Peter Fay feels strongly about the Fillmore Arts Center, on 35th Street NW in Burleith. Four of his stepchildren have taken classes there, as did his eldest son, Andrew Olmsted, who recently won a place in a special internship program at the Folger Theatre.

“He would not have been able to be one of the few selected were it not for the preparation he got at the Fillmore,” says Fay.

Fay is not your average dad. He has 35 years of experience in the arts and arts education. More than enough background, that is, to participate in a classic D.C. battle over arts instruction in one of the city’s most privileged areas.

Located on the third floor of Hardy Middle School, the Fillmore Arts Center provides training in dance, music, theater, visual arts, creative writing, and media arts to more than 900 students. The center acts as a satellite campus, with pupils being bused throughout the week from several feeder schools: Ross, Hyde, Key, Stoddert, and Barnard Elementary Schools, as well as Hardy Middle School.

For years, Fillmore was considered an innovative program that promised to create a cadre of budding artists. Many have seen the school as the natural extension, for younger children, of the dazzling Duke Ellington School of the Arts, even though the students are not permanent. It has received generous funding from the D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) administration and put together an ambitious arts curriculum.

These days, though, the center, which was founded in the ’70s, is struggling to stay open. It may lose its Hardy headquarters after the school building undergoes renovation, a DCPS audit last fall found several problems with the organization’s financial management, and the center is losing its affiliations with Hardy and Ross at the end of the year.

“Some people would argue that the program the Fillmore has offered hasn’t been that great,” says Westy Byrd, a former member of the D.C. Board of Education and chair of the Hardy Middle School Local School Restructuring Team (LSRT), an elected panel that handles planning for neighborhood schools.

In an open letter dated March 28, 2002, Hardy’s LSRT said the center had not lived up to its commitment of providing a band and a chorus for Hardy students. Having decided to pull out of Fillmore, Hardy is reviewing proposals from the National Portrait Gallery, the Bethesda Academy of Performing Arts, and Carla Perlo’s Dance Place.

“The people who think [Fillmore] is very good are the people whose kids have had exceptional teachers, which has been very rare,” says one highly placed DCPS official who requested anonymity.

Fillmore backers insist that such broadsides stem from an ill-informed notion that the feeder schools can come up with better alternatives. “We have not yet begun to fight,” wrote Fay in a March 26 e-mail—one of a series of strongly worded calls to arms for the center.

Times are not particularly favorable for an institution whose sole mission is arts education. Both the D.C. public schools and the federal government have renewed their focus on basic academics. President George W. Bush’s education bill, which became law in January, threatens cutoffs in federal support to schools that fail to improve student test scores. The performance standards aren’t tied to arts competency.

Then there’s the recent trend toward something known in education circles as school-based management, in which principals take tighter control over curriculum offerings at their schools. Ross Elementary, for example, has consolidated its arts education in house, because it already has a music teacher and an art teacher. Hardy officials believe they can take the $94,000 they now give to Fillmore per year and spend it on a wider range of arts programs.

“It’s a lot of politics going on everywhere,” says Deborah George, chair of the Friends of Fillmore Arts Center, a nonprofit organization that funds the center and operates its summer arts camp. George adds that the schools just “want the power to decide” how their contributions to the Fillmore are spent, and she blames the current controversy on “a few people in the community at large that would like to put us out of business.”

As the school’s chief fundraiser, George understands the fallout caused by feeder schools abandoning the program. For every student it teaches, the center receives $267 directly from the budget of the feeder school, plus an additional $266 from the school system’s central administration. The formula means that, this year, the center netted roughly $523,000 to cover 981 participating students, according to DCPS finance officials. With Ross and Hardy opting out—a subtraction of 538 students—Fillmore has to scramble for other bodies or hustle foundation money.

And the pupil drain may accelerate in coming years. School system sources say that Superintendent Paul Vance is currently in discussions with the Kennedy Center about getting it to help create more in-school arts programs and establish resource centers throughout the city. The result could mean that over the next two years, other schools will either drop out of the Fillmore program or simply refuse to sign up.

“It’s been a struggle to survive—never mind thrive—for the 10 or 12 years we’ve been involved in it,” says Larry Bond, father of two former Fillmore students. “With the resources they have had, they have done a marvelous job.”

