‘What will our programs look like?’: Some question what cuts to band, orchestra and choir will mean for Lawrence district’s performing arts

photo by: contributed

Former Free State Orchestra Director Judy Erpelding works with students in this contributed photo.

During budget reductions over the last two years, five band, orchestra and choir positions have been cut from the district’s secondary schools, calling for some teachers to split time between schools and the combination of some grade levels into one class. There is the potential for more cuts to be made, resulting in reductions to the district’s performing arts staff that could surpass 20%.

Some involved in those programs say the cuts are having an impact on the quality of the performing arts programs in the district’s middle and high schools. The district states that though there have been reductions in staff, there have not been any reductions in the band, orchestra and choir class offerings available to students, and that the reduction in staff is tied directly to student enrollment.

Judy Erpelding, who received multiple honors for her teaching during her 11 years directing the orchestra at Free State High School, decided to leave her position at the end of this school year because she felt like the district was not supporting growth in the performing arts programs or allowing the arts to continue their rebound from drops in enrollment during the COVID-19 pandemic. A cut ahead of the 2022-2023 school year of an orchestra teacher who split time between Free State and Lawrence High School directly affected Erpelding’s workload, and amid the discussion of further cuts to the performing arts ahead of next school year, she ultimately made the difficult decision to resign.

“They’re asking way too much of the teachers in the fine arts,” Erpelding said. “What seem like small, tiny, incremental cuts will end up being very deep ones because they’re going to lose really good educators because they just keep piling more on.”

photo by: contributed

Judy Erpelding

Based on information the district provided to the Journal-World, Lawrence high schools will have nine band, orchestra and choir staff members next school year: a director for each area (six total across both schools), assistant band directors (two total across both schools) and one assistant choir director, at Free State only. Not all positions are finalized at the middle school level, and the four middle schools will have either full- or part-time band, orchestra and choir directors as determined by student enrollment, meaning anywhere from six to 12 full-time positions.

If the district doesn’t cut beyond the five positions already eliminated ahead of last school year and the upcoming school year, that represents 20% of the district’s performing arts teachers. If the district were to make further reductions and only have part-time directors at all four middle schools, meaning all those directors would split time between schools, that could represent an up to 43% reduction in performing arts staff.

Specifically, at this point, the district has identified 4.2 positions in the performing arts at the secondary level that will be eliminated ahead of next school year. When including the reduction ahead of this school year of the orchestra teacher who worked at both high schools, the total reductions over the past two years equals 5.2 full-time positions. The 4.2 full-time positions consist of duties that have been split between multiple schools and are as follows:

• Liberty Memorial Central Middle School orchestra: 0.6 full-time equivalent (FTE)

• Liberty Memorial Central Middle School band: 0.5 FTE

• Southwest Middle School band: 0.1 FTE

• Southwest Middle School choir: 0.5 FTE

• Billy Mills Middle School band: 0.5 FTE

• Billy Mills Middle School choir: 0.3 FTE

• Lawrence High School choir: 1.0 FTE

• Free State High School choir: 0.2 FTE

• Free State High School band: 0.5 FTE

Lawrence parent Laura VanSickle-Deavours, whose children have participated in orchestra and choir while attending district middle and high schools, also expressed concerns about the reductions. For instance, she said having more than one choir teacher, particularly both a male and a female teacher, was important for instruction and helping students develop their voices. For orchestra lessons, she said that having more than one teacher in the room means students get that much more instruction on their instruments.

“They split up into small groups and they practice,” she said, saying that teachers rotate around the room and help. “And if there (are) two, that’s double the amount of instruction and comments and help that they can give to those small groups and ensembles.”

VanSickle-Deavours said she didn’t understand how the reductions squared with the talk of potentially turning Liberty Memorial Central Middle School into a magnet school for the performing arts, one of the potential themes floated by the school board. She said the district has had a reputation for having very strong performing arts programs, but she is afraid the reality is falling behind that reputation.

