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Pitch to remove third-grade orchestra at North Allegheny falls flat

Tony LaRussa
| Friday, April 21, 2017, 10:21 a.m.
Dueling fiddles: This pair of violins will be part of the Back Door Antiques store liquidation sale during BHD’s online auction, March 27 to April 3.
BHD Auctions
Dueling fiddles: This pair of violins will be part of the Back Door Antiques store liquidation sale during BHD’s online auction, March 27 to April 3.

Three weeks ago, the North Allegheny School District was awarded a “Best Communities for Music Education” designation for the 11th consecutive year.

Last week, the district's administration told the school board it should consider delaying the start of orchestra classes from third grade to fourth grade to save money.

The proposal hit a sour note for scores of parents opposed to the idea.

And it appears the proposal's last stanza has been played.

The board is seeking to plug a nearly $3.8 million hole in N.A.'s 2017-18 budget. Cutting third-grade orchestra would chip about $115,000 from the projected shortfall.

Delaying orchestra was among more than a dozen administration recommendations.

But the prospect of altering the district's highly regarded music program resonated most with parents.

The district received 43 letters opposing the change and several dozen people attended last week's agenda meeting. A dozen made impassioned pleas to spare the third-grade strings program.

“The change proposed threatens the level of excellence that our music department has worked so hard to achieve,” said parent Katie Roden, referring to the recent “Best Communities” designation. “This is only one of many awards that the music department has received that are in jeopardy.”

Several parents cited studies that show the benefits of early music education, including Alison Fugito, a violinist with the Pittsburgh Symphony,

“The earlier you start string instrument instruction, the better the outcome,” Fugito said, adding that the “optimal time” to begin instruction on stringed instruments is between ages seven and nine. “My husband and I moved to NA because we wanted our tax dollars to support the highest quality music program,” she said.

Superintendent Robert Scherrer said the board discussed the change last year, but passed on it because it likely would've required furloughing a music teacher ... “something we wanted to avoid.”

He said there is no effort underway to diminish the quality of the district's programs. Rather, the issue emerged again during this year's budget discussions because retirements in the music department eliminated the need for furloughs, he said.

The $115,000 savings represents the cost for salary and benefits for staff needed to continue offering the strings program in third grade.

Following the litany of reasons parents provided for continuing the class, board members indicated they intend to leave the program intact.

“I agree with every comment that was made,” said board member Tara Fisher. “I am opposed to cuts to third-grade orchestra. I think the benefits we are receiving as a district ... are immeasurable. I don't think the $115,000 in any way could be justified when we know we have a thriving program.”

The board is scheduled to vote on the measure at its April 26 meeting.

Tony LaRussa is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 724-772-6368 or tlarussa@tribweb.com.

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