As the 2022 school year comes to an end, so too will Ryan Middle School’s housing of the Fairbanks North Star Borough District’s art center.

The center itself will remain open but will be relocated to the district administration building on Fifth Avenue. Chane Beam, executive director of teaching and learning, said the biggest change will be a lack of dedicated art coaches to support the center. Both art coaches, DeAnn Gardner and Barbara Santora, are retiring after the school year ends.

“Other members of the department will take on many of the duties of the retiring art coaches,” Beam said. Budget constraints, he added, prevent the district from “having coaches dedicated specifically to art.”

The district had to balance a $19 million budget deficit for the next fiscal year. As a result, some programs were discontinued, collapsed or modified. While the district will receive $650,000 above what it asked from the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly — just over $52 million in total — budget priorities favor kindergarten class aides.

The district also closed three elementary schools and merged sixth-grade students into middle schools, a move administrators estimate would save $3 million annually.

Additionally, the district-wide art support was built into the district’s recommended CARES Act funding for the next fiscal year, not its general budget. CARES Act funding was used to preserve programs and positions that might have otherwise been cut or eliminated.

Even within the CARES budget, the original funding was cut from $120,000 to $50,000 in order to preserve elementary school instructional aides and balance classroom sizes.

A ‘loss for the district’

Jess Pena, executive director of Fairbanks Arts Association, said the changes to the art center will hurt.

“This is an incredible loss for the district, and the Art Center-created content has been a model to other districts in the state for how to approach elementary arts education,” Pena told the News-Miner in a May 4 email.

She said the Art Center has “provided hands-on lessons to students, provided modeled teaching and professional development to district teachers, and created content for lessons and curriculum for decades.”

The loss of district-wide art coaches will be felt, she said.

“Our partnership with the Art Center in hosting the annual student exhibition and training teaching artists has been going on for decades, so we are very sad to see this well of knowledge within the district go away,” Pena said.

Despite the cuts to art support and the center’s relocation, Beam said it will continue supporting elementary school art projects.

“Art will continue to be taught by our elementary teachers in their classrooms using the Art Kits that are checked out from the Art Center,” Beam said. Middle and high schools have their own art teachers and elective classes.

The center has about 500 art kits that elementary teachers can check out for lessons. The kits range from simple shapes and painting to more sophisticated subjects.

“Each Art Kit includes the needed specialized equipment and some of the supplies to complete the activity,” Beam said. “Most schools have an art supply room where the teachers can find other needed materials.”

Fairbanks artist and retired elementary school art teacher Jenifer Cameron used to serve as the art center’s lead. She said the changes would fundamentally change how the art center works.

“Students benefited from having lessons taught by certified art teachers whose lessons grew students’ knowledge and skills at the foundational levels for their K-12 art education,” Cameron said.

She added the topics taught ranged from collaborations with scientists and writers to Alaska Native cultural icons and artists.

“The Art Center essentially recorded the history of Fairbanks through years of locally developed art lessons taught to every elementary student to inspire them to see their community through many perspectives,” Cameron said.

She said the staff who will help manage the art center and art kits going forward are “invaluable and will do a great job” getting resources to elementary school teachers.

But the art specialists, she added, are what drove the art center’s success.

“Art starts early and stays late…just like teachers who need to do more with less,” Cameron said. “Support is necessary from every stakeholder at every level to make sure our education choices benefit our students well beyond graduation day.”

When cuts to the center are made, she said the “i impact of this cut is equitable…all students lose.”

Contact reporter Jack Barnwell at 907-459-7587 or jbarnwell@newsminer.com.

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