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Earlier this month state Rep. Frank Arza performed a modest act of heroism by walking into the New World School of the Artsand addressing an assembly of several hundred students and faculty. Everyone in the auditorium that day knew the legislature was recommending cutting the state's allocation to the school by 50 percent, nearly $500,000, and that even the governor wanted to phase out the rest of the state's funding for the school over the next three years. Standing before them, Arza could feel their anger and resentment. "They weren't friendly," he admits.
Nevertheless Arza tried to explain the state's budget squeeze: a billion-dollar shortfall in Medicaid funds, a slowdown in the economy that was leaving legislators with less money than expected for the budget, and a plan by the governor to trim spending throughout the state while still offering tax cuts.
Moans and groans rolled through the assembly with each excuse. Finally the students were given a chance to speak, and they responded with their own tales of hardship. One of the kids told Arza she was tired of hearing adults talk about the importance of education when they don't back up those words by giving the schools the money necessary to succeed. Several students pointed out that New World was created by the legislature, and that like any parent it has a responsibility to make sure the school is given everything it needs to flourish.
"It was a good healthy exchange," Arza recalls. "Very lively."
Despite the students' anger, Arza was hardly the enemy. The reason he made the trip to New World and subjected himself to the verbal sparring is that he needed ammunition to take up to Tallahassee so he could attempt to reverse the budget cuts. "My job is to make sure every penny we give to a school district is well spent, so I wanted to see it for myself and to ask questions so I could say with confidence the school shouldn't be cut," says Arza, a Republican whose district includes parts of Hialeah, Miami Lakes, and eastern Collier County.
In some ways Arza was a natural ally for the school. Before this legislative session, the freshman lawmaker was a history teacher at Miami High School, so he understood New World's reputation within the school district. And yet even he admits he's an unlikely booster for a school that specializes in the performing arts. A former high school football coach, the 40-year-old Arza isn't exactly a renaissance man. "I've never been to the ballet," he concedes. "And I only saw my first play three weeks ago at the Coconut Grove Playhouse." He can't remember the name of the drama. It had something to do with married couples. "It was good, though," he says. "It made me reflect."
Arza also has had a chance to reflect on the need for a place like New World. "Even though I don't understand it completely, I respect their commitment," he offers. "They work very hard to try and achieve their dreams, and you have to admire that. And I also realize that to be a big-time city, the arts play a role. I never thought I'd be fighting for this sort of a cause, but here I am."
After his meeting with students, Arza went back to Tallahassee and late last week sat down with Rep. Evelyn Lynn, chairwoman of the all-powerful education-appropriations committee. "It's the first time I went to the chair of a committee in the House to ask for something," Arza notes.
Once the two had a chance to discuss the school and its importance to the state, Lynn, a Republican from Ormond Beach, agreed to restore the money. Says Arza: "She's a fair lady." The battle, he adds, would now shift to the Senate.
Perhaps no educational institution in the state is as misunderstood as the New World School of the Arts. In Tallahassee New World simply is known as budget-line item number 95. Most legislators believe New World is just a high school. In fact it's a high school, a two-year college, and a four-year college located in downtown Miami.
The school is able to offer these various levels of study through its three academic partners: Miami-Dade County Public Schools,Miami-Dade Community College, and the University of Florida. A student could enter New World as a high school freshman, work four years for a diploma, and then continue on, earning either an associate's degree through the school's partnership with MDCC, or a bachelor's degree in either fine arts or music through its alliance with UF.
Currently 470 high school students are enrolled at New World. Each year more than 1000 apply to attend the high school but only 130 are accepted. In Miami-Dade it costs the state about $5000 per year to educate a student at most high schools; at New World the cost is closer to $9000. In addition to taking all the required classes -- math, English, science -- the students also are given advanced training in their specialty, whether it be dance, music, theater, or art.
Stephen Sumner, the newly hired provost for the school, compares New World to a conservatory, where programs can be tailored to meet the needs of an individual student. "We are trying to produce that next generation of very fine artists," he says.
Within the college there are 319 students, and competition to enroll them is intense. Sumner is fearful the proposed budget cuts will hurt New World's chances of attracting the most gifted, the majority of whom come from within the state. "This hits us at a time when we are doing our major recruiting," he points out. "Students in the visual and the performing arts are highly recruited, almost like athletes. Oboe players are hard to find. If you want good high school oboe players, you have to go find them; you have to recruit them. And when high school students read in the newspaper that there are questions about whether programs are going to exist, it doesn't really help our recruiting process.
"This school offers very, very talented students in the State of Florida a chance for an exceptional education in the arts without having to leave the state. Everybody talks about brain drain. Well how about talent drain? We don't want these young people leaving the state. If they go to New York, if they go to Chicago, if they go to Los Angeles to study, chances are we've lost them."
"We really do change the lives of these kids who otherwise I don't know where they would go," says Celeste Pierson, who teaches printmaking at New World. "They don't have the money to go to a more expensive art school, and yet they really deserve an education in the arts. I really believe a lot of these kids would slip through the cracks if it weren't for this school."
"It means everything to me," says Angela Arias, a 24-year-old college sophomore studying painting. "It means a life for me. I'm the only one in my family going to college, and I'm really trying to make something of myself. It's not like we are asking for a freebie. We're asking to better ourselves, to make something of ourselves to help our community."
"This school gives us a wide berth for our creative freedom," adds Rob Worst, another college arts major. "Without this school we'd be regimented into traditionalism and go the same route of obscurity. We're trying not to be hacks."
Last year the overall budget for New World was slightly less than $7 million. Nearly $1 million came from the state; $3.3 million from Miami-Dade County Public Schools; $2.1 million from MDCC; and $500,000 from the University of Florida. Losing $500,000 would be devastating, Sumner says. "There is no excess in this program; the loss of any dollar amounts will affect us," he warns.
Rudy Garcia received his education in the halls and the backrooms of the state capitol. Garcia was just 21 years old when he was elected to the state House of Representatives in 1984, and over the next 16 years he watched and learned how things get done. He specialized in two areas: education and the state's budget.
Today the Hialeah Republican is spending his seventeenth year in Tallahassee as a freshman senator. He was the original sponsor of the bill creating New World. The school couldn't have a better champion than Garcia in the Senate.
Because of term limits, one-third of the legislature is new to Tallahassee and to state government. As a result few know the intricacies of the budget better than Garcia. And so this past Friday, when the latest budget estimates were announced and most of his colleagues headed home for the weekend, Garcia stayed behind in Tallahassee, analyzing the numbers and meeting privately with the staff of the budget committee.
Late Friday Garcia told me he had found in the Senate's version of the budget a pocket of money he would use to restore funding for the New World School of the Arts. "I am confident we can fix this," he told me. "This is the first art institute in the State of Florida. If we allow these cuts to remain, we will turn it into a mediocre institution."
Two weeks into the legislative session Garcia is emerging as one of its stars. In addition to finding money for New World, Garcia says he believes he can restore funding for the Miami Book Fair International, which would have lost all its state subsidy ($200,000) under the proposed budget. Indeed the list of programs Garcia is trying to help this year is extensive. "We're putting our time to good work," he says.