257 pulls Bowlus classes

The USD 257 Board of Education voted Monday to discontinue holding classes at the Bowlus Fine Arts Center.

In 1960, Iola banker Thomas Bowlus left in his final will and testament directions for the creation of a fine arts center in downtown Iola and instructions that the center be used for the arts education of the district’s students.

The will also named school board members as trustees of the center.

For more than 50 years, Iola High School and Iola Middle School (then Iola Junior High School) have used the center’s facilities for classroom learning, and have paid for the privilege to do so.

In February of last year, in the lengthening shadow of Kansas’ school budget crisis, the district asked the court to look again at Bowlus’ will and articulate in clearer terms the exact nature of the district’s obligations to the fine arts center.

In November, Judge Robert Fairchild of Lawrence returned his interpretation, declaring: “Whether or not the Board of Education continues to hold classes in the cultural center is within [the board’s] discretion.”

Monday’s vote to finally remove the remaining drama, choir and art classes from the Bowlus beginning next school year was unanimous (board member Doug Dunlap was absent).

AS FOR THE continued funding of the fine arts center, the district is pledging 1 mill annually ($52,000; down from $57,000 this year). The City of Iola also contributes 1 mill to the center ($29,500). The county is currently in its final year of a 3-year, $100,000 commitment to the Bowlus. Representatives of the fine arts center are meeting with the Allen County Commission today regarding the nature of the county’s future financial involvement.

PRIOR TO the vote, district administrators highlighted for the board some of the inefficiencies that followed from holding classes at the Bowlus arts center.

Middle school principal Brad Crusinbery brandished an extrapalotory math showing, because a student’s daily commute to and from the Bowlus resulted in a full 10 minutes of “lost educational time,” that student forfeited 27.5 hours — or seven weeks worth — of classroom time in a single school year. And that, said Crusinbery, is a conservative estimate.

Iola High principal Scott Crenshaw pointed to the hassle, not to mention the danger, that arises from the many high school students who eagerly contravene the rule against driving to the Bowlus. The risk of accident looms with this sort of unsanctioned traffic in and out of the school’s three parking lots, said Crenshaw.

The principal noted, too, that the distance between the high school and the Bowlus makes him “feel completely disconnected from his teachers over there.” They’re harder to reach than the in-house teachers, explained Crenshaw, plus they’re not able to benefit from the sort of “peer-to-peer encouragement” that would be on offer to them if they shared a facility with the district’s other teachers.

Administrators are confident that the district buildings can be successfully retrofitted to accommodate the arts courses currently being offered at the Bowlus.

The district is confident, too, that the transition from the Bowlus can be completed in full by the start of next school year.

For the most part, however, administrators and board members were at pains to reassure Bowlus staff and commision representatives, many of whom were in the room, of the district’s undiluted dedication to arts education at USD 257.

“I think it’s important that everyone understands that this is not a statement in opposition or against or [in an effort] to devalue the arts in any way, shape or form,” said board member Jen Taylor. “I think we’re all committed [to the idea] that fine arts are extremely important; there’s nothing on the board to take away the fine arts requirement or the speech requirement.” Taylor went on to express her gratitude to the Bowlus staff and to the volunteers who help sustain it. “What you do is so valued. And I just want to make it very clear: to us, the arts are still very important.”

BOWLUS director Susan Raines was at Monday’s meeting. Asked later to speak to the board’s decision, she remained positive: “With the expected decision of the Board of Education to remove all fine arts classes from the [Bowlus],” said Raines by email Tuesday morning, “the Bowlus Commission and I have been investigating all options for viable use of the Center. It is our belief that the Bowlus will continue to be the heart of the arts in Allen County. We recognize the importance of the commitment of a mill each from the City of Iola and USD 257 [the county had not yet come to a decision regarding funding by press time Tuesday].

“It should be noted that this is not the first change in use the Bowlus has seen during its 54-year history. In 1968 the college removed classes from the Bowlus to relocate to their new building. The middle school classes were removed in 2008, and the high school band classes were removed in 2015. Change is inevitable.

“What the community does to support the Bowlus going forward,” concluded Raines, “will be the true indicator of whether it remains one of the landmarks that sets Allen County and Iola apart from other rural communities.”

IN OTHER NEWS:

— The district extended its contract for pest control services with Io-la-based All in One Pest Home and Lawn. Board member Jerad Larkey, owner of All in One, absented himself from the discussion and vote.

— Board member Jennifer Coltrane brought to the board’s attention the concerns of two parents who reached out to her.

The first parent, said Coltrane, “had some concerns with the content of the high school musical,” “All Shook Up.”

The second parent that contacted Coltrane asked “why parents weren’t informed of the school threat last week.” Coltrane told the parent that it “wasn’t determined to be a legitimate threat” but promised that she would air the parent’s concern before the board, so that the administration could offer a fuller explanation of the matter.

Superintendent of Schools Stacey Fager echoed Coltrane’s description of the threat, calling it “unsubstantiated.”

The balance the administration has to strike, continued Fager, is to be unstinting in its communication with parents when a threat is legitimate but to not allow hollow, unsubstantiated threats to drive the district’s response.

“I think if we over-communicate certain things,” explained the superintendent, “then we end up giving the misconception to the community that there are a lot of things going on when, in essence, it’s probably more like what a lot of schools deal with normally.”

In every case, however — whether the threat is deemed legitimate at the outset or not — the district follows the recommended channels for investigating that threat, which includes contacting law enforcement.

“But, again, by all means, I don’t want to withhold information if there’s a legitimate concern for parents about the safety and security of the students. We want to communicate that. But we need to do due diligence to make sure that that threat is real first. Because we don’t want to [raise a public fear] if the threat isn’t there.”

What the community does to support the Bowlus going forward will be the true indicator of whether it remains one of the landmarks that sets Allen County and Iola apart form other rual communities.
— Susan Rains,
Bowlus director

The Iola Register

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