In less than one year at Riverside-Brookfield High School, Matthew Loeb has made a quite an impact as a music teacher, focusing on the orchestra.
But Loeb’s job may be reduced or eliminated next month as projected enrollment in music classes next year has dipped and the school board prepares to send notices to teachers whose jobs will not be renewed.
At last week’s school board meeting, 10 people — a combination of students, parents and community members — implored the school board and administration to keep Loeb as a full-time music teacher.
Loeb’s supporters noted that in the last five years the school has had five different music teachers who focused on string instruments and the orchestra. The students who play string instruments say that Loeb has been a wonderful teacher and that they need and deserve consistency.
“This may not sound like a big deal to some, but to musicians it makes a huge difference in our playing, learning, and growth, as individuals and as a group when we are given the chance to build a relationship,” said junior Noah Briones, a violin player, noting that he has three different orchestra teachers in his three years at RBHS.
Toria Burrell-Hrencecin, the mother of an orchestra musician and a professional musician herself, told the board that Loeb has impacted her daughter Sophie.
“I understand that enrollment in music is down for next year and that this cut is being made entirely due to that, but I feel that this is a very shortsighted move, especially in this case,” Burrell-Hrencecin said.
Burrell-Hrencecin called Loeb “an exceptionally talented and outstanding music educator.”
As a musician, conductor and composer for three decades and who trained at the Royal Academy of Music in London and Cambridge University, Burrell-Hrencecin said, “I recognize an outstanding musician and music educator when I see one.”
Burrell-Hrencecin said that Loeb has improved the orchestra at RBHS even while teaching remotely.
“He’s been especially ingenious in creating of helping music students learn, grow and feel included despite the pandemic,” Burrell-Hrencecin said. “To lose him now would be devastating for the RB orchestra and for the future of the RB music department.”
If Loeb’s position is eliminated or reduced to part-time status, it would be for financial reasons.
Superintendent Kevin Skinkis said in an email that no final decisions has been made about what will happen with Loeb’s position.
“Staffing decisions are based on student interest during the course selection process,” Skinkis wrote.
Enrollment in music classes at RBHS is projected to drop around 25 percent next year. For the 2020-21 academic year, 501 students requested enrollment in a music class. For the 2021-22 academic year, 373 students have requested enrollment in music classes.
Loeb supporters said that some of the drop is attributable to the pandemic. Some students have not been signing up for music classes because they can’t play their instruments or sing in person due to restrictions imposed to combat the spread of COVID-19.
Skinkis said that the possible cut or reduction of Loeb’s job is in no way a reflection on Loeb’s teaching ability.
“The parent and student comments shared at the meeting reflect that Mr. Loeb has done a great job with orchestra program,” Skinkis wrote. “His performance has never been called into question.”
Skinkis said band teacher James Baum also can teach orchestra students, if needed, as Baum has done in the past.
Baum, a saxophonist, says he can teach string instruments such as the violin and cello, but that is not his forte.
“I love teaching orchestra, but Matt Loeb is a better fit,” Baum said.
Baum said that Loeb has been a great addition to the music department.
“Every kid who has him just loves him,” Baum said.
Baum also said Loeb has excellent technology skills and was instrumental in allowing music and choir classes to be taught remotely this year.
RBHS is facing projected budget deficits over the next five years but still has healthy cash reserves. This year RBHS could face a budget deficit of around $1 million, although the extent of the deficit won’t be known for a couple months after spring property tax collections are completed, according to Assistant Superintendent Kristin Smetana.
Deficits totaling more than $2.5 million are also forecast during the next five years. But, even if the forecasts are accurate, RBHS would still have a cash reserve of about $12 million at the end of fiscal year 2024 — almost 42 percent of the annual operating budget.
The state of Illinois generally recommends that school districts maintain reserves of at least 33 percent of operating expenditures.
This year and next year, Smetana is projecting that the district will only collect 97 percent of the property tax revenue due the district, down from the usual projection of a 99 percent, because of financial hardship caused by the pandemic. For 2023, Smetana is assuming a 98 percent property tax collection rate before returning to the 99 percent property tax rate assumptions in 2024 and 2025.
The administration is currently projecting a cut of 1.3 full-time teaching positions next year.
But in light of the projected deficits many board members are concerned about the district’s finances.
“I think we need to buckle down,” said board member Laura Hruska. “I think the storm is still coming.”