Budgeting: Music Teachers’ Money-Saving Secrets

Mike Lawson • Fundraising • October 22, 2006

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In the teaching profession, sometimes it’s difficult to keep necessity purchases to a minimum – particularly when the music education budget is slashed year after year. When there’s no money for incidentals and last-minute or “emergency” needs, where does that money come from? The music teacher’s own pocket.

According to a recent SBO survey of 100 band and orchestra directors, 76 percent of the survey’s participants revealed that they occasionally – and, in some cases, often – must supplement their music education budget with their own money. In many cases, the money is spent on office supplies or “emergency” sheet music that wasn’t included in the original budget.

Michael Carbonneau, director at Mansfield Middle School in Storrs, Conn., sums up the most cited reason for taking this route: “It is often easier to outlay a little cash rather than go through all of the red tape.”

But sometimes, directors dig deep into their own wallets for more costly expenses, like percussion accessories, reeds, computer hardware and software, refreshments for band activities, and even clinicians. Several directors said they have helped students in need cover repairs, clinic costs or other program-related expenses. Paying for extras amounted to as much as $1,000 last year for some survey participants.

The rationale for these out-of-pocket purchases is one and the same: Teachers want the best possible experiences for their students and the money just isn’t in the budget. They would rather spend their own earnings than have the students go without.

Money-Saving Strategies

The most popular money-saving tactic in band and orchestra programs is prolonging the life spans of instruments with proper maintenance and repair, according to the SBO survey. Fifty-three percent of the directors polled find ways to stretch the playing days of school instruments.

Mark Belsaas, director at New Prairie High School in New Carlisle, Ind., keeps instrument repair expenses low by fixing the instruments himself.

“It’s much cheaper to buy pads, corks, springs, etc., than it is to send the horn in and have the work done. But,” he warns, “you must know your limits. A poor attempt at repair can create a costly fix later on.”

Keeping detailed records of scheduled instrument maintenance may also pay off in the long run.

“Track all instrument repairs,” director John Armstrong, of Joliet ( Ill.) Public Schools, urges. “The amount of money spent repairing instruments will justify the purchase of new instruments eventually.”

Forty-nine percent of directors space out major purchases so that, one day, they will make it into the budget.

“As long as you keep working at your ‘checklist of purchases,’ chances are you will eventually be able to acquire these,” notes director William Buzza, of Leavitt Area High School in Turner, Maine. “If administrators see you asking for the same thing year after year, they will take notice. Be sure you communicate with your administrators about what your needs are.”

Other cost-cutting strategies include sharing music with other schools and districts (31 percent) and, of course, the old stand-by – fundraising (36 percent).

Once all other avenues have been exhausted, some directors have to charge fees to cover the expenses involved in running a music program.

At Nampa West Middle School in Nampa, Idaho, the band budget was cut by more than 50 percent, prompting the department to charge rental fees for the instruments to help cover the costs of repair.

“This year I will be able to supplement my meager repair budget with funds collected from students,” points out director Ted Carrico. “Looking down the road, we may have to go to a ‘pay to play’ concept for all students wanting to be in band to cover the cost of festivals and music. This is a last resort, but you have to do what you need to do to give the students the opportunity to be in band and keep the band going.”

Sometimes, desperate times call for creative measures. When it came time to replace her band’s uniforms, Lisa Bowen Field of Charlotte Middle School in Charlotte, Tenn., opted for a piecemeal approach – literally.

“I replaced the band uniforms by replacing just the tops one year. Then, a few years later, I replaced the pants,” Field said.

Robert Adams, director at Thomaston Public Schools in Thomaston, Conn., has found funding sources in unexpected places.

“I keep in touch with my administrators and custodial staff. When money becomes available, I can sometimes make purchases spur of the moment,” he explains. “Last year, we were able to buy new chairs and risers as part of a general furniture grant to the town.”

Beyond the Budget

Illustrating the sad state of affairs that many music programs face, one director offered this penny-pinching advice: “Pick up pennies in the hallways and check the change-return slot in the vending machines.”

Tongue-in-cheek or survival strategy? As music directors know, every penny in the budget (and not in the budget) counts. Joseph R. Castilleja, director of music in the Manson ( Wash.) School District, offered this money-saving strategy: start a 501c3 non-profit band boosters organization that would be eligible to apply for grants and other benefits, such as a state gambling license to conduct raffles.

“This makes your group a tax-deductible/charitable organization,” Castilleja points out. “Being a 501c3 organization, you have a place where you can control funds without having to go through your district’s purchase order system.”

Castilleja’s non-profit organization started an investment account to help support the music program.

“A few years down the road, some lucky music teacher will never have to fundraise,” he muses.

At some schools, making the best of a bad situation may be the only option for directors.

“You have to decide what you can live with (or without),” notes director Sue Cechal at Valders High School in Valders, Wis. With a budget that has been reduced by 50 percent over the last five years, the music program is starting to feel the crunch. The marching band now performs without gloves (a small change that can make a big difference in colder climates!) and the percussion choir and horn choir programs had to be cut because of their high expense.

“I try to remind myself that it’s what the kids learn that’s important – not what they have,” Cechal states. “It is foremost that the teacher not lose heart because they are losing money. We still have ways to grow and do new things.”

Other economies suggested by survey participants include: buying supplies in bulk, shopping around for the best prices, using corporate sponsorships to fund projects, and establishing a rapport with a local music dealer who may be able to provide discounts on instruments and music.

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