Friday, July 23, 2004

Theses are Feces: Electric Boogaloo

It appears that only a small rotating cast of supporters and journalists put The Little Red Schoolhouse together, with diminishing returns. Begun in 1927, the eight-page monthly eventually became a four-page monthly, then an eight-page bimonthly, and then quit in 1935. Though many periodicals shut down with the onset of the depression, the fact that several of the dozen or so persons running the paper died during its run could also explain the mailing's deterioration. Herbert Winslow Collingwood, who spent four decades editing the farmer advocate paper the Rural New Yorker, founded the New York State Rural School Improvement Society and organized some 1500 school district meetings protesting legislative actions. The first publication of The Little Red Schoolhouse printed his eulogy. The last issue, on October 1935, printed the eulogy of treasurer Carrie D. Converse. This fact could also symbolize the cause of one-room schoolhouses in Brockport: aged, passing away slowly and without replacement. Devendorf was not only the president of the RSIS but managing editor of Schoolhouse; secretary Ostrander is the only other person listed on the masthead. The Hon Fredd H. Dunham of Batavia, who legally incorporated the RSIS, counted himself as a member of the organization. He wrote several articles demonstrating how rural districts could licitly submit donations to the group, even writing form letters for school boards. The dubious nature of such donations continued throughout the paper's run but the RSIS found no difference between village school boards using tax moneys for their aims and rural advocacy groups doing the same thing.
The first issue emphasized rural Brockport's minority struggle for district autonomy, but by 1935 the fight was futile. Lost lawsuits led to closed classrooms buildings. Public opposition quieted.
The paper often used repetitive, sloganeering diction, rife with rambling, unedited sentences. It required donations to stay afloat, begging that rural schools put those donations into their budgets. Simultaneously, they argued against the higher taxes that would arise as a result of consolidation and the salaries of school boards. Articles were inflammatory and propagandistic. One would decry rural taxes paying for central schools while another would complain that country schools had to be funded solely by rural taxpayers. Columnists described school superintendents as Czarist dictators, the State Department of Education as despotic, and the state judicial system an open supporter of tyranny and despised dictators. When democratic elections and referendums were held, they were fraudulent. Town officials performed a litany of conduct errors at each public meeting. And in each case, a Rural School Improvement Society member witnessed each offense for Schoolhouse readers, promising speedy legal repercussions with readers' continued support.
The Rural School Improvement Society made Brockport's consolidation the centerpiece of its premiere issue in November 1927, months after the district-wide vote allowed the action. "The village of Brockport with the aid of District Superintendent Fred W. Hill has apparently forced consolidation," the page-long article summated. It explained that fifteen of the *eighteen* districts in the plan voted against the plan by a 52-530 margin. The meeting on 19 July, held on the Normal School grounds, showed favoritism towards the villagers through its location alone. Supt. Hill failed even to recognize John H. White, the rural nominee for chairman, and held a vote for village candidate Herbert W. Bramley instead. According to Schoolhouse the rural folk then elected a rural clerk for the meeting in retaliation. The author found rural voters frustrated, angry to the point of hampering procedures, and segregating themselves to the eastern side of the hall, opposite the villagers.
Brockport held the consolidation vote after the meeting, with both village people and townspeople in attendance. Beyond the location of the polling, however, the article also debated against allowing voters who did not attend the meeting to participate. Bramley allowed polls to remain open until 9 p.m., much to the chagrin of the RSIS. Doing so gave village store clerks an unfair advantage by letting them close their shops at a regular time and still arrive for the vote. The 968 to 386 tally supposedly resulted from this unfair advantage given to the villagers by a villager, who would not permit the recording of any official complaint concerning the process.
Within several paragraphs The Little Red Schoolhouse offered several contradicting arguments to account for their side's poor showing. Though its opening paragraph stated that 530 voters in fifteen districts opposed the plan and only fifty-two supported centralization they presented no explanation of independent data-gathering. The possibility existed that such a larger number of rural voters disliked consolidation but having only fifty-two in favor could not explain how almost one thousand persons chose in the affirmative in a place as small as Sweden, New York. Holding a vote in the Normal School benefited all voters as it was immediately after a debate on the subject. Farmers who did not spend much time in the village could have participated in the meeting, checked firsthand the state of the current facilities, and recorded a vote in just one visit. By keeping the polls open until the set time at night Bramley not only gave more villagers the chance to take part in the vote but farmers, who might not have had the opportunity for the meeting and required extra time to make it to the village. The article's account also notes a well-attended, active body of rural congregants; a meeting hall already half-filled with such a group could only advance their cause. The Normal School polls in that place and that time represented the full spectrum of opinion concerning Brockport consolidation.
The Little Red Schoolhouse was livid, and they appealed the vote immediately. They mentioned a town clerk who said notices were not posted in his office. Nevertheless, "a crowd of interested people gathered at the Normal Hall." A small number of students preferred to remain in schools in such towns as Spencerport, Bergen, and Holley, and somehow those long trips outside of town were more convenient travel than their parents' trip to the village voting booth. Without a hint of irony the author characterized those villages as "community centers of the various districts . . . capable of maintaining well appointed, efficient schools, and are desirous and competent of doing so."
Still, the organization voiced many fears of the anti-consolidation farmers. Centralization of schools meant a loss of power within each community. The promises of upkeep of Little Red Schoolhouses for elementary students, though not a part of the high school conversation, consistently crept into meetings. The RSIS named the paper such to evoke that spirit of rural independence, and to push nostalgia for their adult members. Each issue featured a picturesque snapshot of such a building submitted by subscribers, often schoolteachers who sent in their yearly class photo. Whether by coincidence or premeditation, the third issue highlighted nearby District Number Nine of Pavilion, just a few short miles from Sweden. "Needless to say," read the four paragraph caption on page 1, "the people of the district are proud of their 'Red Schoolhouse' and do not wish the district consolidated.'"
Rural voters were always outnumbered, and their independence led them to distrust outsiders and outside ideas. The state legislature and department of education determined reform in central schools; by simply not controlling the meetings, some rural parents must have felt voiceless after years of case-by-case decisions about school policy made between themselves and their neighbors. Suggesting the outsider officials trade their positions at the Normal Hall for work at Tammany Hall, the RSIS reiterated their belief in multi-district polling and their disbelief in the effectiveness of New York's consolidation protocols. "HOME RULE FOR THE RURAL DISTRICTS" became the cry for the few anti-consolidation activists inside the rural minority.
Addressing the necessity of such a group, the paper made clear its belief and mission:
Had this organization been functioning ten years ago the deplorable condition which exists today in many sections of the state would never have come to pass. The administration of the school affairs in district after district has literally been stolen from the country people by some nearby village which sufficient votes to do it with, or through the connivance of some District Superintendent . . . .

