Those on both sides of a debate over whether the Burbank Youth Vocal Arts Foundation should detach itself from Burbank Unified to ease fundraising restrictions and oversight agreed at a meeting Wednesday to work together to keep the program affiliated with the district.
After more than an hour and a half of at times tearful testimony, students, parents and Burbank Unified school officials began to sound hopeful they could find a way to raise the money necessary to support the foundation, including its costly, nationally competitive show choir, while staying within California's public education policy — a position that seemed untenable just days ago.
“It’s amazing what a difference six days can make,” said Armond Aghakhanian, the school board’s vice president. “We went from accusations to let’s work together.”
Roberta Reynolds, board president, did not once have to use her gavel, she happily pointed out at the meeting’s end.
The special meeting was called by school officials after the issue was raised during a board meeting on July 19.
For Lorri Hubert, the vocal foundation’s president, the turning point came a day before the meeting on Wednesday when an attorney for the district told her that they could keep track of accounting under students’ individual names, something she said she was previously barred from doing.
In addition to the show choir, called In Sync, the foundation also includes an all-female choir, an all-male choir and a younger mixed-choir.
As a result, money collected and raised went into a general pool, Hubert said. If there wasn’t enough to send all of the students in a particular program to a national competition, no one could go, she said.
“We want to not charge students, but say these items cost money,” Hubert said after the meeting. “Who wants to separate from the school district? Nobody does. But we do want to make sure that the students still have the type of experience and program that they have.”
Calls to split came after the foundation fell $50,000 short of its $700,000 funding goals, board member Charlene Tabet said last week.
According to Hubert, the show choir needs the money to hire a live band for performances, travel to competitions and support the high-quality production value for which the program is known.
While there was broad consensus to return to the negotiating table, issues remain.
Board members Steve Frintner and Steve Ferguson both said that asking families to pay what could be thousands of dollars or openly admit they don’t have the financial means ran contrary to the spirit of public education.
“By establishing fees and fighting so hard to enforce on those fees, it precludes many families that do not have access to the same resources from even attempting to participate in this program, and that is where my concern comes from,” Ferguson said.
Scholarships are available to students, and the program fully and partially subsidizes some of the programs’ participants every year, according to Will Woods, the foundation’s former president.
A large number of parents did not pay last year because they “were sickened by the lack of transparency from the year before,” claimed parent Lucia Applebaum, who said she waited until the end of the year to pay to make a point.
Applebaum accused the foundation of refusing to provide updated financials demonstrating the need for contributions. Foundation treasurer Charles Rodriguez said no parent had ever asked him for the documentation Applebaum referenced, but that he’d readily provide it.
Caught in the middle of the contentious back-and-forth were high school students in the dance and choir programs. Many told the board about the positive impact the program has had on them and that they did not want to see it altered in any way.
They kicked off the meeting singing a hopeful tune: “Greater than the strain, greater than the shame, deeper than the pain, is the light of love shining here.”
The vocal foundation allows participants “to do what we love every single day and be in a family environment where everyone supports one another with love and positivity,” student Paul Yi said.
Nicolas Armenta, former president of the show choir In Sync, tentatively advocated for the program splitting from the district because he felt there were too many fundraising restrictions. After the meeting, he said he just wanted to figure out the best solution by the time school starts up in the fall.
“I know a lot of students feel a sense of uncertainty, and I know they feel worried about where it’s going to go,” said Armenta, who graduated this past spring.
Should the foundation choose to leave, there will inevitably be changes to the program, board member Frintner said. For one, students will likely have to lose the bulldog on their shirts, Supt. Matt Hill said.
Frintner also said there seemed to be a misunderstanding permeating during the meeting that the board somehow did not understand the value of the choir or wanted it out of the district.
“That couldn’t be further from the truth,” Finter said. “It’s part of the fabric of the school, and that’s the way we want it to remain.”