The Batavia Music and Arts Advocacy Group (BMAA) held its premiere meeting Wednesday evening at the GoArt! building in Downtown Batavia. Cheri Kolb, seated, and Lauren Picarro-Hoerbelt formed this organization in response to the cuts that the Batavia City School District's arts and music programs have endured as a result of current economic woes.
Kolb and Picarro-Hoerbelt both have children in the Batavia schools who are involved in music programs. They started this group out of: 1) concern for where they see the district going, and 2) a desire to maintain programs, teachers and the quality of arts/music activities for the kids.
Picarro-Hoerbelt said her hope is for this group to have a presence in both good times and bad.
"(We want) to help out in the bad times, and to remind everyone why these programs are important in the good times."
Kolb envisions BMAA as a "forum for parents (and others) to express their concerns and be a voice for their children."
Five parents were in attendance -- a scant turnout, but understandable, since it "fell in the middle of several vacations" (Kolb's words). A number of other people who were not able to attend the Wednesday meeting have expressed interest in joining.
The issue at hand
Over the past few years, art and music programs have taken some major hits, funding-wise. There has been particular concern about this at the elementary level, where art and music are not mandatory subjects.
For that reason, Kolb said, part of BMAA's mission is to "help create an understanding of how these subjects affect the ones that are mandated."
Part of the night's discussion centered around research showing that the more exposure kids get to these programs early on, the more they will contribute to brain development. Susan Dickenson, one of the parents at the meeting, noted that research has proven the beneficial effects of arts and music programs on reading, math and study skills.
Frank DeMare, another parent at the meeting, said part of the problem is that "it's all about test scores" in the education system right now.
"They want to get test scores up," he said, "and they think the way to solve the problem is to throw money at it. Well, if they're going to throw money at it, the place to throw it is music and the arts."
He noted that students from low income and minority populations are of special concern to the State Education Department in terms of test scores. Children from these populations could stand to gain a lot from the benefits of music programs, but don't have the money to purchase instruments. This is one area where additional funding resources could come in handy.
In spite of their zeal for the arts and music in the schools, Kolb and Picarro-Hoerbelt are not insensitive to taxpayers' concerns.
"People are worried about how their money is being spent," Kolb said. "But they need to know how (their decisions) affect the kids, who will be the next citizens of this community, and also to understand that trying to send a message by voting down budgets might not be the most productive message to this generation."
In the recent past, people have responded to this by arguing that it is the district employees who are "hurting the kids" by demanding unreasonable benefits, etc. Kolb addressed that concern.
"I think there was a time when New York State was in a period of prosperity," she said, "so they put into place a lot of benefits for teachers' unions. Now that the state is in greater economic need, they have had to accommodate the benefits that were in place before. But that's not the fault of the teachers."
She further noted that the teachers she knows "work an incredible amount of hours and contribute (a good amount of) their own money to purchase supplies they can't otherwise get because of budget cuts."
Teachers under pressure, students shortchanged
"The original spark (behind the idea of forming this group) stemmed from (the school board's discussions about) restructuring of the strings program," Kolb said. "That was our first public indicator that there was something going on, budget-wise, that could affect our kids."
Following this "original spark" was a major catalyst: A statement from one of the board members, quoted in The Daily News, about the need to look carefully at non-mandated programs in the wake of state budget cuts. At the elementary level, these include the arts and music.
"We knew they probably weren't going to be cut," Picarro-Hoerbelt said, "but they would be restructured to the point where the kids get less."
This "restructuring" has entailed staff cuts and increased workloads for remaining teachers. For example, the position of chorus instructor at Batavia High School has been eliminated, and the chorus teacher at Batavia Middle School must now pick up the slack by teaching grades six through 12.
Picarro-Hoerbelt's husband, Mark, who was also present at the meeting, has the exact same position (chorus teacher for grades six through 12) in Alexander, which is a smaller district with fewer students.
"I'm busy," he said. "I can't imagine what it's going to be like for him (the BMS chorus teacher)."
Meanwhile, recent retiree Cindy Baldwin's position as a districtwide strings instructor has also been eliminated. Students will now receive string lessons from staff at each of their respective elementary schools.
