JOHNSTOWN — When Johnstown High School Senior Jacob Frenyea was on stage at Proctors this summer performing the song "Epilogue," the final song for the closing show of the student-driven production of “Les Misérables,” he had an epiphany.
"The curtain rose behind the main actors. The show's ensemble and the rest of the people in the song and I just walked forward singing the Epilogue, which is this beautiful piece that really puts a button into the end of the story and says that even in the darkest night the sun is going to rise the next day. Even in the worst of times, there are people who rise to the occasion," he said. "I remember,
I started crying because I knew this was the last time I was going to sing this with this group, and I'd never felt this close to a cast in my life."
Frenyea is an aspiring actor. He said his participation in the The School of the Performing Arts at Proctors production of Les Misérables was an important step forward for his skill development, giving him the chance to work under the tutelage of Broadway-experienced professionals — but, he never would have been good enough to perform on stage for the play had it not been for his experiences working under teacher Michael Burnett in Johnstown High School's musicals and plays.
"I never had any theater experience outside of Les Misérables, so this was my first time working with a new director, but working alongside Michael Burnett, he taught us so much about going in-depth into a scene, and not just reading what's on the piece of paper but really absorbing it," he said. "Unlike a like of other drama clubs in the area, I'm sure some go in-depth, but our director Michael Burnett really pushes us to absorb the story, and don't just look at the [top] coat of paint, go underneath that."
Frenyea said he's fearful future Johnstown students won't have the same opportunities to expand their skills and appreciation for the arts and music if private donations can't be raised to save the district's extracurricular programs.
The Greater Johnstown School District was forced to eliminate funding for most of its extracurricular activities after a proposed 35 percent tax levy increase failed to get the supermajority vote needed to pass on May 21. While a $37.87 million 2019-20 budget with a 14.6-percent tax levy increase passed during a June 18 re-vote, funding for athletic teams and extracurricular activities including the fall play, winterguard, jazz band, the school's acapella group "Rockapella," and the marching band were all eliminated.
Johnstown's Purple and Gold sports booster club has since raised over $200,000 to fund Johnstown's varsity and modified sports teams, now the Johnstown Music Support Group has started a fundraising campaign to raise $50,000 to save all of its unfunded music and arts related extracurricular activities. The money is needed to pay school district adviser costs, which are set by the district's teachers union contract and liability insurance costs.
Former school board member Jennifer Sponnoble, who was defeated in her reelection campaign in May, has joined with the group to act as its treasurer. She said the Johnstown Music Support Group is a 501c3 non-profit corporation, which can accept donations and can pay the GJSD a fee for a liability "insurance rider" needed for any extracurricular event hosted at school facilities that isn't directly funded by the school. She said she's working with the district to determine the insurance costs.
Sponnoble said the first step in the fundraising will be for the Johnstown Drama Club to form with new student officers at the beginning of the school year and then donate its approximately $11,000 in savings — gained from the proceeds of its theatrical productions — to the music support group. She said the transfer of funds is a necessary step for the money to be used to fund the district's fall play.
Frenyea said he plans to run for drama club president, and he supports the plan of using the music support group as the vehicle for fundraising and paying for insurance.
Sponnoble said she believes the fundraising for the music and arts extracurriculars will be successful, although some aspects of the events for some clubs will not be funded. She said the cost of winterguard in the past has been between $50,000 and $64,000. She said the group has already cancelled a planned event in Dayton, Ohio.
"I am inspired by the Purple and Gold Club and the donations and speed at which they have been able to accumulate them. We are all parents of the same groups of students so each group doesn’t begrudge the other, despite knowing that we are all working for the same goal," she said.
Loreal Lavigna, a Johnstown alumnus who was active in the music program from 1996 to 2000, said she decided to volunteer as the music support group's secretary to help them get through the funding crisis. Lavigna said donors should go to gofundme.com. As of Thursday night the page has raised $2,320.
"We are hoping that people will find it in their hearts to click, donate, and share this link to help us reach our goal. Let's give our kids the same opportunities and experiences that we had. They deserve it," Lavigna said.
While student participation for the music and arts clubs varies from year-to-year, the district's winterguard typically has 25 members between the varsity and JV squad.
Sponnoble said while the goal of the fundraising campaign is to re-fund all of the music and arts clubs, the allocation of funds will be different from the way Johnstown raised money for sports. She said if donors wish to contribute to a specific activity, a separate account will be created for the purpose. All proceeds from all general fundraising will be split, with half of the proceeds going to fund all music and art extracurriculars, and the other half going to fund individual activities on a schedule based on when the activity starts and how much money is needed.
She said the fundraising campaign will have its official "kickoff" Sept. 5, with different groups performing inside the grassy circle in front of the high school.
"It's going to be like a min-music festival. So people won't even have to get out of their cars. We're anticipating it going on from 6 to 8 p.m.," she said. "We also want to have a chicken barbecue and Mac and cheese food truck there that night so people can drive through, donate and pick up dinner during this very busy back to school week."
Sponnoble said the music support group will also have a strategy of soliciting corporate donations, as well as its traditional fundraisers, which include the rubber duck race on the Cayadutta Creek, the "Ducky Derby" and t-shirt sales.
"I think we are all concerned about donor fatigue, but Walmart has given us grants in the past and Stewart’s has as well. We are working on a few other ideas to inspire giving throughout the year, too," she said.