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Parents ask Vancouver School Board to leave music program untouched

Five school districts in Greater Vancouver have a music and band specialist and strings teacher in every school.

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The Vancouver School Board must stop treating the band and strings program as cannon fodder in its battle with the provincial government over funding, say parents weary of yet another threat to the program.

For five of the past seven years, the program has been on the school board's chopping block.

"It's been time and time again and the difference this year is that it feels like people are done with it," Christin Reardon MacLellan, president of the Coalition for Music Education in B.C., told the board on Tuesday. "People have year after year requested the VSB find a long-term sustainable solution, yet we end up back where we started every single time."

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Ms. Reardon McLellan said the VSB should follow the mandate of other Greater Vancouver school districts, five of which have a music and band specialist and strings teacher in every school.

"I think it's because of a philosophical view on the program. If they truly believed that this is an essential program, if they truly believed in the value of learning in an ensemble, there wouldn't be cuts," she said. "It's a widely held belief that funding for education is a challenge but they are the only district [which] is planning to cut music."

But VSB chair Mike Lombardi said the board expects to hear hundreds of voices this week and is doing its best to appease all while pushing for an increase in funding from the provincial government.

Band and strings is on the list of cuts once more due to budget pressures, he said.

"The band and strings program has led kids onto careers in music, it motivates them to engage in school. We know research shows music leads to better academic achievement, but we also heard that from our gifted parents last night, we heard that from our home learners," Mr. Lombardi said.

"We want all those things, which is why we're advocating," he said. "Vancouver needs additional funding, just like every district in the province."

However, B.C. Education Minister Mike Bernier said in an e-mail statement that funding in Vancouver has risen by $74-million since 2001-02 and enrolment is down by more than 6,000 students.

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"It's disappointing for me as I am sure it is for parents to see the VSB's annual scare tactics around its budget – threatening to slash programs and then ending up delivering a balanced budget," he said. "Vancouver is getting an extra $2-million this year in funding protection because of their rapid enrolment decline this year. But the board still continues to spend $37-million on empty classrooms."

Last week, Surrey's school board noted it has a $4-million deficit, but Shawn Wilson, the board's chair, said the district will be able to deal with it.

In Vancouver, the district is faced with declining enrolment and under the province's per-pupil funding model, the board has fallen repeatedly into deficit. The provincial government has suggested the board could cut costs by closing underutilized schools, something the board has been reluctant to act on.

Parent representatives are frustrated with continuous threats to education.

Farah Shroff is the vice-president of the BC Confederation of Parent Advisory Committees. This year's budget crisis is the worst she has seen, she said.

"They've been cutting flesh but we've gotten to the part where they're cutting bone."

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Year after year, she said the threat to cut the music program is one that riles parents.

"They've managed to save a portion by being vocal, but every year, there is a portion less," she said. "It puts parents in a tricky place, what we know is that we ought to be asking provincial politicians to support our children's education, so a lot of parents are trying to lobby both provincial politicians and school-board trustees."

Jen Stewart will appear before the board on Thursday as a representative of advocacy group Families Against Cuts to Education and a member of Simon Fraser Elementary School's Parent Committee Advisory, where her seven-year-old son is a student.

She said underfunding is a provincial problem.

"It's heart breaking to see people have to lobby for individual programs because it really sets it up as a zero-sum game," she said.

Thursday will be the last day of the public consultation process and the board will vote on the budget April 28.

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