Bess Zafran, a junior at Albany High School, stood singing in the rain at the entrance of Pine Hills Elementary last Thursday (June 6). In one hand, she held a broken umbrella with rainbow polka dots, and with the other, she snapped her fingers, keeping time for her schoolmates as they sang a traditional Zulu song, “Amavolovolo.” The others sang along energetically, mostly smiling and some laughing, save a couple girls who were fighting back tears. They held umbrellas and signs that read “Don’t take our music” and “Save our music teachers.” When Zafran held out her hands, her classmates followed her motions and held their note. She closed them, and the music stopped.
Many students, parents and other members of the community showed up at the Albany School Board meeting to speak out against the job cuts of two music teachers, Kelly Diehl and Olga Martinez. Forty signed up to speak during the public-comment portion of the meeting.
In May, the district’s budget of $212.9 million passed, which included 60 job cuts and a tax increase of 2.95 percent.
“Our plan for music staffing in 2013-14 calls for a district-wide reduction from 24 teachers to 22 teachers,” Superintendent Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard said in a statement on Sunday. “Whenever we reduce staff, we are contractually obligated to look to the employees with the least seniority in a specific certification area. In this case, our district’s two least-senior music teachers are at Albany High School this year.”
“Unfortunately, I made a tremendous error in how I led the communication about the staffing process, potential implications for people and the net result in impact for learning, in this case, for our music program,” said Vanden Wyngaard in her report at the meeting. “It was not clearly communicated. For that I do apologize and I promise I will do better.”
The superintendent asked the board to consider a full discussion of the issue at the next meeting on June 20 at Thomas O’Brien Academy of Science and Technology.
“Students coming up into Albany High are coming up with such amazing talent, and their talent is just blossoming,” said Martinez, who was given her pink slip on May 31. “And our teachers are going to have to take on my position and Miss Diehl’s position. These kids are not going to have the opportunities that they have right now.”
Martinez said music was not just an outlet for students, but a way for them to make connections to each other. “It’s a beautiful way to support each other.”
Diehl said it was heartwarming to see the students come out in support.
“I think [cutting] music is detrimental . . . especially at the high school level, where social stigmas and popularity is a big, big factor,” said Diehl. “Music doesn’t take that into account, everyone’s on the same playing field and they can walk into it with equal acceptance.”
“The Albany High School music program is like a family, and like a family, every person is necessary for its operation,” said June Criscione, an Albany High senior, to the board. “Music teaches you the process of beginning with nothing, or just a few notes, and building something amazing through hard work and perseverance.” She said that the cuts were “extremely short-sighted,” especially in a budget that added four new administrative positions in the district.
“Music can transform the entire culture of a school and create productive partnerships between the school and the community,” said Bob Hansbrough, who was speaking as a parent, but is also a music professor at the College of St. Rose. “The ever-changing society needs music and the arts, the most powerful tool to bridge cultural differences—and they are essential to an educational system that values diversity.”
The last speaker, a sophomore at Albany High, asked the crowd to observe a moment of silence for the lost jobs. After about 20 seconds, she spoke.
“And that, folks, is the sound you will hear from the halls of Albany High School if they continue making cuts toward the music department.”