Dozens of art educators, parents and students packed Tuesday’s school board meeting

Parents push school board to preserve arts program funding

In the face of vocal opposition, the San Francisco School Board on Tuesday backed down from a proposal to shift some $2.3 million in funding from the visual and performing arts program to elementary school physical education, but said the program’s high administrative costs required further review.

A day ahead of a vote on the San Francisco Unified School District’s 2019-2020 Public Education and Expenditure Plan — a nearly $80 million budget that includes some $40 million for the Sports, Libraries, Arts, and Music (SLAM) programs — scheduled for Tuesday, a school board committee had drafted an amendment to cut recommended funding for administrators and consultants in the music and arts programs. The funds were instead to be directed toward physical education programs.

In response, dozens of San Francisco art educators, students and their families mobilized at Tuesday meeting to speak against the funding, which they said would jeopardize arts education in San Francisco’s public schools.

“I barely graduated from high school and I went on to teach at that high school — if it wasn’t for the enlightening experience I had through being exposed to music in public schools for free, I wouldn’t be here in front of you,” said Ahkeel Mestayer, an artist-in-residence at the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts. “In recent years the school district has talked a lot about equity, and I would like you to evaluate what your actions are against your rhetoric.”

Citing concerns over spending and transparency, school board members said nearly 5.8 percent of the proposed $16 million allocation for music and arts programs are dedicated to administrators in the VAPA office, which administers programs for district schools. The funding is meant to directly bolster student resources and services.

Commissioner Alison Collins said that the proposed funding transfer followed a recommendation by an oversight body that money should be directed “to the immediate benefit to students and advancing equity and social justice among other issues.”

Collins and other commissioners questioned line items in the VAPA budget — including $30,000 for designing its website and $50,000 for support in updating the 2006 Arts Education Master plan, the district’s blueprint for integrating the arts into students’ daily curriculum.

“Many of our departments maintain a website — the math team, the humanities tea have their own websites— but they don’t necessarily spend $30,000 on designing them,” Collins told the San Francisco Examiner ahead of Tuesday’s meeting. “How many hundreds of thousands of dollars have we spent refreshing a plan that we haven’t seen. Why are we spending money on administrative costs which normally come out of the general fund?”

The amendment would have directed SFUSD staff to find “alternative funding” for VAPA administrators, such as pulling that money out of the district’s general fund.

But Second District Parent Teacher Association President Kari Gray said swapping the funding for VAPA administrators with money from the general budget could result in future cuts to those positions.

During nearly two hours of public comment, many arts and music educators said that their programs have long been underfunded by the district, and that the PEEF funding provides them with crucial resources.

A Presidio Middle School band teacher said that he provides about 200 students each year with instruments from “the 60s or earlier.”

“Most are falling apart — when we perform anywhere I bring paperclips and tape to keep them together,” the man said. “PEEF funds our jazz band directly. Without that funding..that would be no more.”

The commissioners assured the hearing’s attendees that they supported funding arts education and had no intention of cutting actual programs.

“It’s important that we clarify that the cuts are not targeting arts and music program, we are not cutting administration. We should be funding the administration of VAPA programs though the general fund,” said Commissioner Gabriela Lopez.

Still, arts advocates said that without a clear funding alternative, the money should not be directed away from VAPA, and insisted that the proposal would undercut ongoing efforts to update the master plan, which are spearheaded by VAPA. The updated plan is expected to come before the board in the next two months.

OVERSET FOLLOWS:“I urge you before you start tinkering around [to] wait for results of 18 months of community conversations,” said Sandra Halladey, an advocate for arts education who added that the plan would, among other things examine funding allocations associated with VAPA programs.

Others said that the sudden change seemed inappropriate, a sentiment that resonated with school board president Stevon Cook.

“Making a decision like this is really disruptive. We have four years to figure this out. I think it is good governance and policy to approve the superintendent’s recommendation and to work with him and staff and make these reforms over the next year,” said Cook, adding that “part of the issue about tonight’s meeting, is that this came off as an attack on the arts, which wasn’t the intention of the spending reappropriations. We heard [hours] of public comment because of [miscommunication].”

Pressed with an April 1 deadline to approve the PEEF budget, the board approved the budget proposal without the amendment calling for a transfer of the VAPA funding, but requested a commitment from the superintendent to increase transparency around how the funding is spent and to conduct an audit.

lwaxmann@sfexaminer.com

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