Students in an art class at MS 821 Sunset Park Prep in Brooklyn (photo by and courtesy Olivia Swisher)

On June 13, Paul Trust was called into the principal’s office at the PS 39 elementary school in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where he had taught music for over a decade.

In the meeting, the school’s administration told Trust that his job was in jeopardy and letting him go was the “worst-case scenario.” But after the principal met with the Borough Central Office to discuss her 2023 budget, that scenario became the reality: Trust would be “excessed,” or laid off from his position. And the school told its only other music teacher Nick Deutsch, who had been there for six years, the same thing, effectively eliminating its music department.

PS 39 was forced to decrease spending by 14%, one of approximately 1,200 district schools in New York — 77% of the city’s total — that were told to cut their budget by a specific dollar amount after Mayor Eric Adams slashed school funding by over $200 million. The cuts are tied to enrollment declines, which the majority of NYC schools experienced over the course of the pandemic. Budget decisions are at the discretion of the schools’ principals, and arts departments, already under-funded despite representing a “core academic subject,” are not protected.

“Any time there are funding cuts, the arts are usually the first to get trimmed,” Mario Asaro, head of the NYC Art Teachers Association, told Hyperallergic. “I can’t see how that won’t affect music and art and other special subjects.”

“When you hear budget cuts, everyone looks at you,” added Olivia Swisher, an art teacher at MS 821 in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood. “As an art teacher in general, going into the field you have to understand that you’re always the first to go.”

In NYC, there are no allocations or guidelines mandating arts funding in schools. Reversing a 1997 initiative that earmarked arts spending per student, Mayor Mike Bloomberg eliminated mandates for the 2007 school year, allowing school principals to use previously allocated arts funding on anything they chose. The impact was immediate: That year, the percentage of schools without a certified art teacher rose from 20% to 30%, and spending on art supplies fell by 63%.

The Department of Education (DOE) still recommends per-pupil arts funding, proposing $79.62 per student last year, but the number is just that — a suggestion. And while New York State does require a certain number of hours dedicated to arts education in schools, it does not specify funding. NYC schools’ compliance is tracked in the annual Art in Schools Report, which examines dance, music, theater, and visual arts in K-12 public schools. While nearly all NYC public high schools offer at least one discipline, that statistic drops exponentially to 63% for two disciplines, 25% for three, and a mere 5% for all four. The numbers are higher for middle and elementary schools.

In the 2020–2021 school year, 100% of high school seniors met the state arts education graduation requirement, set at three hours of art instruction per week for one year or the equivalent. But middle schoolers’ compliance paints a bleak picture: Only 33% of graduating eighth graders had completed the single-credit (90 minutes per week for one year) requirement.

The 2023 budget cuts could shrink NYC arts education programs even further, threatening the careers of public school arts teachers and leaving them with an uncertain future.

Student art in a Sunset Park middle school, where next year’s budget has been cut by 16% (photo by and courtesy Olivia Swisher)

Now that PS 39 cut the two positions, Trust and Deutsch will enter a city-wide hiring pool. As “excessed” teachers, they will remain on the city’s payroll, but finding a new job as a music teacher could prove difficult with major budget cuts across the board. If they do not find a job before the school year starts, they will join the Absent Teacher Reserve (ATR), where they will be assigned to a school in their district, and if none are available, a school in their boroughs. They are not guaranteed another elementary school age group, nor their subject.

“I could be teaching pre-calculus to high school,” Trust told Hyperallergic. “On top of it, you don’t know anyone’s name or even the school culture. So already you’re at a huge disadvantage.”

Deutsch echoed the sentiment. “I don’t think people understand how devastating it is. I’ve worked in this building for six years and I’ve taught three sets of students from families. I know 450 students’ names. I’m able to teach at that level because I have that investment,” he said.

Trust added that he’s known art teachers who have left the profession after they were unable to find a job teaching the subject they were passionate about.

“[Mayor Adams] wants teachers to burnout,” Deutsch said. “Being in ATR or being a sub and being shoved from school to school — I’m teaching eighth grade and then I’m teaching 12th grade and then I’m teaching kindergarten — it’s so taxing that when I envision, ‘Is that my future?’, then I think I’ll just leave.”

“I just won’t do this job,” he continued. “Because what it takes to do the job well is investment in a community and support, and when those things are dismantled, it stops being fun.”

One principal at Joseph H. Wade 117X, a high school in the Bronx, told Hyperallergic that her decision to excess two teachers didn’t feel like an option.

“The way things are going, I am not that hopeful,” said Delise Jones. “We all agree that students need to be in school. We all agree that schools should be a safe, inclusive place where students receive quality education and have exposure and opportunity to excel in all areas, but then we also cut the resources limiting leaders to fulfill that expectation. Then we blame them when they don’t meet the expectation.”  

The mayor’s office declined to provide a public statement for this article.

Movement of Rank-and-File Educators (MORE), a caucus of the United Federation of Teachers, at a demonstration in Manhattan (image courtesy MORE Caucus)

Many others have expressed discontent with the mayor’s 2023 budget, which increases police funding and staffing at jails as it cuts back school funding.

Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, the union that represents most teachers in NYC public schools, called the budget cuts “unnecessary and unacceptable.”

“The city is sitting on billions of dollars that the federal government gave it to help public school students recover from the pandemic,” Mulgrew added. That federal COVID-19 relief funding allowed school budgets to remain untouched during the worst of the pandemic years even as enrollment declined. But the DOE struggled to spend all of it amid staffing shortages and other challenges, and around $5 billion remains untouched. Comptroller Brad Lander, NYC’s chief financial officer, also criticized the DOE for leaving billions of dollars unspent, stating that the agency “must use a small portion of the remaining stimulus funding to cover the gap in school budgets for next year.”

A City Council spokesperson observed that the $215 million reduction represents less than 0.5% of the DOE’s budget, a “fraction of a fraction” of the funds needed to ensure schools are supported. And while that money may appear inconsequential to the DOE’s larger budget, it becomes significant when eliminated from individual schools — some of which will need to cut over a third of their budgets.

The DOE has not responded to Hyperallergic’s immediate request for comment.

Mayor Adams justified the cuts as part of his “Fair Student Funding” formula, which was passed in May despite extensive backlash. Grappling with fewer state and federal contributions, the city will boost its own DOE spending by $720 million, but the total DOE budget will still be lower than it was last year. While trimming individual school budgets, Adams insisted: “We are not cutting, we are adjusting the amount based on the student population.”

Hundreds of thousands of students have left the school system since the start of the pandemic, but some have expressed doubts over the DOE’s enrollment predictions as the city’s population appears to be on the rebound. Now, for example, more people are moving to Manhattan than before the pandemic. Kaiser, an art teacher in a Lower East Side public school who goes by her last name, believes enrollment is low because the city “is starving public school.” She added that the cuts could force arts teachers into roles at private and charter schools.

The discrepancy between NYC’s reputation as America’s cultural capital and the state of its public school art education offerings is not lost on teachers.

“I just find it so odd that you live in a city where so many of the tourist dollars are coming in to go to Broadway, to go to jazz shows, and yet the kids in the city constantly are having to fight to keep arts dollars in the schools,” Deutsch said.

“It just posits an interesting question — where’s the priority? Why do we want to bring people into this city to go to these institutions and support these things but our own children here are constantly having it taken away?”

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Elaine Velie

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.