The MAPS Board of Education last night voted unanimously to look more deeply into a plan to cut a band teacher position that impacts the high school and middle school.
In May, the Board approved staffing reductions for economic reasons to include a reduction in the band program from four to three full-time positions. At that point, the administration provided assurances that all course offerings will continue to be offered and that the reduction would have minimal impact on individual lessons as the high school instructor will now teach one additional large group instructional hour. 
After hearing the arguments of students and band program supporters, board member Linda Yingling asked that the issue be revisited.
“I brought this back up to be fair,” she said. “I thought it deserved to at least be looked at.”
At Wednesday’s meeting, Merrill Band Boosters officers Jay Tlusty and Tim Seidler addressed the board with their concerns about a reduction in band instruction staff. Tlusty said the band program has a strong tradition in Merrill.
“We just don’t want it to go down to a tradition of mediocrity,” he said. “We’re really looking at this from a long term standpoint and the effect it’ll have on the community. There are people here who came to Merrill because of the band program.”
The school board last month received a petition initiated and signed by over 500 high school students who support the reinstatement of the band teacher position. 
The 6-12 grade band staff was last cut for the 2004-05 school year, when the department was reduced from five to four full-time teachers. The marching band was suspended for a year following that staff reduction. Tlusty pointed out that the band program was among the first to be cut when the district started experiencing budget reductions.
“The program has lived with that cut for the past 10 years,” Tlusty said. “The band was one of the first programs to take a cut when budgets became an issue.”
The band program was increased from 2.7 instructors to four instructors in 1979, then increased to five in 1989, where it stayed until the 2004 cut.
“If this cut continues and it goes down to three teachers, we’re looking at some of the lowest levels since the 1978-79 school year,” Tlusty said.
The number of band students cited by the Band Boosters is 279 at the middle school and 94 at the high school. Those numbers came from counting the students listed on the last concert programs of the year, Tlusty noted. 
“Those numbers have remained very constant in the 6-12 curriculum over the last 10 years approximately,” Tlusty said. “Last year in the 6-12 program there were 366 kids. Next year it’s anticipated in the 6-12 program there will be 369 kids, an increase of three kids. At the same time school enrollment is going down, so the percentage of students in the band program is increasing. We think that’s a very important number.”
The reduction would be felt most at the middle school, where individual lesson time will be reduced. During portions of the day, three band instructors were available to provide small group, individual and large group instruction at the same time. The change will reduce this configuration to two band instructors. While the numbers within the middle school program will not decrease for the 2014-15 school year, administrators believe this is a manageable configuration.
MAPS Superintendent Wally Leipart said there is not necessarily a direct correlation between more teachers in the classroom and better results.
“Their instructional one on one time will go down, we know that,” Leipart said. “We also know other school districts don’t even provide that. I refuse to believe we can’t put out a quality product with those two teachers down there (at the middle school).”
The teacher-student ratio during sixth grade group lessons will increase from roughly 9:1 to 13:1, Leipart said.
“Will we be able to offer all of the classes? Sure we will,” said PRMS band teacher Michael Chula. “The question is what is the quality of those classes going to be and what kind of quality music are we going to be performing. Back when there were five full-time band teachers that middle school band program was playing songs right now that our high school is playing and that middle school band program was playing them well.”
At the high school, the district has hired a band/choir teacher who replaces retired choir instructor Jim Bjorklund. In addition to choir duties, the new teacher also has taken on the percussion instruction in the instrumental program. Marching Jays can continue to meet during the school day. One noticeable change to next year’s band program will be that all band students will march in the parade circuit.
“We can make this work at the high school,” MHS principal Shannon Murray said.
“All three of these (remaining band teachers) will make it work,” Tlusty said, “but making it work and making the program what we believe the community wants and what we think the kids should get are two different things.”
Board members Eric Geiss said the band program has caused MAPS to be a destination district in the past. He made a motion, seconded by Yingling, to bring back the position and charge the administration with finding a way to fund it. 
“Right now the students and the community and the parents are speaking very loudly,” Geiss said. “My concern is that the kids who are not going to get the one on one early on in 6th grade are going to lose interest and be frustrated and not continue with band.”
Leipart said another full-time position is going to cost the district in the neighborhood of $74,000. 
“We’re not in a position that we can reduce the budget somewhere,” Leipart said. “We’ve entered contracts with all of our employees at this time, so there can be no further layoffs. We’d either have to defer maintenance or defer technology or something like that. We need to assume an over-expenditure at this time. We’re beyond the timeline to make any other adjustments.”
Geiss’s motion to reinstate the band position failed on a 5-2 vote with Geiss and Yingling voting in favor.
On a motion by Jeff Hetfeld, the board did vote unanimously to refer the matter to the Personnel and Finance Committee for further discussion.
“I think we could explore it a little bit more,” Hetfeld said. “The administration has led me to believe that this cut will have minimal or no impact on the music program and, of course, the Band Boosters don’t feel that way. I’m a little confused on the information. I don’t really know where to go with it right now.”