FAIRFIELD — Sixty years ago, William Crawford created a fund in his will to ensure that the town’s high school band would have added financial support, forever.
Today, Lawrence High School administrators and the Fairfield Town Council, named in 1953 as the fund trustee, are not in harmony about how the money is spent.
“At that time, the governance was such that the local school would be part of the municipal government and the town would be the logical entity to receive any monies for the school,” said Stewart Kinley, a board member of Fairfield-based School Administrative District 49.
But long after the will was written, the high school was absorbed into the same district as schools in Albion, Benton and Clinton.
“No longer does the Town Council have anything to do with the schools,” Kinley said.
Except when it comes to the William Crawford Perpetual Music Fund.
The school and the council have disagreed over whether reducing program funding will hurt the band’s 88 students.
Because of this, the town has been increasingly involved in the details of the program, with some councilors asking for each individual expense to be submitted for approval, rather than signing off on categories of expenses.
Councilor Robert Sezak said the fund exists to support the band, not the school’s music department.
“It’s our discretion on how to use the money and how much to spend,” he said.
Kinley said the Town Council is not tasked with tracking the band’s individual budget line items.
“It’s actually the responsibility of the school board to determine where the money is spent,” Kinley said. “That comes from state law. We are responsible for the education program.”
Fund balancing act
The fund balance, which was $214,000 when the will came into effect in 1977, has grown to $952,000.
Crawford’s will specifies that the town should “invest and reinvest” the fund, and “to hold the same perpetually.”
“We did have differences of opinion about how to interpret the will,” said Councilor Harold “Jim” Murray. “It means growth to me.”
Murray and other council members say the fund’s principal balance must grow at the rate of inflation to preserve its purchasing power for future generations of students.
By their calculations, the balance should be about $1,350,000, not $952,000, according to a town report.
The council passed a policy in October limiting disbursements to 90 percent of the fund’s income, which led to the council setting a cap of $20,000 for the upcoming year’s disbursements, far less than the $35,000 given in recent years.
Kinley agrees that adding some amount to the principal is prudent, but said the will leaves the council with some leeway.
The council policy ties disbursements to the fund’s annual income, which fluctuates wildly from year to year. In three of the last 11 years, the fund lost money, while in 2011, it earned $80,000.
Murray said that, in a new uncertain economic era, the policy is necessary, but Kinley said it’s difficult to budget based on stock market swings.
Salaries and stipends
Predictably, the town and the school differ on what bills should be paid from the fund, instead of the district.
The school pays for all of the music instructor salaries, and $11,100 for five instructor stipends within the school’s five distinct bands, Superintendent Dean Baker said.
Two other stipends, which cost a total of about $4,000, are paid by the Crawford fund. The fund also pays $700 for a drill designer, which the district considers to be a service, not a stipend.
Kinley said the stipends aren’t cushy luxuries for the band instructors, who he estimated earn far less than $5 per hour for their efforts. The impact of cutting stipends, he said, would be quick and brutal.
“If you cut the stipends, you aren’t going to have the personnel to run the program,” he said.
But Murray said stipends shouldn’t be paid by the fund at all. “Stipends should be paid by the school,” Murray said.
Scholarships and Instruments
In addition to music camp scholarships at places like the University of Maine at Farmington and the New England School of Music, the fund pays to maintain and purchase instruments.
Kinley estimated the school spends between $7,000 and $10,000 on instruments every year “to keep even,” with two saxophones last year costing $8,200. Reduced funding will affect instrument purchases, he said, which would hurt children because many families struggle to buy instruments for their children.
“We have a lot of people in the district who live pretty close to the edge,” he said.
Having a steady stream of instruments is important, he said, because used instruments are loaned to children in the lower grades. Those early exposures are needed to generate new band members, he said.
Kinley said the schools pay to retune and maintain most instruments every year, but that doesn’t eliminate the need for new instrument purchases.
Murray said that, with the maintenance, the instruments shouldn’t need to be replaced so often. “Those instruments will last for years and years and years and years,” he said.
Councilor Michael Taylor, who is slotted to serve on the Crawford committee this year, said he supports funding reasonable equipment purchases.
Finding common ground
With looming state cuts in municipal revenue sharing and education budgets, the school and the town may be more interested in joining forces to lobby for state funding than wrestling over the relatively small amount of money in the Crawford fund.
But that doesn’t mean they agree. Murray said it’s just one more example of a school district needing to make budget cuts. “Other schools are doing the same and they don’t have a Crawford fund to lay back on,” Murray said.
Kinley said Crawford established the fund to help the program thrive, not just survive. The added support has helped the program to do well in statewide competitions, and to send some students on to musical careers, he said. “The Crawford money is used to fund things above and beyond what the district would normally fund,” he said.
Town Manager Josh Reny said it amounts to a difference of opinion, not values.
“The bottom line is both members of the school board and town council care about supporting the Lawrence Band and want to see that this incredible gift is used appropriately,” he said.
The town is focused on making sure that the fund doesn’t lose purchasing power at the expense of future generations of students, while Kinley said the district is focused on ensuring “no student is denied the opportunity to learn a musical instrument because they can’t afford an instrument.”
Whether those two goals can coexist remains to be seen.
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287