As budgets tighten, community partnerships key in arts education

Chair of statewide arts agency says partnerships help schools benefit from arts grants

Dr. Mark Miller, superintendent for the Juneau School District, gives an overview of the district’s budget at the Juneau Chamber of Commerce’s weekly luncheon at the Moose Lodge on Thursday, Jan. 11, 2018. Appearing with Miller are Brian Holst, school board president, left, Ted Wilson, Director of Teaching and Learning, center, and Bridget Weiss, Director of Student Services, right. (Michael Penn | Juneau Empire)

Speaking at the Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Thursday, Juneau School District Superintendent Mark Miller was frank about the school district’s current budget situation.


Statewide funding per student has remained flat in recent years, Miller explained, not taking inflation into account. Meanwhile, the amount of money the school district is spending per student is rising.

“If your costs are going up and your revenue is going down, at some point those two trains collide,” Miller said. “Unfortunately, that’s about to happen.”

Since 2011, Miller said, the school district has made $11 million in cuts and eliminated 92 positions. JSD Teaching and Learning Director Ted Wilson explained that the number of arts-related electives has dwindled as well.

As a result of budget cuts, there are fewer electives and fewer elective teachers than there were five years ago, Wilson said.

Ben Brown, the chair of the Alaska State Council on the Arts (ASCA), was sitting in the front of the room at Thursday’s luncheon and raised the issue of lack of resources in arts education specifically. He said that when he was growing up, theater was his favorite class and it was part of the reason he was excited to go to school every day.

Wilson spoke about a grant from the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation that has gone to elementary schools to encourage arts education. The $550,000 grant was announced in late 2015, and is funding a program called “Artful Teaching” that trains teachers on how to get students more engaged in arts-related topics.

Wilson also said there will soon be courses offered at Juneau-Douglas High School and Thunder Mountain High School about Alaska Native formline design, made possible by a grant awarded to Sealaska Heritage Foundation.

Brown spoke on that point after the luncheon, saying that it’s vital for school districts to partner with local and state arts organizations in this time of tight budgets. He pointed specifically to the way the Juneau Lyric Opera partnered with Thunder Mountain High School last year to put on a production of “Into The Woods,” saying that was a valuable experience that wouldn’t have been the same if Thunder Mountain’s theater program had tried to do it on its own.

“When you do that,” Brown said of partnering with arts organizations, “grant money that wouldn’t be able to go straight to a school district but comes through a local or state arts agency becomes increasingly available.”

He said that without grants from organizations such as the Margaret A. Cargill Foundation and the Rasmuson Foundation, arts education around the state would be in a vastly different place. Grants from organizations such as these have helped fund programs that ASCA runs, including artist residencies in schools, after-school programs and more.

While school districts should be pursuing community partnerships, Brown said, arts agencies should be looking to help as well.

“Basically,” Brown said, “what it comes down to is local arts agencies and state arts agencies (need) to be more proactive about partnering with school districts.”

• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.


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