The board that oversees the Perpich Center for Arts Education is searching for answers to high staff turnover and declining student numbers at its schools.
Some current and former employees, however, say the answers, while painful, are not difficult to find. They describe a secretive, fearful atmosphere where colleagues quit or are fired without much explanation. They also say the pressure to maintain the center's reputation for student achievement is so intense that ethical lines get blurred.
Staff and faculty have been especially pressed by the leadership's desire for a 100 percent graduation rate, said former school counselor Dianne Auger.
"It felt like the atmosphere was one where, 'Let's do everything we can, period, to make sure these kids graduate.' And what we can do and what we should do — or are ethically able to do — are sometimes two different things," Auger said in an interview. "I never entertained crossing any of those lines, but I know that it was a pressure out there."
Every school feels the need to show academic success. But Perpich is different because its parent agency gets a large part of its $12 million budget from the Legislature and its mission is unique in Minnesota.
The center provides art resources to school districts and it runs a two-year art high school in Golden Valley and a middle school in Woodbury. The center opened in 1985, and since 1989 its high school has offered 11th and 12th graders from around the state the opportunity to spend half their days in arts classes, while the other half is spent in traditional academic classes. Some students live on campus at the high school.
The structure requires it to essentially justify its existence in every two-year budget cycle. In 2009 and again in 2011, legislators weighed turning Perpich into a charter school and closing the center entirely. A high graduation rate has been a selling point in keeping the center intact.
Former arts high school science teacher Craig Van Someren recalled the push for 100 percent graduation, including what he described as a suggestion from then-principal Carlo Galeazzi. "I only really remember it being direct once, just kind of saying, 'Well what if you just excluded these things from the gradebook?'," Van Someren said.
"When I was there I heard teachers say, 'I might as well give a passing grade, because if I don't it's going to get changed anyway," said another former member of the high school academic staff.
Galeazzi denies Van Someren's allegation, and no current or former teachers told MPR News they had altered grades. The state boards that license teachers and school administrators would look into any complaints of academic dishonesty.
Only information on board actions is public, and an MPR News request to the state Board of Teaching for actions involving Perpich teachers has not yet been completed.
The Board of School Administrators says there have been no actions against principals who have led the school since current director Sue Mackert took over in 2010.
Auger, Van Someren and others trace the school culture to Mackert. The board report recommends a performance review of Mackert within three months.
Mackert declined to talk for this story, but soon after she took the position four Perpich board members wrote to Gov. Mark Dayton criticizing the selection process and doubting Mackert's qualifications. Mackert's 2008 resume doesn't list a college degree.
Galeazzi called Mackert a "visionary" and defended her work
"Sue was very gracious and generous with teachers and tried to — if anything she tried too hard to placate and to not upset," Galeazzi said. He blamed tension on teachers' resistance to change. "Whenever you try to make changes in an organization that has been established for a long period of time ... my opinion is that teachers will attack, and they will complain. It's a highly political system," Galeazzi said.
Enrollment is down by almost a third in five years and the high school's had four principals in just over seven years. A board report from earlier this month cited a need to "understand why there are so many employees leaving."
Perpich is also the subject of two legislative audits. Results of the financial audit are expected next month; the program audit is expected to be released in January.
Change is on the way for a board that has largely supported Mackert. The board chair resigned unexpectedly in September. Two new board members were appointed Thursday, and five more seats are expected to turn over by the new year.
Several current students say their arts education continues in spite of the internal turmoil. They say that they hope what's wrong with the Perpich Center won't destroy what's right with it.