Students rally for Maple Ridge band program

A student takes part in the rally to save the elementary band teacher position Wednesday outside the school district office on Brown Avenue.

A student takes part in the rally to save the elementary band teacher position Wednesday outside the school district office on Brown Avenue.

Umbrellas and placards in hand, more than 50 students and parents took to the street Wednesday and withstood miserable weather to protest potential cuts to the school district’s elementary band program.

The group gathered in front of the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows district’s education offices on Brown Avenue prior the school board meeting to send a message to trustees to leave the program as it is.

Currently, the program has a music teacher travel weekly to 12 elementary schools to teach band.

District staff recommended cutting the teacher position to help balance the 2011/12 budget, which faces a $2.2 million deficit.

Cutting the teacher position would save $110,000.

But Nancy Marshall, a mother of four, said trustees need to look elsewhere to balance the budget.

“Band helps socialize kids, it builds self-esteem because they get to learn a new skill,” said Marshall.

“For people with anxiety, it’s a huge help.”

“There are other ways to make things balance.”

Marshall’s youngest daughter, Kiera, is in Grade 2 and loves to play the piano.

“I want [the elementary band program] to be there when she’s in Grade 6,” she said. “High school is too late in the game to pick up an instrument.”

Protesters crowded into the school board office for the trustees public meeting at 6 p.m.

“We’re looking at a situation of declining enrollment and cost increases,” secretary treasurer Wayne Jefferson explained to the crowd crammed into the board room.

“So we have to look at ways we can still deliver services and sustain programs,” he added.

“We have to get the education plan to fit in the financial envelope.”

Of the district’s $128 million annual budget, $115 million comes from the provincial Ministry of Education, and almost all of that amount is determined by the number of students enrolled in the school district.

The district is expecting a $750,000 drop in revenue next year due largely to a reduction in provincial funding, as well as an $1.5 million increase in costs from pensions, MSP premiums, and holiday pay.

“There’s a lot of things that we could do two years ago that we can’t do now because of declining enrollment,” said Unwin. “We’re facing budget pressures unlike we’ve ever known.”

Last year, trustees voted to close Riverside and Mount Crescent elementary schools, in part to save an estimated $900,000 per year.

“That’s the toughest budget cut to have to make,” said Unwin.

Some elementary band classes have fewer than 10 students taking part, Unwin noted.

“We have to ask ourselves, is this program sustainable when we have programs with less than 20 students at the secondary level that are getting cut,” she said.

High school courses with fewer than 20 students enrolled are not run.

Prior to the introduction of the travelling band teacher two years ago, Grade 6 and 7 students had to travel to their feeder high school twice a week before school to attend band.

Should the teaching position be cut, one option would be to have elementary students once again travel to high schools to take band.

Parent Evelyn Shkuratoff used to hire a driver, for $25 twice a week, to drive her son and other students from Fairview elementary to Maple Ridge secondary.

“Some parents might not be able to afford that,” she said.

While Shkuratoff admits having the students attend band at Maple Ridge secondary help ease their transition into high school for Grade 8, she added it’s always distressing to see cuts to the arts.

“I’d like to see more funding for band and music,” she said. “It keeps kids in school.”

Former Maple Ridge secondary choir teacher Carrie Tennant agrees.

“It’s a shame because so many kids are at risk and feel disconnected from the school environment, and this program brought them in and gave them a sense of community,” she said. “We need to be making music more accessible, not less.”

School board trustees were presented with a list of cuts recommended by staff to help eliminate the $2.2 million deficit on Wednesday.

Along with the elimination of the elementary school band teacher position, staff suggested increasing class sizes at the secondary and intermediate levels, cuts to special education and crossing guards, a two per cent reduction in services and supplies, a reduction in clerical hours, and canceling the district’s IT contract.

In all, staff presented more than 40 cost-saving measures to help balance the budget ().

“It seems like this is becoming an annual ritual,” said board chair Ken Clarkson.

Unwin again stressed that no decisions have been made yet.

Trustees will vote on the 2011/12 budget at their June 28 meeting.