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RCC and SLHS End Partnership Before it Begins

Plan to partner with county to build state-of-the-art theater at South Lakes dropped by RCC.

Expressing frustration and disappointment, the Reston Community Center (RCC) Board of Governors abruptly ended its quest to help renovate and upgrade the Little Theatre at South Lakes High School, after school officials balked at the RCC’s proposal of operation.

Board member Jan Bradshaw broke the news to the entire board at its April 7 meeting. "The school is not interested in partnership at this time," she said.

The plan, estimated at just under $1.5 million and studied for two years, finally unraveled at a meeting earlier on Monday between county school officials and RCC staff, executive director Dennis Kern said at Monday evening's RCC long-range planning meeting, held before the full board meeting.

The subcommittee meeting was scheduled to allow board members to educate themselves on one of RCC’s three big ticket long-term goals, a list that includes a proposed skatepark behind the YMCA and an addition to the Lake Anne community center.

Monday’s meeting was supposed to be an important step in learning more about the South Lakes theater project. Instead the meeting turned into more of a venting session, as members were clearly frustrated with the school system’s position.

Kern told the subcommittee that the arts faculty at South Lakes was largely "on board" with the proposal. In addition, the members of the community arts groups, if given assurance that they would be able to schedule their seasons without fear of getting bumped from the facility, were also excited about the prospect of a new, much larger, state-of-the-art theater at South Lakes.

Ridge Voux, South Lakes PTSA president, said he was supportive of the concept, but said he could understand how it became too difficult to work out. "I am a realist and I understand how the realistic aspects of the project could trump the idealistic approach," he said. "Conceptually, it is a great idea to have the synergy of something as dynamic as the community center and its arts program work with the school and have the school benefit from it as a result," he added. "The concern that a number of us always had was how to balance the community center's investment with the demands that the school has on the facility."

School board member Stuart Gibson (Hunter Mill), who was not involved in the negotiations, expressed surprise and disappointment at Monday's developments. "It was only last week that I heard there were serious problems with the proposal," Gibson said on Tuesday after being told of the news. "I would like the opportunity to work with both sides to see if we can work out an agreement. I think it is unfortunate that the RCC acted as they did."

<b>UNDER THE MEMORANDUM</b> of understanding, drafted by RCC staff, scheduling of the theater would be layered in three tiers, Kern said. South Lakes performing arts groups would have the first priority at the calendar. Community performing arts groups like, Reston Chorale and the Reston Chamber Orchestra, would have had the next priority. Finally, non-Reston professional touring groups and non-performance arts activities from South Lakes would get a chance to schedule time in the newly refurbished theater.

Kern said that Rely Rodriguez, the principal at South Lakes, deferred to Betsy Goodman, the Cluster IV director, without coming down on one side of the argument. South Lakes activities director Pat Henthorn, however, made it clear that she opposed the proposal. Kern told the subcommittee that Henthorn feared that South Lakes would be surrendering too much control of their theater.

Currently the RCC's CenterStage can accommodate performance companies of up to 80 people, the stage at South Lakes can hold up to 120. With 578 seats versus 290 at the CenterStage, the audience in the school's Little Theatre is nearly twice as large. A partnership with a larger theater would also allow RCC to attract larger professional touring artists whose "size specifications exceed the CenterStage facility's specifications."

At 11:30 a.m. on Monday, Kern, Leila Gordon, the RCC performing arts director, sat down with Goodman and Tom Brady, the chief operating officer of Fairfax County Public Schools in what Kern described as a "frank discussion."

The result of the one-hour meeting left Kern and Gordon wondering about what might have been, as Brady, characterized the proposal as "not exactly dead on arrival."

On Tuesday, Brady said he was surprised to learn about the RCC board's actions. "I think it was prudent of [Kern] to appraise the board of our meeting, but I was surprised that the board acted so quickly to dismiss the proposal," Brady said. "I didn't take this to be the end of negotiations. I really thought, and hoped we could find some common ground."

