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Board debates music versus art, other staffing changes

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A proposal to decrease music classes by a third and double art classes at Washington Elementary School provoked fierce discussion during Monday’s Cloquet School Board meeting.

Washington Principal Robbi Mondati gave the board two options for the next school year:

  1. Keep the schedule as it is currently, with students on an eight-day cycle going to 25 minutes of music six days out of eight plus one extended 50-minute period for art class in that eight-day period, or:

  2. Change the schedule to give the students four days of music and four days (or two extended 50-minute periods) of art.

Although Mondati wasn’t present at the meeting, Superintendent Ken Scarbrough explained that the proposed change came about because the fifth-grade classes will be moving to the new middle school next year and the art teacher would have to travel to the middle school to teach part of the day to remain full-time with fewer students at the elementary school.

The proposal was included as part of “Cloquet faculty staffing considerations for 2017-18” under new business toward the end of Monday’s agenda. Because the school district is planning to move students to the new middle school in the fall of 2017, district administration is reviewing staff needs earlier because of the restructuring.

Administration did not ask the board to take action on any of the staffing proposals until the first meeting in January (Jan. 9). Also included in the memo were possible special education changes at the various schools, a need for at least two more phy ed teachers at the middle school now that they will have space to teach more classes and a slight decrease in Family and Consumer Sciences instruction at the middle school, from a full-time position to .8.

However, it was the music-versus-art issue that sparked the most debate.

Former longtime Cloquet music teacher Sandy Crowley addressed the board at length regarding the possible change.

“Add another art class if you want more art, but don’t give up music to do it,” Crowley said, stressing that she didn’t want to pit art against music but absolutely doesn’t want to see the Cloquet School District make any further cuts to music, after the elimination of orchestra six years ago.

In addition, the former school board member pointed out that the board has voted at least twice in the last 10 years that the two elementary schools should be equitable, that they should offer the same things to their students. If Washington changes, then Churchill will be offering more music, and Washington more art, she noted.

More importantly, she said, if the music teacher at Washington loses a third of her contact hours with students, the thing that will be eliminated are the music programs. She estimated that Washington would lose 44 class periods of music.

“The time you put into a program with the kids is about that,” she said, “Plus the 30 hours the teacher spends planning and preparing, then going to the program that night, and doing five programs a year, all time they’re not paid for.

“But it’s worth it,” she continued, making the point that the music programs are often the most positive interaction parents have with the school, particular if their students struggle in other ways. “Nowhere else to they have such an opportunity to see what these kids have learned.”

She said the music teacher would not be able to get the children through standards in less time if they didn’t give up the programs.

The former music teacher also pointed to a vast body of research showing the benefits of music in the brain development of young people, including better performances in math and English, better abstract reasoning, better listening, development of fine motor skills, and more. She cited a Canadian study of 48 preschoolers that found that verbal IQ increased after only 20 days of music training, five times that of a control group that was given visual art lessons. The lead researcher found music training enhanced the ability to plan, organize, strategize and solve problems in 90 percent of the children.

Crowley said more than once that she appreciated art, loves doing art, but feels music shouldn’t be reduced to make more art happen, especially because many teachers also incorporate art into their lessons, but teaching music outside the music room is much more rare. Plus, she noted, art supplies are relatively cheap for parents to buy at home, versus paying $20 to $25 for a half-hour music lesson outside of school.

Anja Maijala, one of two student representatives to the School Board, said she remembers looking forward to her time in music during her elementary school years and noted that it inspired her to continue with choir in middle school and high school.

“Cutting music hours could impact participation later and I feel like the choir program is already struggling a bit now, especially in terms of male participation,” Maijala said.

Board member Dan Danielson asked if Mondati was recommending one option over the other.

“I think she could live with either one,” Scarbrough responded.

School Board member Dave Battaglia said he agreed with the arguments for music, but suspected an art teacher would make similar arguments had they stepped up at the meeting.

“I think [the two schools] should be equitable,” he said, suggesting maybe both schools could consider decreasing music and increasing art at some point in the future, after Churchill Principal David Wangen said Churchill does not want to change its music and arts programming balance.

As part of the same discussion Monday, board members also debated the need for an assistant principal rather than a part-time dean of students at the new middle school, in part to help with teacher evaluations, now that the school will serve four grades instead of three, as part of the staffing discussions.

Board member Jim Crowley wondered if the high school assistant principal could help out at the middle school, since that position used to be less than full-time.

“We’ve only got so much money,” he said, expressing concern about the possible jump in health insurance costs too. “We need all this; they’re good ideas. But we also need to squeeze those dollars.”

The school board took no action on any staffing decisions; that is expected to happen at the Jan. 9 meeting.

“We have a lot of homework to do before then,” Scarbrough said.

In other matters Monday, Cloquet resident Melissa Young asked the school board to consider allowing her to keep two sheds on school district property — near the new middle school parking lot — that she has been maintaining and using since she and her husband purchased their house 14 years ago. Scarbrough said the Youngs had asked to buy the property more than once, but the district didn’t and doesn’t want to sell. She also asked that they put up a fence behind her home, preferably on school district land rather than her property line. Board members said they would take the matter under consideration.

The board also passed the tax levy and school district budget Monday. See “Board votes in favor of reduced levy but against under-levy” on page 8 f