Feature

More Than Bricks and Mortar

The promises, doubts and dreams of a small, rural community are inextricably tied to the opening of a new school facility by CHARLES E. STRATTON


The long-awaited day finally arrived. The grand opening and dedication ceremony for our K-12 building was to start in the new auditorium at 2 p.m. I had spent most of the morning giving tours of the school and tending to last-minute details.

At 1:45 I was frantic, trying to prepare a few words as master of ceremonies. How could I say in two minutes what had consumed me for 3½ years? I don't recall my exact remarks now, but I know they failed to capture the significance of the occasion.

Doubt and panic had been a natural part of my relationship with this building project from the moment I took the job as superintendent of a small, rural school district in central New York state in July 1994. I felt it at the first public meeting to discuss the possibility of building a new school. The meeting was intended for farmers since they pay the largest share of the district's taxes. I felt they deserved their own meeting.

I scheduled the meeting for early afternoon when farmers, during that time of year, would not be heavily involved with crops. We met in the Munnsville Town Hall, a relatively small room. It was set up with two folding tables end-to-end with chairs around them. I sat in the middle with farmers across from me and on each side. The turnout was excellent and, although the meeting went well, I felt intimidated. I knew that whatever I said would be interpreted as more taxes for them when they were struggling to hang onto their farms.

I was scared to death. They asked tough questions, and I admitted I could not answer some of them. I'll never know if they sensed my fright, liked what I had to say or just appreciated being recognized as a group.

Lingering Anxieties
Three years later in January 1998, I was totally surprised during the grand opening ceremony when the school board president presented me with a plaque in appreciation of my efforts on the new building. The presentation was not part of the agenda and it caught me off guard, especially when the audience gave me a standing ovation. I felt awkward and uneasy, but the ovation dissipated many of my earlier doubts about this building project.

Voice trembling, I introduced the next speaker, then sat down trying to cope with what had just happened. I don't remember what the dignitaries had to say during the remainder of the ceremony. I was lost in my own thoughts about the building, the day and the community sitting in front of me.

I knew that the people attending that dedication ceremony were happy with their new facility, and for the moment I thought that my uncertainty throughout this project was silly. I felt good about helping deliver a school that was well received. But I wondered how others felt about this project. Had they harbored doubts about it, even from the start? If so, were those doubts erased now that the school was complete? Did they receive what was promised?

To answer these questions, I asked several people in the community to share personal retrospectives of this major project--a school board member, a student, a teacher, a custodian, a parent and a member of the community with no children in school. I gave these stakeholders no guidelines other than to briefly write about how they viewed the building of a new school in their midst.

Frankly, I expected one or two paragraphs from most, but was surprised by the quantity and quality of the six reflections. They were well written and ranged from 500 to 1,500 words.

I am providing excerpts from these retrospectives because they illustrate the adventure that a small, conservative community outside the media limelight senses in constructing a new school--the only building to comprise their school district.

The community of Munnsville (population 500) had witnessed a transformation. Some portrayed this change as dramatic. Others believe the most significant changes are yet to unfold.

A Board Stance
Dave Puddington, a five-year member of the board of education, focused almost entirely on the positive effects flowing from the community's decision to build a new school.

"From the decision to build have come some grand advances and developments in our community ... its people, youth and overall environment," he wrote. He likened the building project to an "awakening of a formerly sleepy valley community."

He added: "The increased involvement of the citizenry and wholesome leadership have been keys to the visionary thrust and birth of a new spirit and pride" within the school district. "From the advisory task force formulation stage in late 1991 to the wise decision to build anew rather than renovate a 60-year-old facility, the process and results have been positive influences on the entire Stockbridge Valley area."

Puddington cited these changes:

 

  • a small industry relocated into the old school building;

     

     

  • school and community forums were conducted to plan future growth;

     

     

  • a health center has been created in the community;

     

     

  • a small business council has been formed;

     

     

  • a playground has been created in the town park; and

     

     

  • natural gas is being piped into the community.

