More than 20 parents, teachers and students met Wednesday night with Superintendent Juli Di Chiro searching for any ways to save more of the arts programming that will shrink with budget cuts next school year.

More than 20 parents, teachers and students met Wednesday night with Superintendent Juli Di Chiro searching for any ways to save more of the arts programming that will shrink with budget cuts next school year.

Parents said that pushing the beginning stringed instruments program into sixth grade rather than fifth was symbolic of the continued decline of the arts without a comprehensive strategy to provide art and music education from kindergarten through high school. The strings program once started in second grade in the 1980s and has slowly faded with each budget shortfall.

The budget reductions began with an overarching vision to preserve academics; reduce, not eliminate programs; and keep impact on kids to a minimum, but every guiding principal has been violated because of the severity of cuts, Di Chiro said. The district announced $3.5 million in layoffs and other cuts in February and just notified another round of affected teachers the Friday before spring break, bringing the total cuts to $4.3 million.

Extended-day kindergarten will disappear, average class sizes will increase to 25 at the elementaries and 30 at the middle and high school, and each teacher can take only two field trips next year, Di Chiro said.

Complete details will be released at the April 13 school board meeting. If any program seemed safe during the first round of cuts, it probably didn't survive the second phase, she said.

And more cuts could be coming. Local legislators told her Wednesday morning that the state shortfall is closing in on $4 billion.

"We're hopeful our $4.3 million is going to be enough, but based on information I got today, I'm worried," she said.

Even with significant cuts, parents said they felt there were still creative ways to squeeze out a few more pennies for elementary strings and middle school choir, which feed kids into the high school programs. They suggested removing administrators, asking teachers for ideas on distributing remaining teachers and removing study skills classes, the for-credit study halls that allow class sizes of 60 students.

"I'm prepared for higher classes," said Jana Carole, who has two children who participate in music programs. But she would rather have electives with higher class sizes than the study skills classes with "kids warming seats," she said.

Gerry Paré, a high school orchestra teacher whose daughter graduated from Ashland High School last year, added that she forbade her daughter from taking a study skills class, encouraging her to take another elective instead.

Other parents suggested pay-to-play sports programs, which all surrounding districts use.

That would make passing the Youth Activities and Academics Levy more difficult, Di Chiro said, which funds much more than sports programs.

She disagreed with the idea of splitting an elementary school principal between two elementary schools, even in a crisis year, because she felt it was an unsuccessful model when it was tried before. Community members have told her they value small schools, which come with certain fixed costs such as one principal per school, she said.

After the meeting, parents were still determined to find better solutions.

DW Wood, the president of Ashland High Arts Advocates, said her mind had not changed from the letter she wrote detailing parents' requests, which precipitated the meeting.

"I'm just hopeful we can see results," she said.

Staff writer Julie French can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or jfrench@dailytidings.com.