Community calls on Marysville schools to save choirs

Members of the Northern Sound Choirs sing in protest outside the Marysville School District Service Center on May 7. - Kirk Boxleitner
Members of the Northern Sound Choirs sing in protest outside the Marysville School District Service Center on May 7.
— image credit: Kirk Boxleitner

MARYSVILLE — The state of music education in Marysville schools inspired impassioned testimony at the Marysville School District's May 7 Board of Directors meeting, with former Marysville-Pilchuck High School choral teacher Stuart Hunt challenging Board members to break their silence in spite of their practice of not commenting on public testimony.

A number of others who had signed up to speak during the meeting donated their time to Hunt so he could continue, including M-PHS band director John Rants and Ryan Drake, vocalist for the Snohomish County band Superfekta, who credited Hunt's choir with helping him get through high school.

"We want the kids going through school today to have the same opportunities we had," Drake said prior to the Board meeting. "I didn't have any interests in school other than choir. I probably would have dropped out without it."

Drake is helping to raise a 4-year-old whom he'd just registered at Allen Creek Elementary earlier in the day, but without a musical outlet for her in school, he's already considering putting her into private school.

Outside of the Marysville School District offices, members of the Northern Sound Choirs expressed their protest in song just before the Board meeting. Jenni Tyner, the local group's president, is an M-P alum who, like group treasurer Mandy Hegr, described herself as disappointed that the Marysville School District would be willing to undertake such cuts to the arts, with Hegr echoing Drake's sentiment that they owe it to the children of today and tomorrow to provide them with the same educational experiences that they themselves benefitted from.

"Choir was one of the defining parts of high school for me, so the idea that it won't be there for these kids like it was for me is heartbreaking," said Tyner, one of more than a dozen members of the Northern Sound Choirs to hold signs outside the MSD Service Center that afternoon.

Inside the Service Center's Board room, Hunt repeatedly pressed Board members to respond to the reductions to school choirs since 2002, back when the school district boasted 21 such choirs. Although Hunt expressed his appreciation to MSD Superintendent Dr. Larry Nyland for working with Hunt to help salvage the district's remaining six choirs "as best we could" in 2005, Hunt condemned the district over reports that it had issued a Reduction In Force to Marysville Getchell High School's remaining choir teacher. Hunt sees this as the end of curriculum choir in Marysville schools.

"I'm as angry as a professional is allowed to get," said Hunt, who taught school choir for 42 years before retiring. "The support for feeder programs has vanished. The SLCs first limited, then eliminated access to choir through crossovers."

In a letter emailed to the public earlier that day, MSD Assistant Superintendent Gail Miller explained that the district is not anticipating any cuts in current music staffing at the elementary or middle school levels, but specified that music staffing at the high school level would depend on the number of students who sign up for these elective areas.

"We have continued to offer choir on both the Marysville-Pilchuck campus and the Marysville Getchell campus," Miller wrote before the evening's Board meeting. "Pathways offers choir one period a day during the regular schedule. Marysville Getchell offered two periods of choir within ISC and one opportunity for all on campus after school. All students this year who requested ISC, whether for choir or some other reason, were able to attend ISC. The number of students in band classes in high school has remained fairly stable."

Hunt countered Miller's e-mail by asking the Board whether she was aware of the MG choir director being RIFed that morning, and argued that these reductions in school support for choir have led to the reduced student participation numbers in school choirs that have been used to justify reducing support for them in turn. He then asked those in attendance to consider how well high school sports programs would fare if students started their freshman years with no prior training in their fields, and went on to point out that performance-based arts credits are a curriculum requirement.

"This could be met if students were allowed to cross over or were given a seventh period, neither of which would be an expensive measure," Hunt said. "With four principals and seven secretaries for the SLCs, costing at least $700,000 a year, the money is there."

Hunt twice asked the Board, "What do you have against students learning to sing and work together?" Board Vice President Wendy Fryberg replied the first time by reiterating the Board's practice of not commenting on public testimony, but when she pledged that the district would address the attendees' concerns later on, Hunt claimed that no one had been contacted following their public testimony on cutbacks to school choirs at a Board meeting one year ago.

"It's not intentional," Fryberg said, after Hunt asked the same question a second time. "It's not easy for anybody right now."

"Our job is to educate all our students, to the best of our ability," Board member Cindy Erickson added. "Cuts happen."

"Is it a matter of money?" Hunt asked.

"It's not just money, but money is the cause," Fryberg said. "Our funding priority is in the classrooms."

"If you took one-tenth of the money that's being spent on those four principals and seven secretaries, you could have a choir program at Marysville Getchell," Hunt said.

Fryberg again promised that the district would contact Hunt and the other attendees about their concerns.

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