How a high school band triumphed over a bureaucracy and union that tried to kill it
By Dave Duffy
Issue #141 • May/June, 2013
The Gold Beach High School Band now practices in
the BHM building, after being forced out of the school.
There are few victories sweeter in life than that of young teenagers triumphing over organized mean-spirited adults in positions of seemingly absolute power. This is a story that comes out of my own home town of Gold Beach, Oregon. It pits the high school band, consisting of 15 teenagers ranging in age from 15 to 18, against the powerful local teacher’s union that tried to shut the band down because their unpaid volunteer band director, who everybody agreed was doing a good job, did not possess an Oregon teaching credential.
As far as the kids were concerned, it was simply a matter of wanting to play music. They had nearly won the District Festival competition last year under the same uncredentialed band director, and they figured they had a good chance of winning it all this year.
But for the teacher’s union it was a matter of revenge, not against the band or its director, but against the school superintendent who had presided over teacher layoffs forced by the economic downturn in recent years. The band itself was nearly a casualty of the bad economy, but the school superintendent, Jeff Davis, made it possible for it to survive by allowing an unpaid volunteer to teach it.
That volunteer happened to be Lenie Duffy, who is also the business manager for Backwoods Home Magazine. She felt she had no choice. The previous band director, another volunteer, had died suddenly of a heart attack. The last “paid” band director had taken a job in another district two years previous, in part to escape looming teacher layoffs.
Lenie had significant credentials. Before becoming BHM‘s business manager 20 years ago, she had been a “credentialed” California teacher for 9 years. And for the past 15 years, she has been an unpaid volunteer in our local schools’ classrooms, spending the last 5 years as the choir’s piano accompanist, and the last year plus as band director. Everybody — students, parents, teachers, even the union activists — heaped praise on her for her work with the band, and she was even nominated a couple of months ago as the town’s “volunteer of the year.” But she did not have an Oregon teaching credential!
The union, frustrated by the superintendent and fearing more layoffs, secretly filed a complaint with the state’s Teacher Standards and Practices Commission (TSPC). They simply could not allow an unpaid volunteer, no matter how good, to fill a position that their contract said was worth about $80,000 a year in compensation. It set a bad precedent, as far as they were concerned.
Especially because the school district a few towns north of Gold Beach, in the town of Reedsport, had recently allowed the opening of a charter school, in which half the teachers could be “volunteers” or lower paid people drawn from the community. The only requirements were knowing your subject and knowing how to teach it to kids. The union had spent heavily in a vain effort to stop the charter school in Reedsport. It had been a humiliating and bitter defeat, and they did not want the idea of unpaid volunteers gaining traction in Gold Beach.
The TSPC, after lengthy deliberation, informed Davis he should cancel the class, and he did. The news hit Gold Beach like the Grinch descending on the town. “How could they!” many in the town gasped. It was the talk of the coffee shops and everyone was on the band’s side.
The kids took to their social media of choice, Facebook, condemning the teacher’s union with harsh, sometimes obscene, language. On the afternoon they were supposed to report to the school library instead of the band room, they staged a mass sit-in on the concrete steps that led to the band room. The local newspaper went wild with letters of complaint from parents and community members.
The union reps went on damage control. Their goal, they insisted, was not to hurt the kids. They told the local volunteer choir director, whose class they had also forced into cancellation, that they did it “for the good of the kids,” arguing that only credentialed teachers should be allowed to teach children.
But here’s where this sad saga turns more sensible.
Backwoods Home Magazine decided to help the kids fight back against the teacher’s union. I and BHM’s Senior Editor John Silveira, Ad Manager Jeff Ferguson, and Technology Manager Al Boulley moved out of our offices and made room for a “band room.” The band reformed itself into an off-campus club, just like the high school golf club BHM sponsors. In fact, the golf club subsequently held an emergency meeting and agreed to donate $1,000 (nearly half of its funds) to the band to show its support. The band relocated to the BHM building and now practices there as a club, free from any further threat from the teacher’s union. They will lose the half credit they should have earned for the semester, but they will still get to put on their scheduled concerts and compete at the District Festival.
There are two important lessons that the band kids, or anyone else, can learn from this incident:
1) Don’t let bullies and tyrants push you around. They can only control you if you let them.
2) There is always a solution to a problem. Pointing out the culprits is fine, but quickly find the solution and get on with what you want to do.
And there is, of course, a further lesson we as a society should understand from what has transpired in Gold Beach: Teacher’s unions are meant to protect teachers, not students.
Teacher’s unions, and the monopoly over education they and their local school districts have enjoyed for many years, are, in fact, destructive to our children and their education. During the recent teacher layoffs that so upset our local union, it was the newer, enthusiastic teachers who were laid off while the union protected their entrenched activists. Students, including my three sons, had complained openly that only the best teachers had been let go.
Like most unions, the teacher’s union’s formula for job security favors the inept, burnt-out survivors among them, while sacrificing bright new talent. It breeds well-paid mediocrity among their ranks, which leads to mediocre achievement by students.
In these difficult economic times, teacher’s unions feel under siege because school districts can no longer afford the existing monopoly. Union control is being replaced by private schools and charter schools where lower priced, and often much more valuable, teaching talent can be recruited. Our local union’s assertion that only “credentialed” teachers should be allowed to teach students is absurd even to the most casual observer.
In my area, teacher’s unions have come begging to the taxpayers many times to help them continue their destructive monopoly over our kids’ educations. But the taxpayers keep saying no because they have seen too much of what just happened in Gold Beach.
Bravo to the Gold Beach High School Band, and bravo to their unpaid volunteer teacher. Together, with just a little help from the private sector, they just defeated the bully in the schoolyard.