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Judy Erpelding: I never planned to leave Free State; it’s time to start advocating for performing arts (Column)

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Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns and letters to the Times written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

Judy Erpelding, Free State High School orchestra director, posted this letter publicly on Monday. We are republishing it with permission.

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A post I thought I would never write …

It is with great trepidation that I announce my resignation as Director of Orchestras at Free State High School, effective May 26. This has absolutely been one of the toughest decisions of my life, and I most certainly will spend time in the future wondering if I made the right decision. However, I know it’s the best decision right now for my personal mental health, my family, and the future of the Free State Orchestra program.

I honestly have always thought I would spend my entire career here in Lawrence at Free State, and enjoy a retirement after devoting myself to this very special place. However, the past few years have been hard to say the least, and this last year has been especially challenging for me, and the entire Lawrence Performing Arts Department.

I’m sure most students and parents are aware of the financial difficulties our school district is facing right now. I believe that it is important that everyone knows that the Performing Arts staff are being hit especially hard because of this. Parents should be very concerned about the future of all the performing arts programs in Lawrence. If you value the performing arts as part of the curriculum in Lawrence Public Schools, I believe it’s time to start asking questions, and advocating for these programs at the district level. Find out why so many of our fine arts teachers have either resigned or retired this year. Why are they choosing to not fill the open vacancies?

I’m hopeful my resignation will bring awareness to the cuts that are being made to the Performing Arts program that aren’t being discussed publicly. Please know that my departure was not something I anticipated, but it evolved from multiple circumstances that have taken place in the past month. It’s important to me that my students and their families know that leaving this year was never in my intentions. Many things have happened that I believe I cannot control, and if I remain I worry about job security, and the future of my career.

Over the next few weeks I will work my hardest to make sure that whoever takes over for me has everything they need from me to be successful. I know that we had plans as a program, and that we have many things in the works. I promise to do my best to ensure that those things still happen. Students, please remember why you love making music. Please don’t let my departure be a reason for forgetting about this love. Give the new director all the support you possibly can; they will need it and deserve it.

This was never just a job for me. For the past 11 years, Free State Orchestra has been a big piece of who I am. However, the program was never mine to keep. It was an honor and a privilege to be here for the time I have been and I’m very proud and grateful for all the amazing moments I have shared with my students and colleagues. I most certainly am leaving a piece of myself here, and I’ll take with me in a piece of my heart the Free State Orchestra program. It gave me wings …

With my deepest respect and gratitude,

— Judy Erpelding, Director of Orchestras, Free State High School 2012-2023

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