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Helmut Schmidt, Published May 26 2012

Little drama in Trollwood books

FARGO – Trollwood Performing Arts School may be considered the summer jewel of the Fargo School District’s arts programming, but the program’s cost-per-student for 2011 was not excessive compared with a sampling of the district’s co-curricular activities, according to data requested by The Forum.

At the same time, while TPAS spent roughly $60,000 less than it received in revenues in 2011, it’s not a money-making venture for the district, Superintendent Rick Buresh and Business Manager Broc Lietz say.

The net cost-per-participant in 2011 for Trollwood was $503.31 for the 859 total participants, district data shows.

About 510 students took part, with many involved in more than one

Trollwood program.

That is well above the $278.98 cost-per-student for the 422 middle- and high-school students that took part in drama throughout the year in Fargo Public Schools, district figures show.

Buresh said the depth of the work done over the summer at the arts school, located at $15 million Bluestem Center for the Arts in south Moorhead, is greater than what can be offered during the school year.

“I think it has to do with the intensity of experience; a very deep focus,” he said.

“These are all highly motivated kids that have a very special, deep interest. I would say it’s the intensity, the daylong experience they have” that sets Trollwood apart, Buresh said.

At the same time, TPAS’ cost-per-student is well below that of several other activities, including: girls hockey, $1,945.62; boys hockey, $1,819.41; gymnastics, $1,534.24; and speech, $886.81.

And that cost-per-student is comparable to several other activities: football, $586.95; girls basketball, $576.84; and boys basketball, $355.17.

The School District is also the biggest single source of funding for TPAS, the district reports.

Roughly half of TPAS’ total revenues of $986,404 for 2011 came from the Fargo School District ($490,211). That’s followed by admissions, $216,870; miscellaneous income, $146,438; program fees, $93,013; FutureBuilders/Bluestem, $35,788; and contributions, $4,084.

Of TPAS’ expenditures, the bulk went to salaries and benefits, $467,384 and $116,562, respectively; followed by purchased services, $153,914; supplies and materials, $137,622; equipment, $38,347; and other costs, $14,710.

That left TPAS a healthy $57,865 ahead of budget, Buresh and Lietz said.

“I think it’s to their credit that they stayed within their limits,” Buresh said.

But it’s not a free ride.

The district gave TPAS more than $490,000 for 2011. The $57,865 subtracted from that amount would still be a large net outflow of cash, he said.

“It was not a profit by any means,” Buresh said.

Lietz said that in recent years, money not spent by TPAS in one year would be put toward its budget in the following year.

He said that practice will change this year, with unspent dollars going back to the district’s general fund, just as occurs with other activities.

Lietz said the 2012 budget for TPAS calls for $1,055,642 in revenues. Of that amount, the School District has committed $504,917, so far.

That may change, Buresh and Lietz say.

Bluestem fundraisers had pledged $94,000 toward TPAS.

But Bluestem all but ran out of funds in December, leading to its inability to make a $286,000 bond payment for the Bluestem Center.

That led to the district taking over operational costs and maintenance of the facility.

Now, more than five months later, the Bluestem fundraisers have said they can’t pay $2.1 million in bond payments and don’t believe they can raise enough funds to repay a $2.77 million loan to the Fargo School District.

The next $286,000 bond payment is due in June.

In response, the Fargo School Board has begun proceedings that could lead to the district paying off the $2.1 million in bonds for the Bluestem Center for the Arts and taking over all lease rights to the facility.

Buresh and Lietz say TPAS personnel are looking into writing grants and fundraising as ways to make up the $94,000 pledge from Bluestem that’s unlikely to be paid.

“If we absolutely have to, we may have to chip in some from budget transfers, but we’re going to make it work,” Buresh said.

Critics have said the School District should pay rent to use the Bluestem Center and it’s amphitheater.

Buresh is not averse to the notion, and said it has been discussed in talks between district and Bluestem officials.

But, he added, the district didn’t pay rent for the north Fargo Trollwood site, either.

He said it’s unlikely that the School District would have built a $15 million facility if the money would have had to come from the taxpayers.

“I think it would have been a lesser facility if we had to fund it on our own,” Buresh said. He said the original vision of the Bluestem Center was that the School District wouldn’t have to foot any of the costs, but that costs would be covered by grants and donations.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583