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May 9, 2013

Ann Arbor Public Schools
Board of Education Office
2555 South State Street
Ann Arbor, Michigan 48104

Dear Board of Education Trustees:

We write as parents and guardians of current and former Pioneer Theatre Guild members to express our concern about the proposed cuts to the performing arts in the Ann Arbor Public Schools and, in particular, the singling out of Pioneer Theatre Guild for the worst theater cuts. We are joined in this letter by Pioneer Theatre Guild members, alumni, and staff, as well as members of the Ann Arbor community who share our concerns about the proposed cuts.

Pioneer Theatre Guild is by far the largest theater program in the district, serving students from all four high schools. It also is one of the top high school theater programs in the country. You have heard from many current and former Pioneer Theatre Guild students about how much they grew as individuals and performers through the remarkable theater program at Pioneer and its longstanding association with the University of Michigan’s top-ranked musical theater program.

Nearly 80 percent of the funding for Pioneer Theatre Guild is raised from ticket sales and other external sources. Like other theater programs in the district, Pioneer Theatre Guild is prepared to increase its fundraising efforts to offset the proposed 40 percent cut in theater program funding. Pioneer Theatre Guild staff, who already receive barely more than the minimum wage, will see their salaries cut but are willing to do so because the district faces a serious budget crisis. While the 40 percent cut presents a serious problem for all theater programs in the district, it is a far better outcome than the 100 percent cut that was proposed in December by the school system.

But we are alarmed that the school system is now also proposing the elimination of the theater technician position at Pioneer. Because of the age of the Pioneer theater facilities, the number of students involved in Pioneer Theatre Guild, and the amount of productions sponsored each year by Pioneer Theatre Guild, it is not possible to safely operate the Pioneer theater program without a technician. If the theater technician’s position is eliminated, Pioneer Theatre Guild will not survive in its current form. Whatever theater program remains at Pioneer will bear little resemblance to the program that has trained and developed thousands of students. No other high school theater program faces such a drastic loss of programming from the proposed cuts.

Yet the proposed elimination of the Pioneer theater technician position appeared out of nowhere in the final budget proposal from the school system. It was not included when the school system presented a comprehensive list of proposed cuts to the school board in December. It was not mentioned in any of the public forums about the proposed cuts this winter. It never was discussed with any of the parents and guardians whose students will be most affected nor was there any opportunity for public comment by Pioneer Theatre Guild members, alumni, or staff.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the proposed elimination of the theater technician position suffers from the shortcomings that you might expect from a proposal that has not received any public airing:

● If the proposal had been part of the public process, the school system might have realized that the theater technician is responsible for scheduling and overseeing all non-athletic events at Pioneer High School. Because of the size of its facilities–the largest in the district–Pioneer hosts more district-wide events than any other school. Each year there are dozens of concerts, assemblies, and rentals all handled by the theater technician.

● If the proposal had received public scrutiny, the school system could have factored into its analysis the cost of maintaining and operating hundreds of thousands of dollars of aging theater equipment at Pioneer. If any of that equipment fails due to lack of maintenance, which no one else on the Pioneer staff has the professional training to provide, it will cost the school district far more than the $50K it is saving with this misguided proposal.

● If the proposal had been included in the original list of possible cuts, the school system could have weighed the benefits of a $50K cut against the possibility of far greater legal costs that would result if another student is injured at Pioneer because of inadequate supervision of the theater’s rigging system. The current proposal ignores the fact that the theater technician position at Pioneer was created in the late 1990s after a student was seriously injured at Pioneer because of inadequate supervision of the rigging system.

We recognize that the school board faces the nearly impossible task of cutting millions of dollars from the Ann Arbor Public School system budget for 2013-14 and that, after years of declining revenues, no cuts come without significant costs. We also understand that your role is not to immerse yourself in the minute details of the budget and that a $50K cut seems small in context.

The challenges facing the school board and our community, however, make it all the more essential that the school system follow its procedures. In a year when exceedingly difficult choices must be made by the school board, public confidence will be eroded if those cuts occur without the considered review and opportunity for public input the school board requires.

We therefore respectfully urge the school board to table the proposal to eliminate the theater technician position at Pioneer so that it can be properly evaluated next year from the beginning of the annual budget process. If the required evaluation and review had occurred this year, we are confident that the school system would have realized that its proposal will not save money, will expose the school district to crippling legal liabilities, and is not even remotely equitable.

First, the proposed elimination of the theater technician position will not save the school district money. The theater technician position, while essential to Pioneer Theatre Guild, is a theater technician position in name only. Over the years since the position was created, the theater technician position has expanded to include responsibility for all non-athletic events at Pioneer. These events include band, choir, and orchestra, performances, recitals, assemblies, the Multi-Cultural Food Fair, and college and career fairs–to name just a few–as well as the majority of all district-wide events, including teacher training workshops and Board of Education forums. Because of the volume of non-theater activities that occur every week in the Pioneer facilities, more than 75 percent of the theater technician’s duties do not involve Pioneer Theatre Guild.

