Bringing music back to the schools

Lisa Ross
ROSS is a writer and member of the Carmel Valley Planning Board.

27-Mar-1997 Thursday

When Bach, Beethoven and Ellington were expelled from the halls of the San
Dieguito School District and its five elementary feeder school districts
several years ago, even the prestigious Torrey Pines High School was left
without a marching band, music-theory courses, choirs or an orchestra.
Music was proclaimed extraneous for the area's 25,000 students.

Superintendent Bill Barrier recently explained on the KPBS radio show
"These Days" that lack of community support, budget restrictions and the
absence of elementary music programs to produce enough young musicians
doomed a comprehensive school music program in his district. Parents would
simply have to foot the bill if music is to return to the area's junior and
senior high schools.

Yet, many San Diego County school districts, like San Diego Unified,
Grossmont, Poway and Oceanside, have or are building exemplary music
programs in their elementary and high schools while presumably living under
a similar funding squeeze. For example, the Sweetwater School District,
although plagued with leaky roofs and struggling with a multilingual
student body, boasts impressive bands, vocal programs and
music-appreciation classes.

Educators in those districts were already coming around to the notion that
students busy comprehending Mozart and Gershwin don't have the time or the
inclination to get in trouble when a well-publicized new UC Irvine study
released recently demonstrated that piano lessons for young children
significantly increases performance on tests of spatial and abstract
reasoning, greatly outpacing computer exposure or regular school
activities. Yet, in many schools, music programs can't compete with the
thirst for computer collection.

Most educators don't enjoy making Solomon-like decisions about which
core-curriculum subjects to cut. No one thought that feeding poor kids or
providing counseling would mean cutting music education, foreign languages
or dramatic arts. But administrators are even less enthusiastic about
examining new organizational options that might curtail administrative
expenses and allow arts programs to return.

The recently released Girard Foundation study that suggested many districts
spend over half of every educational dollar on administration brought
furious criticisms from the education establishment, but little interest in
the kind of structural self-examination that bloated corporations had to
undertake early this decade. When core curriculum has to be sacrificed,
revising the educational organizational chart is in order.

The San Dieguito area is home to arguably the most wasteful school
organizational structure in the county. Five separate, contiguous,
elementary school districts feed into the San Dieguito Union High School
district. Count six, six-figure superintendents, support staff, offices,
supplies and equipment serving about 25,000 students. By contrast, San
Diego Unified serves over 130,000 students.

Two of the five San Dieguito districts educate under a thousand kids
apiece, yet each maintains a superintendent and a principal. Before the
cozy fiefdoms of Solana Beach, Del Mar, Rancho Santa Fe, Cardiff and
Encinitas circle their wagons, they might consider the advantages of
unifying their five school districts with the San Dieguito High School

Continuity of curriculum from kindergarten through 12th grade. Visionary
programs from technology to the performing arts depend on giving children
an early start and providing a consistent and reliable path through the
12th grade to develop interest, talent and ability.

Greater buying power. Economies of size dictate that supplies, textbooks
and equipment cost less.

One chief is cheaper. Eliminating the salary and benefit costs of five
superintendents, consolidating offices and support staff and reducing
duplicative equipment is simply more efficient and economical.

Larger districts operate under wider public scrutiny. Most people know
that Bertha Pendleton heads San Diego Unified, while the head honchos in
Cardiff or Rancho Santa Fe operate in cloistered obscurity.

Bigger bang for the bond buck. A larger tax base means bigger bond
issues and better rates. The larger the tax base, the more attractive the
issue is to investors.

It will certainly be argued that parents feel greater control with smaller
districts. But parental control may prove illusory as program after program
disappears because of limited resources.

Put another way, it doesn't matter how many meetings you can have with an
administrator if the answer remains, "no money."

A new foundation called F.A.M.E (Foundation for the Advancement of Music
Education) hopes to raise funds to help return music to San Dieguito's
public schools.

Their goal cannot be accomplished without drastic changes in the funding
proclivities and cultural tastes of six superintendents and six separate
boards of education. That daunting task alone should make the case for
district unification.

Copyright Union-Tribune Publishing Co.