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Smithtown parents, students protest cuts to music programs

Smithtown High School East. (Feb. 20, 2012)

Smithtown High School East. (Feb. 20, 2012) Credit: Erin Geismar

Wearing red T-shirts stenciled with the words "Smithtown Music," students and parents packed a school board meeting this week to protest plans to cut fifth-grade band and orchestra programs.

By the time parents took to the podium to plead their case Tuesday, the board had announced the proposed $470,000 budget cut had been scrapped because the district expects to receive more state aid than had been anticipated.

Though relieved, parents addressed the board because they feared non-mandatory music programs are vulnerable to future cuts.

"As a community, we have to decide whether we're going to have an OK school system or an excellent school system," said Kaylee Engellenner, president of the Friends of Music of Smithtown booster club.

While music programs were spared, district officials said they must trim about $2.6 million to close a projected gap in the 2013-14 budget. The school board on April 9 is expected to adopt a $227 million budget that would raise taxes by 3.6 percent -- the most the district is allowed under the state tax cap.

Proposed cuts include the equivalent of nine full-time staff, summer reading programs, sixth-grade physical education, BOCES payments and literacy classes. Superintendent Anthony Annunziato said that, while he regretted the cuts, the district had little choice.

"We need to make sure we don't spend all our money on saving a program," he said. "We'll find ourselves financially bankrupt."

After the meeting, Engellenner -- whose son William, 16, plays percussion for the Smithtown High School East band -- said she feared music programs may yet be chopped. Under the tax cap law, districts must go on austerity if their budgets are rejected twice by voters.

"What we're trying to do is make sure that we're not at the end of the line," Engellenner said. "We want to make sure we're first in line, with a little tin cup."

Students and parents said music programs help boost academic achievement.

Michael Zhang, 18, a Smithtown East senior and Intel Science Talent Search finalist, said at the hearing that playing in the orchestra at a state music festival was among his fondest memories, along with meeting President Barack Obama.

"Playing and performing . . . is still the most meaningful experience I had in my senior year," said Zhang, of St. James. "I've learned invaluable lessons from being a musician."

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