Supt. Freiheit to examine other options
by NATHANIEL NELSON
What’s next for fourth-grade orchestra? Leading into Thursday’s board meeting, many Winonans were expecting an answer, but its future remains a question mark. After a long and tumultuous debate between board members, a cash-strapped Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) Board voted to decline a more-than $21,000 donation to bring fourth-grade orchestra –– a well-loved program that was eliminated as part of the district’s $2.2-million budget cuts –– back, citing a lack of sustainability for the program and potential budgetary impact. However, the board then voted unanimously to direct new superintendent Annette Freiheit to explore an alternative path to “provide an orchestra experience” for fourth-grade students with funding outside the general fund.
The specifics of this plan will be presented at the first School Board meeting in September, but it’s unclear what kind of “orchestra experience” may be funded. Will the plan include introducing it as an extracurricular activity, integrating string education as part of the district’s 60-minutes-a-week of music education, or something else entirely? The intentionally open-ended motion allows for multiple options to be explored, Freiheit explained, adding that she would be examining all possibilities, including potential community partnerships and community education programming.
However, the fourth-grade orchestra class is likely staying in the budgetary graveyard for now.
No thanks to $21K
In July, local mother and piano instructor Meredith Mihm started a GoFundMe fundraiser with the intent of raising $20,000 toward the reinstatement of fourth-grade orchestra. As of Thursday, the fundraiser had raised $21,450 for the program –– exceeding its goal –– and the funds were offered as a donation to WAPS with the stipulation that the program would be revived.
The discussion of the donation began on Thursday as board member Allison Quam, one of three members who publicly supported the orchestra’s reinstatement in the past, asked for each of the four outstanding board members –– Nancy Denzer, Jim Schul, Tina Lehnertz and Steve Schild –– to explain why they would not accept the donation.
“In a silo, accepting this donation sounds wonderful,” Schul explained. “Unfortunately, this issue is not addressed to the board in a silo. [Mihm] offered it to us with conditions, and it more than likely is going to affect other areas of the general fund.”
Schul previously suggested turning fourth-grade orchestra into an extracurricular activity instead of part of the district’s in-school curriculum. While he explained that he had wanted to accept the donation, other factors led him to reject it.
Schild cited the possibility of impacting the already adopted budget, noting that the cut program was budgeted at roughly $40,000 –– a little under twice the donation amount. He added that if the board were to accept the budget and bring the program back, other programs would inevitably be hit.
He also doubled-down on previous comments that the budget-reduction process was a “bottom-up” affair, and noted that deciding to reinstate the program would be doing so without the input from other staff and programs.
“It would make it nearly impossible to run the school district if any budget decision could be undone when an individual or group came forward with a plan to save something, regardless of how incomplete and well-intentioned that plan is,” Schild said.
“If we accept and put orchestra back in, we’re setting a precedent and all the groups that have also been cut they will be at the podium asking to be reinstated or to have their cuts be put back in, as well,” Lehnertz stated, adding that the district must remain prepared for a changing population and expected losses in enrollment.
Denzer thanked the community for the donation, but said she felt the board had been having a repetitive conversation around fourth-grade orchestra, looking at the past instead of the future.
“It feels to me that we are not going to be able to settle this question ever until we get to the point where we are looking at other alternatives which we haven’t looked at before,” she said. “I still am really stuck. I approved a budget, and I meant it.”
Noticing that the donation would inevitably fail, board member Karl Sonneman moved to amend the motion in two parts: The first was to reject the donation in its entirety, and the second was to direct administrators to find a way to reinstate fourth-grade orchestra in fall 2019, and bring a recommendation to the board at its next meeting. The idea, he explained, was to trust Freiheit –– the district’s newly-minted superintendent –– to come up with a solution where the board failed.
“I want to see this done,” Sonneman said. “This is willing to put trust into the hands of the superintendent to bring this about.”
Schul supported the motion, noting that creative solutions are how things can get done in the district.
However, board member Michael Hanratty disagreed.
Hanratty noted that rejecting the donation could deter others from donating to the district in the future, and would amount to the district saying “no” to free funding. Quam agreed, adding that while she was initially in support of Sonneman’s motion out of “desperation,” the obvious choice would be to accept the donation from the community, strings and all.
“I think this is a creative solution. Our community fundraised $21,000,” Quam said. “I want to save orchestra. I desperately want to save orchestra, but not enough to say no to $21,000 from the community.”
Schild was skeptical of searching for a way for the orchestra to be brought back, particularly if general funds might be used.
“If there’s so clear a way, why haven’t we heard it in much greater detail?” he said. “It’s one thing to be creative, and it’s another thing to be a magician.”
In the end, the board voted 4-3 against Sonneman’s motion, with Sonneman, Denzer and Schul voting in favor of reinstating fourth-grade orchestra and denying the donation. The donation itself was shot down in another split vote, as Denzer, Schul, Schild and Lehnertz all voted against the donation.
However, after a short recess, Lehnertz made a motion to direct administrators to “explore alternative funding, not out of the general fund, to provide an orchestra experience for our fourth-grade elementary students,” and for recommendations to be brought to the board at the following meeting.
Unlike Sonneman’s proposal, the motion contains no specific timeline for the reinstatement –– or even confirming the reinstatement of the program itself –– and instead opens the doors for administrators to look at different options.
The motion was approved unanimously, but what does that mean for the program?
The return of an ‘orchestra experience’
In an interview on Friday, Freiheit elaborated on some of the ideas she was mulling over as possible options for bringing the “orchestra experience” back into the fold. While she was directed to find an option, she noted that the options would not necessarily be fourth-grade orchestra in a curricular, class sense.
