Los Angeles schools budget woes hit arts programs hard

Debra Engle went to a celebration of the city school district’s arts program with a dark cloud hanging over her head.

Like almost 7,000 other school district employees, Engle had received a preliminary layoff notice earlier this year and could lose her job by midsummer. For the last several years, the Los Angeles Unified School District has faced large budget shortfalls and the school board has approved cutting positions and programs to try to balance the budget.

The nation’s second-largest school system is facing an estimated $408-million shortfall, and many unions have agreed to their members’ taking four unpaid days off. But, depending on the state’s budget, district officials could still approve cutting jobs over the summer.

“The amount of stress that it brings is horrible,” said Engle, as musicians played and guests sipped coffee and ate finger food in the courtyard of the Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools complex during Saturday night’s benefit event.


Almost no academic program has been spared, but Los Angeles Unified’s arts program has been particularly hard hit. In 2008, there were 335 full-time elementary arts teachers. This year, after state and federal funding dried up, there are about 250, according to district officials. The district and state have also allocated less funding to the arts.

Many teachers say they have to travel to more schools, spending as little as one day a week at each campus.

“It doesn’t give you the chance to build much sustainability,” said Ginger Rose Fox, who teaches at 10 schools in the San Pedro area. Last year, she worked at seven.

Others said it was sometimes difficult to scrounge up enough materials for class.

“I’ve had to beg principals to allocate money for one ream of white drawing paper,” said Michael Blasi, who teaches at nine campuses in South Los Angeles.

Many who attended the benefit, which included a silent auction and student performances, said they were concerned that scores of campuses are not offering a full slate of arts programs. This year students at the City of Angels Bellevue campus could take instrumental music, visual arts and dance. Instructors who taught those classes have received preliminary layoff notices, and some worry that those programs could be cut back in the future.

“Not all kids want to do theater. We have a lot of kids who are shy and don’t want to be singing,” said Katy Hickman, a theater teacher at the campus. “You need a critical mass of colleagues to offer a robust program.”

Because layoffs are based on length of service, many teachers said they were trying not to spend too much time thinking about when they were hired to calculate their odds of keeping their jobs — the less seniority they have, the more vulnerable they are.


“I don’t know where I am” on the layoff list, said Blasi, who has received layoff notices two years in a row but so far has managed to avoid losing his position. “I’m afraid to ask.”