Sunday, July 18, 2004

Theses are Feces, cont'd.

The most universal and accessible resources of Brockport's history must be those of its newspapers. The Brockport Republic, formed in 1857, lasted until the 1970s. Horatio Beach and his son Lorenzo, save for one year by Nellie Beach ran the paper from its inception to 1899. The Blossom family members, also local, became editors and publishers for several decades more. Simultaneous publications, mostly published as local advertising tools and not news sources, lasted for several years at a time. The major exception was the Brockport Democrat, published by a P. J. Willson of Medina for most of its run.
The Brockport Republic knew much about the process of consolidation, merging with local competitor Brockport Democrat on 25 June, 1925. As the name suggests, the new Brockport Republic and Democrat attempted to consider the entire political spectrum, showing favoritism for the locality more than any other entity. On its very first issue under the consolidation, however, the newspaper covered the biggest local issue since the building of the Erie Canal. The headline that day read, "SERIOUS PHASE IN SCHOOL AFFAIRS: HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS SET ADRIFT BY STATE DEPT. OF EDUCATION." Editors Blossom would soon insert their own opinions of the controversial matter into their paper. Though alternative views were also presented over the course of several years, editors' anger seemed reserved only for those outsiders who proposed to thrust themselves into public discourse.
For many years the citizens of Brockport were educationally privileged. Due to the need for an area Normal School and the earlier failure of a Baptist College in the village, the state chose to settle the new school in Brockport's large, pre-existing facilities. The state designated leftover room, such as the ground floor, for the town's high school. Over time both schools grew considerably. By 1925 the former Brockport Collegiate Institute building failed to provide adequate space. Enrollment in 1926 would reach 235 persons for the high school and 185 in the Normal department; both were the highest attendance rates in their schools' history. It should be mentioned that the Normal School always considered the high school a guest in their building; a verbal agreement between state and village had, since the schools' inception, left high school funding and administration up to the state. Such an arrangement was unique in New York. Other state Normal Schools, such as Geneseo, New Paltz, Plattzburg and Potsdam, held similar Normal/high school arrangements, usually for the benefit of future teachers requiring a place to learn their trade. Those crowded schools were under written contracts that the state would not renew. As the Normal School expanded, the expulsion of the high school dangled inevitably over the heads of Brockport residents.
Citizens needed to make several quick decisions about the fate of their high school. For one, they officially did not have a school; the state "donated" all education up to that point. Would the people support the building of a new high school? Would they pay taxes for such an expensive endeavor? The village was ill-prepared to lose their school as much as the town was to create a new one. With a high school then under taxpayer expense, who exactly made up the taxpayer base? Grammar school graduates from neighboring towns and villages also took part in the state-funded high school, albeit on a case-by-case basis. Excepting those who would graduate in the next year (only 25 percent of the student body) the remaining majority had to return to those schools. Some families of the farthest and most rural students often preferred to place their children in nearby one- or two-room schoolhouses. If districts remained the same, parents might circumvent any newly passed Brockport tax raises. In the same way, families who had nothing to do with Brockport or its high school might scoff at the consolidation of surrounding districts to increase the town's tax base. Within several years residents would debate not only taxes and public education, but on the definition of their community. Within a week, District Superintendent Fred Hill would suggest the "community" include the whole of Sweden (the town which Brockport was located), all of Clarkson town, and parts of Parma and Adams Basin. The "absolute order abolishing the High School," Blossom wrote, came "like a thunderbolt on the people of Brockport."
Two months after the original edict, in August the state allowed most high school students one final year in the Normal School building, halving the number of previously earned credits needed to remain enrolled. Shortly afterward, all local students in Sweden and Clarkson's School District Number Nine would remain admitted, as well as students whose "exclusion would work a real hardship." Amongst articles about fairs and picnics, however, the Republic-Democrat described emotions over schooling as "the uneasiness and anxiety which has prevailed among residents and the surrounding country," and the newer decision as leaving Brockport "temporarily relieved of a serious situation." This local media outlet treated the school issue as an emergency, recommending students continue to find other schools to enroll in to minimize future scholastic conflicts.
On 3 December 1925, the Brockport Republic-Democrat ran a notice concerning the high school question written and signed by a committee of the Retail Merchants Council of Brockport. The result of a months-long study, the committee discussed the applicable Central Rural School Law which offered numerous incentives to localities that consolidated small districts. Detailing state-paid teacher quotas, schoolhouse preservation plans, and budgetary concerns, the authors described the law's implementation in Brockport as "logical" and "ideal." The same article emphasized supposed tax savings for the public and the possibility of three times more public money flowing into the vicinity as with the current high/Normal plan. The greatest detractors to school consolidation would criticize the organization of merchants as inherently anti-rural and pro-village.
By this point the necessity of a new school seemed a foregone conclusion. The possibility of rising taxes became the predominant issue for local residents, and an urgent one as well: the state cut salaries for eight teachers in anticipation of the schools' split, and those teachers threatened to leave. Superintendent Hill and Normal School President Dr. A. C. Thompson held several community meetings to answer community concerns. "It's your duty to attend this meeting and acquaint yourself with the facts," pressed the Brockport Republic-Democrat on 25 February 1926. "It's your last chance." Of the eight main questions listed by the paper as "most often asked," four inquired about budget financing.
