School Climate & Safety

Parting Company In a Company Town

By Bess Keller — September 19, 2001 22 min read
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Rounding the corner of the 80-year-old school in the heart of his neighborhood, Thomas C. O’Brien peers through a light rain and says, “I love this building.”

Corning Free Academy Middle School is under threat, largely because of the company that employs about one-third of all the parents sending their children to the local schools.

Love it he might: His two grown sons attended the school, walking from the home O’Brien and his wife still occupy in this picturesque community in south-central New York state. The dark-brick building has won recognition from the nation’s most prominent historic-preservation group, partly for features like its Romanesque arches, bell tower, and terra-cotta friezes, partly for anchoring a varied ensemble of houses built from the late-Victorian era to the Jazz Age.

And inside the building, a middle school since the 1960s, the sense of place is palpable. Seventh graders even study the development of the glass industry in this town dominated economically by Corning Incorporated, the glass giant recently turned high-tech powerhouse.

But O’Brien, a lawyer who works for Corning, now believes that much that Corning Free Academy Middle School stands for is under threat, largely because of the company that employs about one-third of all the parents sending their children to the local schools.

It is nothing new for changes of such magnitude to spark community resistance.

Oddly enough, O’Brien and other residents are not faulting the company for its business practices, although it has laid off about 2,500 local employees this year as the market for its hot optical-communications products has cooled. No, O’Brien, a smallish man with a quiet manner, wants his community to say “thanks, but no thanks” to a whopping gift that the company has offered the district and its taxpayers.

Apparently unprecedented as bricks-and-mortar help for public precollegiate education, the gift was announced late last year after the company played a leading role in developing a plan to rebuild the local district’s aging schools.

Corporate leaders pledged up to $60 million to pay for the community’s part of the bill. Among other elements, the plan calls for shifting middle school students from the 1920s-era buildings they are in now to the district’s two current high school buildings, then putting up an expansive new high school about five miles outside of town at an initial cost of $76 million.

It is nothing new for changes of such magnitude to spark community resistance. And some friction is to be expected when corporations and philanthropies try to leverage change in public schools through major donations, raising questions about whether the public good is being served.

Still, the Corning gift excited about as much protest as it was possible for a gift to do. “If they had tried to improve learning in the system, there would be a good deal less push-back,” says Robert A. Kronley, a policy and planning consultant in Atlanta. “What has more impact, visibility, and permanence than school buildings?”

Corporate Citizen

Corning Inc. has in fact long been in the building business, altering the face of this city of 11,000 for which it was named and where it has had its headquarters for 133 years. “The history of the community and the company are intertwined,” says Pamela C. Schneider, who manages human resources for the company. “And the quality of life here is important to us because it goes to our ability to attract and retain talent.”

What’s Your Sign?: Christopher A. and Sandra E. Gallo were initially on opposite sides last spring over whether voters in Corning, N.Y., should back a plan supported by the school district and Corning Inc. for a major overhaul of local school buildings.
—Jason Cox/The Corning Leader

The company decided to offer the money in part, Schneider says, because the school district’s pressing space needs stem largely from the new families Corning has drawn to the area in the past few years. But in a larger sense, she says,the company is willing to underwrite the building plan because it offers the best educational opportunities for all the families in the district.

Among other advantages, plan proponents say, the blueprint addresses a problem that even its critics agree has vexed the school district for years: The middle schools are crowded by today’s standards and badly need updating. By moving middle schoolers to the current high schools and building a new high school, youngsters at both levels will have spacious and up-to-date quarters far surpassing what’s possible where they are now.

But O’Brien and others fear that by favoring a “suburban” high school, the plan rips at the carefully woven fabric that has made the city of Corning the envy of much of upstate New York. Committing the district to a large high school in an era when a growing body of research strongly favors small ones, they say, is equally harmful.

The opposition group that formed around critics O’Brien and Rebecca Westmoreland Baker, whose husband is an executive for Corning Inc., wants a third middle school to be created in a settled residential area adjacent to the city of Corning, and the two high schools to stay put. With just the money that the state would kick in for construction, O’Brien adds, “we could turn the schools into first-class facilities.”

Marching under the banner of small, neighborhood schools, O’Brien and others tried first to head off the plan for a new high school and then, after Corning’s announcement, slow down its progress. The proposal had to go to the voters, and O’Brien’s group worked hard to defeat it at the polls. (“Corning, N.Y., Debates Company’s School Plan,” June 20, 2001.)

