School’s Out

Out of sight, out of mind and, next year, out of money

If you have kids, you know that June 2 was one of the most-anticipated days of the year. Besides Christmas, there is no day that looms as large on the calendar, or that holds as much promise for a marked improvement in the quality of life. It was big—end-of-the-school-year big.

Summer means vacation, sleeping in, the dream of watching TV all day—which in reality is feckless and awful, or at least that’s how I remember it—and hanging out with friends. For slackers, summer means summer school, which is hot, boring and redolent of failure. Enjoy summer while you can, kids, because when you get old all it means is you get a break from driving your kids to school.

But this year summer has brought me one tangible benefit: a respite from pondering the disaster facing Clark County public schools. See, we have this little budget problem. Keith Rheault, the state’s superintendent of public instruction, used the term “catastrophic” to describe it in an April article in the Las Vegas Sun. That’s a heavy word, and not one you hear often from bureaucrats. I don’t think he’s exaggerating.

The fiscal year 2011 budget, adopted in May, managed to swallow a $145 million shortfall, primarily by going to nine-month elementary schools and cutting administrative positions. But that’s really nothing compared with the $200 million to $300 million shortfall, out of a $2.1 billion operating budget, coming in both 2012 and 2013. Just like the Mayans predicted, we are screwed.

So when your summer idyll grows stale, you might want to start preemptively recalling the days when you didn’t have to buy all of your kids’ textbooks, when classes had fewer than 50 students in them, when there were these things called “extracurricular activities,” when the curriculum included music and the arts, in addition to math and science.

Don’t start fretting just yet; all that stuff is safe for the 2010-2011 school year. The cuts for fiscal 2011, which starts July 1, were deep, but not all that apparent to the casual school user. Teachers and administrators felt them, but a lot of parents actually rejoiced in the elimination of 12-month elementary schools. If my youngest wasn’t middle-school bound next year, I’d have been dancing the aisles; year-round school is—was—an abomination.

But I’m getting my doomsday predictions done early. And I’m going to go ahead and start getting my head around the reality of school being a very different place in the near future. The “extras,” I think, are going away. Music feels like a particularly soft target, which is unfortunate because it’s a marker of how a community defines education: Do our kids just need readin’, writin’ and ’rithmatic, or is culture something we also value enough to pay for?

Given the state of schools, you may be surprised to know that CCSD actually has a top-notch music-instruction program. I’m new around here, and I know I was.

“Clark County’s music program is absolutely exemplary,” says Harold Weller, the founding music director of the Las Vegas Philharmonic. Weller ought to know. He’s had a 45-year career as music director of orchestras in Ohio, Virginia, Arizona and New Mexico and in that time he’s worked with many school districts. “Without question, the school system in Clark County is the best of them,” he says

There’s the Las Vegas Academy, of course, a high school where the curriculum is built around music and the performing arts. But music instruction in the district starts in earnest in the sixth grade, and the school district employs 521 music instructors—215 at the elementary level and 306 for grades six to 12—who teach kids and put them in bands, orchestras and choirs. They even provide the instruments.

And in the coming years that will sound like a perfect place to start hacking. Not every kid is going to grow up to be Yo-Yo Ma anyway, and those who display some musical aptitude can just get private lessons for about $50 an hour, right?

That’s one way to look at it. Weller has another. “The idea is not to be a professional musician,” he says. “The idea is to be a better citizen, so when pop culture hits them in the face they say, ‘I have this. I have something of substance.’”

Music can be a pathway to a better life for a lot of kids, and not just in some ethereal “quality of life” way. As Weller notes, it can lead to college scholarships and grants for kids who otherwise might not be going to college.

All of the same arguments can be made for sports and the performing arts, and they will all look like good places to save money.

Just to be clear, no one is talking yet about how CCSD is going to make up $200 million to $300 million budget shortfalls in 2012 and 2013, and no one is suggesting gutting extracurricular activities or music instruction. But if you think that the problem is going away, or that the school district will be able to somehow absorb the hit without a lot of pain, you’re as delusional as a senatorial candidate. These are the good old days. Enjoy your summer.