House Republican budget leaves Perpich arts school on the chopping block

The Perpich Center for Arts Education has been open for 32 years.

The Perpich Center for Arts Education has been open for 32 years. STAR TRIBUNE

Claire Mavity went to South High School as a ninth and tenth grader, but didn’t do well.

She felt lost in the massive public school, and couldn’t get into any of the activities that interested her: There were even too many kids for her to join theater.

Mavity says couldn’t find the motivation to excel academically or socially. So, she started exploring other options. By her Junior year, she had found out about Perpich Center for Arts Education, a public arts high school a fraction of the size of South.

As soon as she found Perpich, she says she fell in love, and she spent her last two years of high school at the campus in Golden Valley. Now a student at the University of Minnesota, Mavity says Perpich was the best thing to happen to her.

Perpich gave Mavity a place to direct her energy as a teenager. Without the personalized staff attention and arts programing, her life might have turned out much differently.

Mavity spent hours in the darkroom at Perpich, and even worked as a wedding photographer for a while. She’s since decided that photography is more of a passion than a career choice for her, but she’s grateful she got the opportunity to find out for herself.

Mavity also says that the school helped her create a defining identity. When she tells people she went to Perpich, it tells them something about her, and has become a way for her to share her experiences with others.

“Someone always knows someone who went to Perpich or worked there, and it’s almost always a positive connection point,” Mavity said.

Hearing that the school might be in danger of closing was a shock. The school has served 11th- and 12th-grade students for 32 years, but in the aftermath of two bad audits, it's in danger of being abolished for good.

As a two-year public high school, Perpich is tuition-free, offering an education centered on the arts. The school is open to all Minnesota students through auditions.

As a state agency, Perpich is responsible for setting state arts education standards in K-12 schools, and has developed teaching licensing practices with the Board of Teaching.

Concerns over the budgets and dropping enrollment over the past six years led to legislative program and finance audits in 2016, which were then released in January. The audits found that the center hasn’t been meeting statutory outreach requirements, with outreach programs only reaching 2 percent of public school teachers in 2016. Additionally, 78 percent of students in 2016 came from the seven-county Twin Cities area, leaving a vast majority of the state unrepresented. Finally, the school was found to have a serious cash-flow problem.

According to new board president Benjamin Vander Kooi Jr., Perpich is spending about $600,000 out of its annual budget to support its sister school, Crosswinds Arts and Science School in Woodbury. This hasn’t been enough, however, and goes the board agrees there needs to be a change before Crosswinds fails, and takes Perpich down with it.

A bill proposed by Rep. Jenifer Loon (R-Eden Prairie) and Rep. Sondra Erickson (R-Princeton), would abolish both Perpich and Crosswinds, which serves students in grades 6-10. The bill calls for the Department of Education to create a new position overseeing arts education in Minnesota.

The bill does leave open the possibility of turning both schools over to a non-profit or another school district.

Vander Kooi has high expectations for the school, as well as a detailed plan to address concerns found in the audits, starting with the hand-off of Crosswinds to another district. St. Paul Public Schools have expressed interest, and a plan to transfer control has been sent to the legislature for action.

Perpich has historically served as a model for arts education across the state, Vander Kooi says, and it’s clear this mission has been harmed by shifting money away from traditional outreach programs to keep Crosswinds afloat.

“We’re trying to reinvigorate these programs and to get out to all corners of the state, and get more students to the school in the process,” Vander Kooi said.

Vander Kooi said that along with the issues surrounding outreach budgets and funding, mismanagement from the board was a major factor in prompting the audits. The board wasn’t doing what nonprofit boards need to do, like evaluating the executive director and overseeing finances and programming. In response, Gov. Mark Dayton has appointed nine new board members to a 15-person board, with one seat still vacant.

The new board is responsive to the school’s issues, says Vander Kooi, who adds the members understand nonprofits, and says they’re working specifically to address outreach to prospective students.

The Republican-controlled House is, so far, the only part of elected government that wants to cut off Perpich altogether. The Senate’s version of the education omnibus bill doesn’t include the call to shut down the school. The final pact will also need Gov. Dayton's signature, and he's proven to be a supporter of arts education in the past.

Democrats don’t think he’d agree to the House Republican plan. In March, as a finance committee considered the House education budget, Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, accused GOP members of including the Perpich provision as “a bargaining chip” with the governor, a move he called “morally repugnant.”

Even if the measure does pass, current students would still be able to graduate, as the school would continue through the 2017-18 school year.

Ahava Jones, principal of Perpich, said there’s been an outpouring of support from parents, alumni, and the local arts community, with over 500 statements detailing the impact Perpich and arts education in general has had on their lives. Jones says more than 1,000 letters were sent to legislators on the school's behalf.

“There’s a lot of energy on campus this year,” Jones said. “We’re hopeful for the opportunity to step up to the plate and turn it around.”