Not all cuts are created equal

(Editor’s note: The following statement was read into the record at Monday’s Elk River Area School Board meeting, and also submitted as a letter to the editor.)

Thank you (Elk River Area School District) for clearly laying out the reasoning behind the cuts to the music program at Elk River High School. The data was clearly presented and the formulas were mathematically sound. What will not add up, however, is the overall impact on students at the high school. I believe these actions, while no doubt saving the district money, will have an impact that is disproportionately negative for the amount of money saved and is in direct conflict with previous commitments to the arts and specifically music.

Staffing decisions are not usually the purview of the board. I must tell you, however, that part of the reason I am here speaking to you is that I have yet to receive a response to emails and phone calls left with Elk River school’s administration, specifically the principal’s office. As a parent I find this lack of willingness to dialogue very disappointing. In my work, both as a university music professor and as an author of instructional materials, I speak with directors from all over the country. These budget challenges are not all unique to District 728, but successful programs most certainly do exist. The common denominator in successful band programs is administrative support. Directors to a person tell me that they could not do what they do without the support of school administration. I wonder if that same level of support exists here.

This cut is supposedly being made because of student choices – specifically students choosing not to enroll in certain electives. Why punish the students who are already invested in a program because of a lack of interest somewhere else? The suggestion that band students should help fill out these electives is not at all practical. It is difficult enough for them to simply work band into their schedules. If the belief is that a certain area of the curriculum is important, then every effort should be made to encourage participation in that area. Parents and the community have demonstrated loudly and clearly that we value music education in the curriculum. The board has also demonstrated that it values music education through actions and investments made two years ago.

Cuts to other areas of the high school’s curriculum have teachers available to help make up for the loss of FTE (full-time equivalents). This is not the case in band. Many of the events that band students participate in will be, if not impossible, at the least more difficult. Events that require travel, such as visiting solo and ensemble contests or other festivals, will be more difficult, if not impossible.

Suggestions by the administration that “everything will still be offered” (referring to jazz band, pep band, etc.) are disingenuous at best. Try telling a coach that they are expected to recruit, build the necessary relationships with kids and maintain the same level of program quality all while spending 40 percent less time on site.

Investments made by the board two years ago that have resulted in increased middle school participation have not yet had time to potentially carry over into the high school. A band director who is only at a high school part time is not going to have the same opportunities to recruit. Incoming students and parents may also interpret a less-than-full-time band director as a lack of commitment to a band program. I am concerned about the affect of this action not only for the coming year, but also for the coming three to five years.

Working against these ideals is an ever-tightening budget and the constraints of a six-period day. To be sure, these are real challenges that require creative solutions. I disagree with a solution that results in penalizing students that are involved in a program that has shown significant improvement in the past two years. Especially when the potential pay-off of middle school level investments are so close to fruition. Band students are largely college-bound high achievers that do the school and the district proud. I challenge the board to seek long-term comprehensive solutions to these problems.

Thank you for this opportunity to speak to you and for your service on the District 728 School Board. Board service is time-consuming work, and that time is appreciated. — Dean Sorenson, Elk River