Whenever the St. Paul school board thinks about cutting a music program, it can expect to see Eugene Monnig's face in the crowd.
"A bunch of parents go holler at them" when they propose music cuts, Monnig said, "and if they're not hollering, we go holler."
In recent years, the programs have been pretty stable. But this year, with the school district facing huge budget deficits, band parents and Monnig are mobilizing again.
Monnig bought Cadenza Music on St. Paul's Snelling Avenue in 1974, right after graduating from Macalester College. In the 35 years since, Monnig has carefully watched the ups and downs of all the school music programs in the city as students have come to him for instruments, lessons and repair.
As school budgets have fluctuated, Monnig has kept an eye on the treatment of the city's youngest musicians.
His store can be a grapevine of information for the St. Paul music world, as parents chat while they wait for children to finish lessons and band students wait with the store's instrument repair staff.
"Cadenza is a good store," said 9-year-old Sydney Linssen, a fourth-grader at Horace Mann Elementary who was taking a guitar lesson at the store. "I learn a lot, and I can get to play better."
Monnig bought Cadenza from Harry Blons, a Dixieland clarinetist from St. Paul. He had a music degree from Macalester but didn't really know much about running a business. To make his way in the music scene of St. Paul, he just had one secret: Longevity.
"If you stay in the same place, doing the same thing long enough, eventually someone will notice you're there," he said.
Cadenza is now the only locally owned music store within the boundaries of the St. Paul school district.
Monnig showed up at his first school board meeting when the district considered cutting elementary band programs in the early '80s. "I said that I thought the students and teachers should be put ahead of the administration," he said, but "I think I was a little bit more decorative in my phrasing."
The cuts didn't happen, Monnig said, and since then, "I've kind of gotten the impression that the district really didn't want to cut music. It just seems like a negotiating position."
The district is facing a $25 million deficit for next year, and it is proposing to stop paying for individual, in-school band lessons for students in grades four, five and six. Individual schools can choose to continue the program if they want to pay for it from their own budget.
The cuts could save the district as much as $1.4 million. Recent developments, however, now have district administrators looking into the possibility of making other budget cuts to try to avoid getting rid of the elementary lessons.
"When you take the lessons out of the schools, where it is free," said Sydney's mother, Danica Linssen, "it becomes a social status thing, where only the kids whose parents can afford to pay for private lessons can learn music."
Monnig went to a recent board meeting with Nancy Vernon, his domestic partner who also helps run the store. He said it doesn't make sense for the district to eliminate a program that attracts students, when the district is already losing students to charter schools.
Linssen appreciated that. "I love that Eugene and Nancy feel so strongly about keeping music in the schools," she said. "The music people always have a small voice, but I like to think that it's a small and mighty voice."
In recent years, as enrollment in St. Paul Public Schools has declined, Monnig has seen a decreasing number of public school students leasing instruments from the store. The store leases somewhere between 200 and 300 instruments to students every year; Vernon didn't want to reveal the exact number, but the total number has been stable over the past few years.
In 2004, 79 percent of those instruments went to students in the public schools, with 21 percent going to private and parochial school students and none going to charter school students. This year, 64 percent of instruments are going to public school students, with 24 percent going to public and parochial students and 13 percent going to charters.
"If you're trying to preserve something" like the public schools, Monnig said, "taking away one of the coolest parts is not going to bring anybody in."
Emily Johns • 612-673-7460