The stage is set

CUSD starts school year with new performing arts facility

Located on the Pleasant Valley High campus, the new Center for the Arts is a performance space for the entire Chico Unified School District.

Located on the Pleasant Valley High campus, the new Center for the Arts is a performance space for the entire Chico Unified School District.

Photo courtesy of CUSD

Last year, students at Pleasant Valley High School were producing plays and recitals in the cafeteria or rented churches.

This year, they will be performing in a 484-seat, $11 million facility complete with state-of-the-art lighting and sound systems, an orchestra pit and fine-tuned acoustics. To put it simply, the new Chico Unified School District Center for the Arts is a theater Shakespeare himself would be proud to perform in.

“We believe it is as good as any facility in Chico, if not better,” said Mike Weissenborn, the facilities planner and construction manager for CUSD.

With recent budget cuts eliminating music classes from elementary schools, the lavish facility is being met with justifiably raised eyebrows.

“It’s a really valid question in the community,” Weissenborn admitted. “There’s this dichotomy of how can you afford to do something like this while you can’t afford to keep the classes and electives? How can you cut music in elementary schools and build a performing arts center where these kids should be playing music?”

The answer is quite simple. The money allocated for such a project is entirely separate from money that funds salaries and hires new teachers, Weissenborn said. The money can be used only for physical improvements to the school district and has origins in an abandoned plan for a new school.

In 1998, both Pleasant Valley and Chico High schools had 2,200 students and population projections indicated a new high school was in order. The construction process was delayed for years as the school district attempted to obtain a permit to build on wetlands. In the downtime, the economy and enrollment took a nosedive, forcing the school district to reassess the situation. In December of 2007, it was determined that rather than build a new school, the funding would be used to improve the existing ones.

Photo By howard hardee

If any objections are raised about Pleasant Valley getting an unfair upgrade, Weissenborn pointed out the 21-classroom facility currently under construction on Chico High’s campus.

“I’ve had the advantage of being in that building,” he said. “Once it’s finished, I can see that argument going the other way. It’s really state-of-the-art stuff.”

Weissenborn also believes any doubts about the center will be assuaged once the community realizes it will be open to the entire school district and local organizations rather than be reserved for Pleasant Valley students alone.

“You’ll see everybody in here,” he said. “We envision elementary, middle and high school students. We hope that it will be a very active space.”

Naming the center was a heated subject, as there was a major push to name it after the late Jan Doney, Marigold Elementary’s fine-arts teacher for 21 years. The idea was rejected by the CUSD Board of Trustees, which which had a policy against naming buildings after someone who died within the year, or any living person. Ultimately the board settled on CUSD Center for the Arts.

“Unless somebody is going to bequeath a small fortune on you, it’s hard to name it after one individual,” Weissenborn added.

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The theater will be put to its first significant test on Oct. 29 during Arts for All, which will feature performances from all of the district’s schools. By then the halls outside the theater will be lined with student artwork and the rehearsal space will be filled with the melodies of budding musicians.

“Everybody who has been inside is excited for the potential for performances of all types, and can see what a major asset it will be to the community,” Weissenborn said. “We’re very proud of it, and we believe the community will be proud of it as well.”