After two board members raised questions earlier this month about continuing the 17-year program under the current model, the Flagler County School Board Tuesday evening voted 5-0 to renew funding for the Flagler Youth Orchestra for an 18th year after hearing pleas and plaudits from some 20 community members, former and current participants and parents.
The two board members who’d questioned the program’s model–Jill Woolbright and Janet McDonald–professed surprise that their words had been “misinterpreted,” “misquoted’ or spun to mean that they did not want to continue it. Two other board members–Cheryl Massaro and Colleen Conklin–said the program should not in future years be prey to doubts as it was this year, and should be placed on a more permanently assured footing.
“I hope that we don’t have to debate this fact again next year,” Massaro said. “I would like to make certain that we fund FYO indefinitely. As long as there’s kids that want to play and people that want to teach them and we can manage to work it into our budget, this has got to stop. I don’t want to have to spend time or have all of you–who were great to come out and gracious to speak with us this evening–about things that matter to our community, take time. I would rather us just know: it’s stamped, move along. We’re going to keep doing this. Because we need to. We need to. There’s no other way to say it.”
“Maybe moving forward we need to be looking at a multi year support so we’re not having to do this again and again,” Conklin said. “Nor are we having to debate whether somebody is in a use of facilities agreement, not any use of facilities agreement, and whether or not there’s concerns around any of the programs.” (One of the issues McDonald had raised was the program’s use of Indian Trails Middle School for rehearsals.) Conklin continued: “I think it was important not just for the board, but I think it was really important for the community to hear some of the accolades and the impact that the program has had.”
About a fifth of the hundred-odd supporters in the chamber addressed the board with unanimous endorsements of the program, starting with Tax Collector Suzanne Johnston, who spoke of her younger family members’ involvement in FYO, of the tip jars she puts out for a month annually at the her tax offices, collecting donations for the program, and of the reflections of her late mother, a teacher, who’d attended FYO concerts and been surprised by the stately behavior of the younger musicians on stage. “You could hear a pin drop,” Johnston said of the way the students would set themselves before their performance. A fiscal conservative, Johnston said the program should have a “150 percent increase” in funding (not a likely proposition any time soon.)
The program receives a total of $70,000 from the district for the year, funding five music teachers and the program director, with an additional $17,585 provided by the FYO itself, through fund-raising, to underwrite the cost of one teacher. The program’s fund-raising hovers around $20,000 a year, ensuring as well the cost of sheet music for all students–a significant cost–and over 100 instruments provided to students as scholarships, when the students’ families cannot afford the cost of instrument rentals or purchases. In some years, about a third of students are on scholarships. Pre-covid, fall enrollment would typically start at 400 students between grades 3 and 12, falling off to around 350 by the third concert in spring (three full-ensemble concerts are presented at the Flagler Auditorium every school year). Covid lowered the numbers to around 200.
Johnston was followed by Ed Fuller, whose grandchildren are lined up to be in the program, and who spoke, emotionally at times, of FYO as a unique “transformative” offering in Florida. “We should have a banner lining the streets saying we have a Flagler Youth Orchestra. I defy anybody to say, there’s one better,” he said. Applause was not allowed during public comment, he noted, but he said he applauded the board for its support over the years. Johnston and Fuller had set the tone of hat would follow, as speaker after speaker, with only an occasional exception, spoke gratefully of the board’s support and its enduring vision, and asked for that to continue. Many spoke of music education’s connection to academic success, some spoke of its value as a mental and behavioral health benefit, and some described the life- or trajectory-changing effect the program had had on their children’s or their own development.
“The FYO was instrumental for me to be able to go to college,” Evan Hernandez, the last speaker, said. She described herself as “a proud alumnus of the Flagler Youth Orchestra, the FPC band and the IB program” who now studies music at Stetson university on a full-tuition scholarship. “The program is extremely well organized and students of all ages and abilities have opportunities to grow both as musicians and as people. The FYO gave me many opportunities to experience professional musicianship before taking the plunge to go to university for both as a performer and as a musician overall. Just recently, I even had the opportunity to travel across Europe playing violin with the Stetson and Chamber Orchestra, which was an extension of the opportunity that was given to me by the FYO. Music is a huge part of my identity. And I think this program is a fantastic example of what to aim for. So please do what you can to continue supporting it. Had it not existed, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to go to a private university, to travel the world or to meet some of the amazing people I’ve met through being a student.” She then read a letter of support from the Dean of the School of Music at Stetson.
Others included Victor Rivera, one of the FYO teachers, Diana Cangialosi, a long-time student in the program, and Sidney Wong, a senior at Matanzas in the program for eight years, who wrote and read a poem as her comment–“A World Without Music.” Music, she recited, “unites people from all walks of life and all ages. So why then should it be dependent on a family’s wages?”
Her sister Gabrielle, an IB graduate from FPC and currently a chemical engineering student at Georgia Tech, described starting in the program as third grader and remaining with it for a decade, “making it the longest local program I attended out of all my extracurriculars,” she said. “FYO also set me up for greater success. After graduating from the program, I had the honor of auditioning for and performing in the Georgia Tech orchestra. I saw my best grades that semester yet, and I made the Dean’s List. And this upcoming semester I have the pleasure of returning for my senior year. But it’s not the same. It’s not as amicable, and those students had to pay for their lessons. FYO taught me everything I know about music. It’s safe to say without this fundamental understanding of the basics, without equal opportunity, I would not have been able to perform for the Georgia Tech orchestra. I wouldn’t have been prepared for the rigor of a college orchestra. I wouldn’t have encouraged my sisters to join the FYO and I wouldn’t have been able to use that experience for a college entrance essay to get into my dream school. If it weren’t for your support, none of this would have been possible either. I can’t imagine my life without music. I can’t imagine Palm Coast without FYO, and I can’t imagine FAO without your support.”
