A year after it was nearly dissolved, the Perpich Center for Arts Education is sorely in need of students despite making good strides on the good governance front.

"Send them our way," Board Chairman Benjamin Vander Kooi told state House panel members this week.

A quick comeback had been considered unlikely after the turbulence of a year ago.

The arts high school in Golden Valley began the current school year with 161 students — little more than half its 310-student capacity — and it has seen its 2018-19 applications lag behind last year's pace, said Curt Tryggestad, the agency's new executive director.

In 2013-14, the year it took over management of a Woodbury middle school, Perpich had 253 students at the high school. But the middle school move stretched resources and helped speed a slide that culminated in a blistering legislative audit in January 2017.

House Republicans responded by proposing to shutter both schools.

The high school was saved, but the middle school closed and the building was sold on Feb. 21 to St. Paul Public Schools for the appraised price of $15.3 million.

In a report Thursday to the House Education Finance Committee, Tryggestad said Perpich was in a "far better place" today. He described a board that is active and engaged and open to public input. Members also have initiated a performance review process for the executive director. Tryggestad's predecessor, Sue Mackert, received only two reviews during her seven-year tenure, according to the legislative audit faulting the board for a lack of oversight.

Joel Alter, evaluation manager for the legislative auditor, noted on Thursday the steps taken to improve operations. But he also cited the pressing need to boost enrollment. With the school running at barely half-capacity, the per-pupil costs are "significant," he told panel members.

Perpich now receives $6.9 million per year in state funding.

Alter said the auditor's office recognized that a turnaround could not be executed in a year's time. But the enrollment situation bears close watching by both the Perpich board and the state Legislature, he said.

Recruitment underway

State Rep. Jenifer Loon, R-Eden Prairie, who heads the finance committee, said one could foresee Perpich having difficulty attracting students after finding itself in a precarious situation a year ago. But she wondered, too, about competition from other schools, including an arts school in Eden Prairie.

"I do believe it is affecting attendance at Perpich," Tryggestad said.

Perpich has built-in challenges: The arts high school is open to juniors and seniors only, and requires students to apply for admission. At a charter school, by contrast, students can just show up, Tryggestad said.

The agency, however, is working aggressively on recruitment efforts, he said. It has been on hand at conferences involving not just arts groups, but also Education Minnesota, the statewide teachers union, and the Minnesota Rural Education Association.

The school draws students from across the state; about 45 percent of them live on campus.

As for the tumult of a year ago, Tryggestad said: "We're going to need more time to change the view."

In St. Paul, the district has yet to decide on a final plan for use of the former Crosswinds middle school, not far from the city's Battle Creek neighborhood. But the purchase is expected to save the district the cost of a new East Side middle school — a project that had been priced at $65 million to $70 million.