Advocating Arts or Athletics?
School Administrator, April 2019
Scenario: The district faces a tough budget decision between two cost-cutting proposals. One calls for eliminating the arts program in three elementary schools. The other would end organized sports at the one middle school. The board president’s elementary school-age daughter is an avid artist who has won several awards. The board rejects cutting sports because of its impact on students’ physical health. On the arts cut, the board members are split 2-2 (with one member absent). The members ask the superintendent what he would prefer to cut?
First, who decided to pit these two programs against one another, and second, why are parents, educators, community members and students themselves not involved in this decision?
Let’s start with the notion that cutting one of these two curricular programs is the only way to address the budget deficit. It’s true that when money is tight, trade-offs are inevitable. But this particular forced choice suggests to me that parents are being set up to start paying fees for their children to participate in sports or possibly to start fundraising for the arts programs. Converting free public services, such as sports and arts programming, into fee-for-service programs wrongly positions them as optional “extras” and raises significant equity concerns. It would be worth asking what other sources of savings were examined and why highly visible (and presumably popular) curricular programs were put on the chopping block.
Second, if one of these programs really does have to go, the superintendent should not make a recommendation prior to consulting with all interested parties -- at the very least with educators, parents and students themselves. What do they have to say about the benefits and challenges of each program? What would they do in the absence of school-based arts or sports programming? Are there community organizations that can step into the breach on a temporary or permanent basis? Are there ways to realize significant savings (say by reducing the number of offerings or the grades in which they are available) without eliminating them entirely?
The superintendent also should conduct an equity analysis to determine who is served by each program and what the impact would be on different students, families and groups in the district.
This is the board’s responsibility, not the superintendent’s. When making school district budget cuts, typically the superintendent and chief financial officer create a budget priority list for the school board’s use in considering potential spending reductions. It is the board’s responsibility to make the final cuts with input from the superintendent and his staff.
It would be most appropriate for the board to defer making this decision until all board members are present. It is critical that the full board thoroughly discuss and come to conclusion on what to cut because these are frontline programs for students. The board’s decision will have a major impact on students and has political implications.
Neither choice is in the best interest of students. Are there other services that could be identified to cut? Could the superintendent and his staff provide other ideas on cost-cutting measures? Even if after further review and discussion the board is struggling with its decision, in the end, it is their responsibility to take the final vote and decide on what cuts will ultimately be made.
Channeling the Wisdom of King Solomon, the superintendent would have been well prepared to answer this question before the proverbial baby were laid at his or her feet. The wise one would have discussed this dilemma in depth with principals, parent representatives, the teachers union and potentially impacted staff.
Knowing that recommendations leading to split board votes are best reserved for matters of principle that are hills one is willing to die on (such as opposing weighted grading practices), the superintendent should be ready with a recommendation that is not either/or and reduces art time but does not cut the program and replaces one or two expensive sports programs with less costly options. For example, art could be cut by a certain number of days per week or weeks per year but still offered at all grade levels and one or two of the more costly and risky sports such as football, ice hockey or lacrosse could be cut at the middle school with the understanding that the players could participate on teams at other middle schools in the district or in the conference.
Another sports programming option would be to replace the football, hockey or lacrosse program with something less expensive such as a well-structured intramural program or expanding the number of teams in less costly sports such as soccer, basketball and track to include A and B teams or equally matched blue and gold teams from the school.
Choosing which programs to cut because of inadequate funding to education is a no-win situation. However, a decision needs to be based on assessment of data and options, not on personal advantage for school board members.
Given the division on the board over which program to cut and the need to demonstrate that students come first, it may be wise to review data on both programs and explore other options. How many students are involved in each program? What is the per-pupil cost? Are there ancillary benefits such as preparation time for classroom teachers when students are at art or active engagement of students with academic and physical challenges in the athletic program? Can modest reductions be made to both programs that would achieve the same financial savings? Are there fundraising possibilities that could sustain some aspects of the sports program? With support, can art be well integrated into daily classroom instruction?
The superintendent needs to gather the data, weigh the options and then make a recommendation to the board that offers the greatest advantage possible for the most students.
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The Ethical Educator panel consists of Shelley Berman, superintendent, Andover, Mass.; Meira Levinson, professor of education, Harvard University, and author of Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries; Maggie Lopez, retired superintendent in Colorado Springs, Colo.; and Glenn "Max" McGee, a former superintendent and regional president of ECRA Group in Schaumburg, Ill.