Petition seeks to restore arts funding at Mars Area School District
Erin Sloane, an art teacher in the Mars Area School District, has 200 more students this year than she did last school year.
She's one of four people who remain teaching art in the district after Mars, facing budget constraints, declined to replace two art teachers who retired in June.
Sloane, who has taught in the district for 16 years, said she worries about the impact of consolidation on students. This year, she has added teaching elementary students to her workload, something she does on Mondays.
“I am not at the high school on Monday. The students there don't seem to get much done when I'm not there, especially advanced students who are working on portfolios,” she said.
“We are just not getting as much done.”
School district officials say that while they understand concerns over cutbacks, they've been faced with increasing costs that they must address to keep Mars Area solvent.
“We were concerned about raising taxes and about the state budget, receiving less money from the state,” said Superintendent William Pettigrew. He said last year, Mars Area faced a $2.4 million deficit, owed largely to steep increases in pensions and healthcare costs.
While district revenue has increased in Mars Area — part of booming Butler County, which had a 4.2 percent growth in jobs last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics — the district still must be conservative, Pettigrew said, since mandated expenses continue to grow.
The district also reduced its staff of guidance counselors by two, although one job was later restored, and made cuts to art, foreign language, physical education programs.
That does not mollify proponents of the district's arts programs. As of Tuesday, 419 teachers and parents had signed a petition posted at change.org by high school science teacher Peters Black.
The school board, he said, “is cutting one of the most successful programs in the school. We had an amazing art program. I would compare the caliber of art shows here to that in much bigger school districts,” Black said.
“We all agree that arts and music are important,” said school board president Daryle Ferguson, who said community input is welcome.
But, she added, Mars Area faces spiraling costs, as most other districts are.
“Like every other school district, we are working with increases in costs like health care and pension costs and have had two tough budget years in a row,” Ferguson said, meaning the past two school years.
She did not know if the art positions would be restored. “We are just starting out the budget process for next year.”
Black said he does not ordinarily like petitions but organized this one because a previous one was successful.
“We did one earlier about guidance counselors. Two were furloughed, and they brought one back. I was not a big fan of petitions, but they do seem to work,” Black said.
He said the area's job growth and housing boom lead him to believe that the district can support arts programs.
Between March 2010 and March 2011, Butler County was sixth in job growth out of all counties nationwide.
Sloane said arts programs often are often the first to go when budget cuts are made since arts programs do not contribute toward tests scores that districts use to secure funding and promote their success.
“I appreciate any effort toward supporting the arts. Art supports creativity and innovation in the community. It is vital,” she said.
Rick Wills is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7944 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.