‘I’m tired of asking’
STAMFORD — It’s tough to end up in the spotlight on the Rippowam Middle School stage.
Not because of the competitive nature of the drama club (in fact students in the 25-person group says it gives them a place to feel at home). It’s because only seven lights on the stage work.
Each year the drama club raises $4,000 to rent sound and lighting equipment for their two shows. Although the auditorium is equipped with light and sound systems, they are essentially defunct, leaving the tweens to raise thousands on their own.
“I see how much effort they put in the shows,” said Marcella Branch, a parent volunteer who runs the club. “It’d be nice to have the bare minimum. ... I’m tired of asking for just enough.”
It’s not only the drama club affected. The sounds of winter concerts fall faint without adequate mics. Lights flickered while the Academy of Information Technology and Engineering used the stage for its graduation. And outside groups, such as dance studios, that have long rented the auditorium for performances, are now shying away from paying for both the venue and substitute audio and lighting systems. This year’s All School Musical was moved to Westhill High School.
“They’re all saying, ‘Let us know when it’s ready and we’ll be back,’” said Al Perillo, head custodian at Rippowam.
Perillo said he’s been at Rippowam for 17 years. He’s been awaiting upgrades to the facility for 15 of them. Since his arrival, he’s only seen new carpet installed in the auditorium, which is one of the largest in the district. In addition to needing new audio and lighting, he said the theater could also benefit from new seating and a new orchestra pit. He doesn’t expect to see it happen.
In the four years she’s been volunteering with the Rippowam Drama Club, Branch said she’s seen the stage lights dim from 12 working bulbs to the seven they have now. In addition to fundraising for substitute systems, students provide their own props and costumes. They raise money through selling flowers and clothing drives.
“I want to fundraise for costumes,” Branch said. “All the money goes to things they should already have.”
The school’s parent-teacher organization helps. Branch said she’s even willing to learn grant writing to get the money to fix the theater.
The club has found support in the school administration and the community, she said. In 2016, when the show almost couldn’t go on due to lack of funding, a private foundation stepped in and donated $2,000.
But replacing the failing systems is a $500,000 capital project. According to the Board of Education’s capital priorities list, from 2017-18, the renovation ranks tenth after other projects. But it has been in the review and design phase for at least the past three years, according to Clarence Zachery, the district’s chief fiscal and operations support officer.
Zachery revealed this during a capital project discussions at a recent Board of Education meeting. With budget season approaching, board members Betsy Allyn and Jackie Pioli have voiced their frustration that the project has been in limbo for so long.
Both Allyn and Pioli have seen the effects of the aging auditorium first hand as parents. Allyn said she’s been pushing for upgrades since her daughter was in middle school at Rippowam. Her daughter is now a senior at Westhill and there’s still no repairs in sight for the auditorium.
“I’d like to see this fixed before I get off this board,” Allyn said. “It’s sad we can’t do this for our students.”
Zachery said there’s been a delay in getting the project done due to a disagreement over the quality of the new systems. But Pioli said the school shouldn’t be left in the dust while other middle schools have feasible auditoriums.
“This is where I have a real issue,” she said. “I hear it’s in engineering for three years. I as a parent don’t have a nice photo of my daughter graduating eighth grade, not my niece who graduated eighth grade from Rippowam. That was two-and-a-half years ago. How long does it take to get done and if it’s been there three years, how do other schools get in front of it? I want everyone to be treated fairly.”
Superintendent Earl Kim said recently the school board does get some say on capital projects discussed in engineering meetings. But the exact future of the auditorium remains unclear as the district prepares its next capital budget requests.
“It’s affecting the school as a whole,” Branch said. “Winter concert, spring concert, graduation. ... You can’t hear anything. It’s sad for the kids. I know it’s a very tough time for the Board of Ed ... it’s been going on a long time. I want to be patient, but I want something done sooner rather than later.”
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