If there were a couple of exceptions to that tone, they were somewhat more abrasive reactions to the fact that the program had been put in question, with one speaker at one point referring to McDonald before being stopped by Trevor Tucker, the chairman of the board, who cited board rules forbidding the call-out of board members by name. But even then, the criticism was muted and the attention focused on the program’s–and the board’s–achievements.
The item on the agenda was not up for discussion. As in previous years, it had been listed among the numerous items on the “consent” part of the agenda–the part that gets voted on wholesale, with all those items considered routine or procedural. Board members can vote to pull items out of consent for discussion. When Tucker asked if there were such items Tuesday evening, before public comment, none were–immediately assuring that all the items, the FYO among them, would sail to a 5-0 vote. Still, the program’s supporters wanted to be heard.
When they were done, four of the five board members spoke in turn, starting with McDonald and Woolbright professing surprise that their words had been interpreted as putting the program’s future in doubt.
“There’s certain things that happen on the internet that are–I’m a favorite whipping post of a lot of issues,” McDonald said. “And so I got conflated with the threat of taking the program away. I have consistently supported Flagler Youth Orchestra every year I’ve been on the board.” (In fact, McDonald voted against the program last year, after supporting it in six previous years on the board.)
“I’m glad that you came out tonight,” Woolbright told the assembly. “I’m sorry that you felt you had to because I don’t believe that any school board member ever hinted at defunding the program or ending the program, but I know how talk happens and how the rumor mill goes and what is exciting those to for you to come and share your passion for the program. My comment a couple of weeks ago at the meeting was because I get contacted and I get comments about the disparity, and how we fund programs and how we fund after school programs. It was never a question about whether this program would be funded and whether this program would happen.”
Conklin advised the same assembly: “Listen, watch the July 5 workshop. Watch the workshop for yourself and make your own decisions.”
At the July 5 workshop, there appeared to be no doubt that the program’s future was questioned by McDonald and Woolbright, to the extent that they both explicitly questioned its current model.
“My my real concern is we have we don’t have equity in our budget with this,” McDonald has said at that workshop. “I don’t know of any other outside program that gets special compensation in not only salaries and transportation but the use of facilities at no cost,” she said, referring as an example to the way the district disassociated itself from Fluid, a swimming program at the Belle terre Swim and Racquet Club. But the FYO was never an “outside” program like Fluid: it was and remains a creation of the district, established by then-Superintendent Bill Delbrugge in 2005 as an extension of district programs no different than afterschool sports.
“It was at the request of the school district to provide this at no fee to students,” Board member Colleen Conklin, who was on the board at the time and approved the program from its first year, said. “The deal was basically we would provide the facility, we would provide the support. At that point in time we were providing transportation because it was happening, after school transportation was going on. So every every single thing that they’re doing, we requested for it to be done.” The program’s use of school facilities was never questioned–as indeed it wasn’t until last year, when McDonald, who had herself voted for six years to support the program, first raised the issue–anymore than a teacher’s use of classroom facilities could be, or a football team’s use of a field.
McDonald continued: “We don’t have equity in the arts and movement access in our elementary schools. Our kids do not get music all the time and art all the time and movement all the time. They have to separate and take turns having that exposure. So if we can’t support those access to these experiences during our daytime programs, how can we then say that we can invest in this over and over. And I guess this came to my awareness that there was this discrepancy, not only through Fluid, but when it was explained to me that we also offer transportation for some of the students to get from one building to another. So I think the total costs that we’re investing in this is certainly a value and yet it’s we don’t have equity across the district.”
The statement about transportation was inaccurate. The district does not offer FYO students special transportation accommodations, but rather allows students to ride buses whose regular routes go by Indian Trails Middle School anyway, where the program is hosted, to be dropped off there for their bi-weekly rehearsals–students who would otherwise ride a bus route home.
But her statement left no doubt that she was not comfortable with continuing the model: “I have a challenge, with as much as I value this program, continuing to have that discrepancy,” she said.
Woolbright at that meeting acknowledged the value of the program, recalling its benefits from seeing her own students thrive in it when she was a teacher. She said “I don’t want it to go anywhere. I want us to keep it. I want us to problem solve if there’s an issue.” But Woolbright then went on to say, “to Ms. MacDonald’s point, just because we’ve done something for 17 years doesn’t mean we don’t change I mean we things change, everything is fluid.” She said she’d had pushback from band parents and Police Athletic League participants–an outside program, not a district creation–who have to pay fees to participate.
Woolbright’s statement, too, was clear about changing models: “Maybe we could come up with some type of pay to play like other things that would make it a little more equitable,” she said, even as she said she didn’t want the program to end. “So I think it’s just a different time where maybe we can ask for fees to help cover the expenses.” Delbrugge, however, had created the program on the founding principle that no student would be turned away for lack of ability to pay.
It was left up to Conklin at the July 5 workshop to attempt to put the program in its proper historical and factual context. “I can’t speak for the rest of the board, but I can speak for myself,” she said. “I think this is the biggest bargain the school district could possibly get to provide the service to the students that we provide. I don’t know any other school district that has something like this. I don’t. I’m not aware of anything. The issues that were brought forward, whether or not kids have access to art and music every single day, is not your programs’ issue. That is internal to the school district. Whether or not those are conversations–it doesn’t pertain to what you’re here about. So I want to be very clear that the support of this program, again, I think is the biggest bargain in town.”
Equity issues about other programs are internal conversations. “FYO doesn’t have anything to do with that,” Conklin said.