Wake County school arts funding is less than half of its level of 16 years ago, forcing parents and students to spend more of their own money to make up the budget shortfall, according to a district-wide review presented Monday.
Wake County’s arts education budget was $300,000 during the 1999-00 school year, covering items such as transportation to N.C. Symphony performances and the N.C. Museum of Art, replacement of kilns and musical equipment, rental of instruments for low-income students and band uniforms.
But 58 more schools and 60,000 more students later, Wake’s arts budget this school year is $113,000. Booster groups pick up more of the costs, with students paying $350 to $900 in annual fees to participate in arts activities such as band and orchestra.
The result, according to the district’s review of its K-12 arts programs, is that offerings vary widely across North Carolina’s largest school district. School board member Bill Fletcher, chairman of the board’s student achievement committee, described the range of offerings as “Swiss cheese.”
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“In some places you’ve got a robust arts program and in other places it’s been cannibalized to do other things,” Fletcher said in an interview after Monday’s meeting. “That’s what we need to look at and figure out what our practices as a school system should be.”
Fletcher had requested the review in August after hearing concerns from parents, particularly orchestra supporters, that strings programs were disappearing across Wake.
Supporters have long argued that taking arts programs have benefits such as preparing students for success in college and careers and builds tenacity and self-discipline. But arts supporters have also long bemoaned cuts in funding when budgets get tight.
Last November, arts supporters pleaded with the school board to add more strings programs. Without strong middle-school programs teaching stringed instruments such as violin, viola and cello, the boosters warned, the remaining high-school programs will be endangered.
The concerns were borne out in the review, which found that only 15 of 36 middle schools and 13 of 23 high schools had a strings teacher, often a part-time position.
While not as severe a gap, disparities were also found in terms of dance, theater and vocal arts programs offered at non-magnet middle schools. Magnet schools with the gifted and talented theme receive additional funding for their programs.
But it’s unclear what action will be taken based on the review’s initial findings. Cathy Moore, deputy superintendent for academic advancement, said further review is needed before any recommendations are made for the 2016-17 budget.
“You can’t identify gaps until we know how we’re using existing resources, what existing schedules and parameters look like in a building and what existing demand might look like,” Moore said in an interview.
Some ideas mentioned Monday included developing minimum standards for arts programs in middle schools. Elizabeth Grimes Droessler, senior administrator for arts education, said they’re considering a requirement that every middle school provide at least three arts offerings.
Other ideas under consideration include increasing funding for repair of strings instruments and more money to take students to N.C. Symphony concerts. Mark Stiles, orchestra director of Leesville Road High School and Leesville Road Middle School in North Raleigh, said the boosters have been a major help in repairing instruments and purchasing new ones.
Grimes Droessler said each middle school and high school gets $1,000 a year to repair instruments, split between band and orchestra.
Administrators are also working with principals to determine interest and need for strings programs and to develop stronger community partnerships with groups such as the N.C. Symphony, Kidznotes and Philharmonic Association.
One of the concerns raised by several board members Monday is whether participation fees are discouraging some students from taking part in the arts. Money collected goes for items such as maintaining uniforms and equipment and travel expenses.
“I think the district is of an opinion that you shouldn’t have to pay to play for in-school activities,” Fletcher said. “Now marching band is a little different animal, but to pay to play to be in a symphonic band or pay to play to be in a chorus is probably something that we would not want to have as our norm.”
Grimes Droessler told the board that schools have ways to support students with financial need, such as fundraisers, anonymous donations and having students contribute service time in lieu of money.
But Grimes Droessler said her department will conduct an equity review to determine accessibility to arts programs and what barriers may exist for participation. Board members are expecting the arts review to have an impact on next year’s budget.
“It’s part of the remarkable character of our arts program that we’re able to do so much with so little,” Fletcher said. “There is a great deal of interest on this board to see that children have access to the arts because we know it is a fundamentally positive experience and an academic growth tool.”