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Townsend Elementary: Past, present, future
Built in 1935, Townsend Elementary School has been an important and integral part of the Walton Central School District and the community for more than eight decades.

It’s undergone additions in 1953, 1967, and 2000. It’s been a victim to two major floods since 1996. Talking about the school to many can bring on emotions and amazing memories.

Many consider Patty Wood one of the faces of Townsend Elementary. Her children went through Townsend. And she’s watched countless students walk the halls in the more than 20 years she’s worked at the school. She captures daily life at Townsend with a smile and knows more about the school than most could ever imagine.

To say Wood has a sentimental attachment to Townsend would be an understatement. When thinking about the future of Townsend, she gets teary-eyed.

“My kids went here and I can still look down the halls and have memories,” Wood said. “I’ve watched generations of kids come through. It would be sad to lose that, but you can’t stop moving forward. I’ve cried. I have that sentimental attachment.”

The Walton Central School District is proposing a $23.5 million capital project that the community will vote on at the May 19 election. Should the proposition pass, a new elementary school will be built at the Stockton Ave. campus. That would mean about four more years at the current Townsend before classes moved permanently to the main campus in time for the 2019-20 school year.

That $23.5 million is a cap, too, meaning the school can’t go beyond what is approved, by law.

Why move Townsend?

The Walton Board of Education has wrestled with this decision for a while. It’s not an easy one and members knew would raise legitimate concerns and thoughts.

They looked at a few options, including renovation, doing nothing, or moving the school.

“The Townsend School means a lot to many people,” said Butch Neale, who walked the halls of Townsend as a kid, graduated from WCS and has been on the Board of Education for nearly 25 years. “But times go on.”

Townsend was the victim of a major flood in 1996 and 10 years later, in 2006, a bigger and more damaging flood happened.

2006 floodThen there’s the age of the building. With parts of the building being built in four different eras, it makes it harder to bring aspects – such as technology – up to date.

“Structurally, the whole building is different, which causes problems when you try and retrofit,” said Andy Jackson, Walton’s director of facilities. “Everything is more complex. Renovation isn’t a simple thing. Some of the walls are part of the structural part of the building. The same strategy won’t work building-wide.”

The financial aspect of moving Townsend has been covered over and over. With some bonds being paid off, the district can take on this project without creating an additional tax hike to the community. Though some have said the project feels like it’s moving too fast, Neale said the Board of Education has done its homework and is confident this is the right move for the students of Walton and the district as a whole.

“Some have said we are trying to rush through it,” Neale said. “We’ve checked the ups and downs and ins and outs.”

The floods in 1996 and 2006 took a toll on the community and Townsend. Some things that were almost new had to be replaced well before their life expectancy was up. Take for example the gym in Townsend. It was replaced in 2003 as part of the 2000 building project.

The school then had to replace that floor following the 2006 flood. The gym floor originally had a life expectancy of about 30 years.

“I waded through that water in 2006,” said former WCS science teacher and current Board of Education member Frank Ward. “We were lucky it was in the summer. If that had been September or October, where would we have put the kids?”

Flooding at Townsend

Flooding is the major concern when it comes to the Townsend Elementary building and it’s not only one part of the school that is in harm’s way, as evident by the 2006 flood.

The fix for that isn’t easy, said Graydon Dutcher, the stream program coordinator with the Delaware County Soil and Water Conservation District.

What makes it harder is the gauge for East Brook lost funding a few years ago, thus meaning it makes it almost impossible to see the scale of various flooding events as they unfold.

Using previous statistics, though, it’s likely it’s not an “if” but rather a “when” in regard to a potential large flood.

The statistics from that gauge, which was in place from 1999-2013, show a pattern of increasing numbers. These are actual measured discharges and not predictions that sometimes do or don’t happen with weather. That gauge was on a drainage area of 24.7 square miles.

During that time frame, the trend line has increased. What that means is when bad weather hits, the average amount of water flowing down East Brook has gone up – and it’s not by a minuscule amount. During that stretch of time, the trend line has increased by 650 cubic feet per second. One cubic foot equals 7.84 gallons, which means the peak of a major storm will bring about 5,000 more gallons per second rushing through a limited system.

