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Students protest loss of music teacher

Darlene Schroeder, president of Music Matters, center, addresses the Willmar School Board during a meeting Monday at the Willmar Municipal Utilities building. Schroeder was one of a group of speakers who went before school officials to praise the district's music program. The board voted to make nearly $2 million in cuts that included laying off a popular music teacher. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

WILLMAR -- High school music students helped pack the room at the Willmar School Board meeting Monday, hoping to save a favorite teacher from budget cuts.

But after board members voted to make $1.75 million in budget cuts, music teacher Bryan Mara was one of those on the lay-off list.

The budget cuts are needed to adjust the district's $40 million general fund budget to make up for rising costs, declining enrollment and flat funding from the state.

Along with the loss of that full-time music position, in the 2010-11 school year the district will lose one full-time English Language Learner position, four elementary classroom teaching positions, two special education teachers and a half-time music position.

A number of paraprofessionals will lose their jobs, too.

Teaching hours will be reduced in middle school electives and communications/reading.

Hours will also be reduced in senior high Spanish, business, math and family and consumer sciences.

Fees will be increased for athletics and activities. With the higher fees, some of the smaller high school sports programs will become self-supporting. Ticket prices will be increased for events.

Orchestra for fourth-graders and band, choir and orchestra for fifth-graders will be cut next year. Because Mara has less seniority than the other music teachers in the district, he will be laid off, even though he is a senior high teacher.

The senior high music program will not be cut, but the teaching staff will change for next year.

Several students spoke to the board about Mara's importance to the program and his students. He has been instrumental in reviving the high school marching band program and in having a pep band at more events, they said.

"Mr. Mara has made an impact on all of us," said Alex Benson, a senior. Mara did not return a telephone message left for him Monday evening.

Board members told the students who spoke to them that they understood their concerns and appreciated their interest.

"We do this with great pain," Board Chairman Brad Schmidt said before the board voted on a series of motions to make the cuts.

Schmidt said he was a product of the Willmar music program, too. "It pains me, ... but we're doing the best we can here," he added.

The budget cut list approved Monday was the result of long discussions and a series of compromises, Schmidt said.

Unfortunately, things that were taken off the list this year, like all-day, everyday kindergarten, could be on the list in the future, he added, because the state's budget problems are expected to continue.

Board member Dion Warne also addressed the students, reminding them that seniority determines which teachers are laid off. "It's not that the School Board doesn't like Mr. Mara," he said.

"As you get older, students, this is exactly why you need to stay active in government," Warne said, and he urged them to contact their state legislators. "This problem needs to be fixed in St. Paul."

Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard said the state deficit was projected to be about $200,000 smaller than earlier estimates. However, the projected deficit for the next two years is expected to be more than $5 billion and possibly as much as $7 billion.

In addition, federal economic stimulus money will end at the end of next year, and the state will begin the next year still owing schools 27 percent of their 2009-10 funding.

"The state has forced us into the same kind of situation that they're in," he said. "There's no easy way for any of us to get out of it."

A group of area superintendents have been meeting to talk about ways to work together, Kjergaard said. The talks have been going well, but there's no way of knowing yet what they might produce, he added.

After the meeting, Darlene Schroeder, president of the local group Music Matters, said the group is looking into options for helping the district fund music programs. The group donated money to support a part-time music teacher this year.

"I think the response tonight speaks to how passionate the public feels about music in the schools," she said.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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