Art teacher Mary Kulas and the six part-time artists who work with her were understandably saddened to learn that their program, Artist in the Classroom, is part of a budget reduction package that will be brought to the next Grand Forks School Board meeting on April 12.

The plan, being developed by the board’s Finance Committee and school administrators, is intended to put the district on a more sound financial footing. Numerous areas are being considered for budget reduction for the 2021-22 school year, with input from staff members throughout the district, Superintendent Terry Brenner said in a memo to the Finance Committee.

“Every position, expenditure and alternative funding source was considered for reduction, restructure or elimination,” Brenner said.

Finance Committee members and school district administrators are working on a plan to cut about $4.4 million from the district’s 2021-22 budget. Difficult decisions must be made to solve the budgetary challenges that have worsened in recent years, administrators and School Board members say.

“I am very very sad that this program is going away,” said Kulas, coordinator of the Artist in the Classroom program. “I really feel kids need this in their school day, (their) week.”

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The Artist in the Classroom staff members have provided art instruction in grades K-12 for nearly 30 years, said Kulas, who has been involved in the program since its inception.

If the program is discontinued, Kulas has been told, the responsibility for art education will fall to the classroom teachers, she said. “And the classroom teachers’ schedules are so packed and there’s so much loaded on them that to have another thing is, I think, going to be really tough.”

Kulas is the only full-time employee out of the seven involved in the Artist in the Classroom program, which accounts for $185,000 in the district’s 2020-21 budget. Art is not mandated in the North Dakota Century Code.

In grades 1-5, her program staff interact with students an hour a week for one semester, she said. Kindergarteners receive instruction in 10 45-minute sessions.

Impact of budget reduction

The Artist in the Classroom Program is one of several areas that may be impacted by the budget reduction plan. Across the district, those who could be affected by the plan have received notices that their position or program is under consideration for budget reduction.

Eight teachers could be impacted if the School Board approves the plan.

Final decisions about specifically which individuals will be impacted have not been made and are still being worked out by school district administrators, principals and others, said Scott Berge, the district’s business manager. But he expects that a list, including names of the affected individuals, will be presented to the board April 12.

Most of the budget reductions “can be accommodated by a shift in responsibility or delivery, and will not eliminate critical facets of our programming or operations,” Brenner said in the memo to the Finance Committee. “Staff reductions were a necessary component of this exercise, as staffing comprises nearly 85% of our overall general fund budget.”

The budget reduction plan would mean – among other impacts – increased class sizes, fewer special topics choices, loss of instructional coaching and less money for supplies.

At the state legislative level, there’s a great deal of uncertainty about the next biennium, and much hinges on what legislators will decide to do about the state’s per-pupil payment rate for the next biennium, Berge said. That rate may be increased in each of the next two academic years or there may be no increase at all, Berge has told the School Board, but he does not foresee it increasing by more than 1%.

The Grand Forks School District is dependent on the state, because it provides about two-thirds of the district’s revenues, Berge said.

The Legislature is also in the process of determining how schools can use federal ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief) II and III funds, he said. Those decisions will affect what past district expenses – dating back to March 2020 – qualify for reimbursement, as well as what future expenses may be covered by these funds.

Nearly three decades

For Kulas, the budget reduction would mean the loss of the Artist in the Classroom program that began in 1993, with art instruction in a few classrooms, she said. It expanded to all classrooms in 1994.

The program began with six sessions in each classroom and “it didn’t take too many years for it to build up to the higher number of sessions for each classroom,” she said.

Decades ago, the initial push for art education in Grand Forks Public Schools came from parents. There was a “Picture Lady” program that brought volunteer parents into the classroom and regular classroom teachers were also providing art instruction, Kulas said. But parents “really felt that their children needed more structured art (education) than that was providing, so they started ArtWise, which is still in effect – and will not go away, even if the Artist in the Classroom goes away.”

Members of ArtWise, a nonprofit group, raise money to support the Artist in the Classroom program, through a raffle, calendar sales and grant-writing.

In an email to the Herald, Kulas said, “I am proud that the Artist in the Classroom program has served every single elementary student in Grand Forks Public Schools with high-quality art instruction since 1993, not only those students whose parents had the time and money to afford art classes outside the school.

“Our lessons cover art history, art processes and art techniques, using a wide variety of art materials,” she said. “We are often able to create intersections with other learning areas such as social studies or mathematics, and students have been able to build fine-motor skills with tools and materials they do not normally use.”

Kulas has seen the impact of the creative process on students.

“(They) develop a true sense of accomplishment as they create their artwork,” she said.

Terri Berg, who has been involved in the program for about 15 years and has taught students in kindergarten and first grade, has also seen the reactions of very young children when they’re introduced to an art project.

“Their imaginations are incredible,” Berg said. “They’re all, like, ‘wow’ – they get so excited. Everything is magical.”

If the Artist in the Classroom program is discontinued, “we’re really going to miss going into the classroom,” she said.

She and her fellow program staff members work in conjunction with classroom teachers, who remain in the room to provide art instruction.

Kulas said she hopes the program could return in the future, if possible, but “I think it would be really hard if the program were to be completely dissolved."

“We have a wonderful stock of materials and supplies” in the program’s office at Ben Franklin Elementary School, she said. These are supplies “that, in a normal year, we’re able to bring and share with the students, using chalk and oil pastel and paints and many many other things.

“And, I think, that if the program is closed down, it would really be difficult to build so many things back up.”