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TYMAN: Newton, Jackson Sellers talk about education, facilities

TYMAN: Newton, Jackson Sellers talk about education, facilities
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I recently had the chance to speak with Geneva school district Superintendent Trina Newton and school board Vice President Amy Jackson Sellers in the press box of the soon-to-be-complete new Loman Stadium.

We touched on a wide range of topics —from the state of local education to the current progress of the athletic modernization project.

Given the fact that New York state spends well above the national average on education at the elementary and secondary school level it is important to look at the results. According to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2015, New York state spent $21,206 per student, $11,392 above the national average, and had a total education expenditure of $64.8 billion for 2.6 million students. New York ranks as the highest-spending state per student in the nation, yet according to one note in a 2015 school report from Gov. Cuomo’s office, the state’s students ranked 32nd in the nation in eighth-grade ELA — or English language arts — results.

As districts such as Geneva update and modernize, it will be important to be aware of how well dollars are spent and if they improve the academics, school lives and job/college opportunities of the students, along with attracting, aiding and retaining the best teachers and school administrators.

Here are some excerpts from our conversation in the stadium press box, part of a $29.16 million capital improvement project. The focus was predominantly on the school’s athletic improvements.

From a priority standpoint, what did you see as the primary needs of the school district when you began your tenure as superintendent in Geneva?

Newton: I came here in January of 2012, the priority back then was getting the high school off of the list [of school’s in need], turning the instructional and academics around, trying to offer the students choices. My mantra when they hired me was: We couldn’t allow people to tell the story for us, we had to take control and tell our own story and talk about all of the wonderful things that go on here that people don’t realize go on.

So, I think the language initiative was a big one for me, I don’t think people even realized it went I first got here. We are a diverse school district, so now we have Mandarin starting in kindergarten, and Spanish starting in UPK (New York state’s Universal Prekindergarten Program).

We have more than doubled AP (advanced placement) courses since 2010 plus, we have a lot of elective classes, like the Art of Argument and Racial Dialogue, so we have really expanded the choices all the way down to the elementary school and the middle school. I’m really proud of everything that we have accomplished. We still have a lot of work to do.

We just took a tour of the construction area before this game, to see how everything is going. They are really coming along, and the gym, the fitness center, the mini-gym, the team rooms, you are starting to see the progress that they are making.

What were some of the biggest obstacles to get the athletic improvements up and running?

Newton: When I first got here, everyone told me that I would never get a new field. I heard it over and over. They had tried, there was no way that we would get it passed, and I’m sort of determined. We had three propositions and there was an average of 80 percent approval, and that’s higher than normal. So, I have to look ahead, I can’t worry about what happened before. This is a classroom. Primarily, you have to look at these places as instructional places.

Jackson Sellers: I think that was a part of us, telling our own story. Once people realized what value there was in this, and that these kids deserve it, they were willing to give the kids what they deserved. And that was us being able to share what great things happen here and how it’s reflected in the athletic facilities … and (Newton) is very hands on.

We had a capital project advisory committee and we took them on a tour of the old facility. Many people had never been inside what they called the locker room underneath the old Loman Stadium; that was disgusting.

From an overseeing standpoint, what was put into place to make sure this project would be done differently than the last athletic improvements, where problems existed with several of the sports fields?

Newton: One of the first things we did was change architects. We have a different architectural firm, we went through a whole process, we hired a construction manager. There wasn’t a construction manager on the last projects, they had a clerk of the works but that clerk of the works was actually an employee of the architectural firm, a little bit of a conflict of interest. So, now we have an independent construction manager so we have some checks and balances in place.

I walk the new construction areas, and I try to walk them at least once a week and take pictures. If you were to look at my phone, and I was just over at the new section at North Street, there were things I didn’t like and so I take pictures and send them to the architects and the construction managers. I’ll say, “Is this supposed to be this way?”

I think from a community standpoint, a lot of the community members see us out here walking the fields.

I think if you were to ask Randy (Grenier, athletic director), another difference with this project is that we have involved as many of the stake holders as possible. A lot of people were involved, and with Randy, he was involved in all of the construction meetings if anything was done with the athletic fields. It was a teacher that suggested we put a second story over the team rooms and put the wellness center there.

Would you say transparency is a big point of emphasis for your administration?

Newton: Collaboration, transparency, whatever you want to call it, that is what I was used to when I was a teacher in Jamestown, and I thought everyone did it that way, and that is the way we did it in Binghamton. It’s not anything new; it’s just that had been my experience and it worked.

Jackson Sellers: People come in and would know that that was a part of the plan. They might have mentioned that.

Newton: I hear that a lot, kids say “That was my idea,” and how great to be a middle school kid and you are helping to design your new athletic space.

How do you look at these spaces as being open to the community, similar to what Bristol Field House has meant to Geneva?

Newton: I don’t think we have had those conversations yet. There are two pieces to this, I’m certainly not opposed but given the times that we are in with the school shootings and bombings, we are really going to have to think about that. If you had asked me this three years ago, my answer would have been completely different. My answer today is going to be far more cautious. We are really going to have to think this through. Although, when we built this, there is a water fountain out here, there is electrical and water on the other side of the field. So, I’m hoping that we can have community events here.

It was built with the community in mind. It will be easier to do outdoor events than indoor events. The baseball field is beautiful. We got the drainage taken care of last year after we finally figured out what was going on. I think we are in good shape there now.

If you noticed, we are renaming it Loman Stadium instead of Loman Field. We did that intentionally to give it more of a multi-purpose feel. When the track is all done, it will be fabulous. The deadline for the track was last September, but we are a little behind, Mother Nature did not cooperate. It will done after the spring sports are finished, then we will be ready for the work to be done. We had a choice, we could either wait for the good weather so they could lay the track down but then this field couldn’t be used at all. So, we made the decision to hold off on the track and let them use the field.

From a cost and maintenance perspective, did you always see this kind of field surface as being sustainable?

Newton: Coming from Binghamton, we had to do this for the taxpayers and they just put in a new field, and they put in a new one when I was there, the old one was at end-of-life, so it was a replacement field. When they ran all of the numbers, it was a no-brainer. These new turf fields are much cheaper to maintain.

Jackson Sellers: It takes so much more money and time to correctly maintain a grass field. I was concerned about it, but we all talked about it. We also talked about longevity.

Newton: If it was rainy and muddy you would have to give it a rest. We have added JV teams this year. We have 2,200 kids and they are involved in everything. We are going to have a grand opening in the fall.

Has everything else gone according to plan?

Newton: There are always hiccups. They found a lot more organic material when they were digging this out. So, it cost more than we expected and it took longer. However, we were committed to making sure that it was done right, and that there weren’t going to be any issues five or 10 years down the road.

Would you say that caught you by surprise?

Newton: Well, some of it was factored in but we thought everything had been discovered. But, you never know until you get in the middle. The first games I ever came to here were basketball. I did notice when I first came here that the athletic facilities were lacking.

Who in particular would you like to recognize for helping you get to this point?

Jackson Sellers: Josie Guard is the president of the board of education and she has been wanting a turf field for a long time. I can say that probably no one wanted it more for longer than her.

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