Although Bond and other supporters applaud the school’s arts instruction, they’d be hard-pressed to defend certain aspects of its administration. In an internal audit covering the period from Oct. 1, 1999, through Aug. 17, 2001, Eugene P. Smith, director of internal audits for DCPS, disclosed a number of irregularities with the center’s record-keeping: The required spending plan for the center could not be located in the Office of the Chief Financial Officer, program evaluations had not been performed for 2001 or 2000, use payments made by the Fillmore were not in accordance with current DCPS policies, and center employees handling DCPS funds were not bonded, as required.

In another alleged transgression, the auditor raised concerns about the fact that 17 Fillmore instructors allegedly have been getting paid twice—once with monies from the center’s feeder schools and again through the DCPS central office.

DCPS asked Fillmore Director Pat Mitchell to respond in writing to the audit. A school system spokesperson says that Mitchell’s response was “insufficient.”

Vera White, assistant superintendent for middle schools, says that changes were made to the use agreement between the Fillmore and DCPS and that the center has taken care of issues surrounding bonding its employees. White, furthermore, has been asked by DCPS Chief Operating Officer Louis Erste to respond to the auditors’ finding that the instructors allegedly were paid twice.

(Mitchell refused repeated requests to be interviewed for this article. Neither White nor the DCPS communications office could explain the alleged payment arrangement for the 17 Fillmore teachers.)

At the end of April, DCPS initiated another audit of the Fillmore’s books. The results of that audit are not yet complete, according to a schools spokesperson.

George, responding to questions about the center’s finances and its use of the nonprofit Friends of Fillmore Arts Center, says that every dime the center receives from DCPS or raises on its own “goes totally out the door.” She adds that the center sometimes subsidizes the participation of low-income students during the regular academic year and the summer program.

That’s not good enough for the center’s critics, though. “Did you know the school system isn’t paying for substitute teachers? And it can’t fund in-school suspension coordinators?” says Byrd. “But it has money to spend to haul kids to Fillmore by bus….Something is wrong with that picture.”

While the center is being injured by the loss of students, Fillmore’s allies have turned to city hall. In recent months, advocates have coordinated a lobbying effort that has touched the D.C. Board of Education, the D.C. Council, and Mayor Anthony A. Williams. (The mayor was scheduled to make an election-year appearance at the center, but his April 23 appointment was canceled at the last minute because of a scheduling conflict, according to a mayoral spokesperson.)

“The population wants this program,” argues George. “It’s up to the city to listen and to respond to that.”

And the public officials pressed by Fillmore boosters are responding. “I would like to see the arts as a permanent part of the curriculum in every school, pre-K through 12th grade,” says School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz.

Cafritz, who also co-founded the Ellington School of the Arts, says that although she supports a school’s right to decide what it does or doesn’t want in its building, she believes that “schools that are going to stick with the Fillmore should have a place to go.”

Dwight Singleton, a school-board member representing Wards 3 and 4, has tried acting as a salesman for the center, introducing its programs to several schools. But he says many were unable to respond because “they had only a week to get their school plans in, and there was some concern about whether they would have to absorb transportation costs.”

Furthermore, Singleton is trying to head off the homelessness problem that the center may face after the Hardy renovation. “I will be pushing for the board to direct the superintendent to find a facility for Fillmore,” he says.

DCPS’s White suggests a long-term home would please Fillmore constituents. “All of the [schools subscribing] to the program are delighted to have it,” says White. But White hasn’t conducted an evaluation of the Fillmore in three years: “If someone wants that, I can ask for a full-fledged audit of the program.”

She won’t be getting any such requests from Fay, who is heartened by the backing of DCPS big shots. “If anyone thinks that Fillmore would suffer and might go out of existence, I think they should think again,” he says.

He reports that in the find-the-bodies game, there is a move to add more students from Stoddert, Key, and Hyde. There also is a push to include students currently enrolled in special-education programs. And Fay says there has been some talk of creating a Fillmore East—meaning east of the Anacostia River.

“It’s not like Fillmore is a cookie-cutter kind of thing,” he says. “We have to see what creative ways the [model] can be applied….Do you want to do arts and social studies?…The only limitations are our own thinking.”

Actually, the main limitation is how many feeder schools sign up for Fillmore’s curriculum. By that measure, the real question may be not if the center closes, but when. CP