Unlike some prior budget proposals in the Rochester school district, where the response from parents and teachers was swift and aggressive, the response to Superintendent Bolgen Vargas’s current budget proposal has been more of a slow build.
But last night’s public hearing on next year's budget drew a nearly packed conference room at the district’s central office, with parents and teachers concerned about cuts to music, arts, and some special programs.
Many parents from School 23 in the Park Avenue neighborhood told board members they're concerned about planned cuts to that school’s music instruction. Some questioned the rationale behind cutting music: sharing copies of several studies that show a correlation between music instruction and better math scores.
Others argued pointedly that the superintendent’s goal of reversing the decline in student population in city schools will fail unless he does a better job of boosting music and art offerings. Some parents said that even though they prefer to live in the city, suburban schools offer a more enriched educational experience.
Plans to stop funding the Alternative to Suspension program run by the Center for Youth also drew fire from teachers who work with students in the program. The program has helped students stay in school and graduate, they said.
Vargas has been talking about his budget proposal for months, and he’s been somewhat amenable to making revisions based on community feedback. He recently reversed his plan to close School 16 in the southwest section of the city following a relentless lobbying effort by residents of the 19th Ward.
But it’s unclear how much Vargas can do to satisfy teachers and parents while he’s facing a $50.2 million budget gap.
His administration prepared a three-page letter in anticipation of last night’s meeting. In the letter (see attached below), which was sent to parents, Vargas stressed that music instruction will continue in schools that already have it. He said his goal is to offer a balanced approach to the fine arts, including music. He said he's trying to even-out the distribution of the district’s resources, which has allowed some schools to have more fine arts instruction than others.
According to Vargas’s letter, students in most schools will receive 50 minutes of general music instruction and another 50 minutes devoted to visual arts per week.
For some schools, that will mean less instruction and for others it will mean more. Instrumental music, however, is an “enhancement” offered at the schools’ discretion.
The most revealing part of Vargas’s mailing to parents was a document called “Sample Elementary Master Schedule” for second-grade teachers. The largest time blocks for instruction, nearly a 90 minutes daily, are for English Language Arts and math. Students are expected to take multiple standardized tests in those subjects, and teachers will see their job performance evaluations linked to them for the first time.
In comparison, about 35 minutes of daily instruction is devoted to a rotating schedule of music, physical education, and art, according to the sample schedule. And while English and math instruction is offered daily, music, art, and physical education are offered about once or twice a week.
Vargas says his proposed budget greatly increases physical education to about 100 minutes per week for students in grades K to 6 compared to the current 60 minutes.
In prior public meetings, Vargas said few, if any teachers will lose their jobs. More budget hearings are scheduled.