For much of the late spring and summer, Auburn Enlarged City School District Board of Education members have heard from parents, students and staff expressing their concerns about planned reductions in the number of music and art classes at elementary schools.
The steady stream of district residents coming to the board's regular meetings to express their opinions has been an unusual sight for this board in recent years. But with the start of the next school year roughly a month away and district administration holding firm to its plans, time may be running out for any type of reversal.
The plan, which became clear to the public after the 2017-18 budget vote in May, is to have kindergarten through sixth grades rotate through art classes and music classes every six school days, instead of the most recent school year's four-day rotation. Physical education will be rotated through every other day as it has in the past.
Superintendent Jeff Pirozzolo led a discussion on the issue at the board's July 17 meeting, speaking about the district's $3.8 million budget deficit as a main factor behind the changes. He also connected the changes with a new program in which the librarians of each elementary school will teach digital literacy, keyboard work and other skills. This new programming is meant to help the district meet new technology standards from the state Education Department that Pirozzolo said will be taught from 2018 to 2021.
To mitigate the budget deficit, the district cut some positions vacated by retirements in order to save money. Pirozzolo said some of those retirements, such as a music teacher, created an opportunity for the district to implement the new technology program. Pirozzolo said the program also allows the district to give students equal access to use technology in innovative ways.
"By going to a six-day rotation it doesn't cut art and music, it trims it to about 30 visits a year," Pirozzolo said at the meeting. "But what it also opens up is our children being exposed to the new technology requirements and learning those skills, and they will receive 30 of those class sessions."
Pirozzolo said the ways the district will meet these new state requirements are still being developed. The Auburn Education Foundation donated $25,000 to install "innovation labs" in each elementary school, Pirozzolo said.
At the July 17 meeting, nine community members spoke for a maximum of three minutes during the public comments section after Pirozzolo talked about the technology plans. The board approved a motion, on board member Ian Phillips' suggestion, to forgo the traditional 15 minutes allotted for public comments in order for every community member who attended to have a chance to speak if they wished. Every board member but Fred Cornelius and board President Kathleen Rhodes approved the motion.
Cornelius said he couldn't remember a single time in his years with the board that the 15 minutes had been abolished. He also said that since the budget was passed in May, grant money had been allocated, people were laid off and schedules were being developed, so he believed the district was too far along in the process for the rotation to be changed and that 100 people coming up to speak wouldn't alter those situations. Several community members said during their comments that they were disappointed by Cornelius' words.
In an interview days after the meeting, Cornelius said he doesn't like art and music classes being cut but doesn't think the district can secure funds in time to restore the old rotation.
"I hope the superintendent is right that we're going to get a lot out of the technology program, and I have no reason to not think he's correct on that," Cornelius said.
At the July 17 meeting's public comments, community member and former longtime Syracuse educator Susan Phillips-Coe said that while the Auburn district had originally said a music teacher position would be among the positions cut if the district's budget was approved in May — which she said she voted for — she believes that position loss later turned into a much larger loss of music and art instruction for elementary students.
Phillips-Coe also had concerns that some elementary schools would have art and music teachers based in other schools coming in to teach, while other schools would retain their teachers. She also asked if "stakeholders" were involved when the six-day rotation plan was being developed.
"I realize we have serious financial problems in our district, but to make these cuts in a way that is unfair and without taxpayer knowledge is concerning," Phillips-Coe said. "I urge you to keep what's best for our kids in the forefront and look at ways to restore these positions and get stakeholder and community input before making further cuts."
Lucien Lombardo argued that integrating the arts into education helps develop children's brains and helps them with problem solving.
"I believe what we've learned in the last 25 years about the arts, learning and brain development in young children should make everyone think very hard about how we can integrate arts into all types of education," Lombardo said.
Katie McIntyre said one of her sons learned to read this year and that she is worried that traditional library time, which she believes has played a large part in his progress, will be negatively impacted through the new rotation.
"I am just concerned as a parent that we're losing the chance for students to talk with librarians, have a human connection," McIntyre said. "I'm all for technology, but I, like a lot of parents, need to limit technology for my kids, and I'm afraid that adding more technology and taking away the time to learn, to research and to connect literacy and reading skills is going to be detrimental for our kids."
The board held a special meeting on July 31 to discuss and vote on matters unrelated to the curriculum changes. At that session, two more residents expressed their concerns about the art and music cuts during the public comment portion of that session, but the board did not discuss the issue.
In an interview shortly after the July 17 meeting, Rhodes said she believes the incoming technology programs will not be completely taking away from music and arts education but can give students opportunities to explore those subjects, using graphic arts and digital audio programs as examples. She said she does not believe students will receive a "a watered-down program" through the new rotation.
She said the programming will give students equal access to learning about coding, as she said some of the librarians haven't been doing coding.
Rhodes said she does not anticipate the board changing course on the curriculum changes.
Phillips, though, would like to take a harder look at the issue. In an emailed response a Citizen inquiry after the July 17 meeting, he said he wants the possibility of altering the curriculum changes to be brought up at the board's next regular meeting Aug. 21.
"The proposed reduction of art, music, and collaborative library time is due to continued state underfunding of our schools. I believe that the public has spoken in that they do not want these cuts to go through, and I think we should look into every avenue in order to restore these positions," Phillips said.
"I am hopeful that our staff can find a way to bring back the art and music time that our parents expect and our students deserve," he said.