Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Granite High campus Thursday, Nov. 3, 2011. More than 500 concerned individuals have signed a petition urging the Granite School District to abandon its plans to cut band and orchestra programs in elementary schools. But district officials say no such plans exist.
In an elementary teacher's day, who has 11, 12, 14 subjects to try and teach, getting to general music has not always been a priority. —Linda Mariotti, Granite's assistant superintendent for teaching and learning

SALT LAKE CITY — Six months after a petition circulated to save elementary band and orchestra classes in Granite School District, officials again are faced with rumors that music programs are being eliminated. 

While band and orchestra will remain in one form or another, proposed changes to the program have parents and students worried about losing access to the popular classes, and district music specialists are worried about losing their jobs.

Linda Mariotti, Granite's assistant superintendent for teaching and learning, held a meeting Oct. 12 with the district's 14 music specialists, as well as representatives from the district's human resources department and the Granite Education Association.

Mariotti said she informed the group that the district was having discussions about shifting band and orchestra classes to an extracurricular format to lessen classroom disruption and focus on the wholly separate general music curriculum, which is a required component of the Utah Core.

Currently, students in fifth or sixth grades have the option of participating in band and orchestra classes, in which a music specialist visits a school twice each week and pulls participating students out of class for 45 minutes.

Such music classes are not required by the Utah State Office of Education, Mariotti said. They also create 90 minutes of stagnant class time each week for teachers and often come at the detriment of general music instruction to all students, she said.

"If you leave the classroom for 45 minutes twice a week, you're missing whatever is going on in the classroom," Mariotti said. "In an elementary teacher's day, who has 11, 12, 14 subjects to try and teach, getting to general music has not always been a priority."

Granite District spokesman Ben Horsley said 3,420 of the district's 67,000 students participate in the instrumental music program, or roughly one out of every 20 children.

General music education, on the other hand, is a statewide component of the regular academic day for all students in kindergarten through sixth grade. It is taught by elementary school teachers, not district specialists, and provides basic instruction on musical theory and notation. It also teaches students to play simple instruments such as recorders or ukuleles.

Mariotti said the model the district is considering would be to move band and orchestra to either before or after school — determined at the local level by a school's community council — and extend the time to two 60-minute classes each week. The classes could also potentially be opened up to fourth-grade students, she said.

In that scenario, participating students would receive 30 additional minutes of band or orchestra instruction each week, teachers would have 90 more minutes of effective class time each week, and schools would be able to better focus on the Utah Core general music requirements for all students.

The move would be similar to the format of Canyons School District, where band and orchestra classes are held before or after school at 22 of the district's elementary schools, according to spokesman Jeff Haney.

"The state has provided a curriculum and standards for general music," Mariotti said. "There are not any standards or expectations from the state that we teach instrumental music."

Mariotti also was insistent that the changes were not being made out of financial concerns. Despite several years of drastic budget cuts — including $58 million in the past four years — the school board and administration have insisted on preserving elementary band and orchestra, even though there is no state requirement to do so. 

"We, as a board of education and as a district, value instrumental education," she said. "But it is not part of the core mission of our district or of any district in the state of Utah."

But the changes are not without consequences. Before- or after-school programs place a burden on parents to transport their children to or from school, and the proposed format would effectively eliminate the positions of 14 district music specialists.

Mariotti said the district was aware of how the changes would impact music teachers, and the October meeting was called to let employees know early on that such conversations were taking place.

Soon after the meeting was held, rumors began swirling around the district that elementary music was being eliminated, prompting district officials to post an explanation on Granite's Facebook page.

The Deseret News also received anonymous emails claiming to be from district music specialists, who said they had been told they would lose their jobs at the end of the year.

Mariotti said that because an after-school band class would not require a full-time position, music specialists could potentially find themselves in non-music assignments in the future. But she said no employee would be without work because of the changes, and the district was committed to working individually with specialists to find their best fit.

"We fully intend to help them all transfer to a job they're qualified for," Mariotti said. "I understand the impact it has on 14 people and the change it will have on their daily work, but in a district of 4,000 people, we're trying to do the best for everyone."

Loretta Walker, a Granite District music specialist, said she was present at the Oct. 12 meeting. She said there were a lot of surprised faces when the proposed changes were announced, but she felt the district was making a good faith effort to preserve instrumental instruction in some form and find new positions for displaced educators.

"They are really trying to make it so no one loses their job," Walker said. "They're trying not to put people on the street."

The district faced a similar scenario in May, after a decision to allow greater local control over instrumental music programs drew concerns that elementary music was being eliminated. In that situation, an online petition to save band and orchestra was started by an anonymous poster that eventually gathered more than 500 signatures.

"There are a lot of school districts that don't offer instrumental music programs at all," Horsley said. "Obviously, inherent with any change, there are going to be concerns, and we recognize that."