Several years after a disastrous run at the high school, including a fire during a production, the West Deptford Little Theatre program could be back in the district for the summer.
After close to an hour of heated debate on the topic, the West Deptford school board tentatively approved, in an 8-1 vote Monday night, the organization’s use of for this year’s run, pending a signed agreement of terms.
“As you can see, there’s still apprehension,” school board President Christopher Strano told Little Theatre director and vice-president Laura Trace and treasurer Bill Bennett, who came out to speak on behalf of the organization.
For their part, Trace and Bennett emphasized the shift in leadership and a desire to repair—at least figuratively—the damage that had been done by past incidents, including a fire during a production.
“We are willing to cooperate in any way we can,” Trace said.
The group has already taken some steps to show that, she said, working with West Deptford’s recreation advisory committee to improve their operations.
And facing at least $6,000 in costs to rent out the same rehearsal and performance space—roughly 10 percent of their annual budget—Trace and Bennett said the move to Green-Fields would help ease the pressure on the group.
They would still face some costs—if more than 35 percent of the children participating in the program live outside the township, there would be a cost to use the school, and the organization would have to foot the bill for night custodians during shows.
But Bennett and Trace said they’d do whatever it took, including laying their own reputations on the line via an agreement on specific guidelines for the Little Theatre’s use of the school, including stringent supervisory rules for the 150-plus kids involved in the summer-long program.
“We have vested interests in this,” Trace said.
Countering Trace and Bennett at every step was school board Vice-President James Mehaffey, who was the board’s president at the time of the debacle at the high school, as he leveled serious concerns about the group’s leadership and practices, given the Little Theatre’s track record.
“I’ve heard this before,” Mehaffey said. “When it was implemented, it was complete chaos in the school.”
Mehaffey cited everything from the backdrop catching during both one production and a rehearsal, damage to school property and outright theft, and raised the point that the school board’s solicitor previously said the school board could have heightened liability, should another accident take place.
His criticism was primarily aimed at the group’s old leadership—former Little Theatre heads Sue and Joe Schramm, —but Mehaffey also singled out new Little Theatre President Joey Schramm, who was not at the school board meeting, given his ties to the old guard.
“Even though you’ve changed structure, you still have a president that’s related back to the old organization,” Mehaffey said. “You really don’t allow the board the opportunity to escape that liability.”
But the younger Schramm is already moving to push the group in a different direction, Trace and Bennett said.
“He does not see eye-to-eye with his parents on many, many issues,” Trace said. “We want to change. We want a good rapport with the community.”
The other school members were ultimately convinced by the plan for a signed, spelled-out agreement, which still has to be drafted and OK’d before final approval.
Mehaffey, who cast the lone no vote, continued to push against that move up until the vote, and questioned whether it was a smart move to rush the decision.
But as Trace and Bennett pointed out, the timing made a vote important, given the need to potentially lock up an alternative site in time for the summer program, which will start in late June.
“You have some work to do, and there are still details to be worked out,” Strano said after the tentative approval, and warned further slip-ups by the Little Theatre could spell the end in a hurry.
Strano said the board will also check with its solicitor to ensure there are no lingering issues with liability.