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New Vilonia superintendent: ‘I’m a Christian first’

By Tammy Keith

This article was published March 13, 2014 at 12:00 a.m.

VILONIA — The new Vilonia superintendent said he realized the job was perfect for him after his school-board interview.

David Stephens, 52, of Missouri was unanimously hired last month to replace longtime superintendent Frank Mitchell, who will retire in June.

“I remember walking away from the last interview thinking, ‘I want to be part of this district,’” Stephens said. “I think we have shared values, and I think we have a shared passion to do what’s best for kids. I think that’s what clicked for me.”

Stephens has been superintendent of the Nevada R-V School District in Nevada, Mo., for the past six years.

Although he’s a Missouri native, he said his wife, Kelly, is from Arkansas, and her parents live in Vilonia.

“We kind of always knew we would want to get back to Arkansas,” Stephens said. “I had never spent much time in Arkansas until I started dating my wife and kind of fell in love with the state. The Vilonia job not only put us in Arkansas but put us with family.”

Kelly graduated from North Little Rock High School and attended the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, he said.

Her parents moved to Vilonia and opened L & D Container.

Stephens said he met his wife through a friend.

“She was working in the corporate offices at Tyson in Fayetteville, and my best friend had moved to Fayetteville, … so he fixed me up with his girlfriend’s best friend,” Stephens said.

Stephens and Kelly, who is 11 years younger than he is, have three children, Isabelle, 8; Lula, 6; and Samuel, 4.

“Education was just something I knew I wanted to do from an early age,” Stephens said. “My grandmother was an educator; my uncle was an educator.

“In college, I tried a lot of other majors and ultimately came back to education.”

He received his undergraduate degree at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin, a master’s degree at Pittsburg State University in Kansas and a doctorate in educational leadership and policy analysis from the University of Missouri-Columbia.

He said his first job was teaching special education at Joplin Junior High School.

“I taught for a few years, then I got my master’s in counseling and became a school counselor,” he said.

Stephens said he enjoyed being a middle-school counselor.

“At the prodding of one of my administrators, I starting dipping my toe into administrative water and found out I liked it,” he said.

“I liked the whole concept of leadership,” he said, no matter what the position.

Stephens said he wanted to transition to administration and use his skills “to make the environment better for teachers and students. It sounds like a cliché, but just so we can provide the best opportunity for every kid.

“I remember when I decided to go that direction — because I wasn’t sure I wanted to be an administrator — I remember praying about it and saying, ‘God, I trust you to lead me.’ He made it clear, so that was my answer.”

Stephens’ first administrative position was as assistant principal for one year at Neosho (Mo.) Junior High School. Then he was hired as principal at the school he attended as a student, Carl Junction (Mo.) High School. He replaced his former principal, and some of his teachers were still there, too.

“I went from being one of their students to their principal, so that was interesting,” he said.

Stephens said he became assistant superintendent at Carl Junction before his current position as superintendent at Nevada.

He will start July 1 as superintendent in Vilonia.

“The first thing, and I told the board this in my interview, I would anticipate most of my first year there would just be learning the school and learning the culture,” Stephens said.

Stephens said he plans to work closely with the administrative team to gather insight.

“One of the things I love to do is to just dialogue with students — find out from them what it means to be a Vilonia Eagle,” and what they might like to see done differently, he said.

Stephens said he plans to hold monthly luncheons with students, just as he did in Nevada.

In addition to the school board, four focus groups interviewed the final three applicants for Vilonia superintendent: students, teachers, classified employees and administrators.

The Vilonia School District hired two consultants for $10,000 to conduct the superintendent search.

Consultant Bobby Lester of Jacksonville, a Rose Bud native, said the school board provided its top-five criteria for a superintendent. No. 1 was someone who has central office experience, understands school finance and has experience in budgeting.

When consultants held a public meeting with patrons, Lester said, they said they wanted “someone who is religiously conservative like you find in the South, and we can’t ask that.”

When people ask Stephens what they should know about him, Stephens said his answer is always the same: “I’m a Christian first, a husband and father second, and a superintendent third,” he said.

As far as hobbies, Stephens said he’s a runner and a gardener.

“I love to work in the yard, get my hands dirty,” he said.

Before being interviewed, candidates toured the Vilonia campuses and had dinner with school board members and their spouses.

“I was very impressed with the facilities,” Stephens said. “We have good facilities here (in Nevada), … but what I saw [in Vilonia], I was very impressed with. It was very clear the patrons of the community had a lot of pride in the school district.”

Vilonia School Board President Jerry Roberts said Stephens “clicked” with the board.

“He seemed like he fit what we were looking for; he was just a perfect fit. He has three small kids, and we felt like he would fit right into our school district.”

Roberts said Stephens’ salary will be $135,000 a year, plus the use of a vehicle.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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