Parents, board not in tune at youth orchestra
Sour notes over costs and leadership
Concerned parents and members of the Hamilton Philharmonic Youth Orchestra want to know how the not-forprofit organization is spending its money.
The parents — many of whom are alumni of the orchestra — say they have tried repeatedly to get answers from the board of directors about an $85,000 spike in operational expenses and a $37,000 deficit last year. They also have questions about whether the board of directors is properly governing the registered charity.
The parents say the board hasn’t addressed these issues and has not provided satisfactory answers.
But Rian McLaughlin, chair of the HPYO board, says the board is meeting their legal obligations and has done its best to communicate with parents.
“Some of these questions are new to us recently and we are responding as best we can. We’re pulling these pieces together now,” she said. “We’re trying to balance as best we can everybody’s interest and objectives.”
The dispute has become so polarized that both sides have hired lawyers.
The parents have raised several concerns about the governance of the youth orchestra, including:
Management and administrative expenses climbed from $16,932 in 2015 to $102,696 in 2016, according to the
Canada Revenue Agency.
Despite repeated requests by parents, the board has not provided audited financial statements to explain these increases.
The most recent annual general meeting, including the election of the board, was conducted without quorum, a breach of the organization’s bylaws.
This year, the HPYO increased its membership fees, while at the same time, sectional coaching and instruction from the professional musicians of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra was eliminated.
“We care deeply about the orchestra’s history as well as sustaining its future. Our hope is to restore HPYO to an organization that is governed responsibly, that respects the artistic vision of the Music Director, and that values young musicians and their education first and foremost,” said the parents in a statement to The Spectator.
The HPYO, founded in 1965, was initially associated with the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra — it operated as an education and outreach program — but the HPYO split amicably from its parent orchestra in the late 90s. It registered as a independent charity with its own board of directors in 1998.
Despite the similarities in their names, the youth orchestra now operates as an independent organization that is not associated with Hamilton’s professional orchestra.
The HPYO runs two different orchestras for roughly 80 young musicians under the age of 24: the Concert Orchestra, which is geared toward younger, less-experienced musicians, and the Philharmonic Youth Orchestra, which is for more experienced young musicians.
In 2016, the HPYO reported revenue of $231,366 — most of which came from donations and government funding, including $10,000 from the City of Hamilton. That year, it spent $268,528, a deficit of roughly $37,000.
At the same time, fees for both orchestras climbed this season. In 2015/16, tuition was $350 for the Concert orchestra and $625 for the Philharmonic. In 2016/17, membership cost $520 for the Concert orchestra and $820 for the Philharmonic.
McLaughlin points to several factors to explain the $85,000 increase in administrative and management expenses, including strategic decisions to lease downtown office and rehearsal space, hire a full-time executive director, and an increase in some contracted staff salaries.
She added that audited statements will be available for parents at the next annual general meeting and that parents are welcome to come into the HPYO office and review the organization’s past financial documents at any time.
“They have but to ask the question. We’d be happy to provide that.”
In a letter from their lawyer dated June 12, the parents asked for the board to call a special meeting by June 17 to remove McLaughlin from her roles as HPYO director and chair of the board. Their lawyer, Joshua Perell, states that under the HPYO bylaws, the board is required to call a meeting with a petition of one-tenth of its membership — in this case, the group of concerned parents.
“Our clients believe it is in the best interests of HPYO that Rian McLaughlin, a director and chair of the board, be removed from these positions,” reads Perell’s letter.
So far, the board has yet to arrange this meeting.
McLaughlin said the board is in the process of scheduling the next annual general meeting (AGM) and is “waiting on confirmation of the availability of the location,” which should take place within the next several weeks.
“The meeting will be called imminently. We are open to doing that, and in fact, all of those pieces are coming together right now,” she said.
Richard Leblanc, associate professor of law, governance and ethics, at York University, says the parents’ questions are valid and the HPYO board should call a meeting and explain its actions as soon as possible.
“You shouldn’t leave members hanging. What is there to hide? You shouldn’t wait for the AGM,” he said. “The board should be much more transparent with its members.”
Leblanc also points out that with charities, as much money as possible should be funneled to programs — in this case, the youth orchestras — and not to management and administration.
“Particularly with charities the guiding principle is that all money should go to the end user and to the beneficiary — not to admin. That’s really important.”
Katherine Carleton is the executive director of Orchestras Canada, a national service organization that provides support for orchestras across the country. She says that for various reasons, youth orchestras like the HPYO are not eligible for funding from the senior levels of government on an ongoing basis. As a result, they depend on fundraising, donations, and legwork from volunteers — usually parents — to stay afloat.
As a result, Carleton said conflicts like these are potentially harmful for the long-term health of the organization.
“For youth orchestras to succeed, they have to figure out how to get along — because they’re so delicately balanced on people willing to give freely of their time and their resources to support the orchestra,” she said.
“This, on the face of things, sounds serious.”