Lee Vining concludes tough school year | RecordCourier.com
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Lee Vining concludes tough school year

by Linda Hiller

Nine months later, Lee Vining public schools are out for summer and only a little bit worse for wear, following the arson of the only high school in town last September.

“We settled in nicely in our little modulars up behind the elementary school,” said Principal Nancy Lampson. “We did really well up there, and the kids eventually evened out their emotions. Other than not having a gymnasium, they had most everything else in the modulars.”

The Lee Vining High School building had been the social center of the small mountain foothill community – the place where Christmas pageants, plays and music concerts were held, where teen-agers went for open gym on evenings and weekends, and where important events such as graduations and award ceremonies took place.

When it was burned in the early morning hours of Sept. 19, 1998, lit by two of the town’s own – a 14-year-old LVHS freshman, Anthony Mullins, and 15-year-old home-schooled sophomore, Nik Greytak – this “heart of the community” was literally broken.

“Without the high school building, we held as much as possible in the elementary multipurpose room, and other communities offered us their facilities,” said Kandy Veenker, Lee Vining Elementary School secretary. “We had the high school graduation at the Mono Lake Visitor’s Center.”

Lampson said three seniors graduated from LVHS on June 10, and approximately 100 people attended the ceremony in the relatively new visitor’s center, which overlooks scenic Mono Lake.

“We had our drama classes and presentations at the June Lake Community Center,” Veenker said. “We don’t usually have a prom, though, because our numbers are so low. Many of the kids will go to Coleville or Mammoth for prom.”

– Tourist town. Lee Vining, Calif., population 315, is 90 minutes south of the Carson Valley on Highway 395.

Called the “Gateway to Yosemite,” the tiny tourist community has two churches, one grocery market, eight gift shops, 11 motels, 10 restaurants, four gas stations, one pumice company and two schools: Lee Vining High School, which housed about two dozen high school students and 20 junior high students, and Lee Vining Elementary School.

The high school was built in 1960 and housed the first students beginning in 1961. After the fire, the 25 high school students went to the Lee Vining Community Presbyterian Church for temporary instruction by their three teachers Jeff Putman, Kristin McBride, Meredith Ford.

By the end of November, portable classrooms were brought in and placed near the elementary school, where the high school and middle school students finished out their 1998-99 school year.

After the smoke settled, the community searched for meaning and found it.

“We came away with a greater sense of pride in our kids,” said Ford, who teaches English, Spanish and social studies. “Although this was very sad, it really brought the kids together.”

– Why us? The two juveniles who set the fire had been “Yogi Bearin'” – going to nearby campgrounds to steal coolers (usually finding beer) – before they found themselves at the high school on Highway 395.

According to police reports, alcohol was determined to be a factor in the boys’ next move, which was to break into the school and try several times to set a fire, finally succeeding in a box of computer paper in the computer lab next to the library. Damages exceeded $3 million.

Principal Lampson said Mullins and Greytak were expelled for the school year, but may try to attend LVHS next year.

“Both boys left the community for an extended period of time,” Lampson said. “Now they’re back, and Anthony has applied for re-admission. I know he had to maintain a B average in his school work and did 100 hours of community service and 100 hours for the courts. His application comes up for review at the next board meeting. I don’t think we’ll hear from Nik about coming back.”

Lampson said that even now, the LVHS students are still working through their response to the arson and the arsonists.

“Some kids are ready to forgive and others are still working through it,” she said.

– Saying good-bye. Weeks after the fire destroyed the school, community members and LVHS alumni held a ceremony, “Lee Vining High School, Past and Future,” to commemorate the school’s place in the community for nearly three decades, to say good-bye to the school and mark the way for a future “heart of the community.”

“For years, we were the only high school in the southern half of Mono County, so a lot of people have gone through this particular school building,” Lampson said. “We needed some closure.”

Veenker said it has been hard driving by the burned out school building the last nine months.

“When we would drive by and see the high school in shambles, it was so sad,” she said. “We very much missed it, and I think the community is breathing a sigh of relief to see work finally begin. We’re moving on, and everyone is excited about the new year and the fact that we’ll have enough people to play football this year. Last year we graduated 10 kids, so the numbers were way down, but it looks good for this next year. It will be nice to have the high school building back.”

– Moving forward. After waiting most of the year for the final recommendation on what the Eastern Sierra Unified District’s insurance would cover, it was decided that part of the school could be saved, but the most damaged wing, and the entire roof, would need to be completely rebuilt.

Demolition by a nearby company, Domaille Construction, began this month, Lampson said.

“It will be demolished to the concrete block walls, and rebuilding is scheduled to start in mid-July,” she said. “It should be ready for students by the spring semester.”

Lampson has taken a position as principal at Bridgeport Elementary School and director of curriculum and instruction for the same school district. She has taught in Lee Vining for 20 years.

“After a time, you learn that there’s a time and a place for everything, and I have peace with this decision,” she said. “Doing curriculum work is something I’ve always enjoyed, and this is a new position for our district, so I look forward to it.

“But none of us will ever forget what happened here in Lee Vining, and we’re all stronger in character for it, I believe.”