Members of the Auburn Middle and High School bands said that they have endured too many distressing events in the last year.
The most recent incident has been the Montgomery County Public Schools hiring of a new band director over the current long-term substitute, Janet Longerbeam.
Stability and challenges were the themes of conversation among AHS students at a protest held in front of the MCPS school board office Thursday afternoon.
They used signs to show to their support for Longerbeam and to express their disappointment with school administration for not acknowledging the accolades of their band director.
“This has been a rough year for us students,” Holden Trimmer, a junior percussionist, said.
In March 2017, the AMS and AHS band director, Robert Priest, suffered a stroke. Longerbeam was hired by MCPS as a long-term substitute for the band programs in grades 6-12. Her musical studies and experience got the band programs back on track. The spring concerts were held.
Priest returned in August 2017 to get the marching band program started for the school year.
“Summer band camp was tough on Mr. Priest and he called on Janet to help to out,” parent Kelly Brennan recalled.
Per his doctors’ advice, Priest took medical leave four weeks into the school year. Longerbeam quit her job and was hired as the AMS and AHS temporary band director. Priest decided to retire in November 2017 and MCPS decided Longerbeam would remain in the position.
“She gave up her job to bail us out,” parent Melissa Yanhko said.
Tragedies continued to plague the programs. Senior marching band member Andrew Lutz was killed in an automobile accident in October. The beloved president of the Band Boosters, Robert Crigger, died from an illness in February.
“Longerbeam was the glue that held us together,” Trimmer said.
As a long-term substitute, Longerbeam completed an application to become to be contracted as the band director at AHS and AMS for the 2018-2019 school year.
Parent Chris Spradling sat on the committee to interview the possible candidates and hire the permanent band director.
“I was told Longerbeam did not have the experience. She had proved herself this past year,” he said. “It is disheartening to students and the community to pick someone else just based on the number years taught and the number of awards won.”
Students and parents cited examples of great improvements in the band programs in this school year. The marching band finally attended not one, but two, competitions under Longerbeam’s tutelage.
The bands went to the state assessment for the first time in four years. Students were challenged with more difficult musical scores. Longerbeam worked to grow the band and the performance of its members along with new musical avenues such as small jazz ensembles according to parents and students.
“She was a great leader during the hardest of times and encouraged us all. It is an insult to us in the band for not hiring her,” Trimmer said.
Parents Cynthia and Anthony Fisher were amazed how Longerbeam was able to connect to students, especially their daughter as a new AMS sixth grader and playing the clarinet for the first time.
“I watched my daughter pick right up on the clarinet and her confidence rose. She talks about Ms. Longerbeam every day,” she said. “Now, she cries and says if Longerbeam is not the band director next school year, she will quit band.”
Parents learned March 7 that Longerbeam had not been hired. Elizabeth Vallejo is the parent of both AMS and AHS band students.
“When band students heard the news that Longerbeam was not hired, parent Carola Haas said, “the kids felt angry, frustrated, mad, betrayed, protective of their teacher and that injustice had occurred. They began asking what they could do.”
Students started petitions and organized Thursday’s protest. Parents began a letter writing campaign.
Trimmer wrote a passionate petition letter.
“It seems an injustice to Ms. Longerbeam to ignore all that she has done for the band program and the band members in her time spent here. To hire someone else to the position would be ignoring all that she has done and all that she will continue to do for years to come. The band is a program that needs stability.
“Now the decision is being made to replace Ms. Longerbeam with someone else. The constant changing of band directors is chaotic and detrimental to the program.
“Band isn’t a class such as history or science, where a student takes it once and moves on. Band is a class that is meant to be taken year after year, and with the supplementary aspect of marching band accounted in, the position of band director is one that gets elevated to a higher status. It is a position that requires consistency to create stability for the band and its membership,” he wrote.
Parent Carola Haas wrote emails to AHS Principal Chris Stewart, Superintendent Mark Miears and school board members to voice her concerns and to ask the school board to wait on approval of the contract.
She said that the principal and superintendent’s responses had a list of the new hire’s twenty plus years and numerous awards.
“Accolades are not as important,” Haas said. “The effort of an awesome job and putting a lot of herself into the band programs is evidence that Longerbeam could do the job.”
Haas was most disappointed when she received an email from school board Chairwoman, Gunin Kiran, stating that school board members approved the hire of Michael Hand March 6.
“Kids need to trust and feel safe. They need to know the adults and administration are listening and care about them,” she said. “They need stability. This is another band tragedy that is MCPS’ doing.”
AMS and AHS parents and students met after the Thursday protest at the Christiansburg Wendy’s for a band fundraiser event. Parent discussions centered on disbelief that MCPS had come to this decision.
The band students said they have nothing against Hand but Longerbeam deserves the job because she worked hard all year to become the heart and soul of the bands.
MCPS spokeswoman Brenda Drake responded to the matter to by email Friday morning.
“We are unable to comment on hiring rationale for a specific employee. Mr. Hand has more than 20 years of experience as a high school band director.
“His band programs have a history of excellence, including recognition from Virginia Band, Orchestra Directors Association and the Commonwealth of Virginia Honor Band.
“His concert and symphonic ensembles have received consecutive superior ratings. His marching bands have been named grand champions in marching band competitions.
“We are grateful to Mrs. Longerbeam for stepping in as a the substitute band director at Auburn. She has obviously developed positive relationships with the students at Auburn,” she wrote.
Many at the protest plan to attend the Tuesday’s school board meeting to express their concerns directly to the school board.
“Longerbeam is a part of our band family,” Matthew Neil, a tenth grade percussionist, said. “We want her to be our band director.”