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Buffalo school music cuts hit sour note

Madison Phillips fell in love when she picked up the clarinet at Lovejoy Discovery School two years ago. She was happier to go to school on days when she got to play her instrument and went from struggling through school to being on the honor roll this year, her mother said.

So when 10-year-old Madison found out that her school was ending its instrumental music and band program, she reacted predictably.

She cried.

“They just had their last concert on Friday,” said her mother, Kathleen Phillips. “It was very sad because it was announced that it was going to be their last concert ever.”

The Buffalo Public Schools are dropping band, orchestra and all other instrumental music programs next year in half the schools that currently have such program, according to district teachers. That’s 14 of the 28 remaining instrumental music programs. District teachers estimate 1,300 students will be affected. Another four schools will see reductions in their instrumental music programs.

While the district has chipped away at its instrumental music programs for years, the elimination of so many band and orchestra programs next school year marks the first loss of so many at once.

The reduction also expands the gap between suburban and elite city schools that continue to nurture instrumental programs, while the remaining city schools are dumping concert bands and trumpet lessons in a desperate bid to boost core academic staffing.

“They’re making you want to leave the city,” said Phillips, whose daughter asked her if the family could move to Hamburg, where she has heard school band programs still exist.

Contrast Buffalo with a district like Williamsville, the next largest district in the region. It has a band or orchestra program at each of its 13 schools and more than twice as many full-time instrumental music teachers than Buffalo.

Williamsville has been named one of the 100 Best Communities for Music Education six times since 1999, including this year, and 30 percent of Williamsville’s students participate in some type of instrumental music program.

This despite the fact that Williamsville spends less than $17,000 per student, with 65 percent of that money coming from local taxpayers, while Buffalo spends $22,000 per student, with most of that money from state and federal aid.

City music teachers point to studies indicating that playing an instrument helps with children’s math and language acquisition skills, boosts intelligence, raises test scores and often motivates more students to stay in school and learn.

“I can’t tell you the number of kids who say, ‘I’m only in school today because I have my lesson,’ ” said Amy J. Steiner, a 15-year music teacher who had an award-winning band program at International Preparatory School. “It breaks my heart.”

Tenth-grader Jose Rodriguez, one of her students, said he loved playing trumpet so much that he asked his mom to buy him one for Christmas two years ago.

“It helped me with leadership skills,” he said.

Superintendent Pamela C. Brown stated that no major cuts are being made to the district’s music program and stressed that general, vocal music education will still be offered at all elementary schools.

“I do want to make sure it’s clear there have not been dramatic cutbacks in instrumental music,” she said last week.

She referred to the 2013-14 budget, which indicates that the equivalent of 6.76 full-time instrumental music teachers are being cut from the budget.

But instrumental music teachers contend that when adding up the number of programs being cut or eliminated, the actual number of full-time instrumental teachers being lost is nine. In addition, since many schools have already scaled back band programs, full-time instrumental music teachers in Buffalo are often shared by more than one school, making the impact of the cuts more widespread.

District spokeswoman Elena Cala said the teachers’ assessment of how many school music programs and positions are being cut is based on uninformed conjecture on their part.

The teachers said they verified the information directly with their own school principals. The Buffalo News asked to speak with the district’s supervisor for music to double-check the facts, but the district denied the request. The dramatic loss of band programs is directly related to the district’s partial move to a new school-based budgeting program that gives principals some discretion over their own building staffing next year.

A number of principals have said they appreciate having more autonomy to determine how to allocate nonmandated positions. But some principals at smaller schools, and those with declining enrollments, said they have struggled to maintain basic staffing levels and couldn’t afford to keep programs like band.

Kevin Eberle, principal of International Prep, said 30 percent of his students are immigrants who need “universal language” programs like instrumental music to keep them in school and provide support for their language education.

But of the seven positions he had discretion over, he said, he was forced to prop up his math, English, social studies and science staff levels. To keep a band director, he said, he would have had to give up a remedial math teacher.

“You don’t have an option,” he said.

Some parents and students said they have no exposure to instrumental music except through their schools.

That’s certainly true for Phillips, who works as a security guard. She said her son played trumpet at South Park High School, and her daughter wanted to follow in his footsteps.

“She wanted to be in the high school band when she gets older, and she’s going to be at such a disadvantage,” Phillips said.

She won’t be alone. Band directors at city high schools that still have instrumental music said they wonder if they will have enough students to support their existing bands and orchestras if the loss of programs at the elementary level isn’t reversed.

“Down the line, it is going to affect our program,” said Timothy Lyons, band director at Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts.

Park District School Board member Louis Petrucci is losing four instrumental music programs among the seven schools he represents in South Buffalo.

“Unfortunately, instrumental music was one of the casualties of the budget deficit,” Petrucci said. “There would have to be some type of outside funding source identified specifically to restore instrumental music. That’s the reality, that we just don’t have the money that we need.”

A number of organizations have stepped up in the past to support city school band programs. One of them is the VH-1 Save the Music Foundation, which worked to sustain the district’s music programs years ago with the donation of $1.2 million worth of instruments.

A condition of that donation was that the district continue to offer instrumental music programs in its schools.

The foundation’s executive director sent The News a statement saying that the foundation is committed to partnering with the Buffalo district and that “the idea of pulling instruments is an absolute last resort.”

“Since we were made aware of the rumored cuts, the foundation has made numerous attempts to meet with Buffalo Public Schools in an effort to clarify the district’s plans for music programs via phone, letter and email,” said Executive Director Paul Cothran. “While we understand the many challenges and priorities on the superintendent’s desk, to date no such meeting or call has taken place, and we hope that changes soon.”

Proponents of instrumental music said they aren’t going to let this matter rest. A noisy, instrument-laden rally is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Wednesday on the steps of City Hall to protest the music cuts before the School Board’s 5:30 p.m. meeting.

They’re calling the rally “forGOT MUSIC?” – a riff off the national milk campaign – and are pushing for the district to restore band programs.

“It infuriates me that they put through this budget, and no parents were told anything,” said 15-year music teacher Melissa Stewart, who teaches at both Discovery School 67 and Southside Elementary. “Basically, they’re lying to parents. They’re lying to everybody.”

For a complete list of all schools losing instrumental music programs in 2013-14, visit the School Zone blog at email: