District budget cuts target music, other programs

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There’s nothing like threatened school budget cuts to get parents’ attention. When the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District announced it must excise more than $3 million in nonessential spending, parents marshaled a huge effort to save the district’s celebrated music program.

Since the teaching of vocal and instrumental music — or even music appreciation — is not mandated by the state, it is considered expendable. Students and parents, however, feel music is an essential part of education and a huge asset to the school curriculum. Scientific studies have shown that listening to certain classical music improves IQ levels in young children, and learning to read music improves everything from reading and math skills to eye/hand coordination. What music does for the spirit is generally acknowledged but not scientifically proven.

Santa Monica High’s symphony orchestra has graduated many professional musicians, including internationally renowned conductor David Robertson, who began his career playing horn at Juan Cabrillo and Malibu Park schools. It is the only (in at least the last 50 years) California public school orchestra to be invited to perform at Chicago’s prestigious Midwest Clinic (this year). The students regularly perform on a European tour in summer.

Facing its worst budget shortfall in decades, Superintendent Neal Schmidt presented a list of programs, positions and items being considered for cuts at the board of education meeting last week.

A full range of classes and part-time staff positions were mentioned, but trimming the Elementary Music Program seemed to bring the most response. The board has been deluged with letters, faxes, e-mails and telephone calls voicing impassioned pleas not to gut the much-honored program. The board had already postponed hiring two new full-time elementary music teachers for which it had budgeted $125,000.

When presenting the list of options to the board, Schmidt said he didn’t want to make any of the cuts, that the programs were all worthwhile and that he personally knew all the employees whose positions were threatened. In the past, Schmidt said the district’s music program was one of the reasons he accepted the job, and that he takes personal pride in strengthening it.

Classical music deejay Rich Capparella spoke against cutting the music program, saying if it weren’t for his music education, “I would be on the streets carrying a cardboard sign.”

Part of the budget crunch is attributed to anticipated enrollment for the coming year at levels below expectations. Actual enrollment for the year is up by 120 students, but the district was expecting an increase of 400 to 500 students. Since schools are funded based on average daily attendance, this would reflect a significant loss of revenue.

The board was already grappling with trimming its budget by $2 million over the next two years in order to fund an increase in teachers’ salaries. The Classroom Teachers’ Association negotiated an agreement for a 6 percent salary increase, more than three times the state-funded 1.8 percent cost-of-living adjustment expected for the 2000/2001 academic year.

Upcoming board of education meetings will devote time for further discussion of the options available to help bring the district’s budget in line with projected funding. The next meeting is scheduled for Jan. 6 at the district offices in Santa Monica.