STAMFORD, CT — The Stamford school community made impassioned pleas to board of education members last week to save the district’s elementary instrumental music program from potential budget cuts.
Superintendent of Stamford Public Schools (SPS) Dr. Tamu Lucero has proposed a $333.7 million budget, which represents a 6.4 percent increase over the current year’s spending plan.
An original draft had the budget at $344.4 million, but the district was able to cut around $10.5 million to bring the number down.
District officials have noted the Stamford Board of Finance and Board of Representatives, who will consider the budget this spring, will likely reduce the proposed spending plan by at least $10.5 million.
Additional cuts this spring exceeding $10 million would be needed, SPS Chief Financial Officer Ryan Fealey said in a budget presentation last month.
To that end, Fealey outlined several recommended areas where cuts or “repurposing” could take place. One scenario could mean eliminating instrumental music in Stamford’s elementary schools.
Other possible scenarios include a reduction in instructional paraprofessionals in kindergarten; a reduction in security staff district-wide; a reduction in office support staff; and limited specialized programs like Advanced Placement, international baccalaureate, early college studies and AgriScience.
There could also be limited elective course offerings or position adjustments or eliminations.
A public budget hearing was held by the Stamford Board of Education on Feb 1, and many speakers voiced concerns about the potential cuts, especially to the elementary instrumental music program. The hearing came a couple of days after a “walk-in” was held at various schools to show support for instrumental music.
Finley Dreyer, 10, the president of the Roxbury Elementary School Senate, told the board of education the school’s music program helps students celebrate diversity and teaches them to learn respect for a variety of cultures.
“Music has also helped my friends and I grow in so many ways. We’ve become more confident, learned to work as a team and we understand how beautiful it is to create something together. It’s where shy kids find their voice and we all learn that mistakes are just steps to getting better,” Dreyer noted, saying the possible budget cuts “worry” her.
“For some of my friends, school is the only place where they can learn music. Taking away our music program would mean taking away a big part of our mind, body and heart education,” Dreyer said.
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According to Becky Chuhta, the content leader for music in SPS, over 75 percent of fourth and fifth graders, or nearly 1,700 children, choose to be enrolled in instrumental music.
After the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been significant growth in the program, with around 1,200 students continuing to play an instrument in middle school, Chuhta said.
“Our department is flourishing. Removing its foundation would have detrimental effects, not just on individual students who find success and confidence in music, but on the overall growth and equity within our district,” Chuhta said.
Chuhta also spoke about the benefits of learning an instrument.
“[Students] learn new physical skills, like proper instrument handling, develop fine motor skills, and practice decoding musical symbols, enhancing their reading and cognitive abilities,” Chuhta explained.
“Social and emotional learning is integral, as students learn patience, attentiveness, teamwork and performance skills, often shining in areas where they may struggle academically… Music education and particularly instrumental training is invaluable.”
Frank Merendino, who has taught music in Stamford for 35 years and is the second-longest tenured music teacher in the district, warned school board members that if the elementary instrumental program is cut, it won’t come back, which will cause a negative chain reaction in higher grade levels.
“Eventually, sooner rather than later, middle school and high school [programs] will disappear as well, because there will be no foundation and no feeder system coming up from the elementary schools. This will wipe out instrumental music from our system,” Merendino said.
Merendino went on to say that “today’s student musicians become tomorrow’s performers,” and the school district has a responsibility.
“This is integral to the ongoing cultural life of Stamford. I would hate to see that legacy attached to us, that we damaged the cultural life of this city going forward into the future.”
The Stamford Board of Education can add or make changes to the budget and will vote on a spending plan on Feb. 22.
The Stamford Board of Finance can only make cuts and will consider the budget in March/April. The Board of Representatives will do the same in May.
Assuming there are reductions, the board of education in May/June will reallocate the operating budget based on money approved by the Board of Reps.
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