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Teachers' union plans legal action against Buffalo Schools over art, music regulations

Nick Lippa

Some parents and teachers in the Buffalo Public Schools believe the district is currently not meeting New York State regulations for art and music programs. Now, Buffalo Teachers Federation president Phil Rumore said the union will be filing litigation by the end of the month to force the district’s compliance with said regulations.

“They are not getting the chorus they are supposed to have. They are not getting the band they are supposed to have. They are not getting the art courses they are supposed to have under the law," Rumore said. "And we advised the district of this last year but it’s still happening and we along with some parents are now going to take legal action to ensure that our kids get what they are entitled to.”

Buffalo Public Schools General Counsel Nathanial Kuzma said the district views the lawsuit as a tactic considering the district is currently in contract negotiations with the union.

“Once again, it’s disappointing that the federation is conducting itself this way. We have not received a lawsuit. If and when we do, we will respond accordingly,” he said. “Last week it was that the Board was proposing cutting art, music and physical education in an effort to apply pressure to the districts negotiating team. Certainly we made clear that that was not the case and I think the Federation understands that and they understood it at the time. It’s a typical tactic to try and use litigation. To try to put misinformation out there to the public in order to apply pressure on to the school district related to other issues like compensation that really is at the heart of what the Federation is seeking during the course of these negotiations.”

Rumore said they are in the process right now of completing a survey. There are a number of high school teachers that have told Rumore music and arts programs have been in flux for several years now.

“This is the first time that it was brought to our attention last year. We surveyed the art and music teachers and were shocked by the results,” Rumore said. “It’s not just the teachers that will be filing the lawsuit. We’ll be joined with parents who are also complaining that there kids are not getting the services that they are required under the law.”

Kuzma said the Buffalo Board of Education and the administration has utilized and increased resources to students throughout the system when it comes to arts and music.

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

But there are some parents who say they are not so sure about that. At Hutch Tech High School, most instrumental band, led by music educator Amy Steiner, has been phased out over the past few years.

Carla Thomas, the parent of a current senior at Hutch Tech, said she’s concerned her son is not being given the opportunity to complete his musical pathway to an Advanced Regents diploma he started as a freshman.

“For two years, that was my son’s plan to an extent, was to do the four years of music. And why wouldn’t he? He’s been playing an instrument since third grade. It was offered to him when he first got there and now all of a sudden it’s not and if he wanted to go that route now all of sudden he can’t,” said Thomas. “Last year it wasn’t even on the schedule so they won’t even acknowledge it. So now he has to take French III.”

Thomas said last year her son had band in what they called thirteenth period, which she referred to as a ghost period. Something another parent, Marleen O’Connor, said was misleading for her son Collin.

“When school started this year, Collin came home with a schedule. And I didn’t look very closely at it, but we were both excited and it had said that band and chorus was at thirteenth period. And Colin came home and he’s like, ‘Look. They actually added a period.’ And if you look closely it’s 3:06 to 3:07 p.m.,” she said.

Kuzma said it’s normal at an engineering school to have a one minute period.

“It’s difficult to have one period during the day because there are other requirements that are components of that program in order to obtain the type of diploma that Hutch Tech offers and to obtain the type of diploma that Hutch Tech offers and to fulfill the curriculum that Hutch Tech offers,” said Kuzma. “So really what they are doing is offering kids free lessons in band and orchestra and working with those students to fit it in where appropriate that doesn’t interfere with the other important requirements that they have to fulfill.”

Under this model, which may not alone fulfill New York State standards,  students would come in before school or stay later to work on ensemble work. That’s something O’Connor said isn’t an option anymore.

“My son is part of the morning groups. Amy is an early morning teacher, which was part of her being hired is she had to agree to it. And that’s when they do the jazz band and any small groups that’s when they do the jazz band and any other small groups that they put together. That was recently cut as well, so that was when everything was cut,” she said.  

Thomas’ son started on clarinet in third grade. Since he got to Hutch Tech, he’s learned bass clarinet and bassoon. Thomas said with no current band class, it’s hurting his college opportunities.

“A lot of the colleges where he was looking at where it would be a minor for him, he’s going to have a tough time proving that he participated for music and high school because it’s not on the schedule for his junior year and it’s not on the schedule for his senior year,” Thomas said. “So I don’t know how we are going to get around that for him.”

Thomas said she reached out via email to the principal and received a response. But she wasn’t given any indication there would be a change that would allow her son to play in concert band for his senior year.

With money being a concern, O’Connor tried to create a booster club last year for chorus and band.

“(Principal) Dr. (Gabrielle) Morquecho killed it flat saying if there was going to be fundraising done, we could instead put our energies in to creating a PTO and raise money for the entire school. Because there has been no PTO for two years,” O’Connor said.

O’Connor, who also works at a Say Yes Parent Center, said things have gotten to this point in part to the tension between Hutch Tech administration, parents and teachers. And she’s seeing it impact students.

“Some of them really only come to school because they have band. And there have been a couple of children who have stopped coming because they feel betrayed by their school. I don’t really know that even with this lawsuit that something is going to happen,” O’Connor said. “I already have given a statement and I will have my affidavit as part of this lawsuit.”

Kuzma said he hasn’t heard tension between parents and staff in any school thus far.

“I commend the administration for doing what they’ve done as it pertains to band and music to make those types of things accessible to the students,” he said. “And shame on anybody who would try to criticize the principal for what she’s done over there as it relates to band and music. They should be thanking her.”

Hutch Tech stands as a hot bed for this issue currently. But there are other schools that could come to light once litigation is filed.

For concerned parents, Kuzma said the district welcomes feedback and concerns.

“Historically, those concerns have been raised at the Board table,” he said. “Parents have come and spoken to the Board. Community members have come and spoken to the Board. And this board has listened. And they have allocated resources to create more access, equity and opportunity for our high school students to throughout the city to have access to music, art and physical education.”

For the time being, Rumore hasn’t heard anything back from the state education department.

“Last year for example we forwarded the information to the commissioner and to the Board of Regents. And I was also already in contact with somebody from the state education department who was absolutely shocked,” Rumore said. “I think it’s going to take more than the state education department. I think it’s going to take going to court and making sure that the courts force the district to do what they should be doing anyway.”

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.