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The Frugal Superintendent

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Harrison, Ark.

Charles Adair, the superintendent of the public schools here doesn't mind being called frugal. In fact, it's something of an honor in these parts to be considered thrifty, particularly when you're in charge of a $9 million annual budget. To save on the electric bill, Adair turns off the lights when he leaves his office for lunch. For years, he had an agreement with a nearby district to buy its school buses after they'd been used for five years. "They were in good shape," he told me, "and about a third the price of new ones."

In 1992, when a snowstorm caved in the roof of the district's administration building--a former school erected in 1915--Adair used the insurance money to rebuild rather than construct a brand-new facility, which would have cost the taxpayers $200,000. "We saved money," he said, "and we kept an old landmark."

Adair (accent on the first syllable, as in "hey there") doesn't have a motto, but if he did, it just might be, "If it's broke, fix it." His reputation for being tightfisted is well-known among the citizens of this small Ozark town, an agricultural hamlet set in the state's scenic northwest corner, about a 2-1/2-hour drive from Little Rock. "I once heard someone describe Charles Adair as so tight--let's call it economically conservative--that he would crawl in and out of the windows to keep from wearing out the doors," noted D. Jeff Christenson, the publisher of the Harrison Daily Times. It's hard to imagine Adair--a courtly gentleman with a soft Southern accent--scuffing up his pressed wool slacks on a window sill, but he does admit to being a smart shopper when it comes to running the district, which serves 2,900 students. "I try to spend money wisely and save money where I can," he said matter-of-factly, as if the point were so obvious that it didn't even need to be stated.

Adair, of course, isn't the only school superintendent to be careful with the taxpayers' dollars. What makes the Harrison school district so remarkable is the bang it gets from its bucks. The district's per-pupil cost of $2,900 is about half the national average, yet its students' test scores are in the top 10 percent nationally. Last year, American Demographics magazine asked SchoolMatch, a Columbus, Ohio-based research company, to identify districts that produce high-achieving students at low cost. The firm singled out nine districts that rank both in the 81st or higher percentile in pupil performance and in the 39th or lower percentile in per-pupil costs. Harrison was one of the standouts: According to SchoolMatch, the district ranks in the 95th percentile for pupil performance and in the 5th percentile for per-pupil spending.

Sixty percent of Harrison High School's graduates go on to college. Last year, college-bound seniors received more than $1 million in scholarship money, and 10 students completed their studies with perfect 4.0 grade-point averages. In recent years, many graduates have enrolled at the local community college or at the University of Ar~kansas, about 80 miles away in Fayetteville, but a handful have attended such top schools as Harvard, Princeton, Cornell, and Vanderbilt, and the district has graduates at all of the military academies. "We have high expectations for all of our students," Adair said.

So, how does Harrison do it? How does it spend so little yet get so much? Certainly, the superintendent is a major factor. "Dr. Adair sets the tone," said Paul Shrum, the principal of Forest Heights Elementary School. Larry Dale, a counselor at Harrison High School, agreed but pointed out that Adair's determination to get a dollar's value for every dollar spent is shared by the community at large. "They're not going to spend millions of dollars and get nothing in return," he said, "and Dr. Adair knows that. He is tightfisted to some degree. But, on the other hand, I've never had him turn down anything I've ever requested. If you show him that you need this or that, he's more than willing to do it if it's at all possible. But he will not just throw money to the wind. Everybody's like that here. You just don't waste things. It's part of the Ozark culture."

One might expect Harrison's schools to be held together with Band-Aids, but that's not the case. Many of the facilities are old, but they are well-maintained. Harrison High School, built eight years ago, is virtually graffiti-free. (When I visited the school, about the only scribblings I saw on lockers were "Hi Jim" and "You Suck!") Its science classrooms are filled with beakers, test tubes, and Bunsen burners, and its library is well-stocked with books and magazines.

The key to the Harrison school district's success, I discovered, is more complicated than careful per-pupil expenditure. Nearly everyone I spoke with cited community support--financially, emotionally, and otherwise--as one of the most important factors. On any given day, Harrison's schools are packed with parents helping out teachers--grading papers, tutoring students, doing whatever. Local businesses "adopt" individual schools, donating computers, books, and other valuable resources. Many of the town's retailers give 10 percent discounts to honor-roll students. In short, the people of Harrison seem to understand that community involvement can make or break a school system. "Our philosophy," one teacher said, "is: 'It takes a whole village to raise a child.' Everybody pitches in here."

To Charles Adair, however, it all begins with a simple, common-sensical notion: Be careful how you spend your money. "I think my parents instilled that in me," he said. "We didn't have a lot of money, but they taught me to appreciate what we did have. We didn't have new cars; our houses were fairly small, but they were nice houses, and my folks always took pride in keeping things clean and neat."

We were sitting in Adair's office, a pleasant room with high ceilings, large windows, and deep-blue wall-to-wall carpet. It was clean, neat, and free of the usual administrative clutter. Behind Adair's desk were an Arkansas state flag and an American flag. Off to the side was an old-looking personal computer. It was turned off.

"My great-grandfather homesteaded here around 1850," the 56-year-old Adair said. "Matter of fact, I have the land patent he received in 1854 from Franklin Pierce." The only son of an electrician and a schoolteacher, Adair attended 1st through 12th grades in the Harrison public schools and then went on to the University of Arkansas. Growing up, Adair was taught the importance of being thrifty. His parents grew their own fruits and vegetables, which they would can at the end of the summer, and sometimes they would butcher their own meat. "That's the way most people lived around here, not just me," he said. "We never felt poor, but we didn't have a lot of extras."

As superintendent of the Harrison public schools, a job he has held for the past seven years, Adair has simply taken the values he grew up with and applied them to the way he runs the district.

"We don't have a lot of money in the bank," he said of the district's finances. "We don't have CDs stashed away that we're not spending. We spend our money, but we budget. If someone came to me today and told me that they needed some textbooks, more than likely I'd say, 'Go ahead and order them.' In fact, every year our budget has extra money in it for textbooks, beyond what the state requires."

Adair has also been careful not to borrow too much money. "It's just like at home," he said. "If you make a lot of money, but you have high debts, then you won't have much left over." Currently, the district's only major liability is a $5 million bond that was issued eight years ago to finance the construction of Harrison High. "We've got 11 more years left on that," Adair said. "Then, we'll practically be debt-free."

He handed me a piece of paper that he had typed up. At the top, it said, "High Achievement/Low Cost," and below was a list of 24 reasons why Harrison has acquired its enviable reputation. They included: "good work ethic of staff and community," "community support of education," "careful spending," "staff and school board stability," "utilization of older buildings," "minimum number of administrators," "high academic expectations," "excellent teaching staff," "safe school environment," "test-taking skills taught to students," and "concerned about energy cost savings."

Expanding on one of the points on his list, Adair noted proudly that the Harrison district has virtually no central-office bureaucracy. The focus of any school system, he said, should be on instruction, not administration. To that end, the district's entire administrative staff consists of Adair, one assistant superintendent, one special-education supervisor, one gifted-education coordinator, and five secretaries. Period.

Principals report directly to Adair. "You need to streamline the administration, keep the layers of bureaucracy to a minimum," Adair said. "I feel good that I know all the teachers by their first names and can recognize them when I see them at meetings. That's important to me." (For comparison's sake, Adair mentioned a nearby district, about the same size as Harrison, that has three assistant superintendents. "I'm not sure what they all do," he said, genuinely puzzled.)

Harrison's 187 teachers are paid an average annual salary of $28,538, lower than the national average but slightly above the state average of $27,805. Some are members of the Arkansas Education Association, but because Arkansas is a right-to-work state, the union does not engage in collective bargaining. Nonetheless, Harrison's teachers do have a say in determining sal~aries (thanks to the district's state-mandated committee on personnel policies), and they are given a great deal of freedom within their own classrooms. Perhaps that explains why staff turnover is so low; some teachers have taught two generations of the same family.