The proposed budget makes no effort to identify who will be responsible for scheduling and overseeing those events and who will provide the technical skills needed to operate the aging sound and lighting systems at Pioneer. Without regular maintenance, those systems will fail. Replacement of the sound system alone–equipment that costs more than $100K–would dwarf the $50K annual savings of the proposed cut. Yet even the $50K savings identified by the school system is overstated, because Pioneer will need to pay overtime to its already overburdened administrative staff and even greater amounts to hire professional technicians to operate the sound and lighting systems for events at Pioneer. Overtime costs and “outsourcing” technical support for Pioneer events easily could exceed the $50K saved by the proposed budget cut.

Second, the proposed elimination of the theater technician position will increase safety risks and create the potential for devastating legal liabilities if students are injured because of inadequate maintenance, training, and supervision of the aging Pioneer facilities. As noted above, the theater technician position at Pioneer was created in the late 1990s after a student was severely injured by an accident involving the rigging system in the theater. Like all of the Pioneer theater facilities, the rigging system dates to the 1950's; it is not automated like the rigging system at the Skyline theater. Proper operation of the rigging system alone necessitates a theater technician at Pioneer so that students can be trained and supervised in its safe use.

The rigging system may be the best example of the known safety risks ignored by the school system in its ill-conceived proposal to eliminate the theater technician position at Pioneer. But the age of the theater facilities at Pioneer creates other significant safety risks at well, if students are not trained and supervised properly. The lighting system, also antiquated, creates fire risks if not properly maintained and operated. The catwalks lack safety bars with attendant fall risks if students are not trained and supervised. Set construction involves use of dangerous power saws and other equipment that requires adult supervision, all provided by the theater technician.

It is difficult to overstate the legal exposure that the school district would be creating if, in the face of these known risks, it eliminated the only position at Pioneer that ensures the maintenance and safe operation of the Pioneer theaters, as well as the necessary training for Pioneer students who operate the theater equipment. In the unfortunate event that another student was injured, a plaintiff’s attorney would seek both actual damages but also punitive damages that could reach into the millions of dollars. Yet the school system blithely ignores these risks with its proposal.

Third, the proposed elimination of the theater technician position at Pioneer, which the school system justifies as providing “equity with other schools” visits the most drastic theater program cuts on Pioneer and creates enormous inequities between the schools because Pioneer has the largest and the oldest theater facilities in the district. The stated justification for eliminating the theater technician position at Pioneer–equity with other schools–is the only justification that the school system has provided the public about a proposal that would sharply limit the district’s non-athletic use of all Pioneer facilities and cripple the theater program at Pioneer. As we have noted above, this proposal has never been subject to any public discussion, so the school system has never explained how the proposal promotes equity.

In fact, elimination of the theater technician position at Pioneer, would not provide equity with other schools; it would create dramatic inequities. A theater technician is necessary at Pioneer because the facilities at Pioneer are the largest and the oldest in the district. It is not possible to safely operate those facilities without professional staff, either employed by the school district or hired by outside contractors for each event. The other high schools in Ann Arbor have either brand new theater facilities (Skyline) or renovated theater facilities (Huron and Community). Only Pioneer has theater facilities that date to the 1950's and have never been fully renovated.

We could argue that it is inequitable that Pioneer’s facilities–used the most by the district–have not been brought up to par with the other high school theater facilities in the district. At a minimum, however, equity demands that Pioneer receive the services of a theater technician to maintain and operate its aging systems so that they are comparable to the new and renovated theater facilities at other schools and can be used safely by students in the school district. The unsupported statement that the theater technician position at Pioneer should be cut to provide equity erroneously assumes that all high school theater facilities have the same age, size, and use.

* * * * * * *

We expressed concern at the outset of this letter about the effect the proposed budget cuts will have on performing arts programs in the Ann Arbor Public Schools. The district’s commitment to the performing arts and the excellence of its performing arts programs has distinguished the Ann Arbor Public Schools for decades. We should not diminish aspects of our school system that draw students to the public schools at a time when revenues are diminishing and competition is increasing from charter and private schools. We join other members of the community in expressing concern about the elimination of seventh hour at Pioneer and Huron, which allows students to participate in the exceptional choir, band, and orchestra programs at both schools.

We have highlighted the elimination of the Pioneer theater technician position in this letter, however, because it is a proposal that emerged only at the last minute, without any of the public process that is supposed to accompany budget cuts. It is a misguided proposal that would cost the district more than it would save, expose the district to enormous legal liabilities, and would have a detrimental effect on all non-athletic events at Pioneer. And the proposal would cripple the Pioneer Theatre Guild that has been such a source of enjoyment, learning, and personal growth for so many current students in the district, and thousands of other students before them.

We urge the school board trustees, in the strongest possible terms, to reject the last-minute proposal to eliminate the theater technician at Pioneer until it can be properly evaluated, with the full opportunity for public input and comment, during the 2014-15 budget cycle.

Very truly yours,

David M. Uhlmann for the
Pioneer Theatre Guild Booster Club

Joined by the undersigned parents,
guardians, Pioneer Theatre Guild
staff, members, and alumni, and
members of the Ann Arbor community


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