Wednesday, November 14 , 2018, 4:10 pm | Fair 71º


School Leaders Scramble to Restore Music and Other Electives

Like a music student's pendulum, recently cut elective programs at Santa Barbara schools are making a rare mid-year comeback with the discovery of an unexpected budget surplus, which allows the return of music, foreign language and arts classes.

Like a music student’s pendulum, recently cut elective programs atSanta Barbara schools are making a rare mid-year comeback with thediscovery of an unexpected budget surplus, which allows the return ofmusic, foreign language and arts classes.

Due to drastic budget cuts made last spring, when students arrived thisfall, their options in performing arts, foreign language, shop andother electives were pretty slim. The elementary district all but lostits music program, and at some junior high schools, courses such astheater, chorus, Latin and industrial technology were completely wipedout. Other junior high electives such as band and Spanish were severelyreduced.

Then, in an embarrassing discovery a few weeks ago, the Santa Barbaraschool board realized many of the cuts were unnecessary: the budgetoffice had underestimated revenues by at least $2.3 million. Now,district officials are scrambling to restore many of those programs.The changes will begin not next year or next semester, but as soon asthis month.

 In the case of elementary music, the structure will not only berestored but enhanced: Every fourth-grader will take violin lessons.Also, the schools will launch a districtwide orchestra and concert bandthat meets every week. Last year music was optional for all studentsstarting in the fourth grade, and the all-district band met just ahandful of times every year. Currently, though, elementary music isnonexistent at most schools, because the two instructors in charge ofthe program are busy reformatting it.

"This is very exciting — this is huge," said Nancy Mathison, one ofthe two teachers. "Sometimes things have to get really bad in order tofix them."

For the junior high schools, the situation isn’t quite as rosy, butit’s better than before. The board has vowed to restore aboutthree-quarters of the $460,000 worth of cut programs. Last week, theboard looked at specific proposals from the junior high principals.

Foremost on the rescue list will be Santa Barbara Junior High School’s band program.

Last school year, students there enjoyed having the option of joiningone of four different bands, depending on their level of skill and areaof interest. This year, they’ve all been lumped into one.

At the beginning of the period, all 29 members of the band start outwith something easy, maybe a slow Mozart piece, said band director MikeNunn. As the class wears on, the music becomes increasingly difficult,and the students who can’t keep up drop out. By the time they get tothe last song — which is typically a jazz number that incorporates someimprovisation — only seven or eight students remain playing.

"It’s a bit like treading water, but we don’t want it to die out — wewant it to start to grow again," said Nunn, who, due to the budgetcuts, begins every day at La Cumbre Junior High on the Westside, zipsover to Santa Barbara Junior High on the Eastside for second period,and then pinballs back to La Cumbre for the rest of the day.

John Becchio, principal at Santa Barbara Junior High, said he hopes toreinstate two band classes, so there will be three altogether.

At all four junior high schools, many of the reinstated classes willtake place after school to minimize a scheduling hassles. At GoletaValley Junior High, which lost two-thirds of its Spanish program,Principal Veronica Rogers said she hopes to bring all or most of itback, but most likely in the after-school hours.

Not everything that was lost will be restored. La Colina Junior HighPrincipal David Ortiz said he won’t be getting enough money to bringback any of the five industrial technology courses he lost.

"We deeply appreciate (the money from the board), but are we going to be living the life of luxury? Oh heavens, no," he said.

In the spring, the school board acted on the erroneous assumption thatit needed to cut $2.5 million in programs. Music and electives took ahuge hit. A few months later, the board learned that, due to anadministrative miscalculation, its coffers had contained at least $2.3million more than was accounted for.

In the aftermath of the discovery, financial services director Bob Wolfresigned — although officials have refused to publicly pin the blame onhim — and the school board has invited two school financial consultingfirms to make bids for a contract in Santa Barbara.

The mishap was an unfortunate coda to a long and somewhat bitter yearof salary negotiations between the district and the teachers union. Atthe end of it, the two sides agreed to a three-year deal, which in thisdistrict is unusual. (The two sides normally open up salary talks everyyear.) The raise started retroactively for the 2006-07 school year, butthe business office accidentally assigned the first salary increase to2007-08, school board President Nancy Harter said.

"There was $2.3 million right off that bat" that the district didn’tknow about, she said. "In fairness to everyone, this was the first timewe’d had a three-year contract, so it created some challenges."

All told, the district’s surplus stands at about $2.8 million. So far,$74,000 of it has been earmarked for elementary music, and $340,000 forbringing back junior-high electives.

News of the restorations was met with a mixed reaction from DavidHolmes, a theater teacher at San Marcos High and an outspoken critic ofthe way the board handled last year’s cuts.

"It’s good news that we got something back," he said. "The really sadopposite side of the story is had they known they had a budget to workwith, they would not have made those cuts. That’s the heartache.Because it is really difficult to rebuild something once it’s gone inthe electives."

For instance, he said, Santa Barbara Junior High lost its last music instructor, who moved out of town over the summer.

"People made life-changing decisions based on the impact (the cut) was going to have on their programs," he said.

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