Decatur’s “Technically Sophisticated” Auditorium Too Pricey For Some

An email from Kathleen Banks Everett of Decatur School of Ballet circulated widely amongst the Decatur population last week, stating that the Ballet had been priced out of using Decatur High’s new auditorium for an upcoming performance after months of involvement with the school system about renting the space.  (If you haven’t read the email yet, it can be viewed in full after the jump.)

And since I have not yet received a reply from CSD on this matter, I had to dig up my own info.

When the Decatur School Board approved the new High School Auditorium rates back in January ($150 per hour includes one required technician; plus $80 fee for technician set up and breakdown; $50 per hour for each additional technician), the note from Maintenance Director Gene Ponder included this caveat…

The new auditorium at the high school is technically sophisticated. The space requires a district trained staff technician to operate the lights and sound. It has already been determined that even for a basic presentation, that it takes a technician one hour for light and sound set up and a half hour after the event for break down. So use of the auditorium will require at least one technician.

So, just from reading this explanation, the lesson here seems to be that if you build a state-of-the-art facility, you’re going to end up pricing some folks out of the market.  It’s that simple.  However, there are still relevant, unanswered questions.  For instance, is CSD just covering operating costs for the rental or are they also trying to raise revenue in a very tough economic climate?  Which is preferable to the city population?

Also, these rates were set back in January, but Ms. Everett’s note says that CSD told her that rates weren’t set until mid-February.  Why is there a discrepancy?

We need to dig up some answers to these questions before we can put on our well-worn judgment hats.

March 30, 2010

Dear members of the Decatur School of Ballet and Decatur City Dance community,

Many of you have asked about the possibility of Decatur School of Ballet and Decatur City Dance performing in the new Decatur High School Performing Arts Center. All of us are very interested in having our dancers perform for our community in our community. I am writing to bring you up to date on this subject. This email is rather lengthy, but bear with me and please continue reading.

The crux of the story begins in July of 2007 when Sheri Breunig (Director of Community and Public Relations for the City Schools of Decatur at that time) requested that we submit information to Dr. Phyllis Edwards (Superintendent) about our needs and interests concerning the use of the new Performing Arts facility. We submitted this information and attended meetings. We expressed how excited we were about a venue where our school and dance company can perform in the heart of the community they serve. We were delighted to know that the City Schools of Decatur envisioned the Decatur High School Theatre as a venue that would be available to the community. Ron and I offered to help the City Schools of Decatur however we could.

Over the past two and a half years, we attended meetings of the Oversight Committee (a group of community leaders who were invited to give input about the Decatur High School Master Plan). We contacted Lauri McKain-Fernandez (Principal of Decatur High School). We talked with Gene Ponder (Director of Facilities and Maintenance). On October 7, 2009, we attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony. We emailed and called Dr. Phyllis Edwards (Superintendent of City Schools of Decatur). We attended a special meeting of the City Schools of Decatur Board of Education. The purpose of the meeting was to address community questions and concerns in an informal setting. I addressed the board, saying “We want to know when the arts community can get answers about availability of the performing arts center.” In September 2009, we submitted requests for usage of the theatre for April and May, 2010. We met with Valarie Wilson (Chair of the Board of Education of the City Schools of Decatur). We recently met with the Finance Committee. All along the way, Ron and I offered to help the City Schools of Decatur. We have experience in many venues in our metropolitan area and beyond. We have decades of experience in the field of performing arts. All along the way, different representatives of the City Schools of Decatur have expressed their interest in forming partnerships with community arts and making the theatre available to the arts community. We see this as a win-win opportunity.

On February 10th, we were notified that our request for usage of the theatre for April 17 and 18 had been approved for Decatur City Dance to present “The 10th Annual Swinging Night of Tap.” However, the rental fee had not been established. Of course, we explained that we could not book the space until we knew what it would cost. On February 23rd, we were notified of the rental fee, but we explained to Mr. Ponder that the fee was not affordable. As a point of comparison, the fee quoted was more expensive than the fee that Decatur City Dance pays to rent the theatre at St. Pius X Catholic High School.

As you may already know, Decatur School of Ballet has been a Partner in Education with City Schools of Decatur for many years, offering tens of thousands of dollars in scholarships for children identified by school social workers as interested in dance and needing financial assistance. Decatur School of Ballet has purchased ads in the yearbook, the athletic program and Carpe Diem (the news magazine). Decatur School of Ballet has been a contributor to the Decatur Education Foundation. And, Decatur School of Ballet has many dancers who are students in the City Schools of Decatur system.

