Sunday, May 16, 2010

$1 million gift to rural Arkansas high school

I visited Northwest Arkansas last week, and I was struck by a story in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on May 12, 2010. The headline is "$1 million gift thrills Huntsville educators," and the story tells of a "local boy" made good (he is now an elderly, wealthy entrepreneur) who recently donated $1 million worth of stock in Tyson Foods, Inc., to his public school alma mater, the Huntsville School District. The population of Huntsville, Arkansas is 1,931, but the story indicates that the district's enrollment is 2,400, which presumably because many students who are bussed from outside Huntsville. Huntsville is in Madison County, which has a population of 14,243.

The donor is A.T. Smith, owner of A.T. Smith Fertilizer Lime and Seed and A.T. Smith Mercantile in Hindsville, which has a population of just 75 (none of whom, incidentally, is under the age of 18--talk about the greying of rural America!). The only conditions on the donation are that the money be spent on 'something permanent' and that the donation be made" in the names of A.T. Smith and his wife, Georgia Mae Smith.

Smith's story sounds like one of rags-to-riches--assuming, that is, that no one from Hindsville, Arkansas started out life with very much money. While the median household income of Hindsville is just about $22,500, Smith made his fortune in the fertilizer business, starting in the 1960s. His company operates a blending plant and spreads fertilizer for clients who span a three-state area. Smith was also Hindsville's postmaster.

"I just wanted to do something to give back," Smith said. I went to school in Huntsville and graduated up there, and I figured they needed it just as bad as anyone." He has left it to the district to come up with suggestions on how to spend the money.

The gift represents 5% of the district's annual budget of $20 million. The district superintendent is quoted as saying, "We'll certainly use it to the benefit of students. ... We'll have to sit on this, digest this, believe that it is real and then go to work."

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