Fort Smith Public Schools Superintendent Benny Gooden, one of the longest serving superintendents in Arkansas, announced Monday (April 25) he will resign effective June 30.
Gooden was named superintendent of Fort Smith Public Schools in August 1986. His retirement will conclude 30 years at the job and 50 years in education.
“After reflecting on your stated desire for a new direction and with a realization that there are other pursuits for me which the obligations of the job have prevented, I have decided that it is time to transition from the 24/7 life of a school administrator to a less-confining lifestyle. I am not ‘quitting work,’ but there are other things I can do which will be rewarding and productive,” Gooden noted in a letter to the Fort Smith School Board. “Thank you for the opportunity to serve as your superintendent of schools for the past three decades. I believe in the future of public education in Fort Smith – just as I believe in the future of this great community and its people. I will retire effective June 30, 2016.”
Gooden in recent years has been the target of those critical of proposed school facility expansions, changes in school mascots and proposed charter schools.
The controversial and often emotional process to change the “Rebel” mascot at Southside High School began in late June 2015 with a School Board committee vote. The Fort Smith Public School Board then voted 7-0 on July 27 to change the mascot and end use of the “Dixie” fight song that has been associated with the school since it opened in 1963. The Board voted to discontinue use of “Dixie” as the Southside High School fight song in the 2015-2016 school year and to drop the Rebel as the Southside mascot in the 2016-2017 school year.
Gooden in 2013-2014 also pushed for a third high school, saying the district’s population of 14,313 students was expected to blossom to about 17,000 students by the year 2023, which would necessitate a third high school and re-alignment of freshman to the city’s high schools. Conservative estimates for construction of a new high school place the project at about $65 million, with the district needing seek a millage rate increase from 4.5 mills to 6.5 mils.
However, the business community opposed the plan that would build a third high school in the Chaffee Crossing area – southeast of the city’s center. An independent review of the need for a third high school was conducted. Preston Smith, owner of Kansas City, Mo.-based Business Information Services, told school officials and a small contingent of area business leaders that Fort Smith’s two high schools – Northside and Southside – could run out of space in three years, but a new high school complex is not necessary.
While not opposing the idea, Gooden was neutral on a business-based effort to launch the Future School of Fort Smith. The school, eventually approved by the Arkansas Department of Education in November 2015, is set to open this fall and will be the first public enrollment charter school in the Fort Smith area.
In a document provided to the media, Gooden noted that he has Gooden, who has “worked within the confines of a 36.5 millage rate since 1987,” and has worked within those resources to maintain “a very low debt ratio.”
“(H)e has facilitated an ongoing building maintenance and improvement plan since his employment with the District. He has guided the instructional vision of the District as he has supported the development of a fiber infrastructure to support emerging technologies as instructional tools,” noted the statement.
Gooden’s statement included a clear difference of opinion with those who have been supportive of charter schools “and other niche offerings.”
Gooden noted: “Students who come from homes of advantage will succeed regardless of the course the system as a whole follows. However, for those who lack the resources which relative affluence brings, a strong and balanced array of public school opportunities delivered in an uncompromising manner is critical to their successful futures. Real school choice for them lies in the comprehensive PreK-12 program that is Fort Smith Public Schools. Private options, charter schools with a narrow focus, virtual programs and other niche offerings will receive attention and may excite some who seek something ‘different,’ but they will not replace the comprehensive focus of the wide range of Fort Smith Public School options.”
Gooden was raised in Clinton, Ark., and received a bachelor’s degree in music education from Harding University. He also received a master’s degree from the University of Arkansas and a doctorate in educational administration from the University of Missouri.
He was honored in 1992 by the American Association of School Administrators as the “Arkansas Superintendent of the Year.” In 1993, he was selected as one of 100 Outstanding School Administrators in North America by Executive Educator magazine. He was named “Administrator of the Year” by the Arkansas PTA in 1995 and in 1999 was the recipient of the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Outstanding Educator award from the National PTA.
Link here for a PDF copy of Gooden’s retirement letter to the Fort Smith School Board.