Needless to say, Ron and I and the members of our faculty and staff are very disheartened about the difficulties we have encountered in pursuing usage of the space. We wanted our dancers, parents, friends and supporters to know we have been diligent in pursuing the possibility of our school and company presenting dance for the community at the Decatur High School Performing Arts Center. Feel free to forward this email to anyone you think might be interested. Also, we welcome your comments and suggestions. Ron and I are happy to talk with you at any time.

Kathleen Banks Everett

Owner and Director, Decatur School of Ballet

Artistic Director, Decatur City Dance

32 thoughts on “Decatur’s “Technically Sophisticated” Auditorium Too Pricey For Some”

  1. You know, I like Decatur Ballet and all, but I have two thoughts. First, I think they can afford it. My daughter dances with a much smaller outfit that manages to rent Pius with ease… .Decatur Ballet is much bigger so I’m sure that they could come up with the cost..I suspect that they just don’t want to. Second, Decatur’s facility is much better and newer than Pius’s facility so it should cost more. Third, I would think that the scholarships Decatur Ballet gives were meant to help the kids themselves.. not to curry favor with the school system. Oops… make that three thoughts….

    I appreciate Decatur School of Ballet’s contribution to the community. However, there are lots of other entities that contribute to the community and buy ads, support DEF and give scholarships. In these tough economic times, I don’t think that CSD should be required to take a loss on their auditorium every time someone who wants to rent it can show that they benefited the community. The thing was expensive, and it has to be paid for. We seem to be developing a troubling mindset in this country that everything should be free or affordable for everyone.

    Decatur Ballet’s public approach to this, although it will probably be effective in the end, puts a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. I hope that Decatur Ballet doesn’t suspend scholarships to underprivileged children because of this. I’d hate to see kids suffer because Decatur Ballet can’t get the deal it wants from the school system and wants to prove a point.

    1. I have to agree that this is distasteful. If they had used the facilities before and had been priced out by the renovation, then I could see the ire. But I don’t want CSD to lose money to make performances nicer for a private enterprise. Sorry.

      1. Nellie, if you think a special rate is warranted for nonprofits, you’re obviously comfortable making value judgments that benefit some over others. What’s wrong with also valuing home-grown arts? Nurturing a local arts community is a demonstrated source of economic development, so it’s not like developing flexible pricing as an incentive towards desired goals is some black hole money pit. We get back, too. Both culturally and, in the longer term, financially.

        Why not have a reasonable variable pricing schedule with nonprofits at the bottom, locally-based arts organizations somewhere in the middle, and everyone else paying open rate at the top?

        1. I do have a problem with a business whose main objective is to make money getting a discount. This is not an “arts organization”; it’s a business with an arts focus. There are plenty of nonprofit arts organizations.

          It’s not a value judgment. I actually find that phrase deeply offensive. Quite simply, over the last two hundred years or so, our social contract has determined that charitable organizations warrant consideration that is different from businesses whose primary goal is profit. As far back as 1835 Tocqueville argued that a pillar of America’s ability to remove the shackles of aristocracy was the existence of its unique brand of philanthropy, or as they were termed then, associations, and society’s care and respect for those organizations.

          A for profit ballet school is no different than a for profit frozen yogurt store. Both bring an attractive benefit to a community and we don’t want to lose either. Both are worthy of our patronage, but if a for profit ballet school gets a discount, then so should Yogurt Tap when they bring me my “Great Yogurts of the World Festival”

          1. I don’t know why you find the term offensive. It certainly wasn’t offered as such. The fact that Tocqueville recognized the social “value” of associations and argued on their behalf is the very definition of “value judgment” as I was using it. Apologies if it came across as otherwise.

            Personally, I value creative enterprise. I have witnessed many communities that have nurtured a creative, arts-minded mentality and have reaped economic rewards as a result. Clearly from this thread not everyone agrees. But at the most base, we taxpayers ain’t givin’ no charity to no for-profit businesses level, two orgs paying 75% open rate beats the hell out of no orgs paying 100%. It’s not about demanding full price. It’s about pricing strategies that produce the greatest returns — across the board. That’s what’s in the best interest of Decatur taxpayers.

            Municipal incentives are everywhere. Decatur incentivizes walkable retail development over big box retail development because that’s what we value. Why is incentivizing local arts over some outside org any different, if that’s what we want?

            Or, as this thread indicates, we don’t value that above anything else. If that’s the case, cool by me. Just wanted to raise the issue.

