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The History of Education in Schenectady, 1661-62 — 1961-62
Chapter XVI: Fiscal Independence; Elected Board Approved

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[This information is from pp. 187-196 of The History of Education in Schenectady, 1661-62 — 1961-62 by Jeanette G. Neisuler (Schenectady: Board of Education, City School District, 1964), and is reproduced here with the permission of the author. It is in the Schenectady Collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at Schdy R 370.9747 N41, and copies are also available for borrowing.]

Dr. Harry J. Linton, who took over the office of Superintendent from Mr. Pillsbury in 1946, had already been with the Schenectady School System for about twenty years. He was a quiet man, gentle and unexcitable. But, as many found to their consternation, it was a mistake to attribute his lack of bombast to weakness. Dr. Linton never shouted, but he never surrendered.

Born on May 2, 1895, in the little town of Valley Spring, South Dakota, Harry Linton was the youngest son of a tenant farmer. He grew up in Nebraska, was educated in the public schools there and in Iowa, and was graduated with a B. S. degree from the University of Nebraska in 1921. In 1949, he was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from Union College. Dr. Linton taught in Nebraska and was principal of a high school there. During the Stoddard administration in Schenectady, 1926-1929, he was principal of McKinley Junior High School, and during the Pillsbury administration, he served as Assistant Superintendent and as Director of Secondary Education. In 1929-1930, he was Assistant Professor of Education at the State College for Teachers in Albany.

Two of the conditions which had so harrassed the preceding term — the depression and the Second World War — had passed by the time Dr. Linton assumed his new position. The city population, which had shrunk during the depression years from over 95,000 to 87,500, was once again approaching its original peak. The birth rate, down in the early 30's to 12.5 births per 1000, was by 1947, almost doubled, and was recharging the school enrollment. With 23 schools and an administration building, a staff of nearly six hundred teachers and principals, more than 12,000 pupils and a budget of over $3,000,000, the school system had achieved the status of a big business. It was, in fact, the city's largest community-service agency.

Fiscal Independence

The responsibility of supporting this ever-expanding service — where should the money come from, and who should have the right to determine how much should be spent — had been the subject of unending debate ever since 1854 when the Legislature first gave the power to raise taxes to cover the cost of education in this city to the Common Council. For years, school expenses had been figured as part of the city budget, competing for survival with all other city enterprises. In the midst of Dr. Linton's administration, 1951, this situation was changed by act of the New York State Legislature under which the school system was made a financial entity, separate from the municipal government. Soon after, the voters of the state approved an amendment to the New York State Constitution which provided for a separate school debt limit of 5% (of full valuation of property averaged over the last five years). With that, the school system completed its fiscal independence. In effect, this meant that the people, not the politically elected officials, had direct responsibility regarding the school tax, the school budget, and bond issues maturing in more than five years.

School monies are gathered from three main sources: federal, state and local. The local population had no direct power over school funds from the federal and state governments; these were figured according to strict formulae. But they had now acquired control over local funds, which are by far the greater proportion of school revenues. Having gained the democratic right to voice their wishes, they had also assumed the democratic responsibility of safeguarding the caliber of education in the city. Henceforth, the public would not only have to appraise the educational needs of their children, they would have to evaluate their willingness to pay for these needs.

Legislative decision had thus pinned down who should have the right to determine how much to spend. There still remained, however, the question of where the money was to come from. At first, the Common Council was authorized to raise taxes on real and personal estate. As real estate became the sole source of money for education, public agitation against it began to grow. As long as forty years ago, Mr. Harrison Van Cott, a principal of the Schenectady High School, quoted the director of the School of Education of the Chicago University as saying, "It is hazardous to try to support high schools by levying the costs as a tax on real property only." Then Mr. Van Cott himself added, "Higher education reflects itself most promptly… in increased incomes. An income tax is the natural and only adequate source of support for higher education. The present difficulty in meeting the increased costs of schooling can be removed only by an income tax." (1) This possibility is still today being probed, along with other methods of supporting the schools.

The transfer of financial authority from the municipal government to the people themselves sparked a greater mutual interest between the public and the schools. Never before had the public become so involved with school affairs, and never before had the school system been so eager to satisfy the public's educational needs. Dr. Linton encouraged this courtship by all the means at hand — by urging open discussions on school budgets, by holding neighborhood meetings of the Board, by fostering, in conjunction with the Chamber of Commerce, an exchange of visits between teachers and members of the business, professional and industrial world.

Many Facets of Leadership Exhibited

Not only did the system try to satisfy public needs, it attempted to anticipate them. During the Linton administration a better testing program for more effectively analyzing fundamental skills in junior high school pupils was put into execution. The fringes of educational responsibility — attention to the exceptional children and the handicapped — received even more concentrated attention than previously. Schenectady had led the way in 1929, with a school for children confined to Sunnyview Orthopedic Hospital. Now, in 1947, a class was started for victims of cerebral palsy, the first such class in the State to be provided in a public school building.

