Fighting for the Arts: Again

Students Tolerate Tedious Meeting to See Fate of Beloved Electives

Despite having to make some $4 million in budget cuts this month, this week's Santa Barbara School Board meeting-the first major public stepping stone in that painful process-wasn't all doom and gloom thanks in large part to the district's new Deputy Superintendent Eric Smith (pictured right).
Paul Wellman

The Santa Barbara School Board faced a room overflowing with upset parents, teachers, and students at their most recent board meeting last Tuesday. This was the first reading of the district’s proposed Fiscal Recovery Plan to make up for a necessary but “unfortunate” $4 million in cuts, as Superintendent Brian Sarvis described.

As a result of rumored cuts for high school arts, the audience largely consisted of high school students representing these programs. Sarvis attempted to squash the rumor early in the meeting to put the audience at ease, reassuring that “there is enough latitude to retain music and the arts.” He went on to explain that the board’s Fiscal Recovery Plan provided plenty of other options to save money. Over an hour was devoted to reading and discussing the options, which included painless changes in administrative duties to the more controversial program cuts. Research had exposed saving money by doing everything from putting “district letterhead on computer template instead of ordering letterhead stationery” to the idea of “all staff, including the superintendent:rejecting the pay increase for next year.”

Amy Chong
Matt Kettmann

The audience’s overwhelming presence had such an effect that board president Laura Malakoff rushed to take the proposed reduction of junior high elective staff “off the table.” The proposal suggested cutting 7.4 certificated full time employees (FTE) from the junior highs, where “half of the additional electives are used to support music, art and performing arts.” The board voted unanimously to eliminate the proposal, granting them a roomful of applause.

The most anticipated part of the meeting did not begin until close to 9 pm, at which point many students had already left. Nearly 45 public comments were submitted; so many requests that the allocated speaker time had to be cut by one minute. One speaker joked that she had prepared her speech for the usual three minutes, but that “I forget how things get cut around here.”

Meanwhile, the remaining students in the audience remained silent but restless. David Holmes, San Marcos High’s Performing Arts Chair was one of many speakers to advocate the importance of art education. He emphasized that the board cannot suggest potential cuts to the music program, especially without intending to follow through, without affecting the teachers. Performing arts teachers invest well over their required hours and are so dedicated to their students that it is not unusual for parents to call at any hour of the day, any day of the week. Holmes argued that the board must pay more attention in their fiscal plans, because such decisions take more than “simply plugging in an FTE.” The potential layoffs have caused such grief among many teachers that, he suggested, some of the teachers wish to leave the district already.

A current San Marcos High music student gave a passionate speech about his love for music and the benefits of such a community in high school. The arts are the only reasons some kids come to school, he said, and that “the arts has saved a few lives.” Music programs provide not only an incentive to come to school and the increased academic success noted by numerous studies, but social communication that bridges the problems society face, not to mention the values of teamwork, responsibility, respect, and dedication.

Santa Barbara High parent Denise Adams presented the board with a petition in favor of the music program that had garnered over 18,000 signatures. The potential layoffs are of a special concern to my school, where music director Charles Ortega has resided for only five years. Board member Nancy Harter explained that pink slips signaling potential layoffs are given out according to “a teacher’s contract,” or tenure, and that they cannot base their decision on the merits of a single teacher.

When I left the meeting at 10 pm, the board’s only conclusion was to keep junior high electives staffed. The school board is considering current proposals and will present its final reading of the fiscal recovery plan on April 22 at 6 pm.


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