Arts groups try to rally support for school funding
Los Angeles schoolchildren learning drama from a professional actor or ballet from a skilled dancer might lose their teachers next semester if the Los Angeles Unified School District continues to freeze funding for programs employing outside contractors. District officials say the freeze will hold at least until the California Legislature reconvenes in mid-January.
This crunch is especially felt by the 80 organizations comprising the Arts Community Partnership Network, which aren’t being paid and whose absence will greatly limit arts programming throughout the district.
Though standard art and music classes taught by LAUSD teachers are scheduled to continue uninterrupted, students will miss the opportunity to learn from working professionals.
ACPN-run programs go beyond the typical hour spent memorizing Shakespeare. The music arm of ACPN alone spends $2.2 million on an instrument repair shop that services roughly 35,000 instruments a year. These instruments are used by the 190 elementary school orchestras and 200 middle and high school ensembles throughout the district.
“This doesn’t just affect arts education; it affects the entire district,” said Danielle Brazell, executive director of Arts for L.A., an arts education organization that oversees ACPN. “It’s very important to acknowledge and understand that our students need quality education regardless of state or district budgets.”
The spending freeze, which ACPN learned about via e-mail on Dec. 12, affects the entire school district, not simply the arts programs. With the state deficit growing and funding uncertain, officials were forced to weigh the immediate needs of students against programs it thought were expendable, said Megan Reilly, chief financial officer for LAUSD. Learning to paint lost out to supplying ink for printers, she said.
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For small organizations such as the 24th Street Theatre, a production and education center downtown that counts funny man Jack Black among its alums, the freeze threatens to halt operations. More than half of the theater’s revenue comes from its $308,000 contract with the school district, which is meant to reach 11,000 students during the academic year. Because the majority of classes are held in the spring semester, the freeze could prevent as many as 9,000 children from taking classes with professional actors and spending a day frolicking through the theater.
Big contractors such as the Music Center downtown are not worried about shutting down, but they do lament that without enough funding, Los Angeles’ thriving artistic community could be weakened.
“Our concern is that small organizations and artists who have been relying on these funds don’t have a backup plan, and if they don’t get paid, they’re in a pretty difficult situation,” said Mark Slavkin, vice president of education at the Music Center.
Unable to supplement their incomes, some artists might move out of Los Angeles or, even worse, switch trades just to pay their bills, Slavkin suggested.
“Even if things get better, artists might not want to work with the LAUSD again,” he said.
In a frantic rush to secure funding for spring, the ACPN is urging arts-minded people to sign petitions and contact school officials. The 24th Street Theatre is hoping that comedian Black can recruit other celebrities to join the cause and use their fame to push arts programming in Los Angeles.
District officials warn that despite community concerns, the freeze will continue until they receive word about funding from the state, which might not be until late in the semester.
Photo: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times