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Questions arise after El Roble band London trip is cancelled

El Roble Intermediate School’s instrumental music program has had a series of setbacks in recent weeks, including the loss of its enthusiastic young band director, Taylor Estep, and the cancellation of an ambitious—some say overly ambitious—trip to London planned for later this year.

Mr. Estep resigned in March. He declined comment to the COURIER for this story, but in a form letter sent to the school district, El Roble staff, music boosters and families, he wrote, “my vision and goals for the future and my career have changed” as reason for stepping down.

A plan to take 200 El Roble musicians to England to participate in the 2020 London New Year’s Day Parade, which the COURIER reported on in our October 12, 2018 edition, was to cost $740,000 paid through donations from the community. The price tag for the trip was later revised down to $357,000 as the number of musicians expecting to go was reduced.

In February the group responsible for raising the money, El Roble’s Instrumental Music Boosters, determined the financial enthusiasm did not exist to support the excursion, even at the reduced cost, and along with El Roble Principal Scott Martinez and Mr. Estep, recommended to Superintendent Jim Elsasser that it be cancelled.

Now some in the community are questioning why the plan was allowed to go forward in the first place—a nonrefundable deposit of $21,000 to parade organizers is gone, and those who were there from the beginning have differing views on who is responsible.

According to CUSD Assistant Superintendent Lisa Shoemaker, the onus was on Mr. Estep and the boosters to determine whether the London trip was financially viable. “They felt, I’m sure as a group it was and they discussed it at length I’m assuming in terms of the reality,” she said.

CUSD board approval of the field trip was made on the consent calendar of the September 20, 2018 meeting after a request by Mr. Martinez and Mr. Estep to begin fundraising.

Consent calendar items are generally deemed non-controversial, allowing the board to group several items together for approval without discussion. Board members are permitted to pull an item for discussion, however none of the members in attendance at that meeting—Steven Llanusa, Nancy Treser Osgood or Dave Nemer—asked to do so. Hilary LaConte and Beth Bingham were absent from that meeting, according to the minutes.

“I was president of the board when the vote took place,” said Mr. Llanusa. “I believed the trip was financially viable despite the large price tag. When my sons were in the marching band, we went to Hawaii for a week to march in a parade. The cost was expensive but families had a long time to save money for that trip. To me, this trip to London was right in line with the marching band going to Hawaii.”

Mr. Martinez was on vacation this week and unavailable for comment. Reached via email, Ms. Treser Osgood said she was ill and asked the COURIER to get comment from other board members. Two emails were sent to Mr. Nemer, but were unreturned as of press time.

Mr. Elsasser said by phone Monday that the district didn’t want to put limits on the program.

“They had an exciting opportunity, and while we didn’t really know if they could raise that much money, we didn’t want to keep them from trying,” said Mr. Elsasser.

Mr. Estep told the El Roble kids about the London trip September 21, following the school board meeting. Then, on October 25, it was announced to the public in an elaborate ceremony at the school featuring Duncan Sandys, former lord mayor of the city of Westminster, England, and great-grandson of Sir Winston Churchill.

But the El Roble Instrumental Music Boosters say they had no advance knowledge of the plan.

“We weren’t at the meeting where Taylor [Estep] presented the trip to the school board, so we have no idea what he said to them,” said booster treasurer Kim McCarthy. “When the announcement was made, we were all very surprised.”

Booster President Donna Norum agrees with Ms. McCarthy’s assessment.

“The trip was initially presented to us by Taylor as it was not an option,” said Ms. Norum. “It was approved before the booster club was aware of it. The trip was happening. So we were figuring out how to make it happen.”

Several milestone payments were to be met. On December 15, 2018, the non-refundable $21,000 deposit was paid. Other payment deadlines—none of which were met—included a $42,000 payment due February 15, followed by four more payments totaling $357,000 by November 7, 2019.

So, the boosters set about fundraising. All told, the group raised an impressive $92,000 in a relatively short time frame before the plug was pulled. Of that amount, $21,000 went toward the deposit. An additional $25,000 collected from car washes, gift wrap booths and other fundraisers (as well as $8,600 in excess funds left over after making the deposit), was returned to the booster’s account and earmarked for a future trip at the request of band parents.

