TALLAHASSEE Although Billy Corben graduated from Miami’s New World School of the Arts more than 20 years ago, he’s remained connected to that community through its network of star-studded alumni, his classmates.
“One year in 2012, I’m watching the Tony awards and I recognize not one, not two, at least three classmates that I graduated New World with in a class of about 105 students,” he said. “I get chills talking about it.”
But in recent days, those roots of the documentary filmmaker who produced and directed “Cocaine Cowboys” have meant he’s been getting pinged on social media by current students of the public arts school — kids he’s never met.
“I’m getting messages from high school kids who are desperate, petrified, despondent about the fate of their school,” Corben said.
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That’s because in this year’s budget passed by the state Legislature last week, all of the school’s supplemental state funding — $500,000 — was cut. Those dollars are above what typical public schools receive and are used by New World to provide its unique arts programming and hire specialized faculty to teach in the school’s four core disciplines of dance, music, theater and visual arts.
“This is a state jewel that shines brightly across the country. This is the home school for the stars that put ‘Moonlight’ on the map,” said Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho. “What message are we sending to the stars in the making?”
The high school is a free public arts conservatory that has produced an astounding number of successful and famous alumni.
Its funding was almost cut last year, but an outcry from some of its famous graduates and renewed conversations between the school and the Legislature were able to straighten things out. Its supplement was reduced from $650,000 to $500,000.
Perhaps the most famous alum of New World is Tarell Alvin McCraney, who wrote the play that served as a basis for “Moonlight” and co-wrote the screenplay. He won an Oscar for his work, and “Moonlight” won Best Picture in 2016. He was born in Liberty City.
Politico Florida reported on Friday that New World’s funding was likely going to be cut this year. In an Instagram post on Sunday, McCraney expressed concern about the school but vowed to support it.
“Before I came to the school I was failing. I was on probation at South Miami Senior High severely depressed and feared going to my home school,” he wrote. “My life changed my sophomore year [when McCraney transferred to New World]. … This is what I was afforded by the generosity of the Public school institution and the grants provided by the state. As we speak that generosity is being undone.”
Alex Lacamoire, the Tony- and Grammy-winning musical director and orchestrator of “Hamilton,” also graduated from New World.
Several Miami-Dade lawmakers were involved in crafting the state’s budget this year, including Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah, and Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami.
Documents from the budget negotiating process show they pushed for the school’s $500,000, while Senate leaders countered with no dollars. When it came time for House members to cash in their “member projects,” or make trades for individual line items they feel are most important, the House decided to prioritize $25 million more in funding for the Gardiner Scholarships, vouchers for disabled students, and the SEED School of Miami, Trujillo said.
The SEED school is a public charter school that is a free boarding school for students whose families live at least 200 percent below the poverty line, many of whom live in public housing or have parents who are absent or incarcerated. The SEED School received $2 million more this year compared to last, for a total of about $8 million.
“A lot of us have a commitment because the demographic at that school are students in need,” Trujillo said. “New World is a unique school but … at SEED the cost of full wraparound services is by far the most expensive education in the state.”
Katie Betta, spokesperson for the Florida Senate, said in a statement that there was less money to go around on local projects this year because of the state’s response to Parkland, which cost $400 million to add more mental health professionals in schools, armed campus officers and $67 million for the optional “guardian program” to train and arm school administrators and other support staff.
Naomi Fisher, a New World graduate and prominent Miami painter and visual artist who has public art on display at the Brickell Metrorail station, said she disagreed with the Legislature’s priorities.
“They’re willing to fund arming teachers while they’re stripping schools of money to educate kids, and that’s only going to make kids more violence-prone,” she said.
Cavalho said they are considering reaching out to their successful pool of alumni from New World to help bridge the funding gap. Seth Gordon, founding chairman and member of the school’s board, said it remains their top priority that the school doesn’t charge tuition.
“Our student enrollment is a pretty exact representation of Dade County,” he said. “Half the kids are entitled to free lunch programs.”
It may have been the Legislature’s response to Parkland that caused funds to be lacking this year, but Corben said the post-Parkland movement, led by Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students, has shown that teenagers can prompt change when they engage with politics, and it’s no different with New World.
“They’re going to have to do what the brave Parkland kids did, and they’re going to have to get on a bus and make them look in an eye and say, ‘You’re not going to give me $500,000 for my schools in an $89 billion budget?’ ” he said. “Hell, I’ll charter the bus.”