Ethical Educator

Ethical Educator
                  Illustration by David Clark 

Cutting Arts or Sports?

Choosing which programs to cut because of inadequate funding to education is a no-win situation. However, a decision needs to be based on assessment of data and options, not on personal advantage for board members.

Scenario: The district faces a difficult budget decision between two cost-cutting proposals. One calls for eliminating the arts program in the three elementary schools. The other would eliminate organized sports at the one middle school. The board president’s daughter, an elementary student, is an avid artist and has won several awards. The board initially rejects cutting the sports program because of its impact on students’ physical health. On arts reduction, the other board members are split 2-2 (with a board member absent). The members ask the superintendent what he would prefer to cut.


Sarah MacKenzie:

Although one could claim the board member with the elementary school daughter who is an artist is biased, one could say that about any board member. It is certainly not a conflict of interest. Any concern about the president’s position is a non-starter.

I assume this vote occurs midway through the budget process. The district board has been working on proposals for a while and presumably still must please other stakeholders, especially governing bodies representing the town or towns, so I would think there is no need to force a vote or decision at this point. The first thing the superintendent might say is, “Let’s wait so the absent board member can weigh in on these proposals.”

Even with the opportunity to wait for a decisive vote, the superintendent would be wise to suggest the board re-examine the figures and see if there is a way to meet needs, with some adjustments, to both programs. Is there a way to pare down the arts program but still have viable offerings that keep elementary students progressing in their artistic interests? Should they consider focusing on organized sports that include the most numbers of students rather than sponsoring as many sports as they do presently? Or, if the goal is to maintain or enhance student health in the middle school, perhaps they could consider intramural sports rather than teams that compete interscholastically.

My point, then, is to have the superintendent attempt to have board members consider a “both/and” approach to the budget rather than making “either/or” decisions. This requires more work and more conciliation, but in the long run, it could pay off in terms of student needs and in terms of elected officials recognizing there are creative ways to solve what seem like insurmountable impasses.


Shelley Berman:

Given the division on the board over which program to cut, and the need to demonstrate that students come first, it may be wise to review data on both programs and explore other options. How many students are involved in each program? What is the per-pupil cost? Are there ancillary benefits such as preparation time for classroom teachers when students are at art or active engagement of students with academic and physical challenges in the athletics program? Can modest reductions be made to both programs that would achieve the same financial savings? Are there fundraising possibilities that could sustain some aspects of the sports program? With support, can art be well integrated into daily classroom instruction?

The superintendent needs to gather the data, weigh the options and then make a recommendation to the board that offers the greatest advantage possible for the most students.


Mark Hyatt:

Democracy in action! As superintendent, I suggest empowering a committee of stakeholders to make the recommendation to the school board. I’d ensure sure all groups have representation on this committee. As long as the process is fair, equitable and transparent, the administration can remain neutral on this controversial issue.

Tough choices like this require maximum community input. In the end, the stakeholder-elected school board can make the decision that is best for the community.


 Roy Dexheimer:

Ask me that question as a superintendent, and I’d answer “neither.” But if something has to go, then I believe there is an imperative to keep the option that affects the most students.  

As for the school board president’s kid, that is a non-factor in this situation. If the youngster has a special talent, voluntary tutoring in her free time might help. But the needs of one youngster should not dictate the needs of many youngsters. Just wait until it is a scintillating All-County running back, and you try to replace football with a much less costly soccer program.