At an emotionally charged public hearing Wednesday night, over 100 teachers, students, parents and citizens turned out in force to protest proposed budget cuts to the Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School drama and music programs.
“What I learned shaped me as person,” said a teary-eyed Lydia Fisher, a Minnesinger currently in her senior year, of her time in the performing arts programs. “I wasn’t excelling in academics — and to wake up with a song in my head . . . it’s incredible.”
The Minnesingers, whose program is not included in the intended cuts, left their rehearsal taking place in another part of the school to join the crowd in the high school library and offer charged testimonials about the importance of the programs and teachers in their personal lives as well as scholastic endeavours.
If the high school budget passes in its current form, drama and television teacher Kate Murray’s employment status will be downgraded to part time, and roughly $50,000 in salary cutbacks will apply to the music department. Guitar, piano and individual voice classes will be cancelled.
The $12.67 million budget is set for a vote by the high school district committee on Monday night.
Parents and teachers argued that while the school enjoys envious and widely respected drama and music programs, the quality will be bound to decline across the board with these staff cuts.
But high school principal Margaret (Peg) Regan countered that overall quality in the music and drama departments would not be affected and that her decision to make the cuts is based on low and falling course enrollment numbers.
But lower enrollments don’t necessarily correspond to lower student interest, said Ben Williams, a senior. “The schedule is complicated. Last year, I wanted to take philosophy and leadership with Peg and I would have taken TV too, but I was required to take introduction to computers and it conflicted. There is an important distinction between where kids want to go and where kids have to go, particularly when people are losing their jobs because of it,” he said.
Suggestions were offered for reallocating money, ranging from more efficient heat management to holding off on a plan to add a staff position for the school district through the superintendent’s budget. Vineyard schools superintendent James H. Weiss wants to hire a facilities manager at a cost of $90,000 including salary and benefits. The high school budget pays for 20 per cent of the superintendent’s budget.
“You’ve seen the passion in this room,” said Dan Ellis, a junior who attended the three-hour meeting and recently transferred from the high school to the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School. “I would cut off my hand to save these jobs. I don’t think it’s going to be necessary but I’m offering that.”
BeeBee Horowitz, who has two children in the school, appealed directly to the school committee. “Talking about creativity as we are, I’m sure whoever put this $12.67 million budget together can find $85,000 to save these jobs,” she said.
Many speeches provoked tears from both speakers and audience members and all were followed by sustained applause, as student after student stood to speak. A group of students gathered 592 signatures for a petition against the cuts in the two days before the hearing. An online petition is also circulating.
The high school is facing downward pressure from the superintendent’s department, which adopted its own $3.5 million budget for the coming year early this month, an increase of 20 per cent. The superintendent’s budget this year includes work force salary increases — the result of union negotiations — a fleet of buses, and a new sewage treatment system for the high school. A proposed $1.4 million bond will finance the bus fleet and waste system. The waste system is not mandatory for the high school but is badly needed by the privately funded YMCA project, planned for high school property across the Edgartown Vineyard Haven Road. The plan calls for tying the high school into the Oak Bluffs sewer system and later hooking in the YMCA. No agreements are in place yet for the Y to pay user fees to the high school. But the outlays mean that fixed costs make up to 21 per cent of the high school budget as a whole. “The bond issue and facilities manager are the top two. Negotiated salaries come third or fourth,” said Mrs. Regan when reached by telephone after the meeting this week.
Faced with making cuts to instruction to balance the budget, Mrs. Regan followed the numbers. The high school is facing declining student numbers — enrollment has dropped from 823 to 765 in the last two years. The administration anticipates a further drop to 720 next year. In addition to this, Mrs. Regan said, enrollment in elective music and drama classes is particularly low. “Piano lessons are not what ordinary high schools offer. They are a nice thing to offer but as we get into a budget crunch, we have to look at what the students are enrolling in and it is not this,” she said.
Taffy McCarthy, an actor and singer who has directed the Minnesingers and dozens of student plays on the Island, weighed in with her personal experience. “When I was at school, I remember one of my teachers said ‘Thank God you can sing.’ I took it as a compliment but later I realized I was saying I wasn’t good for anything else. And that’s why I love the people who can’t do anything. Think about high school,” she said, directing her gaze to Mrs. Regan and the high school committee members. “It sucked in so many ways. But art goes past what’s logical and opens up so many other possibilities.”
The sentiment was echoed through the evening. From the academic perspective, many argued that while music and drama may not be core subjects, having musical training or acting experience can make the difference on a college application. Projection, communication and perseverance were also listed as key traits developed studying the performing arts. “Life is performing,” said Jim Novack, director and manager of the performing arts center. He continued the theme after the meeting. “Work is too, nowadays,” he said.
“Everything I have heard since I moved here has been about what an inspiring leader you are,” Todd Follansbee of West Tisbury told Mrs. Regan. “But what I want to know is how, from a business perspective, 30 per cent cuts across a department can maintain the same performance.”
Mrs. Regan admitted that she is in a tough spot and said that her decision to resign as principal later this year was based on being in predicaments such as this. “My decisions are 100 per cent based on what students want. But I have hurt people because of my principalship. It has become too difficult for me to do this job,” she said, adding:
“But we’ll do the best we can.”