Spending blind 

Why are the schools funding a symphony hall?

A fledgling movement to provide Missoula with a first-class 1,400-1,800 seat performing arts center just got some feathers for its wings from an unlikely source: Missoula County Public Schools. MCPS’s board of trustees voted 6-1 at an August 12 meeting to donate $15,000 toward a $40,000 price tag to develop a business plan for the proposed facility, matching funds with the Missoula Redevelopment Agency.

The proposed concert hall is far from being a reality. An additional $10,000 is still needed to get started on the business plan, which will address an array of issues, from funding to design, as well as who the facility’s primary occupants might be.

And it’s the hope of being a primary occupant that seems to have enticed the board to vote nearly unanimously to pony up for the possibility of a fresh venue for the districts’ music and drama performances. In addition to the most recent allocation, the board also voted last year to go Dutch with the MRA, giving $12,500 to a needs assessment study for the same project, completed by Webb Management Services of New York. The $25,000, 75-page report concluded that Missoula, compared to six other Montana cities of comparable size, should be exhibiting symptoms of theater envy; Missoula is the only one of the six that doesn’t have a facility of the targeted size. The report also recommended that the school district act as an essential partner in a performing arts center, with up to a third of the proposed theater’s bookings as school performances.

Yet that recommendation raises some vexing questions. The report was written to assess the needs not of the district, but of the Missoula Symphony. Jim Valeo, co-chair of the ad hoc steering committee pushing the idea of a new concert hall, said that the symphony was, in fact, the non-profit agency that contracted with Webb for the needs assessment report. “The [Missoula] Symphony basically invoiced the MRA and MCPS for the cost of the report,” explained Valeo, “and those agencies forwarded funds to the Missoula Symphony, which wrote a check for the report.”

What MCPS will gain from Webb Services isn’t yet clear. The first mention of MCPS in their report occurs on page 33, at the bottom of a list of potential local performers that might book a new concert hall. The next mention is on page 46, a page titled “Community Feedback,” where the report claims that “many are in favor of a partnership with the local school district.” Whatever research led to that conclusion was not published with the report. Duncan Webb of Webb Management Services explained the lack of data in an e-mail: “We made that statement on the basis of our interviews in the community with artists, arts organizations, business leaders, politicians, educators and other leaders. Specific attribution is not possible because of the promise of confidentiality made to all the people we interviewed.”

But Valeo recounted that Webb staff interviewed some 40 people, several of whom are also on the project’s steering committee, including MCPS Music Administrator Paul Ritter and Superintendent Jim Clark.

Webb also noted that MCPS is not its first school district client. Webb has also done feasibility studies involving public schools in Park City, Utah, and Burley, Idaho. In Sun Valley, Idaho, the school district funded a portion of a study on the need for new performing arts facilities. In Sun Valley, however, public school involvement is one of the main topics addressed in the report. Nonetheless, Superintendent Clark stands by MCPS’s investment in Webb. “I’ve had nothing but overwhelmingly positive feedback from members of the community on this,” said Clark. “The report identifies a clear need. This would be a great facility for our students and a great asset for the community.”

Webb also has the contract for the business plan. MCPS money paid to Webb is a fraction of a $600,000 building fund that can’t be used for district operating expenses, and a portion of that fund is generated in turn by tax revenues distributed by the MRA. At the August 12 board meeting, school board trustees who spoke in favor of further funding saw the request as an appropriate use of the fund, and seemed to assume that a small preliminary investment would grant the district unlimited access to the new facility. Trustee David Merrill raised this issue before the vote.

“There seems to be an implication that we’ll just be able to use this facility for free. Is that possible?” asked Merrill. Jim Valeo replied candidly to Merrill’s question moments before the vote: “We don’t know what role, if any, the school district will play. What we’re looking for is a partnership arrangement we will have to define as we go along,” said Valeo.

The lone dissenting vote on the school board came from Carol Bellin, who expressed reservations about the financing of the project, as well as the lack of any defined role for MCPS. “I would like to see a manager or a sponsor before the school district commits anymore. The schools are being asked to bear too much of the cost of this,” said Bellin. In a telephone interview after the vote, Bellin said she’s very much in favor of a new performing arts center for the district, but would like to see more partnerships between interested parties developed before committing MCPS funds. “I guess I’m taking a little more conservative view,” said Bellin. “And I don’t like to take a request like this without including it in the broader discussion of the building needs of the district, as something to weigh it against.”

In light of an informal survey of the district’s buildings, the broader discussion Bellin seeks seems warranted. Examples of inadequate space for students and staff are too numerous to list, but one of the more ironic examples is an office shared by a speech therapist and an autism specialist that’s a converted ticket booth for the theater at Sentinel High. Other shortcomings include a gifted class that meets in an unused locker room and a school psychologist whose office is a converted bathroom.

In the meantime, the steering committee for the new performing arts center has an eye cast toward the old Fox Theater site on the north end of the Orange Street Bridge. Tom Boone, president of the Missoula Symphony Association, said the property “has to be at the top of the list” as a location for a new concert hall. “With the river there, it would really be beautiful,” Boone predicted. Architect Jim O’Neill, another steering committee member, shared Boone’s optimism and contended that skepticism over MCPS involvement is the wrong attitude to take.

“Why should future generations have to pay the price for what some might be unwilling to do right now?” he asked.

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