The Budget Cut Emergency Action Plan

SBO Staff • ChoralJuly 2009UpFront QA • July 28, 2009

The effects of the current recession have been felt far and wide, as state budgets have been slashed and spending curtailed. For many schools, these are particularly difficult times. All too often, reduced budgets translate into direct threats to the wellbeing of music programs. While there isn’t always an easy answer to stave off administrators and school board officials who are responsible for making the painful cuts necessary to keep schools afloat, this is no time for choral directors to throw in the towel. But if there simply isn’t any money, what is a music teacher to do?

Dr. John Benham has some answers. A former music teacher and current professor of ethnomusicology at Liberty University, Dr. Benham has spent the last 29 years working directly with music programs to prevent cuts in the face of budgetary crises. In a recent CD interview, this longtime music advocate provides the outline of an action plan that could spare your music program when those difficult financial decisions are being made.

Choral Director: With so much pessimism in the media about the economy, how are school music programs across the country holding up?
John Benham: I can only gauge that by what I’ve seen. I’ve been doing this now for 29 years, and I would say that this year, to me, has been the most significant amount of activity in terms of my work which means that it might be the most difficult for music programs. The most discouraging thing is not even the economic crisis that seems to be stimulating this, but the fact that people seem to be giving up the fight and accepting cuts to music programs.

CD: What recourse do educators have other than simply accepting cuts? What should educators be doing?
JB: Of course, there isn’t an easy answer, but from my perspective, when people don’t refuse to accept a cut, they’ve lost the philosophical basis for the program in their own minds. And secondly, and even worse, maybe it’s not their own position that is being cut, but somebody else’s, so they don’t fight it.

CD: For a school music program director facing hard realities and budget difficulties, what options are there?
JB: I don’t see any reason not to fight. For all the years that I’ve been doing this, I’ve seen that when three things are in place, we always manage to win [i.e., stave off budget cuts to music programs]. The first element is the development of a strong supportive music coalition. I don’t necessarily mean a fundraising group, although that’s often where it starts. If we unify these coalitions to where they don’t just represent one arm of music education say for example, a band boosters or an orchestra boosters or a choir boosters group because music education becomes unified, then we have political power. When I’ve seen political power, I’ve never seen anyone lose a program.

So the number one factor is to have a strong, unified K-12 district-wide music coalition representing all areas of music.

CD: And this is a group comprised primarily of parents?
JB: I call it a community group because it doesn’t have to be restricted to parents. Assembling a supportive group is the number one issue because, essentially, the process of cutting programs in a school is political. So whoever speaks the loudest gets his or her way. That’s just a political fact of life. We have elected school board officials, who elect the head of the district, so what tends to happen is that the school board starts representing that person or that group rather than the community. The community needs to retake possession of what the law gives them the right and responsibility to do, and that is to determine policy for their district through the school board. So if a community says, “You will not cut music,” the community will win. But you have to have the community organized to accomplish that.

The second most important aspect is to have the profession itself unified. This can be very difficult, especially if you’re looking at having program cuts. Let’s say I’m a band director and I’m thinking, “Well, the orchestra program is taking a lot of my kids that could be in band” or “They have low numbers anyway,” am I going to suggest a cut in my band program, or am I going to go suggest a cut in the orchestra program? The fact of the matter is that teachers shouldn’t suggest a cut in any area of the program because then they’re partially responsible for the cut. The teachers should only develop what we call “impact statements.”

If the administration makes statement about what is going to happen, than the administration and the school board are responsible for whatever is going to happen, not the teachers.

CD: What exactly does an impact statement cover?
JB: We do impact statements in four categories. What will the impact be on the faculty? For example if one band director is cut, what percentage of the faculty is that displacing? Is that a five percent cut, a ten percent cut, or a 50 percent cut in the music staff? How will that impact the student/faculty ratios? This all comes down to making sure that the students can get by. We tend to look at this process as saving teachers’ jobs rather than saving kids’ opportunities to make music, but if we focus on the effect cuts will have on students, we’re much more successful.

The second thing we look at is how cuts would impact the curriculum. So if we cut elementary band and orchestra, what is the long-term impact of that going to be? Well, we know from our research that if you do that, you’ll lose 65 percent of your enrollment at the secondary level within two years.

