The elephant in the room was a big and tan behemoth that until Thursday morning few had been willing to publicly recognize posed a problem. It’s the Bowlus Fine Arts Center, whose grandeur over the past 46 years has begun to lose its appeal as an educational facility for USD 257.
It may not be tomorrow — perhaps even 50 years down the road — but the district wants to prepare for the day when a new campus can include classrooms for the fine arts and rid itself of the strings that bind it to the Center. In the meantime, however, the district will do its best to support the Bowlus and its endeavor to promote a superior education in the fine arts.
That was the upshot of a meeting between representatives of the USD 257 Board of Education, Friends of the Bowlus, the Bowlus Commission and school administrators. It was the first of what is hoped to be several meetings of minds between school and Bowlus representatives.
“In a perverse sort of way, I’ve been looking forward to today,” said Dr. Craig Neuenswander, superintendent of schools. “I’ve told people recently that if you live in Iola, it’s not just religion and politics you can’t talk about, but also the Bowlus Fine Arts Center.”
An “inherent conflict” for school board members is their dual responsibility to the Bowlus, Neuenswander said. As Bowlus trustees they are responsible for the building’s upkeep. As school board members, they have a commitment to meet their payments for use of the facility.
The Bowlus was built in 1964 from a bequest by benefactor Thomas H. Bowlus for the cultural education of district students and the community at large. The school district does not own the facility, rather it is owned by the Bowlus Trust. The Center was built with the understanding that the district would agree to assume responsibility of its welfare. Almost 50 years ago, board of education members agreed to the pact.
Recent events have raised red flags for Bowlus supporters and school board officials alike as to the viability of the continued relationship.
For school officials who had already slashed $1.1 million from their budget, they were looking high and low for savings. One target was the $130,000 the district pays for its use of the Bowlus auditorium and classrooms and its share of the building’s utilities, its depreciation, insurance, custodial care and staff time — much the same as the expenses of any other district building.
This spring, Board members made two decisions that affected the Bowlus: They agreed to pull middle school band and choir classes from the center and move them to Iola Middle School; and they approached Friends of the Bowlus for financial support.
These two decisions caused alarm for Bowlus supporters, including
1. Placing music classes in inferior settings will compromise the learning experience for USD 257 students. Both the Bowlus band room and choir room were designed by the acoustical engineer that designed the Kennedy Performing Arts Center in New York City. The choir room, for example, has a low ceiling and acoustical panels placed around its walls so voices are better projected. Likewise, the band room was designed to have a 20-foot ceiling and acoustical panels.
2. That more classes will be pulled from the fine arts center, and
3. That the Friends of the Bowlus is seen as an avenue of funding that can be tapped by the school district.
THE FRIENDS began almost 20 years ago as a fund-raising arm for “bricks and mortar”-type renovations to the Center. In 2005, the Friends gave the district $25,000 when the budget was tight. The logic then was that because the Center and the schools were bound so tightly in their goal of education, that one’s success benefited the others.
As a Friends representative Thursday, Ken McGuffin said the Friends don’t feel as confident of that relationship today and are not in favor of giving the district money.
“It’s problematic for Friends of the Bowlus to provide funds if the intent of the school board is not for the continued viability of the Center,” McGuffin said.
The point was more or less made moot by the Legislature’s decision to raise Kansas sales taxes by 1 percent for three years.
“We have (funding) options now,” said Neuenswander and noted the request has been dropped. Neuenswander estimated the 1cent in additional sales tax will result in an additional $254,000 for the district.
YET THE AIR was heavy with the recognition that the stopgap measure by the Legislature still bodes ill for the future, and that the bigger issue — whether the school district is committed to the Bowlus — still remains uncertain.
McGuffin pressed the issue.
“OK, I’ll cut to the chase,” he said. “It’s important to know if the Board wants to make a long-term commitment to the fine arts center or if they’re ready to move away from that commitment and divorce themselves of the Bowlus.”
Both Neuenswander and school board member Tony Leavitt assured they had the Board’s support in the Bowlus. “There’s not a one of us that would want to be responsible for the closing of the Bowlus,” said Neuenswander.
