With a deficit of only $95,000 in the 2018 budget, the school board will likely look beyond the Performing Arts Center for cuts. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

Although Sitka’s performing arts center is not on the budget chopping block this year, that didn’t stop advocates of the arts from testifying in support of the facility at the school district’s first budget hearing last week (2-9-17).

Downloadable audio.

The next official school board budget hearing will be a live call-in program on Raven Radio, 6:30 PM Tuesday February 21.

Compared to the city’s or the state’s , the Sitka School District’s finances are in unusually good shape as the school board looks at its budget for next year.

Board members are managing a deficit of only $95,000 — compared to the $2- or $3-million of recent years.

Still, the district bears much of the annual cost of operating Sitka’s performing art center. Expenses at the PAC run to about $250,000 a year. Although it’s unlikely that the board would close the building under the current budget scenario, supporters of the PAC weren’t taking any chances.

Dance instructor Melinda McAdams told the board that she put 225 dancers on stage last year, performing for over 2,400 audience members.

McAdams started her dance programs almost 20 years ago in the old Etolin Street gym. She said that the PAC had a noticeable effect on students.

“They stand taller on that stage. They are proud of their work. They realize that the adults in their lives respect what they’re doing because they built themselves this beautiful space to be in. So although dance is not taught as a specific subject in the school district I think that not everyone’s drawn to sports. I think students need their extracurricular activities. Dance is one of those things. And the performing arts center is where that happens.”

That sentiment was echoed closely by student Jordan Gagnier, who plays baseball, performs on the trumpet, and also dances.

“When I dance at the PAC I feel respected because it’s really the only place in Sitka that is made for dancing and playing instruments and drama.”

Student Ella Lubin also spoke on behalf of the PAC, which now serves as the headquarters of the Sitka JazzFest, which brings in students from around the region, and talent from around the country. Christian Litten graduated 15 years ago from the music program at Sitka High, and clearly remembers being outclassed by facilities elsewhere.

“When I was a kid we would go over to Ketchikan, Juneau and perform in their auditoriums, and for us it was like This is amazing! We’ve never had a space like this! And so getting to be in an auditorium over there was amazing. Now I know that kids come to this auditorium — watching the Jazz Festival this weekend — it’s not like any other experience as a performer.”

Parent Wendy Aldersen reminded the board that the local volunteer committee known as FOPA — the Friends of the Performing Arts — did not expect the district to go it alone. The renewed effort to sell sponsorships at the PAC had generated real cash.

“I think FOPA was great in that they presented you that check for $12,500. There are certainly people out there willing to put their money where their mouth is and work hard to keep the PAC viable.”

School board members have heard impassioned testimony on behalf of the PAC before — especially in the last couple of years when the facility was in more jeopardy from an uncertain budget.

Board member Eric Van Cise maintained that the PAC is an economic driver for Sitka, and could ultimately be self-supporting. He didn’t want advocacy for the PAC or for school to ease off just because the district wasn’t in a deep financial hole.

“It’s easy to look at the numbers and say We can let our foot off the gas pedal, it’s only $95,000. This new budget process is year-to-year. There are so many things that are out of our control as a district. It’s not just about Sitka. It’s statewide. It’s nationwide. It’s very tenuous.”

Although at least two dozen residents attended to support the PAC at the board’s first budget hearing, there was also testimony on other issues.

Susan Brant-Ferguson is the Music teacher at Keet Gooshi Heen. She thanked the board for their support of the arts, but her testimony was as a parent.

“I would also like to encourage to board to consider getting a counselor back full-time at Blatchley. I think it’s unconscionable to have no certified, qualified, social work-background person at Blatchley.”

The board also heard testimony encouraging a more structured after-lunch program at Blatchley, and for the return of more foreign languages at Sitka High.