Parents, alums fight to keep Perpich Center open

Perpich Center battles for existence

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Alums and parents went to the State Capitol Tuesday to go to bat for the Perpich Center for Arts Education, which is on the chopping block this session after a damaging audit.

Perpich, the state's only public high school devoted to arts, is set to be abolished in the House version of the education finance bill. And Tuesday evening the joint House-Senate conference committee agreed with the idea, and adopted the House language.

Currently 159 students, 11th and 12th graders, attend the school in Golden Valley. So far 180 have been enrolled for the 2017-2018 academic year.

"The two years I spent at Perpich Center really shaped who I am as a person, and how I navigate the world as an adult in ways no other educational experience has," Cynthia Rowe, and attorney and 1992 Perpich graduate told reporters.

The school's namesakes, former Gov, Rudy Perpich and former First Lady Lola Perpich, began advocating for such a school 1983. I opened to students in 1989.

The 33-acre campus includes dormitory space, because it has attracted students from all 87 counties in the state throughout its history. 

"The real strength of the Perpich Center is that kids come from all over the state and have very different backgrounds," Rowe added. "You’ve got kids whose families are financially well off and kids whose families really struggle to meet some of those basic needs."

In January the Office of the Legislative Auditor raised many red flags about the management of the Perpich Center after an audit of the school's internal controls and compliance with state regulations.

The Legislative Auditor's report found lax oversight and management of record keeping duties, and other examples of inadequate internal controls. Legislative Auditor Jim Nobles recommended a long list of fixes to tighten up transparency and accountability of governance.

Rep. Jenifer Loon, the Eden Prairie Republican who heads the House Education Committee, carried the bill that would shutter the Perpich Center. That language became part of the omnibus school finance bill that passed the House and will be in the House-Senate conference committee report.

"It's been going on for a long time, and I think the problems have been swept under the rug for a long time," Rep. Loon told her colleagues at a recent committee meeting.

She said she's not opposed to the idea of a public high school for budding artists, but she has lost faith in the model represented by Perpich.

"I don't know that the current structure really acts in the best interests of students, or that's certainly been called into question by the auditor's report."

But the Perpich Center has a new board and new leadership, and they're asking lawmakers for more time to resolve the issues Nobles and his staff discovered.

"The board and new leadership Is working very, very diligently to turn Perpich around. But we’re just at the beginning of turning it around and we need more time," Peg Birk, the high school's interim director told reporters.

Parent Susan Draves of Lake City said the school has done wonders for her daughter Hope Schwen, who is a junior specializing in theater.

"Hope is immersed and thriving in a supportive, creative arts community that challenges her to explore and grow beyond anything I could’ve ever imagined," Drave said of her daughter.

"She’s willingly engaged in all her classes, eager to go to school, and has just a passion for learning that I just never saw before."

Perpich principal Ahava Silkey-Jones said the school still attracts highly motivated and talented students, and most of them have continued to win scholastic honors despite the controversy surrounding the school.

"To abolish Perpich would be to abolish the dreams of hundreds and hundreds of young Minnesota artists," Silkey-Jones remarked.

She said the school is expanding its outreach efforts to increase diversity and the geographic mix.

© 2017 KARE-TV


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