A few fiddle tunes and a bit of jazz provided an unlikely soundtrack outside St. Paul School District headquarters Tuesday as more than 150 people rallied in hopes of saving music, art and other electives from cuts in 2016-17.
The state’s second-largest district faces a $15.1 million shortfall next school year, and one of the cost-saving measures being considered is a reduction in art, music, language and other programming in the elementary and middle schools.
The proposal has given rise to a No Cuts To Kids movement headed by a self-described “ragtag group” of parents and advocates who organized the parking-lot rally before Tuesday’s school board meeting.
The group contends that by taking away opportunities — silencing music like that played by students from L’Etoile du Nord French Immersion School — the district risks seeing families leave a school system already facing an enrollment decline.
“Nothing engages a parent or families more than a concert or science fair,” said Melissa Dangaran, a parent with children at J.J. Hill Montessori and Capitol Hill Gifted And Talented Magnet schools.
Parents and others are pushing for cuts to be made solely at the central administration level. Katie Sterns, a districtwide advocate for arts and music education, eyes administrative budgets exceeding those of the larger Anoka-Hennepin School District and asks: “Shouldn’t the economics of scale suggest we be more efficient?”
The math of budget cuts, however, can be challenging.
Board Chairman Jon Schumacher has noted that school-level programs are vulnerable to budget-balancing efforts because they consume more than 80 percent of district expenditures. Central administration and districtwide support, on the other hand, account for 0.8 percent and 17 percent of the budget, respectively, he said.
The district’s budget maneuvering is not yet complete. Final action is a month away, and there has been slight movement in favor of preserving electives: The district recently lowered the potential hit in that area from an initial $7.5 million cut to $4.5 million.
On Tuesday night, board members indicated a desire to continue looking at funding options, but signs were that a full restoration of the $4.5 million would be difficult to achieve.
School principals are resourceful, Schumacher said, and efforts will continue to maintain programs like art and other electives that he says “educate the whole child.”
Monica Haas, a parent with four children in the district, warns that any cut to elementary music is a blow to equity: “Without that basic musical theory knowledge, kids can’t participate in music at all at the middle or high school levels,” she said.
This year, the district has worked to give parents and community members a voice in the budget process. At the school level, families were invited to list priorities among the electives now being offered. At Parkway Montessori and Community Middle School, for example, courses included instruction in piano, guitar, choir and band, plus French, Spanish and Japanese.
The invitation to weigh in on elective choices did not sit well with some members of the No Cut To Kids group, however, many of whom are active on the Facebook page “Working For A Better SPPS.”
“The parents were put in the position of being the bad guys,” Sterns said.
At L’Etoile du Nord, Barbara Lamb has taught instrumental music for 15 years, and is uncertain about her future. Asked if she’s heard anything from school leaders, she said: “They really don’t know.”
On Tuesday, she led her Fabulous Fiddlers, dressed neatly in white shirts and black pants or skirts, in a short series of selections that included “Polly Wolly Doodle,” “Little Brown Jug” and “Devil’s Dream.”
After the students finished playing, Lamb spoke with pride about her school and its offerings.
“We want it to stay a good place to be,” she said.