LINCOLN SQUARE — After outrage from staff and neighbors, the Old Town School of Folk Music’s board has decided to postpone the sale of the 909 W. Armitage Ave. building for three months.
Initially the board planned to put the building up for sale in January, citing decreased enrollment, according to Dave Zibell, a spokesperson for the school. But faculty and students say they were blindsided by the plan.
Now the board has decided to “extend the discussion period regarding the sale of its building at 909 W. Armitage until March 31, 2019.” The board’s decision was made public in a statement sent out Monday evening.
“We heard from our community that it wants more time to bring forward other possible options to selling 909 W. Armitage, so last Thursday, the board elected to extend the time to listen to and engage our community. Working groups and meetings are being scheduled now,” said Kish Khemani, Old Town’s board chairman, in a statement.
For the past six weeks a group dubbed “Save Old Town School” has been trying to convince the board to reconsider the sale of the Armitage building and sit down with them to discuss alternatives.
Aside from asking the board to delay the sale, the group suggested establishing an Old Town School Student Advisory Board “so those of us who love and care about the School can contribute to solving its problems.”
The Save Old Town School group met at Sulzer Regional Library, 4455 N. Lincoln Ave., on Saturday so members could start organizing themselves into committees focused on things like class enrollment, fundraising, marketing and Armitage building utilization.
“Perhaps we can find creative solutions through these discussions. The Board is open to ideas that help improve communications and address long and short-term challenges,” Khemani said. “We have a passionate community and everyone involved has the school’s best interest at heart.”
The statement also said that while the school currently has no debt, it does have an “operational budget shortfall in 2018 that continues to require immediate action steps.”
In October, Zibell told Block Club the school’s enrollment was down about 4 percent from the previous year, with declines “more pronounced” at the Armitage location.
Regarding the enrollment decline, he said changes in audience interest and demographic shifts in the neighborhoods the school serves were likely the cause.
The board still plans to close the music store at the Armitage building by mid-January 2019 and continues to offer employees buyout packages. Layoffs are also possible.
Old Town’s board unanimously voted on Oct. 18 to sell its Armitage building, and the news made it to shocked staff and students on Oct. 22.
At the time Bau Graves, the school’s executive director told Block Club he understood the news “affects our community on a deeply emotional level” but that money from the sale would go towards an “endowment to help secure financial independence” for the school’s future.
On Nov. 25, Graves notified the school he was going to take a leave of absence for medical reasons for the rest of the year. Rashida Phillips, the school’s deputy director, is currently filling in for Graves as acting executive director.
Rich Gordon, a member of the Save Old Town School group, told Block Club the postponement was a sign the school’s leadership is listening to its community, though he’s disappointed by the music store sale and buyouts.
“We continue to believe that the decline in student enrollment that is driving these expense reductions can be turned around with sufficient attention to marketing and pricing strategies,” Gordon said. “We hope any other cost-cutting initiatives will be limited and temporary, and will not include staff layoffs.”
Old Town faculty were not immediately available for comment on Monday night.
Gordon said the postponement wouldn’t have been possible without all the students, teachers, donors and friends of the school joining with the group to convince the school’s board to rethink its plan for the Armitage building.
“We wouldn’t have gotten this far without all the work that [Save Old Town School] volunteers have put in,” he said.
The school’s next class session begins the week of Jan. 7, 2019. Additional information about these classes and holiday workshops can be found at oldtownschool.org.
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