Band funding hits a sour note
By SUSIE WOODHAMS
Published May 11, 2007
Brandon High School senior Daniel Stevens surveyed the band department's storage room as if he were taking inventory in an old attic.
"That whole top shelf up there, they're just unplayable or really in need of repairs, " he said, pointing to a row of 12 dusty cases holding instruments up to 35 years old.
He pulled down a faded French horn case, opened it and raised his eyebrows.
"Okay, it's broken here, the tuning slide. See how it's all dented?" he said.
But it's still considered repairable, which means a student may still end up using it.
For Stevens, the inequity is puzzling: New and renovated schools typically get fresh band equipment. Old schools have to make do with existing instruments.
Hillsborough High School band director Kim Meider can relate. A school renovation that was completed last year provided her with money to replace most of the dilapidated instruments.
Until then, old sousaphones and taped-up tubas were the best she had. "The first four years I was here, I had the worst equipment in the county, " Meider said. "I would leave for a parade and the first thing I would make sure we had was duct tape, because I knew we'd have to be taping something up."
The disparity in instrument quality between schools concerned Stevens enough that he mentioned it to the School Board earlier this year at an annual forum for students.
Money an issue
The reality, school officials say, is there's only so much money to go around for high school and middle school music programs.
"In a perfect world, absolutely we wish we could outfit everyone with new equipment, " said Ted Hope, the district's middle and secondary music education supervisor. "I go to all the schools and see what their needs are, and when directors say, 'I'm desperate, ' I say, 'Okay, let's see what we can do.'"
Every time a school opens or gets renovated, the district furnishes it with new instruments deemed necessary for a marching band and concert orchestra. The basic instruments are usually the most expensive, such as $4, 000 tubas and $12, 000 percussion sets.
The school rents those instruments to students for $37.45 a year, which goes toward a repair budget. If the school doesn't have the kind of instrument a student wants - usually the smaller, less costly ones - the student buys or rents one from a music store, or hopes that the school's booster club can raise money to provide one. In some cases, high schools borrow from middle schools to fill the void.
"To my knowledge, we've never denied a kid (the chance) to be in band, " Hope said. "We'll do something to get an instrument into his hands."
The cost of repair
The district also gives schools an annual repair budget based on its number of band members, typically $600 to about $1, 000 a year. Those funds are expected to maintain the instruments at least until the school is renovated, when band directors can lobby their principals for new equipment.
During Brandon High's 2004 renovation, the school bought tubas, painted the band rooms and added new shelves. Still, some of the school's instruments are so old that they spend up to two months in the repair shop.
"I have some old instruments in very, very bad shape, so much so that the instrument repair funds won't cover the costs of what it will take to get them repaired, " Brandon band director Christian Koserski said. The booster club, which already provides most of the program's operating budget, covers excess repair costs.
Booster clubs are key
Another disparity for high school bands: The more aggressive the booster club, the more likely a school is to avoid the run-down instrument pit. Gaither High School band director Brian Dell said he spends $3, 000 to $5, 000 a year repairing and maintaining instruments, with only $800 coming from the district. The booster club, which raises about $30, 000 a year working concession stands at Raymond James Stadium, tries to buy at least two new instruments a year.
"The older schools, just because they are old, like Brandon and Hillsborough, doesn't mean they can't achieve something, " Dell said. "It's up to the community and the teacher and getting creative with ways to support the program."
Grants are another way to cover equipment shortcomings. Three area schools have gotten grants from a national foundation, and the Tampa-based Unsinkable Molly Brown Foundation matches every dollar raised for public-school instruments. Still, writing grants and raising money for matching funds takes time, which some communities have more than others.
"The more affluent communities, maybe with only one parent working, they have more opportunities to put money into the programs with more active booster programs, " said Leto High School band director Nicole Conte. "We're in a low-income area. Some of my students can't even pay the rental fee."
Making do with tape
When Conte took the job four years ago, she found most of the 42-year-old program's instruments in almost unusable condition, including taped-up sousaphones and snare drums with buckled frames. School renovation money had already been allocated, and none went to new instruments.
In addition to staging constant fundraisers, Conte pressed the district to replace about $15, 000 to $20, 000 worth of instruments in the past three years with money left from other budgets. She's hoping the district can find funds for new horns by next year.
In the meantime, she leans on parents such as "band dad" Joe Lopez, a self-employed hardwood floor contractor who repairs instruments.
"The only reason our drum equipment is usable is because I take it to my house in the summer, take it apart, restore it and put new heads on it, " said Lopez, whose daughter plays French horn. "But my daughter's graduating, so I don't know what they're going to do next year."
Big bucks for band
A look at what some new instruments cost:
Marching drum line
Source: Hillsborough County schools