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UPDATE: Wausau School District to Hold Closed Session Meeting over Music Controversy

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UPDATE: Tues 5:53 PM, Oct. 8, 2013

The Wausau School Board will be meeting Thursday night to discuss the music controversy.

The district's website says it'll go into closed session to talk to it's lawyer at 5:30. The open session is set to start at 6:30 p.m.

A new directive from administrators about religious music in school concerts is stirring controversy. Wausau West's Master Singers group disbanded after it was told to change the formats of winter 15-concerts in the Wausau area. The school was concerned the shows amounted to Christmas caroling, which is says it cannot support.

It denies the postponement of elementary concerts to the spring had anything to do with the issue.

The open portion of that board meeting is Thursday evening at 6:30 at the Wausau East auditorium.

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UPDATE: Mon 4:17 PM, Oct. 7, 2013

Monday, the Wausau School District released a statement following the use of religious music in holiday concerts.

The new administrative rule, (to view click attached document) to limit religious music has caused Wausau West High School's elite choir group to temporarily disband and the city's elementary schools to postpone holiday concerts.

The statement from the district reads as follows:

The Wausau School District administration is providing this statement in light of recent reports regarding District guidelines concerning the performance of religiously-themed Christmas music at winter concerts and performances. In this regard, it should be noted at the outset that at no time has the District prohibited the use of religiously-themed Christmas music in winter concerts or directed teachers to eliminate such music from the curriculum. Rather, District administration has taken steps to help ensure that religiously-themed music is incorporated into the curriculum and performances in a manner that satisfies legal and educational requirements.

This year, the District administration utilized an alternative process to apply its already-existing administrative rule governing the use of religiously-themed music in the curriculum. The administrative rule dates to 2001, was reviewed in 2010, and is attached to this statement.

This process reflects goals and policies included in Board Policy 5005, Statement of Principles, which is provided along with this statement. In early September, as a part of this process, District legal counsel recommended that the rule itself be updated.

The primary purpose of this process is to ensure that all music classes and performances sponsored by the District are conducted in accordance with the law, and in a manner that shows respect for the varied backgrounds and beliefs of all of our students and families.

District legal counsel presented an in-service to all music teachers on September 17, 2013, in which constitutional principles governing religion in the music curriculum were reviewed and discussed. A copy of the materials distributed at that meeting is provided along with this statement. Quoted in the material distributed to music teachers are U.S. Supreme Court cases which state, among other principles, that public school districts must remain neutral in matters of religion, may not take action to either advance or inhibit a particular religion, or religion in general, and may not take action that would be understood to endorse a religion.

While the review of the District’s administrative rule remains pending at this time, District legal counsel has advised a committee, consisting of music teachers and administrators, in the application of constitutional requirements to proposals submitted by music teachers for music performances during the first academic semester. The committee completed its review of proposals for fall and winter concerts on September 26th. While modest changes were made in some proposals to help ensure that the District was not unconstitutionally endorsing the religious celebration of Christmas, winter performances continue to include selections with religious themes, which have been chosen based upon educational and musical considerations. High school winter concerts will include, for example, the Halleluiah Chorus and De Profundis-Psalm 130. The committee has reviewed each proposal independently and in accordance with advice provided by legal counsel, not based upon any pre-set ratios or percentages.

Late last week, the committee reviewed the proposal for the Wausau West Master Singers winter program. The director of the Master Singers was invited to participate in the committee’s discussion. The proposed Master Singers winter performances involve students performing seasonal songs and Christmas carols at approximately 15 locations in the greater Wausau area on various dates during the school day in December, under the director’s supervision. District legal
counsel has advised that public school districts are generally prohibited from sponsoring Christmas caroling in connection with the religious celebration of Christmas. In response District administration made it clear that the District did not wish to cancel Master Singers winter program, and asked District legal counsel to provide constitutional alternatives. Two alternatives were provided by legal counsel with the understanding that the committee would reconvene on Tuesday, October 8th to determine how the Master Singers performances would proceed.

Under the first option, the Master Singers winter performances would include seasonal and Christmas selections that do not involve the celebration of the religious holiday of Christmas. This approach would allow for the continuation of a holiday theme. The second option involves changing the format of the Master Singers winter performances to a theme other than Christmas, so that the District could not be challenged as unconstitutionally promoting the religious celebration of Christmas through state-sponsored Christmas caroling. It is important to note that no set ratio of religious songs versus non-religious songs was established as a part of the committee’s review. Rather, District legal counsel indicated that, if the format were changed to a new theme, it could be possible to include one religiously-themed Christmas selection along with four other varied selections, which reflected themes from other religious, secular, or cultural traditions. The point of this example was to emphasize the need to make a true change in the theme of the scheduled performances.

Both the prior administrative rule and the interim guidelines have been established at the administrative, rather than the Board, level; such rules have been established at the administrative level for over a decade in the Wausau School District. Similarly, the scheduling of winter and/or spring musical concerts for the elementary schools have been addressed at the administrative level, as a part of a process entirely separate from the more current review of musical selections.

As to the rescheduling of elementary winter concerts to the spring, this process was entirely separate from the review of musical selections discussed above. Last spring and this fall, administration and elementary principals exchanged information and a determination was made to change the dates of performances to spring for the following primary reasons, among those discussed: 1) some principals expressed concerns with time lost from instruction for multiple rehearsals; 2) due to State and Federal mandated testing windows (WKCE and ACCESS) in November and December, it is difficult to coordinate testing around rehearsal schedules; and 3) a spring performance would showcase more developed skills and provide selections from a broader based repertoire of musical styles. This decision impacted all but three elementary schools, as those schools had not been holding winter concerts. This topic will be readdressed with elementary principals in the very near future.

We hope that the information above helps to clarify current District practice. The Wausau School District will continue to take necessary steps to comply with its legal obligations under the U.S. Constitution and otherwise. The District will also strive to ensure that we are respectful of the backgrounds and beliefs of all of our students and their families.

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ORIGINAL STORY: Fri 10:14 PM, Oct 4., 2013

Concerns over the amount of religious based music performed by students in the Wausau School District could mean the cancellation of numerous holiday concerts, and a disbanding of a high school singing group.

According to the Wausau Daily Herald, district administrators told the director of the school's music program, Phil Buch they need to reduce the amount of religious music that is played, because there have been complaints in the past. One option they presented would be for musical groups at the school to perform five non-religious songs for every one religious one. Otherwise, district administrators said the choir would have to eliminate religious songs altogether, or postpone any December concerts.

Those suggestions came after district leaders met with an attorney that represents the district.

Buch said those options just weren't acceptable, so Wausau West's 'Master Singers' group has disbanded for the year. The fifteen elementary schools have also canceled holiday concerts.

One member of the Wausau West choir says she does not feel the new policy is necessary.

"It just seems kind of pointless to me and it just makes me kinda sad. We do it every year and it is what Christmas is all about, it is based on religious songs, so I don't get why this year would make it any different than any other year. " Says choir member Nina Kilcoin.

For now, the annual Wausau West December concert at the Grand Theatre will go on, just not with the Master Singers.

Newschannel 7 has reached out to the Wausau School Board for comment and have not yet heard back.

We will continue to follow this developing story.


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