An ugly budget picture prompts a cut in Montgomery magnet art program

Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 7, 2010

In a year in which school systems across the country are contending with deep cuts to programs, ballooning class sizes and layoffs, a blip in the nearly $100 million in cuts to the Montgomery County schools budget has drawn surprising outrage: one teacher being eliminated from one program at one high school.

The cuts, which are to be finalized at a Board of Education meeting Tuesday, include halving the staff at an arts magnet program at Einstein High School in Kensington -- from two teachers to one. The move, which will save about $65,000, has spawned angst, petitions and heated debate.

Parents and students, some of whom credit the award-winning program started in the 1970s with saving them academically, say that the change, although small in dollar amount, will have an outsize impact on the program's future. Hundreds of people have signed a Facebook petition asking that the decision be reversed.

"It's a hidden jewel of the school system," said Susan Katz Miller, who has spearheaded efforts to save the teaching slot. Her daughter is a sophomore in the program. "This will be a blow that is very hard to sustain long-term," she said.

Layoffs have drawn the most attention in this tough budget year, but even schools that have escaped job cuts are being forced to scale back their ambitions. Montgomery public schools, viewed by many as among the top in the country, are no exception.

Montgomery officials say they have little choice when $97 million needs to be slashed and they are expecting an additional 2,800 students next school year.

Two dozen layoffs are planned in the system, but cuts are being made to professional development, support staff, counselors and other programs that schools say help them get ahead.

All Washington area school systems have had to contend with significant budget cuts this year. Fairfax County eliminated most summer school. Prince George's County expects to lay off hundreds, and employees are facing furloughs of up to two weeks.

The national scene is bleak as well, with Education Secretary Arne Duncan and others saying 100,000 to 300,000 teachers could lose their jobs this year. Congress is debating whether to channel more money to schools, but the proposal's prospects are unclear.

Building a portfolio

Students who are accepted into Einstein's Visual Art Center typically take 90 minutes of art a day during their first two years of high school, learning the basics of design, drawing and painting. During their final two years, they take art for two hours and 15 minutes a day, developing portfolios that they can use to try to get into college art programs.

In past years, students have trekked from throughout Montgomery to participate in the program. Graduates routinely head to top programs across the country -- including Cooper Union, Syracuse and Parsons -- and rake in scholarship money, too -- $2.3 million this year alone, by the teachers' count.

Last week, freshmen and sophomores spent one morning honing perspective techniques and working on triptychs. They gathered around Jane Walsh, the teacher who is being cut from the program and reassigned to teach regular art classes at the school, as she gave a demonstration. Then they split off to do their own work as Walsh circulated through the classroom.

"It's really different from normal art classes," said sophomore Molly Swyers, who spends her mornings at Einstein and returns to Montgomery Blair High School for the rest of her classes. In regular art class, "half the kids are just there to get an easy A," she said. The two teachers in the art magnet, by contrast, "don't baby you."

"The county is just looking at it as an art class with two teachers and you can cut one," she said. She and other students said that they benefited from having the perspectives of two teachers and that they were worried about the changes to the program.

Continuing despite the cuts

Walsh, who has taught in the program for a decade, and her counterpart, Michael Piechocinski, who began there in 1998, said the program will go on even if Walsh is elsewhere in the school. Piechocinski said 66 students have signed up for next year's program. It will be compressed into five 45-minute class periods, rather than the current seven periods.

Board of Education President Patricia O'Neill said that she wished the board didn't have to make the cut -- she has one of Walsh's paintings in her home -- but that there was little breathing room in the budget. The program originally had one teacher, officials said. The second was added as more students came to the magnet who weren't enrolled at Einstein. The number of those students has dropped as policy changes have made it easier to transfer to the school.

"In every single place in this district, we're looking at zero-based budgeting," O'Neill said.

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