Music Monday returns on May 2 amid proposed cuts to Vancouver school band programs

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      The announcement of this year's Music Monday performance comes amid the Vancouver School Board's recently proposed budget cuts, which include the elimination of the strings and band program.

      The program currently operates in 44 Vancouver schools. It is estimated that cutting it would save the district just under $400,000 per year.

      In 2015, the yearly fee to participate in the band program was upped from $25 to $50 in an effort to make the continuation of the program more feasible, but VSB board chair Mike Lombardi said last Thursday (March 31) that senior management proposals calls for the elimination of the program unless the provincial government provide the VSB with additional funding. 

      The proposed cuts come in light of the board’s $27-million budget shortfall for the 2016/17 school year. Lombardi said that it is the largest ever shortfall faced by the board. He cited "chronic underfunding by the provincial government" as the reason behind the shortfall. 

      "This is an optional program, where some of our schools participate on optional basis," said Lombardi in a phone interview with the Straight on Thursday (April 7).

      "It's a great program but it's optional; it's an enhancement to our regular music curriculum, which is mandatory in all schools." He called it a "devastatingly unfortunate cut," but said that after having to trim more than $80 million from the board's budget over the last eight years, "there's not much left to cut".

      "We would prefer to keep band and strings, but we need the government to step up," Lombardi said. "B.C. is a province with a surplus budget, and yet we have the second lowest per pupil funding in the country. We should be at the top."

      Included among the proposed cuts are calls for the reconfiguration of school annexes, as well as the layoffs of 33 teachers, six vice-principals, and 22 support staff.

      Presently, the province provides the board with 93 percent of its funding. 

      At a press conference in February, Premier Clark announced that the provincial government would be providing a $15-million grant dedicated to the revitalization of B.C.’s music industry. While Clark said that part of that grant would be directed to increasing childhood music education, no specifics were given as to how the money would be spent.

      When asked about the February announcement, Lombardi said Clark's government has remained silent about how music education in public school fits into the grant's framework.

      "How coincidental, that there is absolutely no connection between what she said and our music programs," said Lombardi. "There is no direct line whatsoever. It's very hypocritical for this grand proposal to come out, and I think that the question the public should bring to Clark is, 'can some of that money be used to save the band and strings program?'"

      Lombardi said that he expects upwards of 1,000 people at public hearings regarding the budget next Tuesday and Thursday, with at least 20 public submissions pertaining to the music program alone.

      He also expects Vancouver Symphony Orchestra (VSO) conductor Bramwell Tovey to attend. Tovey has long been an advocate for music education, and at previous public hearings when the elimination of the strings and band program was proposed, he was critical of the board.

      "I understand that he has met the premier on a number of occasions, so I'm hoping he will use his influence to advocate for additional funding," said Lombardi. 

      Christin MacLellan, president of the Coalition for Music Education in B.C. (CMEBC), spoke with the Straight on Thursday about music education and the coalition’s involvement in Music Monday.

      "We understand that there is a widely held belief that education is underfunded in our province, but there’s another side to that coin,” said MacLellan. 

      She said other districts have been able to navigate budget cuts and underfunding without cutting music education programs, and called on the board to take a stand for music education the way municipalities like Burnaby, Surrey, and Richmond have, by mandating music programs.

      “Our take on these cutbacks is that they’ve tried to eliminate the program for five of the last seven years, but we keep beating this dead horse, that we need to find a sustainable solution,” she said. “We have a conflict of values in what the school district is seeing as important. Research has shown time and time again the countless values of music, yet it has this perception as low hanging fruit. 

      “Underfunding is one thing, but how you choose to spend is another.”

      MacLellan is also the manager of education and community programs with the VSO, as well as the director of the Greater Vancouver Youth Music Academy's wind ensemble. She said that in these roles, she has seen first-hand the way music benefits young people.

      “The way I see students come together to study music, especially in an ensemble setting when we’re talking about performing music together, they become part of something much greater than just themselves,” she said.

      “Music is something that develops a multitude of skills within young people, including things like non-verbal communication, self-expression, and an appreciation of an art form. I think it’s something that is natural for them to want to participate in, but it takes professionals, leadership, policies, and structures that we are able to provide.”

      MacLellan predicts that the VSB will be “bombarded” by frustrated parents and staff at the board's public hearings, scheduled throughout the month of April. She also confirmed that the VSO will be attending the hearings.

      “I think the difference this year is a complete sense of disgust. People are done. People are angry," she said.

      On May 2, MacLellan and the CMEBC will celebrate Music Monday for the twelfth year in a row. Created by the Coalition for Music Education in Canada, it is the world's largest one-day event dedicated to promoting music education in schools.

      “It’s important because it identifies a specific day where everybody has a chance to think about music and raise awareness within schools and for young people, but also within media and governments, to show that music education is something that we need to commit to and nurture in our society,” said MacLellan.

      The performance will be conducted by Dr. Robert Taylor and Dr. Jonathan Girard from UBC's School of Music. Children's singer and JUNO award-winner Charlotte Diamond will emcee the event.

      Hailing from Vancouver, Coquitlam, Delta, New Westminster, and North Vancouver, the 200 elementary and secondary school students will be accompanied by three different local groups throughout the performance: vocalists from the Vancouver Bach Choir, as well as players from the Royal Canadian Artillery's Band of the 15th Regiment, and the Vancouver Fire and Rescue Service band.

      The free performance will take place at 10 a.m. on Monday, May 2 at Robson Square (800 Robson Street).

      The VSB will hold public consultations on April 12, 14, and 28. Click here for more information on the budget and opportunity for public input.