Pioneering was routine procedure for the Linton period. The city was the first in the state to organize a cadet teaching program. Its purpose was to give selected high school seniors who were interested in teaching an opportunity to sample the profession by assisting the regular teachers. The program's value was soon recognized, and again Schenectady's methods were to serve as a model for other school systems. The city was a forerunner also in its leadership training program for staff members. The objective of this program was to supply the incentive, the opportunity and the training for outstanding teachers to widen their horizons through special assignments in administration or other areas of educational enterprise within the school system. A large portion recieved further advancement.

This administration stimulated a wide range of activity, overlooking no age group and few needs. The city was among the first to introduce parent-teacher conferences, a parent education program, a driver-training and highway safety program, and foreign language studies in the elementary grades. One of its most promising ventures was its attachment to educational television. As a charter member of the Mohawk Hudson Council on Educational Television, Schenectady was one of the earliest systems to avail itself of the medium's unfolding possibilities. Integrated with the elementary curriculum, the programs were broadcast on donated time over the commercial station WRGB, itself a pioneer in the field of television.

The enterprise exhibited by the school system in so many areas was all the more noticeable because it so far outstripped the growth in the physical plant. Various conditions had for some time managed to obstruct the building program and normal school repair: first the depression, then the Second World War, and now again, a rise in unemployment. Nevertheless, the more recent increase in city population, birth rate and housing projects had jointly served to aggravate the school space problem. When the need could no longer be denied, the Schenectady School System embarked upon a building program — one of the greatest in its history. In 1953, Grout Park School was built on Hamburg Street at a cost of $616,596, and Paige School was built on Elliot Avenue at a cost of $633,321. In addition, the Board voted $1,800,000 to construct Zoller School on Lancaster Street and to build additions to Yates and Howe schools.

The Vocational School had in the meantime, been discontinued. During the war, enrollment had dropped to such a low level at the Union Street building that the printing and business education courses had been transferred to the Nott Terrace High School building. A remnant of the Vocational High School, chiefly industrial, still clung to the Edison School, but the status of the school was sinking. By 1950, it had become little more than a convenient place to dump boys who by their incompetence — mental, physical or emotional — were producing complications for their teachers.

In 1953, the faculty and students of the Vocational High School became part of Nott Terrace High School with attendance half days at Nott Terrace for academic subjects, and half days at Edison for shop skills. Nott Terrace then became known as a comprehensive high school. This move was a practical attempt to give a more literal translation to equality of opportunity, and to remove any stigma which might grow out of attendance at a separate school maintained for vocational students. The arrangement, besides providing a more normal schooling for students going into trades instead of college, would also result in better facilities and reduced operation and maintenance costs. Mont Pleasant High School, too, was designated a comprehensive high school. The curricula of the two schools overlapped, but were not strictly duplicated. There was, for example, less variety in Mont Pleasant's courses for industrial occupation, but more technical education courses were offered there than at Nott Terrace. The city was also a leader in the field of work-study programs, or cooperative education, in which students were permitted to spend part of the time in school and part of the time on the job. Training was given in retail selling, industrial shop work, office work and in practical nursing.

The 1903 and 1915 Nott Terrace High School buildings were inadequate and unsafe, but suggestions that a new high school be built generated the strongest of feelings. Families and friends were split on the issue. There were several reasons for the opposition. The current rise in unemployment was unnerving to the taxpayers, as was the accelerating exodus to the suburbs which was taking school tax money beyond reach; the site purchased for the building was objected to as being too far from the main areas of town; the Catholic schools had their own large building program in prospect; and there was a growing exasperation among a segment of the population against the Board and the Superintendent. Two years earlier, the Board had been defeated in a referendum vote to authorize the building of three elementary schools and to increase the tax limit. Antagonism finally culminated in a demand that the Superintendent and the Board resign. Also, there was growing agitation for an elected Board and against members being appointed by the Mayor for a five-year term. "Taxation without representation" these objectors labeled the existing arrangement.

$5 Million High School Bond Issue Voted

By year's end, 1954, both sides could take some comfort from the developments. Authorization of a bond issue up to $5,000,000 for a new school was to be put to a vote. Those who advocated it were supported by the Chamber of Commerce and the City Planning Commission in the most intensive campaign ever waged in this city for an issue of this kind. On June 8, the bond issue was approved, but by a mere 922 votes out of a total of 12,640. And in November, the people of the city voted overwhelmingly — 10,426 to 4,609 — in favor of an elected Board. With this, the separation of the city government and the schools was really complete.

Dr. Linton Succumbs

Like others before him, Dr. Linton was privileged to glimpse the promised land, but not enter it. He succumbed to a fatal heart attack in December of that same year. Dedicated, determined and quietly persuasive, Dr. Linton had been a personal inspiration to many people in and out of the city; his administration, energetic, courageous and forward-looking, had been a model for other systems.

Notes for Chapter XVI

  1. Folder 9203, on Schools, comp. W. B. Efner. December 20, 1923. (Unpublished folder on file at the City History Center, Schenectady, N.Y.).

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