A dirge for treasured arts programs that L.A. schools plan to cut

Belmont High School band director Brian Higa works with trumpeter Mayra Torres during Pep Band rehearsal at Belmont High School near downtown Los Angeles. The music program Higa has developed is scheduled to be eliminated.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)

Music teacher Brian Higa was mopping his floor Tuesday morning in a Belmont High School classroom lined with two glittering walls of shiny trophies, a couple of them nearly as tall as his students.

“The blue and red ones are for all-city champs, 1988 and 1989,” said Higa, who has taught music to Belmont students for a solid quarter-century and was once a student at the school himself. On his desk was an orchestra plaque, from the 1970s, with his name on it.

Next year, Higa will get bumped to an unknown teaching job somewhere in the district. His lovingly developed music program — and probably the school’s marching band too — will be history.


The usual.

Nobody knows exactly how many teachers and programs will get thrown under the bus this year, provided the district still has buses, but it could be bad, given the grim state budget forecasts and no consensus on how to stop the bleeding.

“Core content classes such as English, math, social studies and science are mandatory and must take priority when budgets are cut,” says a written statement on the Belmont music program from the Los Angeles Unified School District.

It goes on to suggest that although “this beloved teacher will not continue” despite the quality of the program he built, “exploratory music and band instruction will be retained, and offered before and after school.”

Yeah, we’ll see how that goes.

With the speed of a boulder plummeting off a cliff, we’re headed for a day when public education in Los Angeles is little more than constant drilling on the three Rs all morning, and nothing but testing after lunch.

Elementary school art is also scheduled to get bulldozed into the landfill of better days, and with it the creativity and abstract thinking art education promotes.

Three years ago, the district had 355 roving elementary school instructors teaching dance, music, theater and visual arts. The plan was to expand the program to 500 teachers. Instead, their ranks have been slashed, with only about 240 left, and almost all of them have been informed they won’t be back next year — at least not as art teachers.

The impact?

“I could go on for days,” said Robin Lithgow, the district’s elementary art coordinator. “The arts are a solution right in front of us for all kinds of issues. Issues of building empathy in children, critical thinking, building creativity of course, building community, collaborative skills, thinking outside the box.”

Budgetary restrictions are real, Lithgow acknowledged, but art instruction shouldn’t be considered a luxury. It is crucial to producing “thriving students,” as so many of the world’s civilized nations have concluded, and yet it is sacrificed in the U.S. to a so-called race to the top.

“Testing is taking over,” said Lithgow. “Everybody is saying the same thing — that this obsession with data and scores is destroying public education, but nobody can stop it.”

Yes, she sounds exasperated, and I don’t blame her. As a parent, I’m exasperated too.

The problem begins in Sacramento, which keeps pinching the hose because legislators can’t muster the courage to enact long-term guarantees for education revenue streams.

And elected officials aren’t the only impediments to sensible solutions.

The LAUSD and United Teachers Los Angeles have haggled interminably over how many furlough days teachers might be willing to accept in order to help close a budget deficit and thereby avoid some layoffs. I hear they now may also be trying to figure out how to make additional adjustments later, if shortfalls trigger more trouble.

You have to wonder how, if they can’t meet halfway on furlough days after dozens of negotiating sessions, they’ll ever hammer out a deal on the billions of dollars in promised but unfunded retirement benefits, some of which — including health insurance plans — are pretty handsome.

I have news for both sides:

While you’re negotiating, extending uncertainty into eternity, I hear more and more parents talk about pulling their kids out in favor of charter or private schools because they’ve lost faith that the district will ever get it together.

And they may have a point. On Tuesday we learned that the parcel tax the district had planned to put on the November ballot is now being yanked.

And then there was the debacle last week involving a sexual harassment claim against former Supt. Ray Cortines by an employee he recruited. The district hired an outside lawyer and PR firm because this was a “sensitive matter,” then bungled the deal in announcing a settlement — $200,000, plus lifetime benefits worth $250,000 — for the alleged victim. The alleged victim’s lawyers say the announcement was made without their client’s consent, and that the lifetime benefits were supposed to be valued at $300,000.

For this, the district hired outside PR?

Ten people work in the LAUSD media office. Surely one of them could have screwed up this “sensitive matter” as badly as any outside contractor. And what did outside counsel and PR cost? I’ll let you know when the district answers my questions about that.

What I can tell you is that at Belmont High, Brian Higa would love to have had a fraction of what the district paid outsiders to handle the Cortines matter. He told me his budget for supplies this year was $500, which means he repairs most of the ancient instruments himself.

Javier Espinoza, a junior, told me he’s transferring out of Belmont because Higa will be gone. Mei Kwan told me she felt out of place after moving to the U.S. from China until she found “my family” in the music program.

It was like a family, Vanesa Yanez agreed.

“And he is like the father of the family.”

A sad song, indeed.