Hundreds of former students and colleagues are calling for the Schenectady school district to name the high school black box theater in honor of former theater director Bill Ziskin, who died in February.
A small provision of district policy, though, means the renaming may not be possible until December 2022, after five years have elapsed since Ziskin’s 2017 retirement from the district.
Ziskin left an enormous mark on generations of students during his decades leading the Schenectady High School theater program. He established the school’s well-regarded Blue Roses Theater Company and oversaw the opening of the theater so many now believe should carry his name and become the William W. Ziskin Theater.
Shortly after Ziskin died last month, former students from across the country, many of whom work in the entertainment industry, shared countless memories of their time under Ziskin’s tutelage. People recalled “Ziskinisms” like “do it better” or “you have to be 15 minutes early and that is on time” and highlighted the challenging productions he never shied away from with his troupe of Schenectady students. Former students almost immediately started promoting the idea of getting the theater named after Ziskin.
“His heart and soul should and will be felt there for years and years to come,” 2003 graduate Becky Daniels said of Ziskin as she called into Wednesday night’s board meeting.
Over 400 current and former Schenectady teachers also signed a petition asking the black box theater at the high school be named after Ziskin, submitting it to the school board Wednesday.
“Ziskin was one of the biggest influences in my life,” Oriana Miles, a former Ziskin student who now teaches English at the high school, said during the comment period at Wednesday’s board meeting. “It was much more than theater he taught, he taught you how to be a human being.”
“Bill was our original,” said Schenectady High School Principal Chris Chank. “He was always creating and supporting a community that immediately accepted all who entered.”
Board members expressed support for naming the theater after Ziskin, but the drive to rename the theater could be slowed by the policies that guide all district operations.
A district policy that covers the renaming of facilities outlines the process for accepting nominations to name district facilities in honor of “individuals who have attained achievements of extraordinary and lasting distinction.” The process enables written nominations to be submitted to the superintendent who can then establish a committee to consider the nomination. But under the policy, district employees can only have a facility named for them five years after they retired or left the district. Ziskin retired from the district Dec. 22, 2017, allowing a renaming to happen December 2022, under current policy. The school board would have to alter the policy to enable a renaming sooner, but school boards as a general matter resist changing policy to address an individual circumstance.
Board members on Wednesday appeared in agreement that the theater should ultimately carry Ziskin’s name but did not come to a consensus on how to handle the policy issue. Board member Andy Chestnut suggested adding an exception to the five-year waiting period if the person was deceased. Board member Cathy Lewis suggested a stop-gap name like “Do it Better Theater” that nodded toward Ziskin but still adhered to the policy.
Board President John Foley – who said he was “confident” the theater would ultimately be named after Ziskin – made the case that changing a policy in this instance could create unintended consequences in future cases. He said the five-year waiting period allowed time for “perspective” before making a renaming decision, which he said was a “really, really special thing.” Foley also pointed out that five years from Ziskin’s 2017 retirement was not all that far off.
“I kind of liked the five-year waiting period, I thought it gave a critical perspective,” Foley said, arguing if someone merits the renaming distinction the support should survive the waiting period. “I think people like Bill will have no problem being remembered after five years.”
The board ultimately decided to refer the policy back to the board policy committee to think through whether to revise the naming policy.
Ann Reilly, who leads the board’s policy committee but was not present for Wednesday’s meeting, on Thursday said she also thought the theater should and would be named after Ziskin, highlighting the impact he had on her own children. But she also raised concerns about changing policy for an individual situation.
“What happens if there is another staff member that is also deserving, do we change it again?” Reilly said.
She also pointed out that December 2022 is less than two years away and buys more time to create an event to maximize the number of people who could show up to honor Ziskin in the event of renaming.
“I cannot imagine we will not name the black box theater after Bill Ziskin,” she said. “He is well-loved and well-deserving of the honor. The kids in Schenectady had the best theater teacher that anyone could possibly have in Bill Ziskin.”