Adair characterized the district's approach to teaching and learning as "traditional"; the school board, he said, is "cautious about using unproven ideas." But, he added, "we try to be open-minded about new ideas. You get in trouble when you say there's just one way that children learn." The result is a sort of traditionalism mixed with pragmatism. If a teacher wants to use whole language or cooperative learning, fine--as long as the kids are learning. (When I visited Forest Heights Elementary, I noticed that one teacher had her students sitting in rows, while another had them in small groups, and a third had them in a large half-circle. Principal Paul Shrum said he encourages such diversity of teaching styles among his instructors.)

I was struck by the lack of filing cabinets in the administration building, so I asked Adair if that was intentional. "Yes," he said. "I don't believe in paperwork. You won't find me doing more of it than the state requires. I'm also not too big on surveys. If they're not required, I won't do them because my purpose here is instruction, and if some company wants to know what kind of computers we're using, then they'll just have to come see for themselves. You can end up shuffling a lot of paper, and I'm not sure what that accomplishes."

At Harrison High School, the waiting area in the main office was crowded with students, all of them dressed in the usual combination of blue jeans and T-shirts. A small radio was playing country music. A secretary glanced at one of the students and said, "Terry, you need to get your feet off the seat. Do you sit like that at home?"

After a few minutes, I was ushered into the office of Danny Gilbert, the school's principal. A huge man with red hair and a Southern accent as thick as molasses, Gilbert was wearing a bright-green sport coat with gold buttons. His desk was covered with rough drafts of next year's teaching schedule. "I've been working on this thing all week," he told me. "Just when you think you've got it all figured out, you look at it, and there's a glitch as big as Christmas."

Last year was Gilbert's first full year as principal, but he's been with the Harrison schools for the past 20 years. "I worked in another school district in Arkansas," he said, "but the expectations for all students--and I emphasize the word all--were not as great as they are here. We expect all of our students to get a complete education, whether that means they want to be a better welder, a top-flight attorney, a top-flight physician, or a top-flight draftsman. We try to provide opportunities for all students. The other district tried to provide opportunities for the majority of its students, but not necessarily all of them."

Gilbert and his staff encourage all Harrison High students to take college-entrance examinations--the American College Testing Assessment or the Scholastic Assessment Test--early and often. "It's a mental thing," he said. "Some of these kids may take it six times. I think you learn from experience, so they may gradually add a few more points to it every time."

I asked Gilbert about his boss. "Dr. Adair is a good man to work with," he said. "If there is truly a need for something, he'll try to explore every avenue possible to see that you have it. Of course, he's working under the constraints of a budget, but if there's a real need for something, he'll try to find a way to get it."

I wondered if Adair had ever turned down one of Gilbert's requests. "No," he said, "but I'm sure he has with others. It hasn't happened to me because I'm a whole lot like he is when it comes to spending money."

Gilbert admitted that he sometimes visits other schools and sees things he would like to have for his teachers and students. "But would I trade places with them?" he asked. "No. All the essentials are here. Maybe some of the frills are not."

The principal introduced me to math teacher Mary Chew, who has taught at Harrison High for 11 years. I asked her if she ever felt deprived of supplies or equipment. "We could always use more," she said, "but we're not lacking. Basically, we get what we need. If we have a real serious need, we can either get it from the usual funds, or, if that's not possible, some company will come in and take care of it.

"Dr. Adair," she continued, "is very careful, and we appreciate that. Because it means that the money we need for books and supplies is not being frivolously thrown away. Of course, there are some things that he has to say no to. I would love it if every student, or at least every two students, had a computer. I have one computer. But I'm thrilled to death that I have one. By the way, it was purchased half with public funds and half with private funds."

