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Budget Cuts Strike Sour Note for Music Educators

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In recent years, supporters of the music program in Roselle (Ill.) School District No. 12 have gotten used to disappointment.

Since 1994, the local band boosters have rallied behind four separate referendums for property-tax increases in their 725-student, K-8 district. Voters shot them down each time.

But when they lost the battle again last month, the defeat was especially agonizing. Without the proposed tax hike--50 cents per $100 of assessed property value--students in the Chicago suburb will have to pay about $30 a month to participate in band.

"It just bothers me to have to fund what I consider a necessity," said Robert Steffen, a parent in the district whose 5th-grade son plays the saxophone. "It divides our community into haves and have-nots, and education is supposed to be made available for everybody."

National advocates for music education say they have seen problems like those in Roselle all too often. Faced with shrinking budgets and a reluctance among communities to shoulder a heavier tax burden, many districts have been forced to set priorities for their programs and trim those that many consider extras or frills.

Often, music is among the first to go, especially at the elementary school level.

More Than a Frill

Finding ways to keep music programs off the chopping block will be a top priority as members of the Music Educators National Conference meet in Kansas City, Mo., next week for the organization's biennial meeting.

"We don't do that for math and science," said Carolynn Lindeman, the president-elect of the Reston, Va.-based MENC. "We don't say that you have to pay $30 a month for your child to do science experiments at school."

Budget reductions have led some districts to boost the number of students assigned to a single teacher who is certified as a music specialist. Though MENC recommends one teacher per 400 in elementary schools, the group says that in elementary schools, the ratio in Denver is closer to 1-to-700, and in New Orleans and Boston it is higher than 1-to-800.

The ratio in Los Angeles elementary schools is more dramatic: about one certified music teacher per 1,400 students.

Don Dustin, the director of performing arts at the 670,000-student district, said the system ensures that elementary school students receive adequate exposure to music by having its music teachers train classroom teachers.

"In elementary schools, we'd like to have a music teacher at every school with 600 or more students, but that's kind of pie in the sky right now," he said.

At the same time, while music programs saw an average budget increase of 11 percent during the 1994-95 year, more than half of that now comes from outside fund raising, according to a nationwide survey of schools by The Instrumentalist magazine, a independent publication distributed to members of the National Band Association.

In 'Mr. Holland's' Glare

The concerns about funding come at a time of unusual exposure for music teachers. This winter, moviegoers across the country enjoyed the bittersweet tale of a high school music teacher's dedication to his students.

"Mr. Holland's Opus" followed the 30-year career of the fictional Glenn Holland from his reluctant decision to teach rather than compose music to his school's decision to cut its music program altogether. At the heart of the debate in the film, and in many districts facing program cuts, is the philosophical question of whether music should be a major part of the curriculum.

Reactions to proposed cuts in music programs across the country have ranged from protest to philanthropy.

In some communities, parents have formed private foundations to keep their programs going.

Though offering an immediate solution that keeps their students playing in band and orchestra, that solution can leave parents covering progressively more of the cost each year.

It can also reinforce the notion that music is not an important part of a school's program, Ms. Lindeman, also a music professor at San Francisco State University, said. "It's very much a Band-Aid approach."

A few districts have won the kind of battles that Roselle's music supporters have lost so many times.

Arts advocates in Carroll County, Md. carried out an extensive campaign this year after hearing their school board was considering extensive cuts to their elementary school's music and art programs.

Through advertisements, community meetings and local newspaper columns, the Carroll County Alliance for Arts Education urged residents to support the music program at school board budget hearings. In February, the 25,000-student district's board voted unanimously to save the elementary music program.

State and national music-education advocates are planning more organized efforts to train music teachers to defend their programs.

But the parents, students and teachers in Roselle know that even a concerted campaign doesn't guarantee winning the support of the voters in a community.

"They're not looking at this as an investment in the children," said Bob Wis, the district's band director. "They're looking at it as an increase in their taxes."

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