The council had been asked by the Portsmouth Arts and Cultural Committee to designate the north wing of the former Coggeshall School building at 321 East Main Road as a spot for a community arts center that would be managed by the Portsmouth Arts Guild (PAG). However, the school, which has occupied that part of the building for nine years, is seeking an extension of its current lease which ends in July 2014.
George Furbish, chairman of the arts committee, said his group was hoping to get council approval Monday night and a lease signed by May 15 so that PAG can meet filing deadlines for grants necessary for building renovations and other work so that the center can open next year.
“We hope to take control of the space July 1, 2014 to begin operations,” said Mr. Furbish, who is also a member of PAG.
School supporters who packed the council chambers, however, said they need more time to develop their own plan.
“We were not aware in any formal sense that this was a decision point for the town,” said Richard Price, speaking for the school. The school would suffer “undo hardship” if it weren’t given time to explore other town-owned properties, he said.
“With the proper alternate facility there could be an agreeable solution for both sides, rather than one side winning and one side losing,” he said.
Mr. Furbish, however, said his committee has made sufficient notice to the school about its intentions. His group has been working on the overall plan for four years and notified AICA Headmaster Stephen Bailey of its intention to use the Coggeshall building in the middle of 2011, he said.
The night, however, belonged to the school’s students, who Council President James Seveney praised for their “eloquent” testimony.
Amy Addo, a junior who’s attended the school for 10 years, said AICA’s modest size — 45 students in kindergarten through grade 12 — has allowed her to develop meaningful relationships with many of them, from all grades.
Teachers are hard-working and dedicated to helping students and the school has rigorous academic demands, she said. “All students must learn both Latin and Greek before they graduate,” said Miss Addo, who urged the council to allow the school to stay put for the students’ sake.
“Our school has already moved once from Newport to Portsmouth. To move again would create an unstable atmosphere,” said Miss Addo, who ended her testimony by quoting Socrates: “Education is the kindling of a flame.”
Sam Browne told the council he’s attended AICA since kindergarten — 13 years ago. The senior said he’s benefited greatly from the school and has been accepted into multiple colleges offering merit-based scholarships. “The school has been a blessing to me,” he said, adding that he wants future students to have the same opportunity.
Some school supporters pointed to the unique education offered by AICA. Eric Listenberger, who has two students at the school, said he located to Portsmouth so his children would have the benefit of a classical education at the school.
“We are here entirely because of the school,” said Mr. Listenberger, adding that it’s “a little generous” to say an arts center is needed in town.
“This school is a need for my family. The alternative would be moving away,” he said.
Others testifying for AICA pointed out that the school is saving the town thousands of dollars every year by keeping its students out of the public schools and by not using bus transportation. In addition, they said, the town would lose about $20,000 in annual lease fees from AICA should the school be displaced.
Under the arts committee proposal, PAG would lease the building from the town for $1, but would make ongoing improvements to the building at no charge to the town. Mr. Furbish said the loss in income “is insignificant in terms of the overall size of the budget of the town,” adding that it translates to a resident with a $350,000 home paying about 19 cents more in taxes every month.
“We feel that’s a very small price to pay for the benefits of an arts center,” he said.
Advocates for an arts center said the Coggeshall building was the most ideal location for such an operation.
“It’s central to the island, it’s central to the county. There’s no better place than East Main Road on a bus route,” said committee member Tom Perrotti, musical director of Common Fence Music. He also liked that the town’s Little League fields are right behind the building, and that the St. Mary’s Church property — which the Aquidneck Land Trust hopes to conserve — is across the street.
A former drama teacher, Mr. Perrotti said the arts center would also help fill a hole in Aquidneck Island’s theater scene, which has lost both the Rhode Island Shakespeare Theatre and 2nd Story Theatre.
Paula LaParle, who complimented the AICA students’ poise while testifying, said Portsmouth would benefit by having a central location for the arts. “I would not want to displace this wonderful school,” she said, “but I do believe it’s a need.”
Council members voted unanimously to delay a decision on the property until its Oct. 15 meeting. While acknowledging that the delay may inconvenience the arts committee, council members said it was necessary to give the school more time to consider another location.
“The school isn’t about a building,” said Mr. Seveney. “The building is just a building. I believe this school will live on and can move on.”