High (school) drama in Sylvania

If my headline drew you here thinking this was about Sylvania Northview’s Little Theater, I’m sorry, but it’s not. It is, however, a dramatic little saga of the Sylvania Exempted Village School District suffering the effects of the post-World War II baby boom, circa 1956. The time Sylvania Schools ran out of money.

Full disclosure requires me to state that I am a graduate of the Sylvania City Schools (I was born right at the end of the baby boom but do not consider myself a “boomer”). I tell of my Sylvania roots with neither pride nor shame; it is simply a fact. I graduated from the “new” high school, Southview, that is now over forty years old. As I got to know the district when I moved there in 1974, I naturally wondered how it came to be, with ancient buildings like Central Avenue Elementary and the former Burnham High School. I learned a small village, surrounded by a rural township, grew its district gradually. Then, after World War II, the school system found itself in dire straits financially after an onslaught of new residents.

I discovered this while I was researching something mundane (the construction of the Detroit-Toledo Expressway), and came across The Blade’s John Grigsby explaining what happened with the schools in 1956-57 in his story, Sylvania Today: Portrait Of A Town With Wounded Pride.

In recent years, Sylvania’s population has grown rapidly as Toledo’s boundaries have moved closer. There have been scores of new houses around Sylvania as one after another subdivision has come into being.

The schools have been overcrowded and it has been a constant push to provide enough classrooms and enough operating expenses to meet the growing enrollment.

To combat that, the board asked for approval of an 8.5 mill tax levy in November 1956, which lost 3,479 to 3,078, according to this super handy document on Lucas County’s website which lists every vote in the county by every municipality since the mid-1950s (so, coming soon, a post about how Adams Township failed to incorporate). The levy was “the subject of a particularly heated campaign which included personal calls to virtually every household in the community,” The Blade said.

The acting superintendent, C.V. Courtney, told The Blade election night that he didn’t know what the schools would do next year, but that the situation was not very promising. “Prior to the election four members of the township board of education said, ‘Upon the basis of forseeable financial resources and upon the failure of the proposed levy, operation of Sylvania Township schools would be suspended for the months of September through December, 1957.'” A follow up story the next day laid it out: the system faced a $150,000 deficit by the end of the year. The money would have been used to eliminate the deficit and hire teachers in the district, which was growing at the rate of 250 students a year.

A month later, on Dec. 11, a special election was held for a 5 mill levy, but the vote failed to attain the required 60% majority by 102 votes. The story is chock full of details but is illegible. Aaaaargh. A couple of days later, the board said there was “no assurance” the 4,100-student district would reopen after Christmas break.

And indeed, it did not. When students went on break on Dec. 21, it was announced that lack of funds would prolong the furlough “not later than Feb. 4.” Suddenly, the kids in Sylvania had a lot of free time on their hands.

“It is pretty much a picture of frustration among children in Sylvania,” Grigsby wrote. “Many have been going into Toledo to movies. There is considerable skating. They ride bicycles aimlessly. There are endless fights and bits of mischief among the fretful playmates. Mothers agree the children spend hours on end in front of television sets.”

The older kids, however, admitted they would rather be in school.

It was a blow to Sylvania’s pride.

While just a sleepy little village to many casual tourists, Sylvania actually has been a progressive community…

Over the years there has been particular pride in the school system, embracing both the village and township area. The education program has been outstanding. Sylvania students have been rated high in various state scholarship standings.

Its band, chorus and other musical organizations have brought high honors to the community. The Burnham Wildcats regularly have been winners or contenders in athletic competition.

A plan eventually fell into place to reopen the schools. At a Jan. 7 meeting, the board decided to seek a $100,000 loan from Sylvania Savings Bank. The meeting was attended by parents and concerned “real estate men” as well, including L.W. Potter, a contractor, who told the board closing the schools stopped home building in Sylvania Township, which undoubtedly got everyone’s attention. The schools reopened Jan. 21, 1957.

In April of that year, district voters approved a levy and the crisis was over. The Blade weighed in editorially, Sylvania Votes For Schools, crediting a united front to getting a successful vote but noting the “unhappy and divisive” situation.

Because there never could have been any real doubt that Sylvania Township residents believe in education and in the public schools, the outsome of Tuesday’s vote on a 5-year, 5-mill operating levy was surprising only in the contrast it provided with three other times in the last 18 months when Sylvanians had seemed not to care if school kept or not. Which, ultimately, it didn’t.

The district recovered quickly. In November, 1958, voters approved a $2.3 million building bond issue that would pay for a new high school (today’s Northview High School, which opened in September, 1960), additions to Stranahan, Hillview and Central Avenue elementaries, and conversion of Burnham into a junior high school.

I work hard on interesting visuals for this site but this time I am really short on art – there’s nothing – so here’s a picture of Southview I took in 2002.

That chapter in Burnham’s history didn’t last long: the new high school became so crowded, so quickly, that the district was forced to use Burnham as part of the high school after Arbor Hills was built (in 1970, but I’m going from my memory here) and until Southview opened in September, 1976.

Built in 1927, Burnham, its insulation non-existent and its steam heat failing, was torn down in 2010.

In recent years, Sylvania has built new schools and torn down old ones, so it is definitely keeping pace, though there have been a few bumps in the road here and there (especially with a 2017 redistricting, which encountered some opposition before being finalized), and homeowner’s concerns with tax values in the district.

To the district’s credit, it did a pretty good job with me. I can write fairly well, my experience with the high school newspaper set me on a career path of sorts, and four years of speech and debate serves me well until this day. Oddly, I have kept in touch with no one, even with the advent of social media. Here’s hoping the Sylvania Southview class of 1981 turned out OK.


  1. Robert Whittington

    I graduated from the then-only Sylvania High School in 1974. Prior to 1970, Burnham and McCord served as the only junior high schools. When Arbor Hills opened that year, Burnham housed high school freshmen. Sophomores and juniors would have classes at Burnham (which was called North) and also at the high school (which was called South, and perversely after 1976, Northview). Seniors would spend the whole day at the high school building. It became obvious rather quickly that shuffling most of the student body across the creek throughout the day wasn’t an ideal situation. The opening of Southview in 1976 relieved a lot of pressure.

  2. John

    I grew up in a home bordering the top of Northview’s hill, in Sleepy Hollow. I was 8yo when Southview opened. Prior to that I recall the shuffling of the students between Northview and Burnham. I believe they were given ten minutes between classes. Crowds of these kids would “become lost” in the woods on the way to the other building, with much smoking taking place. I remember seeing clouds of smoke wafting up from behind the Airstream trailer my parents had parked on the back of their lot.

  3. MattF

    That’s true. I worked with a guy that graduated from Sylvania HS in 1976. He talked of having to walk across from the Burnham to what is now Northview for classes and said he smoked a lot of cigarets on the way. And there were times he never made it back to class.

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