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In a special school board meeting on June, 29, 2020, the District 197 School Board voted 5-2 in favor of accepting Henry Sibley High School band director Amy Powers’s resignation, despite a write-in campaign to reject the resignation.
Powers’s Impact at Sibley
Powers is a beloved teacher who made many contributions to the Sibley band during her eight-year tenure as band director.
“She meant the world [to us],” said parent Hugh Bradley. His son Grant, who graduated in 2020, played saxophone in marching band, played baritone sax in wind ensemble and jazz band, and also was in winter drumline. “Ms. Powers brought out the best in him. He excelled because the program was so strong.” Bradley points to Powers’s demand for practice, accountability, and to be good students and citizens as reasons for his son’s success. Grant will join the Eau Claire marching band—the largest marching band in the Midwest—in the fall.
Parent Darcy McKenzie agrees: “My three oldest children, as well as myself, have had unique relationships with Ms. Powers. My eldest son who graduated in 2019 was a trumpet player. He excelled under Ms. Powers’ tutelage. From the first class of the day as a freshman through his senior year, he was invigorated by every stage of the music program. With Ms. Powers’s encouragement, he auditioned for the United States Marine Corp Band, and although he selected a different path as a Marine, the experience auditioning was inspiring.”
“I am most proud of creating a culture of excellence,” Powers said. The band received a lot of public success during her time at Sibley, “and the culture made that happen.”
When Powers started in 2012, the marching band only had 32 members. It grew considerably under her direction to about 80 members in 2019-2020. In 2018, the band placed first in Class AA at the Vikingland Band Festival Championship. Powers was the first woman ever in parade marching band to win that championship. Sibley’s show was called “She Stands” about the statue of liberty and “it was a poetic moment.”
Accolades & Equity
“Marching band in general is elitist—and we made it accessible to all,” Powers said of the 2018 championship. Sibley competed against schools with more wealth, “and it was amazing winning that championship with our diverse band and with the first woman leader.”
Also in 2018, the band played in the National Independence Day Parade, and raised $108,000 so every student could travel to Washington, D.C., for free.
“It was a fundraising effort, but it was also a vote of confidence,” Powers said. “People believed in us, and it made the kids feel like they mattered.”
As band director, Powers was committed to equity with her creation of the Equity Project, which provided private lessons from professional musicians to students who could not afford them. “For the kids, it made everybody equal.” Bradley said. Allowing all students to be able to afford private lessons no matter their financial situation “made the kids a cohesive group.” The project was one of the first of its kind in the country.
“By creating the Equity Project, the band began to reflect the student body,” Powers said. “Any kid who wanted to be successful could be.” After lessons with professional musicians began, “the level of excellence just soared.” Powers also learned from the professional musicians, who attended rehearsals and gave feedback. “Kids saw me learning, and they received feedback in a really positive way.”
In 2019, the band had an undefeated season, and brought home their second Vikingland Band Festival championship (only the third in the school’s history).
On Valentine’s Day, 2020, the band performed at the Minnesota Music Educators Association conference. “My largest career aspiration was to bring a band to MMEA,” Powers said. She expected a lot out of the kids, and they had to work very hard. “Through the incredible student leadership, working with the professional musicians, and lots of hard work, we got there at an extraordinarily high level.” The band performed in front of an audience of 1,200, with “no nerves on stage” and received three standing ovations.
“It was the greatest thing I’ve been a part of in my life,” said Powers. “It was magical moment after magical moment.”
In June of 2020, Powers resigned to take a job teaching middle school band in another district.
“She reached the pinnacle at Henry Sibley, accomplished everything she set out to do, and was leaving without looking back,” said McKenzie. “I was sincerely happy for her.”
Bradley said initially he was shocked. “She had gotten those programs to one of the highest levels of the state.” He thought that perhaps the pandemic had offered her a chance to spend more time with family and she wanted more of that, especially given that her son would be a senior for the 2020-2021 school year.
“The school was losing a huge asset and losing the most successful program at Sibley,” Bradley said.
Many parents questioned why Powers would want to leave Sibley when she had been making such a difference and had seen such success. They began using a Facebook group to urge the school board to reject the resignation and try to keep Powers on staff.
“There is systemic conflict between sports and arts,” McKenzie said. “My communication with the school board regarding … the relationship between the band program and the football program goes back years! Seriously, years. Even before the current school board members.”
McKenzie observed “conflict that many of the men in the administration seem to have with a strong, forceful, determined woman like Amy.”
However, Bradley said that his family was close to the program throughout Grant’s time in band and “I don’t recollect anything negative. No clashes, nothing alarming, no red flags.”
School Board’s Decision
The resignation was on the agenda for the June 15, 2020 school board meeting. At that meeting (held virtually due to COVID-19), the board took calls from the community. The meeting can be viewed here. However, the public comments were not published on the recording. According to Carrie Ardito, director of communications for School District 197, “during the public comment session at the June 15 meeting, some community members began making allegations against district employees.” The comments were ruled as private personnel data and were not released to the public.
The vote was tabled until June 29, “in order to give Ms. Powers more time to consider rescinding her resignation,” according to Ardito. At the June 29 meeting (located here), Superintendent Peter Olson-Skog said that it had been made clear to Powers that she could rescind her resignation, had time to do so after the June 15 meeting, and that she did not.
Two school board members voted not to accept Powers’s resignation—John Chandler and Byron Schwab. Before the vote, Chandler said, “I understand the concerns of [the people] involved, and recognize the legal reasons before us to accept the resignation. I like to think that even if I wasn’t a band family three times over that I would have the same feeling about this, but there’s just something about this whole process that doesn’t sit well with me ethically. I respect [the] legal advice and respect everyone involved and hold in high regard the high school administration. But it still just doesn’t sit well with me.” He said he couldn’t vote yes in good conscience.
After accepting the resignation, board chair Joanne Mansur said that personnel issues are the “part of the job that’s no fun.”
“Whoever takes over will have to be very special,” Bradley said. He hopes for the program’s sake that the next band director is talented and has that “it” factor to create buy-in from parents and students.
Powers said losing the summer season and spring concert were difficult. “Competitively, we wanted to win three years in a row and retire the flag. And we didn’t get to have a goodbye.” As for advice for the next band director at Sibley, she said they should remember that “every student matters every single day.”
McKenzie said the school board and administration should, “take advantage of the passion of engaged parents and students by making changes. Be honest, transparent and obvious about what needs to change.”
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