WESLEY CHAPEL — Strains of Bach's Cello Suite No. 1 permeated the orchestra room at Wiregrass Ranch High School as students filtered in and began tuning their instruments for practice.
Senior Stephen Oppegaard, 17, performed the piece as if it were a part of him. He could not even fully explain his love for music, saying simply that playing allows his emotions to come out.
He couldn't begin to imagine school without it.
"It's really important, because some classes I don't even want to be in," Stephen said during a break from the group's winter concert rehearsal. "I can do what I want in this class."
Such passion for the fine arts spurred hundreds of students, parents and teachers to rise in defense of their programs last spring, when talk of cuts swirled through Pasco County and fears rose that such electives might bear the brunt of the slashing.
School Board members pledged to maintain art, music and drama courses to the extent that they could while whittling down a $54 million shortfall. They didn't leave the arts unscathed, though.
Eleven music and nine art teaching positions were among 514 jobs eliminated from the district staff. Other heavily affected areas included physical education, instructional technology and media specialists.
With another round of cuts likely, questions remain about just how long arts backers can hold the budget cutters at bay.
Even if the state Legislature were to hold education funding level, Pasco schools still face a projected deficit of more than $20 million in the next budget year. Graduation requirements and other mandates protect core courses such as geometry and U.S. history, but the arts remain one area that could be considered a want rather than a need.
Can the School Board again keep the arts off the cutting block?
"We don't know," chairwoman Joanne Hurley said.
Maintaining the arts is definitely a priority, Hurley added. But much depends on the revenue picture that emerges in Tallahassee during the coming legislative session.
Wiregrass Ranch arts teachers know they've been lucky to be insulated from the blows to this point. The threat is never far from mind, though.
"It's difficult to imagine not having it here, although it is happening in other areas around us," orchestra teacher Dean Donataccio said. "I think a lot about this. I can't understand how you could go about cutting something that is so cultural. We have gone about developing this in our culture over hundreds of years. How is it up to us to cut this culture from our kids' learning?"
Drama teacher Margaret Peacock said the lessons are about more than just culture, as well.
"It teaches them there is no one else who thinks like they do. We need that for the future," Peacock said, noting that most of today's students will have to deal with a constantly changing job environment. "Without the creative thinkers, we're stuck."
Students have flooded the arts courses at Wiregrass Ranch, allowing the school to add Advanced Placement classes in art and music theory, extra periods of studio art and chorus. That heartens art teacher Paula Smith, who hopes that high numbers continue to translate into safe programs.
Still, the notion that the arts could suffer in the next round of budget reductions bothers students, too.
"I have regular boring classes you have to take," said senior Angel Rivera, an award-winning artist who plans a career in film and media. "Art is the class where you can express yourself. It's the fun class."
Junior Abby Cole, another award-winning artist, credited school and its many offerings for helping her discover her passion.
"It helped me figure out what I want to do with my life," she said, sitting among drawings and paintings in her studio work area.
For freshman Sam Ryan, chorus and band have served as dropout prevention. He excels in both, and good grades in the courses bolster a grade-point average that sags under poor marks in his core courses.
Without the arts, "I probably wouldn't go to school," Sam said while his classmates practiced holiday songs. "All I want to do is just be a part of it ... help make this great music."
That in itself is reason to maintain the programs, said principal Ray Bonti, who often heads to Building 2 to take in music practices when days are tough.
"The arts are just wonderful for kids," Bonti said. "These are the type of things that personify why kids stay in school."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.