Onstage protests of arts cuts get mixed reviews
A few parents took to the stage before the curtain rose on performances of "A Chorus Line" to protest cuts in the regional high school's music and arts program next year. The surprise opening act got mixed reviews from audience members.
Before the first show started on Feb. 14, Howard Marlin, whose daughter Hannah played the part of Val, read a lengthy prepared statement. He warned that budget cuts agreed to by the principal and school committee that will eliminate half a position in the music department and several classes next year are just the beginning.
Mr. Marlin urged voters to sign petitions during intermission in the lobby to place articles on town warrants in support of providing education in the performing arts in Island schools. He delivered a shortened version of his message to audiences before the Friday and Saturday night performances, while another parent delivered a similar speech before the Saturday afternoon matinee.
Superintendent of schools James Weiss, who was in the audience on opening night, said he received some feedback from people questioning whether it was an appropriate place for that type of discussion.
Mr. Weiss said one point brought up to him was whether someone who opposes funding for performing arts programs should have been given equal time to dispute Mr. Marlin's remarks. "And I guess the answer is yes, if it's an open forum, it's really an open forum," he said. "But that was not an open forum and not an appropriate place for it. So, I think that is a precedent-setting kind of concern that would cause me some issues."
In a phone call to Mr. Marlin on Tuesday in Florida, where he is vacationing with his family, he said Principal Margaret (Peg) Regan read his statement beforehand and gave her permission for him to read it before performances. Ms. Regan was out of town this week during school vacation and could not be reached for comment. Mr. Marlin said no one approached him with any objections after the play and that several hundred people signed the petitions.
The grassroots parents' protest sprang up in response to news about proposed cuts in the music department during the regional high school's fiscal year 2009 budget hearings held by the school committee last November.
Ms. Regan explained that due to rising costs and decreasing enrollment, a trend projected to continue over the next several years, she had to make some tough decisions on where she could make some cuts. She said she made her decision to eliminate some performing arts classes based on the numbers of students enrolled, which were declining.
Eliminating some classes, which included guitar, piano, and individual voice classes, resulted in a net decrease of one music teacher's position. Which music teacher will be affected has not been determined yet because the terms of a reduction in force policy under the teachers' new union contract are still being sorted out.
Since enrollment in television and drama classes also had declined, Ms. Regan and the high school's budget subcommittee proposed that drama teacher Kate Murray teach drama classes three-fifths of the day and assume duties as a performing arts center (PAC) instructor the rest of the day to maintain her full-time teaching status.
The proposed budget cuts set off a flurry of protests from many in the high school and Island community. Some questioned why the music and arts program took the hardest hit and athletic programs had been spared. Ms. Regan reiterated that her decisions on what to cut had been based on enrollment, and pointed to the high number of students involved in athletics. The school committee did agree to restore three-fifths of the eliminated music teacher position, with benefits, to allow for the choral groups to have both a conductor and an accompanist.
In his speech to "A Chorus Line" audiences, Mr. Marlin warned that the performing arts department cuts may lead to the elimination of the program altogether. Since only about one-tenth of the high school population enrolls in performing arts classes, Mr. Marlin said he is concerned those classes will continue to be the first to go in future budget cuts.
In a phone call a few days later, Mr. Weiss disagreed emphatically. "The sky isn't falling - and clearly that is the message he was trying to give out," he said. "Will there be some downsizing? I think there's going to be downsizing for a number of years, whether we like it or not. That's where we are in terms of our student enrollment and in terms of our finances."
Mr. Weiss added, "But going from we need to be prudent and careful and good money managers, to the world is ending, is quite a leap."
After the budget battles last December, a group of Minnesingers' parents triggered the formation of the Preservation of Music and Performing Arts Committee, teaming up with members of an Island performing arts group that includes many parents of high school alumni, said Mr. Marlin, who is a professional drummer and singer.
The committee sought to restore funding for the music teacher position by asking the Island towns to add warrant articles to appropriate a share of the money based on enrollment in each town. Mr. Marlin volunteered to make a pitch for the articles at selectmen meetings Island-wide, but found that in most cases, except in Tisbury, the deadline had passed.
Tisbury selectmen Tristan Israel and Denys Wortman okayed Mr. Marlin's request to put the funding article on the town meeting warrant at their meeting on Dec. 12. Selectman chairman Tom Pachico, who was absent, voiced his opposition at a meeting on Jan. 3. "The article for the high school asking for money for the music department, I'm totally opposed to that - that's a school committee decision," he said.
The Edgartown selectmen were cool to the article when it was presented to them and did not endorse it for similar reasons. They advised parents to seek recourse through their All-Island School Committee representatives.
"So what we've done is put out petitions to get on special town meetings - we've also been circulating another petition that is not financial but philosophical," Mr. Marlin said. "The second petition, which is also going to all the towns, is speaking for the constituents to be able to voice their feelings, and hopefully support, for continuing performing arts education, even if they're unable to financially support it at this time."
Recognizing how difficult the tax burden is for Island residents, Mr. Marlin said the committee is looking to raise capital through alternative means, such as fundraisers, sponsorships, and grants, to buy one year to keep the same staff and program in place.
"It's clear to us that our concerns are for the continued growth and development of the department, and that we have no place in micromanaging it," Mr. Marlin said. "We just want the department to be."