The curtain may fall on many peninsula performers due to declining school funding.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is grappling with ways to keep auditoriums in its large high schools, especially Kenai and Homer, open for school and community use despite deficits. Monday, the Board of Education unanimously scrapped a plan to raise fees and opted instead to set up a task force to work on the problem.
Teachers and artists gave emotional testimony about what is at stake if the Kenai Peninsula loses access to the stages.
"Without the arts, your children's hearts and souls will die," warned Lane Means, who teaches dance at Kenai Peninsula College.
"When one art suffers, they all do. When the art suffers, so does the community."
High prices for auditoriums are forcing groups off stage, and fee hikes would push even more out, users told the board.
Kenai Middle School music teacher Rosemary Bird said the escalating fees have consumed all the money she and her students earned and saved for their program.
"Last year I came up short," she said. "I am out of money."
Dance instructor Vergine Hedberg testified that an increase would deny her talented students vital access to performing. She predicted that the facilities would end up sitting empty if the trend continues.
Trena Richardson, principal of Kalifornsky Elementary School, said that her bleachers can only seat half her students. Without access to an auditorium, her school would be unable to do Christmas programs.
She expressed concern that a facility built originally for student and community use is now passing out of reach for those groups.
Carol Ford, a director for the Kenai Performers, summed up the testimony when she said the lack of affordable performance venues is stifling the central peninsula's dramatic arts.
"The reason we don't have more theater and things in this community is because we cannot afford to be on stage," she said. "I think if we had access to space, and people weren't fighting over it, we would have more opportunities and the community would be a better place."
In the past, the school auditoriums generated profits for the district. The Kenai Central High School Auditorium and the Mariner Theatre at Homer High are used by many community groups and commercial ventures. But in 1998, the community theater programs started losing money.
Gordon Griffin, who manages the Kenai auditorium, said the problem has been building for 20 years and has reached a crisis point.
"There is something fundamentally wrong with the way we do business," he said. "We have done a fantastic job. ... But the costs have gotten out of hand."
In January, when the issue first came before the school board, the district's business manager, Assistant Superintendent Patrick Hickey, warned about the rising tide of red ink.
He told the school board then that the theaters were "overextended." He attributed much of the shortfall to overtime for theater crews and expressed concern that recurring cuts to line item requests prevent theaters from replacing or upgrading equipment.
The proposed new rate would have been $300 per performance and $100 per rehearsal for school programs that were previously free; $500 per performance and $100 per rehearsal for nonprofits previously charged $265 per performance and $50 per rehearsal; and $1,500 or $750 per performance (depending on theater size) for commercial or political use previously charged $1,000 or $500.
That proposal was tabled until Monday, when the board took it off the table and unanimously voted it down.
Administrators and board members met with theater users in a work session prior to the regular meeting and were eager to seek alternatives to the steep fee hikes.
"I think we have all learned a lot," said School Board President Deb Germano.
They hashed out plans to seat a task force of school officials and user representatives to explore options.
One possibility mentioned Monday was training students or volunteers to take over many technical support tasks previously done by paid staff.
The users testifying at the meeting expressed optimism about the task force approach.
One was Pastor Dan Thornton from Peninsula Grace Brethren Church, which uses the KCHS auditorium for Christmas programs.
"I think there are solutions," he said. "I applaud the proposal to move this to a task force."
In other school board business:
n Cooper Landing homesteader Sherman "Red" Smith urged the board to pass a resolution asking the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities to change a major intersection near the Cooper Landing School.
The state is planning to work on the Sterling Highway and Bean Creek Road near their intersection. This is a rare opportunity to move traffic farther from the school playground, he said.
"We are not trying to do anything except make it safer in the vicinity of our school," he said.
n Businesses that provide transportation to students on field trips will need more insurance coverage.
The board unanimously passed a policy revision that raised the liability insurance minimum for boats and planes from $300,000 to $1 million.
Hickey said he recommended the change after consulting with the Kenai Peninsula Borough risk manager.
n Two senior administrators plan to resign at the end of the current school year. Ed McLain, assistant superintendent for instruction, and Don Boehmer, the director of special education services, have notified the district of their intent to depart.
School board member Debra Mullins acknowledged their contributions to the district and said they would be difficult to replace.
The next meeting of the school board will be Oct. 2 at Seward High School at 7:30 p.m.
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