Richmond Hill Band Director Charles Westman said he won't talk about the reasons behind the decision by school officials not to renew his contract next year.
But he did say he doesn't want to go.
"I really don’t want to leave if I don’t have to because I love these kids and I know what these kids can achieve," said Westman. "What I see in the future, nobody else knows yet. I’ve been down this road, and I see a future that is way beyond what anybody here realizes they can do, and I don’t want to walk out on that."
Westman said news of his departure has been tough on his students,
"It’s kind of a rocky road right now," he said. "We’ve got a major performance this Friday at Band Festival and I just told the kids – ‘look, we’re going to knock a home run this Friday. We have an hour and a half a day together, and that’s going to be positive. Let’s let the future be the future and let’s not focus on that. Good and bad things happen to us in life, but, for that hour and a half, whatever bad happens doesn’t have to affect us; we can have a great time.’"
Westman said there is a close relationship between himself, the kids, and the parents and booster club because his program is structured in a way that is "wide open" with involvement and participation.
"Everybody sees everything that is going on, and that’s why there’s a certain level of trust there," Westman said. "I have a strong bond with the kids. I view them as my kids and think that they view me very much in a teacher roll but also the parents joke that I’m almost a second parent in a way. We spend an awful lot of time together, and I get on them like my own kids."
Westman said that if he sees one of his students struggling with a particular subject, he’ll arrange tutoring via a fellow band student that is strong in that particular course in an effort to keep them on track academically. He said that his students must be up to par in their other courses in order to participate in the band.
"I let then know right away that if they’re not successful in other classes, then they’re not going to be successful in mine," he said. "I’ll sit them down and not let them perform. They just cannot have question with their other grades, because that’s more important. There’s no reason for them being out on Fridays and Saturdays having the reward of being apart of a band program if they’re not going to get their studies done."
He speaks very highly of the skill level of his students, who have won many competitions under his tutelage.
"The future for these kids is very bright. The performance level has gone up almost every week. Our proficiency level right now in the top band is the same level that you expect at a university, and we keep pushing the envelope."
In contests competing against the best bands in the southeast this year, the marching band consistently scored at the top of the roster including winning its first grand championship. Last year, Westman’s students won the National Band Festival in Atlanta. Westman said it was this title that got them noticed by attending national judges and eventually garnered them the invitation to play a concert at a national event in Washington D.C. along with numerous other invitations.
"We’ve been getting invitations like crazy," he said. "It not publicized because if we can’t go to Washington, we can’t go these other ones either. It is a pat on the back though because only select programs get these invitations, and we made the cut."
Those invitations include world famous concert venues like Carnegie Hall and the Sydney Opera House in Australia.
When asked if there is a level of frustration within the program with not being able to go, Westman replied, "There’s a lot of frustration with the parents and with the kids, but we’re trying to do different things. We’re going to do what we can do. As far as my opinion, I feel like, long term, eventually things have to change. Short term, I’m not as frustrated. All of the frustration came from the parents and the students and really not from me because I’m of the belief that you do the right things, eventually the right thing happens. I still believe that although (laughs) I’m starting to not be so sure."
Westman feels like much of the backlash from the boosters and parents can be attributed it to the emotions that are manifested from having such a positive program that includes participation from these individuals.
"I feel so passionate about this program and it’s contagious," he said. "A lot of the success of the program has to do with parents. They come in and volunteer and help with so many things. It gives them a chance to be involved with their kids and a lot of them are. The situation is out of my hands, so I’ll just have to let the future take me where it goes."
Like the parents who spoke out in the last issue, RHHS band booster president Craig Klebe is struggling to find a reason why Westman is being let go.
"I honestly don’t know why he’s being pushed out of the program," said Klebe. "I’ve racked my brain on this a whole bunch, and I can’t think of a single thing that I’m aware of that’s he’s done that would constitute relieving him of his duties. And, quite honestly, his vision of the future is so positive that it’s hard to imagine where there would be a problem."
When asked what the consensus among the kids is right now, Klebe responded, "The kids are disappointed. The kids want him to be here. The kids respect him and know what he brings to the table. He’s a tough director and he’s very demanding, but he’s demanding excellence and its bringing excellence out in the kids. So where the kids are at right now is they are hurt and they don’t understand why this could happen."
Klebe said that the statement in the last issue where a parent spoke of him confronting RHHS Principal Charles Spann and being told that this issue was due to a "personal conflict" was a bit distorted. Klebe said he did have a very friendly meeting with Spann but that he was told that the reasoning behind the non-renewal of Westman’s contract could be discussed as it was a "personnel matter". Klebe said other band issues were discussed and he believes it was a productive meeting.
Klebe spoke of the financial demands of the program pointing out that the band may need a larger facility to accommodate the growing program.
Several parents have pointed out that fundraising efforts of the booster club was needed to fund the much needed uniforms of the school band. When asked about it, Klebe commented, "That issue is water under the bridge. We came up with the funds, we conquered that issue, we moved on. Obviously, it would have been nice to have support from the school to offer to pay half or whatever. The reality of it is the parents and the community stepped up and it got taken care of. And that’s why things happen the way they do in the Richmond Hill school district – because we have great parents and great families that support the programs and support the kids."
On the topic of the multiple out-of-state invitations that have poured in lately, Klebe commented, "We haven’t approached administration on any of these new ones because we saw (new Board of Education Chairman) Eddie Warren’s comments where he addressed the issue in the interest of changing the ruling, and we’re waiting to see what he’s going to do. He’s only been in office a couple of months, and I realize these things don’t happen overnight."
Klebe feels the non-renewal of Westman’s contract could potentially be devastating to the band program "because of the immediate need to continue on with the director, who has been very successful and there’s one more thing to think about. Mr. Westman has been here for a couple years. Especially this past year, he’s hit home runs. His contract isn’t renewed. If you think about it logically, if you’re an employee, and you’re looking for work, one of the first questions is always ‘why did the guy before me leave?’ And you take a look at the guy before you and his accomplishments. He didn’t leave because he wanted to leave, but because he was asked to leave. What kind of a message does that send to potential employees? If you are an employee that is a top-notch band director, are you going to consider working at Richmond Hill?"
On the boosters’ next move, Klebe replied, "We should talk to Mr. Westman before pushing too hard on this. Part of this is with Mr. Westman; we don’t want to damage his career. As of right now, we’ve got Festival this weekend and we’ve already spent too much time on this. It’s an important event. After that, we’ll regroup and evaluate where we go from here."