- Associated Press - Monday, March 14, 2016

MINOT, N.D. (AP) - Back in elementary school, exciting moments included time spent in music class or taking a break from the lesson to create an art project. It was a whole half-hour where you’d learn songs or paint with watercolors. But what if music or art classes weren’t part of the regular school day?

These days, it’s not unheard of for school districts to face budget cuts, the Minot Daily News (https://bit.ly/1R7HLpO ) reported. Not too many years ago a high school in Wilson, North Carolina, lost around 20 positions, including clerical, teacher assistants and classroom teachers. Steve Ellis, principal at Fike High School in Wilson, said they have had to cut jazz band, piano classes and elective courses held through the community college.

“You can’t just offer, especially at the high school, math, science, social studies and reading,” Ellis said. What that does is cut out the courses that students can be interested in, he said. The elective courses are what keep the students in school, Ellis added. He said it’s frustrating as a principal because when you nickel and dime the education that kids are receiving, teachers and administrators will pay for it down the road. Working with a budget allows him to only do so much.

A few years ago, Chicago Public Schools dealt a blow to arts education when it laid off over 1,000 teachers as a result of its recent decision to close over 50 schools. Among the most affected areas was arts education, in which 10 percent of the teachers let go taught art or music. It was reported that among the 1,581 teachers laid off, 105 taught art or music.

With so little public funding, schools have been relying more on private funds and patrons of the arts to provide creative outlets for students. There has also been a growing trend of nonprofit arts organizations setting aside more funding for arts education and outreach to local schools. These efforts have included partnerships between orchestras and schools, such as OrchKids, an educational program run by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.

Some schools have also relied on a mix of private and public funds. Other schools have taken direct action and made arts programs core subjects, making them less vulnerable to budget cuts.

Schools in North Dakota, however, are singing a slightly different tune.

In February of this year, Gov. Jack Dalrymple ordered agencies that receive general fund dollars to trim their budgets by 4.05 percent, or about $245 million. Along with the cuts to government agencies, Dalrymple shifted most of the money from a state rainy day fund, formally known as the Budget Stabilization Fund, to help make up for the record shortfall caused by a dramatic drop in North Dakota tax collections due to a decrease in oil drilling and decreased crude prices.

The cuts to agencies are called allotments and affect most state services, ranging from prison operations to child care aid. State assistance to local schools, though, is exempted. Funding for North Dakota schools will not be impacted by the state budget cuts.

As approved by the 2015 Legislature, the Department of Public Instruction’s 2015-2017 budget includes almost $2 billion in state aid to school districts. The amount includes $1.92 billion in per-student aid payments, $57 million in transportation assistance and $17.3 million for schools’ special education costs.

“Thankfully, we have a reserve fund in place to take care of our schools in case there are declines in state revenues,” said State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler. “Our schools will be receiving the state aid they have budgeted for.”

The 4.05 percent budget reduction will require the Department of Public Instruction to cut almost $2 million in administrative expenditures. Those are separate from the Department of Public Instruction’s state school aid budget.

“We will be taking a close look at the department’s budget and identifying opportunities for reductions that will have the least impact on student education services,” Baesler said.

Schools in Minot most likely won’t be affected by the budget cuts either. In fact, the arts programs in the Minot school system seem to be thriving.

One successful program is theater at Minot High School-Central Campus. Chad Gifford, English and theater teacher, said he thinks one of the reasons that he has had great success with his theater programs at Central is because he has a policy of inclusion.

“I’ve always been happy to include students with differing backgrounds and abilities and have made whatever accommodations are necessary to include as many students as possible,” Gifford said. “Did it seem odd to have an actress in a wheelchair during ‘Romeo and Juliet?’ Maybe, but I thought it added something to the production.”

Every year, Gifford said he picks a play based on how many students he can get involved, both on and off stage. It gives many students a sense of belonging they might not have anywhere else, he added. “I’ve run a drama club, a film club, and a writing club here at Central Campus and all have had large student engagement which is one measure of a successful program,” Gifford continued.

Another factor of success is passionate leaders, Gifford said. It doesn’t really matter if you have support from administration if you aren’t passionate about the arts, he said.

I think that North Dakotans are generally pretty supportive of the arts, Gifford said. “If you take a moment to look around Minot and see how much is going on all the time, it’s pretty clear the people enjoy the arts,” he said. “Whether it’s music, theater, painting, photography or anything else, there is almost always something to go enjoy. It’s one of the reasons I’ve always been proud to call Minot my home.”


Information from: Minot Daily News, https://www.minotdailynews.com

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