In 2003, Jason Owens, in his third year of teaching music at Vestal Elementary on Northeast 82nd Avenue, figured his job was pretty safe. After all, Principal Susan Foxman was married to a violinist for the Oregon Symphony.

But that spring, Foxman told Owens the school could no longer afford a music program. Owens lost his job at Vestal (though he found work at two other Northeast Portland schools this year). Foxman, meanwhile, used money raised by Vestal's 350 students to hire a private nonprofit called Ethos Inc. to teach music after school.

In effect, she outsourced Owens' job.

Principals all across the Portland Public Schools are taking drastic steps to preserve some vestige of the district's once-proud music curriculum. At 50 schools in the district, they've hired Ethos, an acclaimed music-education organization founded in 1998, in part to counter arts cuts in public schools. But where some see a creative, community-powered solution, others see the thin edge of a wedge that could drive funded arts education out of Portland schools entirely.

The arts' decline already alarms many. William Martin, a 21-year veteran music teacher at da Vinci Arts Middle School, remembers when the district employed 110 music teachers. Now, it has 45. Once, every Portland high school entered a marching band in the Rose Parade. "Last year," Martin says, "they had to combine the forces of four or five or six high schools."

No one accuses the Northeast Portland-based Ethos of working to muscle out teachers. The group's efforts to bring music instruction to low-income kids have earned national acclaim. But Williams, Owens and others worry cash-squeezed principals are taking advantage of the group's good works to ax arts funding.

"If it's good enough for music and arts," asks Martin, "why not do it for English and math?"

In Portland, school principals decide which programs to cut when funds run low. At Vestal, Foxman says she polls parents every year to gauge their priorities. Invariably, small class size wins out. "When we have dwindling resources," she says, "we have to look at where our priorities are." A principal could cut core subjects, but that's not likely, since the state (and, increasingly, the feds) judges schools by their math and reading scores. "Luxuries" like arts and physical education end up axed.

Into the breach steps Ethos, which sends instructors to teach a variety of music classes after school. Ethos charges schools based on the percentage of poor students enrolled there. Vestal qualifies for the lowest rate--$35 a day for an hourlong class. (In contrast, Owens made about $15,000 a year as a half-time teacher, about $80 per school day.)

Charles Lewis, the founder and executive director of Ethos, which had a 2003 operating budget of $500,000, rejects the notion that his program is replacing in-school music education. "I don't think it could, and I don't think it should," he says. "It's like blaming the good Samaritan who drives someone to the hospital because the city no longer sends an ambulance."

Carol Egan, the district's point-woman on the arts, praises Ethos. She hopes that the arrival of new superintendent Dr. Vicki Phillips may mean a return to the days when Portland's schools boasted dynamic and well-funded arts programs. But she notes that if voters repeal the county income tax it will cut a $43 million hole in this year's schools budget.

"I'm cautious," she says. "I've watched leaders talk the arts, and then I wind up seeing the arts held hostage."