Normally, at around four in the afternoon, a cozy stone house at the Tucker Street and Boylan Avenue intersection in Raleigh becomes a hive of happy activity as kids clamber in with instruments in tow. The sounds of scales and warm-ups usually drift through the halls every day of the school year. But since late October, when the Community Music School suddenly announced that it would immediately suspend operations and possibly close for good, the happy hive has been stilled. Instead, it's "mournfully quiet," according to Erin Zanders, the school's operations manager. And the future is very much in doubt for roughly 120 kids of modest means who are currently enrolled there, the seventeen-person staff of instructors, and future generations of Raleigh youth seeking affordable musical training.
In its twenty-three-year existence, Community Music School has educated more than two thousand students. Though the school's scope has expanded over the years to include music technology and a newly instituted musical theater program, CMS's focus is providing private music lessons that cost a dollar an hour and performance opportunities to kids ages seven to eighteen, who otherwise might not have access to them. The school loans students a bass, a sax, a violin, a guitar, or another instrument of their choice, and they learn from one of the paid staff. The lone requirement is that the child must receive free or reduced lunch at school.
These days, the math is stark: CMS needs to raise $100,000 by the end of January. As of press time, about a third of the funds have been collected. And though a few fundraising events are scheduled within the next few weeks, including a Christmas Eve benefit, the school needs a few large donors to step in to right the ship.
How could a robust, low-overhead nonprofit enterprise, coming off a year that saw a record number of applicants and expanded programming, suddenly find itself $100,000 in the red? In November, the board released a statement on its website attributing its woes to "insufficient fundraising, unexpected timing delays in anticipated grant revenue, program expansion, increased personnel costs and unforeseen financial bumps."
Rose Kenyon, a member of the board of directors, characterizes the financial crisis as completely unexpected, the result of a "perfect storm" of contributing factors. Two in particular have done the worst damage: the school's lack of a dedicated funding arm and its lack of a reserve fund.
"We've always survived financially a bit on the skinny side, and we didn't really put the effort and the money, the resources, into building a more robust fund-development program," Kenyon says.
The school had long operated by funneling the money it gets back into the program, without setting any aside in reserve. It has survived via grants, individual contributions, and a number of corporate donors, including the Raleigh Arts Commission and the John W. Pope Foundation. But according to Kenyon, those funds are no longer enough to cover the operating costs of the school. Outside money only takes care of about a third of those costs, she estimates.
The board attempted to address its lack of a development arm last year by hiring a new executive director, Hope Hancock, an experienced fundraiser with the SPCA and the Humane Society, but with no background in music or education. Still, CMS hired Hancock, "at some expense," according to Kenyon, with the idea that the move was an investment that would eventually pay for itself.
"It really didn't work out," Kenyon says of Hancock's tenure. "We learned you can't just push a magic button—it's going to take more time and effort to get that up and going."
Hancock was at the helm when CMS programming started up again in September and the board first comprehended the hole it was in. But how did the board, charged with the financial stewardship of a company that operates without a financial safety net, not have a better handle on the numbers? Kenyon says it wasn't aware of the shortfall due to miscommunication between the company headquarters, which was switching over to a new financial reporting system.
"There was just confusion in who was sort of on top of it. That's why in a way it surprised the board," Kenyon says.
Still, the board failed to indicate that the school was facing a serious financial crisis. The October 5 edition of the school's online newsletter led with Hancock's "From the Director's Chair" column, assuring parents and the school community, "We're off to a great year."
So when CMS announced on October 27 that it was pulling the plug, no one was expecting it. Mairym Azcona, who has five children in the program, is among the parents shocked by CMS's abrupt halt. She checked her phone at a red light and spotted an email from Zanders. When she saw that classes had been suspended, she pulled her car to the side of the road so she could cry.
"I love this school," she says. "This school has done wonders for my family."
Matt Douglas was similarly shocked by the board's move. The local horn player has worked at CMS since 2012, developing the school's music technology curriculum, starting a composition and songwriting program, and advocating for additional technology programming.
"The board really shot themselves in the foot by suspending classes," he says. "It's hard to convince people to give a bunch of money to something if that something isn't functioning."
Douglas, who has also planned and participated in several benefits on the school's behalf, says the faculty would have been open to doing some of its work pro bono or accepting delayed payment—minor sacrifices, he says, compared to what's presently on the line. But Kenyon says the board rejected those options, reasoning that with the school out of cash, shutting down the school was more responsible than incurring new financial obligations.
Those hard numbers aside, it's hard to quantify the value of CMS's work in providing a musical education to two thousand kids from underprivileged circumstances. The program fosters genuine self-esteem and validation among an extremely vulnerable group of young people, and it has surely changed many lives for the better. The school has a little over a month to pull together the remainder of the sum it needs to keep its doors open.
Kenyon says the school is in active talks with multiple sources, seeking to drum up a few significant donations from new sources. Douglas, meanwhile, is optimistic that the school will reopen, but the financial obstacle cannot be minimized. If it shutters, Raleigh children stand to lose out on life-changing educational opportunities—an immeasurable loss for the school's current and prospective students alike.
This article appeared in print with the headline "School of Hard Knocks"