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Mural's fate stirs East Mills debate

East Mills Elementary School in Hastings
Mike Peterson/KMA News

Nishna Valley school mural at East Mills Elementary School in Hastings.
Mike Peterson/KMA News

A big crowd gathered inside East Mills Elementary School's media center to hear discussion (Hastings) -- Plans to eliminate a historic school artifact has generated controversy in the East Mills School District.

By unanimous vote Monday evening, the East Mills School Board tabled a decision on whether to paint over a mural depicting the formation of the former Nishna Valley School District. Located near the front of East Mills Elementary School--the former Nishna Valley High School in Hastings--the mural depicts the consolidation of the old Hastings, Emerson, Henderson and Strahan districts into one decades ago. Nishna Valley merged with Malvern to form East Mills beginning in the 2011-12 school year, following voters' approval of a reorganization a year earlier, and at least three years of whole grade sharing before that. Rich Erb is a Nishna Valley graduate, and son of the late Richard Erb, one of two people who painted the mural. Erb says painting over the mural would erase a piece of history.

"It's art," said Rich Erb. "It shows how the four towns came together as one, and nobody had anything bad to say about anybody in the other towns. We all blended well. We left that on the wall as a representation so that we wouldn't forget where we came from.

"Nishna Valley has now become East Mills--which is great. But don't get rid of your history, don't forget about where you came from, don't get rid of your art."

Attorney Raymond Aranza of Hamburg questioned the legality of eliminating the mural under the Visual Arts Rights Act of 1990--or VARA--which protects artwork meeting certain criteria.

"This school board, this district really can't do anything to that art," said Aranza. "They can't destroy it, they can't paint over it. They really can't do anything without permission of the artist. I know one of the artists has passed away, but I know one of the artists is still alive. I just remind the board that if they decide to paint over it, or do anything, they have to look at what the consequences could be."

Joy Teas of Henderson retired as an East Mills art instructor last year. A former student of Richard Erb, Teas is the mural's other creator. Teas says the outrage over the mural's proposed demise reflects the passion Nishna Valley graduates had toward Erb, and their school.

"The passion over the mural is a representation of how education and educators impact lives, loyalty and commitment in the district," said Teas. "As the time has passed, these communities still care. Tonight could be when you say your past doesn't need to be covered, but could be a model of how to move forward."

Other speakers suggested the district's problems were deeper than brick and mortar. Trisha Glockel is president of the East Mills Booster Club. Glockel says recent East Mills graduates have been deprived of the passion that Nishna Valley and Malvern students feel for their former districts. Glockel says students have the right to cultivate their own history.

"These alumni feel very strong," said Glockel, "their communities feel very strong, and the students sometimes feel as if they have to pick a side. That's a very horrible position to put these kids. These kids deserve the opportunity to create their own history, and have that reflected in that school, so that they feel ownership in that school."

Other speakers suggested painting an East Mills Wolverine logo either over the Blackhawk Indian in the mural, or next to it.

After more than 40 minutes of discussion--often emotional at times, East Mills Superintendent Paul Croghan recommended the board table the issue so that the district's attorney could clarify the VARA Act, Croghan says the board had three options: either paint over the mural, modify it or leave it as is. Whatever it decides, Croghan says the public must understand why removing the mural was proposed in the first place.

"I think there was a comment tonight that it's the adults who need to think about this," said Croghan, "because the kids don't know any different. It's the adults that have to understand they're educating their kids with their actions. Can I control adults? No, but people are asking us, parents and the community are asking us to teach our kids in a certain way, in a positive manner."

More discussion is expected at the board's next regular meeting August 13th at 6:30 p.m. at the East Mills Junior/Senior High School's media center.

Mike Peterson