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School district lessens cuts to music program

By David Scharfenberg Daily Planet staff
Thursday April 04, 2002

The Berkeley Unified School District administration has scaled back plans to cut the music program next year, recommending fewer teacher layoffs than it proposed earlier this year. But some teachers and parents still have concerns about the layoffs and the larger class sizes that will result. 

“It doesn’t seem like there’s going to be very much of a learning process going on,” said Madeline Prager, who teaches strings in district elementary schools. 

Members of the Board of Education, who must approve the plan, and cut a total of $5.4 million to balance next year’s budget, said they support the administration’s recommendations. 

“Given our budget situation, I think the cuts are minimal.” said board member Terry Doran, one of two reached by the Daily Planet. “We are going to have a music program. It isn’t decimated.”  

“I think the thing to do is go ahead with it and see how it goes,” added board member Ted Schultz, noting that the district could make adjustments as needed.  

Earlier this year the district recommended cutting 2.4 of 11.5 full-time teaching positions and issuing a layoff notice to Visual and Performing Arts Coordinator Suzanne McCulloch, who runs the music program. 

The new proposal, laid out in the packet for next week’s Board of Education meeting, recommends cutting 1.7 teaching positions for an estimated savings of $82,560, and keeping in place McCulloch’s position, just created in the fall. 

About half of McCulloch’s salary comes from the Berkeley Schools Excellence Project, a special local lax, a quarter from state grants and a quarter from private grants. 

One of those private grants, a $10,000 award from the East Bay Community Foundation, will not be renewed next year, and district administrators have raised concerns about picking up the tab. 

But under the new proposal, the administration would seek funding from Berkeley Public Education Foundation, on top of Berkeley Schools Excellence Project and state money. McCulloch said the district is reasonably certain that it will be able to secure foundation funding and keep her position alive. 

Some teachers were pleased that McCulloch will apparently remain in place. 

“We really need someone to coordinate with all the schools and take care of all our concerns so that everything can run smoothly,” said chorus teacher Mabel Dong. 

“We’ve got a million bucks worth of instruments,” added Michael Kelley, co-chair of the Music Curriculum Committee, which advises the board. Kelley said McCulloch has been vital in tracking those instruments and developing curriculum. 

But Kelley, while acknowledging that the district is in dire financial straights, had concerns about cutting 1.7 teaching positions. 

“That’s a 15 percent cut in staffing,” he said. “We’re (already) operating on a shoestring.” 

Under the new model, the district would assign two to three, rather than three to four teachers, to a given elementary school, raising class sizes from a current average of 10, according to district figures, to a range of 18-25. 

“I think it’s a recipe for a less-than-successful music program,” said Prager, noting that tuning instruments and fixing broken strings already takes up a significant portion of class time, and arguing that class size increases will only exacerbate the problem. 

Prager added that music instruction often requires individualized attention, worrying that teachers will be able to provide less of that attention with larger classes. 

The district’s new music plan also includes an expansion of instruction to the third grade. Currently, students in grades four through 12 take music classes through the district’s official program. Some elementary schools, according to McCulloch, have used funds from Parent-Teacher Associations or the Berkeley Schools Excellence Project, a special local tax, to fund their own, indivdual K-3 programs. 

The new approach, McCulloch said, would create district-wide equity, ensuring that all students are equally prepared for the fourth-grade music program. 

But Dong has concerns that the district will now be “squeezing” fewer teachers into more class time with the expansion to third grade. 

In the end, McCulloch said, the music program will adjust. “I think it’s a workable solution,” she said, commenting on the whole package. 

District administration was out of the office for spring break and could not be reached for this article.