LINCOLN SQUARE — More than a hundred teachers at the Old Town School of Folk Music say plans to sell the school’s Lincoln Park building were made with no input from them — and now they’re pushing back.
“Nobody had any idea this was coming, and we were just shocked,” teacher Lindsay Weinberg said. She’s taught piano, voice and guitar at the school for the past 13 years.
Last week, school officials surprised both students and faculty when they sent an email out announcing a plan to sell the old Aldine Hall at 909 W. Armitage Ave. in order to create an endowment fund to secure the school’s financial future. The school is now based in Lincoln Square but the historic Lincoln Park building, which it owns, served as the school’s main location for decades.
On Monday, Weinberg joined 117 fellow Old Town teachers in signing a letter to the school’s administration pushing back against the planned sale of the Lincoln Park building.
The letter acknowledged the school’s decision was made after “much consideration and deliberation” and “that those involved with it thought it best” course of action. However teachers also said they were unhappy the school did not consult with them or give them any hints at what was being discussed before the decision was announced.
“The members of the Old Town School of Folk Music community are walking around in shock and in mourning. Had we been consulted, had the idea been floated or even sold to us, we would, perhaps, not feel this way. We would — perhaps — have recognized the hard-earned wisdom that brought you to the decision,” the letter said. “But we see no wisdom. The site has been ignored and under-utilized for a decade; its potential has been squandered and bled away. It is not in fact a white elephant but a vital part of our community and of our business.”
Teachers said the move to liquidate the Lincoln Park building for cash without any public discussion and feedback from students, teachers or the staff that work there is “unconscionable” and “shockingly tone deaf.”
“When we moved up to Lincoln Square [at 4544 N. Lincoln Ave.] in 1998 it was important for us to keep the building on Armitage. Not only for its historic value but also for serving that neighborhood, that part of the city,” Chris Walz said. He’s taught guitar, banjo, and mandolin at the school for 22 years and was at the meeting when the Armitage building sale was announced.
The letter from teachers also listed a set of grievances with Old Town’s administrators that included a lack of compensation for “wages and time,” loss of “ resources devoted to intelligently promoting our school” and the school’s “student body, driven away by rising prices and costs” and neglectful “marketing and information-sharing.”
Dave Zibell, an Old Town School spokesperson, said the School’s board and executive leadership understand and emphasize that the Amitage building represents “an emotional connection” to the school’s legacy.
“We regret that some people are angry and saddened by the sale,” Zibell said. “We are communicating with teachers, students and others who have questions about the building sale, which is moving forward. Change can be difficult, and we are committed to listening and working with teachers and staff to progress through these next several months of transition in order to provide longer-term financial security for the school.”
The school’s statement also said the board’s decision was first shared with staff during an in-person meeting just one work day after the vote to put the Lincoln Park building up for sale.
“[The decision was] based on financial facts, market trends and good nonprofit management practices to grow an endowment fund. The board has the fiscal responsibility and duty to take action that helps ensure the long-term sustainability of the school,” he said.
The letter from teachers also said Old Town’s administration has increasingly treated students “as wallets rather than family members.”
A petition started last week by Rich Gordon, one of the school’s students, also cited an increase in operating costs after the school expanded its Lincoln Square campus to 4545 N. Lincoln Ave. in 2012.
The petition claims that decision was misguided and “led the leadership to increase the price of classes dramatically, which further reduced enrollment, creating the death spiral the school now confronts.” As of Wednesday afternoon, Gordon’s petition had 5,478 signatures.
Gordon told Block Club he saw his non-member pricing for an 8-week group class rise from $160 in 2009 to $170 in 2013 and then increase again to $204 in 2018. Pricing for members who take two classes per 8-week session went up from $285 in 2009 to $305 in 2013 and then again to $361 in 2018, he said.
“While our class prices are widely variable by program and length of class, our list price for an 8-week group guitar class is $202 with the average enrollee playing 86 percent of that through financial aid, membership, senior discounts, staff or faculty discounts and other promotional pricing,” Zibell said. “The cost of classes has not risen annually until recently but class teaching costs have increased over substantially in recent years as well as increasing operational costs including insurance, utilities and maintenance.”
The school’s statement also said enrollment declines began to appear in certain programs “regardless of price increases” and that other programs grew even as their cost increased.
“This is an era of increased competition and the school must continually evaluate our success and make any necessary adjustments to ensure we meet our mission, provide great experiences for students and maintain a balanced budget,” he said.
“The problem the school has is that it has too much capacity — underutilized classroom space because they have three buildings and not enough students,” Gordon said. “It is also the case that many of the group classes could handle at least a few additional students. So the metaphor that comes to mind for me is the airlines. They have to fly the plane whether it’s full or half-empty.”
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