Cue the Charles Dickens. Thanks to an unnamed donor writing unsolicited art class-specific checks, several Santa Barbara elementary schools have been enjoying enough extra, under-the-radar dough in recent years to fund the essentials of a successful art program — a teacher, an aide, and, of course, supplies — in these grim financial times. But even as these programs at schools like Harding, Franklin, and McKinley Elementary continue to thrive, word came late last week that the already hamstrung district general fund, which has had roughly $12 million slashed from it since 2007, is in line for yet another budgetary bloodbath in the coming weeks. In fact, according to the district’s deputy superintendent and bean-counting guru Eric Smith, the School Board — thanks to the current incarnation of the state budget — is looking at a minimum of $6 million in further cuts this year with a “good chance” of more once the state’s annual spring calculation of the school budget hits the streets.
First, an explanation of the good news: Starting in 2005, an anonymous benefactor began giving money to the Santa Barbara School District to help underwrite art programs at specific elementary schools. According to Superintendent Brian Sarvis, the idea was to ensure that Santa Barbara students were getting an art class experience on par with the esteemed art program at Montecito Union School. Starting out first at César Chávez Charter School, the yearly donations of around $130,000 per school (the amount varies from campus to campus) are enough to cover supplies, at least one teacher position, and oftentimes an art aide. According to principals from the lucky schools, the only requirement that the school must deliver in order to receive the donations is a classroom guaranteed to be a full-time art space with complete student participation and school administration philosophically in step with the arts. In the years since, the same generous champion of art has added McKinley, Franklin, and, most recently, Harding to the recipient list. Further plans are already in place to add one or two more schools in the 2010/2011 school year.
Even better, these programs — thanks to the consistent stream of funding — have been able to grow into some of the most successful and recognizable school art programs in the district. For example, the money has gone a long way to making César Chávez’s annual art-focused Day of the Dead celebration possible and, most recently, Franklin’s work on a 13 × 9-foot mosaic to be installed in the McDonald’s on Milpas Street. “It is just a wonderful thing,” beamed Sarvis recently, adding that, “Most people in our administration don’t even know who the person is. It is a very well-kept secret.”
But, to paraphrase Dickens, with best of times come the worst of times, and the continued freefall of the California state budget has the school district once again staring down the barrel of some serious fiscal bloodletting. Because of the impending district cuts, members of the school board decided to roll up their sleeves early this year and will therefore begin the multi-staged cutting process on February 9 when Smith presents them with a menu of cutting options; usually this procedure happens in April or May. With a general fund budget of about $119 million, the news of needing to find at least $6 million in reductions this year — after nearly $5 million last year and a total of just under $12 million in the last four years — is dire. While Smith was tight-lipped this week about what exactly is on the proposed cuts list (that information should be available for public digestion on February 5 via the district’s Web site), he did explain that the bulk of the cuts would be coming from the high schools and, even worse, that the district can expect a similar amount of slashing to be needed next year, as well. “It’s just a mess,” summed up Smith, “and that $6 million is a minimum number.”