Education

After outcry, lawmakers scrap plans to fully slash grant aid to ‘Moonlight’ alumni’s school

AP

Lawmakers in Tallahassee largely reversed course Saturday on plans to cut $650,000 in state grant funding to the Miami arts school whose alumni helped create the Oscar-winning film “Moonlight” and the Broadway hit “Hamilton.”

After continued budget talks, House and Senate leaders agreed late in the day to give $500,000 to New World School of the Arts in the 2017-18 budget. That would still represent a cut of $150,000 in funding from this year — about a 23 percent deduction — but it’s drastically more than what could have happened: Losing the grant entirely.

Lawmakers said the school failed to tell the Legislature how the grant dollars were spent, which was why the House and Senate both originally proposed eliminating the grant. Later, the Senate — through an amendment by Miami Republican Sen. Anitere Flores — proposed giving New World $20,000, resuscitating the project for budget negotiations.

MORE: “Lawmakers set to defund Miami school that educated makers of ‘Moonlight’ and ‘Hamilton’ ”

Threats to the school’s state grant funding sparked public outcry when news of the Legislature’s plans spread Friday. But House and Senate chairmen in charge of K-12 public school spending said Saturday morning those complaints had little to do with their change of heart.

They emphasized that New World administrators neglected to provide a report they’re legally required to submit. But since then, “we’ve had some conversations with the representatives of New World School of the Arts and they understand better the report that we’re expecting on the expenditures,” said Hialeah Republican Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., the House pre-K-12 education budget chairman.

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Altamonte Springs Republican Sen. David Simmons and Hialeah Republican Rep. Manny Diaz Jr. — the Senate and House pre-K-12 education budget chairmen — talk with reporters after a budget conference committee on April 27, 2017. Kristen M. Clark kclark@miamiherald.com

Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said earlier in the day he was glad the House reversed its position and presented an offer in the morning to the Senate of a half-million dollars.

He called it “an encouraging step in the right direction” and said the district hoped the Senate would counter to fully restore funding to this year’s level. That didn’t happen; the Senate accepted the House offer without question — amid dozens of other unresolved education projects in a three-page spreadsheet.

Since its creation by the Florida Legislature in 1984, New World has educated students who have gone on to create award-winning films and Broadway hits and to build successful careers in dance and the visual arts.

“I only hope and pray that the full funding is restored and have special thanks to the representatives and committee members who acted so quickly to continue funding for a pilar of culture in our community,” Tarell Alvin McCraney, a New World graduate who wrote the play that served as the basis for “Moonlight,” said in a text message earlier Saturday.

Some of the school’s notable alumni, including McCraney, took to social media in protest after they heard of the looming budget cuts.

McCraney posted a plea to save the school’s funding on Facebook on Friday. He asked supporters to call Rep. Roy Hardemon, D-Miami, “And tell em that a kid with no hope who found his way at new world sent you.”

New World alumnus Alex Lacamoire, the music director for the Broadway hit “Hamilton,” also asked his followers to call Hardemon. “My arts HS @NWSA_MIAMI is in danger of severely losing funding,” he tweeted.

In speaking with reporters Saturday morning in Tallahassee, Diaz indicated that the impact of the reported funding cuts on the school was overblown. “If this money’s not in there, they’re not going to be boarding their doors or their windows,” he said.

The school is operated by the Miami-Dade school district in collaboration with Miami Dade College and the University of Florida.

Diaz noted that the $650,000 grant is not base funding for the school. He said, “they already receive funds from the University of Florida, Miami Dade College” and from the main source of public school funding, the Florida Education Finance Program.

Funding for the school’s core academic programs comes from the same pot of state and local education money as any other public school — but the state grant funds the supplies, equipment and venue rentals that sustain the arts programs.

“It’s not the academic piece, it’s all of the other pieces that are part of a high-end, nationally recognized visual and performing arts school,” said Iraida Mendez-Cartaya, an associate superintendent at the Miami-Dade school district who lobbies in Tallahassee on the district’s behalf.

New World alumnus Billy Corben, the director of the 2006 documentary “Cocaine Cowboys,” said the impact of the state grant funding extends beyond the school. “You have to understand, this money doesn’t just fund a school. It fuels an international economy of artists, musicians, filmmakers and storytellers,” he said in a message. “And, most importantly, it saves lives. Just ask Tarell [McCraney].”

Lawmakers emphasized that the reporting standard they held New World to applies to many other education projects paid for with state dollars.

“We feel — as a common theme across everything this year — we’ve been asking questions: how are we using the money? And there wasn’t a clear explanation,” Diaz said.

Clearly we don’t want to hurt our hometown, and it’s clearly a school that provides a choice, so we’re all for it — but you have to provide the information.

State Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., R-Hialeah

Diaz said the one-time $500,000 appropriation for New World was all that was available in next year’s budget at this point in negotiations.

Previously, the school’s grant was “recurring” funding — which means the dollars continued year after year and made the funding harder to eliminate. However, one of the reforms of House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes, this year has been to weed out that funding practice and demand greater accountability for how money is spent.

“If you explain it, it makes it a whole lot easier for us to allocate the dollars,” Diaz said after the funding level was set late Saturday. “Clearly we don’t want to hurt our hometown, and it’s clearly a school that provides a choice, so we’re all for it — but you have to provide the information.”

“Hopefully this will put them in a situation where next year, we can have that all ironed out for whatever their ask is, with justification,” he said.

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