David Grover, principal of Iola High School, was less enthusiastic.
“One of the big monkeys in the room,” is the building itself, he said. “We all know that if we were to build a building today, we wouldn’t build it like this.”
Outside of the auditorium, Grover ventured that the Bowlus has no edge above any other classrooms designed for instruction.
“We can have art anywhere. We can have speech anywhere,” he said.
Grover said he questioned the wisdom of putting money into an aging building, but then realized that “if we cut bait and run,” that that would “jeopardize the long-term support for the Bowlus as well.”
Grover bemoaned the plight of Iola teachers and administrators having to work in “100-year-old buildings. Are we going to have to wave the white flag another quarter of a century from now? I would think that most people who support education would think something’s got to happen facility-wise and if it does … then maybe it could truly be in a state-of-the art facility — for everyone.”
Neuenswander acknowledged that the school district had fallen behind in its commitment to maintain Bowlus classrooms. “They are no longer state of the art. But I don’t know if we have anything that is. We’ve maintained it to the level of the rest of the district. I know that’s a sad commentary, but that goes back to when do we go for something bigger and better.”
The ravages of time have left the classrooms in need of new flooring, acoustical tiles and better technology equipment.
For school board member Deanne Burris, “Iola needs to grow and I believe that needs to be done through new schools and a new hospital. I think the Bowlus needs to recognize that we may not be here with four classrooms full of kids every day. And how can we sustain this Bowlus and the programming without” their presence. “We have got to do something as a community to go forward,” she said. “And I would like that to happen soon.”
Fred Works, representing the Friends of the Bowlus, suggested that the school board strive to improve Tom Bowlus’s vision to provide a “top-notch education in the fine arts and see how the Bowlus fits into that.”
Keeping Bowlus’s vision in mind allows the district to stay within the confines of the Bowlus will, Works said, which maintains that fine arts classes be held in the center or some superior setting.
Works ventured that additional funding measures, besides that of the district’s, be investigated to support the operation of the Bowlus and its growing needs as well as for the day that a new school campus is built. He suggested that the district could request a few mils designated for recreational purposes that could be used for the Bowlus. The advantage is that it casts a wider net of taxpayers to include those outside of Iola who attend USD 257 schools. Works likened the idea to that of the Humboldt school district, which levies 4 mils to go to its community recreation commission and its programs.
In Iola, 1 mil raises approximately $38,000, while 1 mil for the school district brings in $51,000.
Works also wondered if the local hotel and tourism tax could be shared with the Bowlus, noting that many of the programs at the Bowlus, such as the Keaton Celebration, help generate those revenues. Having the city of Iola dedicate a portion of a mil to the Bowlus also would be desirable, Works said. Currently, Iola dedicates $25,000 a year to the Bowlus; the county gives $2,500 annually.
Leavitt emphasized his commitment to the Bowlus and the district’s obligation to pay for its use.
“I think we can handle the funding,” he said. “We have the ability to raise the capital outlay mil. To me, that seems like a viable option for a short-term situation. And I’m even in favor of earmarking it for the Bowlus until we get to a point where we would have another alternative or find a better mousetrap.”
This year the district began using money in its capital outlay fund to pay for its use of the Bowlus, which amounts to about 1 percent of its total budget. The district currently has $460,000 in this fund, a balance that can be considered “somewhat” typical for this time of year, according to Neuenswander. The funds also are used to cover heating and cooling costs, purchase school buses and pay for things such as roof work and other big maintenance projects. The advantage of using these funds for the Bowlus is that it frees up money in the general fund that pays for teacher salaries, among other things.
Burris said she didn’t relish proposing a mil levy.
“This is what I’m going to hear,” she said. “Why don’t you throw a tax in there for a new football stadium, why don’t you throw a new tax in there for something else.”
Jacki Chase, Bowlus Commission member, said state legislators were just faced with similar questions over their decision to “raise the sales tax to maintain services in the state of Kansas. Overall, the feedback from the public was ‘Yes, we need to do this to support our schools and the programs that we have.’ Maybe you need to hear from the people who say yes, this is a good thing.”