Pequannock Schools Win NAMM Music Award, Axe Orchestra Program

English: Executioner in Peter & Paul Fortress ...
By Christopher Lotito

On March 18th 2013, Pequannock Township Schools were honored to be named one of the NAMM Foundation's Best Communities for Music Education.  Therefore, residents were understandably a little confused when it was announced around March 25, just a week later, that the Pequannock Township Board of Education would be cutting the Orchestra program, including all students who have participated since 5th grade, in the Fall 2013 school year.

From the NAMM Foundation website: "The Best Communities designation recognizes collaborative, from-the-ground-up efforts of teachers, administrators, students and parents who continually work to keep comprehensive music education as an integral part of the core curriculum."  -- Sounds great right?  So how did Board of Education members vote to cut Orchestra (by name even) in the 2013-2014 budget PDF?

In a recent email to Pequannock News, Superintendent Victor Hayek stated the following, "Student interest in both Latin and Orchestra has been trending downward...We have to make difficult decisions regarding which programs we can offer that will benefit the maximum number of students."  Here, Hayek states that enrollment is the problem, certainly not a surprise if true, since the Pequannock Board of Education considered cutting an elementary school for lack of students in 2011.

What is a surprise; on April 16th the Pequannock Board of Education will request additional taxes for the expansion of Stephen J. Gerace School, one of the same facilities considered for closure in 2011.  The Board is also considering a new driveway to accommodate increased traffic from North Boulevard Elementary opening out onto residential West End Ave.  It is unclear to many residents why additional taxes are needed for construction with reduced enrollment numbers and the cost-saving firing of a number of full-time faculty.

Superintendent Hayek is certainly no stranger to playing "axe-man" when it comes to school budgets.  As Business Director for the North Caldwell school system, Hayek played a part in cutting the district's entire Spanish Program (replacing faculty positions with Spanish learning software).  Commenting on those cuts, Hayek stated, "The board was forced to make changes that they didn't want to, but we had to. We were able to stay within our goals, keep all of our programs and maintain our class sizes."  Unfortunately, it does not appear that Pequannock schools will be able to keep all of its programs if the Board of Education budget is passed by voters on April 16th.  A request issued by Pequannock News on Thursday March 28th for the enrollment figures for Latin and Orchestra has received no response (Latin, too, is on the chopping block).  There is no word on whether Pequannock's Latin faculty might be replaced with Rosetta Stone software, as in Caldwell.

Pequannock Board of Education President Bill Sayre neglected to comment on these topics, suffice to affirm via Facebook that he supported the proposed Board of Education budget and would be voting in favor of it on April 16th.  At a recent Board meeting Sayre voted along with other members request a repeal of superintendent salary caps from the State of New Jersey, noting that the firm contracted to locate a superintendent in 2011, when Hayek was hired, had difficulty finding a sufficient number of qualified candidates from a very shallow pool.  Sayre went on to state, "We got lucky under the circumstances, but I think that many other school districts have struggled quite a bit trying to find a good replacement.  I think a lot of these superintendents are going to other states."

While most other Pequannock Board of Education members declined to comment on the situation, veteran Board Member Ken Hardaker provided some helpful insight into the true cost of the April 16th proposed referendums (sic), "Referendum which is a separate issue will cost an additional $41.53 per year on avg. household based on a 15 year bond. That would put the average homeowners share of the gym at $622.95 over the 15 year term."

Pequannock Board of Education Candidate Tom Salerno had the following to say on the topic (sic), " is true that enrollment in these programs have declined...this can be attributed to the inflexibility of the PTHS Block Schedule, not a lack of interest...the administration will be requiring that all PTHS Junior take a mandatory SAT Prep Course. We should be offering more opportunities for the students of our school district, not less!"

In a recent Facebook discussion, Councilwoman Winterfield weighed in (sic), "...taxes have increased 42% since the year 2000...It's time to define wants & needs. Not all the budget [dollar]s are for education.  I'd be happy to sit down & talk about the budget increase impact on the residents of Pequannock who have lost their jobs & are still on unemployment for well over a year, senior citizens on a fixed income who choose between food & medicine, families that visit the food pantry ([the number] has more than doubled since the great recession has hit)..."  (Ed's Note: Pequannock Food Pantry use has actually more than quadrupled since 2003.)

It is unclear at this time if the elimination of Pequannock's Orchestra program, a full 1/3 of the district's music educational offerings, would cause the NAMM award to be rescinded or merely render Pequannock ineligible in the future.  The NAMM Foundation also provides generous funding for students and districts to ensure that music instruction remains a core element of their curriculum.  Receipt of the NAMM Foundation's awards has also lead to further public funding, such as the North Babylon Union Free School District in New York that received $70,000 from the state based upon the reputation afforded by NAMM.  That district noted that this helped prevent the closure of their music program as a result of cuts in state aid benefits.

Since NAMM's district grant applications are by invitation only, it is unlikely Pequannock would receive any future awards or grants after cutting its Orchestra program. 

Christopher Lotito is a member of the Pequannock Historic District and Open Space Commissions as well as the author of  "Torrent," a book about flooding in the region.  Lotito's personal mission is to reduce new taxes, drastically reduce flooding, and preserve more green spaces for our children.  Christopher Lotito Profile

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