“The way I am approaching what the board has directed me is to find ways to grow music and art for elementary students, and for them to find their passions,” Freiheit told the Post.
Her next plan is to sit down with music instructors in the district, the finance department, and members of the district’s community education program to come up with ideas. By opening up the discussion, she explained, she hopes to spur more thoughts to find the creative solution that the board is after.
Some of her initial ideas included partnering with Winona State University or Saint Mary’s University for education, or introducing orchestra as a quarterly unit for all fourth-grade students in their music classes. One idea involved creating an after-school program for string instrument education, potentially expanding the grade level beyond fourth-grade down to kindergarten.
For an after-school program, however, she acknowledged that there were barriers to consider, as well.
“I know if we would do something after school, [there’s the] concern of parents who cannot go and pick up their students,” she said. Some possible ways to get around this would be to put programs together, creating a fusion orchestra and visual arts class, or allowing students to stay at Key Kids for no charge to the parent.
Equity in cost is also a concern for Freiheit, she explained.
“For instance, if I am a family that is working two jobs to put food on the table, how am I going to afford $30 to $50 a month for instrument rental?” she said, adding that finding a way to subsidize those costs –– or potentially purchase instruments for the school’s own usage –– could also be an option.
As for the donation itself, Freiheit explained that while the donation was welcome, the district’s lack of a priority list for undoing budget cuts proved to be an issue. While the donation would have funded some of the program, the rest of it would have had to be drawn from some other section of the budget.
“Without that priority list, to me, everything is even,” Freiheit said. “If we put that program back and funded it by an outside donation, that would still be on the docket for cuts the following year.”
Student loss is also a factor, she explained, acknowledging that the decision to shoot down the donation may be perceived negatively with some community members. Last year, WAPS ended the year more than 200 students less than its projected enrollment, and the spectre of enrollment loss still looms over the district as reports begin coming in. For this year, early enrollment –– particularly in kindergarten –– is above expectations, but the final numbers won’t be known until October, after students transferring to other districts report the change to WAPS.
“I totally support parents in having their choice. If they choose to do what they do, they are doing what is best for their kids,” Freiheit said. “I want to make sure we are doing what is best for all of our kids.”
“Maybe we’ve lost kids because we don’t have enough art lessons, or whatever it might be. I’m looking at it from a wider net than just fourth-grade orchestra,” she added. “Is this an opportunity for us to expand after-school arts district-wide? How about theater? Or dance? Visual arts?”
Freiheit will be bringing options to the WAPS Board at its September 5 meeting, but noted that she may not have a specific recommendation. She admitted that as of now, what she has are ideas, but none of them are concrete enough to move forward. She is, however, leaving all possibilities on the table. Whatever the final option is, it will not be implemented in time for the fall semester.
“The actual logistics to get it all built and done may take some time,” she added.
However, Freiheit explained that neither fourth-grade orchestra or the recent cuts to elementary music and art are completely off the table in the future.
“If we find that we can bring those things back, we have heard those are a priority,” Freiheit said. “But I need to make sure I am approaching this from a global perspective.”
‘Let the family help’
The decision to find an alternative solution comes following a long campaign by parents, staff, and students beginning during the budget reduction process and culminating in a public fundraiser that raised more than $21,000 as a donation to the district to reinstate the program.
Mihm explained that the $20,000 goal was based on a .3 full-time-equivalent (FTE) calculation provided by former director of human resources Pat Blaisdell in 2018 –– however, according to current director of human resources Emily Solheid, the actual number would be .4 FTE.
Fourth-grade orchestra was removed from the district as part of this year’s $2.2-million budget reduction process. The elimination of fourth-grade orchestra, along with cuts to elementary art, educational assistants in special education and sweeping cuts to the music program, was among the most controversial of the final decisions. Throughout the process, parents, staff and students repeatedly pled with the School Board to forgo the cuts, but the program was not spared from the budgetary ax.
Two months later, Sonneman made a motion to amend the 2019-2020 budget to undo cuts to fourth-grade orchestra, elementary music and elementary art, which amounted to a total of $128,800, after budget projections showed the district would be more than $190,000 over its projected revenues.
However, the amendment failed 4-2 –– Hanratty was absent from the meeting. The opposing School Board members stuck to their initial decision, and explained that while the cuts to music and art were not popular with some families, the cuts were necessary to keep the budget intact.
“When we get this good news, I’m hoping it sprouts some opportunities to expand our curriculum,” Schul said of the fund balance increase, adding that he was looking forward to adding programs back into the curriculum.
At the board’s August 3 meeting, the funds from Mihm’s fundraiser were offered as a donation to the WAPS Board with the stipulation that the program would be revived. Some board members, including Sonneman and Quam, pressed for the board to accept the donation outright, while others –– such as Schild and Lehnertz –– expressed concern over the program’s impact on the budget and its sustainability.The board then moved to vote on the donation on August 15.
On Thursday, multiple community members stepped up to the podium to plead for the sake of the orchestra. Some cited the benefits of music programming for young minds, some pointed out the optical benefits of partnering with the community, while others hailed the, essentially, “free money.”
Karin Worthley, a Winona resident who had spoken the week before about the importance of the program, once again took the stand. She described the School Board as the parents of the district, while the residents are the children. The cutting of fourth-grade orchestra and subsequent fundraiser, she explained, was like parents cancelling a vacation and the children spending time to raise money through mowing lawns and doing chores to earn enough money to go on the trip.
“Why won’t you take this money? We’re not asking for a new program, we’re asking to hold onto this one,” Worthley said. “We just want you to let the family help here.”