Money is tight for the Lafayette Parish School System, and as the school board and administration dance their annual budget waltz, it’s becoming clear that a number of programs are in jeopardy of elimination.

Among those endangered programs is PACE — short for Primary Academic Creative Experiences — which offers a unique take on teaching by infusing the arts and creativity into the traditional classroom setting to give students a more holistic approach to learning.

PACE was started in 1999 as a collaboration between the school system and the Acadiana Arts Council, now known as the Acadiana Center for the Arts. It is federally funded through Title I, and though the money is handled by the school system, PACE is administered by the AcA, which oversees the selection and training of the program’s 15 “teaching artists,” who work in more than 200 K-3rd grade classrooms at 19 elementary schools throughout Lafayette Parish.

“This is not just teaching art,” says Bree Sargent, education director for the AcA. “Our artists know how to find what the classroom teacher is having trouble teaching and can always hit it every time with the students. Not all kids learn just from paper and pencil. Some are kinesthetic. This program is something that should be expected for our children. Any given child should have these opportunities.”

Sargent says the program’s teaching artists — many who have been around since the beginning — undergo rigorous annual training through the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., where they learn classroom management and methods for implementing Common Core curricula into their lessons. These methods, says Sargent, allow the teaching artists to implement all the processes of learning into their lessons, the proof of which is seen in students’ end of the year projects.

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 A PACE teaching artist photographs one of the many students enrolled in the federally funded arts program offered in the Lafayette Parish School System for K-3rd graders, which could be shut down due to a potential 10 percent cut in Title I funding.

“I recently had to judge the students’ projects, and of all the ones that had gotten places, many of these were kids that had learning disabilities,” says Sargent.

Sargent and AcA Executive Director Dr. Gerd Wuestemann sat down with IND Monthly to discuss the possibility of PACE’s extinction, a result of Congress’s failure to reach an agreement with the White House on a balanced budget, which gave way in January to sequestration, meaning across-the-board cuts to everything from the Department of Defense to Medicaid to Head Start.

“We’re looking at about a 10 percent decrease [close to $1 million] in our Title I funds because of sequestration,” says LPSS Superintendent Dr. Pat Cooper.

PACE’s cut of the school system’s Title I money comes in at about $265,000 annually, but Wuestemann says with sequestration the possibility of the program’s extinction has reached new heights.

“We know there’s no money for us in the school system’s Title I budget,” says Wuestemann. “What does this mean? We don’t know yet. It would be troubling to see it go away, especially because we know PACE is effective in educating through art integration; it interfaces with Common Core, and it’s an important component of Dr. Cooper’s turnaround plan.”

Cooper says though the fate of PACE remains to be seen, its situation doesn’t look good.

“We have to prioritize our school level funding first, then we have to use a certain amount of the Title I money for parental involvement, and we have pre-K funded through Title I,” says Cooper. “Those are all mandated priorities. PACE is like fourth on the list. I hope we’ll have enough money left over, but right now we still don’t know. It certainly hasn’t been decided yet.”

There is hope, however. Cooper says the school system is anticipating a 10 percent reduction in its Title I funding, but that too remains to be seen. “The reason I can’t tell you if we’ll be able to fund PACE or not is because the federal government still hasn’t told us what our funding will be. It could be cut 10 percent; it could be less. I think we’ll hear in the first part of June.”

In the event PACE can’t be funded through Title I, Cooper says it’s very unlikely funds will be made available in the district’s general fund budget to offset the loss in federal money, especially considering the current stalemate with the school board over Cooper’s request to use fund balance reserves to cover a nearly $4 million deficit projected in the administration’s proposed budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year. The same goes for his turnaround plan, which Cooper says will be put on hold for the year — another result of the school board’s refusal to dip into the school system’s reserves, despite the likelihood of increased sale tax revenues that would eventually make up the difference.

“There’s really nothing else we can cut anymore that won’t impact our schools and classrooms,” says Cooper. “Our only options are placing more kids in the classrooms or make those living within a mile walk to school. That’s why we’re asking the board to let us borrow $4 million from our $60 million fund balance.”

Ultimately, Cooper says this year’s budget woes all trace back to Lafayette’s resistance to pass a school system tax.

“There are only five other school districts in the state that spend less per-capita than we do in Lafayette Parish,” says Cooper. “Next year if we get another $12 million cut from the state, we’ll have no other alternatives. It all goes back to the citizens of Lafayette and what they want to do. PACE, language immersion, early childhood, all those programs are either going away or going on hold if we don’t get additional dollars.”

For Wuestemann, the thought of losing PACE is unacceptable.

“If PACE is in danger of going away, it would be such a horrible loss; it would jeopardize our relationship with the Kennedy Center, and it will be incredibly hard to bring back once it’s gone,” says Wuestemann. “This here, this is how we close the gap between private and parochial schools. Lafayette, we as a community, we should lead the way as we often have done in this state and give every child a chance to develop their creative drive. All this can be done with a minimal amount of money from our budget.”

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