The Bowlus Commission met with two members of the USD 257 board of education on Thursday. The meeting was the first of its kind since last week’s court decision, which granted the school board the widest possible latitude in exercising its discretion as trustee of the Bowlus Fine Arts Center.
The decision answers the decades-long speculation and uncertainty that has bedeviled those who’ve struggled to understand the exact nature of the district’s obligations to the Bowlus as they were originally inscribed in the will of Iola banker Thomas H. Bowlus nearly 60 years ago.
And yet, for all its intentions toward clarity, the court’s decision stirs up a host of new questions in its wake.
THE WATCHWORD Thursday was “stability.” Commission members wanted to know: 1) Since the school board now can remove itself as trustee of the Bowlus Fine Arts Center, will it?; 2) Will the district’s anticipated bond campaign alter the board’s devotion to the Bowlus?; 3) How, given the potential uncertainty engendered by this latest decision, can a new executive director assume his or her position with a clear remit of their duties going forward and with sufficient confidence that their board is behind them and that their board represents one half of a durable partnership?
School board president Dan Willis and board member Jen Taylor joined five volunteers from the Bowlus Commission, plus the center’s executive director Susan Raines, in a genial meeting of minds to discuss the future of the fine arts center and the health of the connection between USD 257 and the Bowlus, which has persisted since the center’s beginning.
COMMISSION MEMBER David Lee put it the most incisively. “There’s got to be something there that says for a period of time we’re not going to pull the rug out from under you. … What about some kind of commitment that there will be certain levels of stability for a period of time? I think that will go a long ways.”
Fellow commission member Patti Boyd agreed. “The part of all [this] that worries me the most would be if the board of trustees was to resign the Bowlus. … I think the pieces that have to do with how the school district uses the Bowlus, all those are — and always have been — negotiable. … I would, personally, love to see an answer at some point from you guys — do you see yourself resigning from being trustees? That’s the big question I have. That’s what I want to know. Everything else we can work out. We’ve done it in the past; we’ve been able to find money when we’ve needed to, we’ve been able to make those things work. But that piece changes it all.”
“And I think that the sooner the decision can be made, the better,” added commission member Susan McKinnis.
Willis was sensitive to this point, but was also wary of charging ahead merely for the sake of a solution. “[The not knowing] makes it difficult. I do understand that. … [But] this is something that has to be very, very thorough — if there are even any changes to make at all. … I just can’t see us fast tracking this; actually, I’m scared to fast track this.”
Raines commended Willis’s caution in this respect but wondered if the upcoming bond issue wouldn’t, if it doesn’t have the effect of forcing the board’s hand on the question of the Bowlus, perhaps have the opposite effect and lead to long, cumbersome delays in deciding the precise nature of the district’s relationship to the arts center.
The steering committee to discuss USD 257’s future infrastructural projects and attendant bond campaign will hold its first meeting on Monday. “I’ve always been in support of new schools or remodeled schools or whatever you’re able to finance,” said Raines. “But not knowing what that’s going to [look like] is going to delay your decision here, is what I’m guessing. And I just want clarity on that. Is that true or not true, in your minds?
“It’s possible,” said Willis, without closing the door on the chance that continued dialogue between Bowlus affiliates and members of the community might produce a near-term solution, one not previously considered.
“I don’t actually think you’d have to wait until after you’ve got a bond issue going,” said Boyd, at a point later in the meeting. “I think that it could be useful to have those decisions made before a bond issue, so that we understand what we’re going to do here on the Bowlus.”
“I would like that,” said Willis, who has invited a number of Bowlus-associated personnel to attend Monday’s steering committee meeting. “Because what that bond issue looks like may be something that can benefit the Bowlus. We don’t necessarily only have to have fine arts in the building now, if there’s something else that makes sense. There’s just so much synergy possible if we look at the positive on this.”
Realistically, though, both Willis and Taylor agreed that any decisions the board takes with respect to the Bowlus will likely not occur before Raines has completed her tenure as director of the fine arts center.