“The district, going back like a decade ago, had a super strong fine arts program, and I think they’re running partly on the reputation of a fine arts program that isn’t at that same level anymore,” VanSickle-Deavours said. “And they talk about their pride in the fine arts and even the potential of opening up a magnet school at Liberty Memorial Central Middle School, but they’re not even taking care of supporting the staffing and the needs of the fine arts staff that are in the district.”

The cuts ahead of next school year are part of the 50 secondary teacher reductions that the Lawrence school board approved this spring as part of an effort to free up money for teacher and staff raises and other budget priorities. Like the approximately 70 position cuts made ahead of this past school year, which positions are being eliminated are determined by building and district administrators, rather than discussed at the board level. According to information from the district’s human relations department, provided by district spokesperson Julie Boyle, the district has currently identified 47.6 positions that it will eliminate ahead of next school year, all of which are being eliminated through attrition. The district states that number is subject to change as enrollment fluctuates and will be assessed based on student enrollment and class thresholds.

The response from the district’s HR staff also specified that the reductions planned for each school building are determined based on each building’s student enrollment requests. The response states that while positions are being cut, programs are remaining in place; however, there is a possibility of reduced coverage and sharing staff between buildings.

“Staffing coverage may be reduced or provided from staff transfers or shared staff across buildings,” the response states.

The Journal-World asked the district how many band, orchestra and choir teachers would be asked to teach at more than one school next year due to the cuts. The response from district HR staff stated principals are constantly assessing student enrollment requests and they estimate all staff transfers will be finalized by the end of the summer. Once transfers are finalized, the district will know how many band, orchestra and choir staff members will be teaching at more than one building next school year.

For Erpelding, who was directly affected by the cut ahead of this past school year, the discussion of further cuts to the performing arts as a whole, including more teachers having to split time between two schools and the combination of some grade levels into one class, prompted a reassessment of her plan to spend her whole career in the Lawrence district. She said the loss of the orchestra teacher who split time between the two high schools affected the level of instruction her students received, the expertise available to them and outside performances. Specifically, she said she had to teach fewer pieces and that students lost the additional, specialized instruction from the other teacher, who played different instruments than she does. The additional demands on her time also meant she had less time to plan extra trips and performances that enhance the program and the experience of her students.

“Last time we went on a trip for orchestra we went to Los Angeles, and we performed at Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood,” Erpelding said. “It was an amazing trip. Those were the kind of opportunities I was able to provide when I was being supported and I had an assistant.”

Erpelding said it seemed like the cuts simply fill a budget gap temporarily without considering the long-term impact for the district’s performing arts programs.

“It seems like all of these decisions don’t have any vision behind them,” she said. “They’re meant to just kind of plug a leak and fill a gap temporarily. And they’re like, ‘Well, once we get through this, then we can maybe change it,’ but what will our programs look like at that point?”

After already having to decrease the level of teaching she had held herself to this past school year, Erpelding said she made the very difficult decision to take a job in the Blue Valley school district, where she said she feels she has more support to grow the orchestra program. Pay is also a consideration. She said she felt like every year in Lawrence she was being asked to take on more and more while her pay lagged behind — requiring her to work a part-time job at FedEx to supplement her income for the past two years. She said that at Blue Valley she would receive more pay for a reduced workload, prepping only four lessons plans per day instead of the six she was doing at Free State.

Still, it was a difficult choice for Erpelding, one that continued to call up strong emotions for her about a month after making her decision. She said her job at Free State was her first teaching job, and she thought she would spend her whole career there.

“It’s required a shift inside of me in regards to my beliefs about change and who I am in a lot of ways,” she said, pausing as she tried not to cry. “… It’s been hard. It’s been very hard. I thought this would be me and my job until I was done. I wanted to build a legacy. I wanted to build something that I could be proud of and that my students would be proud to be a part of.”

photo by: contributed

Former Free State Orchestra Director Judy Erpelding is pictured during a performance in this contributed photo.


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