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Marcus Reeeb (L), Ellen Harper, Elodie Oliver, Victoria Crichton and Will Adams, members of The Toronto All Stars Steel Orchestra, practise at Rosedale Public School, Toronto June 30 2011.

Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

The Toronto District School Board is considering cuts to its music programs that could reduce the amount of time elementary students spend playing in bands and orchestras.

The board is tackling a nearly $30-million deficit, and staff suggested in a recent budget report that savings could be found by cutting back on the hours of instruction students get with itinerant music instructors, musicians who lead bands, string and steel pan groups for students in Grade 5 through 8.

The proposed cuts would result in layoffs for about half of the board's 107 instructors. Students at close to 300 schools would see their band hours reduced by 24 per cent, strings by 29 per cent and steel pans by 19 per cent. The cuts would also eliminate a staff development program that provides music training to teachers.

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"It's really watering down the program," said Leslie Dobbins, a music instructor at John G Althouse Middle School, near Kipling Avenue and Eglinton Avenue West. "It's taking away opportunities from kids."

Mr. Dobbins – who has taught music at the TDSB for close to 30 years – said the cuts could mean the student band at his school will rehearse once a week instead of two. He worries students won't be putting in enough hours to properly learn the music, and what it means to be part of a musical ensemble.

In recent months, as teachers stopped leading extracurricular activities in protest against the provincial government, the TDSB's itinerant music teachers have kept the music programs going, according to trustee Pamela Gough.

"We owe them a debt of gratitude, not a pink slip," she said. "They're not just teaching music, they're teaching teamwork and self-confidence … It introduces students to culture and it's an important facet of education."

Ms. Gough, who attended a recent budget committee meeting where the cuts to the music program were discussed, said staff hadn't provided a figure yet on the potential savings.

Ryan Bird, a spokesman for the board, wouldn't provide a figure. He said it was too early to comment on the proposed cuts.

"There have been no decisions made," he said. "It will be part of budget discussions that will come before the board, and be voted on by trustees, in June."

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The board has already been forced to make cuts to high-school teaching staff – including 115 regular classroom teachers, more than 20 special education and guidance counsellors and 22 vice-principal positions – in order to balance its books.

Spending scandals have plagued the board in recent months, as revelations have emerged of overspending on everything from routine maintenance to major construction. Ministry of Education-appointed advisers have been working with the board since January to improve accountability and management practices, and to help staff balance the nearly $3-billion budget.

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