Des Moines Public Schools Set to Eliminate Elementary Orchestra and Band: Definitely Not Smarter Than a Fifth Grader

Note: this post is really long. I apologize in advance, but there is no way around it. There is a school board meeting tonight, so we’ll see if I end up having to eat any of these words.

Last week, the DMPS excessed 13 percent of its teaching staff, including an incomprehensible 47 percent of the district’s music teachers. Elementary band and orchestra are being eliminated, some middle school instrumental music was axed, and elementary/middle school art, general music and P.E. are being reduced, from twice a week to once a week (and allotted less time).  This was done with no public input and, from what I’m told, totally blindsided the affected teachers. The Superintendent of Schools says that it was done in order to give more classroom time on academic subjects, which is the supposed solution for persistently low scoring schools.

Everyone “in the know” is convinced that money is at the heart of the issue. DMPS spends 85 percent of its budget on salaries and benefits. Two years of ten percent across-the-board budget cuts have had a deep impact on reserve funds and property taxes. The economy is certainly not helping. Our legislators are doing what they can, but it may not be enough at this point. However, I’m not convinced that the economy is solely to blame for this unjustified action. With all the administration in the district, I’d like to think that someone was advocating HARD against the cuts. Are there no arts supporters in the administration? If there are, where is YOUR voice in this? Where are the figures that justify axing these programs, as opposed to others? You’ve said it was a difficult decision, but there hasn’t been any evidence presented that would back you up. The point of no return is upon us and the DMPS has made a very poor, very short-sighted, and ultimately very costly decision.

I am still in shock. And upset. And embarrassed to say I went to school in Des Moines. And wanting to say some really bad words. However, saying bad words would probably drive away parents, which would be bad for business. So I won’t do that, but this is how I feel. Please know that I believe in being honest, and I hope that honesty and realism is just as important to you.  I’d like to share several thoughts on this. I see issues well beyond the immediate impact that this will have on the students. And they’re not in any particular order.

Disclosure 1: I am not a licensed Iowa certified teacher.  I’d love to be a sub, but the rules don’t count all the experience I’ve had as a private teacher and performer. I thought about going back to get my certification, but now that I see what’s happening, I thought again.  Oh, and the $40K price tag seems a little steep, considering that I’ve already spent about $70K on music degrees that have produced little income or employment.

Disclosure 2:  I don’t live in the DM school district, so I don’t have a dog in this fight. But I have a long history with the DMPS and I am a professional musician and advocate for music education. I started violin at Monroe Elementary School in 1975. My first teacher was Jim Brauninger, who started the DMPS string program.  It was free, except for the violin I bought from my sister when I outgrew the school loaner. Monroe also had a tiny orchestra, directed by the general music teacher, Rosalie Peterson. Thirty-five years later, I still remember the names of many of the violinists I rehearsed with on that tiny stage. Had it not been for the DMPS, Mr. B. and his zeal in promoting and running the program, I would not have had the opportunity to discover my vocation: teaching violin. The DMPS also contributed some assets to the Greater Des Moines Youth Symphony, until they merged into the Des Moines Symphony organization.  Back in the day, there was one large orchestra, and I was invited to join when I started sixth grade, one of the youngest players ever so honored.  So I have a lot of fond memories of that time. Some of my old directors are still teaching in the district; others have moved, retired or passed on. But I always remember where I came from and am very proud of it and proud to support it.

When you visit the DMPS website, there is a link for “Graduate Outcomes”, things that every DMPS graduate is expected to be able to do. It is painfully obvious to musicians and music teachers (or should be) that music is the ONLY subject area that meets ALL of these outcomes, either by itself or in combination with one or more other subjects. The Des Moines local union of the American Federation of Musicians has correctly observed that the DMPS action does not allow the district to meet the State of Iowa’s graduation requirement for fine arts. Can you imagine a couple of years worth of students (or more) being unable to graduate because the school district doesn’t offer the coursework necessary to complete the diploma?

I have a problem, as a parent, with any teacher being excessed. The way the process was explained to me goes like this: the teachers are put in a pool. (Not swimming type, but this could very well be the educational equivalent of Chinese Water Torture.) As jobs become available, they are offered to teachers who are “certified” to teach that particular area. If the teacher declines the position, the district will claim that the teacher terminated him or herself.  Do you see the problem? This has severe repercussions for older, more experienced teachers, especially music teachers. Just because a teacher has endorsements for middle school music and social studies and science does not mean that he should teach all of them.  One teacher I know who was put on notice is a middle school orchestra director. She has been at the same school, doing the same job for 16 years. She says they will either give her a pink slip on June 15 or put her in the pool. Her certificate has endorsements for a couple of other subjects besides instrumental music. If they offer her a non-music position, she has no practical experience, so what does she do? Teach something, anything they offer, just to keep her job, insurance and retirement, knowing that she’s not qualified and the school doesn’t care if she’s not? Or should she turn it down and not be able to draw unemployment or other services because she “quit” when she turned down the position? If the school put an inexperienced teacher in a position simply to save the job, and that person was teaching YOUR child, what would YOU do? I might even be persuaded to open enroll to another district, one that offered strings or band. The DMPS says that eight percent of all elementary students are enrolled in instrumental music this school year. What do you think would happen to next FY budget if that eight percent open enrolled to West Des Moines? What would they cut then? As a parent, I’d feel a whole lot better if my friend was teaching music than math. But that is apparently not how the DMPS administration sees it.

