ARLINGTON -- Brittany Breen was in kindergarten when she fell in love with the cello. Now she has her own and is determined to make a career with it.
"I am planning to stay in orchestra and play the cello for the rest of my life," said the Pope Elementary School fifth-grader, who is taking her first stringed-instrument class.
Her career path may have to take a detour next year.
Facing a potential $35 million reduction in state funding, the Arlington school district is considering wide-ranging and deep budget cuts starting next school year. Among the proposals is eliminating band and orchestra programs in elementary schools, saving about $1 million.
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No decisions have been made -- the Legislature is still working on the state budget -- but Arlington administrators have outlined an initial cut of $15.3 million, mostly by eliminating 390 jobs. Fifth- and sixth-grade orchestra and sixth-grade band classes, which have 2,650 students enrolled, could be cut in a second round of budget tightening.
Band and orchestra boosters worry that the district could be cutting the legs out from under its formidable music program. Arlington high school musicians place at or near the top at state-level competitions almost every year.
Other possible cuts
Budget discussions continued Thursday night at another special board meeting where Deputy Superintendent Marcelo Cavazos announced that the district can save $939,000 by consolidating this year's summer school program. Summer classes will be conducted at only about half as many campuses as last year, generating savings in salaries and utilities that would easily offset a small increase in transportation costs.
"That could even save us a school,"' Trustee John Hibbs said, apparently a nod to the 20 staff members of Kooken Education Center in the audience. The pre-kindergarten, which serves learning disabled and at-risk students, is on the second-round list for possible closure to save $730,000.
Cindy Powell, associate superintendent for finance, also pointed out the Teacher Retirement System's recent announcement that healthcare premiums for teachers on its plans would increase an average of 9.5 percent next year. Coupled with the district's plans to reduce its monthly contribution to those health plans by $25 a month, a typical employee-only plan would increase by $53 per month, or $636 per year.
Many band and orchestra students and parents interviewed this week said they are sympathetic to the district's budget woes and are concerned about all the teachers and other employees who could lose their jobs.
But some parents worry that any cuts in elementary band and orchestra could have long-term effects on high school programs.
"I think all successful band programs start in the fifth and sixth grade," said Janet Tolbert, whose son Turner is a percussionist in the Lamar High School band. "If you don't get the foundation at that point, you really can't be prepared at the level they need to be going in to high school. It's so competitive."
The Arlington, Lamar and Martin high school orchestras annually rank near the top in the Texas Music Educators Honor Orchestra Competition, and Lamar won it in 2005. The Martin band was a finalist in the Honor Band Competition last year.
In 2009, Martin won the National High School Grammy Award for best fine arts program based on audio recordings of the band, choir and orchestra.
The music program is popular among students. More than 7,900 of the district's 63,000 students are in orchestra or band. Fine Arts Director Bill Huff said orchestra accounts for 4,525 of those students, more than half in elementary orchestras.
Jenny McHenry, an orchestra teacher at Pope and Butler elementary schools, said music can reach students who have difficulty learning other subjects.
"All kids can learn music," she said. "That's the beautiful thing about it. I've taught all different types of learners."
For some students, music is good motivation, said Mary Adams, a mother of current and former band and orchestra students.
"If you have something to look forward to in your day," Adams said, "like your band or orchestra class, that might be the reason some kids don't drop out of school."
Robert Cadwallader, 817-390-7641