As states continue to cut into school districts’ budgets and school districts struggle to avoid deficit spending, district superintendents are looking for ways to save money. Because most of any school district’s budget is fixed to salaries, superintendents are looking toward cutting programs and/or departments in order to make ends meet.
When cutting programs, superintendents strive to cut those that have the least impact to learning and that create the least amount of controversy. Wrongly, superintendents often recommend cutting some of the fine arts programs.
With current state standardized testing and requirements for academic standards, core curricular classes will always be safe. Sports programs are often cut or downsized when school districts need money, but cutting these types of programs usually results in an outcry from the community and oftentimes becomes a rallying point in a school board election. The community often feels that a “successful” football or basketball program is the identity of the community and cutting those programs is like cutting the heart out of the community itself.
As a result, fine arts programs are often an easy victim. Cutting out a sports program usually results in the savings of a coaching (coaching staff) salary, the transportation costs and maintenance fees associated with the equipment and the fields; however, to really achieve savings, elimination of salaries is needed.
By “cutting out” a fine arts program, the district saves considerable money in the amount of salaries of the employees not needed. Although this is misguided thinking, aside from the “Band and Choral Boosters,” the outcry from the community is usually much less than if a sports program gets cut. Elimination of an art class usually receives even less emotion from community members. Usually, the first art classes cut are the ones at the elementary level. The art classes are still a component of the curriculum but the regular education teacher provides some integrated art lessons within his or her daily curriculum. Music classes at the elementary level usually come next or are eliminated in conjunction with the elementary art classes. Once again, the regular education teacher incorporates music lessons within his or her curriculum.
While elimination of fine arts classes at the high school level is not an option in many cases due to the need for fine arts credits to graduate, course offerings within the fine arts department can be condensed or eliminated altogether.
The result of these types of cuts may not be easily seen. News flashes about which university an artistic student chooses to attend are nonexistent. Because of a lack of notoriety for students receiving fine arts scholarships, community members may not be aware of the amount of scholarship monies that students in the district may be losing with the elimination of fine arts programs. This puts an even greater burden on the school board. Because it may receive less “flak” from the community by cutting fine arts programs, this may seem like an easy solution when dollars need to be cut; however, this is an inappropriate reason for cutting a program.
School boards must analyze very carefully the long-term ramifications of eliminating the fine arts programs. A school district without the arts leaves many students without an outlet for the creative capabilities and without options for expression of their talents. These are the students who often are overlooked and are often the ones who need an outlet the most. These are the students who school boards must remember when looking at where to “trim the fat” in the school district’s budget – and look elsewhere.
Dave Dickson is a partner with the law firm of Friel and Friel in Gary, Indiana. As a labor relations attorney, he deals exclusively with school districts throughout the state of Indiana. Dickson is a former teacher and elementary school principal, and he has been a member of the school board in Grant Park, Illinois, for the past 10 years and president for the past eight years. He was named the 2014 Illinois School Board President of the Year.