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Bringing music back to the schools

When Bach, Beethoven and Ellington were expelled from the halls of the San Dieguito School District and its five elementary feeder school districts several years ago, even the prestigious Torrey Pines High School was left without a marching band, music-theory courses, choirs or an orchestra. Music was proclaimed extraneous for the area's 25,000 students. Superintendent Bill Barrier recently explained on the KPBS radio show "These Days" that lack of community support, budget restrictions and the absence of elementary music programs to produce enough young musicians doomed a comprehensive school music program in his district. Parents would simply have to foot the bill if music is to return to the area's junior and senior high schools. Yet, many San Diego County school districts, like San Diego Unified, Grossmont, Poway and Oceanside, have or are building exemplary music programs in their elementary and high schools while presumably living under a similar funding squeeze. For example, the Sweetwater School District, although plagued with leaky roofs and struggling with a multilingual student body, boasts impressive bands, vocal programs and music-appreciation classes. Educators in those districts were already coming around to the notion that students busy comprehending Mozart and Gershwin don't have the time or the inclination to get in trouble when a well-publicized new UC Irvine study released recently demonstrated that piano lessons for young children significantly increases performance on tests of spatial and abstract reasoning, greatly outpacing computer exposure or regular school activities. Yet, in many schools, music programs can't compete with the thirst for computer collection. Most educators don't enjoy making Solomon-like decisions about which core-curriculum subjects to cut. No one thought that feeding poor kids or providing counseling would mean cutting music education, foreign languages or dramatic arts. But administrators are even less enthusiastic about examining new organizational options that might curtail administrative expenses and allow arts programs to return. The recently released Girard Foundation study that suggested many districts spend over half of every educational dollar on administration brought furious criticisms from the education establishment, but little interest in the kind of structural self-examination that bloated corporations had to undertake early this decade. When core curriculum has to be sacrificed, revising the educational organizational chart is in order. The San Dieguito area is home to arguably the most wasteful school organizational structure in the county. Five separate, contiguous, elementary school districts feed into the San Dieguito Union High School district. Count six, six-figure superintendents, support staff, offices, supplies and equipment serving about 25,000 students. By contrast, San Diego Unified serves over 130,000 students. Two of the five San Dieguito districts educate under a thousand kids apiece, yet each maintains a superintendent and a principal. Before the cozy fiefdoms of Solana Beach, Del Mar, Rancho Santa Fe, Cardiff and Encinitas circle their wagons, they might consider the advantages of unifying their five school districts with the San Dieguito High School District: --Continuity of curriculum from kindergarten through 12th grade. Visionary programs from technology to the performing arts depend on giving children an early start and providing a consistent and reliable path through the 12th grade to develop interest, talent and ability. --Greater buying power. Economies of size dictate that supplies, textbooks and equipment cost less. --One chief is cheaper. Eliminating the salary and benefit costs of five superintendents, consolidating offices and support staff and reducing duplicative equipment is simply more efficient and economical. --Larger districts operate under wider public scrutiny. Most people know that Bertha Pendleton heads San Diego Unified, while the head honchos in Cardiff or Rancho Santa Fe operate in cloistered obscurity. --Bigger bang for the bond buck. A larger tax base means bigger bond issues and better rates. The larger the tax base, the more attractive the issue is to investors. It will certainly be argued that parents feel greater control with smaller districts. But parental control may prove illusory as program after program disappears because of limited resources. Put another way, it doesn't matter how many meetings you can have with an administrator if the answer remains, "no money." A new foundation called F.A.M.E (Foundation for the Advancement of Music Education) hopes to raise funds to help return music to San Dieguito's public schools. Their goal cannot be accomplished without drastic changes in the funding proclivities and cultural tastes of six superintendents and six separate boards of education. That daunting task alone should make the case for district unification.

ROSS is a writer and member of the Carmel Valley Planning Board.

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