Havre Daily News
With two music teachers resigning and another in the hospital, the Havre music program has gone from an exclamation point to a question mark.
Longtime music teachers Frank Payn and Ron Coons are both retiring at the end of the school year, while Havre Middle School choir director Darla Cook is recovering from a stroke. Friends and colleagues say it's too early to discuss the possibility of her returning to teaching soon.
The three have been at Havre Public Schools for a combined length of about 70 years. They, along with HMS band director Dave Carlson, have led Havre students in band and choir competitions that have brought numerous awards and honors to the schools and the students. Parents of current and former students, as well as the teachers themselves, have said the band accomplishments are significant because Havre does not have private music teachers for most band instruments.
In his letter of resignation, Payn, choir director at Havre High School, said he has several concerns about the future of music in Havre. Those ranged from specifics, such as a need for at least a part-time pianist to accompany singers, to what he worries is a general erosion of administration and community support for music at the schools.
Payn said practice time for the extracurricular choirs he directs has been cut in half over the years. Belle Voix and Hi-Liters used to rehearse three to four hours a week. Now they rehearse one to two hours, "if I'm lucky," Payn wrote.
One factor is an increase in the number of other extracurricular activities, band director Coons said. Both Coons and Payn said students will miss a music practice over missing a sports practice. Belle Voix almost dissolved this year because of that, Payn said. As it was, poor attendance and limited time meant the school's premier singing group only prepared one song for the District 7 Music Festival. It normally prepares more than that, Payn said.
Both teachers see a preference given by administrators, and sometimes students, to sports.
HHS principal Jim Donovan said the administration tries to reach a balance by scheduling music events ahead of time and publicizing them so that they get the attention and support they deserve.
But Coons said sometimes the disparity was overwhelming.
"I used to sit out on the marching band field with 120 kids and look over at the football field and they had 60 kids and six coaches and I had 120 and me," Coons said.
"I don't want to see it as a competition between the two," he said. "That's adults competing to have their kingdoms. What needs to be done is what's best for the kids."
Some local music students feel that's not being done.
Sophomore Jordan Toner said it was a struggle to set a schedule so she could take both band and choir and that involved several rounds of calculating credits to be sure it was possible.
"I think we're slowly losing support from the community," said former student Katie'B Jarvis, soon to be a sophomore in college.
Payn knows it's a sign of the times. More required classes are being added, at the expense of electives. And Coons calls President Bush's sweeping education initiative, No Child Left Behind, the "No Child Gets Ahead Act."
"That's something we were really cognizant of in the front end with No Child Left Behind," Donovan said. "It's not just music. ... There's a lot of other things we do here, from the business classes to the shop classes to the art classes. We talked about keeping the balance and not going overboard. A lot of other things are important too."
Coons, known as a teacher who always sets the highest standards, said it should be possible for students to do it all. He pointed to past students who have gone on to play sports with the University of Montana or Montana State University who were also active in band and choir in school.
Micromanagement from the administration is another problem, Payn said. He said he's been criticized for having a messy classroom. With 60 students and 60 musical instruments, it's expected and should be OK, he said.
"If I spend my energy cleaning the room, where do I find energy for the kids?" he asked. "They just need to let their teachers do their job the way they know to do it best."
The administration has heard from 10 people interested in applying for the positions, assistant superintendent Dennis Parman said.
"Havre's like any community. You've got really talented kids and not talented kids. It depends on who's directing them," Payn said. "It's not because of some genetic anomaly that" Havre students do so well. "We didn't just fall off the truck," he said of himself and Coons.
Parman acknowledges that hiring new teachers will be a difficult task. "We're hopeful to fill it with highly qualified, energetic and enthusiastic people," he said. "We're crossing our fingers and hoping for the best. And the community has an expectation and we continue to foster the expectation that we have a strong music program."
Superintendent Kirk Miller was not available for comment this week.
Former student Joel Benson said he thinks Payn and Coons have set a sturdy foundation for the next few years. "I'm not really worried because they've given such a strong base for the freshmen, sophomores and juniors that are going to be moving up next year," he said.
But, he added, "You can never replace two people who work so hard."
As for the task of continuing to support music, it's a balancing act involving both money and different people's perspectives, said school board member Joe Marino.
Money is short, he said. "All programs suffer and music is one that is suffering more," he added. "It's in a tough spot right now ... Listening to the instructors and the people on the line is a good idea, but they don't always have the whole story like the administrators do."