Strapped schools look elsewhere for budget cuts By Dan Weissmann
Third-grader Geneva Hicks works on a school art project.
It’s the year of living miserably for most school districts, and Elgin is down in the depths. So the Elgin school board is cutting arts programs, right?
Wrong. While the arts traditionally are the first thing to go when school districts look for way to cut the budget, new evidence that the arts are important to overall learning along with a community demand that the arts remain a part of the curriculum has led the far northwest suburban district to look elsewhere in its quest to save money.
This is hardly the norm.
Eighty percent of Illinois school districts will finish this year in the red, according to state estimates. Even New Trier—the district that means “wealthy schools” in these parts the same way Daley means “mayor-for-life”—is headed for the state’s financial watch list this year. Last year, Evanston—actor John Cusack’s hometown—stopped offering drama programs in its grade schools.
State government isn’t helping either. The state’s budget deficit is $5 billion and Gov. Rod Blagojevich says he has no plans to raise taxes, so massive spending cuts are a sure thing.
Elgin’s school district, U-46, is $56 million in the red this year. More than 800 teachers already have been laid off. Arts programs aren’t escaping the budget knife entirely, but they aren’t the first thing to go.
The district, which covers Elgin and more than a half-dozen other towns northwest of the city, never had the luxury of New Trier-like resources. New Trier is in the top 3 percent in per-pupil spending at $14,314 per student. Elgin is firmly in the middle with $8,109, slightly below Chicago, which spends $8,379 per student.
And Elgin works harder than New Trier to get what little it has. Among local high school districts, New Trier has a relatively low tax rate whereas Elgin has the third highest tax rate of any of the area’s “unit” districts. (Unit districts serve all students from kindergarten through high school.)
The arts programs in U-46 have never been lavishly funded, but the district has done its best in the last 10 years to make sure they’re good, says Tom Flanigan, the district’s arts coordinator. “We get the most out of what we can afford.”
Kids at Centennial Elementary get just one 45-minute art class a week (kindergartners get just 30 minutes), but teacher Terri DeDecker makes it count. Before you get to DeDecker’s classroom, you see her students’ work. A lot of it. And it looks good.
An art-filled tour Walk in Centennial’s front door and on your left is a wall filled with self-portraits by DeDecker’s third-graders, glued together out of torn-up pieces of construction paper. The likenesses are remarkably good.
By the time you’ve gotten to DeDecker’s room, you’ve passed Japanese fish prints, Native American totems and paintings based on Australian Aboriginal art. There’s also a display case full of dynamic wire sculpture, a series of collages that might be loosely based on Matisse’s cutouts and a collection of still-life studies by fourth-graders.
Just outside the art room are drawings of birdhouses, done as an exercise in two-point perspective, in watercolor pencil. Some adults (like this reporter) finish school without ever quite understanding how two-point perspective works, but these sixth-graders obviously get it.
Take a detour, and you’ll find ceramic jars, Chinese dragons made of construction paper and relief profiles based on art from Egyptian tombs.
If the tour of Centennial’s hallways also sounds a bit like a trip around the world, or a world-studies curriculum, that’s no accident. DeDecker works with other teachers to tie her projects to the lessons the students are studying. The creators of the Egyptian art were studying ancient civilizations.
On a recent Monday, DeDecker is working with a class of third-graders to make copper-foil relief images of the sun. Patterned after the folk art of Mexico’s Metepec Indians, each sun has the features of a human face. Before starting on their projects, students learned about the Metepec, the concept of folk art, the principle of symmetry and a technique for creating simple relief sculpture out of foil—all before starting on the project itself.
Each student drew a Metepec-style image of the sun-as-face, with symmetrical features and embellishments. Then they put a piece of heavy copper foil under their drawing, with a thick layer of old newspapers under the foil, and traced the image onto the foil, pressing hard to make a deep imprint.
Most of the students have gotten that far, and today they’re finishing the job: cutting the sun out of a square of foil, applying a layer of black ink and creating a decorative background to mount the finished work.
Today there are about 20 kids in the room, which is decorated with laminated prints by artists from DaVinci to Dali along with student work. Three Chinese-style dragons made of construction paper hang from the ceiling in the center of the room, which is clean and well equipped.
In addition to the giant paper cutter, the sink and the cabinets full of supplies, there are two computer workstations with printers, and a kiln the size of a tympani drum. Specially built shelves hold portfolios of student work, and a boombox sits on a small table by the door, piled high with CDs.
