Cue fanfare for the students of the Buellton School District’s Oak Valley Elementary and Jonata Middle schools who have come to appreciate music as a regular element of their education. Ron Zell, music teacher for both schools, and his extensive music program – which includes mandatory piano lessons twice a week for all students in 4th and 5th grades- will remain, decided the Buellton School Board with a 4-0 vote at the end of an emergency meeting on Thursday night.

While the parties involved seem happy at this decision they may soon be playing a different tune: the district is hurting for cash. It’s reportedly expected to be short around $118,000 for the coming school year, and around $180,000 the year after that. In short, it’s in the same unenviable position as school districts across the state. (Just this week, money troubles prompted the Hope Elementary School District to kick out the vast majority of transfer students while the Santa Barbara School District to send out pink slips to 51 junior high and high school teachers.)

Perhaps no one is more aware of the situation the schools are in than Zell himself. Having taught in the district for the past eight years and named Santa Barbara County’s teacher of the year in 2007, he said he’s gratified to see the community concede that his work in music education had added value to what Oak Valley and Jonata can offer students, even in troubled times.

Ron Zell

From his point of view, however, the music program simply should not have been considered for potential cuts, for two chief reasons. First, the program has very often been helped along by donations from the Buellton community, demonstrating both popular support for it and that it is not a financial drain on the district. For example, the lab where students receive the mandatory piano lessons was donated, and even the chairs that the students sit on while practicing came as a result of community generosity. “To cut the music program is a real misunderstanding of what this community thinks is important,” Zell said. Second, as he explains it, the music program adds something to the educational atmosphere that helps them in other areas. He points out the theory that music education can help students improve math skills. According to him, since the inception of the biweekly piano lessons, students’ STAR testing scores for math have increased 23 points.

It’s for these reasons, perhaps, that the notion of music being cut caught Zell by surprise. The regular school board meeting earlier last week came and went without even a whisper of music getting the axe. Zell said when he arrived at work Thursday morning, he was taken aback by posted notices that a special emergency meeting would be happening later that day and would be discussing whether his program would become a casualty of the district’s financial crunch. The notice went up Wednesday evening, but even 24 hours’ notice struck Zell as somewhat short, he said. “The procedure [leading up to Thursday’s meeting] was really kind of inappropriate for something as drastic as this,” Zell said.

He wasn’t alone in this reaction.

“My first response was that I was flabbergasted. Then I called the people I knew to find out what was true and what wasn’t true,” explained Lori Weitz, mother of two of Zell’s students and an avid band booster. Zell agreed that the community response was monumental. “In the time between 9:30 and that evening, parents, teachers and community members were called by each other. I came in to over 200 people, some of them with signs of protest saying ‘Save our music programs,'” he said.

From the perspective of Buellton School District Superintendent Tom Cooper, however, Thursday’s meeting was a necessary step in the school board’s mission to create a functional budget for the 2009-2010 school year. “The budget at this point is being cut by 10 percent by the state: The music program is not a required course of study, so when you’re looking at cutting regular classroom teachers, you have to consider alternatives.”

Cooper explained the context of the meeting and why it happened in the manner it did. Only after bargaining with the teachers’ union for the 2009-2010 school year had completed did the district realize that it would be coming up short. As any teachers that might lose their jobs must be notified by a March 15 deadline, additional layoffs won’t be an option, which left the district with the alternative of cutting programs. Thus, the special emergency meeting was called. “It would not have been prudent not to consider it, particularly when we’re letting classroom teachers go,” he said.

In the end, Cooper said, the board voted to keep the music program, knowing well that something else will have to go. (The decision was “absolutely not affected” by the scads of music program supports who showed up for the meeting, he noted. “The board felt that it was an almost historical part of our school district,” he said.) As for what else may face a financial slashing, Cooper declined to say.

Weitz said she understood the school board’s position on the matter and that the Thursday vote would not do anything to alleviate the problems the district faces. “We all knew it was about money,” she said. “In keeping Ron, something is going to get cut. What was exciting about last night having such a groundswell of people expressing their concerns.” She said she’s using the past weeks’ events as motivation to involve herself even more in the district and to look into new ways through which the money could be raised for programs like music.

As for Zell, he said he’s viewing the experience as one with a “great ending.” And in the near future, he’ll again be tackling the subject of the importance of arts education. As the county’s Coordinator for Visual and Performing Arts for the California County Superintendents Educational Services Association, he’ll be participating in the Region Arts Forum on March 31 at the Buellton Marriott, at which representatives from Santa Barbara, Ventura, Kern and San Luis Obispo counties will meet up and talk shop. Zell noted the irony: “Here I am on a committee that is supposed to be getting more arts in schools and yet I was facing the elimination of the music program.”


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