The Sky Really Is Falling:

A lack of funding puts public school arts programs at risk

I just returned from a lovely luncheon at the Arts and Humanities Council of Tulsa Hardesty Arts Center (AHHA) honoring individuals, businesses and non-profits that contribute in significant ways to the arts in Tulsa.

One category, The Mayfest Young Artist Awards, honored five outstanding high schools students for their artistic achievements. Four of those students were Tulsa Public School students, and one of them goes to Union. They are Hsin-Roe Pan, Union High School; Kayla Andrus, Sarah Karleskint, Abigail Carver, all of Edison Preparatory School, and Ciaran Curtis, Victory Christian School.

After the ceremony, I followed the students upstairs to view their work and to interview them. I’ll do an article for the April issue of TulsaKids, but I feel compelled to tell you right away about these accomplished young adults, and what they think about the looming budget cuts, which at TPS, could be between $7 million and $20 million, according to Ann Tomlins, chair of the TPS fine arts department.

Sarah, who also plays alto sax, said that her art classes are “the only good part of my day.”

Kayla said, “A lot of kids look forward to art every single day. It helps me focus.” Abigail said that everyone in art is passionate about the subject, and all of the Edison students credit their teacher Julie Thomas, calling her “amazing.”

Hsin-Roe Pan said she enjoys combining higher math, technology (engineering) and art; however, she said her math classes (such as calculus and trig) that she has been in since ninth grade have never had enough books. She’s waiting to hear about acceptance from Parson’s School of Design in NYC.

Abigail’s interest in art has led her to a career interest in architecture, possibly combined with interior design.

Sarah hopes to do animation, and Kayla would like to major in art education and return to Tulsa to be a teacher. “Tulsa is an amazing place, but I might have to move somewhere else to teach. It scares me for Tulsa.”

Kayla is right to be scared.

Yesterday, the State Superintendent of Education’s office sent out a press release entitled “Hofmeister calls further education funding cuts ‘brutal, heartbreaking.’ We posted the release on TulsaKids’ Facebook page. Here are some highlights of Superintendent Hofmeister’s quotes: “A second General Revenue failure means schools will have lost nearly $110 million since the start of the spring semester alone…The Oklahoma State Department of Education has worked hard to minimize the cuts’ impact on instruction, but we are no longer able to soften the blow. Many rural districts indicate they will immediately initiate a four-day school week for the remainder of the school year…Our schoolchildren are the ones who will pay the steepest price.”

Last week, Tulsa Superintendent Gist expressed in an email to employees what the severe cuts might mean for Tulsa Public Schools, including the possibility of four-day school weeks, transportation cuts, a reduction in administrative services at the central office, eliminating programs such as arts and athletics and campus security. Superintendent Gist is looking at expressing the same concerns as school administrators across the state who are struggling with budgets that have been cut beyond the bone.

Many rural school districts are already implementing four-day weeks.

I asked Ann Tomlins what the status is for fine arts in TPS, and she said she doesn’t know yet, but she’s in close contact with Superintendent Gist. Tomlins said parents can contact her at the Education Service Center if they’re concerned; they can right letters or call their legislators; they can write letters to the editor at the Tulsa World to express their concern.

Fine arts provide career paths for students, ultimately improving the quality of life and economy in a city. All students should be given the tools they need to succeed in whatever career path they choose. If fine arts are cut, many students will see their futures diminished. Beyond that, fine arts provide opportunities for open-ended, creative thinking. As one student told me, “a way to use my brain in math in creative ways.” It helps other students relieve stress. It gives many students a reason to get up and go to school, even if they don’t pursue art as a career.

Tomlins said that right now every TPS high school has an art teacher, most middle schools do, and 12 out of 57 elementary schools do not have art teachers.

If fine arts and athletics are not on the chopping block, and school weeks are shortened and transportation is cut, there will be serious repercussions. Most parents work. A four-day week would be a disaster. The majority of TPS students eat at least one reduced or free meal at school. The health and nutrition of kids would be in peril. TPS already has a problem with attendance. What will happen if there’s no transportation?

None of the cuts will be pretty. And, it’s not as if public schools were rolling in money before the budget crisis.

Without strong public schools, I fear that the kind of ceremony I attended today will be a thing of the past. Fine arts won’t be an option for many young people. It’s like sucking the soul out of school. And if you take the arts out of public school, it won’t take long before fine arts disappear from a community. As one of the student honorees put it, “It’s depressing.”

Categories: Editor’s Blog