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Possible reductions proposed: Orchestra at risk; students speak out

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This could be a pivotal year for the orchestra program at Perham schools.

With the program suffering from low enrollment, it’s back on the list – for the second year in a row – of things that may be cut in order to save the school district money in the future.

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If not cut altogether, it could be combined with the district’s band program.

But, though their numbers may be few, the students in orchestra have shown themselves to be a passionate bunch. Several of them made emotional pleas to the school board at a meeting last week, in hopes of saving orchestra from the chopping block.

Middle school student Andrew Jacobson, for example, told school board members that “taking down the orchestra program is a horrible idea.” He said he’s seen the kids in the program grow socially, academically and as musicians, and feared that taking the program away would hurt those students.

Other kids agreed. They said orchestra is more accessible and affordable than other music classes, which makes it a popular option — especially for kids with limited means who may otherwise have no extra-curricular involvements.

“This is the one place I really feel like I belong,” said long-time orchestra member Alyssa Studor. Referring to the program, she added: “I urge the board to strongly consider keeping it.”

Board chair Myron Leuders thanked the students for their input. He said that just because orchestra is on a list of possible budget reductions now, doesn’t necessarily mean it will end up getting cut.

“This is just the first run of the planning stage,” said board member Jim Rieber.

Every spring, the school board looks ahead to the following year to determine what, if any, reductions will be necessary in order to maintain a balanced budget.

In February, the board asked district administrators to come up with about $500,000 in possible reductions for next year; however the amount of reductions that will actually be needed is likely to be less than that, as expected increases in state aid had yet to be factored in.

Some additional teacher retirements may also impact any budgeting decisions.

Still, the future of the orchestra program is currently up for debate. It was on the list of possible cuts last year, as well, but was spared with the hope that enrollment numbers would go up, which didn’t happen.

By eliminating orchestra and restructuring the music program district-wide, the school district would save more than $60,000 a year. With only about a dozen kids enrolled in the program, it’s an option administrators felt needed to be considered.

Superintendent Mitch Anderson said there could be a way to combine orchestra with the district’s other music programs, rather than simply cutting it altogether. This could be a way to save the district some money while allowing current orchestra students to continue to play their instruments as part of an ensemble.

Erin Gaffaney, a music specialist at Heart of the Lakes Elementary, thought the district’s music program could be better served in this way.

“I think all the good eggs should be in one basket,” Gaffaney said. “There just aren’t enough kids unless they’re lumped together.”

Yet she and others noted that strings orchestras are notably different from other ensembles, and that the ideal situation would be a significant increase in student interest in the program.

Mary Jacobson, Andrew’s mom, said she would love to see the school district and people of Perham embrace, support and encourage participation in music in the same way that sports and so many other programs are embraced.

Orchestra teacher Rachel Mertens said orchestra has value for many reasons.

“There’s a sense of pride in the group,” she said of the kids in orchestra. “Students who have had trouble in other activities excel here, and this gives them a place to feel successful… the kids work hard.”

One student, Nick Honer, likes orchestra so much that he took an extra course just to stay in it for the rest of the year.

“It’s what gave me the confidence to talk to you (school board members) here today,” he said at the meeting.

In addition to orchestra, other possible reductions on the list include:

-More than $37,500 in transportation, due to one less bus route;

-A decrease in technology supplies and contracts that could save up to $100,000;

-Teacher-approved savings in staff development, of about $40,000;

-$10,000 in new revenue through increased admission and student fees to athletics and other activities;

-Reductions to staff through teacher retirements, would could save more than $200,000;

-Restructuring the high school media center position to that of  a para-professional, saving about $39,000;

-Making the elementary school physical education program “Team Taught,” meaning one teacher could be replaced with a para-professional, saving $18,000;

-Transferring some costs to the food service fund, saving $18,000 from the general balance.

Any cuts affecting staff must be finalized in June, according to Anderson, though there is more time than that to make reductions to programs and/or to approve new revenue sources.

Leuders asked administrators to keep thinking “outside the box” until then, to try and come up with more revenue enhancements, such as grants.

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Marie Johnson
Marie Johnson (formerly Nitke) came to the Perham Focus after several years as the Education and Arts & Entertainment Editor at the Herald-Review of Grand Rapids, Minn. She lives in rural Ottertail with her husband, Dan, and their spunky yellow lab, Louisa.
(218) 346-5900 x228
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