            1. That’s okay. I am really sick and it’s making me weird ( you should have heard me explaining to the nurse at the ER about how the levels of pain chart makes no sense because pain is not quantifiable and perceptions are not static followed by a few choice bits on existentialism vs rational objectivity. She hates me).

              Anyway, I am probably not really offended or anything and thank you for your kind response.I get your point about encouraging the arts, but I don’t like the idea of the school get a cut on what really seem to be reasonable fees that cover their costs for a money making business just because it is an arts organization. Kathleen could raise her fees a little or find another way to pay. It would be what, $530 for three hours. Nonprofits can’t USUALLY raise fees or quickly develop revenue streams, which is one reason why event spaces typically offer different rates (it’s also good marketing to potential full-price clients).

              I guess what I CAN term a value judgment in a way is how the school is handing the situation. Seriously, a pass it on email? From a BUSINESS?? I guess I am judging the school’s values as being in line with mine 🙂

  2. We have a Decatur School System employee/technician who is being paid $150 per hour? And he’s not an educator?

    Come on. This was built with public money, unlike Pius, and the ballet school is within walking distance of this auditorium.

    Yes, money is tight. And I don’t think Decatur School of Ballet is saying they don’t want to pay to use the facility.

    I am disappointed that the school system didn’t respond to DM about this, because I know they knew about it. I suspect that they may be quietly negotiating to work this out with the ballet school.

    1. From what I read, the $150 is the hourly rental fee for the facility. The hourly fee includes the one tech they are required to have on hand (no separate charge for that, aside from the $80 setup/breakdown), but it is not the fee for the tech alone.

      Besides that, hourly fees for services are never salary alone. They include overhead like benefits. For instance, a company may charge $60/hr for an electrician while he only earns $30/hr. So, my point is that no one is saying the techs on the school staff make $150/hr.

      I don’t claim to know much about facility fees and what is or is not reasonable, but I have to agree with Mr. Fixit that a higher fee is warranted for a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility in a prime location.

  3. The school isn’t a business. It’s a public entity, toml. Big difference.

    However, I think Decatur Ballet IS a business, not a nonprofit or city entity, so I basically have to respond “tough”. However, I do think the school should offer a nonprofit rate for City of Decatur nonprofits.

  4. If DM’s information is right, I think the fee is very reasonable. If Decatur Ballet really can’t come up with a scenario to pay that relatively small sum, then they are operating too close to the cuff and need to work on their business plan.

    I also find it a bit disturbing that Decatur Ballet is behaving this way. I’m not majorly disturbed. I just have a bit of a bad taste in my mouth.

    What does Agnes Scott charge for it’s auditorium? Why doesn’t Decatur Ballet use it if they are not happy with the deal offered by CSD?

    1. I’ve asked this before, and I think the answer is that Gaines Auditorium at Agnes Scott does not have a large enough “green room” area for dancers to change costumes. I could be wrong about that…

      I would love for them to be able to use the DHS space. I really want to take my kids to the upcoming Swinging Night of Tap offered by DSOB, but I am not going because I don’t want to drive to Pius. If the performance were here in Decatur, I would buy 4 tickets for it. Plain and simple.

      1. That’s a bizarre answer considering Gaines is home to ASC’s Blackfriars acting troop and has hosted plenty of in school dance performances. I was too busy yelling at everyone, so I only went backstage a few times. My best friend was a performance dancer at ASC; I can ask her what they did if anyone cares. I definitely know our annual performing arts series often hosts dance troops then and now.

        1. Could be that I’ve asked this in regard to DSOB’s annual spring recitals, in which hundreds of dancers perform over two days. Maybe Gaines isn’t equipped to deal with that. For other performances, such as the Swinging Night of Tap, it could be that Gaines is already booked. To be frank, I really don’t know why DSOB wouldn’t have their smaller performances in Gaines. Alumnae weekend isn’t until April 17!

          Frankly, my answer to this whole scenario is that CSD perpetually has its nose in the air and can’t be bothered to work things out that may or may not benefit the community. But that’s just my jaded, cynical perspective.

          1. But if it actually COSTS CSD money to supplement this person’s business, how is that good for the community or CSD?

          2. So the CSD has its nose in the air? And Decatur Ballet can’t (read as won’t) pay the fee? Really? The whole scenario sounds ridiculous.

          1. The Blackfriars do perform in the Winter Theater and as a former Agnes dancer I can attest that the green rooms are small. There is no way they could fit all the kids from DSOB. Plus there’s a steep staircase back there that could pose a safety risk for littluns.

