The Brown administration has agreed to help restore the Buffalo Public Schools’ instrumental music programs, half of which were cut in the 2013-14 budget. But just like some of the instruments themselves, the money comes with strings attached.
The city will pay up to $400,000 to ensure that band and orchestra programs play on in the coming school year, but Mayor Byron W. Brown is not writing a check to the district. The money will pass through Say Yes to Education, which will oversee how the money is spent and ensure that the district comes up with a plan to continue the programs in future years.
And while the funding will save programs in most schools that suffered cuts, not all teaching positions will be restored.
The city approached the Say Yes national organization to supervise the district’s spending of the music money and make sure the dollars go where they’re intended. The district must also meet certain music program standards – which are still to be worked out – in order for the money to be released on a quarterly basis, according to city and Say Yes officials.
Say Yes provides college scholarships to qualifying city students and demands performance metrics in all of its contracts, said Gene Chasin, chief operating officer with the national organization.
“This is a natural part of our ongoing work locally,” Chasin said.
The possibility of adding more instrumental instruction beyond what was announced Tuesday is possible through Say Yes partnerships and its plans to extend the school day and school year, Chasin said.
Thirteen of the 14 schools affected by the cuts – and more than 2,000 students – will see some instrumental music instruction restored, but many of the schools will still see some reduction over last school year. Riverside High School is the only school that will not have its band program restored.
All told, the city is providing enough money to restore about five of the seven or eight positions that were cut in the district’s 2013-14 budget.
The district may consider providing supplemental funding to restore more instrumental music programs than the city funding currently allows, said Superintendent Pamela C. Brown, who called the city’s contribution “great news” for the district.
“We were delighted to learn that the city would even entertain the notion of making a contribution for this purpose,” she said.
Following a drumroll supplied by a young student, the mayor announced Tuesday in front of Dr. Lydia T. Wright School for Excellence that the city would restore instrumental music programs, which were a casualty of the district’s school-based budgeting process, in which principals were given more discretion to determine their own staffing.
The announcement comes two months after large rallies protesting the cuts were staged on the steps of City Hall, and just one month before the Democratic primary, with Brown seeking a third term.
Until now, Brown has generally sidestepped or preferred to stay silent regarding the city’s ongoing public school struggles and frequently notes that his administration has no governance over schools.
Asked whether it was an election-year move, Brown said, “Well I think for these children and parents who are standing here, that will have their music programs continued, it doesn’t come off that way at all.”
The city’s intentions to assist the district with its instrumental music programs has been discussed for several weeks.
With the new funding in place, private music foundations that had originally threatened to pull their support from the district will no longer do so.
Although the funding is only for one year, Superintendent Brown said it buys the district time to have a deeper discussion about how the district may want to fund instrumental music programs in the future.
The Common Council is in recess for August, but President Richard A. Fontana said he would call a special meeting if at least five Council members are available to approve the allocation.
Fontana leads a majority on the Council that is supportive of the mayor, making passage of the allocation likely.
The mayor did not say which of the city’s accounts the money would come from – other than that it would come from the city’s general fund – but said the city has money for the programs.
The funds represent a tenth of 1 percent of the city’s $377 million general fund.
Amy Steiner, band director at Buffalo’s International Prep, said the city money is only a temporary fix and not a long-term solution for the Buffalo school district.
“Although I’m very happy that some of the programs have been restored, I do not feel this advocacy is going to stop,” she said. “I think that a lot of people have come to the table and stressed the importance of music education in the schools.
“We’re not going to stop until all 44 instrumental music programs are restored in the district,” she added, referring to the number of programs cut over several years, not just the 14 that had been affected this year.
School Board Member John Licata, a music advocate who has been critical of the city’s lack of financial support for the district in the past, said he had no problem with Say Yes holding the purse strings on the money, if that’s what it takes for both sides to have trust that the money will be spent as promised.
Instrumental music gives students an outlet after school, instead of roaming the streets, said Danielle Vaden, whose 12-year-old son, Amir Dowell, has played the clarinet since he was in fifth grade.
“The music is very important to the kids because it gives them something to do,” said Vaden, who lives in the Kensington-Bailey neighborhood. “When they said they were going to take it, I was very upset.”