Orchestra survives first round of cuts in Perham; tennis program scaled back

/ 25 April 2012 / jennifer

Marie Nitke, East Otter Tail Focus, April 25, 2012 –

Two tennis coaches, one probationary teacher and a section of kindergarten were all cut from the budget at a meeting of the Perham-Dent School Board on Monday.

The cuts were part of the district’s annual budget review process. Other ideas for reductions, including the orchestra and science research programs, appear to be safe from the chopping block – at least for now.

The school board will continue budget talks at future meetings, and these and other possible reductions could come up again.

More than a dozen parents, teachers and concerned community members showed up at Monday’s meeting to voice opposition to the cuts, which were proposed by administrative leaders.

Activities Director Fred Sailer recommended reductions to the tennis program due to low student interest, particularly in boy’s tennis. There are currently 15 boys in tennis, Sailer said, and none of them are junior high-aged.

“We haven’t, for one reason or another, attracted enough kids,” he said.

For now, the program will continue at the high school; the coach for the junior high level has already resigned, and that program will end.

Next year, unless interest in the program really picks up, boy’s tennis at the high school will likely pair with another school district (to allow kids in the program to finish it out) and then it, too, will end, said Sailer.

In girl’s tennis, 18 players are expected to return next year – enough to sustain the program, but one coach will still be cut.

“I think we can find a ‘stop gap’ with the boys, and we can hang on with the girls,” said Sailer.

The tennis cuts are expected to save the district roughly $7,000 – a mere drop in the bucket of the $328,000 that needs to be trimmed in order to balance the budget without dipping into the district’s reserved fund balance.

School board members have said they wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to using funds from the reserve to spare more cuts next year, but some decisions affecting this are yet to be made. The current balance in this fund is about $1.7 million; board members have said they would not let that figure get below $500,000.

Auditors have said even the $1.7 million isn’t enough; the unreserved fund is intended as an ‘emergency back-up fund’ and should ideally be enough to keep operations going for a number of months, if need be.

Other cuts and cost saving measures discussed Monday will impact next year’s budget considerably more than the tennis cuts.

Superintendent Mitch Anderson said the district will save through cutbacks on advertising, supplies and elections. A district-wide copier lease is expected to save the district about $20,000. Budgeting for one less kindergarten section will save tens of thousands of dollars, though if kindergarten enrollment numbers are high enough, this section could be added back in next spring.

Even after all that, though, nearly another $130,000 in cuts would be needed to reach that $328,000 mark. And while some parents and teachers spoke passionately on Monday against the prospect of cutting orchestra, that option isn’t entirely off the table.

Like tennis, orchestra is suffering from low student interest. At most, the program has had eight kids enrolled this year. And a teacher retiring from the elementary school’s music program means orchestra could be cut without anyone losing their job: the current orchestra teacher would simply move into the open music position. This option would save more than $40,000.

However, judging from public feedback at the meeting, it’s not a popular idea.

Parents and teachers made pleas to the board to at least consider other options before simply cutting the program. Calling music “an important part of a well-rounded education,” many argued that orchestra was just starting to get back on its feet after some tumultuous years, and needed more of a chance to grow under the leadership of its new teacher.

“This is no reflection on the teacher,” said Anderson. “We feel we could get those (enrollment) numbers up if we stuck with it, but unfortunately we’re not sitting in a financial situation where we can hope. With the numbers where they are, we have to at least put it on the table for consideration.”

“This is one option to get us to a balanced budget, if we choose to go that route,” said board member Jim Rieber, adding that he wasn’t ready on Monday to make any final decisions about cutting the program. “…But we could still make changes after this. We still have a lot of work and discussion ahead of us.”

A declining arts program in Perham?

The possibility of losing the orchestra program just one year after it was brought back got parents and teachers talking Monday about lackluster enrollment in nearly all of Perham’s music classes.

High school music teacher Kevin Kosiak said he used to have 160 kids in two different classes, where he now has 43 in one. Meanwhile, enrollment for his guitar and rock band classes next year is in the single digits. It’s not a problem that can be explained by “crummy teaching,” or overall declining enrollment, or even scheduling, he said. Other teachers of ‘elective’ courses have said they’re faced with similar enrollment numbers.

“Is there a theme here?” Kosiak asked. “Where are the kids?”

He suggested that Perham may simply be offering too much, spreading enrollment thin: “Little Perham has a rock band program, a guitar program, a band, a choir and an orchestra. Are we trying to offer too much, in too little of a place, with too little resources?”

Another major contributor, he suggested, could be the push toward college-level courses in high school. Many students are choosing these courses over electives, he said. It’s created more competition for students’ class time, and often it’s the electives that get left behind.

“We’re struggling to keep the arts together,” Kosiak said. “We have to figure out a way to get a kid a college education and give them everything else that’s good for them.”

One set of parents at the meeting had another explanation for declining interest in the arts: “Parents are the problem.”

Other activities and modern-day distractions, like video games and snowmobiles, said the mom, have gotten in the way of non-core curricular interests. Too many parents are letting their kids quit arts classes and activities, or are not encouraging them to join in the first place, she said.

“If you put more information out there to parents, letting them know it’s affordable (to be in things like orchestra),” added the dad, speaking to the school board, “I think the numbers would come up.”

Another option presented Monday – to turn the orchestra program into an extra-curricular activity, did not appear to be well-liked.

Making orchestra class into something like a community education program “would just add another iron to the fire” for already too-busy kids, said one teacher.

Yet considering other options is preferable to cutting the program off altogether, according to another teacher: “I feel really bad that you’re considering cutting orchestra because I see it as just one more way that the arts are declining,” the teacher told the school board. “It’s very hard for me to sit here and watch as it fades away. These are areas that students grow and benefit from. Consider pairing the program with a different school – think about options before just cutting.”

http://www.eotfocus.com/event/article/id/20524/