  5. You know, I wonder if it’s even legal for CSD to loan out their auditorium for less than it costs to run it. If they do so, it would be essentially costing taxpayers money to support Decatur Ballet. Again, I like Decatur Ballet just fine, but I’m not interested in supporting it with my school tax dollars. If I want to support them, I’ll send a separate donation. I want my school tax dollars to go to the schools… preferably to para-pros at this point.

    And I’ll restate… I think Decatur Ballet can afford the auditorium. They can increase admission if they need to and offer a sliding scale for families who are economically challenged.

  6. If the dancers and audience for this dance company are mostly centered in Decatur, it seems to me that a small or moderate price increase per ticket would be justified, and difficult for the attendees to gripe about since they won’t have to make the round-trip to St. Pius.

    For me, not having to drive to St. Pius is worth about $5.

  7. I really don’t understand the tone of these letters. have any of these people used DSB? We have, and although this is a business, it is also a huge contributor to the arts in Decatur, and has operated a nonprofit, the Decatur City Dance program. The school has been a long-standing Decatur institution, and has attempted to work with the school system about this. in good faith, since the early days of construction … why should they use Pius when they have a school practically next door? Ask Kathleen about how she has tried to work with Agnes Scott, who has also rebuffed her. Why is is so expensive?. they have put on countless productions at beacon hill, which is very inadequate space, and have performed Swinging Night of Tap there on countless occasions.

    1. The tone of these letters, I think, is basically that DSB is a business and as such the taxpayers should not be subsidizing the performances with cheap rates at the facilities that cause the school to LOSE money, especially when schools are talking about furlough days. After finding out the school is making zero profit on the rental fees and merely covering costs, then I fell no one should get a cut rate & it seems like the policies are fair.

      I think also a number of us did not appreciate the fact this woman publicly listed all her contributions to the city as reasons she should get a break. Many businesses do just as much or more. That doesn’t make an ounce of difference in what it costs CSD to run a performance.

      As an Agnes Scott alumna, I have to ask why should the college need to “work” with her? The school always offers out facilities to the community at reasonable rates and has plenty of its own expenses to deal with, including piles in annual grants and scholarships and some capital needs in the dorms.

    2. I’m with you, Cranky, but I think we’re the flies in the hard-dollar buttermilk. Cultural assets that conform to our standard of penniless artists and romantics? Good. Cultural assets who’ve found a way to make a living? Bad.

      I kid. Sorta.

      1. I think honestly if times were better and schools we well funded, then this wouldn’t be as much of an issue. Seriously.

      2. Artists have, for the most part, always wanted to make a living–guilds and unions (oh, that’s a dirty word, I know) have in the past made sure of that. So continue being delusional flies if you wish.
        The ballet school has not fallen on hard times, have they? Maybe they are cheap–er, looking for good deals like the rest of us.

  8. Interesting that the Decatur school system was perfectly happy to accept many hours of free professional advice from the owners of DSB (as well as perfectly happy to see DSB offer scholarships to low-income students), but offer zero in return. I do not see anywhere that the Decatur High School would be operating at a loss by negotiating a reduced fee — and may rather be trying to make a profit off the rental of the space. What I do know, however, is that the owners of Decatur Ballet contribute enormously to the city of Decatur . . . my daughter recently attended the Decatur Easter Egg Hunt, and guess who organized the event and was in charge? The owners of Decatur School of Ballet. Did they charge for their valuable time or the truck they used to cart equipment? I am sure not. Our daughter also attended Breakfast with Santa. And who was there, running the whole event? The owners of Decatur Ballet. These are just two of many community events that the Everetts have contributed to and helped run for years. Those of you who are eager to criticize them for trying to negotiate an affordable rate for dance performances should consider their value to the community — and the fact it is always easier to spend someone else’s money. Given what I have seen of and heard of the Everetts, if they say the new performance space was priced beyond their budget and beyond what they had been led to think, then it was. We pay very high taxes to live in the city of Decatur — and I am delighted to see some of them go to supporting cultural events within the city at an affordable rate. I of course agree with you who don’t want to see Decatur High School rent the space out at a loss — but neither should the high school make a profit off of people who have contributed so much to the community, to Decatur HIgh students, and to the performance space itself.

    1. It is true that DSB has done a ton for the Decatur community over the years even though the owners children do not go to CSD nor do many of their students.

  9. My kids have always attended Decatur schools and my daughter attended Decatur School of Ballet. It may be a private business, but I think it’s a true asset to the community.

    I saw that the school board will be discussing a new fee structure for the auditorium, so I think the system is addressing this issue.

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