Eight third-grade kids from a City Heights elementary school showed up in the City Council meeting chambers last week to dance. Their vice-principal introduced them and described the school’s population: Every student at the school is poor enough to qualify for free or subsidized lunch. The vast majority are learning English as a second language.

They cued the music, and the cuteness:

“Very persuasive,” said Council President Tony Young as the eight took a bow.

The dance came in the public response time of a meeting in which the council was considering a proposal to boost funding for arts and culture organizations. With visions of adorable children dancing in their heads, the council members voted unanimously to dramatically increase the share of hotel-room tax money over the next five years that goes to support arts and culture. The proposal seeks to increase the total funding to the city’s Commission for Arts and Culture from $7.8 million this year to $17.9 million in the 2017 budget year.

But the proposal itself is far more complicated than the adorable pitch to councilmembers. Nor does their yes vote mean guaranteed money for arts programs in schools.

Here are a few reasons why it’s more convoluted than small dancers tugging on heartstrings:

I. How the Commission Structures Funding

The Commission for Arts and Culture, a department of the Mayor’s Office, runs two programs to fund arts and culture groups that qualify after a formal, detailed application and review process. The commission’s guidelines for applicant organizations list some categories that are ineligible for funding, including “activities taking place in schools, during normal school hours unless they are part of a broader project that includes out-of-school activities.”

Several council members grew befuddled — they wanted to do more for the kids who made the presentation and others like them. But since the commission’s founding in 1988, the emphasis has been on supporting arts and culture nonprofits — so far, not schools, hospitals or other organizations that don’t have arts and culture as part of their overall mission.

When Councilwoman Lorie Zapf talked with arts leaders about drawing up the proposal for the increase, she heard clearly that organizations resist creating new programs just to qualify for funding.

“Lorie just didn’t want to tie the commission’s hands or tie the arts and culture community’s hands to have to come up with specific programming to qualify for these monies,” said Alex Bell, a spokeswoman for Zapf.

II. Where the Money Comes From

Part of the reason the commission doesn’t fund schools directly is that its money comes from a portion of hotel-room taxes meant to promote the city. There are strings on the money.

Councilman David Alvarez asked for a commitment that part of the increase — $1 million by 2017 — would go specifically to fund education programs for schoolchildren. But deputy city attorney Bret Bartolotta cautioned that it would be trickier than that, considering the fund the arts money comes from. The arts fit into a slice of the hotel-room Transient Occupancy Tax revenues specifically earmarked to help promote San Diego and strengthen the city’s tourism draw.

Paying a school for arts education might not meet that criteria, he said. That looks like “backfilling a public school funding shortage, which doesn’t necessarily further the purposes of TOT funds,” he said.

“I don’t understand how that makes sense,” Alvarez said. “I mean, we just saw a group of performers from an elementary school, clearly — it sounded like, my interpretation was that they received some funding in the past.”

Victoria Hamilton, who directs the commission, admitted later the meeting got confusing.

“It took that turn maybe because we had those kids,” she said.

The commission didn’t invite the kids. The group that brought dance to the elementary school is Young Audiences, a nonprofit group that brings teaching artists and performances into schools, and arranges family-targeted performances for rec and community centers.

Young Audiences encouraged the kids to come to the meeting after a network of local nonprofits told its members the vote was coming up and asked for support. The children joined a clarinetist who played during her comment time. The arts community is known for filling the meeting rooms with dancers and musicians to drive their point home in concert whenever the council takes up arts funding.

By increasing the funding to the city’s arts and culture pot, more groups like Young Audiences could ostensibly apply and do more work like teaching the kids to dance. The council just asked the commission to codify that commitment — and to make sure that $1 million more goes to funding nonprofits’ in-school programs.

Hamilton said the commission will work on a plan for incentivizing arts groups to conceive in-school programs.

I’m Kelly Bennett, reporter for Voice of San Diego. You can reach me directly at kelly.bennett@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.325.0531.

And follow Behind the Scene on Facebook.

Kelly Bennett

Kelly Bennett is a former staff writer for Voice of San Diego.

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