PORTSMOUTH — Hanging outside the Portsmouth High School auditorium is a photograph, entitled “Blue Reflection,” of which Cara Higgins is very proud.
It’s hers, and was one of 19 works by PHS students this year to win a R.I. Art Education Association scholastic art award — the most earned by any district in the state.
Her voice breaking as she stood in front of a microphone inside the auditorium Tuesday night, Cara told the School Committee that her photo of a reflection and silhouette has a deeper meaning for her. For various reasons, including her appearance and sensitive nature, Cara said she’s often teased by other students. “I’ve been picked on a lot in school,” she said.
But being involved in fine arts, theater and music has made it easier for her to express herself. “It’s helped me to cope with so much,” Cara said.
Without the arts, she added, “I probably wouldn’t want to come to school.”
Cara was one of 13 PHS students who joined about a dozen others — teachers, parents and former students — in taking turns at the podium to send a clear message to the School Committee: Please don’t make any cuts to the arts and music programs in our classrooms.
The main topic of discussion was 71 non-renewal notices that the committee ultimately voted unanimously to approve — an unavoidable reality in light of an uncertain school budget forecast, according to School Committee Chairman David Croston.
Under state law, the annual non-renewal notices must go out to teachers by March 1. Because it’s so early on in the budget process and there are many unknowns, school districts typically issue many more non-renewals than are necessary. The great majority of the notices are usually recalled as the district gets closer to the new fiscal year beginning July 1, when officials have a better handle on budget figures.
Still, school leaders have some difficult decisions this year which could lead to a fair number of positions being eliminated, according to Mr. Croston. The schools’ five-year budget forecast, which was presented Tuesday before public comment was heard, is dictating that officials must look for operational savings, he said.
“We’re projecting we have to have $700,000 in savings in fiscal year 2015, and that equates to roughly about 12 positions,” Mr. Croston said before the meeting. “We don’t know which direction we’re firm on (when it comes to) those 12 positions, so we had to go very broad. We’re not happy with it. If we don’t know specifically what programming is to change … the 71 provides us with the breadth to whittle that down to the 12 that we need.”
Less revenue forthcoming
As was the case this year, the schools are projecting to take in less revenue for next fiscal year, “even if we get from the town what we’re requesting. It’s principally because of all the state aid cuts,” said Mr. Croston. He told the crowd Tuesday, which numbered about 80, that the district has lost about $2.4 million cumulatively in state aid.
“The cold hard fact is that we need to balance our operations, our expenses, to our available revenue,” said Mr. Croston, adding that he’s always been a proponent of attracting third-party revenue streams to the district.
School Finance Director Chris DiIuro, in presenting the schools’ five-year budget forecast, said the current spending plan is running a deficit of $460,000, which is expected to increase to $1.1 million in Fiscal Year 2015 up to nearly $2.8 million in 2018.
“There are structural issues within the budget that need to be addressed. No amount of money would backfill these gaps,” said Mr. DiIuro.
The list of teaching positions targeted for non-renewal include several in arts and music, and many proponents of those programs turned out Tuesday night. Mr. Croston and other committee members assured the audience, however, that no decisions have been made on any reductions.
“There’s a lot of rumor, there’s a lot of things being said about cuts here and there. This committee has not made any cuts,” he said. “I would never be in favor of cutting arts and music at any level in our program.”
Committee member Andrew Kelly said he’s in support of seeking a larger appropriation from the Town Council, although others indicated that may be unrealistic. “A cut of 12 heads is a cut of programs. I will not vote to cut arts. I would not vote to cut sports,” said Mr. Kelly.
Two dozen speak out
After speaking their peace, committee members yielded the floor to the public. They got an earful.
Ralph Craft, a parent who volunteers in the high school music program, said art and music programs are essential to a child’s development.
“In elementary school, these kids get introduced to something that can put something under them — a passion that can change their life. By the time they get to high school … we’re lucky enough that the president of the United States invites us to play in his front yard. That’s how great we are,” said Mr. Craft. “If you cut these programs … we as adults are not living up to our responsibilities. And I’m scared.”
Ray Berberick, whose wife Gael is the choral director at PHS, said it’s important for schools to have a diverse educational system that does not focus on academics alone. In terms of finding revenue to maintain programs, he said the state aid equation needs to be formally challenged by the town, similar to its lawsuit to stop the Sakonnet River Bridge tolls.
“If it’s unfair, let’s say so so we can get more revenue into the town,” said Mr. Berberick, who added that taxpayers also need to invest more in the district. “A good school system is central to the viability to the town and you need a diverse school system that includes music and sports.”
Colin Redlich, a senior member of the PHS chorus, said cuts to the arts and music make no sense when one considers how successful these programs have been locally. He noted that 23 students from the high school alone were selected to perform with the all-state chorus and band, with several of them ranked number one in the state.
“How can we be considering a cut to the fine arts program that has so clearly thrived for the community? How can a school in general pass accreditation without a full-fledged music program?” asked Colin.
Deb McKone, another band volunteer, choked back tears as she told the committee about her two adopted special needs students. “They were a square peg in a round hole in this town for a very long time,” she said, adding that her kids weren’t even invited to birthday parties.
But then a guidance counselor suggested high school band. That changed everything, she said.
“My son didn’t even walk or talk when he was 4 years old, but now he can march on that football field. My son got a 3 on his NECAP after taking it for the second time,” said Ms. McKone, whose comments were greeted with cheers.
PHS senior Sarah Paiva said that early on, music and art were the only things at which she excelled. “Without music and art, I don’t know where I’d be,” said Sarah, sending praise to band director Ted Rausch and fine arts teacher Mel Olsen, the latter of whom also spoke against any potential cuts.
Other students also mentioned art and music teachers by name, saying they had a profound influence on their development. PHS senior Jalen Perry, an athlete and musician who said his family moved to Portsmouth because he was having trouble in the Newport schools, called middle school band director Richard Price his “all-time hero.”
Art and music teachers, in turn, said they were grateful for their students’ support at the meeting.
“I’m so proud as a parent and an educator to listen to these brave young people,” said Ms. Olsen.