<b>AFTER LEARNING</b> of the RCC's decision to drop out of the potential partnership, Rodriguez said she was disappointed. She said ultimately it was Brady's call, but she added that she did have some concerns, like risk management and maintenance concerns, after reading the memorandum of understanding.

"The issue for the school system is control, control over the calendar and the eventual facility," Kern told the subcommittee, later adding that the school system wanted to control rental revenue, as well. "It was a frustrating fight. I expected a counterproposal from them."

The schools, unaccustomed to long-term scheduling, were unwilling to limit their scheduling alternatives, Kern said, adding that they wanted to have the opportunity to schedule the facility in an ad-hoc and last-minute fashion in order to retain flexibility and maximize revenue. "In a way I can understand their concerns," he said, "but there is no way a community arts organization could operate successfully in that sort of restraint."

Community arts organizations, Gordon said, typically plan their schedules out a year in advance, while the school system cannot finalize its schedule until the beginning of the school year. That was a "deal-breaker," Bradshaw said, during Monday’s long-range planning meeting. "If the community arts organizations could not confidently schedule their performances without fear of being bumped then I would recommend against it."

Rodriguez confirmed that her director of student activities, Henthorn, was opposed to the section of the memorandum of understanding that relinquished control of scheduling to RCC. "That's her baby," she said.

<b>READING FROM NOTES</b> he took at Monday’s meeting, Kern said Goodman told him that RCC had designed a theater that exceeded the county’s expectations and that the county was "not inclined" to meet those expectations.

Ultimately, they were unwilling to share control of the theater, Kern said . The theater is scheduled to be renovated, regardless of RCC's involvement, along with the rest of the 26-year-old school beginning in 2006, at an estimated cost of $5,320,916.52. The total cost of the renovation and construction is estimated at between $50 and $60 million.

On Tuesday, Goodman made it clear that despite the setback, she hoped that the school and RCC could continue to work together in the future.

<b>IN ADDITION TO</b> contributing to the renovation and enhancement of the Little Theatre at South Lakes, RCC had proposed, according to the feasibility study, "funding a full-time technical director at the school, in exchange for the use of the facility exclusively by the school and Small District 5 users."

An on-site technical instructor would be an essential part of RCC’s stated goal of transforming the school’s soon-to-be renovated theater into the "standards of legitimate theater." At base, Kern described the director as someone who could, "protect our investment."

"We want someone who knows what they are doing and who is capable and oversee it behind the scenes," Kern said. "Anyone that has seen it [behind the scenes] over there knows what a disaster zone it is."

The on-site technical director also raised questions in Rodriguez's mind. "It's difficult to imagine a technical director overseeing the kids in this school yet the principal not being in position to evaluate this person," Rodriguez said.

Brady agreed. "We feel strongly that employees within schools should be FCPS employees," Brady said.

The state of the theater and the lack of quality in-house technology is not a reflection on the South Lakes drama program, Gordon said. Rather, she said, it is symbolic of the way in which the county treats the arts programs at all of its schools. "They, South Lakes, have a well deserved reputation," Gordon said. "What they don’t have is a sophisticated level of technical support."

Fairfax County Public Schools employs one person, Ken Wilson, to monitor all of the county’s school theaters’ technical needs and training. "He’s one guy," Gordon said. "As students get trained, they need to practice what they learned. If they don’t use it, they will lose it."

In addition to supporting an on-site technical director, RCC's $1.5 million contribution would have been used to upgrade the soon-to-be renovated theater with state-of-the-art computerized sound, lighting and mixing systems, a fly-rigging system for moving props and hydraulic lift for a new orchestra pit. According to the feasibility study, RCC funds would have covered "the difference in cost between the level of renovation covered in the Fairfax County Public Schools Educational Specification for a standard high school theater, and the theater standards required by RCC."

Ruth Overton, the board chairman, reluctantly agreed to the resolution. "It’s too bad because the students are definitely going to lose," she said.