The Sarasota County School Board earlier this month approved the first of several contracts to allow a $22.5 million renovation to the Booker High School Visual and Performing Arts theater.
The 27-year-old theater is in need of renovations after missing out on large-scale updates when the school in 2012 underwent $58 million in construction.
Originally, the district sought a base update to bring the theater into Americans with Disabilities Act compliance. It would have cost $8.9 million, but the theater would have lost about 50 seats.
Instead three new options were presented to the board:
- A base upgrade with an added mezzanine, bringing the seat total to 476 at a cost of $11.2 million;
- A mezzanine upgrade with additional classroom space at a cost of $12 million; and
- A mezzanine upgrade to the main theater, additional classroom and storage space, a new lobby and the addition of a 100-seat black box theater at a cost of $22.5 million.
Originally, the board approved option two, but as budget discussions continued, they began discussing the third option.
Despite concerns over the addition of a multimillion capital project during a year of financial uncertainty, board members approved the third option and now have to approve contracts with architects and developers to allow for the additional scope of the project.
“I think this design is so much better than what we were originally looking at to begin with,” board member Jane Goodwin said. “Knowing the students at Booker and what their needs are, I just think this is so much better of a design for use with those visual and performance arts students.”
When board members first discussed the project, Booker High School Principal Rachel Shelley said the students daily face issues such as outdated technology, overflowing prop and costume rooms, and taking classes in dressing rooms.
Additionally, Shelley said that because the Booker theater gets rented to outside performance groups so frequently, her students have a hard time performing on stage. A black box theater, she said would allow students to rehearse and perform regularly.
“Other performing arts schools do have that black box theater that allows our students to have an opportunity to engage in their practice [and] put on shows for a smaller group,” Shelley said. “Our theater is often booked up — it’s hard to get in — so our students don’t have an opportunity to perform.”
To fund the large-scale project, the district had to borrow from already-approved projects.
Although some board members feared pushing forward with a large-scale project when the full financial impact of COVID-19 hasn't been determined wasn’t wise, others worried that splitting the project into phases would cost the district more money in the long-term.
Board Chair Caroline Zucker said she’s had two grandchildren go through the Booker VPA program, so she knows how antiquated the technology is.
“I”m just so excited over this,” Zucker said. “It will be much better for the kids. They’ll be working on equipment that is comparable to what’s in the industry now, not on 25-year-old equipment.”
A timeline for the project has yet to be determined.