The Gulf County School Board on Monday approved a tentative budget but not before getting an earful about what was not in the document.
Several residents of Wewahitchka spoke to board members about the cut to music programs in the Wewahitchka schools for the coming school year, saying it was taking away from “the poorest of the poor” in the school district.
Parents, several student members of the band and several other Wewahitchka residents approached the board and Superintendent of Schools Jim Norton.
They wanted to understand why music was being cut and when it might return, ideas for preserving the program and asking what options remained for parents making financial investments in their child’s musical ambitions.
“These kids are being denied a well-rounded education,” said resident Mary Gould, who said she lives part-time in Wewahitchka but pays school board taxes though not allowed to vote locally.
Norton said he was “committed” to maintaining the Wewahitchka school system.
But due to losses in enrollment – the district is projected to lose another 73-74 students this year, a loss tilted heavily toward the north end – and resulting loss in revenue tough cuts were needed.
And while Wewahitchka Jr./Sr. High School needed to add an English teacher, the circumstances surrounding the music and band programs dictated the district not hire a full-time instructor.
“Right now we want to save the life of that school,” Norton said, noting the tight restrictions the state places on local school boards when it comes to spending funds.
“We had to look at the money and what we could afford. We can’t give what we don’t have.”
Last year the high school had a full-time instructor in music, with six periods a day of music education, but due to health reasons that instructor retired mid-year.
An instructor hired to replace him left the county after the school year.
The district, in working to cut $355,000 from this year’s budget, decided not to fill the position, Norton said.
An instructor already on staff will conduct a limited schedule of music instruction, two to three periods, Norton said, with the possibility of some after-school opportunities.
The district, Norton said, is taking similar steps with the boys’ basketball program at Port St. Joe Jr./Sr. High School.
Derek Kurnitsky, who coached the Tiger Sharks for a decade, left for a program in the Jacksonville area this summer.
The district will not fill his social studies teaching position and will fill the basketball coaching position in-house.
Another significant component of the internal debate over the Wewahitchka band program for district staff, said director of curriculum Melissa Ramsey is that band is not a required course while English is.
“It is a balancing act and it is unfortunate,” Ramsey said.
Also factoring into the equation, said board member George Cox is the number of students interested in band had steadily declined.
There are fewer current members, Cox noted, than in 1962, when the graduating class numbered two dozen.
Student Matthew Hunter said he had ideas for “generating money and interest” in the band program and agreed to sit down to discuss those ideas with Norton and board chair Linda Wood.
“This (cutting music) is not something that we want to do,” Wood said.
Hunter’s mother said other parents of band students were also interested in exploring fundraising options to sustain the program, which she said some parents invested substantially in with holiday gifts of instruments to children.
Six years ago supporters of the Wewahitchka High School wrestling team, with the prospect of the program being eliminated, undertook a similar community effort to save that program.
Norton said that he hopes the student population on the north end would stabilize along with the budget and that he would be committed to bringing back full-time instruction next year.
“Band is not being eliminated,” Norton said. “It is being idled back for a year.”
Gould said she heard from the debate that the district is hamstrung by funding formulas and due to those formulas Wewahitchka schools were becoming progressively poorer in relation to schools on the south end.
“Shame on whoever is making these formulas that they would deny the poorest of the poor a more well-rounded education,” Gould said. “It is about the children.”
(Declining enrollment in the district has been exacerbated, said Deborah Crosby, director of special services who is retiring next month, by eligible students not in public schools. She said there are 73 home-schooled students in the county and 15 students at the Growing Minds Center for Autism. Those students represent $560,000 to the district.
Board member John Wright said he had spoken to several parents of home-schooled students who said their children just didn’t want to get up early in the morning to attend school.
Of note for this issue, Crosby said, is a home-schooled student can participate in district extracurricular activities, such as band).