STONINGTON — Over objections from the public, the Board of Education voted 5-1 Thursday to approve an elementary school music program for 2019-20 that will allow fifth graders the option of instruction on a band instrument. That option, a compromise with opponents, was not part of the initial proposal.
In the approved plan, third-grade students will learn the recorder and continue with it in fourth grade while adding the ukulele. At the end of fourth grade, students will be assessed for a band instrument. Continuing with recorder and ukulele, fifth-graders will learn world percussion and have the option of studying a band instrument during pull-out group lessons during general music class.
The new plan will require either a part-time teaching position paying $19,024, or a part-time position costing $46,000 that includes a full benefit package. When it constructs its 2019-20 budget, the board will choose which position to include.
At board meetings on June 12 and Oct. 12, numerous supporters of the district’s musical education curriculum protested the elimination of fifth-grade instrument lessons, claiming the district’s highly regarded program depends on starting instrumental music lessons early.
The board also held a meeting with all of the district music teachers on Nov. 1 to talk about the structure of the elementary school program.
At Thursday’s meetings, residents also protested the exclusion of vocal training and chorus from the fifth-grade plan, which have been strong programs in the middle schools.
The new plan coincides with the consolidation of the town’s two middle schools in 2019-20 that will save the town approximately $800,000. Some residents asserted that taxpayers had been promised that the consolidation would bring improved and expanded educational opportunities, but were receiving truncated programs instead.
Heidi Farrier, of Stonington, said she had spent 2½ hours at previous meetings listening to parents and students who asked the board to preserve the district’s previous music program, which required fifth graders to choose between band and chorus.
“It’s like you didn’t hear what was said at the last meeting,” she said. “It doesn’t sound like it had an impact. I was really upset to hear that as we go on, our program becomes more mediocre academically. I’m so worried about where this is all going.”
Christina Fullerton, of Stonington, said the new program cut fifth graders’ music time in half compared with the current year. She also wanted to see instrumental instruction introduced in fourth grade and vocal instruction introduced in both fourth and fifth grade.
Rob Marseglia, who chairs the K-5 Building Committee, said the two new elementary schools were designed to have adequate space for band and choral instruction.
“We invested money in [those] building[s] for that reason, to do otherwise undermines what taxpayers paid for,” he said. “To not offer that equality of band and chorus is going against the philosophy of where the town is headed and I’m worried about that.”
After the public commentary, board member Jack Morehouse made a motion to split fifth grade into mandatory band and chorus, rather than general music and optional band instruction.
“I want our kids to get the best and it’s not going to cost us any more money,” he said, adding that his proposal was in response to middle school choral teacher Ellen Gilbert’s objection at the Nov. 1 meeting that chorus was being overlooked.
However, the other board members were in favor of sticking with the plan, which they said been put together by teachers’ recommendations.
Board member Craig Esposito said he was “reluctant to overrule teachers’ recommendations and their judgment and expertise.” He also said he thought there was “more to music than simply performance,” referring to band or choral instruction.
“We want a program that offers something for everyone and it’s an improvement over what we have,” he said. “My understanding is chorus is incorporated in general music.”
Board member Candace Anderson said she didn’t want to override a program put forth by the administration and teachers.
She also objected to the accusatory tone of the public’s comments, which she said was divisive to the community.
“I’m so tired of hearing comments that we’re mediocre. It’s insulting to everyone who has put time and effort into this,” she said. “We sit here because we care about every student in the district. I hope the damage done by some the dialogue can be repaired.”
West Vine Street Principal Alicia Dawe said that although both elementary music teachers are certified to teach band and chorus, both she and Deans Mill Principal Jen McCurdy did not support Morehouse’s proposal.
“This program provides more well-rounded experiences and exposure to music,” she said.
With Morehouse as the sole opposing vote, the board approved the plan as written.