ALMA -- Superintendent David Woolly is retiring after 50 years in education, all with the Alma School District.
Woolly grew up in a school, as his father was the superintendent for the Arkansas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired in Little Rock, and his mother was an elementary teacher in the Little Rock School District.
"And because the School for the Blind is a residential school serving the whole state, the superintendent had a residence on campus," Woolly said. "So I literally grew up in a school. I would get up in the morning at a school, go to school, come home at night and be at a school. My playmates when I was young were the students at the School for the Blind, because that was my neighborhood.
"I didn't know there was any other way to earn a living."
Woolly, 72, attended the University of Arkansas to study music education with the goal of becoming a band director. He said when he graduated in 1972, Alma was the only one with a position open.
"Now it was not an attractive job," he noted. "The band program here at this School District was not in good shape, and that's being generous. But it was the only job I was offered, so I took it. I didn't know whether I was going to be here a year or something else. I had no idea."
Woolly said it just so happened a woman named Marsha started teaching at the school that same year, and the two later married and raised their family in Alma.
Woolly said they always knew he'd end up in administration, which he did in 1976 as the assistant principal for Alma High School. He's had several other positions since then. He took the superintendent position in 2011 after the death of then-superintendent Charles Dyer.
Woolly said he was planning to retire at that time and be OK with never having been superintendent, but he couldn't walk away from the district after Dyer died. He noted it's unusual to spend an entire career working at one place, but Alma was the best place to be.
"We were doing great things. We were making great progress. We were building fantastic facilities. We were knocking the top out in co-curricular programs across the board. We didn't have any real problems. It was just a fun place to be. When you get right down to it, that's what matters," he said.
Woolly said over his tenure, he's seen district facilities go from being dogs to gold-plated buildings that could rival any district's. He said Alma's enrollment has more than doubled to over 3,300 students, which in turn has allowed more opportunities for extracurricular activities.
He said it's the obligation of a school district to provide high-quality, co-curricular opportunities for every student, regardless of what their interest is.
There are about 1,100 students at the high school, and fewer than 10 are not in a major co-curricular program, such as football, softball, band or ROTC, he said.
"Something that's a big program that's very active and takes a lot of their time, and teaches them time management, teamwork, grit, those things that make a difference between a person being successful as an adult and not," Woolly said. "You don't learn those things in algebra class. Algebra is important, but you don't learn those things in algebra class. You learn those things in co-curricular programs. So that's always been a big emphasis, just as important to us as having top quality teachers."
"A lot of kids are in more than one. That's not unusual at all. We have football players that are dancers, and all of that cross pollination is a big deal to us," he added. "That is another thing that we have worked hard at for forever. We never tell a student 'You can't do this because you're doing that.' We never do that. We do everything we can to make it possible for them to do everything they want to do, everything they want to try."
Mayor Jerry Martin said Woolly has helped kids at a community level in several ways, and that it's been an absolute joy and pleasure working with him. He recalled in 2019, Woolly allowed the city to use the middle school building to distribute shoes, clothing and school supplies, as well as provide hair cuts and health checkups.
"Neither one necessarily has the funds by themselves to do some of these projects, so to be able to work together, to be able to have nicer facilities and just give our kids the tools that they need to be able to succeed in life," Martin said. "We've had great leadership with Mr. Woolly at the helm, and he is going to be greatly missed."
Woolly has also advocated for schools at the state level by speaking to legislators. The best example is when he worked in a supporting role by researching and presenting statistics to legislators in the Jim DuPree v. Alma School District case in 1983, he said.
The Arkansas Supreme Court concluded in the case state government had consistently failed to provide the money and programs needed to provide a suitable education for all children in Arkansas.
"It went a long way toward equalizing funding, particularly for rapidly growing districts," Woolly recalled. "If we had lost that case we probably would not be sitting here today, because we'd be part of some other school district. We were about to die on the line financially, because we were growing in enrollment pretty rapidly without the money to keep up with what we had to do to educate those growing kids."
Woolly said all of his work starts and ends with students in mind. He said that's the impact he wants to leave in the Alma School District, regardless of what position an individual is working in.
Woolly said that's partly why he waived his regular salary this year, after Alma hired Bryan Duffie as deputy superintendent last year. Woolly is making $12,000 this school year after taking a salary of $176,580 in the 2020-21 school year, according to district financial documents.
Duffie previously was superintendent for the Jacksonville North Pulaski School District.
"I wanted it so that come July 1, when he becomes superintendent, he hits the ground running and his learning curve is already behind him, because I'm still here," Woolly said. "So could we have afforded to pay him and pay me? Yeah, the district could've afforded that. I didn't want to do that. I didn't want the district to pay those two top salaries in the district."
"That speaks volumes to me," Duffie said. "He just loves Alma, loves this School District."
Woolly said he's retiring now because he wanted to leave when he still had the energy and health to end his career the way he began it: by working with kids. He said he plans to travel the world a bit, but he still wants to volunteer for the Alma schools, work with the University of Arkansas development office and speak on education to the Legislature.
"There's no way for me to verbalize to you how much it means in this place," he said. "The thought's crossed my mind recently, why now? Why this long? It's what I wanted to do every day. It's where I wanted to be. I didn't want to be somewhere else doing something else. I wanted to be in Alma School District. It's not a job. It's been my life."