Residents of Corning, N.Y., were scheduled to vote this week on a proposed multimillion-dollar school construction plan that has stirred intense debate—even though the money wouldn’t come out of taxpayers’ own pockets.
The city’s largest employer, Corning Inc., has pressed for passage of the plan and promised to pay what would be the local taxpayers’ share of the proposed construction project, about $60 million over 30 years. The company, once famous for its casserole ware but now mainly a high-tech firm, employs about 7,000 people in the Corning area.
Some Corning residents believe the proposed building and renovation project presents an ideal situation: a company taking responsibility for the impact of its growth on local schools and footing the bill for a large share of those costs. They point out that without Corning, there wouldn’t be a Corning, N.Y.
But others contend that the company has taken advantage of its position in the community and is throwing its weight around to sway school leaders on what should be included in the construction plan. Still others just plain don’t like certain aspects of the proposal.
“Unfortunately, it has raised a lot of controversy, and people have become more emotional than they should be,” said Kenneth Burmeister, a member of the Corning-Painted Post school board who supports the plan. “They should sit back and look at the facts and make their decision.”
But Rebecca W. Baker, who last month won a seat on the school board and opposes the plan, said the proposal doesn’t reflect what’s best for the community. The plan calls for a single new high school campus to replace two current high schools.
Ms. Baker argued that goes against the grain of educational research that says smaller schools can be preferable to bigger ones. “Consolidating in this day and age is the wrong way to go,” she said. “We should make an effort to maintain smaller neighborhood schools closer to home, which bring more parent involvement.”
The plan also calls for the conversion of the 6,000-student district’s two existing high schools into middle schools. A new, 2,000-student high school would be built on a separate campus outside the Corning city limits. In addition, the plan calls for renovations for the district’s elementary schools.
A committee of 35 community residents, chaired by John W. Loose, Corning Inc.'s chief executive officer, chose the company-backed plan out of 14 proposals put before the panel.
“Thirteen plans were eliminated. This is the only one that stood standing that was best for the kids,” said Monica L. Ott, a company spokeswoman. “There is significant crowding at the elementary level. The middle schools are woefully inadequate and are overcrowded.”
Ms. Ott said that company officials have pressed for the plan and offered to pay for the lion’s share of it in part because having good schools will help the company recruit employees and keep them.
The nine current school board members all back the plan, but not everyone in their constituency does, said Robert E. Cole, the president of the school board.
In last month’s board elections, three incumbents, who all supported the proposed plan were unseated by Ms. Baker and two other candidates who also opposed it. The new school board members assume their seats next month.
Ms. Baker was instrumental in starting a group two years ago called the Committee to Improve Corning-Painted Post Neighborhood Schools to monitor the school board’s plans for building.
“Our proposal is rather than create a giant high school to fix a K-8 problem, we want to add space at the middle school level, thereby allowing the high schools to continue in use,” said Ms. Baker, whose husband works for Corning.
She said the June 19 referendum has been a sensitive issue for her family. But she added, “If the community doesn’t want the option that Corning is supporting, we think Corning—if [it] cares about the kids—will support whatever the community would support.”
Donald B. Trombley, the Corning-Painted Post district’s superintendent, said some residents’ contention that students’ education will suffer because of the high school consolidation doesn’t hold weight. The plan, he said, calls for the new high school to contain four smaller schools within the school.
Mr. Trombley believes much of the opposition to the plan revolves around issues that have little to do with education.
“There is a lot of emotion surrounding issues that I define as adult issues and not children issues,” he said. “The closing of a school that has been used since 1924, the changing of the use of a middle school to an elementary school, the unacceptance of people in the city proper to the fact that there are growing neighborhoods outside of the city.”
And he’s heard a lot of concern about Corning Inc.'s role, he said. “What I found quite surprising,” he said, “is the animosity of so many people who have lived in the community for a long time against this Fortune 500 company.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 2001 edition of Education Week as Corning, N.Y., Debates Company’s School Plan