by NATHANIEL NELSON
Will fourth-grade orchestra be returning to Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) in the fall? Maybe as an extracurricular activity? Or will it remain on the cutting room floor?
On Thursday, the WAPS Board was presented with a $22,000 donation from a community-run fundraiser toward the reinstatement of the program, which was eliminated as part of $2.2 million in budget cuts the board approved in April. While no decisions were made regarding the donation during the at-times emotional meeting, board members debated the possibility of altering their previous budget decision and bringing back the beloved program, with some board members pushing for immediate ratification.
“My perspective on this is I see no reason to wait. At this point, the board should know what they want to do with this funding,” board member Allison Quam said.
Others, including superintendent Annette Freiheit, explained that there would need to be more investigation made into what the reinstatement would look like in regard to the budget, and if there would be ancillary effects that may not be obvious.
“If we go out and look for a part-time licensed orchestra teacher, we might have a great difficulty in finding someone to fill that position,” Freiheit explained.
While all board members acknowledged that the sum was admirable and thanked the community for raising the money, they debated the sustainability of the funding and how the district might be able to bring back the program. Board member Jim Schul advocated for introducing it as an extracurricular activity, while board member Michael Hanratty explained that the position could be shrunk slightly to fit the district’s budget. Board member Karl Sonneman agreed that there are practicalities to examine before the option returns at the board’s August 15 meeting –– however, the obvious choice will be to move forward with accepting the donation and honoring the community’s wishes.
“I don’t think we can be positive, be forward thinking, or see a great year coming if we keep ripping the heart out of what this community believes,” Sonneman said. “We’ve been given a solution by this community demonstrating what they really care about.”
The community comes together
The donation was raised through GoFundMe, a fundraiser which is still raising funds online, and was offered to the district in its entirety on the condition that the program be brought back.
Meredith Mihm, a local mother, teacher, pianist and foster mom, started the GoFundMe fundraiser at the beginning of July, with the intent of raising $20,000 toward the reinstatement of fourth-grade orchestra into WAPS’ curriculum.
“I feel like if we lose the orchestra now, we’re never going to get it back,” Mihm told the Post. “Having gone to the listening sessions and talking to other parents and community members, I believe the support is there.”
The fundraiser began fairly slowly, earning a little over $2,000 in the first week, but as word spread, the number continued to tick up. As of Thursday night, the fundraiser had brought in $21,320 toward the reinstatement of fourth-grade orchestra –– including donations from 442 different entities –– and had been shared more than 1,200 times on social media.
On Thursday, Mihm also shared some notes from the fundraiser, including comments from those who donated.
“Giving children the gift of developing musical skills opens their minds and hearts. We will all benefit from the music they will share,” one read.
“Orchestra music provides a distinctive bridge between the culture of the past, the present and the future,” another stated.
“Orchestra Rocks!” exclaimed a third.
“This shows it really is a community effort. This is not a group of wealthy individuals, or a bunch of music parents pooling together,” Mihm said as she presented the potential donation to the board. “This really is what the community wants.”
The great debate
Some board members were immediately on board with the donors’ request, including Quam and Sonneman, who have been vocal in the past about their support for the arts.
Quam pushed for the board to move forward with a decision without waiting until its next full meeting, adding that the board should also think once again about returning other cuts to the music and art programs as well, citing her own experience with music and art as a student.
“I was a student who benefited from music and art,” Quam said emotionally. “I have been learning to cope and manage with PTSD caused by childhood abuse. Without music and art, I would not be here.”
Schul explained that one option could be to use the money as a seed fund for an extracurricular version of fourth-grade orchestra that would be free for students. The money would go toward instructor fees, travel for students, performances and supplies. Board member Steve Schild agreed that an extracurricular option could be a good idea –– however, if it was implemented in that matter, accessibility must be taken into account.
“I would hope we look into scholarships so it doesn’t become an extracurricular that is only available to certain people,” Schild said. “If it’s an extracurricular that comes with a fee, we may be missing the children who would benefit most from it.”
Hanratty, however, explained that he believed Schild and Schul may be missing the point.
“The one stipulation is that we reinstate fourth-grade orchestra. By making it an extracurricular, we’re not actually reinstating fourth-grade orchestra,” Hanratty said.
One point of caution, Denzer said, would be in having the district take a donation based around a currently unfilled teaching position. For instance, if the district does agree to reinstate the program but fails to find a teacher, what happens then?
Mihm admitted there was one difference between the donation and the cut program, which is the calculation of full-time equivalent (FTE) employees needed for the lessons. The fundraiser’s goal of $20,000 was based on a .3 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 will be .33 FTE, plus .07 FTE for travel between the schools.
Sonneman acknowledged the logistical aspects, but backed up the community’s request.
“They have a string on it, but I think it’s a good string,” Sonneman added. “We’ve been given an offer, and I think we should take it right the way they asked for it.”
Another point of contention for board members was changing the recently ratified budget cuts so soon after their approval. Several members, including board member Tina Lehnertz and Schild, explained that the cuts were made as a “holistic” approach to the school district to keep everything leveled out.
“I think everyone on this board understands the importance of music, but we also understand the importance of math,” Lehnertz said.
The board is expected to vote on the donation and potential reinstatement of the fourth-grade orchestra program at its August 15 meeting.
The contentious cut
Fourth-grade orchestra was removed from the district as part of this year’s $2.2-million budget reduction process. The program, 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.
In the end, while some programs were spared the budgetary axe, fourth-grade orchestra found itself on the cutting room floor. Later on, the question of bringing back fourth-grade orchestra made its way back to the table in less than two-months’ time, after budget projections showed the district would be more than $190,000 over its projected revenues.
According to former finance director Sarah Slaby, the district would add more than $380,000 to its reserves –– more than double what was budgeted. For a number of years, the district has been planning to add 0.5 percent of its annual operating costs to its fund balance, and this year, it is projected to increase by roughly 1.16 percent.
At the meeting when this number was shared, 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, and added that even without those cuts, the district would still be on track for its fund balance additions.
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 cut programs back into the curriculum.