Some music teachers in Riverside Elementary School District 96 want to hire a Maryland composer to write an original piece of music to honor Hauser Junior High orchestra teacher Patty Gill when she retires in 2018. 

But at the Nov. 17 Board of Education meeting, top district administrators and many school board members were skeptical of a proposal for the school district to front an initial $2,500 to have the composer start work, even though the music teachers say they would raise the funds and reimburse the district. 

Co-Interim Superintendent Griff Powell said the original proposal was for the school district to pay the composer’s entire fee of $4,500 to write the piece, which would be presented in 2018 as a way of honoring Gill upon her retirement.

According to Powell, the request for the funds predated his arrival and had been on the desk of former Superintendent Bhavna Sharma-Lewis.

“It was a request for paying $4,500 for the purchase of a music composition,” Powell told the school board. “We could not make that recommendation to the board. It’s very unusual for a middle school to have that type of expenditure.”

The most recent proposal presented to the board stated that the music teachers hoped to repay the $2,500 loan from the district via voluntary donations collected by May of 2017. 

Board member Rachel Marrello said she would not support an interest-free loan to begin paying the composer. 

“I don’t see how this is helpful to the kids,” Marrello said. “I don’t see how the curriculum is related, what the benefit they’re getting out of it, especially if this is somebody else writing the music.”

The $4,500 fee would pay for, in addition to the piece of music, one video session for students to discuss the piece of music with the composer. Additional sessions with students would cost more.

Marrello suggested that local composers be sought out who could more easily work with students.

Interim Director of Finance and Operations David Sellers, an accomplished amateur musician, suggested contacting local universities such as Northwestern, DePaul and Columbia College to find a more local, perhaps student, composer who would be able to more easily meet with students.

“There is a lot of immense talent out there that is Chicago-based,” Sellers said.

Powell didn’t know why this particular Maryland-based composer was sought out.

“I’m not sure why they picked out this particular composer,” Powell said. “I haven’t figured that out.”

Top administrators said that it would be unusual for an elementary school district to commission an original piece of music.

“This is typically something that happens on a high school level,” said Merryl Brownlow, the district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. 

Powell agreed.

“I’ve never seen it on a middle school level,” Powell said. 

The Riverside Education Council, the union that represents teachers and support staff in District 96, has already committed to donating $100 towards the cost of the composition. Gill is a past president of the union. 

Grant requests, passing the hat at music concerts throughout the year, renewing the faculty music concert with either an admission charge or collecting donations at the concert, and a silent auction and special evening at a local restaurant were all suggested as ways to raise the $4,500 to pay the composer. 

The proposal states that the composer could create a dedication line for Gill which would encourage donations.

Board member Lynda Murphy said she is not opposed to the board granting an interest-free loan to start the ball rolling.

“I feel comfortable with that,” Murphy said.

But the school board wants significant changes to the proposal before considering it again.

“We need to see a stronger educational component before we come to that and maybe someone local,” said school board president Jeff Miller.

The education component is paramount for the school board.

“The only way they would approve anything like this is that it would help to clearly demonstrate that it would be in the interest of students’ development and learning of music,” Powell says.

Powell said he would deliver the board’s feedback to the music teachers and see if they want to come up with a revised proposal.

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