From the first awkward squeaks and squawks I made when I first learned to play the saxophone, to performing with the Amsterdam Marching Rams at parades, football games, and two epic band trips, to finally completing a top grade level solo at NYSSMA competition in my senior year, the journey through the school music program remains one of my best memories of growing up. And it all started under the patient direction of George Vosburgh in the music room at Marie Curie Elementary School in the fifth grade.
Fast forward to only a few years ago, and I can’t tell you how proud I have been to watch my son Zach pick up the trumpet in fifth grade and start the same journey. This fall, he will be starting in the high school band and will join the Amsterdam Marching Rams. My younger son, James, will be entering fifth grade. I don’t know if he’ll pick up an instrument, he’s not sure yet. But I very much would like him to have the chance.
And that’s why last week, I was completely shocked to hear the Greater Amsterdam School District announce that the fifth grade band program would not be offered during the 2020-2021 school year. The district has since removed the announcement from their Facebook page and website. However I received a letter in the mail from the district today confirming the news.
Due to the pandemic, we all know that the amount of state aid that will be paid to schools and municipalities this year is in question due to the effects of lockdown executive orders on tax revenues. No doubt, it has made budgeting even more difficult this year.
However, voters were presented with a proposed budget in June which called for a 3% tax increase and appeared to preserve most extracurricular programs including the marching band. Now the music program, apart from the marching band, is not extracurricular, but the district communicated what seemed like a complete list of services that would be cut – and fifth grade band instruction was not one of them.
I emailed the members of the school board to find out how the decision was made. I got a reply back from Board Member Rev. Kent McHeard who explained that in order to keep the tax increase under the tax cap, the new budget did not contain a replacement for retiring band teacher Michael Perry. So with one less music teacher, something had to be dropped from the program.
I emailed the board members back asking them to reconsider the decision and utilize a tiny slice of the district’s staggering $10,446,247 unrestricted fund balance to restore the cut. I also suggested involving the current music teachers in the decision. Here are my reasons:
- The cut doesn’t just affect one class for one year. In terms of musical skills, students who don’t receive basic instruction on their instrument in fifth grade will be a full year behind relative to other classes. This will affect the class for the next seven years that they are in the band program. This will hamper the entire program for years to come.
- It’s a matter of trust. This was a significant cut to the band program that simply wasn’t explained in the district’s communication to the public about the proposed budget. Even if it was mentioned during a regular board meeting at some point, it’s not unreasonable to expect that a cut with a large impact such as this should have been specifically mentioned in the budget newsletter and during the public hearing. I believe most voters who voted yes on the budget were under the impression that the music program would be left intact.
- Some students who start music lessons in fifth grade discover they don’t like it for whatever reason and can easily walk away from the instrument without any hassle or embarrassment. It’s a perfect setting for kids to try an instrument even if they aren’t sure if they want to continue. In sixth grade, band is a full-fledged scheduled class. Students who don’t take to their instrument will have to drop the class and reschedule. I think it’s possible this setting may dissuade students who aren’t sure about playing an instrument from giving it a try.
- Next year, sixth grade band probably won’t be able to perform until later in the year. Without learning the basics in fifth grade, students will most likely need several months of lessons in sixth grade before they can perform together as a band. This past year, the sixth grade band didn’t perform during the Christmas season. It just shows how difficult it is to get even second-year beginner students to play together. I could be wrong, but if the cut is maintained, I don’t think parents should expect a sixth grade band concert until the end of the year. That’s not the worst thing in the world, but it’s just another way the entire program will be set back.
I hope other concerned parents will speak up on this issue and contact the school board members and superintendent. The letter sent out to parents of fifth graders from the superintendent’s office makes it sound like the decision is final. It doesn’t have to be. Especially when the district is sitting on such a large fund balance, it’s more than likely the money can be found to cover one more teaching position. Parents can and should take the initiative to advocate for what we think is best for our children. The school district is a government and it is obligated to listen to it’s constituency. Don’t let anyone tell you differently!