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St. Paul Public Schools is casting for ideas on how to spend more than $200 million in federal pandemic aid after a recent round of modest personnel cuts, leading students and supporters to rise up at a school board meeting Tuesday to say: "Save the Arts."

Music and the arts are not just a creative outlet, but a form of refuge for some kids, and the lack or total absence of it at some of the district's poorer schools runs counter to the district's commitment to equity, they say.

Many students have been upset about two teaching positions being eliminated for 2021-22 at Highland Park Senior High School. One teacher, Meaghan Shomion, taught visual arts, and was credited Tuesday by student Isabella Schmitt with helping her look at art in an emotional way and putting more of her own identity into her paintings.

The state's second-largest district is trimming about 50 full-time jobs as part of a $908.3 million budget for 2021-22 that is marked by another projected enrollment loss — this time of about 1,100 students. But the cuts could have been worse. St. Paul is saving 132 jobs through the planned use of the second of three waves of federal pandemic funding.

The third installment — $206.9 million in American Rescue Plan money — is to be spent by September 2024 and has been the subject of seven family forums held virtually in the past week. Families were asked what the district should know about their children's learning needs, and arts and music were mentioned as prompts to spur conversation.

Two parents identified by first names only said the district should not get caught up in coddling kids after a difficult year, but instead be ready to engage and challenge them with creative learning options. Too many families, one mom said, were leaving the district for what they perceive to be a lack of enrichment opportunities in St. Paul schools.

As the parents spoke, Jerome Treadwell, a Highland Park High student who holds a youth leadership position with the St. Paul chapter of the NAACP and is a leader of the Save the Arts campaign inspired in part by his school's layoffs, posted a petition on behalf of the Save the Arts cause. As of 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, 691 people had signed it.

The campaign is backed, too, by Minnesota Teen Activists, for which Treadwell has served as an organizer.

St. Paul began its budget work several months ago, and part of the process calls for staffing decisions to be made at the building level. Principal Winston Tucker of Highland Park Senior High opted to add a teaching position with coursework related to agriculture, food and natural resources, while eliminating the two visual arts and choir positions.

He defended the move in a letter to families and again while addressing a group of students who walked out of school in protest two weeks ago. He said the new position was not about farming, as some were saying, but about adding courses in biotechnology, communications and business — all of which he said fits into the school's career pathways program.

A reduction from three to two visual arts teachers still leaves a "broad array of art classes," Tucker said. Highland also will continue to offer a variety of choir classes, he said.

"I feel really strongly that the arts are a centerpiece for our school," Tucker told students.

Efe Agbamu, a district assistant superintendent, said Tuesday in a written statement that the district's 2021-22 budget includes a net increase in arts teachers across the district and increased funding for arts materials and curriculum, although she provided no specifics.

Still, equity is a concern.

Jennifer Greupner, a district teacher, told board members that middle school students at Hazel Park Preparatory Academy on the East Side had no art program during the past year, leaving them "stuck at home in a pandemic with no outlet."

Treadwell, too, has referred to a lack of arts programs on the East Side and West Side, and said the district ought to earmark at least 10% of the American Rescue Plan funding to music and arts programs districtwide.

Students have the support of Board Member Chauntyll Allen.

"We need to nurture our urban students who are into the arts and into music and into recording. … All of these things that give you the opportunity to express what's happening in our urban communities," she said.

Families have a chance to weigh in again next Monday on the potential use of American Rescue Plan funding. For an online link, go to the district's website at