MCSD proposed SPLOST includes $6 million to add film program, other enhancements to arts academy project

Mike Haskey mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.com 
 The new Muscogee County School District administration building is near completion. 09/30/09
Mike Haskey mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.com The new Muscogee County School District administration building is near completion. 09/30/09 mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.com

Grif Lockley has been the Savannah Arts Academy principal for five years. During that time, he has seen the enrollment grow from 700 to 800 in grades 9-12.

Part of that growth, he said, has been the increasing interest in film studies. That's why the 17-year-old public school plans to separate its film/TV/media production program from the communication arts and create its own department.

Lockley suggests the Muscogee County School District shouldn't wait 17 years to have a film department in its arts academy, which is scheduled to open in 2017 after construction starts this year on the approximately 15 acres between the Columbus Aquatic Center and Rigdon Road Elementary School.

"You guys, get ready to have major studios coming to Georgia," he said, "because South Carolina and North Carolina are taking away all those tax breaks."

If Columbus voters approve the March 17 referendum to renew the Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax for the school district's capital projects, part of the estimated $192,185,000 in revenue would produce $6 million for a film school and creative writing program to be included in the arts academy being designed for 500 students in grades 6-12. That money would be added to the $30 million already committed to the fledgling facility from the previous two SPLOSTs.

Funding history

The SPLOST approved in 2003 included $1,160,000 in "seed money" to start planning an arts academy. Former Muscogee County School Board member Fife Whiteside, who represented District 5 then, said a "vague idea was that some private funding might emerge to complete the project."

The private funding didn't materialize, and the Great Recession began in 2008. A year later, $15,754,406 of the renewed SPLOST was approved for the arts academy.

By November 2012, the projected cost of the academy had nearly doubled, to $28.3 million. And with the $223,155,784 plan for the 2009 SPLOST projects estimated to be falling $40 million short, the board approved interim Superintendent John Phillips' recommendation to eliminate projects totaling $17,756,250 and defer projects totaling $19,568,977.

Part of those savings freed up money to target an estimated total of $30 million toward the arts academy.

Susan Andrews, now special projects director for the Georgia Governor's Office of Planning and Budget, was superintendent in Muscogee County when the 2009 SPLOST was planned.

Reflecting on the original amount of money set aside for the arts academy project, she said, "I think we probably didn't dream big enough."

The arts academy project was delayed in favor of higher priorities, such as a replacement for Carver High and a new middle school (Aaron Cohn) and a new elementary school (Dorothy Height).

"I think some people voted for the SPLOST because of the arts academy," Andrews said. "But, in my view, the citizens knew the right thing to do was to get Carver and those other schools done."

When asked whether a promise was broken, Andrews said, "I would say the commitment is still there to have an arts academy, but you had to take care of your regular programs first when you have critical needs. We did not expect the recession to last as long and be as deep."

Rationale for addition

Now, Superintendent David Lewis wants voters to approve another SPLOST, this one including an additional $6 million to enhance the arts academy project.

"What we're looking at with the expansion is incorporating a creative writing lab and a film school," Lewis said, "with the possibility of even an outdoor amphitheater to try to address some of the concerns that were brought up back several years ago about greenspace in that area."

Georgia's film industry ranks third in the nation and fifth in the world, according to the Film L.A. 2013 Feature Film Production Study. Lewis uses that fact in his rationale for the film program in the arts academy.

"There are 32 careers specifically tied to the film industry," Lewis said. "I think it's an economic benefit to our community in terms of providing career pathways for our students but also providing other industry for this area and could be beneficial for the local economy."

Muscogee County School Board members John Thomas of District 2 and Frank Myers of District 8 are campaigning against the SPLOST.

The Ledger-Enquirer asked for their opinion of the proposed addition to the arts academy project. Myers emailed this joint statement: "We both support a strong fine arts program in the public school system. But again, here is another very clear example of the public being misled by the school board and administration.

"This is the third time a fine arts facility has been listed on a projects list for a SPLOST vote. The public has already paid for this facility twice now, passing this tax in 2003 and 2009. Still, we have no Fine Arts Academy. And that is true even though the Superintendent claims there is $30 million in the bank earmarked for a Fine Arts Academy.

"This comes down to an issue of credibility and trust for us, and we believe the same is true for the public."

Expert opinion

Credibility also is at stake for the consultant guiding the school district's arts academy project, Craig Collins, dean of the College of Communications, Languages & the Arts at Southeastern University in Lakeland, Fla., the largest city in Polk County, where Lewis was associate superintendent of teaching and learning before the Muscogee County School Board hired him in July.

The arts academies in Augusta and Savannah have film programs. Film is "mainstream" now in arts academies, said Collins, a past president of the Arts Schools Network, an international consortium of school dedicated to advancing the arts. "It's absolute," he said. "Those that don't have it don't compete."

During his 12-year tenure as principal of the Harrison School for the Arts in Polk County, Collins initiated a $21 million building renovation and expansion. The school has a film program.

The plan for Muscogee County's arts academy comprises the following programs, Collins said: band, choral, creative writing, dance, film, guitar, music business, musical theater, orchestra, piano, technical theater, theater and visual arts.

"We are right now preparing a track for students to run on where they can compete in a race with the nation's premier arts academies," he said.

Asked what would be cut if voters don't pass the SPLOST referendum, Collins said that would be up to the district's administration.

"All I can do is program and make recommendations," he said.

Pressed for his hypothetical recommendation, Collins said he would cut a film classroom or a dance classroom but not any programs. That means the film teacher would "float" to instruct in other classrooms or the dance students would be "sitting on the floor" in the studio for their classroom sessions.

Another option would be cutting out the black box theater, leaving only the 600-seat auditorium as the only performance space, he said.

Collins, however, insisted those features aren't extras.

"We've worked so diligently trying to come up with a program that wasn't merely functional but cutting edge and 21st century," he said. "It's not excessive."

To the contrary, Collins argued, it's a wise investment.

"You look at students engaged in the arts, they achieve across all socio-economic barriers," he said. "That in itself pays dividends to the community."

The national average on the 2012 SAT, according to the College Board, was lower for students in all three tests (math, reading and writing) compared to students who took a class in at least one of eight arts disciplines.

Even more dramatic, Collins said, a state-of-the-art academy would help the city grow and add to economic development.

"I will tell you emphatically," he said, "you will have people move to Columbus because of this arts school."

Collins praised the community planning committee that started programming the arts academy a decade ago.

But the film and music business programs weren't on the radar screen then. Now, he said, they are essential.

"You don't address current problems and make advancement with old thinking," he said. "You should be building for what you see 10 years down the road."

Closing argument

Lewis compared the benefit of the additional $6 million to the arts academy as the difference between buying a Chevrolet and a Cadillac.

"Obviously, for an arts school, to the extent that you can, you want to buy the better equipment that's going to last longer and is up to professional specifications," he said, "because that's what the students will be working toward in terms of their productions."

Hecht Burdeshaw Architects of Columbus, the former firm of the district's construction director Bobby Hecht, is designing the arts academy.

It will contain roughly 118,000 square feet, with a portion of the building three stories, Hecht said.

Asked how the project would be affected if the SPLOST doesn't pass, Hecht said, "We'd have some value engineering to do, but certainly, some of the programs would have to be cut."

Drawings aren't ready to be released just yet, Lewis said.

"We're about a month away from having a real good rendering of everything, both interior and exterior," he said. "A lot of it is contingent upon what happens with the SPLOST."

Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow Mark on Twitter