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story.lead_photo.caption Laura Baber, the chief financial officer for the Benton School District, stands in front of Angie Grant Elementary School in Benton. Baber served as principal for Angie Grant for seven years before becoming CFO. She plans to retire from the district at the end of the school year. - Photo by Sam Pierce

Laura Baber is a kid person. She said she loves being around kids and greeted every kid who came to school when she was principal at Angie Grant Elementary School in Benton. She loved opening car doors for the students and getting her morning hugs.

“I miss being a teacher. Even as a principal, I was around kids all the time,” Baber said. “I was in the cafeteria every day at lunchtime, talking to the kids in a different setting, because I believe relationships are very important. I miss the kids.”

After spending four years as chief financial officer for the Benton School District, Baber will now get all the morning hugs she wants.

“My oldest daughter is expecting a baby in May,” Baber said. “My daughter works as a 911 dispatcher for the Benton Police Department, and she has a really crazy schedule. She will work a month of nights, then a month of days, with 12-hour shifts.

“It is a consistent schedule, but it is different every other week, so it is not conducive to day care. So I’m going to retire and take care of my grandbaby.”

Baber said that with the baby not due until May, it works out pretty well, as she will have to time to finish out the school year, and by the time her daughter, Leigh Ann Hamilton, returns to work, Baber will be free to baby-sit.

“I wasn’t planning on retiring just yet,” Baber said. “My youngest daughter, Adrianna, is a junior at Benton High School, and I thought I would wait until she got out of high school, or maybe longer.”

Baber has been with the district for 11 years. Before she was in her current position, she was the principal at Angie Grant Elementary School for seven years.

“Mrs. Baber has always been a very valuable part to our leadership team here in the Benton School District,” superintendent Mike Skelton said. “Her experience as a classroom teacher and a building and district-level administrator has positively contributed to her success in guiding our district in the role of chief financial officer.

“Her tireless work ethic and pursuit of perfection have enabled our district to operate at an extremely efficient and productive level financially for the entire time she has served as our CFO. She is to be commended for her ability to assemble a great team within our finance department.

“Without question, she is going to be missed.”

Baber has 32 years in education, with her career beginning in Glenwood for three years. She later transferred to the Hot Springs School District as a kindergarten and first-grade teacher at Oaklawn Primary School, which is now Oaklawn Visual and Performing Arts, for five years. She then went to Langston Intermediate School, now Langston Aerospace and Environmental Studies Magnet School, as the Title I facilitator and coordinator.

“I did a lot of different things in that role [at Langston],” she said. “I did enrichment classes, and I made sure we used our funds correctly. … I was there for 11 years.”

Before coming to Benton, she was an assistant principal at Malvern Elementary School for two years. Her husband, Adrian Baber, is originally from Benton and graduated from Benton High School. He works as the division chief of conservation for the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission in Little Rock.

“Benton is a great place, not just to work, but to live,” Laura Baber said. “It has a small-town feel and is close to Little Rock, close to Hot Springs and close to the lake. It is a good place to work and a good community to live in.

“The school district is an awesome school district and has a lot of great teachers, great staff and great administration. The parents are phenomenal, and the parents are supportive.”

Baber’s dad was in the Army, so she was born in New Mexico near the White Sands Missile Range. She started school in Germany and later moved to Alabama. When her parents divorced, she and her mom moved back to New Mexico. When she was 16, in 1982, her mom and stepdad moved to Story, Arkansas. Baber graduated from Mount Ida High School in 1983.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Arkansas Tech University in Russellville in 1987 and a master’s degree in elementary administration from Henderson State University in 1990, while working at Glenwood.

“I personally owe Laura a debt of gratitude and appreciation for her help and support of me in my role as the BSD Superintendent,” Skelton said.

“She has always provided great insight, suggestions and solutions in helping to keep our district moving forward. Laura and her family have undoubtedly been a huge asset to our community and to the Benton School District for many years,” Skelton said. “We are sad that she is leaving, but we are all so happy for her to now be able to spend more time with her friends and family upon retirement.

“We all want to wish her great health and happiness in the years ahead.”

Baber has also served on the Ralph Bunche Community Action Committee for almost eight years. The committee puts together the Ralph Bunche Back to School Picnic on the first Saturday in August.

“Students in the Benton School District can attend the picnic, and they will receive a backpack of school supplies for their grade level,” she said. “We have bounce houses and provide lunch and have a lot of local businesses and groups with booths of things for the students and their families to participate in.”

Pam Maisen, a second-grade teacher at Angie Grant Elementary, said that over the years, she has come to love Baber and count her as a friend.

“She is bright, witty and has a bubbling personality,” Maisen said. “One thing I have always admired about Laura is her love and dedication to children and their education.

“I am thankful that I have had the privilege of working with her and count it an honor to call her my friend.”

Baber began her position as the district’s CFO in July 2015. She said she never thought she would go that route, especially since she doesn’t have an accounting degree, but after a couple of people approached her about the opening, she was encouraged to apply.

“I always knew I wanted to be a teacher, by the time I was a little girl,” Baber said, “but if I had not gone into teaching, I probably would have gone into accounting because I like budgets, and I like making numbers work. I’m all the time at home working on my budget.”

She said that when she was hired as CFO, the district had an assistant business manager who had been there for a while. But, Baber said, by September, she was on her own.

“I worry about who is going to come after me,” she said. “I have encouraged all my people to take notes and type out the things you do, because you never know if somebody is going to have to come in and do your job.”

“I have been trying to do that even before I knew I was going to retire.”

She said it is important to always keep learning.

“I have been learning in each role that I have been in,” she said. “It has been a learning curve, and I had to learn new things, but it keeps you on your toes and keeps your mind active. It keeps you from being bored.”

She said she is going to miss the people she works with.

“I work with a great group of people in the central office, and I have great contacts and friends in the school as well,” Baber said. “I’m going to miss all those interactions, and I’m going to miss my work family.”

Staff writer Sam Pierce can be reached at (501) 244-4314 or spierce@arkansasonline.com.

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