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Cuts threaten Vancouver School Board music program

Students from grades 4 through 7, who are part of the string orchestra program, play their instruments outside Dr. Annie B. Jamieson Elementary School in Vancouver, British Columbia, Wednesday, April 16, 2014.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

Each spring, music educators stage an event on the first Monday of May, where students from across the country perform the same piece of music simultaneously. Meant to highlight the importance of music education, Music Monday is generally a feel-good event where the cute factor is high and everyone is reminded about the power of music.

This year's event will take on new weight in Vancouver, where a proposal to eliminate band and strings at Vancouver School Board elementary schools has students, parents, educators and music professionals deeply concerned.

"To lose the elementary strings and band program in Vancouver seems utter folly. We're not talking about cutting back; we're talking about cutting out," said Vancouver Symphony Orchestra music director Bramwell Tovey, in an interview from the United Kingdom. "We feel that to remove instruments from children's hands, which is basically what this elimination suggests, is tantamount to belittling what for so many children becomes a passion."

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The VSB, facing a $12.34-million budget shortfall, is considering a variety of cuts to balance the budget, as mandated by the province. Among the board's recommendations is the elimination of band and strings at elementary schools, a move that would save the VSB $630,651. Also under consideration: increasing the annual participation fee from $25 to $250 – a move that would generate $350,000.

"It brings tears to your eyes," says Susan Duffy, one of the parents who crammed into a school meeting Tuesday night to voice concerns about the proposal.

There are other proposals in the budget document – including giving students three additional days off in November – but the proposed music cuts generated much of the passion at Tuesday's meeting.

Board chair Patti Bacchus became emotional the following morning when asked what it was like to listen to the pleas of parents and students. "It's devastating." She says inadequate funding from the province has left the board in a terrible position.

"I don't think anyone would argue that music programs should be part of every child's life. No one is disputing that. I think we're heartbroken to even be having this discussion. And the same for sports and the same for counsellors and the same for all of these things kids need. Someone asked last night: 'Where's the line? Where do you just stop?' And I feel like I crossed that line a few years ago."

Ms. Bacchus feels the proposed band fee increase may be a non-starter. But she also says there may be ways to save the music programs – perhaps through other funding options, or by restructuring the program. "We're trying to look at some creative ways to keep this alive because we know it is really important."

A number of advocacy groups have voiced their concerns – including national organizations based in Toronto. The Coalition for Music Education in British Columbia is urging concerned citizens to write to Ms. Bacchus in protest.

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"Playing music together in a music ensemble gives students so many benefits intellectually, socially, emotionally, academically that they can't get through any other means of instruction. … And taking that away is tragic," says Christin Reardon MacLellan, president of the CMEBC.

While the group is strongly against the pay-to-play option, it has deeper concerns about axing the program altogether. "Once a program is eliminated, the chances of it being resurrected again and revived down the road are so rare," said Ms. Reardon MacLellan, who is also Education and Community Programs Manager at the VSO.

This isn't the first time cuts to music programs have been proposed. In 2010, there was a hue and cry. The program was saved, and the $25 fee was implemented.

If the cuts can't be avoided this time, the impact, of course, would be most keenly felt by students.

"I'm really worried," said Lauren Anderson, 12, who plays flute in the Kerrisdale Elementary School band and wrote to Ms. Bacchus about her concerns. "For some of us, music is our life … " she wrote. She and some bandmates organized a small musical protest last weekend.

Over the last week, Ms. Duffy has collected 1,000 signatures on a petition asking the VSB to save the program. In an interview, Ms. Duffy talked about her 12-year-old daughter Charlotte's love for the violin, and how happy she is to arrive at school at 8 a.m. daily for band practice. "If there wasn't a string programs in the elementary school system, we would never have found this out about this little girl."

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Ms. Duffy was deeply affected by a Grade 4 student's presentation Tuesday night. He spoke about the plans he and his friends have made to join band next year. He said cutting the program would break his heart.

"Kids see the value of this," says Ms. Reardon MacLellan, who was also affected by the boy's words. "Why are we having to explain this to adults?"

The VSB will vote on the budget April 30. The outcome of that vote will turn Music Monday into either a gleeful celebration or a requiem.

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