HIBBING — People carried signs and marched. Speakers stood in the back of a pickup truck to address the crowd. All the while, lawn mowers circled the rally, while the people raised their voices to be heard over the drone.
That was the scene as dozens of people assembled Tuesday at Hibbing Community College to protest the college’s decision to suspend a search for a new full-time unlimited theater department director. Supporters of the department say the program is much more than a theater program for the college; the college points to a new fiscal reality of budget cuts.
“The community deserves the productions we have here,” said Jason Scorich, who has been in six HCCT plays. “It’s not just for theater majors. The quality of the program reflects on the college in general.”
Director leaving for North Hennepin Community College
The Hibbing Community College Theater hosted 10 productions in its 2008-09 season, which was the last for departing director Mike Ricci, who after 12 years at Hibbing is moving on to North Hennepin Community College.
“The administration knew I was going to leave,” Ricci said. “I feel terrible that my leaving has prompted this decision. But rather than make it about money, the college is missing the big picture about what it means to this community. I’ve built it into something special, and I’m proud of that.”
The program is something of a jewel in the community. Supporters say people come from towns up and down the Range, and even the Twin Cities, to see a play because of its high quality and strong production. Community members and business owners say the impact it has on a town the size of Hibbing is worth more than a line item on a budget.
High praise for productions
Barb Wojciak of Hibbing, who occasionally gets involved as a ticket taker to help out, said the productions are outstanding. “The quality here is just fabulous,” she said. “I go down to the Cities sometimes to the Guthrie and Chanhassen, and the quality here has been better than even down there.”
“The community deserves the productions we have here,” Scorich said, adding that a recent production of “The Blues Brothers” sold out all but its first night, had to add performances, and even had to seat a production in Grand Rapids to accommodate the audience.
” ‘The Blues Brothers’ outdid the movie by leaps and bounds,” said Jan Carey of Hibbing. “Mike will be hard to replace.”
Its reach goes well beyond the department. Hibbing residents are often involved in the productions as actors or producers. People who have never been in a play have auditioned, gotten parts, and become “theater people.”
“It turns into a family affair,” said Cora Theile, an HCC student who got involved in theater and quickly became hooked. “That’s one of the cool things. In the last production, there were five families with two or more family members in the play.”
Provost cites tight budget
The college says it understands the love people have for the department and its productions, but that the tough economy has made cuts necessary.
“Over the past four months, we’ve been taking steps to decrease spending,” said Dr. Ken Simberg, provost of Hibbing Community College. “In the last two weeks, we got our final budget allocation for next year, we realized we needed to do more.”
The difficulty with the department director position, Simberg said, is that a full-time unlimited position guarantees a pay level even if enrollment doesn’t warrant that pay level. “An unlimited full-time person can get paid for up to 30 credits for teaching,” Simberg said. “If enrollment doesn’t merit 30 credits of teaching, that person is still paid for the 30 credits.
“We value the positions of our full-time faculty,” Simberg said. “But with the financial situation, the prudent thing is not to fill it at this point.” Simberg said two other full-time unlimited enrollment positions are also being held open, one in the English department and the other in speech, and that the theater position could still be filled full-time, but would not have the “unlimited” possibility.
Impact on local businesses
“People are awestruck and amazed to come here” for productions, said Linda Hocking, co-owner of Zimmy’s bar and restaurant in Hibbing. She said that theatergoers have a “huge” impact on her business after shows and a loss in quality would affect her bottom line.
“Arts are all about expanding the mind,” Hocking said. “Everyone’s struggling — why make it a bigger struggle than we already have?”
While seeing a jump in applicants and enrolled students, community colleges across the state have taken budget hits recently. Simberg said $1.3 million, or about 15 percent of the college’s allocation, was trimmed this year, and that under a best estimation, Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s unallotment would cut another $500,000, although that cut will be delayed until the second year of the biennial budget cycle.
“We have to look at our stewardship of state money and staff prudently,” Simberg said. “It’s not a complicated issue; it’s an emotional issue. Even last year we could evaluate our programs and run high-cost and low-cost programs. Now, with fewer funds, we have to be more prudent with the high-cost programs.”
College representatives met with program supporters recently and Simberg said another meeting was scheduled for Monday, when a working committee would be developed.
“To hear this is happening as part of me leaving — ah, boy,” said Ricci. “It’s more than making me sad. It’s breaking my heart. It’s not always math and science that fills people’s souls.”
Catherine Conlan, of Two Harbors, Minn., writes about business, the economy and other topics in Northeastern Minnesota.