WALNUT CREEK -- Although casting for Valle Verde Elementary School's production of "Beauty and the Beast" was complete months ago, needed upgrades to the school's stage were made only at the eleventh hour to allow the show to go on.

The production was even canceled as of late February, before students, parents, alumni and others protested and worked with school administrators to get needed repairs done in time for the originally planned March 13 opening.

The problem, Valle Verde Principal Beverly Tom said in an e-mail soon after a fire marshal's inspection, was that, "We were cited in violation of fire codes because the new stage blocked access to a fire extinguisher in addition to impeding clear access to an exit; therefore, it needed to be removed." Students' safety, she emphasized, was top priority.

It indeed looked bleak at first for the student musical.

"For the first time in almost two decades, Valle Verde will not have a musical performed on its stage," a Feb. 26 mass email from the play's volunteer director and district parent Tracey Garber announced.

With hundreds of students, parents, alumni, and fans of the production's 16-year history calling and e-mailing school officials and play organizers, a strategy and a time frame were eventually hashed out.

A March 4 e-mail from Mount Diablo Unified School District Superintendent Steve Lawrence read, "The principal worked with her PTA leadership and our Maintenance Department to develop a plan to have the stage extension strengthened so they would be structurally sound and safe." The work is set to be finished in time for next week's opening.


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Added Tom, in an e-mail of her own, "In the case of the 'Beauty and the Beast' adventure, we faced a challenge and working together (we) were able to come up with a solution."

But the road to that solution was a rocky one. The initial explanation for the cancellation was delivered verbally two weeks before the March 13 opening and--according to Garber--full of inconsistencies.

"I don't know why the stage was deemed unsafe," she said. "The administration had used it for the Spelling and Geography Bee and for the Science Fair since it was constructed in January."

The stage had originally been built by a firefighter and carpentry-savvy parents, and is assembled, disassembled and otherwise shored up each school year.

Initially, Garber said she and Producer Denise Bird were more perplexed than panicked, and expected whatever necessary repairs or adjustments to be made in time for the play. In fact, the first inkling Garber had that there was more than "stylistic friction" between school administrators and the Fine Arts Foundation she founded 13 years ago was when PTA President Kathy Walrath told her she wanted to help "broker a deal," Garber said.

While students staged a protest, wearing green and chanting "Save our Stage" throughout their lunch hour, Garber and parent volunteers scouted alternative stages.

"Everything we looked at was either equally out of compliance or unavailable," she said. She also realized that even if they could find an alternative, re-blocking the staging and revising performance schedules would create havoc for families. One family had 20 relatives coming from Venezuela to see the show.

"The principal didn't communicate with us directly. If we had been given a list in January, we would have done it, boom," Garber said.

Tom did not return a reporter's calls. But a Feb. 27 email to parents was cautiously optimistic.

"The safety of your child is our number one priority. In order to use the thrust, there would need to be some major structural changes," that e-mail from Tom read. "This may not be something that can be accomplished in time for this year's performance. I will work closely with the parent volunteers and PTA to find a solution."

Though Garber is confident the play will indeed open March 13, Garber believes what she considers poor communication from administrators still leaves things somewhat uncertain, and parents wondering what the future will bring.