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Revered for its top-notch programs, music is on the Unit 5 chopping block (again)

A small group of high schoolers dressed in black smile and play instruments. In the background, parents file into an auditorium
Michele Steinbacher
The Unit 5 Chamber Winds plays for attendees at a March 16 school board meeting. Without more funding, opportunities for young musicians are at risk.

Music is among the programs that will face cuts next fall if the Unit 5 funding referendum fails to pass a second time. The question will again appear on the ballot April 4.

Unit 5 approved a plan to begin attacking its $12 million budget shortfall, including a list of sweeping cuts aimed at reducing expenses. Among the cuts: eliminating fifth-grade band and orchestra. Students would thus start learning instruments beginning in sixth grade.

The Unit 5 school board has threatened future reductions to music in grades six through 12, beginning in the 2024-25 school year. The district has not yet indicated what those further cuts may specifically entail.

“It’s not fair that kids are being punished when they didn’t do anything wrong,” said Grove Elementary School fourth-grader Aleksia Kinsey at a March 16 school board meeting. “I was really excited about being able to be in band. But if I lost that opportunity, my dreams would be crushed, along with many others.”

Unit 5 parent Abby Scott says her 19-year-old “found their connection to the world through music, beginning with fifth grade band.”

“If you’ve not been to one of these elementary music concerts, it is just a swell of pride and joy and love supporting our kids in our community and it would be an absolute shame to lose those,” Scott said.

Normal Community High School senior Grace Morris is an honor roll student and plans to study music education at Illinois State University next year. She also helps instruct in the fifth grade band program.

“I’ve attempted to learn with an extreme fear of failure that has now been transformed into a passion for excellence and success. And I want others to experience that,” she said.

The earlier, the better

Music educators say that starting an instrument early is critical to long-term success.

Cindy Silver is a professional flutist and mom to three string players. She also teaches private lessons in Peoria and served on the board of the Central Illinois Youth Symphony for more than 15 years.

“If you start a kid on a stringed instrument in fourth grade, they have a hard time achieving the level of expertise that would be expected for them to do things like all-state level playing,” she said.

“It’s more difficult to learn how to play the violin than it is even to play a band instrument. There are more mechanics involved. So, the younger they start, the more likely they are to be able to be quite skilled.”

Silver said she’s noticed kids who already struggle by starting an instrument in fifth grade.

“I would imagine if you cut it back further than that, it’s going to be very, very difficult,” she said.

Unit 5 is known for music

Patrick Mainieri, whose family lives in Unit 5, sits on a national committee for music education advocacy called Music for All and is a former band director and school administrator. He is also the Yes for Unit 5 spokesperson.

“Unit 5 is in a spot right now that they’ve been running a fifth-grade music program since the ‘80s. That’s something to really be proud of.” He said cutting the elementary level will “absolutely affect the reputation of the district.”

A man wearing a work apron smiles at the camera. He stands in front of a wall of tools, the center of which contains a bowling pin.
Lauren Warnecke
Travis Thacker is a Unit 5 parent and co-owner of Carl's Pro Band, which services instruments for the district.

Travis Thacker is the co-owner of Carl’s Pro Band, a family business operating in Bloomington since 1994. He’s also the parent of a Unit 5 fourth-grader. Thacker and Mainieri both said families choose to move into Unit 5 territory because it’s known for high quality music education.

“I feel like it’s going to be devastating for the local program,” Thacker said.

Mainieri said, “I’ve worked with districts all over central Illinois, and Unit 5 is known for excellence in what they’re doing. It’s important to remember that the Unit 5 marching band placed second in the state regardless of school size this year.”

Unit 5 is also the district that produced "American Idol" finalist Leah Marlene, a Normal West graduate. Marlene has encouraged voters to pass the referendum, citing the tremendous opportunities in extracurricular programs.

Not the first time

Despite these accomplishments, music has been on Unit 5’s chopping block before. At one time, schools had a grade four band and orchestra program; that was cut more than a decade ago.

Fifth grade band and orchestra escaped a planned cut in March 2022 as part of a sweeping $2.1 million plan to curb expenses. During a school board meeting that month, music advocates spoke during an hours-long public forum urging officials to reconsider. And the school board listened. Thacker spoke at that March 9 meeting.

“We were there until two in the morning that night,” he said. “I don’t think – if that show of support was not there, [music] would have already been cut.”

For Thacker, the stakes are especially high. Carl’s Pro Band services Unit 5 instruments and operates a rental program. He estimates that the proposed cuts would directly zap at least 10% of his revenue, but the ripple effect would touch nearly every aspect of his business.

“The music industry is not a super profitable industry, especially as a small, brick and mortar, mom and pop shop like us,” he said. “We survive based on having a lot of facets going all the time. If one or two of those ceases to operate, then that has a major effect.”

What’s at stake

The move to cut fifth grade band and orchestra eliminates two teaching positions, saving the district more than $100,000 a year.

Private music instructor Cindy Silver endured numerous cuts to music while her kids attended Peoria public schools. She also worked as a substitute teacher covering a revolving door of vacancies in the district.

Silver said teacher quality and retention quickly devolved as cuts were made. Teachers were expected to serve multiple schools or teach instruments in which they did not specialize. As a sub, Silver, a flutist, found herself heading up the string program at one school.

“[Teachers] would burn out and move on to not teaching or teaching in another district,” she said.

Children wanting to start earlier could pay for private lessons or join a youth symphony or band. But this widens the gap for families without the means to support expensive extracurriculars outside the school setting. Patrick Mainieri charges $25 for a half-hour trumpet lesson. Specialty instruments like bassoon or double bass often cost more.

School board candidates opposed to the referendum have proposed e-learning initiatives to close the funding gap. Another solution? Contracting a third-party vendor to administer music programs during after school hours. Mainieri said he’s experienced this firsthand.

“I have been in school districts that have not passed a referendum and had to keep the cuts,” he said. “Those school districts made the choice to essentially rent their facilities out to for profit organizations to host the same programming. When we do that, that eliminates opportunities of access based on finances.”

Peoria schools are beginning to recover from their broad cuts to in-school music programs. In February, the Peoria teacher’s union laid out a five-year plan called Kids Play in Peoria, which aims to put one full-time music teacher in each K-4 building, and restores full-time directors in band, orchestra and choir at the high school level.

Silver said that Peoria District 150 used to be competitive with Unit 5. Less then 10 years later, the differences are stark.

“[Unit 5] has some really great programs happening in a way that Peoria does not at the time,” she said. She’s noticed the difference in how students perform at statewide competitions, and in the sheer number of students engaging with music at all.

“Right now, I don’t have any District 150 private students,” she said. “They’re all from surrounding school districts.”

Thacker maintains a glimmer of hope for music in that other programs, like sports, are on the chopping block, too.

“Involving other extra-curriculars and making a more widespread cut to programs—I don’t know if fair is the right word,” he said. “Everybody is going to feel this. I guess it’s a little more fair that it’s not targeting one area like music. But it’s still sad, nonetheless.”

WGLT correspondent Michele Steinbacher contributed.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.