Cuts to school capital funds at Tucson-area schools have hit music programs especially hard, leaving them little to spend on instruments, music and uniforms.
To keep the programs alive, teachers and administrators have turned to other streams of funding: fundraising by parents and community members, grants, tax-credit donations and voter-approved bonds and budget overrides.
Putting the squeeze on music education isn’t something schools want to do, but administrators say they have little choice.
“Are you going to cut math? Are you going to cut fourth-grade or kinder teachers? No,” said Anna Warmbrand, principal of Gallego Intermediate Fine Arts Magnet School in the Sunnyside Unified School District.
“You have to make a choice on what’s the least amount of an impact and, sadly, that choice is the specialists.”
The Tucson Unified School District’s fine-arts program has seen significant cuts in the past few years. Since 2012, maintenance and operation funding for fine arts, which goes for teacher salaries, supplies and instrument repair, among other things, has been cut by 31 percent.
Capital funding, which covers the cost of instruments, sheet music and uniforms, was cut by 99 percent in the district over the same period. This school year, the district’s capital funding for fine arts was just under $2,300.
Joan Ashcraft, director for fine arts at TUSD, said replacing instruments and band uniforms is on hold. District leaders value the fine arts, Ashcraft said, and have worked to keep programs afloat by seeking grants and encouraging tax-credit donations — through which people donate to a school and then claim it as a direct credit on their taxes.
But music teachers are still left with a mighty funding gap to fill.
Andrew Nickles, orchestra and guitar teacher at Gridley Middle School in TUSD, said he works on his own to raise money for equipment. He also lets students play his own instruments.
“The budget as far as being able to replace instruments, it’s not helpful, and parents, especially here, recognize it,” he said. “To find money out there, it’s up to us.”
He said the school’s parent-teacher organization has been supportive of the program and that relationship is one of the most important elements for a good music program.
Phillip Switzer, Gridley’s band teacher, said the lack of capital funding hurts kids because many families can’t afford to rent instruments on their own. Schools typically do not charge for participation in music programs, but some require students to rent instruments and even to take private lessons on certain harder-to-teach instruments.
“For maybe my first two or three years here, they had money to buy some new instruments, at least,” Switzer said. “I can’t remember the last time we got a new instrument.”
Donated instruments do come in to help. But Switzer, who is in his ninth year teaching music at TUSD, said it took three years to save up enough money to buy a tuba, an important instrument for school bands.
Even after instruments are purchased, capital funds are crucial for music programs, said Geoff Thames, a former music teacher in Sunnyside who is now a doctoral student in the University of Arizona’s College of Education.
“Instrumental music programs require a budget as instruments break down over the course of the years,” Thames said. “Sheet music and wear items such as strings also need to be refreshed on a regular basis, and there was little money available for these.”
Thames said that when he was a teacher, he would take time over the summer to search for new music and spent hours after school repairing instruments for students. Most of those costs came out of his own pocket, he said.
Scrounging up supplies for classes and spending money out of pocket to pay for things needed in the classroom is not unique to music teachers, said Debbie Mac-
Kinney, a drama teacher at Tanque Verde High School.
“Sometimes it falls to the teachers to find the funding we need,” she said.
OVERRIDES AND BONDS
Many districts mitigate funding cuts by asking voters to approve bonds and overrides.
“There are always ways for people to become creative,” said Monica Nelson, associate superintendent for Amphitheater Public Schools.
Voters renewed a budget override for Amphitheater last year, enabling the district to spend more than its operating limit allows.
In the past five years, bonds and budget overrides have also been approved by voters in the Sahuarita, Sunnyside, Vail, Flowing Wells, Catalina Foothills, Marana and Tanque Verde school districts.
A maintenance and operation override approved by voters in the Sahuarita United School District last year prevented cuts to programs including fine arts and music, Superintendent Manny Valenzuela said.
However, Sahuarita voters rejected a bond earlier this month that would have gone to, among other things, a performing arts center.
Calvin Baker, superintendent for the Vail School District, said an override for his district has been key to aiding its music programs. That money is especially important because the district has lost 85 percent of its capital funding.
“We have difficulty with equipping their programs,” Baker said.
GRANTS AND DONATIONS
When sharp cuts to the fine arts capital budget made it impossible to replace marching band uniforms at TUSD high schools, the district was forced to seek other sources of funds.
“We had to begin to think about other ways to handle it,” said Ashcraft, TUSD’s fine arts director.
Tax-credit donations help tremendously, she said, and that’s true in other districts as well. Last year, the Tanque Verde Unified School District received more than $61,000 in tax-credit donations to its arts programs.
Grants also help fund music-education programs. Thames, the former music teacher, said Sunnyside would let him know when grants were available so he could apply for them to get more dollars for his classes.
Warmbrand leads the Gallego fine-arts school in its first year of operation. The school offers a fine arts-focused education for fourth- through eighth-graders from across the Sunnyside district and offers a digital piano lab, orchestra and other fine arts programs.
The school wouldn’t have been possible without a voter-approved bond, she said, which helped fund the refurbishing of the previously vacant school and the equipment it uses. Last month, voters denied a 15 percent budget override.
Even with less voter support, Warmbrand said Sunnyside has a strong commitment to its arts programs.
“If they could,” she said, “they would commit more.”
POWER OF MUSIC EDUCATION
Gridley Middle School teacher Nickles first taught students in TUSD as a member of the Tucson Symphony Orchestra in the late 1990s. The orchestra partnered with the district for its new Opening Minds through the Arts program, which helps educate younger students using the arts in the curriculum.
When a kindergarten student talked to him about music terms with such a high level of understanding, he knew he wanted to be a music teacher, he said.
“I realized that I could have a huge impact on their lives,” Nickles said.
He went back to school to get a master’s degree and has taught in TUSD for the past 13 years.
Switzer, Gridley’s band teacher, played clarinet in school bands and shares his colleague’s love for teaching.
“It’s not even work,” he said. “It’s just showing up and doing band.”
Music has value beyond just making art, said Dennis Bourret, director of the Tucson Junior Strings, a musical-training program. Learning music better develops how children think, he said.
“Reading music, for instance, is like learning a foreign language,” Bourret said. “When you learn to look at symbols on a page, interpret them, translate them into physical motion and enact them, this becomes an intellectual process that develops cognitive skill.”
He added that learning music as a child is good for social development, too.
“You learn to lead and to follow as the situation requires,” Bourret said.
Tucson parent Rachel Miller said music and fine arts are a highlight of her daughter’s education at the midtown Miles Exploratory Learning Center. The school’s music program is funded jointly by the district and by community tax-credit donations and is available to students at no charge. TUSD partners with music education nonprofit Lead Guitar to provide weekly guitar lessons to all third-, fourth- and fifth-graders. That teacher also leads the band and orchestra. Tax-credit donations help finance the guitar program, including paying for the guitars.
Miller said that in her daughter, a third-grader with some reading challenges, “We’ve noticed a dramatic impact in her visual tracking since she’s started to learn to read music. I’ve seen her exhibit greater self-discipline, strive to achieve her best rather than just good enough, and performances support growth in her self-confidence as well as posture and teamwork. We’ve already had conversations about fractions in relation to musical notes, too.”
An emphasis on music may seem unusual in a school with many children who are deaf or hard of hearing, Miller said, but, “In fact as you watch all the children holding the guitars you can see the power of holding an instrument that you can feel the music through.”