Roughly $14,000 raised from community donors will be put back in the boosters’ general fund, to be used to purchase and maintain instruments, uniforms and for other instrumental music necessities. Donation checks totaling approximately $32,000—money collected and held after things started looking financially shaky—were returned to donors.

According to the boosters, Mr. Estep was aware early on there was a risk that it might not work out.

“He told me—and we told everybody—that we are going to ask for some donations for our first installment, and if we don’t reach an acceptable percentage of participation, we will not go forward with the trip,” Ms. McCarthy said. “So there was always, from the very beginning, a chance this might happen; that we’re going to try to make it happen, but we can pull out.”

Ms. Shoemaker sat in on booster club meetings, but said she wasn’t in a position to determine whether or not the trip was financially achievable. She was there “to give them the legal parameters about donations,” she said.

“I was there to make sure they understood they were not donating on behalf of their individual child: that’s illegal. I was there to say, ‘You are donating to a program. It’s not a pay to play.’ I was there to make sure everyone understood they were donating to the program, and that donations were non-refundable,” she explained.

The boosters felt the trip might be possible after an initial round of fundraising showed robust interest. But in January, during the second round, interest waned. They twice extended contribution deadlines, but the enthusiasm wasn’t there. The boosters began to seriously doubt the viability of the effort. In February, they began letting parents know the trip was in jeopardy.

The boosters sent out a survey to potential supporters to gauge the level of financial enthusiasm for the trip.

“And it became clear that they just didn’t have enough supporters to make it happen,” Mr. Elsasser said. “It came back that the level of support needed to raise those kinds of funds just wasn’t there.”

Ms. Norum, Ms. McCarthy, Mr. Estep and Principal Martinez made the joint recommendation that the trip be cancelled.

“The cancellation of the London trip was a difficult decision for all involved,” said Mr. Llanusa.

The $40,947.62 remaining in the booster’s account that had been earmarked for the London trip can’t be refunded.

“Once [donors] make their payment to the boosters, and the boosters deposit them in their account, I don’t believe there’s a mechanism where they can get reimbursed,” Mr. Elsasser said. “They made that tax-deductible donation to El Roble Band Boosters, and once they write a check to them, they can’t get it back. The boosters can leave that money in their account, but they can’t really write checks back.”

With Mr. Estep’s resignation—which both Mr. Elsasser and Mr. Martinez claim was in no way related the London fiasco—CUSD is looking to hire a new band director at El Roble by the end of next month.

And on the bright side, that new director will likely have about $25,000 to use toward a future activity.

“We’ll look at what we can do for the kids, something special, that would be much lower scale,” Mr. Elsasser said, emphasizing that any new undertaking would not be just a “day trip.”

“We will look for something that’s appropriate—that they can afford—and that will be a special memory for them,” he said. “But we can’t do anything until we get a new teacher hired.”

From the sting of this experience, things might be different going forward in terms of undertaking large fundraising efforts, Ms. Shoemaker said.

“Mr. Estep was very confident this could be done—he was very popular and had a lot of support,”?she said. “I think that’s where the board would be more likely to trust the people that were involved with the process on a daily basis. I don’t want to speak for them. I mean, they’re relying on someone who’s working in the trenches every day and saying, ‘We can do this.’”

 “I think the district does, in the future, have to make a judgment,” she continued. “It probably would be helpful for the district to have an opinion on it going forward.”

Mr. Llanusa hopes this experience doesn’t thwart future opportunities for CUSD kids.

“I will not speak for the rest of the board, but I feel we will continue to evaluate all large price-tag field trip requests on a case-by-case basis,” Mr. Llanusa said. “Our district has a history of trips to other countries. Large groups of students travel to other states throughout the year. The cancellation of the London trip is a huge disappointment for everyone involved. However, this decision should not overshadow the good that comes from other such trips.”

Meanwhile, some locals are voicing displeasure at the turn of events like Claremont resident Frank Delaney, 57, whose daughter is now a senior at Claremont High.

“It seems there should be some sort of reference point for these types of things,” he said. “What is really sad is that I tend to be cynical, and a lot of the story regarding the band struck me as a bit like The Music Man. It’s ironic because at this time of such divisiveness is our country, it was so nice to see the cherry red signs all over the community saying ‘I’m With the Band,’” he said of the signs that dot the front yards of donors to the cancelled London trip.

“It’s such a shame because I think it would have been such a unique boost to our collective morale.”

—Mick Rhodes

mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

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