Among those testifying was middle school band teacher Mike Kernin. "Do you want to go back to 3-hour concerts in the gym? You won't be able to walk!" (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

Among those testifying was middle school band teacher Mike Kernin. “Do you want to go back to 3-hour concerts in the gym? You won’t be able to walk!” (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

A large number of Sitkans want the Performing Arts Center removed from the list of potential budget cuts being considered by the school district.

About one-hundred residents and students attended the first public budget hearing by the Sitka School Board Wednesday night (3-23-16). 99 of them favored keeping the Performing Arts Center open.

Downloadable audio.

Wednesday’s school board budget hearing recessed at 10 PM. The board will continue deliberations — on other proposed areas of savings — at 6 PM Tuesday March 29 in the District Office board room.

School board president Tim Fulton looked out across the sea of faces in the Sitka High Library and asked, “Is there anyone here who wants to speak about something other than the Performing Arts Center?”

Only one hand went up.

The attention on the Performing Arts Center — or PAC — stemmed from a school board work session on March 9, when the members considered a list of proposed cuts they would make to close next year’s budget gap — which now stands at around $1-million.

All of the cuts — from staff reductions to increased class sizes, to eliminating district staff, to closing the PAC — were considered dreadful. At the time, board member Tom Conley, who had the unpleasant task of itemizing the cuts, became quite choked up. “Something is terribly wrong,” he said, “when we have to consider cuts like these.”

And emotions were just as strong Wednesday night, as person after person — 31 in all — stepped to the microphone and testified to the importance of not just the building, but what it represented.

Some of the most compelling testimony came from students. This is recent graduate Jack Peterson. He talked about his struggle to find success in elementary and middle school.

“But when I came to the high school I found that I could finally open up within the Music and Arts program. It was in the performance arts that I really found a place of comfort within the academic world.”

Current students Ella Lubin and Anders Marius said that they had also undergone profound changes in Sitka’s arts programs, and in the Performing Arts Center.

Lubin – A big part of my life is music, and going along with music is math. A lot of music is math. Dance — a lot of dance is physics, if not all of it. And theater — theater is English, public communication. Those are just some of the ways that academics lends itself to the arts, and the arts lends itself to academics.

Marius – When I first walked into that space I was in true drop-jaw amazement. It is clearly a professional stage and I was amazed that they even let us play on it. I thought this should be in New York City or something, not here. And I’m so honored that it is, and I hope that it continues to be here to offer students such as myself the ability to get on stage, move forward, and perform for other people. It is one of the biggest thrills I get, and what I hope every student can get.

The school board members each offered their unequivocal support for keeping the building open, but they are faced with a budget deficit of $1-million, and it costs $255,000 to operate it.

And Sitka went a long time without a dedicated arts space. The building opened only seven years ago. Board member Eric Van Cise said he knows that there are Sitkans who consider it an extravagance.

“There’s always going to be those people — and I know several of them — that have never stepped inside that building. They refuse to. They didn’t vote for it. They don’t want it. And I’ve had this weekend, while at the harbor, a gentleman — who was polite — say, I told you so. I knew this day was going to come around. Remember when we had this discussion? And he went on a pretty good rant.”

But Van Cise emphasized his position that the debate over the PAC wasn’t really about a building — it was about about children. And he didn’t consider cutting education funding to be comparable to something like the city’s cutting infrastructure, or delaying the purchase of machinery. He suggested that there might be a significant opportunity for savings in the district’s prospective purchase of new English Language Arts curriculum — an estimated expense of about $250,000. He thought Sitka’s teachers could be relied on to develop their own ways of helping students meet standards. “As long as we reach the objective,” he said, “It doesn’t matter what trail we take to get there.”

Ultimately, the conversation boiled down to revenue. Board member Jennifer McNichol maintains that the district’s budget problem is less a matter of cuts, and more about revenues.

“I received a solicitation from someone who couldn’t be here tonight who asked if there was any chance that I could help frame the conversation away from quote, What would happen if we chiseled away at this debt $50,000 at a whack, to quote, What would it look like to systematically create a high quality education? And I think that’s the challenge that will keep us from revisiting this every year. We have to come up with a systematic approach, and I think an obvious one is to think about a dedicated millage increase or something that is predictable and is something we can budget around year after year, so that the low-hanging fruit of a large building with a red roof doesn’t pop up on the radar every year.”

At least two members of the public, Bill Davis and Harvey Brant, offered strong testimony in favor of Sitka’s raising millage — or property taxes — to protect the community’s schools and institutions, or in Brant’s words, “We’ll face the cupcake wars at SeaMart and Lakeside” — a reference to the frequent bake sales at those stores.

Board member Tom Conley said that Sitkans would likely see two property tax increase proposals on the ballot this fall. He agreed that Sitka will have to be persuaded of the importance of raising taxes, because the alternative “would be disastrous.”

He also spoke to the merits of the PAC, and how most of the building’s beauty was on the inside. “In the midwest, tall metal structures like this usually have tobacco ads.”

Board president Tim Fulton pounced on that one. “Hey,” he quipped. “That might be one way to make money!”