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District leaders brush off SF high school’s suspension of artist-in-residence program

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For more than three decades, Ruth Asawa School of the Arts’ artist-in-residence program has supplemented the school’s lauded arts curriculum. (Mike Koozmin/2015 S.F. Examiner)

School district leaders brushed off the decision made by Ruth Asawa School of the Arts administrators and their nonprofit partner Thursday to suspend the high school’s artist-in-residence program indefinitely.

For more than three decades, the program has supplemented the school’s lauded arts curriculum. But on Thursday morning, Principal Barnaby Payne issued a memo notifying students and parents that the program had been halted, pending review of its governing organization’s accounting practices by the San Francisco Unified School District.

The memo came after the Board of Education on Tuesday postponed a vote to approve a Memorandum of Understanding between the SFUSD and Friends of School of the Arts (FoSOTA) — the nonprofit organization that manages the high school’s artist-in-residence program and is responsible for its fundraising — to Sept. 5 in an effort to more closely evaluate the nonprofit’s accounting practices.

The MOU’s annual renewal would allow FoSOTA to continue hiring artists to teach in the school’s classrooms with donations from the school’s community and beyond. Without it, the nonprofit is unable to legally engage in its notable fundraising efforts.

“At this time, the artists-in-residence who work for FoSOTA will not be providing services pending Board approval of an MOU,” Payne said in a statement.

But by Thursday afternoon, that decision was overruled by SFUSD Superintendent Vincent Matthews, who requested FoSOTA continue to provide its services to the school until a decision is reached by Sept. 5.

Payne could not be reached for comment by press time.

“[It is] my understanding that FoSOTA has funds available to provide services through this very short period of time and that this would not cause a financial hardship to the organization,” Matthews countered in an email addressed to FoSOTA Executive Director Colleen Ivie.

Before the superintendent’s request that services continue as usual, Ivie told the San Francisco Examiner that FoSOTA’s inability to continue its fundraising had stunted current contract negations with artists set to teach at the school this year.

For the last decade, FoSOTA has administered the artists-in-residence program, overseeing its fundraising and hiring some 100 resident artists annually. Across its 12 art departments, the program places seven to eight professional artists in classrooms under the supervision of one certified SFUSD teacher to enrich students’ art education with their expertise — a major draw for those vying for placement at the prestigious school.

Students at Ruth Asawa School of the Arts rehearse for their production of “Cabaret.” (Courtesy Friends of School of the Arts)

Before the superintendent’s intervention, art classes were set to continue but at reduced capacity, each staffed by just one of the district’s teachers, said SFUSD spokesperson Gentle Blythe.

FoSOTA’s spending has come under scrutiny in recent years and again on Tuesday after several school board members expressed concerns about the allocation of dollars flowing through the organization.

“I think it’s still very unusual for us to have a foundation or nonprofit that actually is the owner of all of the revenue that is generated from our school and that we actually pay this organization to manage all of that,” said the board’s vice president, Hydra Mendoza-McDonnell. “It seems to be a significant amount that goes to personnel, and I still don’t know who they are and what they do.”

FoSOTA works in collaboration with the high school but raises money independently from the school district to cover artist salaries and other expenses related to the arts program. However, the high school also receives separate funding from the district for arts education, according to Blythe.

Last year, FoSOTA raised nearly $1 million through parent donations, ticket sales for student art performances, and through grants and donations from sources outside of the school’s community.

Some $390,000 of the money raised was spent on the artists, about $88,000 on supplies and another $74,000 on student performance expenses. Additional expenses included insurance costs for the artists and the salaries of the nonprofit’s staff, about $92,000, according to Ivie.

“Because there has not been sufficient funding within the school district budget to have art programs in an art school here in The City … FoSOTA is the one that has raised that money,” said Ivie, adding that the school district asked the organization in 2008 to “take over management of all fundraising and of money generated” by the high school’s art departments.

“The school district could not process contracts and pay people on time — people were waiting for months to get paid,” she said.

Earlier this year, an “in depth review” of FoSOTA’s accounting practices conducted by the district revealed that the organization was operating within the law, according to SFUSD Chief Academic Officer Brent Stephens.

“We don’t have concern, having conducted this review, with the way money is going in and going out,” Stephens said at Tuesday’s board meeting.

Ivie said that she was hopeful for an approval of the MOU agreement.

“It’s always been my policy that my books are open,” said Ivie. “It would be a wonderful gesture if [the school board members] would come to our campus, sit down with me and let me answer their questions. So far, that hasn’t happened.”

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