Students, parents try to save Fairfax music program from ax

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Toting empty violin and trombone cases, Fairfax County students appeared at School Board hearings for three days last week to protest potential cuts to the instrumental music program in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

With their parents, teachers and a former music director for the U.S. Air Force Band, they said cuts would be academically, economically and personally detrimental.

"If these programs go," said a sixth-grade girl at Bonnie Brae Elementary School, "then we can't play the music coming from our hearts."

Music education advocates are among the most organized school activists in Fairfax. As unprecedented cutbacks in school spending are being proposed across the Washington region, parents are taking on a role that for many is well rehearsed. They have appealed to cash-strapped state and county officials for funds to protect the high-quality, well-rounded education they expect for their children.

"We are the people who champion music," Margaret J. Flynn, who has two children in the band at Lake Braddock Secondary School, told Fairfax Superintendent Jack D. Dale and the School Board. "We will soldier on. But we need you to lead the charge" by fighting for full school funding, she said.

Several times in the 1990s, instrumental programs -- specifically, fourth-grade strings classes -- were placed on the chopping block in Fairfax. The potential savings were small compared with the school system's overall budget. But each time, the proposal generated public hearings packed with young violinists and concerned parents and provoked letters and phone calls to county supervisors and board members.

T. Dana Kauffman, a former county supervisor, called that a "classic public administration approach" to building a budget. "It's the Washington Monument approach," he said. "If you tried to cut the National Park Service budget, the first thing they would say would have to be closed is the Washington Monument."

In other words, programs that make a short list of those that might be cut tend to energize a core of supporters. They are parents who moved to Fairfax for the schools and who are committed to programs that set their children's education apart from the standard school fare. They will launch e-mail campaigns and go to hearings and vote.

Dale said the programs that might be cut are chosen not for political reasons but because state laws and school board priorities protect core academic subjects, making arts, sports and foreign language programs more vulnerable in a recession.

Facing a third year of falling tax revenue and increasing enrollments and a $176 million budget hole to fully fund existing programs, board members say anything beyond the basics is at serious risk.

Dale's proposed $2.3 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 would increase class size by an average of one student, cut 600 positions, gut summer school, eliminate freshman sports and close an alternative school.

If the county does not approve an additional $58 million transfer of funding, he said, the board could cut a popular foreign language immersion program and roll back full-day kindergarten classes. The entire elementary band and strings program -- not just fourth-grade strings -- could be eliminated.

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