Schools Music Programs Weather the Down Economy

Mike Lawson • Archives • September 10, 2009

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In Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the Liberty High School orchestra, band, and choir struggle to keep the winds, strings, percussion, and voices on the stage and in the classroom. Students are stuck wearing old, worn uniforms. The school’s instrument repair budget has been cut by thousands, and forget about seeing any new instruments. The band cannot order nearly enough sheet music. The jury, too, is out on whether holes in the staff will be replaced. Greg MacGill, Liberty’s band director, says his band and orchestra are far from alone.

As the US economy spirals, or at least festers in the ditches, the effects of this downturn fingers into the public school system. Cutbacks start happening. Supplies dwindle. And some programs either continue on a shoestring, or are completely slashed. Even though countless studies prove the positive effects of arts programs on the developing mind, usually it is precisely those programs that suffer cuts earliest.

According to a recent article in SmartMoney, all three elementary schools in the Phoenix/Talent district in southern Oregon lost their music teachers, impacting 1,200 students. No concerts are budgeted for the coming year, and the PTA is trying to raise funds to bring the program back.

“Within our state, the way they are financed, it is based upon school size,” says Mike Wallmark, associate executive director of the Oregon School Activities Association, which coordinates interstate activities in music, dance, and anything that falls outside traditional athletics. “It’s fair to generalize that athletics last longer. They are universally recognized as representative of the school and generate revenue. We have had schools that have totally cut athletic programs, although those tend to be the last things on the chopping block because of sports’ impact on the community.”

But those in art and music programs across the country are biting their nails. Combined with families’ decreasing expendable income, as well as school budgets, it’s a fine balancing act to keep school music afloat. In Pennsylvania, the merging economic challenges created what MacGill refers to as “the perfect storm.” The state’s governor and legislature cannot agree on a budget (which has happened for seven years straight), and also need to reach a compromise on how to use a guaranteed amount from the Stimulus Package.

“In Bethlehem, we had a situation along with the economy where our school district had invested in high risk bonds,” says MacGill. “When the economy turned south, it made it exponentially worse. It’s really put itself in a pickle. This is year 32 for me, and in three decades, I have never seen it worse.” MacGill continues that his was a school that once didn’t have a cap “if it needed to be fixed, it got fixed.” Now, that’s not happening. “The well has just dried,” he says.

The Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified School District in Placentia, California suffered the loss of five elementary music positions in the last school year. The result: 3,000 fewer students are experiencing music as part of their education. “The fear and anxiety rests mostly amongst the elementary teachers and those teachers with limited seniority in the district,” says Phil Mortensen, visual and performing arts coordinator for the district. “They are the most vulnerable if further cuts come our way.”

The administration at Eastern Hills High School, Fort Worth, Texas, cut the district’s fine arts budget by $40,000. That’s significant, according to Kathy S. Bernal, band director and department chair. Teaching for 26 years, her school has 1,400 students and it includes a marching band, symphonic band, jazz band, winter guard, winter drumline, and string orchestra.

“Our budgets will most likely be cut,” says Bernal. “Our budget last year was $3,000 from the district and $2,900 from the site-based budget. Due to these cuts, we are now limited to the amount of competitions we can enter, and we have had to alter the District Honor Band. Students will audition and receive a patch, but will not be able to rehearse and perform as a group.”

In Oregon, Wallmark says in some cases the impact has been disparate and in others, extreme. The schools that are surviving best are those that have “saved money for a rainy day.” Some schools have thought far enough ahead; others are even having their athletic programs cut.

“I know there are a number of schools that have had repair or replacement budgets for instruments that have been totally cut,” he says. “They have been told to get by with what they don’t have. The same applies to uniforms. Things are postponed more often than not now. Some districts may have traveled more that are finding themselves limited, or finding that their participation fees are raised to make up the difference.” In some cases, Wallmark indicates that schools have started beginner programs a year later, as well as consolidated teaching positions.

Neil Jenkins, director of bands at J.P. Taravella High School in Coral Springs, Florida, has approximately 2,300 students enrolled in the music programs grades 9-12. The band has enjoyed more than 25 years of success at the local, state, national, and international level. Even with all the accolades, (such as superior ratings at the Florida Bandmasters Association State Music Performance for 17 years), it has not escaped the economic downturn, although it is surviving better than some. This is partially due to the fact that the high school was chosen as an “Arts Achieve School” for the state.

“We’re fortunate not to be seeing very many cuts in our department,” says Jenkins. “We lost one art teacher due to leave to go back to school for a Master’s degree. He was not replaced and the load will be distributed among the remaining art teachers. The financial effects are being felt around our country and throughout the state with reduction of music, art, and PE teachers at the elementary level. Because we are a •school-based program,’ principals have the final say in what stays and what goes. Most middle school and high school programs are not being affected in this manner, but are facing some financial setbacks that could include buses for football games, new music purchases, and new equipment purchases.”

Sometimes in fact, usually when one faces loss or extinction, it is the people who care about it who ultimately save it. Across the country, school music programs and their supporters are finding ways to come up with strategies to help.

Jenkins says J.P. Taravella High hasn’t reached “emergency” levels yet, and in fact has seen some of its well-established directors vacated positions replaced. But, the school is striving to find ways to generate funds through fund raising activities to avoid going to the students and their families for money. Using what many call a “fair share,” they try to generate approximately 15 percent of their budget, working hard to keep this at a low level, which is currently $300 per student.

