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Edmonds School District jazz program cuts leave community concerned, deflated

A group of students play horned instruments play an assortment of wind instruments as another student accompanies them with an upright base
Brett Holt
Mountlake Terrace High School Music Boosters
Mountlake Terrace High School Jazz 1 trombone section plays "On Sunny Side of the Street" at Hot Java Cool Jazz.

It’s been a tough couple of years for arts education in the Edmonds School District, which includes the Seattle suburbs of Edmonds, Lynnwood, Mountlake Terrace, and others.

Like so many school districts across the country, Edmonds has faced ongoing budget issues since the pandemic. Last year, the district faced a $15 million budget shortfall that resulted in deep cuts to music, visual arts, and drama across the district. This year, as the district seeks to make up another $10.6 million, the arts, especially opportunities to study jazz, are being hit hard again. The jazz bands at four of the district’s middle schools, Jazz Band 2 at Edmonds Woodway High School, and the only remaining jazz band at Meadowdale High School will be eliminated, as well as the entire 5th grade band and orchestra program.

Watching the arts be cut has been difficult for Edmonds-area teachers, students, alumni, and community members. Many are concerned about what these changes could mean for the health and happiness of students and for the community’s vibrant tradition of award-winning and talent-exporting arts programs.

“I was very proud to say, ‘I come from an area that's got a well-funded and supported music program,’” said Steve Treseler, a nationally-recognized jazz musician who got his start in the music programs in the Edmonds School District. “Just seeing it going the wrong direction is wild. It’s just a microcosm of the failure of public schools to live up to the promise.”

A group of children dressed in black played several instruments.
Brett Holt
Mountlake Terrace High School Music Boosters
Madrona K8 Jazz 1 band performing at the Bellevue College Jazz Festival.

There is an effort trying to keep that promise alive. The Foundation for Edmonds School District, a nonprofit that works to support the district’s capacity to offer a well-rounded education. Facing the latest budget shortfall, the foundation has launched the Save the Arts campaign to raise $1.5 million by May 30. If they reach their pledge goal by that date, they can save the programs and teaching positions that were eliminated or reduced for next school year.

“To me, the only solution is bringing money to the table,” said Deborah Brandi, the foundation’s executive director.

A painful decision

On April 23, the Edmonds School Board approved budget cuts, slashing programs and teacher hours, despite outcry from teachers, students, and community members. Officials say the loss of COVID-era relief funding and the state’s current public school funding formula, which dictates the amount of money public schools have to spend, are the big reasons for this budget crisis.

“Fundamentally, the formula that the state uses to fund education is not adequate to fund the needs that we have,” said Scott Barnes, program manager for visual and performing arts at Edmonds School District. “And so, as we see costs rise and expenses rise, we're not able to meet those and as a result, we've got to make staffing cuts. Almost 88% of our district's budget is in staffing.”

Once schools hear from the district what funding they have to work with, it's the principals at each school who decide which teachers will have their FTE (full-time equivalent) reduced. From there, the teachers who are impacted, as well as enrollment and graduation requirements, influence which classes will be cut from the school’s offerings.

This is where music programs in the district came into trouble. For one, arts classes are already low-hanging fruit because they are electives and not core curriculum for graduation in Washington state. Likewise, the pandemic had a devastating impact on music enrollment, particularly in band.

“We had very big challenges during COVID,” said Darin Faul, band director at Mountlake Terrace High School. “A lot of kids quit because it was not that fun playing by yourself and recording your own part and then sending it in.”

A group of teenagers dressed in black wearing red ties. One of the teenagers is seated on the floor holding up a plaque.
Brett Holt
Mountlake Terrace High School Music Boosters
Mountlake Terrace High School Jazz 1 celebrates after winning the Newport Jazz Festival.

Faul has worked hard to rebuild his program after the pandemic, and he’s beginning to see results. Mountlake Terrace’s Jazz Band 1, who won third place at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Band Competition in 2011, just won the Newport Jazz Band Sweepstakes Award. Last year, the school’s Jazz Band 2 won their division at Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival. Soon after returning from the competition, Jazz 2 learned they would not be a class at Mountlake Terrrace High the following year. Faul and his students were crushed.

“[One] profound impact was the feeling, for me and for the students and for the community, that what we do is not valued,” said Faul.

Christine Eisenmenger, the band director at Meadowdale High School, feels similarly. Two years ago, she took over the program, which has had three different band directors in less than 10 years. Prior to all this instability, Meadowdale High School jazz, under long-time director David Hawke, held its own at prestigious competitions like the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival.

This year, to move Meadowdale in the prize-winning direction again, she split the school’s only jazz band into two and brought in her husband, a trombonist, to teach a second jazz band before school. They do this extra work for free to give more kids the opportunity to try jazz, and to have a training ground for the top jazz band.

And yet, Eisenmenger’s FTE keeps getting cut, requiring her to spend less time at Meadowdale. Next year, she will be reduced to .4 FTE, which requires the elimination of two music classes, including the school’s only jazz band. Likewise, her feeder middle school, Meadowdale Middle School, is losing their only jazz band, too.

“All of these cuts are so frustrating because it's like, how am I supposed to build a program if you keep cutting everything,” she said.

Faul echoes her concerns, as he will also lose the jazz program at Briar Terrace Middle School, his feeder middle school, next year: “It’ll be a heavy lift, I think, to get kids with no middle school jazz band and no second jazz band here to be successful.”

Supporting youth and the community

But it’s not just about winning awards. Preserving arts programs is about supporting the mental health of students post-pandemic, especially considering the child mental health crisis and the fact that music and art help young people process their emotions, Faul said.

A man with long hair and glasses wearing a black suit while talking into a microphone.
Brett Holt
Mountlake Terrace High School Music Boosters
Darin Faul, band director at Mountlake Terrace High School.

When it comes to balancing school budgets, Faul said that many people think - in his opinion, erroneously - that cutting the arts makes the most sense because only two of the 24 credits required for graduation in Washington state must be in performing or visual arts. And yet, many of the core subjects that are considered more essential for graduation, “don't provide the same whole person nurture and care...the outlet for self-expression...that the arts do,” he said.

Quashing these school arts programs affects the community, too. The City of Edmonds taps many of the students in these band programs to busk on the city’s street corners in their spare time and to perform at the Edmonds Jazz Walk, taking place on June 8. There’s also the Edmonds Jazz Connection, a local festival produced to showcase local high school bands.

“I know that pretty much all of the high schools use these opportunities to go out and play for the community, just free shows where you get to come and enjoy days of jazz. So, I think it would be a loss not just to the high school itself, but also to the surrounding community to lose such a such an instrumental program,” said Matthew Thorp, a senior at Meadowdale High School who plays drums in the jazz band.

Before it’s too late, the Foundation for Edmonds School District is frantic to raise the money the district needs to sustain these programs over the next two school years. To fund the arts programs in next year, $1.5 million in pledges must be in by May 30, and an additional $750,000 must be collected by March 31, 2025 to continue these programs in the 2025-2026 school year.

“It’s about our kids and saving what’s important to us. The arts, they’re our first form of communication...You can bring people [together] around the arts,” Brandi said. “We can’t let this go.”

Updated: May 28, 2024 at 4:15 PM PDT
Minor edits for style
Alexa Peters is a Seattle-based freelance writer with a focus on arts & culture. Her journalism has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, Downbeat, and The Seattle Times, among others. She’s currently co-authoring a book on the Seattle jazz community with jazz critic Paul de Barros, due to be published by The History Press in 2026.