So at John Kennedy Elementary, for example, the music teacher is going to have to take on 55 string lessons per week. Keep in mind that this is in addition to his role as director of the school's vocal music programs and his regular classroom responsibilities.
Baldwin was also the music department chair for the district; that role will now be assumed by Jane Haggett. Haggett was hired as the high school band director several years ago and, since the band director position at Batavia Middle School was cut, has had to add grades seven and eight to her list as well.
DeMare expressed worry about the prospect of Haggett becoming department chair -- not because he doubts her capabilities, but because she is already overburdened with current responsibilities.
Fewer teachers available and more work for the teachers who remain in the district mean less time and energy to dedicate to the students.
"We're worried about our kids falling through the cracks," Picarro-Hoerbelt said.
Additionally, DeMare noted that the restructuring of programs leads to larger groups of students.
"Some kids get lost in big groups," he said. "They lose interest."
What about the cost?
Right now, the immediate goal of BMAA is to make sure nothing else gets cut. It's about maintaining programs rather than adding to them.
Kolb and Picarro-Hoerbelt stressed that parents and community members are going to have to assume responsibility and find creative ways to keep these programs going.
"There's a tendency to blame the state when things are so dire," Kolb said. "I think we're at a point where the state can't do any more. The districts have to take the initiative."
Dickenson presented the Royalton-Hartland School District in Niagara County (where she used to live) as proof that this can be done.
Royalton-Hartland has received media recognition for its sports programs in addition to having thriving arts/music programs.
"There's something for every student," Dickenson said. "(Royalton-Hartland) is a small district, just like we are. But they really make use of the resources they have available."
When she moved to Batavia, she found that there was "such a different mentality."
"There's almost an attitude in the community that, 'Oh, they're doing the best they can, so we'll leave it in their hands,'" Picarro-Hoerbelt said, "until things get really dire like this. Everyone has to step up."
BMAA welcomes all community members with a passion for arts and a desire to see keep them kept alive and well in the schools. The only people who would not be accepted into the group are those who are currently teaching art and music in the Batavia schools, as this would create a conflict of interest.
People with various talents and skills are invited to join and to help out in whatever way they would like.
One way to help BMAA is to do research on various topics, such as:
what music/arts programs are in school districts comparable in size to Batavia and how they are maintained;
data and charts demonstrating the importance of music and the arts in relation to core subject areas and brain development;
rules of conduct at school board meetings;
and even something as simple as finding out which locations the school board will use for upcoming meetings and letting everybody else in the group know.
If you have a gift for public speaking, there is also room for people who would like to speak at board meetings or other events.
And that's another thing: BMAA is designed to foster a positive relationship with the school board, as opposed to the community vs. board mentality a lot of people seem to have.
"We are being reassured that they are looking at everything," Kolb said.
In other words, the board is examining options for making necessary cuts more equitable, keeping in mind that the arts and music have suffered disproportionately for a few years.
Another one of the key ideas presented at Wednesday's meeting was that of giving school arts and music programs more visibility in the wider community. Someone raised the question of how, for example, student art shows could be opened up so that it's not just the students and their parents who come, but also school board members, legislators, etc.
DeMare said that in many of the wealthier school districts, local businesses support arts and music programs. Batavia businesses already sponsor sports programs, and everyone agreed that this could be extended to the arts and music as well.
One of the most fundamental questions raised was this: "How can we get people out there to vote?"
A very small percentage of those eligible to vote in school board elections and budget votes actually vote. Picarro-Hoerbelt and Kolb feel it is important to encourage everyone to recognize their role in the lives of our community's children.
"Even if you no longer have a child in the district," Picarro-Hoerbelt said, "please come out and support the programs that meant a lot to your kids 20 years ago."
BMAA is drawing on information from the NAMM Foundation on how to effectively implement grassroots organizations in support of music in the schools. For more information, go to www.nammfoundation.org.
For more information on BMAA or to get involved, e-mail [email protected]. The group's next meeting will be held at the GoArt! building, on the corner of Main and Bank streets, at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 14.