A school-affiliated musical group originally organized by a teacher and students from Saline High School may have hit the right notes recently when students and parents alike voted by a 3-to-1 margin to make the ensemble a private venture. The decision to privatize was supported by district officials.
The ensemble was begun in 1994 when Saline High School teacher Bob Phillips collected more than 20 high school string musicians and persuaded them to be part of a new musical group. The group, according to its official web site, "… would have two primary goals: to learn traditional American fiddle music and perform for small audiences, thus perpetuating this rich musical heritage."
The Fiddlers play a wide variety of music, "with styles as diverse as classical, jazz, country, rock, old-time, Texas-style, bluegrass, gypsy, eclectic, Celtic, and electric." They are currently in negotiation to provide entertainment for events hosted by at least one Fortune 500 company, and to be the opening act for a well-known country music artist. The Fiddlers have asked the Mackinac Center for Public Policy not to divulge precisely who that is until the deal is finalized.
Due to demand for their services, the Fiddlers have traveled frequently. According to their official web site, www.salinefiddlers.com, the group has performed more than 600 times in 11 states, Washington, D.C. and four foreign countries.
Officially part of the Saline Area Schools, students were recruited at Saline High School and were required to try out for the ensemble. Like tryouts for sports teams, not everyone that auditions make the cut, as students must meet talent and character requirements.
A few Fiddler students and their parents complained that the move to privatize the group came too fast, and that it was unfair for the group to take the name and any other assets of the famous ensemble away from the school district. But the Saline Fiddlers have always been quasi-private, and self-funding, anyway.
The group has been supported through private efforts such as individual donations, volunteer assistance, and revenue derived from hosting concerts. And those efforts have paid off. The group’s assets — including instruments, lighting, and sound equipment — are worth an estimated $100,000.
This success ended up being a major catalyst for the vote to go private. The founder of the group, Bob Phillips, and his wife retired two years ago. When they left they took with them institutional knowledge and management skills that were difficult for a school district to replicate. Managing the group was deemed unwieldy, and something of a distraction for district officials.
According to the Saline Fiddler’s Winter 2004 newsletter, "The Fiddlers have grown beyond what can reasonably be operated as an extracurricular program of the schools. With the support of the school system, Fiddler parents created a private, nonprofit corporation for the sole purpose of perpetuating the group for future generations of Saline High School Students."
There were other reasons for going private as well. For instance, district officials feared that the high-profile nature of the group might begin to cause animosity toward its participants from other school clubs if the group retained its school affiliation. Officials suggested the group consider privatization, but promised continued support for the program by using the school’s music classes as something of a farm club for the Fiddlers.
By the time administrators suggested the Fiddlers to go private, in November of 2003, the right decision had become obvious. It only took until Dec. 15 for the Fiddlers to vote in favor of privatization.
The Saline School District and Fiddler participants recognized that the benefits of going private would likely outweigh any costs associated with it. While this is often the case with privatization, arts-related groups that are supported by government funding or are part of government institutions seldom recognize the benefits privatization can produce.
Such groups would do well to take note of the fact that generating public enthusiasm can bring in far greater funding — and far greater artistic satisfaction — than having to curry favor with legislative committees year after year in order to receive a fraction of what they might otherwise generate through private community efforts.
Michael LaFaive is director of fiscal policy for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.