On his knees, band director pleading to stop SPPS music cuts

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“I want to use my body to show how devastating this decision would be. It would be cutting our program off at the knees,” said Chelsea Heights Elementary School band director Dave Perry, on his knees at the St. Paul Public School Board listening session March 26. He added, to enthusiastic applause, “We aren’t worried about losing our jobs, we’re worried about what this is going to do to the kids.”

St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) face a $25 million deficit. Discussion of proposed cuts to music programs in elementary schools dominated the second school board “listening session,” which took place at John A. Johnson Achievement Plus Elementary, as part of a new initiative to increase transparency and encourage communication between the Board and the community.

For other articles about the SPPS budget, see Teachers call on board, administrators to hear their budget solutions and St. Paul parents, teachers talk to the Board.

After much consideration, the Board of Education has halved the proposed cuts to itinerant (meaning district-funded) instructional music teachers. This has taken the amount to be cut from $1.4 million to $700,000, with additional central administration cuts offsetting the blow to instructional music teachers. With this cut, the music program will lose 10 instrumental positions or 12.5% of its staff.

SPPS Budget Forum

What do you think? Daily Planet readers are invited to add their comments and ideas to our SPPS Budget Forum. Or Click here for links to phone numbers and email addresses and take the SPPS official on-line survey. The next school board meeting is April 14. Other public meetings are scheduled for:

• May 12: Forum at Central HS: Staff from 3:30-5:30 p.m.
Public from 6-8 p.m. (in English with Hmong, Spanish and Somali interpreters)

• May 28: Forum at Harding High School: Staff from 3:30-5:30 p.m.
Public from 6-8 p.m. (in English with Hmong, Spanish and Somali interpreters)

• June 11: Board Listening Session (no topic – open forum)

Phil Fried, an itinerant instructional music teacher at Mississippi Creative Arts Magnet School, J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet, and Adams Spanish Immersion, follows the fate of music teachers in St. Paul on his blog, “Keep Instructional Music Teachers in St. Paul.” “Arts are a language,” he said, “and we know that people who know more languages succeed.”

As Fried and others at the meeting consistently pointed out, learning how to play music often corresponds with high academic achievement.

“Because of No Child Left Behind, we are focusing on math, reading, and science,” said Theresa Westcott, a music teacher at Franklin Music Magnet, “but if you build the music program, students will come.”

Westcott pointed to the mandatory content coach program as an area that should be cut. If schools do not make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), they must fund a .5 literacy coach and .5 math coach to support and train elementary school teachers. “Why do we have these programs if teachers already know how to read and have received teaching degrees?” Westcott asked.

School board member Keith Hardy responded to this concern by explaining that music helps academic achievement, but so do the content coaches. “The question is, where are we getting the most bang for our buck in terms of academic achievement?”

Kari Howard, band director at Battle Creek Middle School, took issue with the Board’s wording of cutting “programs that don’t work.”

“Maybe we have never been given enough time and money to do what we do,” she said.

School board members Elona Street-Stewart and Tom Conlon said that transportation and scheduling are the real issues with the music program, as itinerant music teachers are expected to travel from school to school for their lessons. “We need to make it more efficient, serve more kids at once,” Conlon said. Band director Dave Perry, however, highlighted the inherent contradiction in trying to make music programs more efficient: the need to serve more kids at once does not mesh with the need for small, individual-centered music programs.

Another program that will experience cuts is athletics, though only one person at the meeting stood up to speak for sports. The Board has lessened the proposed cut for athletics from the initial figure of $650,000 to $450,000.

Speaking to the problem of the budget cuts pitting groups against each other, Elona Street-Stewart said, “We need to look at the full array of programs offered. We shouldn’t make this arts versus athletics or music teachers versus content coaches.”

Toward the end of the meeting, Keith Hardy laid out the realities of the budget cuts: “We are faced with having to cut $25 million from the budget. If we don’t cut from certain programs such as music or athletics, where should we make the cuts? If we make the cuts in these programs, where are the best areas within the programs to make cuts?”

Elona Street-Stewart listed other issues that still need to be addressed such as transportation, school start time, the choice system, and rightsizing and consolidation. Rightsizing, meaning assessing the proper allotment of physical space for each program, was touched on briefly at the listening session, many people complaining that school buildings are not being used to capacity.

The Board also held out some hope for aid from the Obama administration’s stimulus package. “States are trying to figure out how much money they are getting, but we will have to show our improvement between money installments,” Street-Stewart said. “There are going to be so many strings attached to the stimulus money and lots of hard work,” said John Brodrick, the other board member present.

Currently the budget proposal plan is still in progress and will be passed by June. Though the Board expressed hopes that they will be able to further tweak the proposal in favor of the music or athletic programs, many people doubted this possibility.

“It really seems like they will end up sticking to the plans they have laid out,” Kari Howard said. Others worry that these cuts are sidestepping larger problems within the public school system. “Cutting the arts is only a short-term fix,” said Phil Fried.

Ellen Frazel is a student at Macalester College and an intern at the TC Daily Planet.

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