MILLBURN, NJ - For the second time in four years, members of the Millburn Community are raising their voices to try and maintain the independence of Soulfege at the high school.
The student a capella group was previously asked to renounce its status as a semi-independent student-led club in 2015. That change in plans was not implemented after pressure from students and parents in the district. This time around, a notice of the impending directive was circulated in town before the start of the meeting.
As a result, the crowd at the Millburn Board of Education (BOE) meeting yesterday evening was filled with members of the group, as well as parents of students involved. In the public comment session, those who spoke reminded the board that Soulfege is an integral part of the community.
Along with praise for the group, many who spoke questioned what eligibility requirements for an official school club might look like, considering that other school musical organizations require students to be in at least one ensemble class, a factor some Soulfege members noted would disqualify them from performing.
After the meeting, members of Soulfege spoke with TAPinto Millburn/Short Hills, laying out a timeline of events and expanding on their thoughts. Group president Matthew Green filled in the details.
Green explained that three weeks prior, members of the group, minus the current seniors had met with Dr. William Miron, the school's principal.
At the meeting, it was explained to the members that the school was creating a new a capella group and that Soulfege could either join the group, or continue as Soulfege and no longer associate with the school district.
"It became clear from this meeting that they did not have a clear plan or outline for this new a capella group, just the idea to create one," Green said. "So in keeping our efforts friendly and collaborative, the group collaborated on creating a proposal which we then submitted to the three administrators involved - the head of guidance, our principal and the head of the music department."
Some of the suggestions in the proposal included making Soulfege an entity of the music department, operating as a student-run branch where the newly-appointed choral director would serve as the group's advisor.
Among other things, there was also a suggestion of a name change, wherein the group would rebrand as Millburn's Soulfege A Capella across all physical and digital platforms.
Green then explained that at the second meeting, Soulfege's proposal was denied. He said that the administration's stance in the matter was that Soulfege was not allowed to be student-run while staying under the school banner, leading to a stalemate at the third meeting, where members of the group informed the administration that they would be appearing at the BOE meeting.
"It definitely came out of left field," Green added."It seemed very shocking, as this was coming from the first year after everybody who was involved in the first controversy had graduated...We tried to handle it with grace and offer a compromise, which was met with rejection, so we're [now] fighting to remain as an independent organization."
Soulfege Music Director Daphne Meng said she and others in the group were taken aback by this plan, especially after the support shown to Soulfege the first time around in 2015.
"When this happened I was really shocked because I felt that the last time that this happened...the amount of support that we received from the community should have showed [sic] how much this group matters to us," Meng said.
"To have it happen again is just..." she added, taking a long pause before continuing. "it's baffling to me that [school administration] didn't learn the first time."
For Soulfege Vice-President Ariel Tresser and Secretary PJ Powar, the support of the community was something they both were happy to see at the meeting.
"Just having the whole group there definitely showed how everyone was supportive of us," Tresser said. "Having parent members and members of the community speak on the behalf of us is really great, to know that we definitely have people backing us up through this."
"I think it's incredible, and it's really a testament to how much this group has influenced the community," Powar added. "I think that if this situation was given more publicity, even more support would pour in, and that just shows how much Soulfege has touched the community."
One of the parents who spoke in the public comment session was Joanna Parker-Lentz. The Millburn Township resident had two daughters who performed in the group. For her, seeing this subject brought up again was not a happy feeling.
"It feels like an open wound," Parker-Lentz said. "I felt like we accomplished something four years ago, the kids felt really good about having that victory. And just to have it ripped away again now, very quietly, underhandedly, just seems like [a] repeat."
Parker-Lentz also said that the decision did not make sense to her, and while she was able to rally support for her cause with others in town, she still is not sure what effect it will have on the final decision.
"I think [tonight] was enough to sway the board, but I don't know if it's enough to sway the administration," Parker-Lentz added. "And the administration just keeps wanting to tear this group down, and I don't understand what's behind that."
When asked for comment on the subject at the meeting, Principal Miron and Music Director John Leahey both declined to comment, deferring to the BOE for a statement.
After a closed session, the members of the board released a statement on the matter, read into the record by Millburn Superintendent Christine Burton. That statement is as follows:
"The board approved at its May Twentieth, 2019 meeting to acknowledge the continued support of Soulfege as an ad-hoc club at Millburn High School, and commend their community service and accomplishments.
"The board supports the Millburn Music Department in their continued pursuit of excellence in music education."
TAPinto Millburn/Short Hills will continue to report on this story as new information becomes available.