When Eric Saunders served as the high school principal for the Lavaca School District in 2009, he and the other administrators knew the seniors were planning a prank to end the year.
So Saunders was at the school, working late, when he heard a commotion outside around 1 a.m. After calling Jared Cleveland, the superintendent at the time, Saunders went outside to investigate, and it was so dark he couldn’t see past his nose, he said. Cleveland said Saunders walked up to a group of students when he heard one of them say, “I think Mr. Saunders is still here.”
That’s when Saunders said, “I think he is going to be here sometime soon.” That’s when they shined their flashlights on him and just scattered like crazy.
“It was a pretty interesting night,” Saunders said.
“By the time I got there, there were cars leaving,” Cleveland said. “[Saunders] understood that it was just a harmless prank. He wasn’t out to get anybody in trouble.
“But he just didn’t want to see any damage come to the school because even though it was our last year to use that building, it was still our school.”
Saunders was recently named the new assistant superintendent for the Benton School District. He is replacing Lita Gattis, who is retiring. His official start date is July 1.
“I think it is a great district and has great people working there,” Saunders said. “I am just excited to be part of a great team.”
Saunders has worked for the Arkansas Department of Education as an assistant commissioner of Fiscal and Administrative Services for the past three years.
“We are very excited to have Dr. Eric Saunders joining our leadership team here in the Benton School District,” Superintendent Mike Skelton said in a statement. “He brings a wealth of experience and expertise to his position of assistant superintendent.
“Having had the opportunity to know Dr. Saunders for several years and experiencing firsthand his commitment to education and to the students in the state of Arkansas, we know that we have hit a home run with his hiring.”
Cleveland and Saunders worked together for five years at Lavaca.
“He was a fantastic principal, and he did some remarkable things with our curriculum and student achievement,” Cleveland said. “We had a history of doing OK but not great. Once he became principal, our SAT scores rose dramatically, and our end-of-course-exam scores rose quite dramatically, too.
“I think he grew up during that tenure.”
Cleveland said being principal is one of the hardest jobs in education.
“In that first year, we had to clean up some things, so it was a rough job,” Cleveland said. “At the end, I was sad to see him go.”
Cleveland currently serves as deputy superintendent for the Springdale School District.
“I would hire [Saunders] in a second in any administration job available,” Cleveland said. “He is just a brilliant guy, and he is just a good man.
“The only problem Benton is going to have is keeping him. He has all the qualities it takes to be a superintendent at a large school.”
Saunders has served in just about every capacity in education. He has been a teacher, a coach, a high school principal, a superintendent and an assistant commissioner over two different divisions.
“Through those different roles, I have just seen a lot of different things,” Saunders said. “There are a lot of ways to do things, and I am very familiar with the process, not just at the local level, but at the state level as well.”
Saunders said all his roles have provided various rewards.
“I don’t know if there has been one that I have enjoyed more than the others,” Saunders said. “I have really enjoyed the roles in the districts, being closer to students and meeting people from around the state.”
He has coached football, basketball, baseball and soccer.
“Overall, my focus is student learning and the ways to approach it,” Saunders said, “working with a culture that is focused around the students and student learning, working with different people, emphasizing team work and getting everyone involved. I want us to work toward a common goal.”
Saunders graduated from Gentry High School in 1992 and received an undergraduate degree from Oklahoma State University in 1997. He earned a master’s degree through Harding University and stayed with Harding to obtain his doctorate in 2012.
“Going through college, I tried a few different majors and looked at a few different areas, exploring some,” Saunders said. “I wanted to be able to do something that would have a lasting impact.
“The great thing about education is, if you help that group of students, help them make a better life, it goes beyond their generation.”
Saunders said education is truly a calling and “one of the most important jobs in the world.”
“In a nutshell, I wanted something with meaning and to be able to help people,” Saunders said. “This is a perfect area to do that.”
Johnny Key, Arkansas Department of Higher Education commissioner, said he has known Saunders for six or seven years and has worked directly with him for a little over three years.
“I would describe him as the most dedicated professional that I have worked with,” Key said. “He is dedicated to helping schools be better for students, and teachers have better tools to help students. … When we are evaluating things at the department, he has been a trusted adviser because of his wealth of experience in education.
“He is an expert in school finance and in the use of technology and how to use data to improve instruction. He brings just an enormous set of skills.”
Key said one of Saunders’ biggest contributions was his work on developing the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.
“The depth of understanding and the work he did brought clarity in how we present data,” Key said. “It is just a testimony to his diligence and work ethic.
“You look at a lot of states and what they design; it pales in comparison to what we have here.”
Saunders said one of the reasons he was interested in the position with Benton was the fact that he and his family have lived in the area for the past four years. His children, Audrey and Leah, attend
Benton Middle School and Caldwell Elementary School, respectively. His wife, Shannon, holds two degrees, including a degree in business from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. The couple have been married for 16 years after meeting at a church in Fayetteville. They currently attend Northside Church of Christ in Benton.
“I think it is a wonderful district,” Saunders said of Benton.
“I think they are doing great things for kids, and they are also growing in numbers. There is a lot of change going on,” he said.
“Dr. Saunders and his family are residents of our community, and he knows our school district well,” Skelton said. “We feel that with his background and knowledge of our district, this will be a seamless transition for him and for us.
“Dr. Saunders could easily be leading a district of his own, so we are thankful to have him and his family as part of our team, community and district.”
Staff writer Sam Pierce can be reached at (501) 244-4314 or firstname.lastname@example.org.