Seniors: Give us the old gym
by Gregory R. Norfleet · News · April 12, 2013

Several high school seniors on Monday convinced school administrators to move graduation from the new gym to the old gym.

Superintendent Kevin Hatfield last month told the Board of Education he would like to see graduation in the new gym because it has air conditioning and he heard complaints last year of the muggy, hot conditions of the non-air-conditioned old gym.

But the students argued that they were more accustomed to the old gym — it had greater tradition, it is used for sports, it has easier access and has better seating.

Senior Collin Cochran said about 85 percent of seniors they surveyed supported keeping graduation in the old gymnasium.

“It’s been a tradition for more than 30 years,” he said.

Board President Mike Owen said the “tradition” argument did not convince him, because the gym has always been hot.

“The tradition’s been very poor,” he said.

Senior Kristen Budreau admitted that the old gym gets warm, but said that “regardless of the air conditioning, when you put 1,000 people (in the new gym) it’s going to get warm.”

Senior Dalton Grell said the new gym is not as easy for the handicapped since most people enter through one door, whereas the old gym has two heavily used entrances.

“It would create a choke point,” he said.

Three of the seniors argued that the old gym’s bleachers, which can seat about 700, make it easier to see the stage than chairs on a flat floor.

Hatfield said he planned to bring in six to eight bleachers that hold 50 to 60 people each, or enough to hold 300 to 480 visitors.

Senior Ann Owen, daughter of the school board president, asked about how the chairs and bleachers would be arranged. Hatfield drew a diagram and said he planned to put chairs in the middle of the gym with bleachers behind them. The stage would face the chairs and bleachers, and the choir risers would be in the corner close to the stage.

Ann Owen questioned putting risers in the new gym, saying Show Choir has not been allowed to do so because they were told the soft flooring would be damaged, like it did at Durant High School.

Hatfield said the West Branch floor is newer and tougher than Durant’s, and not as likely to incur damage.

Mike Owen suggested the school could put down some plywood to help prevent hurting the floor.

“This is not just one hot graduation,” the school board president said. “It’s never been pleasant. It’s too hot and the sound system is terrible.”

Hatfield said he researched the cost of putting large fans in the rafters — which could cost $3,000 to $4,000 — and renting portable air conditioning units — which would cost $10,000 to $12,000. He said he was told neither expense would make a considerable difference in temperature with the expected crowd.

“There are challenges either way,” the superintendent said of the two gymnasiums.

He said he sees graduation as a “community event” — both for the graduates and the families and friends who attend.

Cochran referenced comments on the West Branch Times’ Facebook page, which posted on Thursday the seniors’ plan to address graduation at Monday’s board meeting. One comment, by Brian Roth, told about a Dubuque Senior class who held a walk-out to keep graduation on campus; another comment by Amy Lynch supported the students’ argument about insufficient seating.

“We won’t walk out,” Cochran said. “But we’re in the same position.”

Board member Richard Paulus was the first board member to express support for the students’ position.

“I could stand one more year of that heat without keeling over,” he said.

Paulus also suggested that the school not “rush” into a move, like testing the bleachers on the new gym floor to see if they really can hold up.

Mike Owen added his support, albeit hesitantly.

“I think we are going to have to move graduation, but we don’t have to do it this year,” he said. “Obviously, you feel passionate about it. ... (yet) next year’s seniors could say the same thing. When do we get past that?”

Paulus said this senior class “has excelled so well” that “I’d like to see you comfortable in the old gym.”

“You should have a say,” he said.

Cochran suggested that if the school has more activities in the new gym, future seniors would be more likely to accept the change.

Board members and the superintendent thanked the students for organizing and approaching them with their concerns.

“You made wonderful points,” Hatfield said.

Budreau said it seemed necessary.

“Nothing really gets accomplished without stepping up for what you believe,” she said.

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