Once the students get going, DeDecker revs up the boombox with indigenous Mexican folk music; the sounds of panpipes, percussion and strummed instruments spur the students on. DeDecker circulates, doling out praise and advice. “OK, you’re ready to cut. That looks great!” she tells one student. “Yes, that ink will wash out,” she tells another. “Nice, smooth strokes, Cory,” she tells a third. “That turned out great—I like those rays.”
Stretching resources DeDecker is doing it all with very little. The district budgets just $1.75 per student, per year, for supplies. Because U-46 is a big district—second only to Chicago—with 40,000 students, the schools stretch their dollars by buying in bulk, but $1.75 still buys just so much construction paper.
Parents kick in some for the rest. Centennial’s parent-teacher council raised money to buy DeDecker’s kiln, and the art program gets some extra funds from school fees.
They show their commitment in other ways too. A few years ago it looked like overcrowding might cause DeDecker to lose her room, forcing her to do “art-on-a-cart.” The parent-teacher council sent home a flyer with kids, and parents turned out in force for a meeting with district officials.
“We fought for it,” says parent Jan Fleming. “Because once you lose the rooms, you don’t get them back.”
The district wasn’t always this committed to arts programs. In the late ’70s and early ’80s, U-46 did what most school districts do: cut the arts first, then look to see what else has to be done to make ends meet.
The district axed all art and music classes in grade schools in the ’80s. DeDecker wasn’t working in the district then, but she remembers the time well, because the story was the same in lots of other school districts. She had just started teaching, she recalls, “and I got cut from job after job.”
She spent almost 10 years in other lines of work, doing some commercial art, some window dressing, and some retail management.
The Elgin district started building up in the late ’80s, and DeDecker got a call from a friend, encouraging her to apply for a job. “She thought this was a program that was going to be here to stay,” DeDecker says.
There was another round of cuts: faced with a big deficit in 1993, the board cut elementary-school art and music programs by half, rebuilding as times got better.
This year, the district was hit with a triple-whammy: Like other districts, U-46 is reeling from last year’s state cuts. It’s also waiting for revenues to catch up with its rapidly growing student population. Then, last fall, the board learned accounting errors in the last two budgets had caused the district to miss millions of dollars in deficits.
In April, Elgin area taxpayers soundly rejected a referendum that would have raised at least $12 million by doubling the maximum tax rate for operations and maintenance.
Now faced with a deficit so big that any teacher with less than five years experience has been pink-slipped, the district has made it clear that cutting arts programs will be a last resort, not a first step.
Community voices What made the difference this time? Community input.
Last fall, when the bad financial news started coming in, Supt. Connie Neale sought budget-cutting advice from the Partnership Council—a 50-person committee with representatives from the board, the teachers’ union, the district administration, school principals, parent groups, business leaders and community members.
In several December meetings, the group met to figure out “which things are sort of sacred and not to be touched,” says Susan Murphy, a community representative on the council.
Consultants led the group through a consensus-building process. Each program was assigned a point value indicating how important each one was to the group. When they were done, the core academic program had the most points, followed by art, music and gym class. The arts programs ranked higher than pretty much everything else, including early childhood programs, high school sports and self-contained gifted programs.
“For some students, the arts are the reason that they even come to school,” says Murphy. “They’re the reason they sit through the chemistry and the English.”
There’s also more awareness than there used to be about the importance of arts education. Illinois adopted arts-education standards for the first time in the 1990s, and several studies have shown that good arts education contributes to student learning in reading, math and science.
As the school board has made its decisions, the board has stuck by the Partnership Council’s priorities. Rather than target the arts for cuts, the board has spread the pain around. The toughest hit is a big bump in class size, from 24 to 31 kids per classroom.
So, although kindergartners won’t have art or music classes next year, DeDecker will be seeing all of Centennial’s first- through sixth-graders next year, albeit in bigger groups.
Like everybody else in the district, DeDecker expects to feel the pain. “This will be a very different place to work next year,” she says. “We’ll all be working much harder.”
But she’ll be there.
That will be a relief to Marcus Angus, one of her third-grade students this year. “If I didn’t have art class, I wouldn’t be the same,” he says. “I love art. Art and music and reading are my favorites. Every day I draw and write.”
Dan Weissmann is a Chicago freelance writer. For 11 years, he wrote about Chicago’s public schools for Catalyst, an independent news-magazine.