Rockville High’s 56-year-old Bagpipe Band Fights To Keep MCPS Sponsorship
Booster club president says school system pulled funding, recognition
Rockville High School Pipe Band
Via John Bartels
Supporters of Rockville High School’s award-winning bagpipe band are raising a hue and cry after learning that Montgomery County Public Schools is pulling its sponsorship.
The school system earlier this month sent out a notice that MCPS is cutting ties with the 56-year-old band. The Jan. 5 memorandum states that while the school system appreciates the band’s accomplishments, it would no longer “be funded, recognized, or sponsored by Montgomery County Public Schools.”
While a break with MCPS doesn’t necessarily represent the demise of the Rockville High School Pipe Band, the group’s booster club president, John Bartels, said it is disheartening for the roughly 25 bagpipers and drummers.
“Having that link to the schools is a big deal. We’d have to work harder for our identity, and we’d have to see what happens,” Bartels said.
Bartels said he’ll be appealing to school officials at Wednesday night’s budget hearing to reinstate support. For years, the school system has offered the band free practice space and paid the director’s stipend, he said.
The student group has won widespread attention by playing each year for the Marine Corps Marathon, marching in parades and beating adult bands in piping and drumming contests. In the past year alone, the group claimed first place at the Colonial Highland Games in Fair Hill, Southern Maryland Celtic Festival and Central Virginia Celtic Festival.
“These are excellent musicians. This is not a hobby,” he said.
Rockville High School Pipe Band performs in a city of Rockville parade. Via Facebook.
A couple of band alumni have even gone professional. For instance, percussionist Matthew Bell has appeared on national television and played at the Kennedy Center and Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts, according to his website.
Despite the band’s success, there have been periodic rumblings about losing MCPS funding, in part because of the group’s composition. The band draws from eight public high schools and four public middle schools across the county, but only two students actually attend Rockville High, even though the group is named for the school and rehearses there each week free of charge.
The MCPS memo stated that low band participation by Rockville High students, coupled with “budgetary constraints,” factored in the decision to withdraw school system sponsorship.
“Please note that these decisions are never easy, as we strive to support and cultivate the myriad of interests that our students possess,” Brian Scriven, director of high schools for MCPS, wrote in the message. “Please thank the band for all of the services and opportunities this unique program has rendered over the years.”
Bartels said Rockville High’s principal has been a strong advocate for the band and argued for MCPS to continue funding the director’s stipend. He said he doesn’t know how much longtime band director, Lisa Frazier, was paid for leading the troupe.
The band also supports itself with contest prize winnings and by performing at roughly 15 events each year, Bartels said.
Even though MCPS is looking to withdraw its sponsorship, Bartels said he appreciates that system administrators are letting the band continue to practice at Rockville High for the rest of the school year, saving the band roughly $1,500.
Bartels, a former piper himself, said he’s been involved with Rockville High’s band since his son became a drummer several years ago. Now, his younger son has picked up the bagpipes in hopes of joining the group. Since the vast majority of pipe and drum groups are made up of adults, the Rockville High band gives his sons—a sophomore at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda and an eighth-grader at Thomas W. Pyle Middle School in Bethesda—the rare opportunity to play with musicians their own age, he said.
As he fights to preserve the band’s relationship with MCPS, Bartels said he’ll suggest stripping away the Rockville High label and rebranding the group as the “Montgomery County Youth Pipe Band.”