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On the Edge of Its Seat

D.C. Youth Orchestra Faces Fiscal Problems

By D'Vera Cohn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 12, 2004; Page C01

A week ago, some supporters of the D.C. Youth Orchestra feared that the group would have to cancel yesterday's classes at Calvin Coolidge High School. School system officials wanted to nearly double the group's rent, and the orchestra said it could not afford to pay.

Last year, the orchestra was charged $50,000 for use of classrooms and rehearsal space at the high school, its longtime home. This month, school officials gave notice that rent would rise to $93,000. Including some delinquent payments, the total came to $150,000.


Violin teacher Lucia Conrad instructs her D.C. Youth Orchestra students on how to take a bow. About 600 students are enrolled in youth orchestra programs, down from a peak of 800. (Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)

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After a series of frantic phone calls, e-mails and meetings, including intervention by school board member Tommy Wells (District 3), orchestra and school officials said they think the dispute will be resolved.

But the problem underscored the declining finances and enrollment of the 44-year-old orchestra program, which has taken dramatic steps to turn itself around.

Rehearsals and classes were held on schedule at Coolidge yesterday. Youth orchestra members sat intently on the auditorium stage, rehearsing for a concert. In a science classroom, 7-year-old viola students auditioned for next year's program. Parents lined up outside a small office on the first day of registration for music classes that begin next month.

"The program has been around for a long time," said Ava Spece, who has been on the job as executive director for two weeks. "We are not going anywhere, but we have some serious work to do."

These are unsettled times at the orchestra, which has provided music classes and concert experience to 50,000 children since its founding in 1960. Most of the 600 current students are from the District, where it serves as a substitute music program for the school system in an era of cutbacks. Anyone who wants to play can take a class, although only the best work their way up to the top-ranked orchestra. Fees are kept lower than in other programs in the region. Basic tuition for D.C. students is $120 a semester.

But the orchestra program's enrollment is below its peak of 800. Its staff of 39 teachers is 10 fewer than last year because of attrition and layoffs. Several staff members were let go recently.

The group's founder, Lyn McLain, retired as music director over the summer but will stay on as board chairman and conductor. "I got rid of a lot of my things so I could take time and think about other things," he said yesterday.

The board hired a new music director, Erika Schulte, who had worked for the organization a decade ago, and created the executive director job to provide professional management for the first time.

"We're very much moving into a new era," said Robin Berrington, a retired Foreign Service officer who serves on the board. "Not without difficulties."

The school system's proposed rent increase is part of an initiative to raise more money from renting facilities to groups. In addition to trying to get the amount reduced, Wells said, he also prodded the school system to expedite payment of its annual $136,000 subsidy to the orchestra, which had been held up.

"It isn't making sense that we provide support and then take it back through rent," said Wells, who also is a new member of the orchestra board. "The superintendent has agreed to help us sort through this."

"We certainly want our arrangement [with the orchestra] to continue," said Roxanne Evans, a spokeswoman for the school system. "Our property management people are going to sit down and meet with the orchestra and discuss what a fair payment would be."

Wells said the proposed rent increase exposed the fact that "while the youth orchestra has become an institution in the city, they don't have a real secure, long-range finance plan funding them."

The group, which has an annual budget of about $500,000, raises money from foundations and other private donors, but it is not enough, Wells said. It also sells pizza in the school cafeteria on Saturdays, holds fundraisers and rents its orchestras and smaller instrumental groups for parties.

Sitting in the cafeteria yesterday, Ann Codrington talked with two other mothers while she waited for her 9-year-old daughter to finish violin class. Like many parents in the program, she would have been listening in the back of the classroom, she said, except that her 5-year-old daughter, who takes recorder lessons on Saturdays, was too restless.

Codrington, who lives in Takoma Park, said she is so concerned about the program's financial troubles that she has joined a small group of parents with children in the violin class in a fundraising project.

"We didn't have the money when I was growing up to play an instrument," she said. "To me, it's a good thing to keep active in."

Her friend Claudette King, a Prince George's County resident, said she enrolled her 15-year-old daughter, who plays violin, in the orchestra three years ago because the girl's middle school did not offer violin instruction. The program is "really affordable," she said, and now her daughter is talking about becoming a professional musician.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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