Perpich arts center focuses on overhaul amid shutdown talk

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Student art work is on display.
Student art work on display last year in a hallway at the Perpich Arts High School in Golden Valley.
Solvejg Wastvedt | MPR News file

Lawmakers are considering a bill that would close the state's Perpich Center for Arts Education and leave the future of its two schools in doubt.

The proposal follows a highly critical legislative audit that found lax oversight by the Perpich board and diminished outreach from its school resource wing, along with falling school enrollment and test scores. It noted Perpich Center staff "strongly supported the mission of the agency" but had low morale and were afraid of speaking out against leadership.

A House education bill would close the center in 2018 and create a division for arts outreach at the Minnesota Department of Education. Perpich currently offers arts education resources to school districts and runs a two-year high school in Golden Valley and a middle school in Woodbury.

Under the House proposal, students could continue at the Perpich schools through the end of next year. A Senate education bill passed earlier this month takes a different approach. It would keep the center open and require yearly reports on progress addressing audit findings.

The underlying question is whether lawmakers believe the Perpich Center's current executives are capable of turning the troubled operation around or if they believe the best solution is to dissolve the organization and move its remaining pieces elsewhere.

"In my opinion it's not fixable in the current structure, the way it is," Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie said at a House education finance committee hearing last month.

New leadership at the Perpich Center, however, says changes are already underway.

Most board members are new as of last summer, and a new high school principal started last fall. The center is searching for a new executive director, and board chair Ben Vander Kooi said 36 applicants have been narrowed down to six semifinalists.

"We thank the auditor for doing the work they've done because frankly it saved us a lot of time as a board. They identified significant issues that needed to be fixed, and we are committed to fixing them," Vander Kooi said.

Vander Kooi said board members have formed a committee to rebuild the center's outreach and agency staff have corrected many of the financial audit findings.

High school principal Ahava Silkey-Jones said she's made changes like more strictly enforcing attendance policies and ensuring the vast majority of students participate in state testing. Low participation was an audit concern.

Silkey-Jones also said application numbers for the high school have stayed steady.

"It's a testament to the quality of the programming that families are still seeking out Perpich as an option for their students," Silkey-Jones said. She added that the school recently hired a new admissions coordinator and that the school hopes to increase enrollment soon.

Parent Faith Busiek has a senior at the Perpich high school. Busiek said she's been impressed with the school's teachers since her son started, when she attended a reading for Perpich students' original compositions.

"It was incredible. I was bowled over and I was — my plans were like redeemed? I thought, 'I had no idea it would be this good'," Busiek said.

But Busiek and her partner Randall Smith also said they had difficulty working with administrators last year to get extra support their son needed. They say those problems haven't all been resolved, but Smith is cautiously optimistic. "You know, you're coming to clean up a train wreck. Has the wreck cleared from the tracks yet? No," he said.

As for the future of the agency, "I say double down. You know, fix the problems that are wrong and make it excellent! It has so much potential to be excellent," Busiek said.