Community Fights For District 833 Elementary School Band Program

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Morgan Reddekopp
·5 min read
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WOODBURY, MN — Teachers and community members from South Washington County Schools (District 833) are coming together to save the district's elementary school band program, which the school board voted to cut on Thursday.

District 833 is home to 16 elementary schools which would lose their band programs if the vote is not reversed. Students would instead have to wait until middle school to join a band program.

The announcement was made to community members via a district-wide email in January.

Joe Thornton, co-president of the Woodbury Royals Band Boosters, explained how he found out about the plans to cut the program. The Band Boosters is a parent booster organization that raises money for the Woodbury High School band program.

“It really began to surface when the school district scheduled three public information sessions in early January,” Thornton told Patch. “It had not come to anyone’s attention that these budget discussions were going on at the school board.”

Thornton said that because of the pandemic, fewer people are able to regularly attend school board meetings, even when they are held via Zoom.

Tark Katzenmeyer, the band director at Woodbury High School, also didn’t hear about the proposed budget cuts until January. The email he received detailed the plan for the district’s three-year budget reduction from 2021-2024.

“It was surprising to hear about the cut that late in the school year when the plan was to implement (the cut) for the school year immediately following,” Katzenmeyer told Patch.

This decision was voted on at the school board’s February 4 meeting where it passed 4-3, Thornton said. The Music Coalition asked that the board hold off on making any final decisions.

Pepe Barton, the director of communications and community relations for the school district said the school board’s decision was part of a budget package.

“They had to make some serious cuts and adjustments due to the COVID-19 pandemic, additional unexpected costs, declining enrollment and the overall uncertainty we are in,” Barton told Patch in a phone call. “By moving our band and orchestra to start in middle school, we would have sustained savings of about $452,000.”

The Band Boosters quickly formed the South Washington County Schools Music Coalition and got funding mechanisms in place to commission John Benham to help gather data to present to the school board. Benham has been working with schools and helping to save band programs for 40 years and said he has worked with over 400 school districts throughout the country, saving over $78 million worth of programs.

“We commissioned Benham for a study very quickly in order to get more information and understand what the models for these types of budget cuts look like,” Thornton said. “(Benham) comes highly recommended; he has done this for hundreds of programs around the country over the course of 40 years. He is one of the best experts on this topic.”

Thornton and Benham co-hosted a Zoom meeting Saturday morning, in which Benham presented his research findings.

School board members were invited to attend the meeting, but declined the invitation due to potential legal issues.

“They have to be very careful when meeting outside of school board meetings because it could be construed legally as an illegal non-public meeting of the board,” Benham said.

The Zoom meeting was recorded and is available on Youtube for both board members and community members who were unable to make the meeting.

Benham said he gathered data in two ways: data requested from the district by parents, and a survey he gave to teachers. He stressed that although cutting the budget may seem like an option to save money, it will cost the district more money in the long run.

According to Benham’s data, the district would need to hire an additional 18.8-29 teachers to replace the 7.2 that would be cut.

Benham also mentioned long-term effects of cutting elementary school band programs.

“Through my research over the last 40 years, I have discovered that when you start instrumental music later than grade five, band programs at the secondary level will decline by 65 percent minimum,” Benham said.

The elementary schools currently do not have a band program due to COVID-19, and the school board’s decision would keep it that way.

Benham also said he predicts that cutting the elementary school band program will dissolve the high school band program within four years. When the district cut the school day from eight periods to six periods, band enrollment dropped by 57 percent and cutting band programs at the elementary school level will worsen these numbers, Benham said.

Katzenmeyer said he also anticipates an overall drop in enrollment if the decision on the elementary school band program is finalized, based on Benham’s data.

Katzenmeyer also stressed the importance of elementary schoolers having access to band programs.

“(Band) is proven to serve the function of both teaching students the academic element of music, but also the social elements of collaboration, creativity, ingenuity and leadership,” Katzenmeyer said. “These are things students aren’t getting in very many other academic areas, and I think these are also potentially more important in the coming years because of the pandemic and distance learning.”

Thornton and Benham said that they are hoping to present the data at the next school board meeting.

Barton said that he can’t speak to what the board will decide, but the decision is believed to be finalized.

“At this point, we do believe the decision is final, so we are taking the school board’s decision to move forward and look at how that restructuring will look for the next school year,” Barton said.

This article originally appeared on the Woodbury Patch