Gowanda students defend graduation tradition

Submitted Photo Dozens of students and parents attended Wednesday’s board of education meeting for the discussion regarding Gowanda’s Class of 2019 graduation location.

GOWANDA — A proposed change of location for Gowanda Central School’s Class of 2019 was a much-anticipated discussion topic during Wednesday’s board of education meeting. Earlier this fall, Superintendent Dr. Robert Anderson made a suggestion to the board of education about moving the graduation location to the new Cattaraugus Community Center at the Seneca Nation of Indians in Irving. However, dozens of students, parents and community members came to the meeting and successfully defended the traditional location of graduation at Gowanda’s Hillis Field.Prior to the public comment portion of the meeting, Anderson presented a slide-show comparing suggested locations. His presentation included Hillis Field, the gymnasium (where the past two graduations have taken place, due to rain), the auditorium and the CCC. “Hillis Field has been the traditional site for 50-plus years,” Anderson began. “It’s traditional, picturesque, and on a really nice night, it’s a beautiful place for pictures. The big problem is that it’s weather dependent.”

Although rain moves the ceremony into the gymnasium, which was the case in 2017 and 2018, Anderson pointed to problematic weather conditions even without rain. Excessive heat, sun and humidity create discomfort for graduates and their families, he said.

The gymnasium is also not ideal, Anderson said, because it gets hot very quickly. He added that the decision to move the ceremony indoors is made at the last possible minute, due to the tradition of keeping the ceremony outdoors at the field. However, the logistical chaos of the last minute move is challenging for the school, which does not have enough equipment to have set-ups in place at two different sites on the day of graduation.

He noted that the school’s auditorium has often been considered for graduation. However, he said the 96 students that are expected to graduate this year are not likely to be very visible on stage and that seating for audience members is limited.

The Seneca Nation of Indians’ CCC was considered for multiple reasons. “It’s not weather-dependent; it doesn’t matter how hot, how cold, how rainy or how windy it is,” Anderson said. “The arena holds around 1,200 people, but I suspect we can get more in there.” He added that there is plenty of accessible parking, padded seating with backs, air-conditioning and more seating for elderly or disabled guests.

“One drawback is that there is Plexiglass,” Anderson said. “It is an arena, but there is a possibility that the Plexiglass could be removed.”

Following Anderson’s presentation, board member Mark Nephew suggested that the board visit the CCC during the next board meeting, which is scheduled at the SNI. Although board president Cindy Sutherland was appreciative of the suggestion, she pointed out that the many students and parents in attendance were expecting a decision to be made, and that Anderson’s presentation (with photos) was meant to suffice.

Sutherland acknowledged, “We did not solicit input from our students and family, and that is the purpose of our meeting tonight.”

Senior Dustin Stark was the first student to address the board. He pointed out the recent renovations made to the auditorium and hoped it would be considered in the event of rain, rather than move the graduation to a site off campus. “I don’t see any reason to move it, especially to move it so far off campus,” Stark said. “For me, that’s almost a half hour drive.”

Board member Janet Vogtli requested that the board respond to students’ questions after they were asked, instead of waiting until everyone had spoken. “I think we should respond to each one, otherwise it’s going to get lost what their questions were,” she stated.

Anderson responded that the district could offer shuttles from the school to the CCC, and he acknowledged that the auditorium has been considered in the past.

Another student presented on behalf of Ryan Gernatt, senior class president, who could not be in attendance at the meeting. He created a video to share with the board; however, technical difficulties prevented it from playing, so the student read his points aloud. “Current seniors have family members before them that have dreamt of the day they could see their children and grandchildren walk the same path that they did,” Gernatt said.

According to Gernatt, 57 seniors, 37 juniors, 40 sophomores and 34 freshmen signed a petition requesting that graduation be held at Hillis Field. All the students who signed acknowledged that the event would need to be moved in the event of inclement weather; they said the CCC is an acceptable rain location with the following conditions: the Plexiglass must be removed, the CCC must close to the public to allow ample parking and all lighting and sound must be adjusted for the ceremony.

Another student, Grace Pollock, addressed the board and said that the class is open to change. However, after 14 years at the district, students should graduate at the school. “The priority shouldn’t be the comfort of audience members, but it should be about us — the graduates — and the traditions that we hold dear,” Pollock said, tearfully.

Senior Korey Hansen-Ivett also addressed the board to point out that “Not only is Hillis Field a tradition, but it is home to all of us students.” She discussed the many athletic events and sports teams that call the field home and have celebrated many victories there. Graduation, she argued, should be one of those victories, as long as weather allows.

Following public comment from students and parent Minnie Hansen, the decision was made to keep graduation on campus at Hillis Field. The auditorium is being considered as the primary option in the event of rain, with overflow seating in the gymnasium.

The next meeting of the Gowanda Central School Board of Education is Wednesday, Jan. 23 at 7 p.m. at the Seneca Nation of Indians Early Childhood Learning Center, 2016 Henodeyesta Drive, Irving.