In late May, I returned home from out-of-town travel and discovered a town out of sorts. A perfect storm of awful – national economic angst, state funding cuts and tax caps, a stagnant tax base, declining population, years of fiscally conservative school budgets, and voter frustration with politics and unions – had led to the defeat of Clarence’s school budget. The contentious vote rattled both a top-tier public school system and a serene community where neighbor suddenly confronted neighbor.
Dismayed, I checked lists of eliminated courses, sports and clubs. I talked with administrators, board members, teachers and friends, trying to determine if my sons could still get the stellar education my daughters had received before graduating.
The sudden loss of remarkable teachers and noteworthy programs felt like a kick in the gut. But the loss of community goodwill hurt even more. Confronted with a community at odds and a school system in distress, I considered transferring my boys to different schools. But the wise words of a friend stopped me cold. “It’s awful that a whole region watched our town stumble. It will be great when they see us working together to get back on our feet.”
Marching orders. Words that reminded me why I moved to Clarence a decade ago. Because it’s a town known for great public schools and great neighbors – a place where families depend on each other, and believe that in lifting one another, we lift ourselves and our community.
My friend was right. I didn’t need to change school systems. I needed to change my attitude, get to work, and help our town and schools get back on their feet.
Eleven weeks have passed since an army of concerned parents walked door to door to ensure the passage of a second school budget. Similarly committed citizens formed the Clarence Schools Enrichment Foundation, embarking on a one-year restoration initiative to raise $200,000 and reinstate clubs and sports eliminated in budget cuts. Unable to rehire teachers or restore classes, the CSEF has worked tirelessly to ensure that students enduring the loss of teachers and classes won’t also lose the opportunity to participate in sports and clubs that are a key component of their education – and happiness.
The community has responded remarkably to the CSEF’s call for help. In 10 weeks, families and businesses have donated close to $80,000 – gifts large and small that send a powerful message about how much the community cares about our students and schools. Basing four phases of fundraising on the school calendar, the CSEF met Phase I’s Aug. 15 deadline to reinstate fall sports, and is now focused on the Phase II Sept. 15 deadline to restore extracurricular clubs. Phases III and IV will center on restoring winter and spring clubs and sports.
In mid-August, elementary school students who raised $50 selling lemonade presented the check to the School Board. Surrounded and applauded by parents, educators and administrators, these children beamed so brightly, it took my breath away. Without speaking a single word, they inspired me to keep working so that every child who enters our public schools can be introduced to scholastics, art, music, athletics and technologies that excite, challenge and advance their particular interests and talents.