Longleaf School of the Arts explores options other than Garner

kjahner@newsobserver.comSeptember 16, 2013 

Students Rachel Kanakanui, foreground, Tatum Gephart, left, and Elyse Holdaway go through a movement drill during Joe Baker’s Theatre Studio class at Longleaf School of the Arts.

CHRIS SEWARD — cseward@newsobserver.com

New charter school Longleaf School of the Arts has shifted its focus from finding a permanent home to finding a year-two home. That 2014-15 home will not be at a proposed site in Garner, and the eventual permanent destination may not be either.

“Right now, there’s not any way either the town or the school could commit to year two,” Dave Dahl, the Longleaf board member who has been heading the facilities search.

Jennifer Broome, head of school at Longleaf, said that she tells parents who ask where the school will be next year that school leaders hope to stay at their downtown Raleigh location.

Discussions between the town and the school ended in the spring with the belief that a deal could be worked out to move Longleaf into the Avery Street Annex next to the Garner Performing Arts Center, according to Town Manager Hardin Watkins. The arts-based school said access to GPAC made the location appealing.

Dahl said circumstances have changed since then. The school opened on Hargett Street with about 200 students this fall rather than the 300 initially planned, which affects funding. The town has been unable to find a new location acceptable to Wake County Schools for programs housed in a handful of classrooms at the Annex. And road upgrades may be needed to accommodate increased traffic.

That proved to be too much uncertainty to set up for next school year. The town estimated plans to prepare the Annex for Longleaf at more than $1 million, with a 10-year lease expected to pay back the costs.

One option for Longleaf’s second year would be to remain at Hargett Street as the school expands to roughly 300 when a new freshman class joins this year’s freshmen and sophomores. Broome said the location makes it ideal for the school to partner with nearby groups such as Marbles Kids Museum and the N.C. Museum of History. She said the location also makes it convenient for students who ride Capital Area Transit buses to school and to go on field trips.

“The faculty and staff are still getting their arms around the numbers we have now. It’s tough to figure out what additional space we will need,” Dahl said.

Though long-term plans have been set aside for now, the school will consider options other than Garner. The school has not ruled out finding a way to ultimately fit the school into the downtown site, possibly with renovations. A developer who has experience with schools has also approached the school to offer help finding another site and developing it, Dahl said.

Facility plans in flux

The school’s founder and assistant head of school Emily Orr was critical of an earlier report, refuting that Garner was the school’s ultimate goal.

She had referred talk about facility plans to Dahl, who did not respond to requests for comment for that story.

Watkins said he has since talked to Dahl and been apprised of the school’s current position. But before that conversation he said the town had no reason to believe Longleaf no longer considered the Annex its desired location.

“I said to Dave (in the spring), ‘What do you need to do to make this happen?’ And that’s what I’ve been working on,” Watkins said.

He downplayed the issue, noting that “we’ve got a long list of projects we’re working on that are not Longleaf.”

Orr was upset that a report she considered “misinformation” led to a barrage of parent calls at a busy time for the school.

They wanted to know if the school had plans to move to Garner, 10-15 minutes south of downtown Raleigh and away from a majority of the county’s population.

While Dahl acknowledges that the uncertainty about a long-term location could affect some parents’ decisions, he thinks the school will be fine.

“If this school was in Morrisville and not downtown Raleigh, there would be some students that wouldn’t be here,” Dahl said.

“I think that if the program is strong enough, families will do anything to overcome the challenges,” he said later.

T.Keung Hui contributed to this report.

Jahner: 919-829-4822; Twitter: @garnercleveland

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