Parents irate over cuts to EBR arts magnet school program

Faced with a directive to cut 8 percent of its $2 million budget, an art-focused magnet school in Baton Rouge is planning to cut its visual arts teacher, a move that has angered parents and sparked a charged meeting Tuesday night in the school auditorium.

The meeting was prompted by an online petition drive launched over the weekend by a couple of parents. By Tuesday night, they had collected 136 signatures.

“I know that you’re angry about this. I feel your anger. I’m angry that I have to do this,” said Mark Richterman, principal of the Baton Rouge Center for Visual and Performing Arts, which opened its doors in 1996.

Richterman, who has worked in education for 44 years, said he also is cutting another office position at the school, but wouldn’t identify who was being cut. He made it clear he is not changing his mind and deciding what to eliminate is his choice alone.

“I’m where the rubber meets the road,” he said.

Richterman pledged to keep the school’s focus on visual arts strong, by having his magnet lead teacher, Renee Miller, a former visual arts teacher herself, work with teachers once a week to have visual art lessons in the classroom. He said he got the idea from a magnet school he visited in New York.

“Art was all over that school,” he said.

That was clearly not a satisfactory answer to many of the almost 30 parents in the audience, who say they chose the elementary school specifically for its emphasis on the arts.

“This school is not like any other school,” said Jessica Eberhart, a parent. “Arts are at the core of what this school is about. That’s why we’re fighting so hard and not to have it chipped away slowly over time.”

Neil Cheong, who has three kids enrolled at the school and a former elementary music teacher herself, was among parents upset over the staff cutback. She suggested losing the position means that visual arts will fall by the wayside.

“It’s a foolish and disrespectful choice to put more on the backs of classroom teachers,” Cheong said.

The East Baton Rouge Parish school system is projecting it will spend nearly $29 million more than it takes in during the 2014-15 fiscal year unless it makes cuts.

To help make up the difference, Superintendent Bernard Taylor has directed principals of the 80-plus schools to cut 4 percent to 8 percent of their budgets.

Schools where 90 percent or more of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, an indicator of student poverty, would have to cut only 4 percent. Schools with modest levels of student poverty, including many of the magnet schools, are having to cut 8 percent of their budgets.

Schools such as the Baton Rouge Center, with many non-core “ancillary” teachers who teach outside of core subjects, are particularly vulnerable.

The school has five people in that category, including teachers in creative writing, dance, general music, instrumental music and visual arts.

Richterman said the financial picture is not likely to improve, noting legislative efforts to remake the school system and the growth of charter schools.

“We’re under attack,” he said. “EBR is under attack.”

The prospect of losing a visual arts teacher led many parents Tuesday to ask if there were ways they could raise money privately to maintain the position.

Jason Shackelford, who has a son in fourth grade at the school, said the Baton Rouge Center already is drifting away from its special emphasis on the arts to focus increasingly on test preparation.

Getting rid of a visual arts teachers will mean that visual arts will decline to just drawing, leaving out sculpture, mixed media and other modes of artistic expression, he said.

Echoing other parents, Shackelford said the principal should have reached out to them earlier for input.

“He created adversaries when he didn’t have to,” he said.