Music teachers decry cut

GUILDERLAND — A half-dozen music teachers objected to the cut of three-tenths of a post in their department, part of a $92 million budget proposal the school board adopted at its last meeting, which would eliminate roughly 35 jobs next year.
At their April 8 meeting, board members, responding to public comments, discussed the music-department cut at length. (The full story is online at www.AltamontEnterprise.com.)

Superintendent Marie Wiles told The Enterprise after the April 8 meeting that, “looking at just a handful of teachers,” she’d found they had an equivalent of three-tenths of a full-time job in spare time and could use that time to teach music lessons at the high school.

Two years ago, the high school orchestra had 53 members, Lori Hershenhart, the district’s music administrator, had said; next year, more than 100 students have signed up for orchestra.

As several board members pleaded at the last meeting to use part of one of the district’s five unassigned teaching posts for music, Wiles concluded, “If we need it, I promise we’ll do it.”

She since met with Hershenhart and elementary school principals to work out a schedule for having elementary music teachers travel to the high school to teach lessons.

The views of the music teachers who addressed the board Tuesday night were different than those of the administrators who attended the meeting to map out the logistics of teaching high school lessons.

The public comment session Tuesday opened with an eloquent statement by Kate Cohen — an author and mother of three children in the Guilderland schools — on the worth of teaching music.

Cohen said the “depth and breadth” of music education at Guilderland had set the district apart. Although, she said, “study after study” shows music education boosts tests scores and academic performance, “I think there are better reasons.”

Music teaches kids to work hard “just for the pleasure and pride of getting better,” said Cohen. She also said, “Music education is profoundly democratic” as each child can excel at some element of it. “Every child can find a way in,” Cohen concluded.

Diana Ackner spoke at the microphone next with five others standing behind her. Ackner, a Guilderland graduate and high school music teacher, said she was in her 26th year teaching music. She said there were “myriad reasons” the proposed plan wouldn’t work. Elementary teachers already have full schedules with eight to nine classes and also often teach after school two or three days a week, she said, adding that some students need extra help in a small-group setting.

Ackner also asserted, “The elementary schedule and high school schedule can’t align because of that block scheduling,” which, she said, would repeatedly pull a student from the same class, hurting students and jeopardizing music participation.

Ackner concluded that Guilderland’s music program has always been celebrated and honored and that Hershenhart “has not been heard.”

Kerry Dineen, a music teacher based at Pine Bush Elementary School, objected to what she termed the “top three” directives that had come from the recent meeting to schedule high school lessons.

First, she said, instrumental teachers would have a day 30 minutes longer than anyone else. Second, she said, one teacher would have to service four different schools. And third, there would be lesson groups of seven students, which she termed “a bad model.”

“To prioritize one area over another,” Dineen said, would split the district.

Referring to statements that music teachers had one-and-a-half to two times the planning time of classroom teachers, Dineen said, “We all know you can manipulate data to reach a desired conclusion.”

Her own day ends at 1:45 p.m., said Dineen, so it looks like she has 50 extra minutes each week. “Maybe I get to run to the ladies’ room,” she said.

Dineen recommended using part of the unassigned teaching posts or the roughly $12,000 buffer the district has before it tops the state-set levy limit — both options the board discussed at its April 8 meeting.

People asked “Why music,” Dineen said of being targeted for a cut, stating she heard “rumblings” that classroom teachers told administrators music teachers don’t work enough. “I don’t buy that,” said Dineen.

She said it seems wrong “to disadvantage one group over another” and that teachers were recently reminded “we are responsible for our own morale.”

This initiative came “from above,” said Dineen, and greatly impacts morale. She warned the board members if they cut the fraction of a job: You’ll have a very divided district and morale will sink.

Near the end of its two-hour meeting, the board returned to the topic in the time it sets aside for discussion. Board member Catherine Barber, a musician, urged using part of an unassigned position for music. “It’s kind of like dominoes falling,” she said of the high impact the small cut could have.

“I disagree,” said board member Colleen O’Connell. She said she was satisfied with the superintendent’s view that a solution was found in the scheduling meeting.

Barber also said that beginner students shouldn’t be taught with advanced students. Wiles responded that the instrumental lessons at the elementary school were for fourth- and fifth-graders. “Everyone is beginning,” she said.

Wiles also said, “We’re not looking at folks having seven in a lesson. The whole point was to…avoid that very thing.”

Assistant Superintendent for Instruction Demian Singleton, who attended the lesson-scheduling meeting, said he didn’t recall any directives. He said Hershenhart and the elementary principals “worked collaboratively” on the plan.

“We talked about being sensitive to having expertise for more advanced students at the high school,” said Wiles.

She also said the group discussed that teachers of special subjects, like music, teach nine classes of a half-hour each for a total of 270 minutes as the norm.

Wiles said, too, the group discussed the flexibility of music at the elementary school working well with the high school schedule. For example, if an elementary music teacher came to the high school every Monday to teach a particular group of students, by the design of the block schedule — which alternates A days with B days — the “flip-flop” would mean those students were missing different classes every other week, she said.

Finally, Wiles said that the after-school teaching time was counted as part of the elementary music teachers’ workday.

Board member Judy Slack asked how much had been cut from the music department in recent years.

Guilderland, like many districts across the state, cut staff and programs in the 2010-11 budget because of the Gap Elimination Adjustment; the GEA reduced aid to schools in order to help close the state’s massive budget gap. (Guilderland next year will get $1.2 million less in state aid than it did in 2008-09, Wiles said earlier in the meeting.)

Not counting the proposed three-tenths reduction for next year, Wiles said that, between 2010-11 and the proposed 2014-15 budget, Guilderland had cut one post in the music department while cutting 63 other teaching posts across the district.

During that same period, Guilderland cut $24,000 total from the music budget, or a little over $5,000 per year, she said.

O’Connell speculated that parents and the general public may have the impression more has been cut from the music program because, in recent years, as part of the budget process, lists of proposed cuts have been presented at budget forums, and people may have assumed that those proposed cuts were made.

“We’d all like to save everything,” said Slack. “At some point, we have to figure out how to make it work.”

Wiles said of the budget proposal — with its five unassigned teaching posts —  that the board unanimously adopted on April 8, and on which the public will vote on May 20, “Any changes would be a function of demonstrated need.”

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