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Duane Furman held MUSD together

Word has it that Madera Unified is planning a huge blowout in celebration of its 50th anniversary. A coterie of district employees has been collecting documents and artifacts. They have been interviewing people, and they are making a documentary to be shown at the party.

Why, they even interviewed me!

My focus at the time was on the events that led up to the creation of MUSD in 1965. I shared what I knew of how the unification election that took place in May 1965, came about, but I missed a great opportunity.

When I left the district office that afternoon, it didn’t take me long to realize that I had left out what should be the centerpiece of Madera Unified’s golden anniversary.

I should have reminded them about Duane Furman and how he miraculously performed the impossible as Madera Unified’s first superintendent. Somehow he guided the new district through a maze of hostility in the hinterland and managed to survive as superintendent for more than two decades.

Let’s go back for a moment to that summer of 1965. The state legislature had passed a bill mandating unification elections in every county. In compliance with the legislation, Madera County put the measure on the ballot in May 1965.

At issue was whether all of the individual (and quite independent) school districts within the boundaries of the Madera Union High School District would give up their autonomy to become part of a new creation, Madera Unified School District.

In today’s world, that might not seem like such a big deal. We have grown accustomed to government at the state and federal levels telling local communities how to run their schools. However, 50 years ago such a proposal raised hackles, especially in Madera County.

Right away opposition to unification surfaced. Meetings were held; speeches were given, and advertisements were run in The Madera Tribune. Some folks, such as those in the Webster School District, said, “Never!”

The Tribune got into the fray by advising its readers not to fight the inevitable. “The Daily Tribune is not so naive as to believe that unification can be forestalled by a no vote ... it is clearly the intent of the state legislature to have unification,” wrote the editor.

While the residents in the Madera Elementary School District, which was confined basically to the town of Madera, assented to unification, they knew they would be in the driver’s seat since theirs was the largest of the nine school districts that would be affected.

Meanwhile, out in the country a much different sentiment prevailed. Vocal opposition to unification was almost as strong in Alpha, Berenda, Dixieland, Eastin-Arcola, Howard, La Vina, and Ripperdan School Districts as it was in Webster.

Clearly, if unification passed, someone would have his or her hands full keeping the peace. Well, unification did pass by 173 votes, but the battle was far from won. While Madera Elementary, Howard, and Dixieland voters gave it a thumbs up, Alpha, Berenda, Eastin-Arcola, La Vina, Ripperdan, and Webster voted against the measure, in fact not one person in the Webster district voted for unification. That was the situation on June 10, when the newly elected MUSD board of trustees held their first meeting, and at the top of their agenda was the selection of a superintendent.

Now there had been a lot of talk about who would be the superintendent if unification passed, and a number of names were bandied about. It was no secret that County Superintendent of schools Norman Gould wanted the job, but when it came time to choose, the board looked in a different direction. They chose Duane Furman, superintendent of Madera Elementary School District.

For the 1965-66 school year, Furman had to work for two school boards, the Madera elementary board and the Madera Unified board. He was also the liaison between the unified board and the nine elementary school boards that would cease to exist after July 1, 1966.

Some observers felt that Furman’s tenure as superintendent of the Madera Unified School District would last about as long as a snowball in Hades.

In the first place, he hadn’t been around all that long — a couple of years. Second, he would certainly face an unfriendly crowd in the country districts.

Then there were the employees. He would have to somehow soothe the feelings of others who felt they should have been offered his job. He would have to mold a unified teaching team out of the fractured remnants of the faculties of the various schools that had been absorbed into the new district. In short, Furman would have to work miracles.

Well, somehow he did it. For 22 years Duane Furman led the Madera Unified School District as it put together a coordinated curriculum among the elementary schools and the high school as well as coordinated elementary athletic and physical education programs. It was able to create a single transportation system, which included single-source bus maintenance.

Further, the unified school district was able to provide counselors to the elementary schools and to develop a coordinated special education program. An instrumental music program was initiated for all of the elementary schools as well as a hot lunch program at each school.

Madera Unified was able to adopt a uniform salary schedule, which placed the district in a position to compete for qualified teachers and eliminated the need for some teachers to teach three and four grades at a time.

School libraries soon appeared in each school.

As a result of unification, no classes were held in unsafe buildings. Although the Field Act, requiring all schools to meet earthquake standards, had been the law in California since 1938, at least three country schools in 1965 still had not satisfied the statute. This situation was corrected. Finally, unification made purchasing of supplies more economical due to the ability to buy in volume.

Now, 50 years later, MUSD is celebrating all of that, and I am sure that those who are planning the party are going to be certain to recognize the part Duane Furman had in keeping it all together.


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