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Parents, teachers sue Buffalo school district for 'not equitably' offering music, art education

Nick Lippa

Both parents and teachers are filing separate lawsuits against the Buffalo Public Schools, citing a lack of access to music education. The legal papers claim a legally-required arts sequence is only provided at two district high schools.

Just over a year ago, Hutch Tech High School Band Director Amy Steiner had over 100 students participating in either jazz band, concert band and/or wind ensemble.

“Now we didn’t have a regular rehearsal time, and we only got to meet once a week before school, but we really became very close,” Steiner said. “We would have close to 30 gigs a year with my groups. A lot of them were outside my school.”

Students would rehearse with their ensemble before school started and for a time would receive credit for their diploma via a one minute period later in the day.

Today, outside of a small jazz group there are no performing ensembles at Hutch Tech, a school that still employs two music teachers.

Buffalo Teachers Federation President Phil Rumore said the district isn’t compliant with state arts sequence regulations.

“The district is not providing this in all of our high schools. In fact, not in most of our schools. So we’re going to go to court to make sure that our kids gets what everybody else gets in the suburbs and what’s required by the law,” he said.

The BTF filed a notice of claim last month. The teachers filed their lawsuit this week. Rumore said a separate lawsuit with parents is planned to be filed next week. 

Credit BTF
A list of the prior notices the District was given by the BTF regarding lack of arts compliance

Credit BTF

“Every day that our students lose the opportunity to get the sequences is a day that’s lost in their lives and in their careers. We’ve warned them last year they were out of compliance. I guess you just have to go to court to get it,” he said.

Rumore said he believes art and music classes both need to be a known option at every high school in the district.

“Sometimes it is also like an insult," Rumore said. "It’s sort of like sending a message to our kids, ‘Well, Buffalo students can’t aspire to the arts. They can’t aspire to be in the philharmonic. They can’t aspire to these things. They don’t have any appreciation to this.’”

The New York State Education Department’s website up until recently had a frequently asked questions page that outlined whether a high school had to have arts classes. Steiner, along with four other teachers on the lawsuit with her, used parts of it as a resource originally.

Credit Nick Lippa / WBFO
What happens when you try to access the FAQ page now. WBFO has yet to hear back when a new FAQ page will be put up.

“In 2001, the state put in a mandate for all schools to offer a sequence to all incoming freshman,” Steiner said.

Steiner is referring in part to section seven of the removed FAQ:

“Yes, public schools must offer students the opportunity to begin an approved sequence in the arts (music, visual arts, theatre, dance) in grade nine (CR 100.2 (h)). High school students who first enter grade 9 in 2001 and thereafter are no longer required to complete sequences as part of Regents diploma requirements. However, all students must be given the opportunity to complete music sequences which may be used to fulfill diploma requirements. Additionally, students pursuing a Regents diploma with advanced designation and who complete a five-unit sequence in the arts (visual arts, music, dance and theatre) are not required to complete the additional two units of a language other than English (CR 100.5 (b)(7)(v)(c)).”

And equal opportunity is exactly what teachers and parents are going to argue in court. The legal papers released Wednesday to WBFO say only one of the District’s 20 schools offer students the opportunity to complete a sequence in all of the arts (visual art, music, dance, theatre). That’s Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts—a criteria based school that accepts a percentage of students who apply and audition.

In New York State’s 2017 Revised Learning Standards for the Arts, school districts and the state alike are responsible for ensuring equity of arts learning opportunities and resources for all students in the district/state.”

Lewis J. Bennett High School  of Innovative Technology is the only other school the lawsuit claims is currently offering students the opportunity to complete a sequence in any of the arts.

The lawsuit additionally claims of the, "2,676 in the District's 2019-2020 freshman class, only 8.4 percent are offered the opportunity to complete a sequence in the arts."

Steiner said she felt ignorant not knowing these laws while being a teacher in the district for years, but it was accepted for a long time it was the norm to not have access to music during the day.

“I think when you’re wrapped up in a school district such as Buffalo where the kids are so talented, you know I’m at a great school at Hutch Tech where these kids are such higher level thinkers,” Steiner said. “Not that they are not at any other building. I just found a home at Hutch Tech. I feel like as a teacher I’d let them down for not knowing what these regulations were. I’m really in such a good place right now knowing that BTF and NYSED (New York State Education Department) have listened to us and did their homework. We’ve collected a ton of data.”

Steiner said current Hutch Tech students continue to ask her if they will have ensembles back this year. She currently can sometime give students lessons once a cycle (cycle is six days long) when she can, but that is it besides an occasional meeting for a smaller jazz group.

“And it’s only if they don’t have a test or stuff going on in class,” Steiner said. “We try to put stuff together, but they always ask me what are we rehearsing for? And I’m always like, ‘Well, pretty soon we’re going to have this back. It’s all going to work out.’ But the kids know. I mean they went from this thriving program to a ghost town. They know that there is no performances coming up.”

“I feel like I’m looking at them in the face every day and I’m lying to them. Because I don’t know when it’s going to be brought back to Hutch Tech at this moment.”

And just restoring the previous model of band/chorus before school may not be enough. According to a section in the Summary of the Arts that was released in November of 2005 by the State Education Department:

“Only major performing organizations that are a regular part of the school program may be used for credit. In many instances the jazz band, marching band, small ensemble, dance group or theatre group, serve in a rather limited capacity with a limited scope of content. The exception would be if the organization is a regular part of the school program and the time requirement for one unit of credit is met.”

For now, Steiner is hopeful progress can be made.

“Yesterday when I signed the paperwork, I was in tears because I’m glad that we’re finally here,” Steiner said.

This past October, BPS General Counsel Nathaniel Kuzma had this to say about arts sequences in the district.

“It is the position of the district that we are compliant with state requirements in those areas,” Kuzma said.

Kuzma added the Buffalo Board of Education and the administration had utilized and increased resources to students throughout the system when it came to the overall arts budget line this past year.

In regards to the current lawsuit moving forward, Kuzma said, "The District has not been served with a suit at this time, therefore it would be premature to comment."

Rumore said, he’s optimistic through the courts a solution can be found.

“It’s got to be able to be done, because it must be being done hopefully throughout the rest of the state,” he said.

Steiner said at the end of the day, she wants to see every single student in the city of Buffalo offered an arts education.

“Just because they are being offered an arts education doesn’t mean that they all are going to be musicians and artists,” she said. “They are offered math, social studies and science. It’s hard for us to wrap our heads around that music is a real subject now.”

Nick Lippa leads our Arts & Culture Coverage, and is also the lead reporter for the station's Mental Health Initiative, profiling the struggles and triumphs of those who battle mental health issues and the related stigma that can come from it.
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