With Corning Inc. leaders making clear that the contribution might not be applied to any modified plan, its opponents were essentially asking their community to look a Fortune 500 gift horse in the mouth.

“It’s a very difficult case to make,” O’Brien acknowledges, “but I think the plan is not in the interest of the people who live in this community. Corning Inc. is basically buying our high school ... and moving it somewhere that suits them.”

An Irresistible Offer

Superintendent Donald B. Trombley of the Corning-Painted Post Area School District was at a car wash in California last December, visiting his son, when his cellphone rang.

It was John W. Loose, then the second-in-command at Corning Inc. and the chairman of the committee that had come up with the rebuilding plan.

Loose was checking: Did the superintendent still see the cost to local taxpayers as a major barrier to the proposal?

Trombley said he did, and Loose said he’d call back. Shortly, he did—with the offer to foot the local taxpayers’ part of the bill. That portion, as Trombley points out, could amount to as much as $60 million—or about half the projected long-term cost of the project, including interest payments over 30 years. “I was extremely elated,” recalls Trombley, who came to the 5,900-student district three years ago.

Some friction is to be expected when corporations and philanthropies try to leverage change in public schools through major donations, raising questions about whether the public good is being served.

A friendly man groomed for public appearances, Trombley says there was nothing haphazard about his decision to take the job of schools chief in Corning, his fourth superintendency. He was impressed, he says, by the quality of the district’s teachers and the above-average performance of its students. He even decided that a “meat and potatoes” town could suit him, given that it was seasoned with the sophistication and diversity that a multinational company provided.

But what he underestimated, he says, was the condition of the school buildings he was inheriting. They were older and more rundown than he thought, and he knew when he came they did not match the other features of the school system.

A plan to close the two middle schools and create a single middle school of about 1,400 students had been put together at school headquarters. But the public reaction was so overwhelmingly negative—O’Brien and Baker first joined forces in that battle—that Trombley decided to try again, this time with a wide sweep through the community.

The result was a 35-member committee, representing school system employees, neighborhood organizations, alumni groups, several municipalities within the school district, parents, and the chief employers in the area, including, of course, Corning Inc.

Trombley had asked Roger G. Ackerman, who was the chief executive officer of Corning at the time, to name a high-level executive of the company to the committee. Ackerman appointed Loose, who volunteered as the panel’s chairman and rose to company CEO just after his call to Trombley. (Loose later publicly wondered whether he made the right decision in agreeing to chair the panel.) The committee, which included Tom O’Brien—a dissenter from the outset—eventually sifted through 14 plans. In the end, the panel settled on the proposal known as Option 2.

The plan’s recommendation to renovate and expand the eight elementary schools entailed little controversy. The decision to renovate and reopen Corning Free Academy as an elementary school owed a lot to an earlier strong reaction against closing the school from neighbors such as O’Brien.

But the rest of the blueprint sparked negative responses from many residents. The idea was to close the other middle school (to be reopened as an assisted-living facility for elderly people), as well as build a new 2,000-student high school in the neighboring town of Erwin, the home of both Corning’s sprawling research-and-development complex and most of the area’s new construction.

The Critics: Thomas C. O’Brien, at far left, Rebecca Westmorland Baker, and Frank Anastasio all won election to the local school board last spring on a platform of opposing the Corning-endorsed facilities plan.
—Jeff Richards

Under the plan, the new high school would be designed as four schools-within-a-school, each with its own classrooms and offices but sharing a library, gymnasium, cafeteria, performing-arts center, and some specialized spaces for science and technology. The district promised that each unit would have its own principal, support staff, and guidance counselors to cut down on anonymity, although how exactly the “houses” would be organized had not been determined.

Advocates argued that money saved from consolidating the staffs of the two high schools could be applied to beefing up academics, including sequences of advanced and vocational courses. The new school’s 65-acre campus would also allow for greatly expanding the district’s athletic offerings. All this, the proponents declared, for about half the property-tax hike that would be needed if a third middle school were built.

Superintendent Trombley and the school board closed ranks around the plan. Yet they were deeply concerned about a substantial tax hike. On a $100,000 house, for instance, the increase was projected to amount to an additional $230 every year. In a community with a growing proportion of the very old, and a fairly heavy tax burden already, the increase would not be taken lightly.

