Tensions High in Buffalo Over Charter Schools
Five elementary students from a charter school arrived at a Buffalo, N.Y., public school competition ready to play "Ode to Joy" on their violins. But they were barred from the contest, triggering an outpouring of angry accusations and casting the children as victims of an increasingly hostile struggle over the city’s growing charter school movement.
The district music director’s decision, made last month as the children waited to perform, has rippled into administration offices, down school hallways, and onto local talk radio. Charter school advocates accuse district leaders of discriminating against them and their students; district officials contend the incident has been misconstrued.
Marion Canedo, the superintendent of the 43,000-student district, has apologized to the children and invited them to perform at a school board meeting this month. The students received other invitations from a local symphony and broadcast news media. But last week, nerves were still raw.
"Oh, God, can’t we talk about something else?" school board member Denise Hanlon said when asked about the controversy. "It’s just been a mess."
Claity Massey, the director of King Center Charter School, which enrolls the five violinists, said she believes the March 23 incident touched a nerve because it drew children into an adult dispute.
"Most people have a generous spirit, and they saw it as discriminatory and unfair—like who would pick on young children that way?" she said.
Backdrop of Tension
The concert came amid tension over the Buffalo board of education’s unanimous December decision to encourage development of a network of charter schools within its boundaries. Nine charter schools, which are publicly financed but independent of most district rules, already operate in Buffalo. ("Buffalo Board Votes to Court Charter Schools," Jan. 7, 2004.)
The unions representing Buffalo teachers and administrators are strongly opposed to charter schools, noting among other arguments that they divert money from the district budget. All nine school board members face re-election on May 4, and the unions are working to post candidates to oppose them.
At the contest last month, the five 2nd and 3rd graders from King Center Charter School had planned to perform with students from a regular Buffalo public school, whose music teacher taught them violin at King after school.
But when Mark Garcia, the district’s music supervisor, realized that the five attended a charter school, he told the teacher and the two parent escorts from King that the children could not play.
"I asked him why our children couldn’t perform. He said because our students attend a charter school, and that the performance was strictly for Buffalo public school students," said Maureen Bell- Baskerville, whose 8-year-old daughter was one of the violinists.
Mr. Garcia told her that when the music teacher called his office to request permission to bring the children, he "should have mentioned" that they were charter school students, Ms. Bell-Baskerville said.
Mr. Garcia said the fact that the children attend a charter school had less to do with his decision than the fact that they were not properly signed up to play. He feels bad that children paid the price because adults didn’t follow proper procedure, he said.
Andrew Maddigan, a spokesman for the Buffalo district, said district leaders wish Mr. Garcia had let the students play and had resolved other issues later.
But Mr. Garcia was suddenly faced with deciding whether districtwide events were open to charter school students, was aware of the "precedent-setting implications" of the decision, and "had nothing to go on, no district policy," Mr. Maddigan said.
"All this is uncharted territory," said Mr. Maddigan. He pointed out that the district is undergoing great change, with the charter network and the board’s recent decision to adopt an open-enrollment policy starting in the fall.
"We had to come to this point, but it’s unfortunate it was thrust upon everybody in such an awkward way," the spokesman said.
Some believe that the concert incident took on an extra charge because it followed a union-driven push for a boycott of an annual districtwide fund-raiser called Carnival in the Park.
Twenty-two of the 35 regular public schools that had planned to participate in the June 5 event dropped out after the unions urged members not to take part alongside charter schools, said Michelle Stevens, the event’s chief organizer.
"One principal whose school had participated for several years called me and said, ‘I’ve just had a call from my union saying I really don’t want to be a school that participates in Carnival, and I just can’t do it,’" Ms. Stevens said.
Philip B. Rumore, the president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, a 3,800-member affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, said it was his own members who urged him to "withdraw our support and advise teachers that we’ve withdrawn our support."
Unless charter schools are financed in a way that doesn’t take money from the district, his union cannot support them, he said.
Many Buffalo charter school advocates lament the unions’ anti-charter campaign, saying such schools broaden parents’ choices and enhance the school district’s mission: serving students.
"There is a lot of narrow-mindedness going on," said Joy Pepper, the director of Tapestry Charter School. "The ultimate goal is what is in the best interests of children. That seems to be overlooked."
Vol. 23, Issue 30, Page 5Published in Print: April 7, 2004, as Tensions High in Buffalo Over Charter Schools