by NATHANIEL NELSON
Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) is officially back in session, as students transition out of their swim trunks and into fresh new back-to-school threads, but at the schools, there is a notable absence –– the fourth-grade orchestra program, and it appears the the WAPS Board may have missed its chance to work with the community to bring it back.
Last month, the board refused to accept a $22,000 donation toward the return of the program –– which was cut as part of $2.2 million in budget cuts earlier this year –– that had been raised by district families and, instead, instructed new superintendent Annette Freiheit to explore bringing back an “orchestra experience” for fourth graders. On Thursday, the WAPS Board was set to discuss those potential options, but the finish line remains in the distance –– Freiheit announced that though she had met with music faculty and the community education department, nothing has been solidified. She will not bring options to the board for discussion until October 3, only days before the $22,000 will be returned to the donors. The board typically does not vote on an item until the second meeting after it has been introduced.
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.
Earlier this summer, a GoFundMe campaign was launched to raise $20,000 –– based on a .3 full-time-equivalent calculation provided by former director of human resources Pat Blaisdell in 2018 –– for the reinstatement of the program for the 2019-2020 school year. By the time the fundraiser was presented to the board, more than $21,000 had been raised.
However, earlier this month, the WAPS Board voted in dual split-vote decisions to refuse the donation, citing potential issues with sustainability for the program and apprehension over changing an already-ratified budget.
On Thursday, several community members came before the board and spoke out once more on behalf of the missing program. Winona resident Jonelle Moore explained that Winonans have had a long history of backing what they are supportive of, and lamented the decision to forgo the donation –– noting that the students who would have been in it for this year have lost what could have been a life-changing experiment.
Echoing many of the community comments over the past several months, Moore reiterated that cutting programs is not the way to build the district up, and in a period of dwindling enrollment, every boon counts for WAPS.
“When [a program is] cut, it’s too late to be sustained … It’s always harder to bring back a program than it is to continue it,” Moore said, adding that programs build excitement and help increase enrollment. “If we can bring community excitement back, public support also grows.”
She also noted that orchestra lessons usually don’t begin in earnest until October anyway, so the district still has time to rethink its choice to refuse the funding.
Meredith Mihm, the local mother and piano teacher who began the GoFundMe campaign to raise money for the program, also spoke at Thursday’s meeting, reiterating that the board would still be able to accept the group’s donations until October 7, when the money will be refunded to the hundreds of local donors.
“Know that we’re still hopeful that there might be a way that we could come to a point of agreement,” Mihm said.
However, that agreement will likely never come to fruition, as Freiheit announced that her potential options for the future of the district’s orchestra programming would not be shared until October 3. Action items are usually taken up the meeting after information is shared, which would push the final action on the orchestra program to October 15 –– one week after the donation will have been refunded.
Freiheit previously went into great detail with the Post regarding different possibilities for providing an “orchestra experience” for students, but bringing back the fourth-grade orchestra program as it was was not on the table. Some possible options include partnering with Winona State University or Saint Mary’s University, introducing string-instrument instruction as a quarterly unit for all fourth-grade students in their music classes, or creating an after-school program for string-instrument education.
On Thursday, Freiheit explained that the space in-between the two meetings was not enough to come to a solid conclusion on what the district should pursue. She noted that music teachers at the district were examining what other districts do with their orchestra programs in school, as well as community education.
She also reiterated that she wanted to use the potential programming to expand students’ education outside just orchestra, as well.
“When we talk about experiences, it’s not just music, it’s arts and it’s dance and it’s how we’re building that excitement,” Freiheit said.
Board member Allison Quam, who has been staunch in her support for the community group and the program in the past, lamented the loss of a curriculum-centered orchestra program, and cautioned Freiheit and fellow board members against coming up with an option that would not be equitable for all students.
“Of course I’m also very disappointed that our students don’t have fourth-grade orchestra,” Quam said. “I hope that whatever is figured out, that children who come from challenging homes, that it’s easy for them to participate and that they’re made to feel like they belong.”
“There are many things I didn’t get to do because it cost money,” she added of her expereinces as a child.
The WAPS Board is expected to discuss fourth-grade “orchestra experience” options again at its October 3 meeting.