Prairie Spirit changes its tune on band programs

By Joel van der Veen

WARMAN — Prairie Spirit School Division (PSSD) has reversed a recent decision on band programs at its schools, announcing last week that the programs would be funded for the coming year after all.

The announcement came almost a week after the division had said it would cut funding for instrumental band programs for the 2015-16 school year, as part of its efforts to handle a $7.1-million funding shortfall.

The decision would have affected band programs across the division, including Dundurn Elementary School, which offers the program in grades 5 and 6, and Hanley Composite School, which offers band to students in grades 5 through 12.

Students who completed a Band 10 credit this year would have the opportunity to finish Band 20 and/or 30 credits, but the existing program would gradually be replaced with a broader musical education program.

The division allowed for the possibility of extracurricular band practices to be organized by “interested teachers” but said bussing would not be provided for those practices.

The PSSD then found itself caught in something of a political firestorm, as NDP education critic Trent Wotherspoon said the cuts were a symptom of underfunding by the Saskatchewan Party government and demanded that funding be restored.

Meanwhile, education minister Don Morgan defended his party’s record and argued that Prairie Spirit’s own board was to blame for the division’s budget woes.

The division announced the reversal of its decision in a letter to parents dated June 3 that was leaked to the StarPhoenix and later made public.

PSSD director of education John Kuzbik told the Leader on Thursday that the division received plenty of feedback on the issue, much of it from students.

“I really admired how the students went about sharing their displeasure,” he said. “They were respectful . . . They wanted to make it clear that it was a passionate area.”

He also said the response stretched beyond parents and students to include members of the local music community.

Ultimately, he said, the division changed its plan once it determined it would not be able to provide a sufficient replacement program for next year.

The board made the decision at its June 1 meeting to “continue to provide financial support to keep the band music programs operating in their current locations,” according to the letter to parents.

“We had to rethink what we were offering,” he explained. “As we got deeper into it, we realized we weren’t ready to offer an alternative program that could generate as rich an experience as the band program could offer.”

The board had committed not to eliminate programs, but to reduce or replace them; it was determined that the proposed plan would have broken that commitment.

Kuzbik said the division has received feedback on the other cutbacks it has made, so the volume of response on the band matter was close to what they had anticipated.

He said the plan moving forward is to attempt to grow the current program to attract more students, to make it more economical and to see whether it can be expanded to toher schools.

Figures released by the school division last month indicate that fewer students are continuing with the current band program, with numbers dropping off dramatically between Grade 5 and Grade 12.

Meanwhile, the division is still grappling with a major funding shortfall, which must be addressed in time for the budget to be adopted on July 15.

Kuzbik said the division staff and board are working closely together to find possible areas for restructuring or cost savings, adding, “That’s just the nasty work that we’re involved in.”

“It’s really unfortunate that we have to go into making program reductions and staffing reductions because of the big shortfall,” he continued, adding that he feels the division’s expectations are not “out of line with what other school divisions are able to do.”

Kuzbik said he hopes the commotion over the band program has put a spotlight on the division’s situation and the decisions they are forced to make.

A statement issued by the division identified “inadequate and inequitable funding” as the root cause of its current financial situation. Kuzbik said more information on possible reductions may be made public next week.

Reductions have already been made within certain areas, including teacher-librarians, career and work experience, technology, division office staff and educational associate support, according to the division.

“We may have the ability to make choices,” read the letter to parents, “but there are no good choices to be made given the inadequate funding that the school division is receiving from the province.”

The division also expressed its thanks to those who provided feedback, apologizing for “any emotion and hardship” experienced by affected families and asking them to direct their voices of the Ministry of Education.

Parent meetings scheduled for June 8 and 10 have been postponed until September.

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