Anatomy of a budget cut

How the governor’s  decision ends up hurting a season of the arts at CSN 

Geri Jeter

On the surface, it doesn’t seem like that much—Gov. Jim Gibbons’ cuts only represent 4.5 percent of the annual budget. Most households have been faced with similar reductions in finances at one time or another. While it might hurt a little, it usually just means a little belt-tightening until finances improve. And according to the January 6 Review-Journal, the cuts in Nevada’s higher-education system will be painless.

But that wouldn’t be true even if the reductions were distributed evenly throughout the system. And they are not. Although each institution will determine how the cuts are applied, all have to honor existing contracts: The electric bills have to be paid, scheduled classes are being held (for now), instructors are foregoing already-awarded merit-pay increases; so far there have been no layoffs of staff. So the 4.5 percent in total cuts cannot be applied in an even-handed manner. Where are this year’s cuts coming from?

At the College of Southern Nevada, to make up the aggregate 4.5 percent reduction, the cuts are coming from the operating budget—40 percent of the scheduled annual allotment. Plus, they are retroactive to the beginning of the 2007-08 school year. According to CSN Vice President of Finance and Budget Patricia Charlton Dayar, the governor’s budget cuts were implemented against funds that were available for each department at the beginning of the academic year. So, for example, if a department’s starting operating budget on July 1, 2007, was $10,000, and the department spent $6,000 in the fall, $4,000 remains. The 40 percent cut will be applied to this remaining $4,000, leaving the department with only $2,400 for the remainder of the school year.

Gutting it, essentially.

A standard academic department’s operating budget includes things like printing, supplies, photocopies and funds for travel and part-time staffing. Performing arts, however, is structured differently. A large amount of this budget is considered “soft,” with fluid expenses based on individual productions, performances and events. Due to the way the education sessions are classified, the performing-arts budget at CSN will absorb a disproportionate hit.

Course classifications can vary by schools and departments. Generally, in the sciences, students participate in laboratory classes, which are considered part of the academic curriculum, not a part of the operating expenses. In labs, students perform experiments and obtain results through independent activity and during the designated lab time. Theater, dance and music disciplines also perform experiments with an eye to obtaining certain results and proofs; however, at CSN, these events are not listed as classes or labs. They are identified as rehearsals and performances (unlike at some community colleges where students sign up for rehearsal and performance classes). According to theatre department lead faculty member Doug Baker, they are therefore considered separate from the academic curriculum. In the CSN canon, this places them firmly under the operating-expenses umbrella and subjects them to larger cuts than experienced by courses held to be “instructional.”

In practical terms, this means that performing arts has cut some productions and adjusted the remaining programs to fit within the new budget constraints. One of the two scheduled plays, Body of Water, has been scrapped for the spring, along with two music productions, the Faculty Solo Festival and the annual Arranger’s Holiday—an integral part of the spring Jazz Week, where nationally renowned arrangers guest-conduct jazz selections with a 17-piece professional jazz band. Although the Spring Dance Concert will go forward, plans for guest artists and live instrumental accompaniment have been curtailed.

Kelly Roth, CSN dance program head, is concerned about the effect all of this will have on the students’ training. “With the production cuts,” Roth says, “students will have less access to learning opportunities.” The students actually participating in the productions are not the only ones affected. Attendance and evaluation of music, theater and dance performances are a vital part of the performing-arts curriculum. “Reducing the number of these opportunities,” explains Roth, “directly impacts the students’ educational experience.”

Other local theatre professionals agree. According to Joe Aldridge, coordinator for the UNLV Entertainment Engineering Design department, the Performing Arts Center at UNLV, although affected by the budget cuts, is in a slightly better financial situation. Unlike at CSN, where the bulk of the financing for performances comes from the operating expenses, the UNLV PAC operations budget mostly comes from ticket sales and rental fees. The university provides salaries for the PAC management staff and pays costs for utilities, maintenance and some other expenses. Aldridge sympathizes with the CSN situation, though. “When productions or performances are reduced or eliminated,” he says, “a student’s opportunities to work in his or her laboratory are seriously curtailed. It can be compared to a biology student being taught about dissecting a frog without ever being able to realize the actual experience.” As with all the other departments on the CSN campus, performing arts will make its cuts and muddle through the remainder of this year. How the cuts will affect the 2008-09 academic year is currently being assessed.

One item definitely on the table is an increase in student fees. Students throughout the higher-education system can expect this to happen, even at the local community college, where fees are higher than in most neighboring states—and twice as high as those at community colleges in California. Added to this is the consideration that the community college system serves the population least able to afford a price hike.

If fees escalate beyond students’ ability to pay, enrollment is expected to drop system-wide, causing classes to be cut, thereby causing enrollment to drop even further, and so on. In the performing arts, this means fewer trained professionals to service the shows and convention events that sustain a vital part of the local tourist economy. As with theater, dance and music, other community-college department cuts will affect the entire area population, not just the students. If these fee hikes go forward as anticipated, the schools can be expected to produce fewer nurses, computer techs and other skilled tradesmen, all of whom are already in short supply in our growing community.

Geri Jeter is a local freelance writer.

Photographs by Jeff Speer.

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