Money crunch keeping some high school bands at home

Rick Wagner • Oct 9, 2009 at 12:00 AM

Because of a lack of money, Sullivan South High School’s marching band didn’t perform at the game with Volunteer High School at Church Hill Friday night.

South band director Brent Palmer said the band also won’t perform at the Oct. 23 Davy Crockett High School away game. Palmer cited the ongoing recession, which has hurt fund raising and dried up most corporate sponsorships.

However, he said another driving force in the financial shortfall is a new Tennessee Board of Education policy that explicitly says band fees and most other school fees are optional for all parents, regardless of income. The state required public school systems across the state to send out a letter explaining the policy.

“It’s strictly driven by funding,” Palmer said Friday.

“It’s running rampant through the county,” Palmer said. “Even the city band (at Dobyns-Bennett High School) has had an issue with kids and parents not paying the fees.”

Margaret Lester, co-president of the D-B band boosters, confirmed that the band’s fee collections and fund raising are down.

“It’s really the economy more than anything,” Lester said.

But band fees — $275 for the 360-member marching band and $100 for the 250-member competition marching band — also are down.

“We’re down as much as $10,000 in what we normally would be in fee collections,” D-B band director Lafe Cook said Friday, adding that he believes much of the fee downturn was caused by parents in financial straits, unable to pay rather than unwilling.

Band cuts might come in the second semester and next year, but Cook said the city covers transportation costs to ball games. So competition trips, not ball games, would be cut if need be.

The D-B band takes 10 buses to football games and eight buses for the competitive band, which has a competition today — the Tournament of Champions at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C. — and one Oct. 31 — the Contest of Champions in Murfreesboro. Cook said D-B still plans to attend the one in Murfreesboro as long as the fruit and cheese fund-raiser goes well. He said the recent discount card fund-raiser met budget.

From South in Colonial Heights, on the southern edge of Kingsport, Palmer said it cost the South band boosters an average of $400 to $600 for three buses drivers to go to places like D-B in Kingsport, Volunteer in Church Hill or Davy Crockett in Washington County.

In contrast, he said it cost about $1,200 to go to the season opener in Knox County. He said some Knoxville area schools this year did away with all away game travel.

Palmer said South band fees of $215 per student in the 88-member band are down about $2,000. In addition, he said all fund raising is down, including concessions, and corporate sponsorships have gone from five or six to one.

Palmer said he explained the situation to the band boosters Tuesday night and has been on the phone since then answering questions from parents and others about why the band wasn’t supporting the football team.

He said sending a non-marching pep band would require planning and setup and incur the expense of a bus.

“I’m not sure that would be a good use of our resources,” Palmer said.

Parents already have asked about providing students with transportation, but Palmer said that would open up the school system to liability in case of accidents.

“I’ve been on the phone for three days straight with people wondering why we aren’t supporting the football team,” Palmer said.

“We want to support our football team,” Palmer added. “It’s not a good reflection on our county and our school system.”

The South band will go to a competition next weekend at D-B and one Oct. 31 in Wise, Va.

Chris Smithson, band director at Sullivan Central, said the Central band still plans to make all the away games, but like South it does so strictly on the fees and fund raising of the band boosters.

The four county high schools receive $3,800 a year from the county school system — $3,000 for equipment and instruments and $800 for music.

Smithson said the 74-member band once took three buses to games and competitions but this year is taking two. In years past, it also used to send smaller, non-marching pep bands to some away games.

“We did that a couple of times last year and the year before,” Smithson said of trips to Unicoi and Johnson counties.

Brian Hodge, director at Sullivan North, and Joshua Light, director at Volunteer, could not be reached for comment Friday.

The state BOE this year required all systems to send parents a letter informing them of a February 2009 policy clarification that all parents can request and receive a fee waiver, not just those whose students are eligible for free or reduced-price breakfast and lunch.

The policy, based on the state constitution’s guarantee of a free and equal public education, applies to fees for any activity during the school day, any activity that is part of a student’s grade, and any trips taken during the school day or overnight trips taken during the school year.

Sullivan County Director of Schools Jack Barnes and Assistant Director Gene Johnson said some elementary schools are collecting almost no fees.

“It’s a combination of the economy along with the letter the state asked us to send out to clarify things,” Barnes said, although he added the system always has told parents who ask that most fees were not mandatory.

He said one high school is already looking at doing virtual dissections in biology class to save money.

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