The third area of impact is along those lines, where we look at the how cuts would impact student participation.

And the fourth area is how cuts would impact the budget. If you have bands, orchestras, or choirs that have 50 kids in them and you lose 65 percent of that enrollment, where are those kids going to go? They’re going to go to a class that has 25 or 30 students, not the 50 that was in the music class. This capacity issue means that the music program is economically way more viable than most other classes. The problem is that teachers often don’t understand how to demonstrate this, or they don’t have the time to do that kind of detail work, which is why I so often work with community members. Also, teachers generally don’t have much experience analyzing that kind of data in the budget.

CD: Creating an impact statement of the likely fallout from potential cuts, having an informed and unified community group what’s the third step to saving a program?
JB: The third step is understanding the process of saving a program, which, in other words, means understanding the process of how the school board makes decisions. How do they gather the information to make decisions? How can educators provide school boards and administrations with the proper information to make sure that cuts aren’t made in music?

CD: You’re talking about raising the level of political awareness among teachers so that they can effectively communicate how the music program fits into the overall scheme of their students’ education?
JB: A coalition gets people to listen. If you can provide them with the right information, then they have an escape hatch to go with you. So if I can demonstrate the impact of proposed cuts. For example, the average music performance teacher has, say, 200 students, compared to the classroom teacher who has 125. If you lose those students in the music classes because you cut the feeder programs, essentially, it will take 1.6 new classroom teachers to handle those students. It seems overly simplified, and it is a more complex practice to demonstrate the fallout through statistical analysis, but the fact of the matter is that I’ve never had an administrator argue against that line of reasoning. That’s why they don’t tend to cut music at the secondary level, because schools know they can’t afford to lose those band, orchestra, and choir classes.

CD: What’s interesting here is that these are very pragmatic arguments that are also a different approach from just pleading the inherent value of music in education.
JB: The problem is that you have to attack the situation from the perspective it’s being presented. In other words, if you’ve got a financial crisis and you go in and say, “Well this is good for kids,” they’re going to respond, “Yes, we agree. However, we don’t have the money.”

What always happens is that a financial crisis exposes an educational philosophy that’s been there the whole time. When people tell me that they have a very strong administration, I ask them how their financial situation is and they usually say, “Very good.” You’re not going to find out where your support is until you’ve got a crisis. So what is the crisis? Is it financial? Is it a crisis of educational reform? The fact of the matter is that, educationally, music is still not regarded as being on par with many other subject areas from the perspective of the decision makers.

Also, if you make the argument that music is important because it helps students in other subject areas, what you’ve really done is infer that those areas are more important; we have to justify our programs from our own perspective.

CD: Do you have specific advice for music educators to go about creating a supportive community coalition?
JB: I think the thing to do is to communicate with them. That’s always the first step. The Support Music Web site has a lot of great information. On,. educators can find all sorts of resources free of charge. There is a segment called “Counterpoint,” which explains a lot of the process that I’ve mentioned here, and then there’s something called the “Community Action Kit,” which has all sorts of practical tools, and it’s all free and downloadable.

CD: This is a place where people might go to find the step-by-step process of building a community coalition?
JB: Exactly. On that community Action Kit, there’s something called the “Advocate’s Plan,” which is a PowerPoint presentation with speech notes that parents can make to the school board. On this Web site, educators and community members can find all of the practical information that school boards and administrators want to hear.

CD: Do these three steps that you’ve outlined vary greatly based on a school’s demographics?
JB: No, it doesn’t make any difference what the size of the district is or where it’s located; it’s all the same. I’ve come up with these points over 29 years of working in this field. We have to activate those people that have the power so that they can claim that power. Then we, as music educators, have to get out of the way so that we don’t undermine the process by appearing in conflict of interest or dividing our own programs and become competitive. And finally, if you don’t understand the process, you simply need to become more involved.

Dr. John Benham is president of Music in World Cultures, Inc., a non-profit organization through which he provides consultation as an advocate for music programs throughout the world. He is professor of Ethnomusicology Worship at Liberty University, where he is responsible for graduate studies in ethnomusicology. He is the author of the How to Save Your School Music Program A Handbook for the Music Advocate, and has extensive experience saving and restoring music programs in the face of budget cuts. Read his contributions in “Counterpoint” and the “Music Advocates Toolkit” on He can be reached at

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