When bids for a $10.4 million fine arts addition to East High School came in over budget, district officials had to cut somewhere.
So they ditched the dressing rooms.
Citing budget constraints, officials told East principal Ken Thiessen and his music, choir and drama teachers that they would get their state-of-the-art new auditorium, classrooms, practice rooms and storage space. But a proposed dressing room alongside the stage would remain an unfinished shell of a former locker room.
“We were like, ‘Please, please, please, let’s try to work something out,’ ” said Derrick Gronewold, director of theater at the Wichita high school. “Give us the opportunity to try to raise the money to finish this right.”
The result is a first-ever effort by a school’s booster club to make good on a bond issue promise.
East High Friends of Performing Arts – which supports band, orchestra, vocal music and theater programs at the city’s oldest high school – donated $15,000 and is trying to raise nearly $12,000 more to finish and equip a dressing room area that they hope will be complete by fall.
“When you’re building something, why not do it right?” said Amy Menas, president of the fine arts booster group.
“For the future of our programs, for the future of our district and for East, this makes total sense,” she said. “To make it the state-of-the-art facility that it’s going to be in every other way.”
Menas said she was disappointed when she learned last year that the multimillion-dollar fine arts suite, a longtime dream of East teachers and performers, likely would open without dressing rooms. For generations, East High students have changed in what essentially is a fire escape: an 8-by-10-foot stairwell off the side of the old stage with no benches, no bathrooms, no mirrors, no place to hang costumes or wigs.
Even the unfinished room that district leaders proposed would have been an improvement, Menas said, but she likened it to opening a beautiful new gymnasium or football stadium without locker rooms.
“We understand budget issues, and we know the district has to make choices,” she said. “So that’s why we said, ‘How about if we work together on this? Give us a chance to make this right.’ ”
Finished dressing rooms will be good not only for school events and the district-wide musical in November, Menas said. They’ll make it easier to market the 611-seat auditorium with orchestra pit for dance recitals, music performances and other special events, which could mean income for the district.
“We’d really like it to be a community resource,” she said.
The booster club’s $15,000 donation, raised through a sale of old wooden chairs that had been bolted to the floor of East High’s larger, historic auditorium, allowed for a project change order that got crews working on demolition, mechanical, plumbing and electrical work, said Julie Hedrick, the district’s director of facilities.
East isn’t the only school where bond projects have been cut back to cut costs. A new addition at Heights High School will include only one culinary kitchen for the school’s family and consumer science program instead of two that were proposed.
Though the overall bond issue is millions under budget, Hedrick said, “We try to keep each project from going over so we don’t experience that budget creep that could get us into trouble” later.
Finished dressing rooms at East, which will include men’s and women’s changing areas with appropriate mirrors, lighting and storage, were estimated to cost about $65,000, she said.
“Some of that will be from (fundraisers), some from the building’s activity fund,” Hedrick said. “They figured out how to get it done.”
Fine arts supporters had to work quickly, said Gronewold, the theater director, because waiting years down the road to add dressing rooms would have raised costs significantly. But there’s still money to raise.
Menas, the booster group president, said East High Friends of Performing Arts is planning several fundraisers through the summer, beginning with an event May 26 at Mead’s Corner that will feature performances by East High musicians, singers and actors.
“The arts are such an important part of learning,” she said. “East has a long tradition of excellence in theater, and we’d like to see that continue into the future.”