Two years tardy because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the dedication ceremony for the Santa Maria Valley’s newest school on Thursday celebrated the man whose name adorns the building along with the students and staff finally filling the classrooms.
Bill Libbon Elementary School at 750 Meehan St. opened in 2020 — although it had no students in classrooms because of remote learning forced by COVID-19.
On Thursday, students were heavily involved in the ceremony by leading the Pledge of Allegiance, entertaining the crowd, helping cut the ribbon and serving as campus tour guides.
“For Santa Maria-Bonita, what matters most is doing everything within our power to ensure the children have every advantage to become global citizens and the best human beings for the world in which we live in,” Santa Maria-Bonita School District Superintendent Darren McDuffie said. “That means giving children a safe, clean, inspirational, motivational place where they can learn and grow.”
Libbon was the longtime leader at the then-named Boys & Girls Club of the Santa Maria Valley, influencing generations of youths including Ricky Lara, now the Santa Maria-Bonita school board president who recalled being a fifth-grader in 1978 and getting to join the club.
“Not only is he a great man but he cared for every child that came through that door and gave them all an opportunity to know that they can be something, they can be somebody,” Lara said, adding that Libbon treated every child equally and with respect. “He changed a lot of lives. He changed mine and plenty more.”
Other board members shared their encounters with Libbon, calling him “a man of integrity,” “a man who truly has the heart for the children of this community” and a person “who was truly inspirational to our students.”
Libbon, who attended Santa Maria-Bonita schools and Santa Maria High School, was among 138 suggestions submitted as names for the new campus.
On Thursday, he offered thanks to several people, including his parents, family, teachers and the Santa Maria Recreation and Park Department, where he began working as a teenager and returned to help out after retiring from the Boys & Girls Club.
“And all the coaches I’ve been associated with that taught me that winning isn’t everything — character building is,” Libbon said.
He also noted the youths he worked with through the years.
“One of my greatest rewards is seeing what fine young men and women they have become,” Libbon said, noting Lara as one of them.
In addition to students and staff, Santa Barbara County Superintendent of Schools Susan Salcido, county Board of Education President Judy Frost, Santa Maria City Council members, Orcutt Union School District Superintendent Holly Edds and Libbon’s family were among those in attendance for the dedication ceremony, which was followed by campus tours.
“The school board had to have the courage and confidence to ask the community to support our students,” McDuffie said of the decision to ask voters to approve the bond measure.
Colleen Lathery was named the principal as the school was expected to welcome students in August 2020 — until COVID-19 changed those plans. Lathery assembled her team of administrators, teachers and other staff to form Libbon Elementary.
“They bring this building to life,” said Matt Beecher, assistant superintendent of business services. “They make learning happen. It’s just building until they all join together with students and then create that magic.”
Lathery recalled the unexpected and now amusing challenges of helping launch a newly built school, such as inadvertently getting trapped on a roof by a locked door, having portable restrooms at her work site or getting stuck in her office when crews installed new flooring.
“The students on our campus bring us joy every single day, and I see it. I see it in our staff’s faces. It’s just a delight to be the principal here at Libbon Elementary School,” Lathery said.
The school, the 21st campus for the Santa Maria-Bonita School District, is home to 749 students from transitional kindergarten to sixth grade.