Axing the Arts: District (again) proposes cutting popular strings program

Jason Shephard, writing in the 3.11.2005 Isthmus:
Music teachers, parents and community activists are already agitating against Madison schools Superintendent Art Rainwater�s call to eliminate the elementary strings program, as part of a proposed slate of budget cuts.
�This creates a very disturbing environment in the community,� says Marie Breed, executive director of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestra. �It�s particularly shocking for a strong arts community like Madison to dismiss elementary string education so easily, saying essentially, �We�re not going to support these children.��
By eliminating the fourth- and fifth-grade strings program, Rainwater says the district can cut nearly ten full-time equivalent positions, saving about $500,000 in salaries and another $100,000 in equipment, repairs and books. In all, the district needs to trim $8.6 million to comply with state-imposed revenue caps — or else secure referendum approval to exceed them.

Breed, a former classroom teacher, says the benefits of the strings program are many, as teachers and parents have attested in recent years of budget debates, in which this program has been a mainstay on the chopping block.
�The strings program is important because it teaches kids about art for the sake of art -� and that teaches humanity,� Breed says. �But it also helps kids work on life skills, on finding pride in accomplishments, and with self-esteem and time management.� She cites research showing a link between studying music and higher scores on academic achievement tests.
David Lovell, chairman of the youth symphony, says lasting damage may be done if the local arts community does not get more involved -� including searching for partnerships to keep programs alive in the school. �I don�t think speaking out on school budgets is traditionally our role,� he says. �But because of what�s been happening, there�s a growing willingness to get involved.�
Richard Davis, a UW-Madison emeritus professor of music and an internationally known bassist, has won dozens of awards in Madison and around the world for his work with young musicians. He worries that the elimination of the strings programs in Madison will be a blow to minority students.
�Underprivileged children will suffer the most,� says Davis. �It�s another way of letting only those who can afford it get the opportunities. The fear is that you�re going to have a very one-sided, warped community, where one world will have all of the exposure and sophistication, and the other world won�t.�
The strings program is just one of many flashpoints for the embattled fine-arts program in Madison schools. Teachers complain about increased class loads and the loss of music rooms. Last fall, a dozen arts teachers petitioned the school board to appoint a committee to craft a �vision� for a fine-arts curriculum; the board took no action.
This week, Rainwater announced that he will wait until the summer to hire a fine-arts coordinator. The position has been vacant since last fall, much to the chagrin of arts advocates.
�This community has clearly told the Madison school district that Madison values music and art,� says citizen activist Barb Schrank. �I�m not sure they�ve been responsive to the community.�
Rhonda Schilling, a music teacher at Thoreau Elementary, says fine-arts teachers are getting fed up with the barrage of budget attacks: �It seems to be year after year in which they are cutting the arts left and right. We�re getting very tired. Clearly our opinions are falling on deaf ears.�
Rainwater�s proposed cuts also include eliminating some athletics programs and reducing to half-time the district�s gay and lesbian outreach position. These cuts, too, are sure to prove controversial.
There are those — including the two candidates challenging incumbents on the April 5 ballot — who suggest the board hasn�t been proactive enough in prioritizing cuts. And the contention is sure to continue after the election, as voters will be asked to decide as many as three referendum questions to approve up to $50 million in additional spending.
A meeting Monday night turned ugly when citizen critic Don Severson accused the board of �irresponsible leadership� and slammed its president, Bill Keys, for suggesting in a TV interview that the cost to taxpayers to hold a special election in May, rather than the general election in April, is minimal. In fact, this special election will cost taxpayers about $90,000 extra. Keys angrily said he misspoke on TV based on sloppy notes, then proceeded to question and lecture Severson during what was supposed to be the public comment portion of the meeting.
Board members, at virtually every opportunity, blame the state Legislature for the district�s fiscal crisis. But with no legislative changes in sight, such cries begin to ring hollow.
Moreover, several board members continue to lob bombs at outsiders, while remaining particularly sensitive to criticism directed at them. In recent weeks, Keys has referred to lawmakers as �bastards,� and Juan Jose Lopez has called a local Web site devoted to school issues, open to everyone, �destructive.� On Monday, Lopez also criticized colleague Ruth Robarts for writing an op-ed column that questions the board�s budgeting process, saying Robarts shouldn�t be questioning the process just because she�s upset with the outcome.
In fact, what�s needed is more questioning, not less. Can it really be that there is no other way for the district to operate than to continually point a gun to the head of popular programs and demand of taxpayers, �Give us more money or else?�
Background Links: Strings | Budget Send your thoughts on this issue to the Madison School Board: comments at