The ongoing budget crisis gutting public schools across Los Angeles is threatening to demolish an award-winning music program that serves more than 800 middle school students.
Just days after the music program at Walter Reed Middle School was honored with a Los Angeles Music Center Bravo Award for excellence, the two teachers in charge of the school's musical instrument courses received pink slips from the Los Angeles Unified School District.
If they are laid off, one voice teacher will be all that remains of the school's music department.
"Being cut or being given a pink slip pretty much says to you, we aren't appreciated," said Jessica Johnson, one of the recipients of the music award. "No one could believe that two-thirds of our department was going to get cut."
Johnson, who teaches beginning winds, beginning strings, 7th grade band and 8th grade wind ensemble, said the music department at her school is well-acquainted with tight budgets. Students share instruments, and class size can easily run 60 students or more.
"We really feel like we have something special," Johnson said. "We deserve to be really looked at and evaluated based on our merits and our amazing tradition that we have here."
Stephen McDonough, the chair of the school's music department, also received a pink slip. He questioned the proportion of music teachers who received pink slips, formally known as Reduction in Force notices.
"It really seems to me that they are going after music," McDonough said. "I think it's because they don't really know what music does for students."
Debra Vantongeren, whose 7th-grade son learned cello and vibes with McDonough, said the music program at Walter Reed bridges cultural gaps, bringing students together through their shared musical experiences.
"In Mr. McDonough's jazz band class, he has kids that speak all different home languages and are from are all different areas of Los Angeles," Vantongeren said. "But when they leave his class they speak jazz, and they don't care where they came from."
District-wide, 7,000 RIFS went out. Of those, 167 went to music teachers. While that number may seem small compared to the total, it represents nearly half of all music teachers in LAUSD. At an estimated 58 middle and high schools, the entire music staff received pink slips.
"We suspect that music is being disproportionately affected," said Robin Lithgow, administrative coordinator of the district's arts education branch. "We're trying to get that information ourselves."
The best hope for a reprieve is getting Gov. Jerry Brown's tax extension on the ballot, which would provide the district with a much-needed cash infusion, Lithgow said.
A protest led by United Teachers Los Angeles is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at the Los Angeles Convention Center and culminates with a rally in Pershing Square at 12:30.