TALLAHASSEE — Lawmakers in Tallahassee are largely reversing course 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."
During ongoing budget talks Saturday morning, the Florida House asked for $500,000 for New World School of the Arts in 2017-18. That would still represent a cut of $150,000 in funding from last year, but it's a drastic change from the House's first proposal to entirely de-fund the school.
The funding level is still under negotiation — talks that now elevate to the full Appropriations chairmen and will continue through the weekend. The Senate had also originally proposed cutting all funding to New World, but later proposed $20,000.
Threats to the school's state grant funding sparked public outcry when news of the Legislature's plans spread on 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 said New World administrators failed to provide a report they're legally required to submit, which would detail to lawmakers how the state funding is used. They said that lack of documentation is why the Legislature originally zeroed out the line-item in budget proposals.
"We had a situation with a timely turnover of information to us," Altamonte Springs Sen. David Simmons, the Senate's pre-K-12 education budget chief, said. "There was, as far as we can see, a problem with that."
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.
Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said Saturday morning he was encouraged by the House's reversal.
"The recent House allocation of $500,000 to New World School of the Arts is an encouraging step in the right direction. We are hopeful that the Senate will actually counter with full restoration to the current year's level," he said in a text.
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.
Some of the school's notable alumni took to social media in protest after they heard of the looming budget cuts.
New World alumnus Alex Lacamoire, the music director for the Broadway hit "Hamilton," asked his followers to call Rep. Roy Hardemon, D-Miami. "My arts HS @NWSA_MIAMI is in danger of severely losing funding," he tweeted.
Tarell Alvin McCraney, a New World alum who wrote the play that served as the basis for Moonlight, posted a plea to save the school's funding on Facebook. He asked supporters to call Hardemon "And tell em that a kid with no hope who found his way at new world sent you."
In speaking with reporters Saturday in Tallahassee, Diaz indicated that the impact of the reported funding cuts on the school were overblown. "If this money's not in there, they're not going to be boarding their doors or their windows," he said.
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.
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. "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.
"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," he said.