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BEA votes to drop art position

Board’s 4-2 decision comes after reports of declining enrollment

March 19, 2017
Cody Benjamin - Register Staff Writer ( , Faribault County Register

The arts are important.

No one at Monday's standing-room-only Blue Earth Area School Board meeting disagreed with that.

Board members and BEA superintendent Evan Gough took turns, in fact, recounting personal stories of grade-school art experiences. So, too, did some of the roughly 40 guests who packed into the BEA Elementary School down the hall from the district office.

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But reality, as Gough, fill-in board chairman Jesse Haugh and a few of the other elected BEA officials called it, could not necessarily grant the demands of the masses at Monday's gathering pleas to replace a future retiree in the district's art department.

Years-long trends of plunging district-wide revenue and enrollment, including a 63-student drop-off just from the 2015-16 school year, fueled Gough and the BEA administration's recommendation to, among other changes, approve a reduction in the art staff for 2017-18.

"This is a very negative situation," said Haugh, standing in for an absent Frankie Bly. "But it's a very real situation."

With a recent history of deficit spending and a school-district population that has lost more than 2,600 residents since 1997, Gough explained that budget cuts even ones in the arts are a displeasing, albeit vital, part of keeping BEA afloat.

"Our classes are moving from 85 to 100 students per grade to about 70 to 85 per grade," he said. "I realize the perception, but we're getting smaller. This is rural Minnesota."

A one-position art reduction, Gough added, would still keep BEA's ratio of students to full-time art teachers comparable to other regional school districts, even if it would also be the largest ratio BEA has seen in nearly two decades. And with the district also currently employing another teacher with art licensure, there would not necessarily be a severe lack of K-12 art staff.

"We want to maintain opportunities and also staff attrition," Gough said. "Our principals are smart people, they'll figure this out, and we'll be OK."

Seven of the public guests at Monday's meeting identified themselves and wondered aloud whether the district would, in fact, be OK. Some were local parents and others were teachers at BEA, and they cast their concerns regarding the apparent de-emphasis of arts by BEA beyond this school year.

Quietly backed by a crowd including district employees who had pledged in a public "Support The Art Program at BEA" Facebook group simply to attend the meeting, Marlene Hanson kicked things off.

"I think we're all aware of how important the fine arts are in brain development," said Hanson, a retired BEA teacher who now works with the Faribault County Food Shelf. "The school website says 'BEA empowers students to reach their full potential' and 'excellence for all,' and we really need the arts to maintain excellence."

The board acknowledged Hanson's points, agreeing that art classes are no less important than other classes or extracurriculur activities that undergo evaluation come budget season.

Some guests, however, suggested that if the board's decision regarding program reductions did not reflect its verbal commitment to the arts, they would consider relocating to another school district.

United Hospital District's Aaron Johnson, practicing family medicine in Wells and Blue Earth and with children in BEA schools, was among them.

"If there's a precedent that is set with this, it's easy to keep going down that path for economics, and I can tell you from experiences in the community, if it weren't for the arts, you would not even have an emergency room or a hospital (in town)," Johnson said. "I promise you that if that commitment to arts changes, we will move."

Paul Johnson, BEA's choir instructor, was not as prepared to guarantee his departure in the wake of potential art reductions. But he shared similar fears regarding what one reduction might mean for other departments down the road.

"We want to stay in this district, but we want to make sure opportunities are there," said Johnson, accompanied by his wife, Kristin, a K-5 music teacher at BEA. "If there's no way to avoid this, it does make me concerned for music in the future as well."

Perhaps no response to those concerns was as poignant, stirring a suddenly silent meeting room, as when Gough acknowledged that district enrollment problems suggest the one-position art reduction is merely a result of a harsh local reality.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he said, "this conversation is just the beginning."

It certainly did not stop others from voicing their support for a continuation of the soon-to-be-vacant spot in the art department.

Zac Huntley, a 2009 BEA graduate and owner of Freshly Cut Media in Blue Earth, reread his letter to the editor published in the March 13 Faribault County Register, warning that a decision either not to replace an art instructor or "finagle" other teachers' schedules would put "the school on the fast-track to eliminating classes" altogether.

Others cited the arts' influence on local business, claimed the board was not as "worried about taking things away" from programs like athletics and listed National Art Education Association facts about kids' need for artistic expression.

And yet, even in nodding to many of the public's points, the BEA board did not back down in defending the district's plan. Reviewing revenue and enrollment reports from fiscal services coordinator Alan Wilhelmi and noting that, at least immediately, no high-school art classes would be dropped and only a sixth-grade art elective would be lost, four of the six board members voted to approve the administration's recommendation for the staffing reduction.

Amber Patten and Jeremy Coxworth, who hinted at tabling a decision, cast votes of opposition to the plan, which also included a nonrenewal of an elementary teaching position.

But Haugh and fellow board members Sheila Ripley, Susan Benz and Sara Hauskins all gave their seal of approval.

"Nobody likes less of anything," said Ripley. "I have kids in the arts. But we can't ignore the fact that we're already deficit spending."

Haugh agreed.

"It's not easy for anybody up here," he said.

And it will not necessarily be easy for the schools, where principals Rich Schneider, Melissa McGuire and Dave Dressler said they will ultimately have to craft adjusted art schedules.

In a community, however, where Gough said fewer babies are being born, revenue via state aid has dwindled and years of open-enrollment and smaller kindergarten classes have left BEA with falling numbers, the board's reduction proponents said a staffing change was an inevitable step in balancing the budget.

"Maybe it seems like the easy way out, but I haven't heard anyone suggest an alternative for getting us out of the deficit," Ripley said. "And for our staff, I'd hope you at least appreciate that we brought this forward rather than just cutting things."

With the 4-2 vote and the recommended curtailing of the art program solidified, all but a few of the guests made an early exit from Monday's meeting.

As passions clashed with the district's financial hardships, so did the reactions to an anticipated decision.

One guest walked out with tears welling up. Another stayed after the meeting to thank the board for its work in overseeing such a polarizing plan one not unlike countless education-funding tightropes nationwide.



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