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St. Paul Schools should not cut elementary instrumental program

I’ve been teaching children and teenagers to play musical instruments for the past 30 years. It’s a special skill … the playing and the teaching.

I’ve been teaching children and teenagers to play musical instruments for the past 30 years. It’s a special skill … the playing and the teaching.

St. Paul Public Schools is proposing to make significant, permanent cuts to the elementary instrumental-music program this spring as Superintendent Meria Carstarphen prepares to move on to Austin, Texas. I’m not sure she cares very much about the ramifications of such an action, but I do. That’s why I am writing about kids and musical instruments.

I have learned many lessons from being an elementary band and orchestra teacher. First of all, almost everyone sounds awful when they first start playing a musical instrument. This young person sitting beside me with an unruly musical instrument attached to his or her mouth/neck/hands wants nothing more than a smile or an approving nod from me, the music teacher. That half hour or so a week — when a younger person spends time with an older person to be imparted the secrets of music-making — is indeed a special opportunity.

And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been on the bus, at the grocery store, the library, walking down the street, or even at a bar, and someone — a stranger — finds out that I’m a band director. Invariably, their eyes light up and they exuberantly admit to me, “I played trumpet [or saxophone or flute or trombone] in fifth grade!!” I’ve always felt slightly uncomfortable in these moments, but also realize that I represent a bigger-than-life teacher from their past, so I smile kindly at them and listen to their story. Often these individuals, who have just shared one of the most wonderful accomplishments of their childhood, did not continue playing a musical instrument past high school, or maybe even grade school, but it was a very important formative experience for them, nonetheless. It was something in their education that really mattered.

Other choices
The St. Paul Public Schools system is trying to figure out how to cut $25 million from its budget, and among the things and programs it’s considering for elimination is band and orchestra for fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade kids. As you may imagine, there are other things they can cut.

Listed in no particular order:

• Eliminate budget for leadership transition ($200K)

• Reduce expenditures on consultants ($650K)

• Reduce allocations for operations ($580K)

• Reduce district-funded coaches ($1.4 mil)

• Reduce transportation costs ($700K)

• Reduce central administration ($2.3 mil)

• Eliminate planning for the “Ideal Day” ($50K)

• Reduce travel expenditures ($50K)

• Reduce professional development for current principals ($50K)

• Implement online pay advice for employees ($100K)

• Reduce food costs for activities ($100K)

• Eliminate the Behavior Management implementation program ($100K)

• Use fund balance (rainy day fund) ($1 mil)

• Save salary costs through early retirement ($50K)

• Reduce money for school program changes ($500K)

• Reduce transportation for secondary students — use city bus ($750K)

• 2-day closure of the district ($2.7 mil)

There is something you can do to help!
After the last school board meeting on March 17 and a Community Listening Session on March 26, the school board realized that the community (parents, students, teachers, the people of St. Paul) does not have enough information about what the superintendent is planning to cut. Over a hundred St. Paul citizens gathered at these two meetings to let her know how important band and orchestra is to us and to our children. The school board immediately requested that the superintendent gather information from her constituents with a survey that will be online through May. By completing the Community and Staff Input Survey for the 2009-2010 Budget here (click on the large “Budget” icon), you can let her know how your family feels, too. Students are also welcome to complete the survey!

In addition to being a music educator, I am also a musician and composer. I’ve lived in St. Paul for the past 12 years and my daughter attends Johnson High School, so I, too, feel personally affected by these cuts. I really believe that music is an essential part of our lives, and that giving our children the chance to learn to play a musical instrument in elementary school is one of the things that makes St. Paul a very special place to live and get an education. It’s also an opportunity that will become more difficult to fit into busy lives and schedules as kids grow older and move on to junior high and high school.

I hope residents of St. Paul will consider completing the online budget survey, and that others will support school music programs in their own communities. For St. Paul residents, every person in your household may complete the survey as either residents of St. Paul or as students of the St. Paul Public Schools.

Kari Musil is a composer, a band director at Battle Creek Middle School and a resident of St. Paul.