SHRUB OAK, N.Y. – For more than three decades, it’s been James VanDevelde’s job to supply residents with news about the Lakeland School District. Though the content has not changed all that drastically, the method of delivery certainly has.
“We put out newsletters and we mailed them,” VanDevelde said. “I took photographs, but they were black and white because we couldn’t print in color.”
Today, Lakeland primarily communicates important news through email and social media, which allow the district to reach its residents en masse in seconds as opposed to weeks.
“Newsletters were our method of communication,” VanDevelde said. “It was limiting. We’d rely on the newspapers to get the news out. The ability to get communications out on a much quicker basis, that’s the biggest change.”
After working in the district for 36 years under seven full-time and two interim superintendents, the communications director is calling it a career. He is set to retire this fall.
Though communications was his primary function, VanDevelde wore many hats at Lakeland, where he oversaw the continuing education and driver’s ed programs and served on various committees. He was an emcee, video maker, press release publisher and so much more.
Mike Daly, president of the Lakeland School District Board of Education, called VanDevelde the “unofficial historian of the district” in addition to being a “very special person.”
“Jim is an integral and recognizable member of the district and his contributions are greatly appreciated,” Daly said. “He really just took the position so seriously and just worked tirelessly to make us look as good as possible up here at each meeting.”
VanDevelde has served twice as president and twice as vice president of the New York School Public Relations Association and as vice president of the National School Public Relations Association Northeast.
At a time when many school districts are outsourcing communications duties or eliminating the positions entirely, Lakeland has maintained an in-house communications staff for decades.
“Communication is so important,” VanDevelde said, particularly at a time when newsrooms are thinning out and covering school districts less and less. “It’s our responsibility to communicate with the community and let them know how we’re educating their students.”
He thanked the superintendents he worked for and the Board of Education for “giving me the tools needed to do that.”
“Lakeland has one of the most supportive communities that I know of,” VanDevelde said. “The Board of Education and superintendent are always big supporters of the need to communicate and to communicate well. I’ll miss the people I work with: the custodians; the secretaries who keep the buildings running; the bus drivers and food service people; and the teachers and the administrators.”
VanDevelde, 68, started with Lakeland on Nov. 14, 1984, after working in the newspaper industry. He started with the Peekskill Evening Star covering Lakeland schools, Indian Point and other happenings in the town of Cortlandt. He was then promoted to sports editor. The knowledge he gained about the Lakeland School District during these years proved invaluable later when its communications director’s position became available.
“I knew Lakeland and I knew the people in Lakeland,” he said. “It was a tough time in Lakeland at the time I was covering it. There was a teachers’ strike. At the time, it was the longest teachers’ strike in the history of New York.”
After that, VanDevelde moved on to a newspaper in Utica and then a newspaper in Schenectady. In between, he met his wife. While working up north, a friend called and told him about the communications gig with the Lakeland School District.
“I felt it was time to get a more normal life than newspapers, when you were out every night of the week and worked weekends,” VanDevelde said. “Once I got married and wanted to have a family, it was not as conducive to that type of lifestyle.”
The Lakeland job was a natural fit for VanDevelde, who had a reverence for public schools. On a typewriter, he wrote school board updates, policy and budget news, and about the accomplishments of Lakeland students and staff.
Reflecting on his career, VanDevelde shared his appreciation for Lakeland’s music and arts departments.
“The dramas, the musical shows that we put on, they’re outstanding. That’s always been a highlight to me.”
He also supported the arts with an annual show at the Jefferson Valley Mall and through Gallery One, where student artwork was displayed.
As a former sports editor, he also enjoyed watching Lakeland and Walter Panas teams succeed. Particularly with the dynastic field hockey team, VanDevelde recalled working many state championship games in freezing weather in the northern cities of Binghamton, Syracuse and Buffalo.
VanDevelde said he is also touched by the altruistic nature of the Lakeland schools community, which includes people like Kathy Quinn (executive director, Support Connection) and Jim Rathschmidt (founder, United for the Troops). He also works closely with the Alliance for Safe Kids and the Cortlandt Action Coalition, organizations that work to curb youth drug use.
He has also been a supporter of the Lakeland Education Foundation, which has awarded more $1.45 million in grants to the school district since it was created in 1994.
“You’ve got people in this community who are doing it for the love of the students, the love of the children in this community,” VanDevelde said.
In retirement, he said he plans to spend more time with his grandchild, now 8 months old.