By SHELLY WILKISON
At school board meetings, Anthony Stephens is the calming voice of reason and order. Typically stoic and professional at the dais, the Liberty Hill alum has cast many votes over the past 12 years and before each one, he himself the same question.
“Is it good for the kids? When the answer is yes, it makes it an easy decision,” he said.
While Stephens admits some decisions have been more difficult than others, and he even has some regrets about a few, he has always followed what he believed was the fundamental reason for his service — doing what he thought was best for Liberty Hill school children.
After being elected to four three-year terms on the Board of Trustees, Stephens decided not to seek another term this spring. He said he made the decision in 2012 and stepped down as Board President making the transition easier for his colleagues and Clay Cole, who was elected by the Board to take the helm.
“My kids have been gone (from Liberty Hill schools) a couple of years, and I don’t have the same zeal for it now as I had then,” he said.
Stephens, a mail carrier for the US Post Office in Bertram, said he would like to see more interest from the community in school governance. Few people from the public attend school board meetings and it is not uncommon to have election years with uncontested races for board positions.
At the same time, however, he says school board members do not have the authority or influence that some believe they do.
“The school board is a governing body. We don’t have as much power as people think we do. We set policy, the budget and tax rate,” he said, adding that daily operations of the school district are not in their purview.
Yet it was an issue that brought Stephens to the school board 12 years ago. At that time, he was a volunteer coach for community league basketball and the school district had just raised rental rates for school gyms.
“They (LHISD) had just raised the fees for use of the gyms and it was way too much,” he said. “I decided I wanted to know what was going on in the schools.”
Stephens was in a four-way race for a seat on the Board. He said most of his campaigning was done by posting yard signs, and he believes he won because many voters already knew him and his family.
Once elected, he managed to influence a reduction in rates for renting school facilities. But it didn’t take long for him to realize how much it cost to maintain school facilities. Since that time, the rental rates have been raised periodically with Stephens’ support.
Always one to enjoy life as it happens and avoiding stress as much as possible, Stephens describes himself as “very easy going and slow to anger.”
He said he has never been one to spend a lot of time planning his life. In fact, he never had any political ambitions and doesn’t consider himself a political person.
“It’s always been about helping the schools be the best for our kids,” he said of his service on the school board.
Liberty Hill has changed a lot since Stephens attended school here from 1976-1980, but he said he is pleased with the changes — most of which were brought on by growth. At that time, all grade levels were housed on the same campus — what is now Liberty Hill Intermediate School. There were 46 students in Stephens’ 1980 graduating class.
Stephens was quite the athlete, focused on football and played under former Panther Coach Charlie Braun. He was a straight-A student, and after graduation attended Texas A&M University for one year before enrolling in Temple Junior College where he earned an associate’s degree in mechanical engineering.
Stephens was born in Detroit, Mich., the second oldest of four boys who grew up in an Air Force family. His parents moved to Liberty Hill in 1976, where his mother’s family had lived for generations. Returning to Liberty Hill meant coming home to family.
For the past seven years, he has traveled the rural countryside delivering mail in and around Bertram. Stephens has worked in various jobs over the years, but spending the days driving along country roads is perhaps the most peaceful. During tax season, he also works for the IRS doing data entry.
Earlier, he spent 20 years at Motorola and later worked as a truck driver before going to work for the Post Office.
The father of two children, Stephens said he understands the challenges of families struggling to make ends meet during tough economic times. That’s why decisions to raise property taxes as a member of the school board were not made without careful consideration.
While some have complained of higher taxes brought on by the narrow passage of a bond election in 2010 by school district voters, Stephens said the Board and the voters made the right decision.
“Some (in Liberty Hill) seem to be resistant to growth to the point of not planning for it,” he said. “I think the (school) district has done a good job planning for growth. We aren’t doing anything we don’t need.”
Stephens said while the price tag was high, it was important to him that Liberty Hill remain a premiere school district in Texas and the decision to build first-class facilities was not a difficult one.
Nor was the decision to hire Dr. Rob Hart as school superintendent five years ago, Stephens said.
“Dr. Hart was the right person at the right time,” he said. “We considered a wide range of candidates, some from bigger (districts) and some from smaller districts. It felt right for Liberty Hill at that time, and I know the district will be in good shape if he ever decides to go.”
Stephens said the district’s rapid growth will continue to pose challenges. But for Stephens, who grew up in small town Liberty Hill and chose to remain and raise a family here, he hopes it can hold onto its “small-town feel.”
“It’s getting harder as we grow, but we’re continuing to do well with the younger kids,” he said.
While Stephens said he is listening to concerns about school safety, he believes Liberty Hill is safe, and disciplinary problems are few.
“There’s always a reason to be concerned … but we have good kids with high integrity,” he said, adding that school administrators do a good job of addressing student discipline problems.
Stephens said over the years, the most common complaints from parents have been related to discipline, problems with teachers or administrators. For the most part, he said he isn’t in a position to solve the problem, but refers them to the appropriate place.
Stephens said without a doubt, his fondest moments as a school board member came when he presented high school diplomas to his two children, Tanya, now age 23, and Will, a 2011 graduate.
“Those were the best times,” he said.
He said he will miss the interaction with fellow board members and school personnel when he leaves the dais in May, but he has every intention of attending a board meeting now and then.
His commitment to volunteerism will not stop with the school board. For years, Stephens has volunteered as a coach and now serves as assistant director of the Liberty Hill Wildcats select basketball program.
“I like to think I did a good job (as school trustee),” he said. “It really just happened, and it was a good thing.”