     

    He voiced none of the doubts I had experienced and was obviously quite proud. "A concerned citizenry, willing voters, a board of education that has remained focused on the mission even with doubters and negative roadblocks in the way ... these all helped in bringing about positive accomplishments," he wrote.

  • A Parental Perspective
    Not all the retrospectives were as upbeat and optimistic. The parent response was critical or at least suspicious of the process and results of the building project.

    Parent Claire Clements, who was a member of the facilities committee, said she was bombarded with reactions from different stakeholders. At the outset of the planning, she recounted, the comments ranged from "We don't need anything" to "The sky's the limit" and "We want to do the best possible for our children, but how will we ever pay for it?"

    She described the decision to build a new facility as a default position, rather than what many felt was a clearcut and exciting victory for the district. "After months of research by members of the committee, community, staff and administration, reality set in," she wrote. "We needed a new building and it seemed financially attainable. Size, amenities, technologies and the special needs of a pre-K-through-12 facility were negotiated to the delight, chagrin or silence of all involved. Plans and schedules were developed, budgeted, voted on and passed. The school administration, to its credit, was ever available, ever optimistic and ever sympathetic in its dealings with the community."

    Clements said community members generally responded with support, acquiescence or silence. After the building was completed, Clements implied she had some concerns, particularly about a possible tax increase. Some in the community questioned the need for "all the bells and whistles." Others were concerned about building features that had to be left out to stay within budget.

    "After all, as a rural farming-based community, we know that the taxes are taxes at whatever level," she said. "It does not matter whether it's school, state or federal. We still are paying it all."

    Clements, who has three children in our school, raised the issue of what she believes must happen for the new building to be worth the effort: "The new building will be a wonderful asset if it is used to its fullest potential. This will require as much if not more involvement from the administration, educators, parents and members of the community.

    "The new building will be a new building for a few years and that's all it will be."

    A Student's View
    Student Kristina Fisher also depicted the building project as a beginning, not an end. Unlike the parent, however, she expressed pride and confidence that her new school would, in and of itself, "make a positive impact on ... learning."

    She recalled how the project began with information gathering and discussion. "Each day we as students were bombarded with information and questions," she wrote. "Should we renovate, build new, merge with another school or do nothing to the existing building?" The students considered each possibility and eventually rejected all but the option to build.

    When the community voted for the new construction, Fisher noted that students were invited to be involved in the planning and design phases. "As students, we felt as if we were part of the deciding process and indeed we were."

    When she came back from her sophomore year of college for the grand opening, Fisher expressed satisfaction with the final result: "The school day itself and the grand opening with the presence of many community members were both spectacular sights. I was very impressed with the new building and how it complemented the school and its goal to improve the learning environment of the students."

    Fisher ended her retrospective with advice on how to make the most of the new environment. "We must remember that excellence is a process that should occupy all our days. The new building is just one step in attaining educational excellence. In no way should it be considered the end."

    A Custodial View
    Custodian Pete Burke indicated he went through periods of concern and doubt. He, like parent Claire Clements, served on the initial advisory building committee. During the discussion of options--merging, renovating or building new--he said he was open minded about any option except merging. He believed the school needed to stay in Munnsville for the community to remain viable.

    "Having no [Stockbridge Valley Central School] at all was not really an option for me. ... SVCS helps bring our community together, physically as well as spiritually," Burke wrote.

    The decision to build a new school was relatively easy for him to support, even though he wasn't sure the community could afford it. Burke recalled the excitement about the successful vote for a $9.68 million building bond, calling it "the talk of the town."

    He also mentioned the positive feelings generated by the community's involvement in the move from old to modern, which took place over Christmas break. More than 80 people from the community helped staff transport everything to the new facility.

    "I was astonished how much was moved during just the first two days," he said. "Without help from Ferris Industries (a manufacturer of commercial lawn mowers that purchased the old school building) and the people of the community, I think we would still be moving. I was really impressed by the enthusiasm of a community member who usually opposes most of the school decisions. He worked very hard to help us move."

    Burke voiced pride over the new facility, which he now helps to maintain. "The district, community, staff and students have been rewarded with a great state-of-the-art, respectable school that offers unlimited capabilities for everyone--a school to be very proud of."

