Mess over Cassidy’s art program shows broader dysfunction around Fayette school spending | Opinion

To my pleasant surprise, the issue of art being cut from the curriculum at Cassidy Elementary has demonstrated some staying power in the community conscience. It is surprising to me only because it’s certainly not the first time our public school district has delivered a gut punch to its benefactors only to be met with very little and quickly fading resistance.

That said, allow me to establish some terms before I move forward: I have a 2nd and 4th grader at Cassidy; I have spoken in detail about this issue with Cassidy Principal Jill Hill who engaged in that conversation with grace and with what I believe was a genuine concern for making the best decision from a list of bad options; the Cassidy SBDM was faced with a difficult choice driven by the interplay of several complicating factors including enrollment, district funding formulas, and the end of the road for buckets of money from the federal government (read: COVID money, or, if you prefer, inflation-creation money); the committed educators and PTA members at Cassidy are working diligently to ensure that art is still incorporated into the student experience next year; and, finally, I think the school board overriding the authority of the Cassidy School-Based Decision Making Council in this matter is probably not the right call. I do, however, reserve the right to argue that there could exist matters for which it would be the right call for the school board to override the SBDM.

Now, I could spend the remainder of my allotted word count arguing about how insane it would be to envision an elementary school without art, because let’s be serious, it’s certifiable. But, I’ve got bigger fish to fry. This is about money. Isn’t it always? And not just any money; nearly $1B with a Capital B worth of taxpayer money. FCPS is a school district that is sitting on a mountain of cash far larger than the majority of Lexingtonians have even bothered to fathom. I know this because when I was campaigning for a seat on the school board I would ask people “how big do you think the FCPS budget is?” Their answers made my jaw drop. If I threw all the responses I got to that question into a blender, the resulting glop would be “I don’t know...$20M?” To be very sure, that $20M guestimate is $816M short of the actual budget.

Of course, the problem with the FCPS budget is less about public awareness of its sheer size and more about how the district chooses to spend it. District officials and the Fayette Board of Education spend money like anyone with a veritable blank check would – namely, with reckless abandon and in all the wrong places. For the 2023 fiscal year, FCPS local revenue dollars per pupil were more than double that of the state average. How could we possibly be faced with cutting art class at an elementary school? Since fiscal year 2015, the average daily attendance at FCPS has declined by 322 students, so basically flat at -0.9%. Would anyone like to venture a guess as to how much annual local revenue dollars have increased in the same time period? Answer: $148M, a 55.8% increase. How could we possibly be faced with cutting art class at an elementary school? What, exactly, is FCPS doing with all of that money? Are they funneling it away from neighborhood schools and toward a glut of special programs? By my count, there are 36 special programs, 5 of which are almost surely charter schools by definition. Are they investing millions in real estate of questionable market value? Are class sizes increasing even while enrollment drops but property taxes continue to climb?

Lexington deserves and the school board should demand a thorough explanation of exactly how our tax dollars are spent, with particular emphasis on how many of those tax dollars make their way directly to the classroom, so we can understand why we could possibly not be funding art in an elementary school. Furthermore, what we need in this town is a Board of Education that embraces its role as the sole source of accountability for the school district and not one that simply smiles and nods at whatever request district officials make of it.

Matthew Vied is an FCPS parent, public school advocate, and a Director of Sales for a national manufacturing company.