NEW PORT RICHEY — River Ridge Middle School planned its recent all-school talent show as a fundraiser for its thespian club to compete in Melbourne later in the month. Principal Jason Joens expected to be able to dedicate the ticket sales to the club.
Yet when the school went to use the performing arts center on its campus for the Feb. 7 show, it got socked with a bill of more than $400 to rent the space.
Needless to say, Joens and others at his school were upset. They fired off some emails to the district office expressing their displeasure.
"What I do not understand is: 1. Why is the same organization that owns the theater (Pasco Schools) charging themselves?" Joens wrote in a letter to arts supervisor Rebecca Musselman. "2. This event is another way to promote students getting involved in the arts, but it is hardly worth the effort for a drama teacher that does not receive any type of supplement for their efforts… This is another way of discouraging the Fine Arts program at River Ridge. A school where we should really have a Fine Arts Learning Academy. Why we are still going down this road (again)?"
The Feb. 7 show was held at the performing arts center as planned. But veteran math teacher Kerry Saddler sent a missive to superintendent Kurt Browning airing angst over the situation.
"It breaks my heart that our students are not able to utilize the theater as we were once able to," Saddler wrote Feb. 7. "It saddens me to think that our drama department which hosted the talent show was doing this to raise money for thespian competition this weekend in Melbourne, Florida, and they must pay $424 for tonight's usage of the theater. It crushes my spirit to think so many students would benefit as 'the whole student' to have witnessed such a wonderful production through an incentive but will not get that opportunity because a theater manager says no or makes it virtually impossible to work it out during the school day so we can't offer this wonderful opportunity. I am asking that you listen to my heart. The heart of a teacher that was taught a lesson tonight that you cannot place a dollar value on, because it was priceless. I beg you to look into this matter."
Assistant superintendent Ray Gadd said the district is indeed exploring the situation. The performing arts centers at River Ridge Middle/High and Wesley Chapel High were built as district resources for all schools to use, and they must sustain their operations with fees and charges, often to outside organizations that rent them out, he said.
Schools are sometimes charged to use the performing arts centers, depending on the activity and the sponsor. Sometimes they are charged rent; other times they are given a bill that just covers their use of electricity, custodial services and the like.
The question of whether schools should have to pay rent for school performances, though, is now an open one, Gadd said.
In a second email to Musselman, Joens suggested that perhaps the district should absorb the costs rather than stress out over the operating budget for the theaters.
"If the purpose of the school is to serve the community and schools, then the district needs to consider this expense similar to a public library," he wrote. "It is a service that is provided with a expected annual cost to the district. The Theater Director should not be taxed with trying to make the funds to keep alive."