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At L.A. Unified, arts funding requires creativity

March 14, 2009|SANDY BANKS

My column two weeks ago on Chatsworth High School's struggling drama department struck a nerve on and off campus.

Chatsworth alums lined up to donate, alarmed that the legendary theater program has fallen on such hard times that drama teacher Walt McDowell canceled the school's fall musical. He couldn't afford to pay a janitor to lock up after rehearsals, he said. "It would have been $450. Our annual budget is only $600."

School administrators were grateful for the alumni support but denied there is any financial crisis. Chatsworth principal Tim Guy said he thought the play had been postponed not canceled.

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"The money is there," Guy told me. The school has $7,000 in untouched arts grant funding. "All the teacher had to do is ask."

McDowell was surprised. He didn't know he could tap the grant to pay for janitors. It makes me wonder if these guys ever talk to one another.

But then this is drama, L.A. Unified-style -- replete with familiar conflicts and stock characters: The bloated bureaucracy puts the classroom last. The worn-out teacher won't go the extra mile. The principal under siege fights back.

Truly, the Chatsworth situation is more complicated than that. I'm sure both Guy and McDowell care about the students. But people tend to guard their turf when times get hard.

And times are tough at Los Angeles Unified, which will be slashing $10 million from arts budgets funding next school year.

School funding in the Los Angeles system has always resembled a maze, with hidden pots of money, myriad obscure funding sources and a raft of confusing regulations.

At Chatsworth, the student body leadership council controls some funds; the department chairs parcel out others. Student groups, such as the drama club and the baseball team, can host their own fundraisers. And private grants augment some program coffers.

Drama gets $600 annually for play production. If McDowell needs more, Guy said, "he has to ask the student body." And that might require cutting some other group's allotment.

In years past, McDowell said, his students raised hundreds of dollars through weekly sales of cupcakes and pizza on campus. But the principal put limits on that because it interfered with the district's focus on healthy food and cut into student-store proceeds.

That leaves the $7,000 grant -- a fund shared by dance, music, photography, art, drama and other arts classes.

McDowell wasn't sure what that money can be used for.

I think if it's still unspent seven months into the school year, either those other programs must be pretty flush, or their teachers probably don't know about the money pool either.

On a district level, officials are trying to put the best face on the educational implications of the financial crisis rocking programs like McDowell's. But it's awkward promising to shield the classroom when you're mailing pink slips to 5,000 teachers.

That's why I understand why Judy Elliott, the district's "Chief Academic Officer" would rather talk about the $600,000 grant the district received to plan the future of arts education than the huge arts cuts schools will face next year.

"We're working to preserve basic arts programs in the schools," she told me, "to make sure that every elementary school has at least two of the four arts -- music, dance, theater and art."

But 31 high school arts teacher positions are on the chopping block. And individual campuses get less money next year and have to decide how to spread the pain.

"We'll have to get creative to fill the needs," she said. "At the end of the day, people are saying, 'I'm glad I have a job next year.' "

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In the meantime, drama departments all over Southern California are relying on generosity to blunt budget cuts.

At Moreno Valley High, teachers pitched in with cash donations to fund the school's spring drama performance. At Pasadena High, parents and teachers helped write grants and hit up local businesses for money, so the school could produce its first musical in 20 years last fall.

Dozens of readers responded to my column with checks to help out McDowell's students, including the co-author of "Quilters," the play canceled when they ran low on money. Molly Newman offered to underwrite the production of her highly regarded musical.

"It's worth noting," she wrote me, "I started my career in the theater by acting in the fall play at my public high school."

That's really what it's all about -- offering opportunity to students. Every drama geek won't wind up a movie star, like Chatsworth alums Kevin Spacey, Val Kilmer and Mare Winningham. But some might wind up collecting an Oscar, like special effects wiz Howard Berger, who got his start in that same class.

Or just plain making a living at something they love, like Andy Daddario, who did the sound for Chatsworth's drama productions 30 years ago and now does post-production sound for movies and television shows.

He'll be making a contribution, he said, "because it's unbelievable, in the center of the motion picture business, that fine arts, music, electronics . . . isn't being taught like it used to be. And I would not be where I am today, had it not been for those years. Period."

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sandy.banks@latimes.com

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