POINT PLEASANT — Several choir and music students from Point Pleasant Junior/Senior High School (PPJSHS) attended Tuesday’s special transfer hearing meeting of the Mason County Board of Education to voice their opinion on the potential transfer of choir teacher Alyssa Russell.
Both current and past students attended the hearing to support Russell’s claim that the current choir program at PPJSHS would suffer if she is transferred to a different position.
Superintendent Suzanne Dickens began the hearing saying if transferred, Russell would still receive the same level of compensation she would have received if she remained at PPJSHS.
Following Dickens, Tonya Martin, coordinator for human resources, presented the board’s case, saying decisions on the transfer of employees are made in consideration of the state formula, the county and school needs and the county budget, and the decisions are not a reflection of the employee’s performance. Martin continued, saying the following:
Ms. Russell is currently employed as a Music/Choir teacher at Point Pleasant Junior/Senior High School. Last year, the board voted to add a music instructor at this school. The intent was to grow the music/choir program. This however did not happen. There are currently four teachers hired to teach band, music or choir at Point Pleasant. Student enrollment does not currently justify keeping four teachers at this location.
Martin said there are currently 15 sections of music offered by the four teachers and through the reconfiguration of the music, choir and band programs the board approved in February, PPJSHS will be able to offer 18 sections of music with three teachers. Since Russell is the least senior teacher at PPJSHS, she was placed on the transfer list, and in order to provide her with another position, the least senior music teacher in the county was placed on the Reduction-In-Force (RIF) list.
Martin said if the decision to transfer Russell is approved, she will be placed at an elementary school where she can help build the music program at that level, which will feed into the programs at the secondary schools. Martin said if the transfer is not approved, the estimated cost for the county will be $51,561.98.
Assisting Russell in the hearing, Organizational Development Specialist Jeremy Radabaugh with the West Virginia Education Association asked for the current enrollment numbers for the music classes at PPJSHS, which Principal William Cottrill said there were 16 enrolled in choir, 22 in piano and 17 in music appreciation. Since enrollment for the next school year is just beginning, Cottrill didn’t have expected number for next school year at the time. Radabaugh also presented the board with several written statements from parents and students supporting Russell and advising against the transfer.
Russell then provided her own opening statement, saying there was not an established program for choir, and she knew she was taking on a challenge when she began teaching at PPJSHS five years ago and the choir consisted of very few dedicated students.
“Since that first year, I have worked diligently to provide my students with what they needed to become good choir students,” Russell said.
She continued, listing her experiences qualifying her for this position in order to show that the students trust her as a choir teacher, saying credibility in a director is essential to establishing trust with students.
She also mentioned her rapport with the students, noting she cares about her students beyond their ability to sing, and she remains in contact with many of her former students.
Russell also said she has established another important aspect of a music program, which is tradition, saying in her second year she began hosting the school’s annual variety show, which has grown over the past four years and has become something the students look forward to, noting she had over 50 students audition for this year’s show. She said students fear that with a new teacher this would not continue.
Russell also helped establish the school’s annual Broadway revue, as well as plans to put on a short musical play and hopes to begin performing a full scale musical each spring. Russell said many students had approached her with an interest in joining choir because of the particular shows they perform. Russell has also had students participate in All-State Choir every year, saying students put in many extra hours of rehearsal.
Russell noted the fact she will not be without a job, which she is grateful for, but does not like the idea of putting another teacher out of work, and expressed a desire to continue what she has worked to achieve with the music programs. She worries that the program will not continue if she leaves. Russell also spoke about her plans if she does continue in her current position.
“I believe the students have made their desires pretty plain, and if you allow me to be transferred, I feel like that’s telling those students that their voices don’t matter,” said Russell. “You’re showing them that hard work and dedication and love for of one’s craft don’t matter, and that’s not a message that I want my students to hear.”
Following Russell, two of her former students and one current student spoke to the board on her behalf, the first being former American Idol contestant Chase Likens.
“I believe taking Ms. Alyssa Russell out of Point Pleasant High School will be taking the five years that it took to build the choral program and demolishing the foundation,” Likens said.
He continued, saying he found his passion in the music room, noting Russell’s passion and dedication, and saying that Russell has helped shape him into the person he is today.
Following Likens, former student Marissa Snyder spoke to the board, saying she also found her passion in the music room under Russell’s guidance, and she felt Russell has given her everything she needed to pursue a career in music.
“We would be much better off to keep Alyssa here, and I hope you will agree with me,” Snyder said.
Ashley Wamsley, a current student of Russell’s, spoke to the board on her efforts and the efforts of other current choir students to keep Russell at PPJSHS, saying they have made flyers and petitions against the transfer.
“Nobody really knows what Alyssa Russell means to us,” Wamsley said. “She is the only one that knows us well enough to instruct our choir. She has been building this choir up from the ground for five consecutive years, and if you put another person in her place, there will no longer be a choir. If there is, then none of the experienced kids that we have this year will join.”
Following the students’ comments, Radabaugh mentioned there were several students wishing to take choir, but who were unable to due to scheduling conflicts. Radabaugh also asked why Russell wasn’t informed that enrollment numbers for music classes were down and why she wasn’t informed that the lower numbers could result in the elimination of her position. Dickens noted Russell was present during a meeting when enrollment numbers were discussed, and Martin said the Board is not required to inform the employee of this situation until the employee is transferred or place of the RIF list.
It was noted there will still be a choir teacher at PPJSHS if Russell is transferred, who currently oversees the junior high choir, and if Russell is transferred, will take over the high school choir, as well.
“We want to see what’s best for the students, for the school, for the community,” Radabaugh said in his closing statement. “We want to see the choir program to continue as is.”
Dickens acknowledged the students for attending and said a decision will be made in the best interest of the students. Dickens also noted that a decision on Russell’s transfer will be made at a meeting set for 6 p.m., on March 26, at the Mason County Career Center.
In addition to Dickens, board members present were Thomas Nunnery, Randy Searls, Greg Fowler, Paul Sayre and Dale Shobe.
The Mason County Board of Education will meet again today, March 21, at 3:45 p.m. for a special statutory business meeting, and again at 4 p.m. for a policy/regular business meeting, both at the Mason County Career Center.