Kelvin Gragg

The Dermott School District’s belt-tightening has paid off. The district has seen a complete turnaround with increasing enrollment, increasing fund balances, and is no longer in fiscal distress.

But that turnaround didn’t come without some pain.

Faced with declining student enrollment and low end-of-year fund balances several years ago, the Dermott School District was placed on the state Department of Education’s list of fiscally distressed schools. The district had to cut faculty and staff, eliminate the football program, and learn to say “no.”

“It took a lot of ‘nos’,” said Dermott School District Superintendent Kelvin Gragg. “When people wanted to spend money, I’d say no.”

Gragg, a former Pine Bluff School District assistant superintendent and Pine Bluff High School principal, has been superintendent at Dermott Schools since June 2012. The district was removed from fiscal distress status in December.

Gragg, however, doesn’t take credit for the turnaround.

“The plan was pretty much in place when I got here, I just followed the plan and was cautious about our spending,” Gragg said. “I made some adjustments, did some refining, consolidated some bus routes, and looked at where we could reduce in other areas.”

Those efforts paid off. The district’s end-of-year fund balance has increased from $300,000 three years ago to $1.2 million as of June 30.

Student enrollment is also up, increasing from 391 at the end of the last school year to 437 as of Monday.

“The biggest increase was in our kindergarten,” Gragg said. “We went from 22 in kindergarten last year to 47 this year.”

Gragg said the district has also been fortunate to bring in two good principals.

Kristi Gathen Ridgell, a former math teacher and math specialist at Warren, is the new elementary school principal, and David Clinton, who came to Dermott from Sheridan, is the new high school principal. Both Ridgell and Clinton have close ties to the area. Ridgell’s father is the McGehee School District superintendent and Clinton’s father was the high school principal at Lake Village for 20 years.

“We got people who have been around education for a long time and know what to do,” Gragg said, adding that a good staff, faculty and school board is a recipe for success.

“Our school board has allowed us to do the things we need to do,” Gragg said. “They support us in any initiative we think will be beneficial.”

Asked if the district has plans to reinstate its football program, Gragg said it is his goal.

“I told the community and the board my goal is to get it going again but I want to make sure we have the numbers to sustain the program,” Gragg said. “You can’t do it with 11 or 12 kids. We’ll start first with a junior high program and build to a high school program.”

Gragg, a former football coach whose son Chris was a standout at Arkansas and plays in the NFL, and son Will has college football scholarship offers from Arkansas, Alabama, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt, is a strong proponent of athletics and extra curricular activities.

“Those activities play a vital role in some students staying in school and getting an education,” he said.