“Property-tax increases are very, very threatening to the elderly,” says Dick Rahill, who headed the local land-development arm of Corning Inc. before retiring and helping push the building plan. “If it involves a tax increase, whatever it is, they say, ‘I don’t want to hear it.’ ”

Such opposition could ultimately sink any building plan, school leaders reckoned, since the state requires approval from voters for school construction projects.

Enter Corning Inc., with its offer to, in effect, neutralize the local tax impact. Now, proponents figured, we have a fighting chance.

From Critics to Candidates

Even with the company’s surprise offer, the plan was not an easy sell. Old-timers didn’t want the cross-town rivalry between the two existing high schools to go the way of the letter sweater. The Columbine High School shootings in Colorado raised fears about a large school. And some mistrusted CEO Loose when he said he would ensure that the closed middle school would see new life as a home for the elderly.

The debate became even more charged when in an interview with local reporters in February, Loose—who had risen to chief executive at the beginning of the year—said that the company might have to consider cutting down on its plans to expand in Corning if the vote didn’t go its way. Many took the statement as a threat, and reacted accordingly.

Still, as winter moved into spring, supporters were confident they could overcome the opposition. Their confidence persisted, even after it became clear that the plan had rendered the annual school board election scheduled for mid-May unusually competitive. Lawn signs for rival candidates in the race appeared with the daffodils.

'I think the plan is not in the interest of the people who live in this community. Corning Inc. is basically buying our high school ... and moving it somewhere that suits them.'

That was a rare if not unheard-of event in Corning—the mass blooming of lawn signs for candidates to the nine-member board. O’Brien, Baker, and Frank Anastasio, a retired English teacher at Corning Community College, banded together to run on a “vote no” slate. Anastasio stepped forward after the other two asked for volunteers to vie for the three board seats at stake this spring. “I like things on a human scale, whether it be the church, politics, neighborhoods, or schools,” he says.

Three other candidates, including two of the three incumbents running for re-election, formed a slate to support the plan. The third incumbent did not favor the proposal, while one of the challengers did not take a position on the issue.

When the votes were counted after the May 15 election, the “vote no” newcomers all won seats, with O’Brien—the top vote-getter—polling well more than half the 5,790 votes cast. At 29 percent of the electorate, turnout was high for a school board race.

Many took it as a sign that the opposition group was on the right track to defeat the referendum the following month.

“I think the people sent a message that they really didn’t have a big degree of confidence in the district or the administration,” O’Brien says of the victory.

Going Door to Door

Meanwhile, the other camp was shaken—and energized.

“The campaign didn’t really get off the ground until after the board election,” says Monica L. Ott, a manager of media relations at Corning Inc. “People were stunned that the opponents won.”

Ott’s interest is more than professional. With an 18-month-old daughter and another child on the way, she wants the broad array of opportunities she believes a new high school would provide. She went door to door in support of the plan in Erwin, where she lives in one of the new neighborhoods that wouldn’t be far from the school. Neither, she points out, would the school be far from the center of the city. Her drive from home to the monumental glass pavilions that are the company’s downtown headquarters averages about seven minutes.

The Columbine High School shootings in Colorado raised fears about a large school. And some mistrusted CEO Loose when he said he would ensure that the closed middle school would see new life as a home for the elderly.

“I wish that the high school could be downtown,” she acknowledges. “I agree that it would enhance the city of Corning’s environment, but I don’t think its absence hurts the city.”

On the other hand, a high-quality public school system is vital to the future of Corning Inc., company leaders say. And not only do the schools have to do well by their students; they also have to show well to prospective parents, if Corning is to draw the kind of scientists and engineers that have become its link to the high-growth markets company strategists aim for.

In business circles, Corning Inc. is famed for reinventing itself to exploit new technologies that launch it into fast-growing markets—once light bulbs, then television screens, and now optical-communications equipment. Several years ago, the former Corning Glass Works sold off its famed cookware divisions to concentrate on fiber optics, information display, and advanced materials such as the ones that improve anti-pollution devices.

In the past three years the company, with revenues of $7.1 billion in 2000 and some 35,000 employees worldwide, has doubled spending on research, development, and engineering. About four-fifths of the company’s new hires at the management and professional levels move to the Corning area, spurring growth that has an impact on schools.

