When Mayor Mike McGinn takes the stage tonight at the town hall he's hosting at Youngstown Cultural Arts Center, his opening act will be an awesome youth breakdance crew called the Vicious Puppies.
The only problem: The group, funded through the nonprofit Arts Corps, just got word this week that its city funding has been eliminated. Under the new voter-approved Families and Education Levy, funds have increased to support low-income kids and kids of color, and the mayor has also begun a citywide campaign to discuss the importance of arts education—but paradoxically, not a single arts organization was deemed "qualified" for levy funding this year.
Sorry, Vicious Puppies, you're not "outcomes-based" enough to qualify for our new money. But you can perform at our town hall, sure!
Elizabeth Whitford, the executive director of Arts Corps, voted for the levy. "I was very excited about it," she said in a phone conversation today.
Levy money has supported Arts Corps programming since 2005, and nothing in the new levy's wording suggested to Whitford that a high-performing, veteran arts program like Arts Corps would find itself on the chopping block. Arts Corps is the largest nonprofit arts education organization in Seattle. It bridges the gap, in particular, at schools that don't have parent-teacher associations that can pay for arts classes the district has cut. (I profiled Arts Corps here; here's a link to its invitation to the White House among many other accomplishments.)
But yesterday, after a failed appeal, Arts Corps was notified that it is losing $60,000 it has come to count on to provide free visual and performing art classes to 800 kids in 13 Seattle public schools—exactly the kinds of schools the levy is designed to help.
Holly Miller, head of the city's Office of Education, said in a phone conversation that Arts Corps had all the information but failed to demonstrate that it daily or weekly tracks the math and reading scores or attendance data of its students.
"We held 20 workshops over the summer and fall, and every one of them dealt with data," Miller said. "Including a special workshop just for arts organizations."
But in the end, not a single arts organization was deemed qualified.
Among those that applied were 826 Seattle, which in November won a 2011 National Arts and Humanities Youth Program Award given by Michelle Obama at the White House; Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra, which has been around for 70 years and provides free music classes to
1,500500 kids each year; Nature Consortium, which for 14 years has taught kids nature and art simultaneously; and many more.
What's worse, Arts Corps has never had to apply to be "qualified" for its funding before—and didn't find out it would have to until very late in the game.
Arts Corps has received its funding as a subcontractor for the YMCA, Parks and Recreation, and Tiny Tots. They are "qualified" organizations and programs. This year, the City changed its rules to require that any subcontractor receiving more than $5,000 has to apply on its own.
But nobody found out about that change until the request was published in December, Whitford said.
That left Arts Corps scrambling.
"I have no doubt that [Arts Corps] is going to be able to rise to the occasion in the future," Miller said. "We love them, we think they're wonderful...but we did have this commitment to really using this money to invest in outcomes."
But Whitford and Kathleen Allen, Seattle Youth Symphony Orchestra Director of Education, Communications, and Partnerships, said Miller's interpretation of the levy is arbitrarily and deleteriously narrow.
"It’s my concern that this whole process is going to limit opportunities for kids," Allen said.
"In the end, I think we were nicked on a technicality," Whitford of Arts Corps said.
Arts Corps was denied its qualification because it does not formally daily or weekly track the math and reading test scores and attendance of its students. But that's a new rubric, and it's also a hard one because Arts Corps was a subcontractor: Its partners have historically done that tracking, Whitford said.
The reason the Y, Parks and Rec, and Tiny Tots do it rather than Arts Corps is that those larger organizations have access to something called The Source, which provides otherwise protected information about individual students to community groups.
"Our partners have access to The Source, and we work together, so some students may get pulled out of our programs if they need case management or tutoring, and other kids will get pulled into our programs if they're struggling around engagement or motivation and would benefit from being in our classes," Whitford said.
"The program partner [the Y, Parks and Rec, or Tiny Tots] is looking at that data," Whitford continued. "We are happy to look at it, too, but it was impossible to pull that together in the time frame from December to when the application was due in February. I guess we could have added in there that our teaching artists have conversations with their students about these things on a weekly basis, which they do, and which a lot of other organizations put in their applications and slid by with—but I didn't consider that data."
There was no bridge program to help a high-performing, previously funded levy program like Arts Corps adjust to late-breaking funding changes in order to avoid being dropped.
And despite this, the appeals process yielded no relief.
Nevertheless, Miller said, "everybody was on a level playing field in this process, and everybody understood the rules."
Students and supporters of Arts Corps will testify to the Mayor tonight at Youngstown Cultural Arts Center. The open public meeting is from 5:30 to 8. The Vicious Puppies perform at 6:30.