Owatonna music teachers object to proposed program cuts

/ 24 March 2012 / jennifer

Derek Sullivan, Owatonna People’s Press, March 24, 2012 –

OWATONNA — A recommendation by Owatonna school district officials to cut the district’s music program has sounded a sour note with teachers, students and music lovers in the community.

The recommended cut to the music program is part of a decision by the district to trim $1.8 million from the the 2012-2013 budget. Owatonna’s music department would lose one full-time equivalent (FTE) person from its staff under a proposal that has been discussed at the last two meetings of the Owatonna school board.

The board was scheduled to vote on the music staff cuts at its meeting Monday night. However, after listening to supporters of the music program who spoke during the public forum section of the March 12 board meeting, Owatonna school superintendent Tom Tapper told a crowd of 300-plus people that night that the vote on the music cuts — as well as other budget cuts — would no longer take place on March 26.

Instead, the board is slated to meet at 5 p.m. Wednesday at the Roosevelt Community School in Owatonna for a study session about the budget. The vote on budget cuts is now planned for sometime in early April.

In the meantime, Tapper and his administrative staff have gone back to the drawing board and looked at the previous budget cut recommendations.

“We have taken the recommendations that were presented at the last meeting and made some modifications, based in part on what we heard,” Tapper said Thursday. “The modified recommendations will be pretty much the same, but there will be some changes.”

Inside Tapper’s original proposal was the elimination of the fourth-grade orchestra program, a move vehemently opposed by the current music staff.

Owatonna band director Peter Guenther said a cut of one FTE not only would jeopardize the fourth-grade music program, but also fifth-grade band — the first year band is offered in Owatonna. Eventually, such a cut would impact the music program across the board, including the high school program.

“The talent of the (OHS) concert band will drop. It’s inevitable, if the cuts go through. There’s no way for me to stop that,” Guenther said. “They’re talking about taking away the formative years. Owatonna needs to realize that you can’t take this for granted. This is who we are. It really is.”

Cutting elementary teachers also would mean cutting the Kodaly music instruction, which is commonly used by elementary music teachers across the United States. Studies have shown that the Kodaly method improves intonation, rhythm skills, music literacy, and the ability to sing in increasingly complex parts.

“It’s the essence for what we do in the younger grades,” Guenther said.

Tapper and other administrative officials have met with the Owatonna music department. After hearing concerns from the music staff, Tapper believes the cut can be made without eliminating the fourth grade orchestra or the fifth-grade band.

“Our music department indicated that they would not endorse that plan, so the district and the music staff are instead looking at how music lessons are provided,” Tapper said. “Owatonna (currently) will provide lessons for groups as small as one or two students. Now, you can expect the number of students in the lessons will increase.”

Owatonna choir director Chris Harris was at the school board meeting on March 12 and was amazed by the outpouring of support for Owatonna’s young musicians.

“During the public forum, I took a step back and thought how many communities I could work in where the community would come to our defense like that,” Harris said. “The answer is probably not many. It’s great to know that the community supports you.”

It wasn’t just parents and teachers who have been speaking with school board members. Student after student walked up to the microphone during both the Feb. 27 and March 12 meetings and spoke out.

“Nothing is going to be changed if kids don’t speak up and share their views and voice our opinions,” said OHS sophomore and music student Mick Ditlevson. “We should have a say in our future. It’s important that we speak up.”

Although the music programs have received lots of community support, Guenther knows their concerns provide no guarantees that the one FTE will be saved.

“I don’t feel any better today than I did when I first heard about the cut,” he said. “The reason why I don’t feel better is because everyone understands it, but as a board member, you are expecting (to hear concerns).”

Over the next couple of weeks, the music staff will continue to work with district officials and school board members to save either the elementary programs or the small group instruction.

Concert band member Landon Von Ruden said he’s proud to be a part of a band that ranks among the best in the Big Nine Conference.

Guenther will do whatever he can to keep it that way.

“We’re an artistic community,” Guenther said. “That’s why I felt Owatonna was such a special place when I came here 10 years ago. You could feel the infrastructure of art. It’s different than any other place.

“I never want to turn the red light on, push the danger button, unless I feel like I need to. You never want to cry wolf, ever. In this case, the evidence is almost irrefutable. We will lose the younger kids, and that’s really bad.”