Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Education in East Hampton

Among the most compelling reasons for a strong educational system are its impact upon our quality of life and progress in our community. On June 4th, citizens supported a monumental rebuilding of the 50 year old High School.  Although the vote was relatively close - 1,536 yea with 1,259 nay - I am comfortable in believing that the vast majority of all voters did not object to the goals to make East Hampton's educational system among the best in the State.  We all want our children to have the tools to excel in whatever endeavor, vocation or career they choose.  An exceptional school system brings other quality students to our community that add to the diversity, competition and challenges that hone the minds and talents of all. Among the several concerns raised, the most loudly articulated was the impact on property taxes. The other most discussed was that the plan was too plush - beyond the scope of needs cited by the New England Secondary Education Accrediting Board.  Similar concerns were expressed in the late 1950s when the current EHHS was first proposed.  Often the shock of a tragedy unites us for the greater good.  That happened in 1962 when a fire broke out in the then High School decimating the north wing.  Not only did the community come together to renovate and reconstruct that facility, within months, not unlike the actions of the current High School Building & Planning Committee, that building committee produced a plan for a new facility on North Maple Street.  Changing times or events have unthinkable impacts on people's moods and thinking.  In the 1760s succeeding from Great Britain was unheard of.  Ten years later the abuses and intolerance ran so high that delegates of the 13 colonies signed our Declaration of Independence.

Other events have impacted our views.  In 1958, the America was just beginning to get a taste of the "space race" when the USSR launched Sputnik.  I can remember watching with my dad the night sky.  The light from the Russian satellite orbiting earth was quite visible to the naked eye.  The next year John F. Kennedy was elected President, initiating a program for the US to send a man to the moon, land and return him safely by the end of the decade.  Education, especially science and math, was on everyone's agenda.  We couldn't let the Russians beat us.  Had we as a nation and community not invested in our children, think what might be missing from our daily lives - personal computers, the internet, teflon, and product after product.
In 1937 the Town faced a huge dilemma.  Up until this point EH students attending High School took the train to Middletown, until daily service ceased in 1931, with private vehicles making daily commutes thereafter.  Still in the height of the depression, the Town came together to approve building the high school at a cost of $120,000 (can you believe that?). The special committee appointed at the town meeting on January 31, 1938, was charged to obtain architect's plans and estimate of the cost for a new school, were: Edwin W. Markham and Loyd E. Cone, named by the Board of Finance; Robert Starr, Robert Ostergren, Charles E. Torkelson and Percy P. Markham from the Board of Education; Samuel Stewart and Lewis T. Evans from the Board of Selectmen and Morris Lanzi and Leon Voisin from representatives of the general population .  Times changed! 

The special building committee for the first East Hampton High School had a rocky road during the years of the Great Depression. In 1935 the entire Board of Finance rejected the plan to build a high school.  The times dictated frugality and cautious spending.   Three short years later in January 1938, the six member Finance Board, in an about face,  voted unanimously to approve a new high school and sent the resolution to Town Meeting.  One might think the Board of Education would also be in unanimous support - a driving force for education.  Not so!  Only seven of the nine members voted affirmatively. Key support, however, came from the EH Chamber of Commerce with not a dissenting vote among its 45 members.  Although conscious of the impact on taxes as they struggled in their own businesses, these enlighten citizens understood the importance of a well educated and trained workforce and the long term benefits to society and ultimately our tax base. 
Today, as we embark on the “re-build and renovate as new” high school project, none of us,  now or in the past, want  hard earned dollars to be misspent or foolishly applied.  In proceeding with this significant project, our citizens expect that those on the special building committee and, thereafter, the office of the superintendent, school administrators and educational staff be frugal and conscientious, as if in their own households, in administering the education budget.  With an eye toward preventing wasteful or unnecessary spending - simple tasks such as turning off the lights in unused classrooms or air conditioning in classrooms after school has recessed for the summer - should become a priority. The precious dollars remaining can then go for their intended use – quality education for our children. Our townspeople expected that in 1938, 1962 and do today.

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