This elimination will undoubledly become systematic. In about four years, maybe three, we should expect an announcement that they are eliminating the secondary orchestras and bands as well. They’ll come up with an excuse like, “there’s not sufficient interest in the program.” Gee, I wonder why? Could it be because you eliminated the feeder orchestras and bands; and it takes too long for older students to become proficient enough to play standard high school repertoire? You can’t wait until high school to start an instrument, expecting the student to quickly learn to play at a high-school level. Music performance doesn’t work like that. It is terribly time intensive. Most kids, by the time they get to high school, are scheduled up the wazoo. They don’t have time to practice violin for three hours a night, in addition to the AP Calculus, AP English, AP Spanish, AP History, and dual enrollment homework.  Unless, of course, they’re getting ready for a Juilliard audition. In that case, they would probably be home-schooling anyway. If the district had asked for some input from professional musicians they would have known that. It really isn’t that hard to figure out, even without the aid of experts. Other districts, large and small, look to Des Moines for leadership; is this the kind of leadership Des Moines wants to be known for? The elimination of the elementary ensembles will eventually turn the DMPS into a laughingstock around the state: at competitions, at All-State, at university music department auditions.

Speaking of universities, I have learned that at Iowa State University, nearly ten percent of music department students are from the Des Moines Metro. Ninety-two percent are from Iowa. The University of Northern Iowa produces the majority of certified music education teachers in the state, and the department head tells me that 95 percent are Iowa residents, and again, a significant percentage are typically from the Metro. This pretty much holds true at Drake University as well, a local private university. If there is a bright spot in this mess, it is that the post-secondary education system in Iowa will have some time to plan its long-term strategy for recruiting students, since there probably won’t be any from Des Moines. University music departments are already stretched to the max, and the scholarship dollars are better at out-of-state schools, thanks to budget cuts and underfunded endowments. The areas that bring in the most students and most revenue are the ones that get the most recruiting dollars; sadly, it’s usually not the orchestra.

Elimination of elementary instrumental music will also severely impact our local economy. It is not a question of could.  It will. The teachers who are eliminated and are unable to find a replacement position  cannot contribute as much to the local economy. They have less money to spend, and what they do have will go for essentials: mortgage, utilities, groceries, gas. No more concert tickets or pre-concert dinners out. Probably no more music lessons for their kids, either, because music is often a sacrificial lamb even in music teacher families.  Local music stores, of which there are too few anyway, will likely take the brunt of the hit. They provide the instruments and supplies to the elementary programs, either directly or to individual students. No more classes, no more need for rentals. Layoffs, closed stores and supply shortages are in sight, folks.  The Des Moines Symphony and Academy will likely suffer as well.  Why take lessons if there is no orchestra? The only elementary level orchestra in the area will be through the DMSA.  Not everyone has $200 to get in, and I’d guess they don’t have enough scholarship funds to cover all the kids who’d like to play but can’t afford it.  My husband suggested that this will be a boon for private teachers. I can see where that MIGHT be possible, but I sincerely believe it will be one of the worst things that could happen, for much the same reasons as the DMSO and Academy. I have to buy groceries; I can’t teach for free. Not all parents want to be involved or sacrifice for their kid’s chance to study music.  It ends up being the haves versus the have nots — if you have money you can play an instrument; if not, tough cookies — and music is NOT SUPPOSED TO BE LIKE THAT!!!!  Music is the one place where the playing field is level,  all students have the same ability to learn, the deck is not stacked against you, and you can learn to express yourself in a way that is uniquely yours, to the fullest.  Music has no race, social class, gender, orientation or economic status. It is the only universal language.

It appears that the DMPS has followed the same route that big business has been using for some time now: looking only at the immediate future and sacrificing the long term to make things look good on paper. Not showing a profit? Axe ten percent of your workforce. That makes the stockholders happy, because it might show a profit. However, in two years when your business isn’t growing because you no longer have the capacity to service your customers, and you’re making inexcusable mistakes and dealing with unreasonable project delays as a result, what then? Either you cut some more or you sell out to a bigger company. Eventually, you’ll cut yourself right out of business. From my perspective, it doesn’t seem to be working too well for them, judging from the way the “recovery” is going. I don’t claim to know everything about economics, but this is simple common sense.  Advocating elimination of elementary instrumental music as an acceptable way to cut expenses and increase class time for academic subjects,  or accepting it without question or justification, is reprehensible. It is bad for the students. It is bad for the faculty. It is poor policy. It is quite possibly illegal. And in the long run, it will cost the district much, much more than a few teachers’ salaries.

What do you think? I am very interested in your perspective.

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2 Responses to Des Moines Public Schools Set to Eliminate Elementary Orchestra and Band: Definitely Not Smarter Than a Fifth Grader

  1. Music News says:

    This is excellent content! I am highly impressed by your format and presentation of your views. I agree with you on most of your information.

    • Thank you for reading. It’s amazing how many hits this post generates despite the fact that it’s over a year later! In case you weren’t able to follow through to the end of the “series,” they backed down from eliminating the program, but they did reduce the amount of time scheduled per week. And didn’t fire as many teachers. So the teachers who were left had to pick up the slack. There was no discussion this year of cuts — only the raising of property taxes. I’m pretty certain that this is not the last we’ve heard of fine arts cuts — probably next year or the year after. We’ll see what happens…

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