By Victoria Plettner Saunders
My name is Victoria Plettner-Saunders and I am one of the founders of the San Diego Alliance for Arts Education, a local advocacy network initiated by the California Alliance for Arts Education
. While our formal alliance launch was in May of 2010, we actually began to gain recognition for arts education advocacy with the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) in June 2009 when we successfully convinced the SDUSD School Board to remove the Visual and Performing Arts Department (VAPA) from a list of things to eliminate to save money. At that time, we were a consistent presence at school board meetings and our message was clear: a) we want to be in partnership with the district on arts education issues and b) “We aren’t going away.” Here’s what that meant in reality.
In May we officially launched the San Diego Alliance for Arts Education and invited the school board president Richard Barrera to talk to our invited guests about the status of arts education in the District. By July, I’m in his speed dial and he was calling for my help. The school board is voting on Tuesday to put forth a ballot measure for a parcel tax to create local revenues for the District’s budget, he says. He wants to know if we can help by coming down to speak in support of it. He explained what is now referred to as Prop. J. The funds will be distributed to each school on a per student basis and decisions about using the funds will be up to each school. However, they are to be used for student instruction only and not for administration or overhead. Wearing my advocacy hat, I asked him if there is specific language to ensure that visual and performing arts instruction can be a recipient of the funds. I am concerned about specific language for arts education because without it, principals could think that the funds can only be used for science, technology, English and mathematics instruction. He says he’ll make sure that arts education is included. I tell him that I will be there and I send out an email asking for others to come down in support as well.
At the meeting, I get up and make a presentation during which I remind them that “we aren’t going away.” This time I indicate that their prioritization of arts education is important to us and that we will support them in finding a way to continue funding it via the parcel tax. The presentation detailing what will happen if Prop. J doesn’t pass described the loss of athletics, increased class sizes; loss of GATE, and half day kindergarten, but nowhere is there any indication that arts education could be affected.
Afterwards, I asked Mr. Barrera why the presentation didn’t indicate that the arts will be victims of the budget ax. We both know that if the District doesn’t find new revenues, hard decisions will have to be made and we can’t expect to be “saved” while other equally as important budget items are lost. To which he replied, “To be honest with you Victoria, I think they’re scared to. Arts education advocates made so much noise last year when they put it on the elimination list.” I’d like to believe that’s true, but I’ve learned that their campaign managers have a different perspective on what polls well for these things and “arts programs” weren’t part of it. I don’t necessarily agree with them and it hasn’t stopped us from putting the word out there ourselves.
In August (so much for my summer work slow down) a group of us met with the Prop J. campaign manager to talk about how the arts community can help. You see, while they calculated that the loss of arts programs didn’t poll well as a campaign strategy, we know that arts supporters and parents do care and need to know the potential repercussions. In the end they recognized the importance of our work on behalf of Prop J and are giving us a page on the Prop J website that explains what will happen to arts education if it doesn’t pass.
And so for the rest of our summer “vacation” we strove to become the best team players we can be. We want to show the school board that the arts community cares about arts education and that we are willing to work for the greater good to help ensure its survival. Advocacy can often come down to relationships and leverage. Our strong show of support helps us to continue building a positive and productive relationship with the school board, which makes it harder for them to eliminate arts education in the coming budget decisions without communicating with us first. It is now September 7, summer is essentially over and my husband and I and other arts education advocates are gearing up to educate the arts community about Prop J and will start our first phone banking tonight. Election Day can’t come soon enough.
Editorial Note: The San Diego Alliance for Arts Education is also a participant in the California Alliance’s district election survey project. School board candidates will fill out a survey, which will published on the Alliance website starting in October, giving voters a way to learn more about the candidates’ views on arts education. The survey project is one more way that advocates in San Diego are bringing the importance of arts education to decision makers attention.