“People attracted to this kind of community tend to be folks who are family-oriented,” says Schneider, the human resources executive, with a sweep of the hand toward her office window. Across the summer-narrowed Chemung River, which divides the city, modest neighborhoods spread out beyond the gleaming Corning Museum of Glass. It is almost two hours to Rochester and almost five to New York City. “They are folks,” Schneider continues, “who place a high value on education themselves, so clearly they do the same for their children.”

Corning, which employs 7,300 residents in the Chemung River Valley, has had a hand in almost every desirable man-made feature of the city, from the pretty new downtown park to the upscale grocery store nearby. Its recent investments in the community, including those from its real-estate-development arm, easily top $38 million.

When the building committee was doing its work, Schneider provided it with the company’s hiring forecast, which was factored into enrollment projections. This month, she updated the company’s numbers.

Despite layoffs that are expected to reach 8,000 worldwide by year’s end, professional and management hires—the ones that most affect the school district—have stayed within the range of the projections, Schneider says. With such hiring expected to keep up for at least the next few years, she adds, the enrollment upturn the district has seen for the past three years is likely to continue, further straining the schools.

Parents Mobilize for Plan

Jody Kohli and Kim Cates saw the strain firsthand while volunteering at their children’s elementary school, and they were alarmed when the building plan’s critics won seats on the school board.

“That was the eye-opening,” says Cates, whose husband manages Corning’s new photonics plant just outside the city limits in Erwin. “We said it’s time for us to educate people about what we’re seeing in the schools.”

The two mothers and a few others formed a loose group separate from the official organization supporting the proposal. “‘We’re just parents who wanted the best for our kids,’ was our message,” says Kohli.

The Supporters: Dale R. Wexell talks with Donald B. Trombley on the site of the high school the district plans to build. Mr. Wexell is president of the Corning-Painted Post Area School District board of education, and Mr. Trombly is superintendent.
—Jeff Richards

Even though both sides supported renovations and additions to the elementary schools, defeat of the referendum would mean at best a wait for the improvements to begin, and the parents considered the situation urgent.

Frederick Carder Elementary School is among the most crowded of the elementaries, although many parents still consider it one of the district’s most desirable. It was built in the mid-1950s for 350 students and last year enrolled more than 500 students, with two portable classrooms squatting nearby. One day, Cates says, she saw a teacher drag a beanbag chair into a hallway to make space for some one-on-one tutoring, and lunch periods at the school start at 10:30 a.m. because of the small cafeteria.

A “vote yes” float in a local Colonial Days parade just days before the June 19 referendum brought home to the parents how deeply divided the area had become on the issue. “There were many, many boos, and some people clapped,” Kohli says. “A lot of the negative feeling was, ‘We don’t like the new people coming to town.’ ”

Another mother, Sandra E. Gallo, can hardly forget when a neighbor turned a friendly beer into a diatribe against Gallo’s likely “no” vote. “She upset me to the point of tears,” recalls the nurse practitioner, who moved with her husband from a suburb of Washington to raise their two children where “they would be a name and not a number.”

“Where’s my sweet little Corning?” Gallo wondered as she wrestled with her indecision.

With the vote very near, people voiced a variety of concerns about the plan, some rooted in resentment or nostalgia, others practical and specific, such as future tax increases and possible traffic snarls.

But the most far-reaching points of disagreement remained the location of the schools and their size.

A high-quality public school system is vital to the future of Corning Inc., company leaders say.

When Tom O’Brien talks about school location, he gets out a topographical map. “See how well it works,” he says, pressing his finger down on one of the map’s flag-flying school symbols. Each middle school representation is surrounded by the pink of lowest land, where two-thirds of the district’s population resides. “The schools are right in the neighborhood.”

Don Trombley, the superintendent, uses a different map to talk about location. It’s pieced together from a dozen computer printouts, and shows every student’s household within the almost 240 square miles of the Corning-Painted Post district. The people symbols are scattered all over, but with large concentrations on either side of the Chemung River in the city of Corning and another—not quite so dense—in Erwin, with its new houses and Wal-Mart.

When it comes to neighborhood schools, the superintendent says, “people were living under an old presumption that no longer existed for the majority of schools. Only two of the 12 schools had more than 50 percent of the kids walking to school. For instance, at the middle schools, of the 700 students, about 500 students are bused, and another 100 are driven to school.”