During one March 1926 meeting a Mr. D. Boyd Devendorf, president of the New York Rural School Improvement Society, attended at the request of a rural district. In fact, Hill moved the meeting to Clarkson so Devendorf's rural audience would not have to travel too far. Blossom's report of the meeting showed readers not only how Blossom perceived the anti-consolidation Devendorf, but began to expose how the informed Blossom leaned ever closer to the state's point of view. "Devendorf [sic]. . . hits at terms of consolidation law, but dodges issue at hand," the editor summarized in a subheading. The executive secretary portrayed in the article failed to speak specifically about the Brockport situation but instead condemned the whole of New York consolidation rulings. As the guest speaker would not comment on particulars, Supt. Hill rebutted many of Devendorf's broad generalizations concerning consolidation--it would make tax rates unbearable, the quality of student education would decline--with numbers that stated quite the opposite. The Brockport Republic-Democrat described Hill as so flustered with the speaker's hot air that "Mr. Hill finally said to him: 'Mr. Devendorf [sic], I assume you are interested in the education of these children. ARE YOU?' and Mr. Diefendorf hemmed and hawed."
Devendorf would later read the Republic article and write an angry response to the paper. Printed in its entirety, Devendorf noted several occasions during said meeting where he stated "a very definite plan:" to allow individual rural districts to ratify consolidation instead of having the entire proposed district accept or decline the plan by simple popular vote. Anything less would be unjust and undemocratic. Though Sup. Steele of Clarkson, who hosted the meeting, and Hill both allowed Devendorf a period for rebuttal, Devendorf claimed Hill "was allowed to have his way." Blaming the state legislature for reforms that left rural areas behind, the president attempted to "make it plain" in his letter that the consolidation issue had "been imposed" upon unknowing rural residents. Downsides pertaining to Brockport were indirectly mentioned, though he reminded the editor of newly consolidated Trumansburg, where some students had to walk six miles to class. In any case, editor Blossom, in his last few months on the job, seemed to take Devendorf's words personally and galvanized him towards a pro-consolidation bent.
Several elements, general as they were, found sympathy with those in outlying Clarkson and Sweden. If a new school would be built, what would happen to the current neighborhood schools? Transportation--especially in winter--was always a concern. Most importantly, however, was independence. A theme running throughout the "School Wars," whether between Blossom and Devendorf or the villagers and rural folk, concerned the refusal of any one side to take orders from another. Citizens inside and outside the village overwhelmingly approved a new high school, but some residents proposed a visit from Devendorf apparently to address questions about the loss of old schools and new taxes, not the new school. One day after the publication of Devendorf's letter, the Brockport Republic-Democrat published a Special Edition: Supt. Hill, with the unanimous consent of trustees from all school districts, agreed to a singular, popular vote over individual district majorities. "The greatest good of the greatest number," Devendorf quoted of the gathering, chaired not by Hill but the unanimously picked John H. White of Sweden. "The meeting adjourned with everybody in good humor and we sincerely hope that future discussions will all tent toward approval of the proposed consolidation."
Suffering from a bout of the flu, Blossom waited two weeks to publish a reply to Devendorf in a column subtitled "READ THE TRUTH." Sarcastically the editor thanked Devendorf for correcting his position and the correct spelling of his name. Blossom's research on Trumansburg, however, revealed the rest of the president's letter to be out of context. As the original reply complained of the usurpation of rural power by the village, Trumansburg was a poor example because a three to two majority of trustees came from rural districts, picked via popular election. Long walking distances or not they had wholeheartedly supported consolidation, including approval of a $300,000 building when studies suggested a minimum $175,000 investment. Blossom further criticized the plan of individual referendums, suggesting that richer, larger landowners could use the sparse populations in their districts to vote against consolidation and selfishly preserve their property tax rates: "It [individual district approvals] would give a district which would look like a checker board and be unfair to everybody." In order to demonstrate his concern for the rural class, Blossom inserted for the first time "a bit of personal history" into the Brockport Republic-Democrat: "For Mr. Devendorf's information and those opposing consolidation we want to say that we were born on a farm, now have a joint interest in two farms, and all our sympathies, if the farmers were being manhandled, would be with them."
Here read the words of not only a village newspaperman, but an investing farmer willing to risk profits for the sake of public education. They were also the last words P. A. Blossom ever published on the subject. Son E. M. Blossom took the reins of the publication that July. Father Blossom's name often graced the pages of the Brockport Republic-Democrat, however. In the 15 July issue he could be found getting elected chairman of the Sweden school committee to switch that district from a rural school to a consolidated, Union Free district. The next February, an all-inclusive district committee elected P. A. Blossom chairman of their transition team. Immediately after the vote he was officially elected to the new central district's first school board and one week after that, its president. Three of the five board members came from rural parts of the district.
E. M. Blossom showed an obvious bias from the beginning, publishing several long editorials supporting consolidation, promoting the benefits of rural school modernization, and defaming the Rural School Improvement Society. A petition pushing for an early vote on consolidation circulated on the front page. Proponents of the plan were described as "farsighted and public spirited residents of the community" while the RSIS had "yet, as far as we can learn, ever done a constructive thing for the improvement of the schools which they claim to represent." The visiting A. D. Ostrander, the actual RSIS secretary and soon publisher of the RSIS paper The Little Red Schoolhouse was by all accounts of the Republic-Democrat shamed out of a town meeting when one congregant in the large crowd read one of his "letters to the editor" from another town paper contradicting the talking points of his speech. "It is inconceivable," Blossom opined less than a week before the vote, "how anyone who has the interests of our children at heart, can vote against the proposition."
The vote to consolidate pass in a landslide: 968 to 386. Further immediate study of the voting record also proved that approval was not a "steal," as Ostrander described, for without the participation of village voters the central school plan would still have gained a majority vote. Nevertheless, the RSIS would fight in the courts what it could not win in the voting booths. Within weeks the organization filed papers accusing the election of being illegal, thereby preventing any decisions to be made concerning site selection and construction. It would be well into the next decade before Brockport could build their desperately desired high school.

No comments: