The fate of Perpich Center for Arts Education, in Golden Valley, is in the hands of Minnesota legislators after the March 3 introduction of a bill to abolish the school.
Republican Reps. Jenifer Loon, Eden Prairie-District 48B, Sondra Erickson, Princeton-District 15A, and Cal Bahr, East Bethel-District 31B, authored the bill, that if approved, would require the school to close June 30, 2018. The companion bill in the Senate, was authored by Sen. Roger Chamberlain, Lino Lakes-District 38.
The bill was introduced after the January release of the legislative auditor’s report regarding Perpich’s decreased enrollment, management issues and lack of transparency.
“We expected, because of the audits, that there would be a legislative response,” said Ben Vander Kooi, Perpich’s new board chair and an attorney in Luverne. “We didn’t think it would be an easy (legislative) session based on the audits.”
The bill has had multiple hearings in the House of Representatives but no hearings in the Senate.
According to Vander Kooi, although the House wants to abolish the school, the Senate wants to allow Perpich the chance to fix things.
“I was disappointed that a few House members thought the appropriate way to respond to a tough legislative auditor’s report was not to fix the challenges with Perpich’s administrative structure but to quit on the school — quit on the students, the vast alumni network, and the first-rate teachers because of the failings of one administrator that is no longer at the school,” said Sen. Ron Latz, who represents District 46, which includes portions of Golden Valley and St. Louis Park. “The report’s purpose was to illuminate the scope of the problem with the school’s administration so we could rectify it, so this was a disturbing surprise.”
The bill needs to be pass in both the House and Senate before it would require Gov. Mark Dayton’s signature.
“Gov. Dayton has been a very strong supporter of the school,” Vander Kooi said.
In response to the bill to abolish Perpich, Latz, Rep. Peggy Flanagan, St. Louis Park-District 46A, and Sen. Susan Kent, Woodbury-District 53, authored reform and accountability measures for the school.
According to Latz, the bill “recalibrates Perpich’s board structure to ensure strong accountability to the administration, systematic goal-setting, and annual independent audits.”
Perpich’s board members, leadership and faculty acknowledged the auditor’s findings, but Vander Kooi pointed out that the auditing time period ended July 1, 2016, and that many changes have been made since that date.
“We were not part of the problem but we want to be part of the solution,” Vander Kooi said.
The audit stated that the Perpich’s governing board has not established goals or strategic direction for the school.
According to Vander Kooi, the board and school leadership met with the auditors and went through each recommendation included in the report, and created a detailed plan on how to address each issue. That plan is not yet complete.
The audit found that the board has not adequately overseen the Perpich Center, including its executive director and school operations.
Since the audit was released, Perpich has appointed nine new board members. There is still one vacancy on the 15-member board.
The “reformed group,” what the board calls itself, took control on Jan. 11 and has made significant changes, Vander Kooi said.
Sue Mackert, the former executive director who retired in early January, took on more of the board’s responsibilities than she should have, he noted.
“The board was not functioning as it should have,” Vander Kooi said. “We’ve tried to change that.”
Perpich is currently seeking a new executive director and the board chair is hopeful that individual will begin in July.
The board also plans to review the new executive director after six months of working for the school and annually thereafter.
The audit found that the board has infrequently solicited public input, and not ensured that the public could readily monitor board actions.
“It goes to the heart of a public governing board, the need for transparency,” Vander Kooi said.
Perpich’s board meets monthly, accepts public comment at each meeting, provides board members’ e-mail addresses to the public and is working to video tape meetings or upload the audio online. These are all actions not taken by the previous board.
“The meeting minutes were there (before) but they were pretty sketchy and you had to come in and ask for them,” said Perpich Communications Director Peggy Rader.
According to Vander Kooi, the last board meeting minutes posted online were from November 2014.
Perpich employees have had concerns about the agency’s administrative leadership, according to the audit’s findings.
“I think it’s fair to say that’s been a top priority for (Interim Executive Director) Peg Birk,” Vander Kooi said.
He said Birk has only been at the school for five weeks but has already met with most of the leadership and concerned employees.
In 2013, Perpich started managing a second school, Crosswinds Arts and Science School in Woodbury, but that school’s low enrollment, weak test scores and high staff turnover has threatened its future viability.
Crosswinds is creating an operating deficit of $600,000 per year for Perpich, Vander Kooi said.
“We can’t sustain that and that’s not enough to sustain Crosswinds,” he said.
Secondly, Perpich does not have the same abilities a school district does such as proposing an operating referendum, the board chair noted. Lastly, enrollment is very low at Crosswinds and Perpich does not have the capacity to increase its enrollment like other schools within public school districts.
Perpich leadership has recommended that Crosswinds be absorbed into the St. Paul public school district.
Finally, the audit found that Perpich’s enrollment has significantly decreased and a large majority of the students come from the Twin Cities when the intent of the state-funded school is to serve all of Minnesota.
“Fair criticism,” Vander Kooi said.
A plan to strengthen the school’s outreach program is underway but no details have been released at this time, he added.
“Our goal is to get arts education to every corner of the state,” Vander Kooi said. “That’s what we’ve been most deficient in.”
According to the auditor’s report, in 2011, Perpich had 306 students enrolled but only 187 students at the beginning of the 2016-2017 school year.
Perpich Arts High School, initially known as Minnesota Center for Arts Education, was created in 1985 by the State Legislature at the encouragement of Gov. Rudy Perpich.
The two-year high school, including grades 11 and 12, helps students reach their highest potential in arts and academics by teaching in and through the arts, according to the school’s website.
It was renamed in 1995 in Perpich’s honor after his death. The center makes Minnesota one of a few states with a state agency dedicated to supporting arts education.
Two unique aspects of Perpich include its admission review process, an audition for prospective students, and its dormitory facility.
“Perpich has traditionally allowed the students it serves to fully be themselves while excelling academically and artistically,” Flanagan said. “Unfortunately, those core values were under threat under its past leadership structure.”
Flanagan is happy to see the school making changes in order to address the auditor’s findings.
“I feel confident in the direction these new leaders are taking Perpich and certainly think we owe them a chance to make changes before we take the radical step of abolishing Perpich altogether and leaving students and families stranded,” she said.
According to Rader, Perpich continues to have a unique energy despite what is happening at the State Capitol.
“I think it’s important to let people know that our services are going full bore,” she said. “While the audits are providing us a road map, we are functioning. We’re having a fantastic year.”
Ahava Silkey-Jones, Perpich’s new principal, said the school’s applicant pool has been very strong recently.
“Students seem aware of what’s going on (at the Capitol) but don’t seem overly impacted by it,” she said.
Silkey-Jones said aside from some new faces in leadership roles, the core faculty and staff remain and are rallying in support of the changes.
“I think there’s a tremendous amount of cooperation and engagement and energy,” she said.
Many in the Twin Cities art community, including Minnesota Citizens for the Arts, are rallying in support of the school. The group is providing individuals with a letter template they can send to their legislators to support efforts to save the school. At noon Thursday, March 30, more than 1,000 letters had been sent on Perpich’s behalf. For more information, visit artsmn.org.
For more information on the school, visit mcae.k12.mn.us or facebook.com/perpichcenter.
Contact Gina Purcell at [email protected]