MHS choir director looks forward to new fine arts center
As Mitchell High School's vocal director, Chris Miller travels with his students to fine arts facilities at schools across South Dakota.
When he sees the facilities at other schools, Miller said it's often difficult not to be envious.
"When every facility is colossally better than what we have, it's honestly kind of a bummer," Miller said in an interview this week with The Daily Republic.
The Mitchell Board of Education last month agreed to allow the district to move ahead with planning of a new, standalone fine arts center. The proposed facility, projected to cost as much as $13.5 million, would have about 1,200 seats and extra space for choir, band and drama students.
Mitchell High School's current auditorium was built along with the rest of the high school in 1962. That means it's one of the oldest school auditoriums still in use in the state, at least among the nine similarly sized schools in the Eastern South Dakota Conference, an athletic league that includes Aberdeen, Brandon Valley, Brookings, Harrisburg, Huron, Mitchell, Pierre, Watertown and Yankton.
Only the auditorium at Watertown High School, also built in 1962, can match the age of the MHS auditorium.
Mitchell High School's auditorium has 608 seats, which means it is also one of the smallest among those nine schools. Only Brookings High School's auditorium has fewer seats, with 525.
Miller said the size of the stage and the surrounding space in Mitchell High School's auditorium is also inadequate for the school's music and drama programs.
"There just isn't enough space for the things we do," he said.
It's not just the age and size, though, that have school officials working toward a new fine arts center.
Beneath the stage, a trap and a sump pump collect water from rain and melting snow, which causes what Superintendent Joe Graves described as a "decomposing, swampy smell."
It's a stench that affects both students and audiences, Miller said.
"The smell permeates throughout the entire music department," he said. "It just becomes an unpleasant place to be."
There are other issues too, Miller said, including the lack of air conditioning, and aging sound and lighting systems.
It's for all those reasons -- the age, the size, the smell and the failing equipment -- that Miller and Graves both described Mitchell High School's auditorium as one of the worst in the state, at least among the larger schools.
"If it's not the worst, it's pretty dang close," Miller said.
With the go-ahead from the school board, the district is now in the process of selecting an architect to design the new fine arts center.
That does not mean, however, that the project is a done deal, Graves said. Once the design is completed, it will again be subject to the school board's approval before the bidding process is can begin.
The projected $13.5 million cost for a new fine arts center is only an estimate, Graves said.
"We would hope to go lower, but we would certainly not want to exceed that," he said.
Graves said the district would pay for the project using capital outlay certificates to essentially take out a loan against the district's future capital outlay revenue. A similar method was used to pay for the new Longfellow Elementary building and the new stadium at Joe Quintal Field.
No tax increases would be needed to pay for the project if the district uses that method to fund the project, Graves said.
The district could also ask voters to approve a bond issue to pay for the project, which is a method Graves said he won't support.
"I don't want to add to that burden, so here's a method of doing it without raising taxes," Graves said. "That doesn't mean we can't take (public) input. We definitely will."
Graves said he plans to meet soon with local service clubs and other organizations, such as the Mitchell Area Chamber of Commerce, to present the plan and to allow for public input on the project.
Miller, the school's vocal director, said he and others involved in the school's choir, band and drama programs will compile a wishlist of features they hope will be included in the proposed new fine arts center.
At the top of Miller's list? Space.
With so many of the school's fine arts programs using the same rehearsal space, Miller said the risers used for choir need to be constantly moved and rearranged. A new building would mean a more pleasant experience for audiences and a better experience for students, Miller said.
"It would be a much more hospitable place for the students and performers using the facility," he said.
Ryan Stahle, Mitchell High School's band director, said the number of students involved in the school's music and drama programs has grown in recent years.
"We'd love to have the facility to go along with that," Stahle said.
Miller said the number of students in the school's choirs has doubled in the last seven years, to about 170 students this year. About 250 students take part in the school's music and drama programs as a whole, Miller estimated.
The Corn Palace, which has about 1,700 permanent seats, could still be used for large events, such as graduation, Graves said, but it isn't suited for use by the school's fine arts programs on a day-to-day basis.
It would be impractical for the school's fine arts programs to use the Corn Palace regularly, given how many scheduling conflicts would arise because of the number of practices needed for plays and concerts, and the number of other events that happen at the Corn Palace, Graves said.
And even if the school could get enough access to the Corn Palace, Graves said the facility isn't particularly suited to theatrical performances.
Stahle said it's inconvenient to haul band equipment from the school to the Corn Palace for pep band and other performances. But what's worse, he said, is being unable to rehearse at the Corn Palace before a performance, as has happened on several occasions.
"The kids come in and they're not used to the sound, they're not used to the set up," Stahle said. "It's very unfamiliar."
There are other school districts in South Dakota with access to large public facilities similar to the Mitchell School District and the Corn Palace.
The Huron School District has access to both a recently renovated auditorium with 880 seats at Huron High School and the Huron Arena, which can hold up to 7,000 people.
Huron Superintendent Terry Nebelsick said the Huron Arena is more suited to athletic events or other events with large crowds.
"The arena acoustics are really only at their best when we are set up for graduation and the audience is in excess of 3,000 people, including several hundred on the floor," Nebelsick said in an email reply to The Daily Republic. "Without that kind of a crowd to absorb echo, the venue would be problematic."
Brookings High School's auditorium has only 525 seats. That's the smallest auditorium of any school in the ESD.
Randy Soma, the district's activities director, said the small size of the auditorium means the school has to make other arrangements for larger events.
But, Soma said, the school has an agreement allowing them to use the performing arts center at South Dakota State University. And when that won't work, the school can use the Swiftel Center, an arena and convention center in Brookings.
Replace or renovate
Mitchell High School's auditorium has never been fully renovated, but has received some minor upgrades over the years, including seats the district got secondhand from the Corn Palace.
The obstacle, though, that has pushed school officials away from renovating the current auditorium is there seems to be no cost-effective way to add seats. Graves said the auditorium already has seats packed in more tightly than most modern facilities.
"We'd be facing a very large bill to enhance a facility that's too small," Graves said.
The auditoriums at Brookings High School and Huron High School have both been renovated in recent years and in each case, seats were lost in favor of more relaxed spacing between the rows.
Instead, Graves said it makes more sense for the Mitchell School District to build a new, standalone fine arts center given the district's long-range plan to build an entirely new high school by about 2025. If the district builds a new fine arts center as soon as possible, that's one less facility that will have to be built as part of the new high school, Graves said.
"We're looking toward the future," he said. "That's when this becomes the best option."
Graves said the cost of maintaining a new fine arts center would be largely offset because the district would no longer need to maintain the current auditorium. If a new fine arts center is built, Graves said the current auditorium will likely be used as storage until a new high school is also built.
Despite the projected $13.5 million cost of the new fine arts center, Graves said the district will still be able to continue to pay debts on other projects.
"There is no question there is an opportunity cost," he said. "But we're still going to be able to do the things we want to do."