Local high schools fight to keep band teachers

With planned cuts for the 2014-2015 school year, Blaine and Coon Rapids high schools each stand to lose full-time band directors.

The Coon Rapids High School marching band performs at the school’s homecoming pep rally this year. Coon Rapids has had six band directors in the last eight years and faces the loss of its current director, Charlie Morgan, after he was handed a pink slip earlier this spring. File photo
The Coon Rapids High School marching band performs at the school’s homecoming pep rally this year. Coon Rapids has had six band directors in the last eight years and faces the loss of its current director, Charlie Morgan, after he was handed a pink slip earlier this spring. File photo

Parents and students packed the Anoka-Hennepin board room April 28 to try and prevent the loss, which they believe will lead to further enrollment declines and loss of student engagement.

Currently, Blaine High School has 2.75 FTEs allotted for instrumental music. The school has a full-time orchestra director, a full-time band director and two part-time band directors.

Joe DeLisi, Bruce Olson and Richard Raaen take charge of the 625 band students. DeLisi and Raaen work part-time and Olson works full-time directing freshmen, repertoire and concert bands, as well as a jazz band, marching band, pep band, percussion ensemble and more.

DeLisi received notice of termination in March. With DeLisi’s departure, Raaen will remain part-time, and Olson will become part-time, splitting his hours between Blaine and Coon Rapids high schools.

Currently, Coon Rapids High School has two instrumental music teachers who both work full time. Charlie Morgan directs the bands, and Michael Watson conducts the orchestras.

New to the district this year, Morgan was unsurprised to receive his pink slip in March, he said.

With declining participation in bands and orchestras, Coon Rapids will cut its freshmen orchestra next year, leaving Watson free to conduct the remaining two orchestras and two of the bands. Olson will come over from Blaine to direct the third band.

The Coon Rapids bands have had six directors in the last eight years. Directors have left for various reasons.

When the board attempted to cut previous band director Brian Duffy’s position three years ago, parents and students went before the board to address “revolving-door” issues. Duffy was allowed to remain at CRHS, but left last year when the demands of his family became too great.

“Our numbers have slowly been decreasing as a result of teachers constantly changing,” student Raven Buckman said during the communications, delegations and petitions portion of the last school board meeting.

Administrators cite declining numbers as one reason instrumental music teachers are on the chopping block this year.

Coon Rapids has 155 band students this year; projected enrollment for next year is 120 students, according to Morgan.

Blaine enrollment is set to drop below 600 students with a loss of 33 students, though more freshmen will pick up instruments in 2014-2015 than did this school year, according to Blaine Band Booster President Tim Brown.

Orchestra numbers are dropping, too, but orchestra directors at the two schools are tenured.

“We have a union contract problem as it relates to music,” Superintendent Dennis Carlson said. There’s one instrumental music license, so band and orchestra teachers are the same under contract, though the world doesn’t see them that way, Carlson said.

Testimony from band students, parents

Coon Rapids High School parent Peg Demmer made an analogy between the bands and patients she treats as a nurse in the intensive care unit.

“To ensure patients’ safety and the best possible outcomes, staffing is never based on the number of patients in the unit, but by the acuity of each patient’s condition,” Demmer said.

She asked board members to imagine that they had just had a heart attack and the same nurses and doctors weren’t able to care for them, so different professionals were treating them every few hours. Research shows that continuity of care is important in a healthy recovery, and consistency is important in the classroom, too, Demmer said, pointing to how much learning is lost when a substitute comes into the classroom for just one day.

Several parents and band boosters discussed the irony that Anoka-Hennepin was recently named one of the best communities for music education in the United States, and today, the district is dismantling music programs by cutting staff.

After hearing from a number of Coon Rapids students, parents and band boosters, those involved in Blaine band programs had their turn.

“We do not want our program to repeat … what has happened at Coon Rapids and start losing kids every year when a non-tenured teacher is displaced or enrollment changes,” Blaine parent and booster Kristi Zamrzla said.

Saxophonist and drum major Zack Sorenson, a senior at BHS, questioned the district’s decision to remove a teacher from a program that has a global impact.

Over spring break this year, the band traveled to France and Spain, giving concerts there. Upon the band’s return, Olson shared an email that he received from a man from China who had been visiting Spain and had been touched by BHS’s music, Sorenson said, relaying the email.

That global reach and annual traditions like the Swing Dance could disappear with staff, Brown said in an interview.

Searching for solutions

Near the end of the meeting, Board Member Scott Wenzel asked to discuss the testimony made earlier in the evening.

The board saw the necessity of two solutions, short-term and long-term fixes.

For a short-term solution, the board wants administration to come up with the number of FTEs that would tide the programs over.

“My concern is we’ll bring you the fix, we’ll tell you how many FTEs it is, but then we need to give you the impact of that as it relates to other coursework and other things,” Carlson said.

Administrators and board members repeatedly brought up their frustration at the meeting.

“The music programs in our schools are a different animal,” Board Member Bill Harvey said. “We’re being forced to treat them the same, and that is a big part of my frustration.”

Board Chairperson Tom Heidemann agreed that music might be in its own category. “If there’s a program at risk and it’s valued by the community, it’s valued by the board, then the status quo and maybe treating it the same as everybody else isn’t the right solution.”

Still, he and others aren’t sure how to solve the problem.

Possible solutions will be addressed at the next board meeting, May 12, Heidemann said in an interview. To stabilize the programs, the short-term fix will likely be a reinvestment in FTEs, but not necessarily at both schools, he said. Adding FTEs back doesn’t mean the same teachers will necessarily be reinstated with union contract stipulations, he added.

“We will definitely commit to a long-term solution task force,” Heidemann said.

For now, staff is trying to stay positive.

“It doesn’t matter who is on the podium; what matters is who are in the seats,” Morgan tells his students.

Olivia Koester is at [email protected]

  • Jenny El

    Of course this board throws the union under the bus. Sounds like there is an under staffing problem, not a union contract problem. You don’t have people moving around unless you are cutting positions – don’t blame the contract when it’s really about the budget.

  • adgbusiness

    No swing dance? How tragic. The United States continues to decline in the academic instruction of music that has not been part of mainstream society for 70 years. What”s next? No high school synchronized swimming team? The elimination of steam engine technology courses from the curriculum???