Basically, that’s equal to about an 18-wheel tanker truck with a load of water passing by per second more than it used to be.

At its peak, the 2006 flood brought about 7,110 cubic feet per second – about 53,182 gallons of water per second – rushing around and through the East Brook corridor at the Townsend Elementary School location.

The argument, too, has been that these are once-in-a-100-year floods. Dutcher said what people think are 100-year floods are no longer the same.

“I hate the term 100-year flood,” Dutcher said. “It gives a false sense of security. You actually have a one percent chance of seeing that storm event every calendar year. It’s pure statistics. They take the all the data available for a location and assign it a probability of happening.”

This data adjusts with time and new storm data.

The trend isn’t just in Walton or Delaware County – it’s the whole northeast and the nation. In data collected from 1895-2011, the occurrence of larger storms has increased by 70 percent. Storms are more intensive and the data shows there are more extremes in weather patterns.

What that means is the 100-year storm actually now has the same probability that a 60-year storm used to have. A 50-year storm is now a 30-year storm. The statistics have changed with the storms.

With the lack of funding on the gauge at East Brook, it also makes it harder to judge what could be coming.

“If we know we have a big event, we have no way of quantifying how much and how fast,” Dutcher said. “We’ve been quite lucky issuing flooding predictions based on that gauge data in real time. My fear is now we won’t know the magnitude of the runoff, or the rate of the rise of flood water that the gauge used to provide. There will be no more science behind the decisions that have to happen in an emergency, and that’s my major issue. That means more disruptions.”

Some have said a flood plain should be created to help the issue. Others have noted a flood wall should be considered being put up to keep water from going in. Or, possibly flood gates that could be installed. There have also been ideas about investing in pumps to get rid of water when it comes.

Neale pointed out that pumps are fine in theory, but where would they pump the water to? Jackson added that in the times needed to utilize other ideas, such as flood gates or even sandbagging around parts of the school – there would be additional manpower needed.

The biggest thing, though, is one can’t predict when another flood will hit the area.

“The one thing I can say for certain is the trends I used to use, I can no longer use,” said Ward, who also serves as a local weather observer for the National Weather Service. “We don’t seem to get light rain anymore. We get huge downpours. Those are what make brooks go up. That’s why they rise so quickly.

“Just look at the United States over the past few years,” he continued. “There have been terrible floods here or there. Can we say we’ll have one next year or in five years? No. But it only takes one. If it happens during the wrong time of the year, our students and those teaching them could be in danger.”

Taking a toll

The flooding issues go beyond dollars and cents – there’s the emotional aspect, too.
“The 1996 flood was devastating,” Wood said. “That’s because kids were here and it was scary. Kids were sent home and staff stayed because it was going to be an emergency shelter. Then we all had to evacuate.

“In 2006, it was so much worse,” she continued. “It wasn’t just in the K-1 wing; it was up through the school. The devastation in town was worse. … It brought out the best in people to rally around kids. After that, there was absolute fear. When it would rain hard, kids would freak out that it would happen again. You just don’t know.”

A 1994 graduate of Walton, Dutcher walked the halls of Townsend as a kid. His wife teaches at Townsend. His kids have also been at Townsend, so he has seen and heard what floods can do to children. He said that these disasters can take an emotional toll on kids.

“There was such turmoil on the homes,” Dutcher said. “As we are trying to recover, you need to be able to send the kids to the one place of stability, but the school was recovering at the same time. We need the school to be the hub of our community and to be a guaranteed safe place so the kids don’t experience devastation in every aspect of their lives during the recovery phase. I would like to look back someday and say that our community and school district made the decision to never get flooded again.

“As a community, we should be safe from flooding,” he continued. “We have put ourselves in harm’s way. Everyone knows where the floods hit and where the damages will occur.”

This community has always shown a strong bond to help its children and to keep them safe. Years ago, the PTA built a playground at Townsend. To raise the funds, they sold logs. There’s a sign with the names of all who donated to honor what they did for Townsend. That playground was wiped out during one of the floods, but the sign remains to show how the community can come together for the benefit of its children.

