Profile

Benny L. Gooden

Tooting a Horn in High Places by JAY GOLDMAN


Ask Benny Gooden to identify a characteristic that distinguishes his administrative style and the superintendent of 22 years begs off. Maybe, he modestly suggests, someone who works with me can point to something unusual.

Still the head of the 12,700-student Fort Smith, Ark., Public Schools will offer this about himself: He’s impatient and unafraid of saying so. "I wanted that yesterday," he says. "I have a sense of urgency of things we could do but don’t. It’s sort of the idea of turning an ocean liner as if it’s a speedboat."

Gooden’s itch to act today stems from a grave concern for tomorrow—the notion that failing to invest in the needs of children now will have crippling ramifications for a democratic and capitalist society. "What we do today won't see results for several years. Those youngsters entering kindergarten this year will still be in the workforce in 2050," he notes.

In a decidedly urban school setting where Asian and African American students comprise nearly 20 percent of Fort Smith’s enrollment—uncharacteristically diverse by standards in middle America—Gooden sees plenty of reasons for investing heavily in the developmental needs of those youngsters who come to school years behind their peers. Fail to do so, he says, "and we don’t have a chance of succeeding."

Though his school district in northwestern Arkansas sits in one of the few Republican strongholds in the state, Gooden is adamant about carrying his beliefs to legislators at the state and federal levels. His home delegations treat him and his message for enhanced government involvement cordially, if only barely receptively, during his periodic forays to Little Rock and Washington, D.C.

"Not everyone who approaches the board of education and not everyone in education even accepts the idea that all children have the ability to learn," says Gooden. "Some out there have selfish interests ... who aren't concerned about those less fortunate than they are. They're working to shape systems for their own benefit."

He scores kudos from some observers for his bravado.

"Standing up for funding against the Arkansas General Assembly is sort of like being around Caesar on the Ides of March," quips Jack Moseley, executive editor of the daily Southwest Times Record who says he admires Gooden for his clear stance on the issues and his candor.

"Even when it’s not always in his best interest to speak out, he’s always responsive to the media, a quality my staff greatly appreciates," Moseley adds.

Dr. Jerry Stewart, who left the Fort Smith school board in September after nine years, says Gooden’s common-sense approach to problem solving is refreshing. "He doesn’t get caught up in the rhetoric," says Stewart, chief executive of a 100-doctor medical clinic.

Gooden acts bemused when told of such tributes. But he refuses to accept full credit for successes over which he's had little direct control. "The main successes I have achieved in this and former superintendencies have been related to the selection of talented individuals who can provide leadership in the administrative office, the classroom and in the myriad of school functions that are essential to organizational success."

AASA legislative staff have gotten to know Gooden well over the years as someone who always is ready to heed a call for assistance. He served a recent term on the association's Resolutions Committee and continues to volunteer for the Legislative Corps.

"Benny responds to almost every request we make to the Legislative Corps," says AASA policy analyst Nick Penning.

Gooden says he's maintained an abiding interest in federal affairs since his days as a high school principal when he annually hosted the local congressman during an address to the student body. Ever since, he insists, "I've always believed if I could share a glimpse of reality (with elected officials), I should."

Gooden is best known to many AASA members as the director for the last eight years of the Singing Superintendents, the perennial entertainment troupe at the association’s national conference each winter.

He began his career as a vocal and instrumental teacher in Alma, Ark., and even today wields the lead trumpet in the Community Band of Western Arkansas. So he eagerly responded to an open call for a new, unpaid director of the Singing Superintendents when the post became vacant.

"It’s an opportunity to do something totally different from what I do the rest of the year," he says.

Jay Goldman is the editor of The School Administrator. E-mail: jgoldman@aasa.org

BIO STATS:
Benny Gooden

Currently:
superintendent, Fort Smith, Ark., Public Schools

Earlier:
11 years as superintendent in Boonville, Mo., and Cuba, Mo.

Age:
53

Greatest Influence on Career:
My father and mother modeled the work ethic and a "do right" philosophy

Best Professional Day:
Securing voter approval for a 20 percent tax increase to guarantee the district’s financial stability

Books at Bedside:
I go to sleep quickly and do not read in bed. Nonetheless, a biography of Harry S. Truman resides there

Biggest Blooper:
Adopting the mistaken belief that all people are trustworthy and care for children as much as I do.

A Reason Why I'm an AASA Member:
How else could I associate with the Singing Superintendents?