That won’t get worse under the new plan, he says. And given that the city of Corning could not offer a site big enough for a souped-up high school, and that the existing middle schools have scant room for additions or playing fields, a new school in a high-growth area is the best choice, he argues.

Nationally, the argument rages about the role of school districts in fostering suburban sprawl, with preservationists blaming what they see as huge acreage standards—as well as school officials oblivious to good land-use policy—for some of the damage. But the officials can hardly ignore the demand for better schools at a reasonable price, which often means bigger schools in less built-up areas.

School size presents its own dilemmas. In Corning, with “Columbine” still on the tips of many tongues, each side claims greater devotion to small schools. In discussing the proposed plan for the high school, the critics say a school of 2,000 is too big, and student participation, achievement, and behavior will suffer as a result. The proponents counter by calling their option the true choice for small schools, because students will be divided into groups of about 500. School officials also say the effects of school size can be overplayed.

“It’s not the size of the school, it’s how you operate it,” insists Dale R. Wexell, the school board president and a research supervisor at Corning Inc. “You do not create a situation where students are isolated.”

Some researchers disagree, while others say a school-within-a-school arrangement can offer small-school advantages—but only under certain conditions.

“The houses need to have separate identities,” advises Joe Nathan, a researcher at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities who is generally considered a moderate on issues of school size. “The strongest schools are those that come out of a real sense of community and fundamental values, as opposed to some of this and some of that.”

The Voters Speak

Getting the referendum on the ballot proved a lengthier process than district leaders had hoped. O’Brien challenged the district’s filings, charging that some of the documents were inadequate to meet state requirements.

But on June 19, the polls in Corning opened at noon, and by 9 that night, 52 percent of the electorate had cast ballots. If the district has had a larger turnout in a school-related election, it wasn’t in recent memory.

As the vote tallies came in at two different campaign headquarters, the pattern became clear early. Voters favored the plan. In the end, it passed by a wide margin: 58 percent to 42 percent.

The pro-plan forces credited the consistent message of “no taxes, no taxes, no taxes,” last-minute calls to “yes” voters, and the work of the parents. The opposition pointed to a costly media campaign and fear.

O’Brien took in the results calmly at fellow board member-elect Baker’s house. “I think I can understand that voters weren’t willing to take the next step,” he says now. “If I were 20 years younger and just coming to Corning [Inc.], I’d be far less willing to throw out a challenge.”

Sandy Gallo and her husband, Christopher A. Gallo, were among those who cast votes for the opposition school board slate, but then embraced the Corning-endorsed proposal at the polls a month later.

Despite her continuing misgivings about the plan, Gallo says she ultimately supported it because she could envision her 5-year-old eventually benefiting from expanded academic offerings promised under the plan. “I did vote ‘yes’ in the end,” she says, adding that “a big reason” was the conversation she had that had left her in tears.

Still, she says, the experience has left its mark. “I still feel a rift,” she says. “I think the community as a whole is healing. I think there’s some more healing to be done.”

In July, the three new school board members took their seats, performing the balancing act of continuing to press their cause while assuming all the other duties of their offices.

But the vote “pretty much quelled the unrest,” according to Superintendent Trombley. “We’re moving forward now,” he says.

Over the summer, teachers met to discuss the new high school, and architectural firms are making progress on the renovations and the new construction. Plans call for the elementary school modifications to be complete by the fall of 2003, and the new high school to welcome its first students in September 2005.

A public meeting held last month to gather ideas for the new high school drew fewer than two dozen people, among them Tom O’Brien and his wife, Barbara.

“We’re going to be watchdogs,” O’Brien says of the new board members. “We’ll do our best to see that the district keeps its promises.”

But, the lawyer adds, public sentiment may change, especially if Corning Inc.'s fortunes continue on a downswing and reduce enrollment growth. Or perhaps construction will prove more expensive than the current estimates.

If any of that happens, O’Brien is ready to suggest alternatives and work to undo decisions previously made, perhaps with the help of four new board members to be elected next spring. “I know how to reverse this thing,” he says, “and if the public so chooses, here’s somebody ready and able to work with them.”

Funding for this story was provided in part by the Ford Foundation, which helps underwrite coverage of the changing definition of public schooling.


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