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Building a home: As Devils Lake fine arts center vote nears, supporters try to persuade others to invest in future generations

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Devils Lake High School senior Emily Windjue and teacher Derryn Johnson stand Monday in the school's cafeteria, where fine arts students have given performances to the public. Advocates for fine arts programs are hoping voters will approve an $8.95 million project to build a 600-seat fine arts center. (April Baumgarten/Grand Forks Herald)2 / 8
A rendering of the proposed Devils Lake Public School Fine Arts Center. (Graphic by Zerr Berg Architects)3 / 8
A rendering of the Devils Lake Public School Fine Arts Center auditorium. (Graphic by Zerr Berg Architects)4 / 8
Emily Windjue wears a pin in support of an $8.95 million fine arts center project at Devils Lake High School. (April Baumgarten/Grand Forks Herald)5 / 8
A rendering of the Devils Lake Public School Fine Arts Center's lobby. (Graphic by Zerr Berg Architects)6 / 8
Devils Lake High School student Emily Windjue says fine arts students can use an auditorium at Lake Region State College, but conflicting schedules mean it is not always available. (April Baumgarten/Grand Forks Herald)7 / 8
Devils Lake Public School students perform in the school's cafeteria. Fine arts advocates would like to see the school build an $8.95 million facility so students have a place of their own. (Submitted Photo)8 / 8

DEVILS LAKE—As a drama student, Devils Lake High School senior Emily Windjue knows she has to be creative sometimes.

That includes finding places to practice and perform because her school doesn't have its own stage.

"I have actually put on a production in this very cafeteria, and I will admit, it was one of our bolder ideas," she said. "It was something else."

It's one of several reasons she is part of a committee to support an $8.95 million fine arts center. Mail-in ballots are due to the school's office Monday, and voters will go to the polls from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Memorial Building on Fourth Avenue Northeast. If 60 percent of the voters approve the project, the bond issue would increase the school's property tax levy by 11.56 mills, or an increase on annual property taxes of about $78 for a home worth $150,000.

Officials hope to build the fine arts center between the main high school building and the technology career center. Construction is slated to start in the fall with completion set for fall 2018.

Windjue is old enough to vote in the election. As the vote approaches, she and other advocates of fine arts programs are trying to convince voters the facility is a long time coming.

"We have very high-quality fine arts students at Devils Lake High School," said Derryn Johnson, a teacher and drama director for the school. "We have some top-notch kids, and they are forced to showcase their talents in the same place they eat lunch."

Benefits of a home

Devils Lake students in fine arts programs often are forced to perform in the cafeteria or other facilities when most schools of similar size have a fine arts center or auditorium, school officials have said. The students can practice in the Lake Region State College auditorium, but they are at the mercy of the institution's schedule, Johnson said.

"Finding a date on the calendar to actually perform is almost impossible," he said. "A lot of community members will say we have the college, but we don't. It's not ours to schedule."

Other groups use the college's auditorium, too, and the college has first choice if higher education groups want to use it, which Johnson and Windjue understand.

Photos of performances show audience members sitting on chairs and the floor as fine arts students performed. Some parents have complained sound travel is off and have said they can't see their children perform, officials said.

For three years, a group of community members has been working on a plan to build a fine arts center that would include a 600-seat auditorium, stage space, classrooms and other amenities. The project would add 28,478 square feet to the school with 4,216 square feet being remodeled for the use of the Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps.

Windjue said practicing on a stage is much different than saying lines in a library. A fine arts center would give actors, actresses, lighting crews and stage hands more time to get accustomed to the performance as opposed to having one week of stage time.

"There is something about being on the stage that you need for a cast to make it feel like it is a real show," she said.

Like others, Windjue has noted the space between the school's main building and technology career center. Students have to walk outside between classes, sometimes in frigid temperatures. The separation of the buildings also presents security concerns if the school has to go into a lockdown and wants to carry on with classes.

The fine arts center would connect the two.

"We live in North Dakota, it is cold," Windjue said. "There are some days walking to (the career center) that I would rather just take a zero."

Other programs will benefit as well: the JROTC, language and journalism students will get more space.

Advocates also say it could persuade groups to host events in town, such as state acting or speech competitions, bringing the opportunity for shopping in Devils Lake, Johnson said.

Doing the math

Supporters of the fine arts center have raised almost $500,000 in funds toward the project, said Lara Prozinski, the Devils Lake Public Schools Development Fund coordinator. It's unclear if that money would be used directly for the project or if it would go toward equipment and furniture, she added.

Others have shown interest in donating large sums of money to the project, Johnson said, which would help lower the cost for taxpayers. If the bond issue is approved, it's likely donors would come to the forefront.

The naming rights cost $600,000, Johnson said.

Residents will see on their ballots a levy increase of 14.42 mills, but the School Board voted to dedicate $150,000 a year from the school's building fund toward the project, decreasing the actual mill levy increase and making the burden on taxpayers less. The school has to put 14.42 mills on the ballot due to North Dakota law, Superintendent Scott Privratsky said.

Even if no one donates money, Windjue estimated the tax increase would equal paying for a popcorn and candy bar once a month.

"That's a fine arts center," she said. "That's a building people can call home."

The school has hosted several forums on the project, including two this week. No organized efforts to oppose the vote have shown up, Prozinski said, adding the Devils Lake Journal has run 39 positive and five negative letters to the editor on the project.

Windjue said it's unfair not only for the fine arts students who don't have a home to call their own or an appropriate place to practice. She pointed out school staff who have to get the cafeteria prepared for practices and performances, adding they have to do a lot of work to move furniture.

"It's more work for our janitorial staff that is not necessarily needed," Windjue said. "They're meant to keep our school safe and not to set up our fine arts facilities for our production students."

Johnson noted the school's athletes have their own facilities, adding the fine arts programs support sports having their own place to practice and play games.

"This isn't a war, this isn't us versus them," he said. "We would like to have a facility where we can showcase our talents as well."

Johnson and Windjue said residents should consider the building an investment for future generations.

"At some point, a group of adults sat down and decided to invest in the future," he said. "Somebody sat down and invested in this school building ... and all of our students received the benefits of that."

For more information on the fine arts center project or vote, go to www.edlinesites.net/pages/Devils_Lake/Fine_Arts_Information.

April Baumgarten

April Baumgarten joined the Grand Forks Herald May 19, 2015, and covers business and political stories. She grew up on a ranch 10 miles southeast of Belfield, where her family continues to raise registered Hereford cattle. She double majored in communications and history/political science at Jamestown (N.D.) College, now known as University of Jamestown. During her time at the college, she worked as a reporter and editor-in-chief for the university's newspaper, The Collegian. Baumgarten previously worked for The Dickinson Press as the Dickinson city government and energy reporter in 2011 before becoming the editor of the Hazen Star and Center Republican. She then returned to The Press as a news editor, where she helped lead an award-winning newsroom in recording the historical oil boom.

Have a story idea? Contact Baumgarten at 701-780-1248.

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