The nonprofit RSIS fought in Brockport, New York the same way they fought in Madrid, Chautauqua County, West Chazy, Marion, Williamsville, and dozens more towns: organizing local meetings, writing about 20,000 letters a year, and holding up all possible legislative actions in court. Section 128 of the Education Law, which the RSIS said gave school officials such as superintendents "authority to secretly force consolidation", and Article 6-B, that required majority elections for centralization be held instead of district by district polling, had to be altered or deleted. They garnered support from local chapters of the Grange, who made school consolidation an issue of daylong discussion at an annual convention in Jamestown.
One Schoolhouse article mentioned a rural Brockport resident who tried to meet with Department of Education Commissioner Graves about the upcoming consolidation. Bound by law, the Commissioner was unable to speak on the subject because he would soon judge the case. The author found it interesting that the rural voter could be brushed aside while someone named "P. A. B." could submit information that "practically" said consolidation would take place in a Brockport Republic and Democrat letter to the editor. Schoolhouse openly supposed the Commissioner discriminated against the rural resident while running his mouth to whomever else he chose. Sarcastically naming the insider "Poor and Blind" the paper charged "He [P. A. B.] evidently has had a thorough discussion of the case with some representative of the office of the Commissioner, to be able to print this advance information." What the periodical failed to understand after many months of meetings and correspondence village of Brockport and its only newspaper was that P. A. B. stood for P. A. Blossom, former editor of the Republic and Democrat and the elected president of the district school board for well over a year. Whatever "advance information" P. A. B. had--of which the Schoolhouse article remarkably did not specify--would have been nothing more than a well-informed opinion predicting a judgment upholding the landslide vote of 1927. Just as the Commissioner "practically" broke the law that April, in August he "virtually" ignored Brockport farmers appeal when it was rejected.
A further injunction continued to prevent building until a hearing in February 1929. Schoolhouse referred to "numerous witnesses [of the hearing], who testified as to the illegality of the meeting at which the vote was taken." The paper printed no names to support the statement except for that of A. D. Ostrander. The appeal lost again in the courts, but The Little Red Schoolhouse reminded its readers "the Court merely decided that bonds might be sold and ignored the constitutional as well as the other important points brought up in this case" and promised to appeal yet again. On 16 October another hearing was held in the Court of Appeals; it failed again. Judges interviewed the defense for the entire hearing while Ernest E. Cole, then Commission of the Department of Education, did not speak but "framed what the writer calls a 'wry' smile."

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