Later, I visited Forest Heights Elementary School, where I met Paul Shrum. He looked more like a businessman than a principal, but his tie--made of red silk but decorated with a large smiling sun drawn by a child--gave him away. Shrum showed me around the 31-year-old building (a new wing is under construction), where he has been principal for the past four years. The concrete floor in the main hallway had a few chips here and there, but it was coated with a hard polish that shone under the fluorescent lights. As we walked through the school, Shrum told a story that neatly summed up the sense of thrift that pervades the district--and the community.

"We have some desks here that were looking kind of old when I arrived," Shrum said, "so I asked Dr. Adair if I could take them to an auto body shop and have them spray-painted. I hated to spend a lot of money on new desks; they're made of plastic, and these were made of metal. So we took them to the shop and had them painted. We still have those desks, and they're in good shape."

He added: "Our teachers realize that because of budgetary reasons, they can't always have new things. So they make everything that they have work as long as they can."

Shrum guided the way to the school's empty lunchroom, where three PTA members--Karen Coolidge, Melissa Davis, and P.J. Reynolds--were busy trimming the edges of some drawings done by the students in Amy Young's 4th-grade class. Young herself had laminated the drawings--of such notable Americans as George Washington, Lou Gehrig, Clara Barton, and Walt Disney--with plastic, but it was now up to these three parents to provide the finishing touches.

I asked the mothers how often they helped out at the school.

"I'm up here every day." Coolidge told me.

"We live here!" Davis added.

"Your kids do better if you're involved with their school," Reynolds said.

At Skyline Heights Elementary School--a one-story brick building set atop a hill in a quiet residential neighborhood--Principal Cathy Ramsey said that parents are "just part of the school." On the day we met, in fact, 14 parents had taken a group of students on a field trip to College of the Ozarks, just up the road in Point Lookout, Mo. "If I need some help," she said, "all I have to do is pick up the phone."

Ramsey introduced me to 2nd-grade teacher Joan Reid, who had recently gotten in touch with the local hospital to get old X-rays to use in a science lesson. Meanwhile, Miller Hardware Store had donated seeds, batteries, copper wire, and corks. "If you don't ask for it," the teacher said, "you're not going to get it!" (Admittedly, Reid has an inside track; her husband manages the store.)

"I have a lot of resourceful teachers," Ramsey said. "Of course, we would all like to get more money from the district, but we try to take a realistic view. Funds are limited; you can't have everything you want. But the teachers don't allow that to affect the quality of the education they offer their students. They'll look for money, they'll call businesses, they'll look for grants to apply for. They do a lot of searching to get what they need for these kids."

Like many of the people I met during my visit, Ramsey grew up in Harrison. She moved to the area when she was in 4th grade, attended Forest Heights Elementary, and graduated from Harrison High. She now has two sons attending schools in the district; her youngest, in fact, goes to Skyline Heights. "This is a wonderful place to raise children," she said.

Small-town America is alive and well in Harrison, population 10,000. Once a week, the Boone County Livestock Auction brings hundreds of local farmers to the locale, which was founded in 1869. On Fridays, the Harrison Daily Times publishes a list of nearly 150 area churches, Baptist being the most numerous. Bible-belt values predominate; other than at the Holiday Inn and a few private golf clubs, there is no public sale of alcohol in Boone County. "This is a very conservative community," said Jeff Christenson, the newspaper publisher.

The people in Harrison are proud of their sense of tradition. "Because we are a small town," Harrison High history and economics teacher Judy Stroope told me, "we still have the benefit of most people knowing each other. There is a sense of community that may not exist in other locations. We have a high percentage of people who still follow very traditional lifestyles here. The community has a religious foundation to it; many of our students--many of them--attend church on a regular basis, so they get a value system not only from a traditional family but also from some form of religious training."

To be sure, there is a shared system of values and beliefs in Harrison, which undoubtedly has an effect on the schools. But there is also an obvious lack of diversity. As Charles Adair put it, "This is mostly an Anglo-Saxon area." In fact, there are virtually no African-Americans in Boone County; according to the 1990 census, there were 28,297 people living in the county, five of whom were black. The census listed 176 American Indians, 171 Hispanics, 44 Asians, and 34 "other." Furthermore, the majority of Harrison's students are solidly middle-class.

"This community," Christenson said, "never had to face some of the integration problems that other communities had to face, which made it very difficult for schools to put dollars where they really needed to put dollars. Schools in the South were tremendously ripped apart during the 1960s and '70s, but Harrison didn't have to deal with that."

Given Harrison's history and demographics, some might argue that the district has a tremendous advantage over those with large numbers of poor, disadvantaged students. "Maybe part of the reason for our success," Adair told me, "is because we're a fairly homogeneous group. We are a lot alike, in that this is a mostly agricultural community; we don't have a lot of industry. And the people here all seem to appreciate and value education."

I wondered what would happen if more minorities moved into Harrison. Would there be racial conflict in the schools? Adair said no, but one teacher I spoke with disagreed. "There would be tension," said the teacher, who asked not to be identified. "A lot of people in the community would have a negative feeling. Some of them would be rude and come up to the people and tell them to go home. This is not a multicultural community--you know what I mean?"

Like most small towns, Harrison is not as picture-perfect as it seems on the surface. "We're not without problems," Christenson said. "We've got drug problems, alcohol problems, and we've even seen a few signs of gang activity." Branson, Mo., the booming country-music mec~ca, is about a half-hour drive north on Highway 65--close enough to boost Harrison's economy, but not without a catch. "The downside," Christenson said, "is that Branson has attracted an awful lot of transient people, and that's affected us. There's virtually no place to live in Branson, so a lot of those folks are living here and commuting back and forth."

Adair worries about such things. "The direction of society as a whole does bother me," he said. "I wonder what these schools are going to be like after I've retired."

For now, however, Harrison's troubles seem relatively minor. The kinds of problems that big-city districts face on a daily basis--violence, guns, graffiti--are virtually nonexistent. "It's much easier to teach here," one teacher told me. "You don't have the discipline problems that you have in other schools." Which raises a few questions: Can Harrison's formula for success be replicated elsewhere? Can a mammoth urban school district--New York City's, for example--learn anything from a small district in the heart of the Ozarks? Well, yes and no. There's no disputing that, in some respects, Harrison has got it easy; fortune has smiled on the district, and the teachers and administrators all seem to know it.

"We're very lucky to have a lot of dedicated faculty members who have a sense of mission in their work," said teacher Judy Stroope. "Few of the teachers here consider this 'just a job.' I think we're very lucky to have a lot of parent participation, more than most districts have. And our community is more clear on what it wants to accomplish through education than some districts are. And finally, we're lucky in that we still have a very traditional community here, which is an asset to us because our district is not changing as rapidly as some districts are."

Still, it would be a mistake to dismiss Harrison as merely lucky. After all, many of Charles Adair's "secrets" are not secrets at all. For instance, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that money spent on school administration is money not spent on instruction. In fact, nearly all of the 24 reasons on Adair's "High Achievement/Low Cost" list are applicable to any school district, whatever the size. "If a district came to me," he told me, "and said, 'We're too large. We can't do what you do,' I would say, 'Break your school district into segments, then try to do what we do. Hire good teachers; hire people because of what they can do for the students and the school, not because of what the school can do for them."'

M. Donald Thomas, the president of the School Management Study Group, a Salt Lake City consulting firm that audits school effectiveness, hasn't been to Harrison, but he knows why the town's schools do so well. "The most effective school districts," he said, "focus all their efforts on instruction. They don't waste a lot of money on administration."

I asked Thomas about the efficacy of using standardized-test results to rate schools. Many reformers, I pointed out, argue that test scores do not necessarily reflect how well-educated students are. Thomas, however, defended the practice. "Until we find a better way," he said, "that's the only way we have. It is a measure. Is it a complete measure? No. But it's a valid measure."

To Harrison High Principal Danny Gilbert, the district's success all comes down to one thing: community trust. "If the community gives us a lot of money," he said, "and they see a lot of waste, well, what is that old saying? 'You can go to the well once too often.' If they can see where their dollars are being spent, then I think the money will always be there."

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