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Band merger discussion dominates OFA board meeting

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The possibility of a summer marching band merger with Heuvelton Central School dominated discussion Wednesday evening during the Ogdensburg City School District’s Board of Education meeting.

Superintendent Timothy M. Vernsey opened by describing the sequence of events that brought the board to this point, sharing that communications between Ogdensburg’s Senior High Band Director Jon Cole and Heuvelton’s marching band Director Megan Wattie had resulted in Heuvelton’s board approving the acceptance of OFA marching band members on the Heuvelton marching band this summer.

“We’ve been concerned with dwindling numbers going back to Mr. Howlett,” Mr. Vernsey said, referring to former OFA marching band Director Jeff Howlett, whose final season at the helm was 2008.

“If we want, we can do so,” he said of merging with Heuvelton.

At the crux of the issue, according to Mr. Vernsey, is maintaining opportunities for students at OFA.

“I’d hate to get to a point where we don’t have enough numbers participating for a program,” he said.

Calling it a “high level issue” and pointing toward a number of band boosters in attendance, Mr. Vernsey explained to the board that an informal survey and vote were put to members of the marching band and color guard at OFA, saying, “It’s all a mute point if the students are not on board.”

Mr. Vernsey said he was personally “not moved either way” and stressed “doing what is best for the kids.”

“My sense was, if the majority of the students were in favor of a merger with Heuvelton, then it would be,” he said.

Board President Frederick P. Bean asked how the vote went.

“Twenty-four to 14 in favor of trying a one-year trial run with Heuvelton,” the superintendent said. “If things don’t work, then we can certainly go back.”

Mr. Bean then asked how many members it takes to properly field a summer marching band.

“It depends on who is there,” Mr. Cole said, indicating that in his professional opinion, the current ensemble of only a few instrumentalists on the OFA squad “doesn’t represent a true marching band experience.”

Mr. Cole said that legitimate ensemble components include “brass, color tones and carrying melodies and harmonies appropriate to the musical choices,” and that “marching outside is different than chamber music.”

He said it has been difficult for OFA to perform to his standards in the past couple of years due to the lack of numbers.

“I wake up at night trying to find a solution,” he said. “I believe the merger opportunity, though not ideal, is appropriate at this time. My worst fear is that we had no marching band for you.”

Mr. Cole reported that anticipated participation this summer includes less than 30 marching band members and also pointed out that, along with dwindling numbers, another problem for the band is attendance.

“We had 176 missed events last year, and only five students there for everything. This equated to about 1.6 missed events per person and six-to eight holes per event,” he said. “It’s almost impossible.”

Trustee Lawrence G. “Larry” Mitchell said that although “nobody wants to talk about it,” he believes that within five years, county school districts will “see mergers.” He compared the marching band merger to Kiwanis baseball’s end-of-season traveling all-star teams and said he was “in favor of anything that benefits kids.” Thomas P. Luckie, another trustee, asked about Heuvelton’s projected numbers. Mr. Cole told him that the last number he had was 19.

Noting that the discussion had yet to “hit the fan” with the public, Trustee Michael J. Tooley suggested a public meeting involving Mr. Cole describing the scenario to parents and students, as he had to the board.

“The perception is that this is being pushed through with little public dialogue,” Mr. Tooley said of the merger, adding that his personal opinion involves a less formal, pep band-type of arrangement with Ogdensburg band members only.

Mr. Cole and Mr. Vernsey both stressed that OFA students want to be competitive.

“I’m not suggesting we strip the blue out of OFA or take the OFA uniforms off,” Mr. Cole said.

The board agreed that a public meeting should be held, with Mr. Vernsey emphasizing that time is short. No action was taken on the issue and a date was not set for such a meeting.

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