An event honoring Gov. Tom Corbett for achievements and contributions to the arts was met with a resounding protest by demonstrators who said he has undermined arts education programs in Pennsylvania.
More than 200 protesters, led by a parade of Pittsburgh Public School marching band students and peppered with operatic costumes, trekked to Pittsburgh Opera's Strip District headquarters Saturday to voice displeasure over the organization's decision to award Mr. Corbett and his wife, Susan, with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
The protest was organized last weekend by the civic group One Pittsburgh after a post by Point Breeze blogger Jesse Ramey went viral. Ms. Ramey said her blog, Yinzercation, saw more than 14,000 hits since the story went up Monday.
Once word of the protest spread, individuals and businesses jumped at the chance to provide support, said One Pittsburgh spokeswoman Kyndall Mason. A pre-protest gathering in the Iron Workers Local Union #3 featured discounted food from Nathan's Hot Dogs and free entertainment from local bands.
Steven Singer, a language arts teacher at Steel Valley Middle School, said cuts have led to the district cutting lower level language arts classes, eliminating middle school band and chorus and leaving only two full-time music and art teachers for its student body of more than 2,000. He said the loss of music and art programs could equal a loss of interest in school for some students.
"If you're not into math or reading, what's there for you? I loved art, I loved music, sometimes that's what got me through the day," he said.
Nancy Holmes, a fifth grade teacher at Myrtle Avenue Elementary School in the Keystone Oaks School District, said it felt like someone punched her "in the solar plexus" when she got word of the award. Holding a sign that said "Opera patron/season ticket holder no more," Ms. Holmes said she immediately emailed Pittsburgh Opera director Christopher Hahn to question the award and cancel her patronage.
"As teachers we promote the arts. There's not going to be anyone educated enough to go to the opera or symphony," she said.
Pittsburgh Opera spokeswoman Debra Bell said the organization received about 100 phone calls, 350 emails and 600 messages on its Facebook page regarding the award. She said the organization respected the group's right to protest, but stood by the award. She said the Corbetts have been strong supporters of the Pennsylvania Council for the Arts, which supports many of the Opera's free and reduced price programs, as well as school arts programs throughout the state.
The governor's office says its proposed budget for 2012-2013 increases funding to education, while opponents say it represents the second year of massive cuts. The issue is whether federal stimulus money, which has run out, is counted or not counted.
"The 'cuts' cited are a result of the loss of stimulus funding from the federal government, which should not come as a shock to anyone," said Department of Education spokesman Tim Eller, who said last year's budget represented an increase of 5.7 percent and this year's proposed budget represents a 3.7 percent increase.
"The governor has taken steps to reduce the impact of the loss of federal stimulus funding, which is why he has increased the state's support of public schools in his first two budgets."
Ron Cowell, president of the nonpartisan Education Policy and Leadership Center, who did not participate in Saturday's protest, said, "Last summer, the reduction in money coming from the state to school districts was almost $900 million. That's a fact. From a school district standpoint, they have a lot less to work with."
It's accurate that some of the reduction is due to the loss of federal economic stimulus money because that money was used to supplant state education money under the Rendell administration. However, Mr. Cowell noted that near the beginning of his administration, Mr. Corbett also supplanted state money with federal money.
Much of the additional subsidy proposed by Mr. Corbett goes for increased costs for the state portion of pensions. "That doesn't buy a program for a kid," Mr. Cowell said.
Post-Gazette Staff Writer Eleanor Chute contributed. Deborah M. Todd: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1652. First Published May 13, 2012 4:00 AM