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Potsdam school board restores music position

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POTSDAM - As Potsdam Central School District Board of Education members arrived at Monday night’s meeting, they were greeted in the halls by the Pointercounts, an a capella ensemble from the Crane School of Music.

“We came because we heard the Potsdam community was having a hard time getting its arts and music programs funded,” said Mike Rosenberg, who spoke on behalf of the group. “We are all products of a high school music education. Music can take you anywhere.”

While board members did hear the group performing prior to the meeting, they missed Mr. Rosenberg’s message, which came while they were meeting in executive session prior to the start of the regular meeting.

Although the board did not hear from Mr. Rosenberg, they did hear from several students and community members who again expressed concerns over the proposed cut of a half-time music position, a position that the board would later vote to restore leading to a standing ovation.

With nearly 50 students from the department at the meeting, comments were limited to two minutes per person with a 30 minute cap put on the public comment portion of the meeting..

The first to speak was Noah Chichester, who presented the board with a petition signed by 121 high school students.

“We the undersigned, are concerned students who urge the board of education to act now to preserve the excellent music program at Potsdam by reinstating another .5 music position,” the petition read.

“We want you to know this will affect us directly,” he said. “This tells you the amount of people your decision will affect.”

Several other students spoke on the impact music has had in their lives.

“When I entered high school, I didn’t really have an identity,” Shannon Smith said. “At the end of my first vocal lesson, the teacher, Ms. Madeja (Tammara D. Madeja), said, ‘You have a really nice voice. I wish you would sing out a little bit more.’ From then on my life has changed.”

Troy M. O’Brien spoke about how he’s used music to help others, something that wouldn’t have been possible had it not been for the education he’s received at Potsdam.

“I’m the guy, who pretty much single handily, with help from a few other people, organized a benefit concert for Garrett Phillips. We raised $1,400, and we did that all through music.”

Another student, Connor Marsh, noted he’s only been enrolled in the Potsdam school district for a week and he’s already felt an impact from the music department.

“I’ve only been going here for a week, so I’m still the new kid,” he said. “I don’t know where I would be though without music.”

Given that he was in the process of moving, he didn’t really have a lot of time to study and rehearse his solo for this year’s NYSSMA (New York State School Music Association) Solo Festival.

“I only had two days to work on it, and I got a 98 (out of 100). I wouldn’t have been able to do that if it wasn’t for Ms. Madeja.”

Emily Wanamaker said band and chorus are “the things I look forward to in school. Any cut would decrease the opportunities I’ve had and the opportunities others will have.”

Ms. Wanamaker’s mother, Tracy ,also spoke at the meeting.

“As you know teenagers don’t come out unless it means something to them,” she said, noting that she reviewed a report in the evening’s board packet that noted the Potsdam Central School District’s music staff was one of the largest in the county.

“Most of those schools don’t have an orchestra,” she said. “We have more elementary sections. Our staff is definitely not as flush as it appears.”

Two Crane students also spoke at the meeting about the importance music has had in their lives.

“Not only have I fallen in love with music, but I’ve fallen in love with Potsdam,” said Brianna Borden, who spoke passionately about what music has meant to her.

“My brother suffers from depression and his happy place is the orchestra room,” she said. “I suffered from an eating disorder in high school, and I tried therapy. That didn’t work. Music was my therapy.”

Victoria Kavitt also addressed the board. “I want to make sure the kids in this school have music,” she said. “Everyone needs their place and without music I wouldn’t of had mine.”

Two other community members, Leo Rava and Theresa Witmer, who is retiring from the departmen.t also spoke.

Mr. Rava noted that with the help of the music department his daughter ,Elaine, who was a shy girl, became a performer.

“She sang Aida and that was one of the proudest moments in my life,” he said, referring to her role in last year’s musical.

Ms. Witmer noted now that her children and stepchildren have graduated from school she looks at Potsdam’s students as her very own family. “These are my kids,” she said.

She then noted that at his past weekend’s solo festival very few perfect scores were handed out, with multiple Potsdam students being among the few to receive those honors.

“They would not have got those without lessons,” Ms. Witmer said. “They need lessons.”

“If I had to trade, and I don’t want to trade, I would trade high school lessons for fourth-grade band in a heart beat, but I don’t want to trade. Please don’t trade.”

The position garnering all of the discussion Monday night was almost restored two weeks ago at a finance committee meeting, but a vote to do so ended in a 4-4 tie and was defeated.

The tie-breaking vote though was present on Monday and James Hubbard let his voice be heard.

“I’m hesitant to cut into certain things and music and the arts are one of them,” he said. “I would really like to see us restore this position.”

He then made a motion to do so, which was seconded by Ralph L. Fuller and unanimously approved by the rest of the board.

Following the vote the more than 60 students and community members in attendance rose to their giving the board a standing ovation.

In order to restore the position, which will cost the district approximately $45,000, Mr. Brady said they would also have to add $24,159 to the budget. He explained they still had $14,780 in bullet aid remaining, plus $6,900 in savings as the result of no longer needing an internal auditor to also put toward the position.

“My recommendation is to, if the board sees fit, to take it from there, rather than add it to the tax levy,” he said referring to the district’s fund balance and reserves.

With money for the music position added into the spending plan, that gives the district a budget of $27,324,782. The budget is a 2.02 percent spending increase from the current year’s plan and carries a tax levy increase of 3.99 percent, a figure that Mr. Brady noted was well below the district 4.75 percent tax cap for the year.

The budget, which is also being funded in part by $1,604,519 in fund balance and reserves, was unanimously approved by the board.

The budget still does cut several positions including a full-time math teacher through attrition, a full-time teacher aide through attrition, a special education teacher through attrition and the reduction of a full-time English teacher to a half-time position. Other cuts include a part-time cashier and cafeteria monitor, as well as $306,503 in BOCES spending that will be saved by offering more services in-house.

Mr. Brady said the budget included $572,000 in staffing and program reductions.

Members of the public will vote on the budget on May 21.

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