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Music teacher layoff stands despite public appeal to board

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

The Morris Area School Board voted to maintain a half-position reduction in the district's music department.

Supporters made a case for reinstituting the half-time position on Monday at the board's meeting in Morris City Council chambers.

However, the board in a 5-2 vote, chose to retain the budget reduction it approved for the 2009-2010 school year this spring.

The board voted to cut a half-time music position, which leaves the district with four full-time staff members.

Morris Area band teacher Wanda Dagen spoke to the board to deliver corrected enrollment figures to counter those submitted by board member Stan Wulf at a May meeting.

Dagen said that the percentage of classroom music students in grades 7 through 12 in 2008-2009 had increased almost 7.5 percent over 2002-2003 percentages while the full-time staff number had dropped from 5.0 to 4.5.

She also noted that the number of students enrolled in band in grades 5 through 12 have remained relatively stable in the last 10 years (314 students in 1999, 306 students in 2009), even while overall enrollment dropped by 150 students over that time span.

There are 96 Morris Area Elementary School and St. Mary's 5th graders who are expected to be in band, and the department also is adding a general music section. Only about 8 percent of the district's 5th grade students were not involved in band last year, she said.

"I'm concerned about meeting the musical needs of students" with the 0.5 music position eliminated, Dagen said.

The district's music instructors also see more students during the year than several surrounding school districts with the exception of Montevideo, which has a larger enrollment, Dagen said.

The board was presented a petition that had 157 signatures, and four more people signed it during the meeting.

University of Minnesota, Morris music professor Martin Seggelke said he has judged music contests regularly for the Minnesota State High School League and that the Morris Area Wind Ensemble and Concert Bands are among the best in the state.

He also stated that a large volume of research and educational organizations have concluded that music education is as important to a school's core curriculum as any subject, and also that music education is linked to improved SAT scores and improvements in elementary education.

"I think (the music) cut compromises a high-quality education," Seggelke said.

Michelle Moberg told the board she's had two children in the district's music programs and could have three more involved in the future.

"I want my kids to be competitive in the world and I think music will do that -- give them that competitive edge," Moberg said. "

Wulf admitted that he didn't consult correct numbers when he made the statement in May that the district's music enrollment had fallen off significantly while the district maintained a teaching staff of 4.5 positions.

But Wulf also said that the new numbers didn't change the overall trend, just that the decline wasn't as steep. Reinstating the music cut would force the district into more deficit spending and open the door for other programs to have reductions rescinded.

"If we can justify it in music, I think we can justify it in other areas, as well," Wulf said. "We have to look at the big picture."

Gartland also said he was sure no one on the board wanted to cut the music position, and noted he had children in the district's music program.

However, he said, "I can't support keeping the position."

Even with the cut, Gartland said the program would continue to flourish.

"Even with this, we still have an amazing music program," Gartland said.

Board members Lory Lemke and Jamie Solvie voted to reinstate the music position. Lemke said that the half-time cut amounted to a 10 percent reduction in contact time with students, while using the estimated $20,000 to pay for the position represents about 5 percent of the district's fund balance. He advocated increasing the district's deficit spending to maintain the department at 4.5 positions.

"When you look at our budget, we don't have to do that," Lemke said.