The Budget Crisis: This Time is Different
Myth or Truth - the Arts are the first to go
History repeats itself. So when the governor’s budget included massive cuts to education we all took a deep breath and then sighed (Governor Corbett’s budget address on March 8, 2011). “There go the arts” was a shared lament and an anticipated outcome. But while urban myth might have us believe that the arts in education might not survive the budget cuts that had to be made, at the AEC we decided to check the data.
With the very capable Danielle Jean-Louis, a public policy student in Carnegie Mellon University's H. John Heinz III College, as an intern at the AEC we were able to track the realities. Source documents for this analysis were the school board minutes from all school districts in Allegheny, Washington, Greene, and Fayette Counties. While the minutes of the meetings are public documents, obtaining them ranged from easy internet access on websites to multiple and repeated phone requests. From April to August, Danielle sifted, sorted, and summarized board action to learn how districts were responding to the devastating decrease in state education revenue. We believe what we learned may be interesting to our readers.
The range of cost saving measures was broad, varied, and changed over the time of the data collection. Early responses by school boards included “test balloons.” Would the community support altering the activity bus schedule? Paying to play sports? Cutting programs? Some districts immediately went to the regulations to verify program requirements. How many nurses and librarians are really mandated? Is elementary instrumental music a required program in the schools? Could we go to half-day kindergarten? Inventory of available resources was an emerging theme by May. How many teachers will retire this year? Can we collect delinquent taxes? What equipment and facilities are underutilized and could produce additional revenue?
So, what ultimately happened? By the end of June, the required timeline for school board adopted budgets, the dust had settled. Instructional positions, as well as support positions, were in some cases not filled as retirements were announced. However, these eliminated positions were in all areas, not just the arts. Union concessions in contracts, that were being negotiated, helped to ease the pain. Earlier ‘test balloons’ were tested by citizens and students alike. The voice of proponents and advocates was heard. Parents and students alike provided testimony at board meetings, started websites and above all paid attention. Through it all, superintendents paid a critical role in policy influencing. Their swift and strategic meetings, conversations and trips to Harrisburg could not help but influence and ease some of the original intended cuts.
What have we learned in this process?
Develop high quality arts programs that are valued by students and the community
Be proactive in policy influencing
Build strong relationships with decision-makers at all levels
Use primary source documents (board minutes) rather than unsubstantiated rumor as data sources
Above all, be engaged. I called my district superintendent when I heard of proposed cuts to the music program - they didn’t happen.