By Brendan Browne
PS 173’s sixth-grade drama club managed to win a citywide southeast Asian dance competition though it had to patch together outfits from some recycled material. Facing performers from nine other schools, the students used an overhead projector and a curtain to create shadow puppets and a lot of creativity to tell a Bangladeshi folktale through dance.
The students triumphed with almost no financial backing from Project Arts, an arts education program that has been squeezed tightly by the city’s budget woes. Badly wounded by last year’s budget cutbacks, the program may be eliminated next year as schools are forced to slash spending.
PS 173, located at 174-10 67th Ave. in Fresh Meadows, is “hurt to the point that we hear that (Project Arts) will not be next year,” said Principal Joel Shulman. “It might be bare bones.”
Without Project Arts, PS 173 will have seriously reduced dance, theater, visual arts and music programs and the children certainly will not attend any operas in Lincoln Center as they did in the past. Parents and educators fear the situation will mirror the fiscal crisis of the 1970s when schools were largely stripped of their arts programs.
“What kills me is we were just picking ourselves up from what happened in the ‘70s. They’re going to put us back to where we were,” said Sharon Maurer, president of School Board 26, which oversees PS 173.
“Next year is going to be far worse than this year. Arts are the first thing to go and the last to be restored,” said Shulman. “The wheel is coming around again.”
School districts are scrambling to find ways to lower spending and PS 173 might have to cut its budget by 20 percent next year, Shulman said. The school has already reduced spending in ways like limiting the number of copies that can made to avoid expensive copy machine repairs. Next year a successful math program might lose funding just because it requires heavy use of the copy machine.
Facing a budget gap of nearly $5 billion, Mayor Bloomberg has proposed that the city slash the school budget by $358 million, which would compound the reductions of about $315 million last year. Shortly before students started school last summer the city cut $200 million and then another $115 after Sept. 11.
The mayor has said he would prefer not to cut education and there is hope that the state budget could include funds to help alleviate the city’s schools.
Some members of the City Council would like to stem the mayor's cuts to education. Council Speaker Gifford Miller (D-Manhattan) wants to build 23 new schools, refurbish others, and lease additional classroom space with funds partially from a new progressive income tax.
Still, school leaders have spoken in grave tones about the near future of school funding. In a memorandum sent to all city superintendents in March, the Board of Education’s chief financial officer, Beverly Donohue, suggested school districts should begin looking for ways to cut their budgets for fiscal year 2003. She recommended PS 173’s District 26 slash nearly $5 million, or about $300 per student. Other districts may have to lower spending by as much as $12.6 million.
Community school boards are also pressing the mayor to rein in the cuts to education. Deeply worried about the budget, they are mounting a letter-writing campaign to legislators, pushing them to bail out schools and enact the new tax the Council has proposed.
“If people are willing to take a surcharge, then the Council and state better be willing rather than be worried about it being an election year,” said Maurer. “We need to survive.”