SBO spoke with many directors who said that bands and orchestras are often turning to booster organizations to help raise funds. However, those organizations are struggling, too. “Unfortunately, even the booster groups are having problems,” says Bernal, “since many of our parents do not work or have lost their jobs and live in communities that cannot afford to buy things from our fund raisers.” To help with the required physicals, Bernal convinced the school district to include band students in the free physical given by the district. That helped 25 students. There are also a few fundraisers planned: Dallas Cowboy Stadium concessions, a multi-family garage sale, JazzFest 2010 Mexican dinner with silent auction, the 14th annual Highlander Jazz Competition, a car wash, and spirit items.

“Directors have always been very creative about fund raising and recruiting band members and their families to help,” says Bernal. “It comes with the job. We’ve all had financial obstacles to overcome.”

Wallmark explains that the success depends on the community and the attitude of the administration in the various districts. “I was at a meeting this morning,” says Wallmark. “We had a workshop with 90 directors from Oregon and Washington. There was not a lot of conversation about financial programs. I would have to say that people are finding ways to work around the situation they are in. The first year, you can work around, but the second and third years might get harder.”

Parents are concerned, and in some districts, they are waking up and doing something about the potential loss of their kids’ music programs. For instance, in the Placentia-Yorba Linda district, the community just passed a $200,000 bond to provide necessary upgrades to schools and facilities. That includes music and art upgrades, as well as the construction of a $14-million district music hall.

The community that engulfs the Placentia-Yorba Linda Unified district is an active one, according to Mortensen. It is one, he insists, that demands that arts be present in the school. “There are booster club members and area activists who speak to the need for arts education at our monthly school board meetings,” he says.

The Liberty bands and orchestras typically travel a lot; usually, the orchestra and band alternate years. Big, noteworthy trips, too; and these can get costly. MacGill says his school may be looking at eliminating some of the trips, or at least keeping them closer to home. “We went to the Rose Parade last year,” he says, “and we had 220 kids go, but 30 or so kids did not go. People were losing jobs, but we had it planned. The economy tanked, and it was really difficult. I would get off the phone with one parent and then have to get on with another. You can’t treat this like a business. It’s a school, but when it comes down to the bottom line… Thankfully,” adds MacGill, “in these times, companies are more likely to kick in to help. An in-kind donation of $20,000 assisted them in shipping all the instruments for the Rose Parade.”

Liberty’s regular trip to Puerto Rico, where the orchestra tours various schools in the country, will be canceled this year. “You get to a point where the trip is a demoralizing factor,” says MacGill. “It’s supposed to entice and enhance your program. I talked to parents and they sounded relieved that we weren’t going to Puerto Rico. We’ll stay on the East Coast, and do nothing for more than $600 a student.”

While a majority of school music programs have at least felt some effects of the bad economy, there are some that are sailing through it. Beginning her fourth year at Westdie High School in Houston, Texas, director of bands Kelly Porter-Centanni says they are “very lucky” to have not seen any cutbacks thus far. Oddly, the school’s programs seem to be flourishing, even. She has received close to $76,000 in new equipment and instruments in the past two years from funds provided by the district.

“While we do not anticipate receiving funds like that this school year,” says Porter-Centanni, “we seem to be in good shape. I do expect the belt to be tightened a bit this year when it comes to miscellaneous spending and travel within the school district…We are extremely lucky to have a music supervisor whose job it is to oversee our feeder pattern, which only includes a small handful of schools. He is our biggest advocate, and stresses that for our music programs to grow and be successful, we need support and encouragement.”

Competing musically in class 5A, the Lamar High School marching band, concert band, jazz ensemble, color guard ensemble and percussion ensemble are in one of the toughest regions, competitively speaking, in the state of Texas. Music programs have always been a priority in the district and, according to band director Mark Pease, that commitment isn’t wavering even through the hard times although he admits there could be some future cuts. “I don’t feel there is any danger of losing our department or program,” says Pease. “We are, however, already dependent on fundraising and activity fees to maintain the offerings we provide our students. I am happy to say that we have a very supportive and hard-working booster club that is constantly seeking new ways to provide for needs of our program.”

It’s been covered to death, but bears repeating. Research heavily shows that music programs are not only beneficial in their own right, but complement core subjects and help students excel in other studies.

“We cannot give up such a rich source of learning,” says Bernal. “Students will always have music and will always see art. Band programs need to emphasize using music as a means to an end, and not just for entertainment.”

Those who witness these effects on a daily basis couldn’t agree more. “Music programs like bands, orchestras, and choirs provide opportunities for students to go beyond basic book knowledge to see how to use that knowledge creatively,” says Pease. “They learn self discipline, determination, dedication, cooperation, and how to be creative in a team setting. My experience in over 30 years of music education has shown me that students with a performing arts background are more academically successful, have higher self-esteems, and are better prepared for their chosen careers.”

Directors such as Mortensen hope that more education leaders, both locally and federally, recognize music’s important role in education. “They must all understand that even in economically challenging times, like those we are facing now,” says Mortensen, “it is critical that students receive a quality education, which can only be achieved if music and the arts are a shared part of the core curriculum.”

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