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Derry music students, parents urge district to replace retiring choral teacher | TribLIVE.com
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Derry music students, parents urge district to replace retiring choral teacher

Jeff Himler
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Jeff Himler | Tribune-Review
Cathi Gerhard, a Derry Area High School alumna and adjunct English professor at Penn State’s New Kensington campus, speaks out at the school board’s May 9, 2019, meeting against the district’s plan to eliminate a music position through attrition.

Derry Area School Board members are considering raising taxes by 2.8 mills in the district’s pending 2019-20 budget, but not for money to replace two retiring music and English teachers or to fill a part-time art position.

Eight music students and a few adults voiced their opposition at Thursday’s school board meeting, asking members to reconsider and hire a replacement for choral instructor Melody Vigo, who soon will depart after 34 years with the district.

An online petition posted by Derry Area junior Isaac Kott has collected more than 1,100 signatures supporting his call to “protect the future of Derry’s music department.”

Kott, who has participated in several school bands for the past seven years, noted Derry Area’s music department has dwindled. Following Vigo’s retirement, it will have four and a half teaching positions.

“Our recent solution has been to make less teachers do more,” he said. “The department is getting stretched thinner and thinner. Our program is on a downward spiral and nobody seems to be doing anything about it.”

Superintendent Eric Curry said staff reduction — through attrition, as employees have retired — is one way the district has coped with state funding levels that haven’t kept up with increasing local costs.

“We’re down 25 teachers in nine years,” he said. “That is a response to trying to maintain a balanced budget. Albeit not the perfect solution, it at least does not eliminate a position from a person who is struggling to take care of their family and themselves.”

Next school year, the district will retain all music courses and programs being offered this year — except for women’s choir, which will be absorbed into the regular choral program, Curry said. He acknowledged there will be an increase in class sizes, indicating there already may be as many as 26 students in one room.

“We’re not happy about where we’re at,” he said.

Greg Ferencak, director of secondary education, noted the district is looking to add a high school music theory class, based on student requests.

Junior music student Addy Hildebrand suggested it would be “nearly impossible” for students to schedule the music courses they should have with fewer instructors available.

If Derry Area has a less effective music program, it will be less able to attract new families and students, she said, adding, “A major reason why I’m not homeschooled is because of this program.”

Parents expressed concern about how the music department will operate with less faculty.

“They have less time and energy to give to students,” said Carrie Oshie.

“They get overburdened, they get burned out faster,” said Amy McChesney. “It’s not fair to anybody. It does a disservice to the children and to the educators.”

Cathi Gerhard, a 1987 Derry Area alumna and adjunct English professor at Penn State’s New Kensington campus, agreed. “To maintain the same number of programs with fewer educators is not an acceptable solution to the situation,” she said.

Gerhard talked about music’s ability to reduce stress and symptoms of depression while boosting learning and cognitive and motor skills. She said playing the guitar has provided her son a positive outlet as he’s struggled with autoimmune conditions.

“Nobody up here is trying to eliminate anything,” said school board member Nathan Doherty. “We try like hell to save what we can, but when you don’t have the money to support it from the state, it’s very difficult.”

“It’s not easy,” said school board President Dave Krinock. “We will take all the comments to heart.”

“We in this district have been stretched thin because of the budget, but I can tell you in every area where we’ve seen that happen, our teachers have stepped up,” said Kristine Higgs, director of elementary education. “I think we have maintained our quality programs, and I wouldn’t look for anything less from our music department.

“I really feel with what we’ve put together, (students) will be able to fit that program into their schedules.”

Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jeff at 724-836-6622, [email protected] or via Twitter .

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