Jason Song and Alicia Lozano, Los Angeles Times
December 29, 2009 --LOS ANGELES -- The Los Angeles school district has suspended a key arts program because of a spending freeze, a sign of what may be ahead for the state's largest district, which is facing a serious budget shortfall.
When the school board was forced to slash almost $400 million from this year's budget because the district received less than expected in state funds, it kept most of the cuts away from classrooms. But now the district may have to cut another $400 million, which could mean increasing class sizes, laying off teachers or providing fewer meals at schools.
Los Angeles Unified School District officials have even offered a $300 bonus to employees who take a survey to gauge interest in an early retirement program, which could save the district money in future years by reducing payroll and spreading out retirement payments.
L.A. Unified officials also instituted a spending freeze, which resulted in the abrupt postponement of the arts program. In a Dec. 12 e-mail, district administrators told arts instructors with the Arts Community Partnership Network to cancel all work immediately and that payments might be delayed, though work could begin again next month if the state resolves its budget crisis.
"We are all waiting for the state budget in January . . . and hoping for the best," said Richard Burrows, L.A. Unified's director of arts education.
Districts throughout the state are also making drastic cuts, said state Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O'Connell, who warned that eliminating arts and after-school-program funding could have dire consequences.
"We have to keep these students involved and engaged," he said. "Schools need to be more of the hub of the community, not less."
The Los Angeles arts partnership has been in place for six years and had a budget of about $8 million this year. The 80 participating groups include the Music Center and the Center Theatre Group.
None of the district's music teachers will be fired because of the freeze, but some of their programs might be affected, district officials said. The arts partnership spends $2.2 million on an instrument repair shop that services about 35,000 instruments a year.
"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 the arts network.
For smaller arts providers, the delay could be disastrous. The 24th Street Theatre, which has served 111 schools by taking students to shows and providing teacher training, was counting on receiving about $300,000 from the district, about half of its operating budget.
The group received only a fifth of that before the freeze was instituted, said Jay McAdams, the theater's executive director.
"It's a body blow," McAdams said, adding that he might have to lay off his three employees or even close the theater if the spending freeze continues.
Making the situation worse, McAdams said, he can't turn to charitable foundations for funding because of the economic downturn.
"It's like you call the fire department and all the engines are on fire," McAdams said.
Teachers and supporters have decried the loss of the programs. Some have started an on-line petition to pressure the district to restore the funds. Before Christmas, the group had gathered 417 signatures and had a goal of 1,000.
Alejandra Sinjay, a second grade teacher at the Bridge Street School near downtown, has been taking her students to the 24th Street Theatre for almost five years. Before going to see a show, her students take workshops so they are "not just sitting around not understanding what's going on," Sinjay said.
"It's the most well-spent Saturday there is," she said.
Others are worried that if enough small arts groups have to close their doors or lay off staff, it will be difficult to restart the arts program when the district again has enough funding.
"You can't say 'go play for a few years and then come back when we're ready', " said Mark Slavkin, the Music Center's vice president for education. "It takes years to build infrastructure."
District officials declined to discuss that possibility.
"I don't want to go there," Burrows said.