by NATHANIEL NELSON
This April, the Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board voted in a split decision on $2.25 million in budget cuts. Among the reductions were well-loved programs and services, including elementary music and art, educational assistants in special education, and the complete elimination of fourth-grade orchestra –– despite outcry among parents, students and staff members. However, three months later, parents in the district are moving forward with a fundraiser to show board members that they aren’t going to stop without a fight –– a Go Fund Me page was launched to raise $20,000 to bring back fourth-grade orchestra to WAPS.
Meredith Mihm, a local mother, teacher, pianist and foster mom, explained that the fundraiser’s goal is to find a way to convince the WAPS Board to reverse its decision and bring back the recently cut orchestra program.
“I feel like if we lose the orchestra now, we’re never going to get it back,” Mihm said. “Having gone to the listening sessions and talking to other parents and community members, I believe the support is there.”
According to the Go Fund Me page, the campaign is working to raise $20,000 to donate to the district with the stipulation that it must be used to fund fourth-grade orchestra. In the budget-reduction documents, the cost of fourth-grade orchestra was listed as a .58 full-time equivalent employee, or roughly $40,000, but the fundraiser is using a number suggested by Pat Blaisdell –– former director of human resources for WAPS –– in spring 2018 as the basis.
“I know that Winonans support our school music programs,” Mihm wrote in the fundraiser description. “I watched you stand up so many times to speak, write letters, sign petitions, and spread the word on social media. I know that you care deeply about keeping music alive for our kids.”
Throughout the budget-reduction process for the district, parents, students and staff repeatedly pled for the School Board to reconsider the nearly 30-percent cut to WAPS’ music and art programs. High school students stood outside multiple board meetings and public-input sessions handing out pamphlets about music education and the importance of it for students’ well-being, and at nearly every public comment session leading up to the vote, numerous community members stood and made heartfelt pleas for the saving of the programs.
Staff came out in support of the program, as well. At the School Board meeting in April when the cuts were approved, several music teachers in the district came forward to caution the board about making the reductions, including co-department chair Melanie Sheridan
“These elementary music cuts impact every single student in our district,” Sheridan said. “You must recognize that elementary music and art provide the foundation for every musical and artistic experience they will have through their entire lives.”
In the end, the School Board voted to move forward with the cuts, but that wasn’t the end of the controversy. Just last month, board members Karl Sonneman and Allison Quam came to bat for the programs once again, following a report that the district would be under-budget for next year, adding more than $380,000 to its reserves –– more than double what was budgeted.
Sonneman made a motion to amend the 2019-2020 budget to add back the cuts to fourth-grade orchestra, elementary music and elementary art, which –– according to WAPS Finance Director Sarah Slaby –– amounted to a total of $128,800, citing that even if all three cuts were reinstated, the district would still be increasing its fund balance more than its annual goals.
However, the request was shot down with a 4-2 vote against the motion. Board member Michael Hanratty, who had sided with Quam and Sonneman in support of the programs previously, was absent from the meeting.
While all of the music cuts were controversial to some degree, Mihm explained that fourth-grade orchestra is arguably the most important.
“I see the fourth-grade orchestra as sort of the seed for the rest of the music program,” Mihm explained. “If kids start orchestra at fourth grade, we have a higher liklihood of maintaining orchestra interest into the middle- and high-school levels.”
Mihm herself is a music teacher, teaching piano at Viterbo University, as well as at her own piano studio. She explained that she teaches students of all ages and levels, but for younger students, the importance of those lessons is tenfold –– at least in terms of establishing their love for music.
“The younger ones in particular are really enthusiastic about it. It’s exciting for kids at that age to take ownership of something,” Mihm said. As music students, children have to practice diligence, take care of their instrument, and keep up with their lessons. As a result, music students learn lifelong skills of responsibility and –– at a young age –– have a way to develop their own identity through music, she explained.
However, a private piano studio can only go so far.
“There’s an important thing about orchestra, too, that is difficult to produce in a private piano studio, and that’s the feeling of a group,” Mihm said. “That feeling of having a place to belong is a hard thing for me to develop.”
This was a big talking point of multiple students who spoke before the board, claiming that their ensembles were often considered second homes to students, as well as places to relax amidst stressful class schedules.
“Choir is a lot of people’s safe place, and it’s a place where people feel they belong,” said Winona Senior High School (WSHS) student Nicole Banicki at a public listening session in April.
Fighting to bring back the orchestra was a no-brainer, Mihm explained, particularly in light of the public outcry over the cuts and support for the program. In fact, in the first week of the fundraiser, it has already been shared on social media more than 200 times, and raised over $3,000 toward the cause.
However, the fundraiser is not supposed to represent a replacement to district funding, she added.
“This is a one-time thing,” Mihm said. “This is a gesture to show the support this community has for music, but this isn’t something I have the energy to do every year.”
The current plan is to raise money through the end of July and, at the first meeting of August, approach the School Board with the donation and the intention of the funding. For the money to be donated, however, four School Board members will need to approve the reinstatement of the program –– something that isn’t a done deal.
“There’s a chance they might still [say no],” Mihm said, citing the 3-4 split votes that accompanied many decisions about the orchestra program. “If they say no, all the donations will be refunded.”
But Mihm is confident that the community will be able to rally around the cause and demonstrate to the board how committed district families are to furthering their students’ musical education.
“I believe this is the statement that the School Board needs –– to show that the community will not give up so easily,” Mihm said.
For more information, or to donate to the fundraiser, visit https://www.gofundme.com/f/save-our-4th-grade-orchestra or contact Mihm at firstname.lastname@example.org.