CINCINNATI — How's this for recovering from a disastrous investment scandal?
The SCPA Fund, the new fundraising arm to support the School for Creative and Performing Arts, is starting off with $1.5 million in the bank.
That's triple what the defunct Friends of SCPA said it lost when its board moved nearly $500,000 into what turned out to be Glen Galemmo's Ponzi scheme.
A lot has changed at SCPA since that scandal unfolded in 2014, and stakeholders in and out of the school interviewed by WCPO say the institution is primed to thrive financially and, most importantly, at educating its students.
"I think it's super hopeful," said Neal Mayerson, president of the Mayerson Family Foundation, a major supporter of SCPA. "It's in a great position to achieve its potential. The new leadership is amazing — all of them."
A key measure of the success of any institution is its financial health, which is what WCPO set out to assess.
Greater Cincinnati Arts & Education Center, which raised $32 million to pay for about half of SCPA's new home on Central Parkway in Over-the-Rhine last decade, has transformed to become SCPA Fund.
The old organization had $1.5 million saved to support building projects for the school, but its board chose to repurpose that money to pay for theater, dance and music productions and other student support.
"A lot of that is going to be driven by the donors and the investors," said Thomas J. Klinedinst Jr., SCPA Funds' board chairman who was instrumental in raising the $32 million for the new SCPA. "We are going to be very careful that we absolutely honor the purpose of any donations/investments that are made."
SCPA Fund is working with the Cincinnati Public Schools board of education on an agreement that lays out how the fund will operate. The school board is expected to vote on it at its Dec. 7 meeting.
Klinedinst plans to dramatically grow the fund through investments that are guided by a qualified investment committee and through new contributions from other donors.
"We want to see that fund get to at least $5 million in a reasonable … amount of time and to keep moving beyond that," Klinedinst said. "To reach the goals it wants to reach, the school is going to need dependable funding."
He envisions SCPA Fund supporting productions, subsidizing visiting artists, providing equipment, maintaining facilities and helping establish collaborations with other arts organizations.
While tuition is free, students in need can receive scholarships for private lessons or to take classes at other institutions.
"A lot of that is going to be driven by the donors and investors," Klinedinst said.
The bigger and better fundraising arm that rose from the ashes of Friends of SCPA reflects a new spirit of teamwork and cooperation among school board members, the school's leaders and parents, he said.
"Being on the same page is the big news. I've been around a long time, and that hasn't always been the case," Klinedinst said
Achieving cooperation took a lot of upheaval in the SCPA community. As Friends of SCPA was heading toward dissolution, the school board conducted a series of internal and external assessments of the schools strengths and deficiencies.
A study conducted by DeVos, a nationally prominent arts consultancy, pointed to poor communication and other failures of leadership within the school.
The board reassigned Principal Steven Brokamp and the longtime, widely loved Artistic Director Isidore Rudnick last spring. In short order, the board resolved to adopt most of DeVos' recommendations for strengthening the school, including creating an executive director position to oversee the principal and artistic director.
Mayerson said a key to the turnaround was the board's decisive actions to take the criticisms and recommendations and act quickly to improve the school.
"I want the board to get credit for making the decisions they did. They could have made different choices and had a very different outcome," he said.
The new team in action
Nick Nissley, SCPA's first executive director, was hired in June and is feeling bullish about the school's future.
"I think what we're doing is really reigniting the passion that the students and parents have for the school," he said.
As an illustration, he cited the generosity of a junior high school student who was cast in Mariah Carey's "Melody & Mistletoe" movie that was filmed in Cincinnati. That student received a relatively big paycheck for her work.
"The young lady was told by her mother that when she got her check she wanted her to put 80 percent into her savings, 10 percent to spend as she wanted and 10 percent to be donated to their church," he said.
The student liked the plan, but she persuaded her mom to give 5 percent to their church and 5 percent to SCPA.
Nissley pointed to the success of "Beauty and the Beast," the school's big fall musical, as another sign of enthusiasm and financial well-being.
The show sold out the 750-seat theater four of five nights. That meant the musical grossed about $30,000 at an average ticket price of $10.
"Our box office does well over $100,000 gross revenue (per year). That's not just moms and dads coming to see their children. Many people recognize this as a world class school," Nissley said.
Further evidence of the school's renaissance comes in the form of its new parent-teacher-student organization.
"Our goal is to build community and welcome the community in. That's a big part of our mission," the organization's President Holly Brians Ragusa said.
Her daughter is an SCPA ninth-grader in her third year at the school, and Ragusa said the children felt the turmoil of the past couple of years. Now, the traditional parent-teacher organization includes students.
The seven-member board of adults is going to welcome two student board members who will be nominated by the newly elected student council.
"I think that going forward they will have a voice. They'll have a venue. It took a lot of people by surprise the way things went down (last school year), and that's just the way it was. I think now it's a much better scenario," she said.
Ragusa praised Nissley, Principal Michael Owens and Artistic Manager Angela Powell Walker for hands-on leadership.
The school plays music from different genres between classes each Friday, she said. Nissley popped into her daughter's improv class and participated.
"They're engaging the students in great ways," she said.
The parent-teacher-student organization has more modest financial goals that nevertheless are intended to strengthen cohesiveness at the school, including selling concessions at "Beauty and the Beast" that netted about $1,000
The group is selling spirit wear in person and online, too, something that wasn't available to students, family and alumni last year.
It all adds up, Klinedinst said.
"I think that the school is poised with its current management team, with the commitment that it has received from the board of education and the administration of CPS, to become recognized as one of the premier arts schools in the country," he said. "That's the end game."