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Alliance urging school board to keep arts, music

By Staff | May 21, 2009

The Lee County School Board announced earlier this month that half of the district’s arts and music programs slated to be cut because of budget issues would be restored, but organizations like the Lee County Alliance for the Arts want to ensure the curriculum stays in the classroom.
The school board originally expected a $70 million budget shortfall that would have likely resulted in the elimination of arts and music programs throughout the county.
At the end of April, the Florida Legislature released the state budget figures and now the district is trimming school services to balance the budget on the back of a $43 million shortfall.
The Alliance for the Arts is informing its members and supporters that saving 50 percent of the arts hinges on whether the district can increase the discretionary millage rate by 0.25 percent and raise $16 million.
A person with a home worth $200,000, for example, would see his or her taxes increase by $43.75.
The alliance is not taking sides in the debate, instead it wants arts to remain in local schools and it wants people to know what is happening throughout the budget process.
“It will be a detriment to our community if we don’t have those opportunities,” said Lydia Black, executive director of the Alliance for the Arts. “We believe that arts and music have to remain a vital role and we should do whatever it takes to make sure those are included.”
Black said she wants to see a plan from the school board on how the $3 million of the $16 million raised would benefit the arts programs and how the rest of the harvested money would assist the district in its budgeting process.
If the tax increase goes through, the millage will increase to 7.758, but that may be higher due to preliminary estimates from the Lee County Property Appraiser stating that home values may drop by as much as 30 percent.
Four out of the five school board members support the tax increase and Superintendent James Browder insisted that it is a one-time tax increase. A super majority of four board votes is needed to approve the increase.
Robert Chilmonik is the only school board member opposing a proposed tax increase because he said there are other non-academic areas where the district can make reductions — such as a $50 million transportation program that he says is 65 percent above the state average.
“Our transportation department is one of the most costly in the state and we’ve done nothing to look at those expenses and reduce them,” he said.
According to Chilmonik, recent discussions by the board to cut arts and music out of elementary schools is a scare tactic to get people to approve a tax increase.
“A scare tactic was used to scare parents and supporters of the arts into supporting a millage tax increase,” he said. “It was not my decision to cut arts programs. I am a strong supporter of arts and music, not only in magnet schools but in all schools.”
The board will decide in September whether a tax increase is levied, but Chilmonik said that even if people approve the proposal there is no guarantee the arts will be preserved. He added that the district has already shown its willingness to cut the arts in tough times.
The rest of the board is accusing Chilmonik of not doing everything that is necessary to save the arts and they place the blame square on the Florida Legislature, which is shorting the Lee County School District.
Board Vice Chairman Steve Teuber spent the spring lobbying legislators in Tallahassee to allow the optional one-year tax increase to benefit public education.
“While one board member has immediately opposed your initial presentation, we both know that this was due, in large part, to the desire to be the lone dissenter for the sake of media attention,” wrote Teuber in a letter to Browder.
On May 11, Teuber asked Chilmonik to come forward with additional information on his cost reduction strategies that can be discussed throughout the summer.
The board will continue discussing different strategies until the budget is passed.
In the meantime, the school board will meet again Tuesday. Black said she expects many people from the community to attend the meeting and voice their opinions on cutting the arts.