waited around and finally threw my name in there and the consultants [with McPherson and Jacobson Executive Recruitment and Development Firm of Omaha, Neb.] contacted me and I got named a finalist.”
Hart said Hope will always be special to him because that was his first opportunity to lead a school district as a superintendent, but Searcy “is a wonderful place.”
“It’s just like coaching,” he said. “Your first job is always the one that you will remember a lot. There were just fantastic people there. We made a whole lot of progress and did a whole lot of good things – not because of anything I did necessarily because we worked together to get things accomplished. I will miss it ... .
However, he said, as soon as he received the offer to become Searcy’s superintendent and took the job, “I had people reaching out to me and even after and above that, I had people who don’t live here that said, ‘That’s a fantastic place; you are going to love making Searcy your home.’ It that has been very true.”
Hart said one of the things that he has been “most pleased with is the quality of the folks that are working from support staff in this building [the Central Office] to building principals that I’ve got to work with so far to teachers to parents that have reached out to me already. They are just wonderful people.”
He said before moving to Searcy he was already pretty familiar with Harding University. “My son in June was at Coach [Jeff] Morgan’s basketball camp.”
One of the things Hart and his family talked about when they decided to make the move was attending some Great American Conference football games on some Saturday afternoons at Harding. He said they are looking forward to doing that now that they are in Searcy.
He said he and his wife, Christy, have twins, Trenton and Aubrey, who will start their freshman years at Searcy High School on Aug, 16. Hart said his daughter is a dancer and already has found a studio that she likes and his wife will be teaching biology at the high school.