7323 University Avenue, La Mesa
“The old band director came in here one day,” Michael Benge says. “He stood right there and he said, ‘Do you know how old this carpet is?’” Indeed, the carpet in the band classroom at Helix High School is shot. A dozen battered sousaphones hang on pale green walls like trophy mounts. They might as well be; only six of them work. Benge says there is no budget for new instruments or repairs.
Mitchell Way, 31, director of instrumental music at the La Mesa campus, pulls a tool kit from his a drawer in his desk. “We use this every day.”
In fact, Benge says, there is no budget for anything. “We don’t get any money from the district to run the music program.” Parents take up the slack in the school’s cash flow via a nonprofit called the Helix Instrumental Music Association. The associate director of instrumental music by day, Benge, 32, plays trombone in the B-Side Players by night. He says parents also provide meals on the road, stitch torn band uniforms, and they drive. “There is no money for buses. We carpool 125 kids to events.”
Benge says that fundraising is another source of cash flow. “It’s becoming a full-time job, fundraising.” In recent days, Helix music students have been seen on La Mesa street corners bearing flashy green placards that advertise discounts on mattress sets.
“There are different organizations that recognize the fact that school bands need to raise substantial amounts of money,” says Way, bedding discounters among them. “We made a couple thousand dollars.”
Ironically, the cash-starved music program will move into a high-tech campus performing arts center next year. The construction money was set aside, Benge explains, in a bond measure that was passed by voters over a decade ago. In the meantime, both he and Way are considering applying for grants and are vetting a host of other fundraisers.
“We’re thinking about setting up cow-chip bingo,” Way says. “You grid off a field and let some cows loose. You take bets on where they will dump.... We’re still trying to work that one out.” The band also has a PayPal account set up to receive donations at http://bit.ly/HIMA2012.