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Show of support saves Pasco schools arts program from elimination

LAND O'LAKES — Hundreds of Pasco drama and band students and parents have flooded school district budget town hall meetings this month to plead for the arts amid spending cuts.

Their message has gotten through.

"We as a staff have heard pretty loud and clear," schools superintendent Heather Fiorentino said Thursday, after spending nearly five hours Wednesday evening listening to a fifth round of public comments. "Elimination of the arts won't be a recommendation."

That does not mean, however, that the $10 million program won't feel a pinch as the School Board looks for ways to slash $60 million from its operating costs.

Schools might see shorter class periods for the arts, Fiorentino said. Teachers might split their time among more than one campus. But music and art will survive, she said: "We have to have well-rounded kids."

Board members have shared that sentiment.

Alison Crumbley, who hosted the Wednesday town hall meeting, said she has told district finance and budget employees that she would not support any mass reduction of the arts. She said she has seen their benefit with her own children, and could not justify slashing district offerings.

Steve Luikart, a retired high school assistant principal, added that his top priority in budget-cutting is to protect programs that directly affect students.

"We're going to have some really rough roads ahead," Luikart said. "For me, everything is still out on the table except the students. … I ran on that premise that students come first."

Luikart has instead pushed to investigate other options such as a four-day school week, saying it might be an option to save millions without sacrificing students' education. Fiorentino and her staff have not embraced that idea, suggesting it would have a negative impact on the wider community, including law enforcement.

The officials' comments about protecting the arts heartened Pam Marron of Suncoast Arts Advocacy, a mom who helped organize the outpouring of support for school art programs.

"That is incredibly spectacular," Marron said.

Marron said she and others hope to harness the fervor that the arts supporters showed during the town hall meetings to help the district find additional funding to cover arts education needs in the schools. She also was hopeful that the community in general has turned a corner in showing its backing of the school system.

Now that the board has completed its budget town hall meetings, members expect to conduct a workshop to begin setting priorities based in part on the ideas and comments they have received. Fiorentino said she hopes to have enough information in the coming few weeks to be able to notify teachers and staff of their employment status before the end of the school year on June 3.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

Show of support saves Pasco schools arts program from elimination 04/21/11 [Last modified: Thursday, April 21, 2011 8:59pm]
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