If Buffalo public school leaders eliminate band and orchestra programs from 14 city schools this fall, national music foundations that provide free instruments and support to struggling schools say they will no longer donate to city schools.
Even worse, many schools that have already received more than $1 million in donated instruments through these music charities may be forced give them back.
“We’ve already contacted our five awarded schools,” said Tricia Steel, program director for Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation. “If their program is eliminated, then our instruments need to be returned to us.”
A letter was sent out Tuesday to Superintendent Pamela Brown and the Board of Education, signed by the officers and directors of seven music organizations and foundations, urging the district to reconsider its cuts to the music program.
“Buffalo Public Schools’ decision to cut these programs roadblocks the progress made by your students over the past decade,” the letter states, “and will result in withholding further financial and in-kind support for your district.”
Two of the signing organizations, Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation and VH1 Save the Music Foundation, have directly contributed instruments worth more than $1.2 million.
From 1999 to 2001, the VH1 foundation alone provided $1 million in new instruments to jump-start band and orchestra programs in 40 of the district’s elementary and middle schools.
That contribution hinged on the district’s pledge that it would hire music instructors at all the schools that received instruments. If any school that received a donation subsequently eliminated its band or orchestra program, the district is required by contract to send the donated instruments back.
In the last 10 years, 16 instrumental programs already have been eliminated from Buffalo schools, music teachers said. It’s doubtful any of those instruments were ever returned.
“They had faith in us,” said Amy Steiner, an instrumental music teacher at International Prep. “They had faith in Buffalo, N.Y., that we were going to have a thriving instrumental music program, and we’ve just let them down.”
Paul E. Cothran, the vice president and executive director of the VH1 foundation, reiterated in a statement Tuesday that the district will receive no further contributions unless it restores music programs.
“The VH1 Save the Music Foundation is hopeful that the district will step back from these damaging and indiscriminate budget cuts as they are damaging not only to the programs but to the students’ future,” he stated. “While these cuts are in place, they make the district ineligible for any further support from the foundation and our partner organizations.”
Steel, the program director for Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation, said her organization contributed 25 instruments worth $20,000 to five Buffalo city schools in 2009 and 2010. Two of those schools – Math, Science and Technology School and International Prep – are in line for band cuts or elimination.
Steel said her foundation hasn’t contributed as much to Buffalo as it could.
“This is a small investment compared to what we have awarded in many other districts throughout the nation because district support has been lacking over the years,” she said.
And now that the district is in danger of even more dramatic cuts, she said, no schools that have been given instruments through the foundation will be given any more.
“There’s really no way we’d even invite them to reapply,” she said.
Paul Musilli, owner of the Buffalo Drum Outlet in Depew, which repairs all percussion instruments for the district, said the loss of instrumental music also will have a trickle-down economic impact. Aside from teachers who will lose their jobs, shops that rent, repair and sell musical instruments and parts also will suffer, he said.
Instrumental music programs require a long-term commitment, he added. It takes years for a child to learn to play, and then learn to play as part of a larger group – just like sports, he said. These programs keep kids engaged in learning, he said.
“I think they need to get the message,” he said of school officials.
In response to a request to comment Tuesday, Brown issued a brief statement.
“As we have previously stated, we are trying to find funding in order to restore all or some of the instrumental programs in some of our schools,” she said.
District spokeswoman Elena Cala said the district’s chief academic officer, now retired, had spoken with Cothran of the VH1 Foundation about working with the district to help salvage the band programs in the coming months.
School Board members also approved a resolution last month asking the district to cease paying for teachers’ and administrators’ cosmetic facial peels and other superficial procedures and to redirect that money to restore music programs. That resolution, however, will require legal vetting and would likely be opposed by the Buffalo Teachers Federation.
Instrumental music advocates will once again lobby for the restoration of funding at today’s 5:30 p.m. School Board meeting, which will be covered live on the Buffalo News School Zone blog.