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Community members affiliated with two popular, longtime Oak Park Elementary Schools District 97 performing arts programs are going into 2018 with more stage fright than usual at the prospect of what could be their final acts (at least as many people have known them) if a resolution isn’t reached with district officials on how they’ll be funded after the 2018-19 school year. 

As part of ongoing efforts to practice fiscal restraint, district officials have been in talks with officials from BRAVO, the nationally prominent performing arts program based at Brooks, and CAST, the celebrated performing arts program at Julian, about ways the programs can become more financially independent. Representatives with both programs, however, say they aren’t seeking the autonomy. 

Last year, the district “explored cost-cutting options with the board,” according to a Jan. 23 memo drafted by Alicia Evans, the district’s outgoing assistant superintendent for finance and operations. 

“One of those options included the elimination of CAST and BRAVO positions,” Evans wrote. After the public learned of that option, there was “an immediate response to keep CAST and BRAVO staff and continue to support performing arts at both schools.”

The district decided that all of the positions would be retained for the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years. The two-year period “would provide CAST and BRAVO enough time to support their own activities and staff.” 

Currently, the district pays the salaries and benefits of four administrators for the programs, each of which are assigned a program director and a program manager. The program directors for both CAST and BRAVO are responsible for raising additional funds for the programs.  

When reached Monday, Chris Jasculca, D97’s senior director of policy, planning and communication, said the salaries and benefits of those CAST and BRAVO employees totals roughly $278,000. 

“We also provide access to facilities, cover the cost of custodial services during non-school hours, cover the cost of supplies and provide technology for their summer programs,” Jasculca said. 

According to Evans’ memo, the district asked CAST and BRAVO “to inform the administration about construction activities,” because past building improvements for the programs had “been made without proper authorization or oversight” and the work was “not in compliance.”

Representatives for CAST declined to say how much more money they raise each year beyond what the district provides and representatives for BRAVO could not be reached for comment. 

In May, district officials decided to explore whether or not the district should continue the practice of not evaluating CAST and BRAVO performing arts directors if they aren’t working during the day, and to consider “conversations on business tasks that might be combined and other business functions, like 501(c)(3) status, among other considerations.”

At the time, D97 Supt. Carol Kelley also recommended that the district work with CAST and BRAVO leadership on a plan to develop a course in performing arts for middle-school students that would allow the schools to satisfy a minimum amount of arts-related instruction necessary for them to keep their International Baccalaureate certification. 

When the district met with CAST and BRAVO leadership in November, however, both groups “indicated that no progress had been made” in establishing their own nonprofit status, according to Evans’ memo.

During a regular meeting on Jan. 23, Stephanie Kiesling, a CAST board representative, said she believes the depiction of the conversations between the district, and BRAVO and CAST back in May is “not accurate.” 

“The CAST council does not now, nor has it ever believed that these partnerships can exist without the form of staff and financial oversight provided by District 97,” she said,

Kiesling added that the notion of the programs being independent of the district goes against the tenor of the public’s support for the programs when they were on the chopping block ahead of the two referenda that passed last April. 

She said that “what was explored” in May was how the two programs could expand their programming during the school day to support the district’s IB curriculum. Kiesling also claimed that “at no time since last May has there been any discussion between all parties involved” about the programs becoming independent of the district. 

During the Jan. 23 meeting, parents of BRAVO and CAST participants spoke out in support of the programs. 

“BRAVO has given kids self-esteem and confidence, and has built their personality where they’re able to take risks and improve themselves,” said Juan Gonzalez, a co-president on BRAVO’s board who is also the parent of a BRAVO participant. “For the last 10 years, the board has supported the program and I’d encourage.” 

Both BRAVO and CAST offer free musical theater for D97 middle-school students during the school year and tuition-based summer programming. CAST is over 30 years old while BRAVO was created in 1995. The programs, BRAVO in particular, have generated national, even international, acclaim for the quality of their productions. 

One parent of a BRAVO participant who spoke at the Jan. 23 meeting said that “there are people in Australia and New Zealand who recognize this program” and with both programs “the bar is set really high for [students who participate] and that isn’t true for a lot kids in other middle schools.”

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com  

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