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INDIANA: Plan to cut music position tabled

by on April 15, 2014 11:00 AM

A proposal to scale back music education as a budget-cutting measure at Indiana Area School District was postponed Monday for more study by the school board.

After hearing protests against the planned reduction — to hire a part-time teacher to replace teacher Deborah Sasala when she retires — the board voted 6 to 3 to table discussion for at least two weeks.

The change would eliminate individual instrumental music instruction, including string music training for third-graders, in favor of ensemble instruction.

The move would save the district an estimated $40,000 toward an effort to reduce more than $1 million in spending in the 2014-15 budget.

The board’s Academic and Extracurricular Committee had recommended the change in the elementary music program, but music teachers Julianne Laird and Jason Rummel said the cut would have a wider effect.

Laird, the senior high orchestra director, said the program has thrived for decades and deserves to continue.

“Because of these programs, there are string educators and performers worldwide who trace their musical beginnings back to Indiana,” Laird said. “Now, some 40 years later, our string program has dwindled to bare bones. Only four string students in the sixth grade districtwide are advancing to the junior high string orchestra next year. Unlike our extracurricular sports program we do not have an adequate feeder system in place to ensure the health of our curricular string program, and our students are the ones who are losing.”

Keeping a full-time string music teacher would allow special education students “to increase their academic confidence through performing successfully in concert on an instrument,” Laird said. “We can continue to provide not just an adequate but a quality, well-balanced music program for our students. … Let us all work together with an eye toward a future beyond this current economic misfortune, and save our unique string program for future generations of students.”

Rummel, the junior high band director, cited studies of schools that reduced or removed in-school instrumental lessons, which showed “when students were left on their own to take lessons outside of school, music achievement suffered and the dropout rate rose.

“Cuts lead to dropouts which lead to music students participating in other areas,” Rummel said. “Since most other areas are not accustomed to the large numbers in music ensemble, funds are often needed to be allotted for additional staffing in those areas.”

Rummel said other studies show that “while cutting or reducing lessons would adversely impact music education, it would not help anyone else. A reduction of in-school lessons is all loss and no gain.”

High school students Frances Hanna, Ashleigh Nealer and Isaac Mastalski also spoke in support of Indiana’s string music program, the only one of its kind in Indiana County.

“Simply put, we are known for our dedication to music,” said Hanna, a senior cellist. “While I appreciate the fiscal challenges faced by our school district, I do not believe it makes educational or fiscal sense to treat this or other programs as dispensable.”

Board members said they recognized the importance of the music program but some said the financial conditions leave little choice.

“A few years ago, Indiana Area School District was rated one of the top 100 schools in the country in music education, and now we are moving away from something we are well-known for. I object to that,” director Diana Paccapaniccia said.

“I know that we are confronted with very serious financial constraints and they are not going to go away. At the same time, I think the district has a proven record of success with this program,” said board Vice President John Barbor. “I would be far happier to see the full-time position retained in the elementary schools. If that does not prove to be possible, then one half would be the next best thing, but I view it as an unhappy compromise.”

Director Deborah Clawson said the district cannot neglect music education.

“Music has standards, it is a requirement for children in public schools in Pennsylvania,” she said. “I think there is a mistaken impression that it is not mandatory. It is mandatory.

“The issue is that you can require elementary teachers who do not have any training in music to provide that to their elementary children, but it must be provided. … The recommendation would be to keep that position.”

Board member Robert Gongaware said his family is immersed in music: His wife, Acey Gongaware, is a music teacher at United High School, his children are in music programs in college, and he sings and plays organ, he said.

“Unfortunately I see us facing hurdles everywhere in the district, not just in the music department, to provide full-blown programs with scarcer resources,” Gongaware said. “I don’t know if we have really exhausted all the options. I don’t know how creative the administration and faculty have been in trying to find alternatives to this.

“There are music teachers in the community and there are potential partnerships with IUP music students and faculty there for music lessons. There are certainly grants available. Why does the solution always have to be ‘the Indiana School District will provide it?’

“I support moving ahead with the part-time position and seeing if there are any other answers out there. I don’t look at it as a cut; I look at it as an opportunity to try something different.”

Director Julia Trimarchi-Cuccaro asked to table discussion to learn more from administrators and the faculty about the choices.

The board voted 6 to 3 to hold off action, with Barbor, Clawson, Paccapaniccia, Trimarchi-Cuccaro, Hilliary Creely and John Uccellini in favor and President Thomas Harley, Gongaware and Brian Petersen opposed.

Chauncey Ross is the Gazette’s fixture at Indiana Area and Homer-Center school board meetings, has been seen with pen and notepad in area police stations and courts, and is something of an Open Records Act and Sunshine Law advocate. He also manages the Gazette’s websites and answers your questions about them.
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