    A Community Doubter
    Burke's comment about the person who opposed the school construction referred to Grant Kroneck, the community member whom I asked to write his own retrospective. He opposed the building project and had written a letter to the editor of a local newspaper the week of the vote urging residents to reject the proposition.

    He recalled: "I and others felt we didn't need a new school. I personally thought that if the committee put its mind to it, the old school could be renovated to meet today's needs for a lot less money than a new school."

    Kroneck did not concern himself much with what the advisory committee was doing until the members recommended building a new school. "Those of us opposed to a new school, who were inclined to be more vocal, put an article in the paper, talked against it at meetings and I personally told Charlie I was against a new school and would work as hard as I could to defeat a vote." The group's opposition failed, 353-209.

    Periodically, after the approval bond referendum, Grant stopped in to see how the new building was progressing. I would fill him in on the latest issues and concerns as well as the successes. As time passed, I could see his attitude change. He was becoming a supporter, and during the holiday break, he was there pitching in to help us move classroom furniture and supplies. His enthusiasm was overwhelming, and he complimented the new facility.

    Kroneck wrote: "I stopped in at the new school on the Sunday before it opened and walking around ran into Charlie. He showed me around, what rooms were ready and some not, what still had to be done (which looked like a lot), but he felt that they could conduct classes and the workers could still do their work. I was overwhelmed at what I was seeing and I think I told Charlie then, 'I apologize to you, I was wrong.'"

    A Teacher's Dreams
    Teacher Mary Murphy experienced a transition not unlike Kroneck's. Her excitement and pride were laced with a sense of ownership, and although she never opposed the new building, she was not convinced at the outset that she or any of her fellow teachers would be asked to be part of the process from the design to the move.

    In the days and months following the referendum vote, "it seemed to us that it had never even occurred," she wrote. "Although for those directly involved, it was probably one of the most pivotal times in the process of the building project, we teachers were blissfully unaware of the goings on. Business as usual.

    "However, on the first day that the architect visited with the teachers, the whole thing became a reality. I admit that I was skeptical of this Santa Claus from a big architectural firm asking us what we wanted for Christmas. I arrogantly did not meet with him the first time and I scoffed at my colleagues' naivete. They asked him for larger classrooms, closets, shelf space, cabinetry, storage areas, sinks, bathrooms, technological capabilities in a plethora of ways, and even windows that opened up, down, sideways and diagonally.

    "The Christmas list was infinite. My cynicism was based on the fact that I never imagined a school being built to the specifications of a teacher. They were just pacifying us and I was not about to play."

    She recalled her first visit to the construction site during an in-service day with a group of teachers on a crowded bus. "As we approached it, the rush of seeing a foundation and enormous steel beams where there once was a field was overwhelming. It was a cold March day and we huddled together on a massive cement slab floor. There were some walls, no ceilings and a variety of heavy equipment scattered about the site. As we held each other to keep from slipping on the ice, the superintendent explained that we were actually standing in the middle of the auditorium.

    "I tried desperately to conceal my excitement. Previously I had resigned as drama teacher due to the increasing difficulty of perpetuating a performing arts department sans stage and auditorium. At that precise moment, as the wind whistled through the auditorium, I staged our first production in my head. The initial tour bus trip had given the teachers ownership and we each became part of the process. We, too, were now looking to the future and all of a sudden it was tangible."

    Murphy recounted the importance of another visit to the new building just before the winter break. That visit helped ease her sadness of leaving a familiar old school, where she had taught English for 15 years.

    She portrayed the new environment as a positive force on staff and students with regard to learning, instruction, discipline and respect. "We were employed by a community that valued what we did and the new facility was tantamount to that."

    At the dedication ceremony, Murphy wrote, she saw veteran teachers cry and rookie teachers beam with pride. "Everyone was visibly moved that day ... because in some way, everyone was involved ... from day one."

    Charles Stratton is superintendent of Stockbridge Valley Central Schools, P.O. Box 732, 6011 Williams Road, Munnsville, NY 13409-0732. E-mail: c.stratton@stockbr-elem.moric.org