Cassville schools pursuing performing arts building

Wednesday, April 21, 2021
An artist rendering shows the placement of a possible performing arts center at Cassville high school, including parking and a breezeway section that would ultimately be closed in for band and choir rooms and a fire corridor. Contributed photo

Board commits to funding new facility in next 3 years

The Cassville school district is hoping to strike while the iron is hot, as the Board of Education has committed to pursuing funding for a new performing arts center in the next three years.

The board approved a motion to prioritize the facility, estimated to cost about $8 million and done in two parts, the first of which is the performing arts center itself, west of the current high school building in between the building and Partridge Drive. The second part would enclose a space between the center and the high school and create band and choir classrooms, as well as a fire corridor.

Richard Asbill, Cassville superintendent who will be replaced by incoming Superintendent Merlyn Johnson in July, said the district has been looking at such a project for about five years now, and current financial conditions are ripe for moving forward.

“The district looked at an auditorium back when the high school was originally designed in 1993, but they did not move forward with that,” Asbill said. “When we built FEMA 1 [by the football field], we did it as a FEMA building but knew we could also use it for certain performing arts events. Over the last five years, we’ve looked at the need for a dedicated performing arts center, and we have gotten other district needs in a position where we can make the new center a priority.”

Cassville is wrapping up its Vision 150 bond project, which voters passed in 2019 to build an early childhood center, renovate the vintage wing, add security and roofing upgrades, and renovate the elementary playground.

All that is left of that project is the playground, which has now expanded to include the intermediate school thanks to federal funding as a result of COVID-19 stimulus packages.

“We’re looking at about $800,000 for the playgrounds, which is about double what we originally planned,” Asbill said. “We’ve received Elementary and Secondary Emergency Education Relief (ESSER) money through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act. There are three funds for that. We got $476,000 in the first in July 2020, and the second has been approved for us to get $1.9 million, but we have not received that year because it’s done as a refund. The third fund has not been allocated yet.

“These funds are there to provide improvements to existing facilities for physical and social distancing needs, like on the playgrounds. They also offset local salary costs, which opens local money for other project costs. Without the ESSER money, the playground projects would be a lot more limited in their scope.”

The plan for the performing arts center is a two-part project, with the first — the center building itself — to cost about $4.5 million. The second part, enclosing the space between the center and current high school building, would be the remaining $3.5 million.

Asbill said there are three possibilities for funding the entire project.

“The first is a lease-purchase [or loan] on the majority of the cost,” Asbill said. “We believe the district could do the $4.5 million this way to focus on the performing arts center building. The second part is we would then be able to pursue a bond issue to finish the classroom spaces and fire corridor. The third piece would be trying to evaluate a fundraising mechanism for things like curtaining, lighting and a sound system. Fortunately, our performing arts programs impact a lot of different areas and people. It’s a volatile time for construction, so we want to have some things pre-funded. That’s important to the overall project.”

Asbill said over the last decade, the district has taken advantage of lower interest rates and early call features on its bond debts, decreasing payments and allowing more payments on principal.

“All this has given us better funding options for the next 10 years and the ability to stick with no-tax increase issues rather than asking to raise the property tax,” Asbill said.

Asbill said the district is excited to pursue a performing arts center and give the district and community a new feature of which to be proud.

“We’re excited it will give the band, choir and theatre programs a dedicated space for performances, and it will allow groups like the FFA, FBLA and FCCLA bring in speakers or have large meetings,” he said. “We also want to partner with the [Cassville Area Chamber of Commerce], The Show and the city for economic development. The FEMA building is nice for certain kinds of events, but it has to be shared with athletics and PE. We want an auditorium where people can come to events and have a true fine arts facility.”

The district is still evaluating size, aiming to make it big enough to meet needs, but not so big it is costing extra money for upkeep.

“We’re looking at a capacity of 600-750,” Asbill said. “That would serve the school and community needs. We’ve looked at many others, like Branson, Logan-Rogersville, McDonald County and Monett, and we plan to look at the one in Pea Ridge. A lot of facilities like this end up being too big, and even when they are not in use, you have to heat and cool them, so operating costs are important. The high school has a student body of 550, so what we are looking at should be enough.”

Monett’s performing arts center has 686 seats and eight wheelchair spaces in the front row.

Asbill and Johnson will begin working on finance options and bid packages for the center in coming months, as well as architects and possible construction management firms to begin planning, design and bid packages.

Johnson is no stranger to performing arts center projects. Current superintendent of the St. James school district, Johnson said he is wrapping up a $12 million bond project, with another $3 million in general funds added, that built a new early childhood center, renovated its 1923 high school building and repurposed an old gymnasium into a performing arts center. He said that experience was key in his hiring as Cassville plans to go the performing arts center route in the next few years.

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