Buffalo Public Schools failed to spend full grant to support Native American students

Nov 26, 2019

Native American parents and teachers in Buffalo Public Schools are raising concerns that the district isn’t spending all of its Title VI Indian Education Formula Grant to support Native students.

That’s despite the fact that the graduation rate for Native American students is just 52%, compared to the district average of 65%, according to the district’s annual performance report for its 2018-2019 award.


The Buffalo school board and Superintendent Kriner Cash pose with members of the district's Native American Resource Program and Native American Parent/Student Committee at a school board meeting on Nov. 20.
Credit Kyle Mackie / WBFO

“What's most concerning to me is our increasing amount of grant money that was returned to the federal government,” said treasurer of the district’s Native American Parent/Student Committee, Celina Irena, at the October Buffalo school board meeting.

“The size of our grant, with our high-needs population, we sent back $20,000. This should never happen.”

The performance report shows that the district failed to spend $22,764 of its 2018-2019 Title VI grant, 10% of the $237,896 it was awarded. Another nearly $29,000 was left unspent during the 2017-2018 school year—12% of that year’s grant—according to the previous annual performance report.

Title VI Indian Education Formula grants are awarded by the U.S. Department of Education “to address the unique cultural, language, and educationally related academic needs of American Indian and Alaska Native students.”

“I never want to give money back for anything,” said Superintendent of Buffalo Public Schools Dr. Kriner Cash, responding to Irene’s comments at the October meeting. “So, if we're giving money back, I want to know why, and how, and be part of that conversation and part of that solution.”

Cash also said twice at the public meeting that he would attend the next gathering of the Native American Parent/Student Committee, which the district is required to consult about how to spend Title VI funds. However, he sent the district’s Chief Academic Officer Anne Botticelli to the Nov. 12 meeting instead, which she said is standard practice.

“Dr. Cash frequently has cabinet members attend meetings on his behalf,” Botticelli said.

At the meeting Botticelli and other district officials from the department of multilingual education attended, Native American parents and teachers voiced frustration over what they described as continued disrespect by Buffalo Public Schools for their communities.

“Native students and just Native people in general are often invisible in any campus that they’re at, whether it’s the elementary level, whether it’s the high school level, [school] district as a whole, college campuses,” said Bonnie General-Vazquez, speaking in a phone interview after the meeting. “We are a very marginalized group in education, in society.”

General-Vazquez is a social studies teacher at P.S. #19 Native American Magnet School and co-chair of the Native American Parent/Student Committee. She said she’s worried about the future of the Title VI grant if the district continues not spending it all.

Murals depicting Iroquois history and culture decorate the walls at P.S. #19 Native American Magnet School.
Credit Kyle Mackie / WBFO

“I just think it sends the wrong message to the federal government about the use of our funds, possibly, you know, saying to the federal government, ‘Hey, maybe they don’t need a project grant.’”

Title VI is a part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that prohibits discrimination in federal funding based on race, color or national origin. Indian Education Formula Grants were made available a few years later, and Buffalo Public Schools is a longtime recipient. The grant helps pay for academic support and counseling for Native students and professional development for their teachers, among other services.

“One of our instructional priorities is to ensure that our schools and our classrooms look like and sound like our students,” said Assistant Superintendent of Multilingual Education Nadia Nashir, whose department managed the Title VI grant for the first time during the 2018-2019 academic year.

But Nashir acknowledged the frustration of Native parents and teachers—both at the Nov. 12 meeting and in a follow-up interview with WBFO.

“I understand their disappointment,” she said. “Our goal and our intention is to always spend every dollar.”

Jenna Colerick works with Nashir as director of multilingual education. She said unanticipated staff turnover and lower actual costs for some budgeted materials contributed to the leftover funds.

A depiction of the "Great Turtle," the central figure of the Iroquois Creation Myth, greets visitors just inside the entrance of P.S. #19 Native American Magnet School.
Credit Kyle S. Mackie/WBFO News

“We were aware that there would be extra funding at the beginning of October of last school year, and it was brought to the attention of the parent committee in November of last year,” Colerick said. “Between November and February of last year, the parent committee worked together and negotiated amongst themselves as to where the additional funding should be reallocated. After that, we did an amendment in order to put the funding where the Native American Parent/Student Committee advised that it go.”

Colerick also said that despite the $23,000 left on the table, the district has expanded its academic support services for Native American students from just three or four schools to a new high of 15.

General-Vazquez, the teacher at P.S. #19, said she supports the efforts but is also worried that the district is losing the focus of the Native American Magnet School, which has seen a steady decline in its number of enrolled Native students in recent years.

“The only reason that school exists is because of Title VI and the Native community, or that school would have been demolished, or it definitely wouldn’t be here today,” General-Vazquez said. “So, the district in its attempts to build us up throughout [all the schools] has to not lose focus on building the foundation.”

District officials said they look forward to continuing to work with the Native American Parent/Student Committee and improving programming for Buffalo’s Native American students.