By Jane Ernsberger
Times-Junction News Editor
It has been a five-year journey for the Willard City Schools, but the future is here, according to Superintendent Jeff Ritz. The new building which houses all students opened on Aug. 25. While there were some "hiccups," the opening day was smooth."The biggest obstacle every year you go into is right here," Ritz said of the lunch period and feeding students. "It went the smoothest it's ever gone."There were 1,300 students who were served lunch. Ritz said if there were any major problems in the first few days, he expected it to involve lunch. After the first day, he and Shannon King, director of food services for the district, looked at the way it was set up and knew it would not work. Some changes were made.Originally, according to Ritz, the plan was to allow students to serve themselves from the steam tables. Health codes required barriers protecting the food."It wasn't what we were expecting," he explained. "The ladies here had to accommodate and adjust and it went so smooth."On that first day we said it's not right. It needs to be fixed," Ritz noted. "We tweaked it several times but said until we go through it we don't know the problems we're going to have."Students are scheduled for a half-hour for lunch. On the first days for serving lunches, Ritz said it wasn't uncommon for the first couple of lunchtimes to go from 50 minutes to one hour at the very beginning of the year."Here," he noted, "they were in and out in less than that 30 minutes. It was phenomenal."Ritz praised those who work in the kitchen and the administrative staff for helping to make sure each student got their lunch and was ready to go for their next class. "I couldn't say enough good things about that."Ritz said the transportation on the first day went very well. After the first day, there was a One-Call put out district wide which changed the drive according to where the student lives."In the morning the busing went very well," he explained. "It was the parents picking up and dropping off because we weren't prepared for that many. In retrospect, the first day of school there are more parents dropping their children off for the first day of school, and we weren't ready for that."So I was a little bit disappointed in that," Ritz said. "So that's why you will hear me say we got a B+. We could have been better prepared for that. We made the One-Call and allowed them to use either of the loops for dropping off their child."On Wednesday, the second day of school, Ritz said the difference was night and day. In the afternoon there were some students who got on the wrong bus."The improvement that we made in one day was incredible. That is due to the staff and working with each other and the parents cooperation. It was just a total team effort."Ritz said the problems the school faced on the first day were normal problems in any district."We still have some areas that we are finishing up," he pointed out. "We are still running electric to the fitness center. We're still doing outside jobs. We're still dealing with technology issues."Ritz praised the job done by the general contractor, Barton Mallow in keeping the work on schedule. While the technology and landscaping is not finished, he said the other work was "right on" when it came to the time schedule."There were some things that we added late in the game that are still not completed," he added. "But that was just as much due to the district as it was the contractor. We did a change order late to get them done."Code requirements caused some of the change orders. One of the changes that was necessary, Ritz said, putting a handwashing sink in the concession stand. While not finished, he said it was little things like this that were added."It's still co-funded by the project," he pointed out. "It was just not planned to be in there at that time."There's still some furniture that was not delivered on time because it was on back order," Ritz explained. "Or, when it arrived, it was the incorrect furniture or was just plain old broken. We turned that back so they had to reorder that."There are two libraries in the new building, one for the middle school/high school and the other for the elementary grades. Ritz said when people came to the orientation, the biggest thing they were interested in was the legacy wall, the Internet cafe and just the beauty of the building.The building has been, from the very first, designed to also be used by the community, Ritz explained. There will be access to the fitness center, walking track and gymnasium when not in use for school activities in the evening.Ritz said it was with the cooperation of the local businesses, industries and the community that have all worked to make the school a reality. The elementary wing is a homage to Pepperidge Farm, CSX, RR Donnelley and Midwest."At the high school end, it is more about the district's history and the histories of the schools," he pointed out. "It's more about the people who were a part of the district than the community."In the middle it is all about the community and the people," Ritz said. "They can put their name on a brick paver. We are trying to keep history alive in the district."At the high school end of the new building, Mercy Willard Hospital paid for the walking track. All of the classrooms have natural light. The new building is also air conditioned."I think we got the ball rolling right now," Ritz said of the future. "I think we've got to keep the ball rolling. I think we have to keep moving forward. I think we have to improve on services and communication with the parents."We want to offer 21st century skills," he added. "We want to have hands-on activities that we can do. We want community involvement. We want to be career ready."