WEST ORANGE, NJ — A few weeks after the West Orange Board of Education (WOBOE) adopted its 2019-2020 school budget, the district’s music faculty and parents attended the recent WOBOE meeting once again to explain why the board’s choice to pass a budget that includes a cut to the music program at the elementary level was a mistake.
“I recently learned our elementary vocal music program is being cut from meeting two days a week to meeting only one day," said Edison Middle School band teacher Joe Romano, who has taught in the district for 26 years. “This is unfair to the children of West Orange. Cutting instruction will reduce the critical time needed to cultivate a solid music foundation which benefits every single child."
Resident Sangeeta Badlani agreed, also explaining how her younger son turned to music at the age of six after he had suffered the loss of his older brother, Nikhil Badlani, in 2011.
“For any program to prosper and to be successful we have to have a strong foundation just like no tree can survive or grow without nutrients and have great roots,” she said. “At West Orange, we have cultivated a love of music in our children at a very young age…starting at grade three.”
She added that reducing class time to one 30-minute session is insufficient for instruction.
“When we’re talking about third graders, 30 minutes is not really 30 minutes; it’s 20 minutes because it takes a while to settle them down,” said Badlani, adding that for the second consecutive year, West Orange has been nationally recognized as one of the best communities for music education. “We are one of 33 out of almost 700 districts in New Jersey holding that distinct honor.”
While reading from a prepared statement on behalf of the West Orange Music Department, Andrea Rommel, a band teacher at Redwood and Hazel, said that the music program “honors schools and school districts for outstanding effort by teachers, administrators, parents, students, and community leaders and their support for music education as part of the core curriculum.”
“There is no doubt this will be the last year for this distinguished recognition when [the National Association of Music Merchants Foundation learns] that the elementary music program has now been cut in half,” she said.
WOHS band teacher Lou Kelly, also reading on behalf of the West Orange Music Department, said that it would only be a matter of time before this negatively impacts the current level of excellence at the high school.
“There are other solutions to address West Orange’s non-compliance with the health curriculum that would not have impacted music at the elementary level,” he said. “As a matter of fact, years ago health was already scheduled in the elementary instructional day with students receiving the same amount of non-content-area instruction that they are currently receiving.”
Fifth-grade teacher Jennifer Paull said she appreciates the district reinstating health being taught by health professionals in light of the new law, but noted that the district “had that years ago and it all worked.” She also noted that K-12 Physical Education Supervisor Kevin Alvine has “apparently proposed a schedule that will allow us to have it all again.”
“We can all agree that health is important [but] what I’m asking is that you consider is other options,” said Katie Witzig, mother of a third-grade Mount Pleasant Elementary student. “Music helps develop language and reasoning, students learn to improve their own work, it keeps kids engaged, [and] for students that struggle academically or just can’t fit in and find it difficult to fit in, music is often the bridge for these kids.”
Liberty Middle School orchestra teacher David Rimelis also spoke to the board as the father of a recent WOHS graduate, who Rimelis said his son felt at home in the music program despite being a slow learner.
“He barely made it through [school] with tutors and other things like that, but a lot of the reason why he made it was because of all these wonderful teachers that had him and took him along and that made him feel special for what he did have and what he could do,” Rimelis said while listing the names of the colleagues who taught his son. “I am so thankful—I’ve said it to these teachers that know how thankful I am—for all they did for my son and I am thankful for the music program here in West Orange and I just want to say that it’s one of the most important things here at West Orange.”
Carol Anne Holland, the mother of two children on the autism spectrum and another with Tourette’s syndrome, commented that her children have all “found solace in music” and that it is the music program that currently keeps them in school. Holland said the district has a lot of problems, but the music program is not one of them.
“While there may be no actual way to quantify the positive impact that the music program has had on our community the effects of dismantling the program will be tangible,” said Rommel, who also mentioned that the board’s decision to “remove funding for outside professional development” will also adversely affect the music department.
Thanks to a music conference that was held in Chicago in December of 2015, Rommel said that the instrumental music department “decided to do a trial run where third graders would try out the instruments that they have the option of learning in fourth grade.”
“This has proven to be a very successful initiative and one that we would have loved to continue,” she said. “However, due to the enormous effort that goes into making this day a success, and the district’s decision not to compensate staff, we are not providing it this year.”
Liberty Middle School band teacher Ryan Krewer, who has worked in the district for 18 years, mentioned that many parents move to the district specifically because of the music program.
“West Orange is home to world-class music professionals, yet an informed resident will tell you that it’s our music program that is the highlight of our arts community,” he said. “The talented educators I work with, we are a team; we are like family; we have chemistry that’s unlike any other department; it’s special and we should recognize that. It makes working in West Orange exciting [and] I share this joy with my students.”
Romano concluded by asking why the district would “cut the roots from a healthy tree.”
“Our successful music program is the sum of talented educators along with support from the board, administration and community,” said Romano. “There are other solutions. Please reconsider your decision.”
Collectively, the board said that it was a difficult decision to make changes to the music program for the sake of being in compliance with the new health mandate.
“It is not with a smile or with joy that we look to our schedule to say, ‘How are we going to meet all of our mandates knowing that we may have to reduce something?’” said Acting Superintendent Eveny de Mendez.
She added that although there will have to be some form of sacrifice made for this mandate, the board will go back to see if “something can be done to create the least amount of sacrifice” across all of content areas.
“I wish here were another 30 [or] 60 minutes in the school day,” said board president Ken Alper. “I wish we had more time.”
He continued that he hopes that the board will be able to find time in the schedule, but said it is a challenge because there are “so many things that [the district] didn’t have to fit in so many years ago.”
Board member Mark Robertson also echoed the comments of his colleagues, but also admitted that he felt the board made a mistake.
“I think we need to take a second look at this,” said Robertson. “I do believe I need to better understand what the mandates are; I need to better understand what solutions are on the table. I think we’ve made a 15-minute mistake that’s more than 15 minutes in the life of a child.”
Fellow board member Cheryl Merklinger, who was the only one who voted against passing the budget, also commented on this decision.
“I echo the sentiments of my colleagues about the music program,” she said. “Part of why I voted against the budget was I didn’t agree with some of the decisions being made about our music and health programs.”
She added that when she attended West Orange Public Schools, she took core subjects in addition to health, music and art. However, Merklinger said she looks forward to hearing what other options are on the table.
The next board of education meeting will be held on June 3 in the WOHS auditorium.