Strings Program – A Response

I would like to be perfectly clear. I want a Madison Metropolitan School District strings program in elementary schools. I have been very clear about this since my first televised board meeting last year, where I exclaimed, “I want a strings program in the budget!” However, with unfunded mandates, revenue caps, additional academic testing requirements and possible annual referendums, it is very hard to continue to make that exclamation.


For the past several months, I have been in contact with many people that have given me insight on the 4th and 5th grade strings program. These people include:
Superintendent Art Rainwater
Assistant Superintendent Jane Belmore
Interim Fine Arts Coordinator Rita Applebaum
MSCR Arts Coordinator Cristine Reid
Retired MSCR Coordinator (and my campaign treasurer) Nan Gilbert Dwyer
Building Principals
Retired Principal Joe Cullen
Jane Peschel, Director of Instruction and Principal Prairie View Elementary in Oregon
Jack Young, Strings Teacher at Randall Elementary School
Rhonda Schilling, Music Teacher at Thoreau Elementary School
Mary Rasmussen, Music and Strings Teacher at Van Hise
Marie Breed, Executive Director of Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras
As well as many parents, teachers and community members.
My proposal of the 4th & 5th grade strings program is a combination of many proposals that were given to board members by the Administration in addition to conversations that I have had with the people listed above. My proposal would look at each individual elementary school schedule and fit the program to meet scheduling and budgetary requirements. For example, in some schools, students could choose between REACH and strings or General Music and strings or lunch and strings. Again, this would be a local school decision made by the local Principal and their staff. At the same time, it is very clear that we have students that are advanced in their talent and should be challenged. This is where a before school or after school program could be developed. This could be funded by community service funds (Fund 80), which are not effected by the state revenue cap. I believe that this is an appropriate way to utilize those funds. It is the community that benefits greatly from the strings programming. In addition, strategic partnerships could be developed with WYSO, MCCCA, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and others to strengthen the program.
My motion will be to direct administration to develop a 4th and 5th grade strings program that satisfies both the budget and scheduling requirements should the operating referendum not pass on May 24th. This program should encompass before school, during school and after school programming. Contents of the program and a presentation should be given to the board by Monday May 23rd.
Finally, I have to say, I take great exception to those who would like to characterize me as a “jock” that cares only about sports and not Fine Arts. Or those who believe my budgetary amendments demean and relegates the strings program to a mere “afterschool program” without as so much as to ask me to explain. These same people don’t even bother to ask the school district personnel who would have to live with the decision, “Can you do it?”
It was 15,683 adults in this community that elected me to serve as a member of the Board of Education with a student population of 24,710 not just 1,866. I was a participant in the 4th and 5th grade strings program at Lindbergh Elementary School. I know the first hand benefits of the program. Also, I played clarinet in the Lincoln Middle school orchestra and I remember the words of the teacher Lonnie Nofzsinger who would say, “Just because you’re playing the loudest note, doesn’t mean your playing the right note!”
If the Madison School Board doesn’t start working together like students in the 4th and 5th grade strings program. There will be silence. And that would be a shame.

  • Ed Blume

    Johnny,
    Thank you for the explanation of your amendment on strings. You’ve obviously done some hard work on it.
    I’m sorry to say, however, that your dedicated work illustrates the frequently expressed concern about the “transparency” of school board operations and decisions, because most of your work apparently did not occur at meetings of the full board or any of the board committees.
    Please be aware. I’m not being critical of you personally since the board’s committees have not often met and the administration makes so many decisions with little input from anyone. You are also one of the most responsive members of the board.
    By contrast to the board’s operating style, I believe that the public wants to know what’s happening as the board works toward solutions to various challenges. The public even wants to be part of the solution.
    Fortunately, you’ll be in a perfect position to work publicly as chair of Finance and Operations in the coming year. You could, for example, invite the public to help the board and administration develop a more logical, timely, and transparent budget process. I’m certain that all of us who post on the blog would be happy to participate along with many, many other people in the community.
    And thank you for posting!
    Ed Blume