“What a neat thing that this small community stepped up,” teacher Angie Bayne said. “And the sign is still there.”

Other issues

Though flooding is the main component, it’s not the only reason the Board of Education wants to move the school to the main campus and undertake this capital project.

With parts of the school being built in different eras, it makes it harder to keep a consistent temperature. That means during the warmer months, the upstairs at Townsend can become uncomfortably hot.

The cooling system in the school has issues because of the different types of buildings each addition is, Jackson said.

“The temperature needs to be consistent,” third-grade teacher Wendy LeBarge said. “That’s the bottom line. Many days, we are trying to teach over a box fan humming, especially in May and June.”

The colder months can be tough, too.

“The minute it gets cold, kids want to keep winter jackets at their desks,” Bayne said. “It’s a cramped place. And when there are kids with sensory needs and it’s too hot or too cold, it’s tough.”

The preliminary plans for a new school show larger rooms, which could help with cramped spaces. The room sizes are dictated by the state education department. The temperature will also be easier to maintain.

Technology isn’t easy to deal with, either.

Most parts of the building were made before the Internet became such an important part in life, including in education. There’s a shortage of basic things, too such as electrical outlets in many classrooms. Three parts of the building were built before the Internet was even conceived.

But as times move on and technology grows, students have growing needs. Every classroom has workstation clusters. Items such as iPads, interactive whiteboards, smart tables and other items rely on the Internet.

And even with wireless hubs, there still needs to be wiring. The wiring the building has was completed years ago, is outdated and doesn’t carry the necessary speeds needed to run equipment used in classrooms.

Each year there are newer and better software applications being developed to help students learn important subjects, such as reading and math. The applications rely on a fast and reliable network, however, because of the amount of media being pushed to each device.

“This building was not designed to pull Ethernet cable from one side of the building to the other,” said Rick Robinson, an IT tech at Townsend. “This takes a great deal of time, energy, and money to accomplish. People have suggested we move to wireless, but it’s not as simple as that. We still need to manually run cable from our switches to the access points and because our building is built using reinforced concrete and brick, we have found that wireless inside of the classrooms is not always reliable.”

Future savings

Jackson is a Walton CSD graduate and has worked in the district for 30 years. He stressed that the community could save in the long run with the project.

“The energy savings would be tremendous,” Jackson said. “It’s hard trying to balance those savings in a building made in different eras. Today’s equipment is maintenance free, to a point. The old equipment, there is more work with belts, and oil, etc. The energy strategies today are excellent and the building will be much safer.”

Jackson points out that there would be one set of utilities, which makes it easier to operate district-wide.

“There would be more sustainability with the addition,” Jackson said. “It would be an ongoing energy savings for the school and the taxpayers. There would be less maintenance cost.”

Jackson also noted the saving don’t even take into consideration the village’s bio-digester, which will give the district even more savings in the future. WCS has already agreed to be part of the bio-digester when the village moves forward with it.

Being the community’s hub

In small communities, the school is the hub. It’s where many events take place and is often a safe shelter when things go wrong.

Where Townsend is now, it makes it harder for parts of the school to be the hub – and it makes it a much larger challenge to allow kids to have something stable in their lives when other parts become chaotic based on Mother Nature.

Dutcher pointed to the aftermath of the 2006 flood, when one could drive down many streets in Walton and see six or seven feet of household items piled up on the sides of the street – with items ranging from sheet rock and furniture, to toys and clothes. There was a bit of everything.

The same could be said with parts of Townsend.

“People came together to clean and fix,” Bayne said. “What people don’t think about is how they lost their items in their homes. It’s the same thing here. You have a lot of lost personal items. Some teachers lost everything.”

Weather happens and East Brook floods. Dutcher noted leaders and community members know where the floods happen. Too often, he said, floods hit and people rebuild in the same location. It’s time to change that.

“We have to break that cycle somehow,” Dutcher said. “In my eyes, right now is such an opportunity for this community. Standing together to mitigate future flood damages has to be the new norm and the community has to lead it.”

Photos: The flood photos with this story are from the 2006 flood. 

For more information about the capital project, please click here.