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Parents Get Creative to Save Milwaukee High School of the Arts

Finding funds during tough economic times

Aug. 19, 2009
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Rumors of the MilwaukeeHigh School of the Arts' demise have been greatly exaggerated. To be sure, the prestigious MPS specialty school is still on life support. But the recent financial troubles that led some to wonder if the school would fold appear to have been averted for the time being.

Go back three years, and the school had accumulated nearly $1 million in debt. The higher cost of running a specialty school, combined with declining federal support for such schools over the past decade, and an MPS decision several years ago to adopt a one-size-fits-all funding policy, had taken their toll.

"During that time, the school came to the conclusion that it could not run on the budget that was given to it," explains Barry Applewhite, principal of the MilwaukeeHigh School of the Arts (MHSA). While the school is funded like every other MPS high school, Applewhite says, the costs of running an arts program are much higher.

The school employs five to six times the number of arts faculty that a typical high school does. Its overhead is higher, since it must remain open at least 12 hours each school day and on many weekends to accommodate rehearsals. And it must shoulder the cost of presenting some 25 music, theater and dance productions each school year.

"When you're faced with that," Applewhite says, "you incur costs, and after a while it catches up with you."

Thus, as the 2006 school year began, MHSA had accumulated a deficit in excess of $900,000 and was forced to cut faculty in an effort to curb costs. The MPS central office responded by taking control of the school's budget. Rumors began to circulate that MHSA would not remain an arts specialty school beyond June of the following year.

Fearing the worst, a dedicated group of parents took matters into their own hands, explains Vince Katter, a member of MHSA's School Governance Council and the father of several MHSA graduates. "Parents went to the MPS School Board and said, 'If you close this school, you'll be destroying one of the gems of the Wisconsin school system,'" Katter adds.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction's Web site, MHSA students consistently earn higher academic scores than students in other MPS high schools. In many cases, MHSA scores also top high school scores across the state. In addition, attendance rates are regularly in the 95% range, according to Applewhite. Katter credits the arts curriculum with those successes.

"The arts is an excellent curriculum for students of any race, gender or background," he says. "You do well academically because you want to be there."

Recognizing that the school is indeed a "gem," MPS administrators agreed with MHSA parents to work out a rescue plan.

"The only thing that got us out of the fog," Applewhite says, "was the parental support that we have. Without that, this school would be closed."

In early 2007, MPS administrators agreed to restructure the MHSA debt. Borrowing from a fund called the Project Loan Acquisition Network (PLAN), which is financed by the budget surpluses of other MPS schools, MHSA was able to distribute its debt over 10 years, freeing up funds to hire back several teachers and ensure that the school doors would remain open.

In addition, MPS offered to grant the school "Mosaic Status" after three years, provided that MHSA kept up with its loan payments. According to Applewhite, "Mosaic Status" would have given the school greater autonomy over budget decisions, much like a charter school. But while MHSA has demonstrated the necessary fiscal responsibility, "Mosaic Status" has since been eliminated by MPS.

Still, MHSA is in better shape today than it was three years ago. Applewhite says that, while the school continues to incur a small deficit each year, it's manageable.

"The bottom line is that our mission is being a school of the arts," he says. "As long as we focus on our mission and use our resources to do that mission, we can go on."

One of those resources is the Catch A Rising Star (CARS) Foundation, an organization established by MHSA parents in 2004 to support public arts education in Milwaukee. CARS provides what help it can, though it struggles to find donors willing to financially support public schools, according to CARS President Vince Katter. He says many donors mistakenly think that MHSA gets all the money it needs from MPS.

Nevertheless, both Katter and Applewhite remain hopeful, calling attention to the high level of morale that has returned to the MHSA community.

"We have a program that is still alive, still attracting kids," explains Katter, who points out that the school maintains a waiting list for new students. "It's still an ongoing struggle the way it's funded every year, yet it's successful."

"Can MHSA survive as an arts school?" Applewhite asks. "I don't know." He points out that an arts school, by its very nature, must adapt and change. Yet MHSA continues to operate under a funding structure that hasn't changed in more than a decade, and isn't very kind to specialty schools.

One plan for changing that structure is the "Arts-Based Collaborative of Schools" (ABCs) concept. Dreamed up by many of the same MHSA parents who helped rescue the school in 2007, ABCs envisions a district-wide K-12-grade arts curriculum that would align the educational missions of the various MPS arts specialty schools.

The ultimate goal of ABCs would be to consolidate the three urban schools (ElmCreativeArtsElementary School, RooseveltMiddle School of the Arts and MHSA) within a single physical arts campus for students from kindergarten through high school. It could provide economies of scale as well as educational synergies. Unfortunately, the MPS School Board tabled consideration of ABCs at a recent meeting, citing large startup costs in a tough economy.

"But it's still out there," Applewhite emphasizes. "And we'll keep working toward it."

Dave Redemann is the parent of a current MHSA student and an MHSA graduate.

For more A&E coverage, visit ExpressMilwaukee.com.


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