  • Lucy Mathiak

    Dear Johnny,
    I believe that your heart is in the right place. However, I am concerned that in the process of “saving” elementary strings, the proposal to move strings to MSCR would have unintended negative consequences. Specifically:
    1) By offering strings during the regular school day, strings become available to all students regardless of income or family circumstance. For the life of me, I can’t imagine how the kids who need free breakfast would participate in a before school program. As for after school, you surely are aware that by 4th and 5th grade many students are responsible for taking care of younger siblings or have other family responsibilities that would make an after school program impractical. If you wanted to have a program for middle and upper class kids, this would be the way to do it.
    2) An MSCR program is not likely to appeal to middle and upper class families, who will be concerned about the quality of instruction. MSCR simply does not have the same training and licensing standards that are required of public school teachers, for starters. Anyone who is likely to be able to manage an after school program also is likely to avail themselves of the highly qualified and talented private instruction available in Madison.
    In short, I think that your efforts to save the 4-5 strings program could inadvertently do far more harm than good.
    Please take a long hard look at the budget now that it is out. Moving legitimate curricular items to Fund 80 is not only illegal. It is a very poor substitute for the decisions that need to be made about how the district uses our resources.
    Thanks,
    Lucy

  • Mary Kay Battaglia

    Mr. Winston,
    I find your solution the best option and an attempt to save a great program. Yes there are problems with every proposal to save a program being cut from the budget but I prefer your option to having my child choose between strings and music. My daughter loves both and cried when I discussed the option of having to choose between the two. I also object to the possibility that middle and high income families would be opposed to MSCR activities. I guess my familiy would fall into the high income level and we have done spanish, baseball, tennis, painting, dancing, soccer, and I am sure other events through MSCR. Keep thinking outside the box and progressively for the programs we love.
    Thanks for you effort and time.

  • Lucy Mathiak

    Mary Kay, are you saying that it would be OK with you if the strings program is structured in a way that makes it much harder for low income kids to participate? For some of us, the ability to reach low income kids is a big reason to fight for keeping the program as part of the regular school day, not something that is easily dismissed under the thought that “there are going to be problems with any proposal.”

  • Donald Pay

    I appreciate the work Mr. Winston has put into this. The problem I have is there is still no assessment of the effect that the proposed cut to elementary strings (or Mr. Winston’s alternatives) would have on the the recruitment of students into strings, and the long-term budgetary implications of a resulting reduction in the economic efficiency of the middle and high school strings programs. The failure to consider impacts of cuts (or alternatives) more than one year down the road is a real problem.
    The afterschool alternative was analyzed when I was on the school board in Rapid City. If I remember the data, we expected a reduction of about 1/2, given transporatation, child care situations, and scheduling of competing activities in that time period. That was enough to affect the economic efficiency of the middle and high school orchestra classes. It didn’t make economic sense, if you calculate out 5-10 years.
    My guess is that an alternative of scheduling a block and allowing students to choose one or two activities in that block would affect strings the least. However, I expect it would be very cumbersome to administer, and reduce the economic efficiency of the other programs.
    Whatever the board does, it needs to engage in some long-term budgeting, rather than just react to the yearly “crisis.”

  • mary battaglia

    I do see the program suffering if it is placed with MSCR or after school. I am looking at the option of losing strings versus saving some form of strings. My neighborhood school, Crestwood, is home to many Allied Drive Students. One solution for some of the low income students would be to offer strings from the Allied Learning Center, the Wexford Community Center, Warner Park Center, as well as the elementary schools. It would not be perfect or the best for every student but it would be a better option than none.
    I am opposed to the music vs strings for two reasons:
    1. I just attended my daughters 4/5 rockin rollin music program presented to the school during the day and the parents that evening. Each child had a special part and the kids loved this event. At Crestwood the music class sings to outgoing 5th graders, incoming kindergarteners, retiring teachers, it is a part of the school and their class.
    2. My daughter loves strings and is taking a summer strings camp, but if she had to choose between missing out on her “class music” and strings I am afraid you would lose so many students that strings would no longer be viable to have at all. She did not want to do strings in the beginning and did not like it until after Christmas and now she plays everyday and takes her violin everywhere………….but if she had to make a choice between the two she would never have found this joy. How many low income students would “Choose” to take a class that cost them $50 versus one that is free?