Brooklyn Music School parents wage war against executive board

brooklyn music school
The Brooklyn Music School on St. Felix St.
Photo by Ben Verde

The board of a century-old music school is at war with its parent body, threatening the school’s ability to perform its core mission, parents say. 

The Brooklyn Music School, which has occupied a stately, yet cramped, building on St. Felix Street in Fort Greene since 1909, has been awash in conflict for over a year, with parents accusing the board of being rife with conflicts of interest, and carrying water for an elite private school that rents space in the building. 

The private school, Muse Academy, was founded by members of the music school’s executive board through a $185,000 loan as a revenue generator for the music school, which serves students from across the economic spectrum and charges affordable rates for private lessons. However, the tenant has come to compete for space and resources with its landlord, and is aided by Muse sympathetic board members, who sit on the boards of both the Muse Academy and the Brooklyn Music School, according to parents. Parents say the executive board prioritizes the growth of the Muse academy over the needs of the music school. 

“They aren’t advocating for BMS,” said Doug Morro, a parent involved with the school for six years. “If you sit on the board of two entities that are in conflict, how can you advocate for both? It’s just actually not possible.” 

At the heart of the conflict is a multi-million dollar real estate transaction, wherein the Brooklyn Music School has sold its air rights to real estate developer the Gotham Organization. Gotham plans to erect a 24 story tower on a lot adjacent to the music school’s crumbling building, with a spacious new home for the school on the ground floor. 

The air rights deal with Gotham has brought the conflict to new highs, mainly around how space in the building will be used. Brooklyn Music School parents and faculty claim Muse has been eating up space in the cramped school building since its inception in Fall of 2018. The private school has claimed it only shares rooms with the music school, and that, since it only operates until 3:30 pm, while the music school only operates after school, there is no competition for space.

But parents and faculty have pointed out the kindergarten-sized furniture used by the academy makes sharing rooms practically impossible due to the amount of space needed for music lessons. Breaking up and setting down music equipment in a room that is set up as a classroom is just not feasible, they say. 

“There’s often a shuffle of spaces that were once used for BMS that now aren’t as accessible or accessible at all,” said Morro. “There are spaces that are set up for types of instrumental music that have to be set up or broken down.” 

Who is the new building really for? 

The new space in the Gotham development is intended to provide more breathing room for the music school, with space for a new auditorium and classrooms. Representatives for the school have testified at community board meetings and public hearings in support of the project, which needs a zoning change to move forward. 

However, statements by bigwigs at the Muse academy have aroused suspicions in some parents that the deal may be a wolf in sheeps clothing, painted as solely beneficial to the Brooklyn Music School, when it may in fact be more beneficial for the Muse Academy. And though the board has passed resolutions designating the new building as solely for the Brooklyn Music School, parents don’t trust them. 

“I don’t trust that with the current board it will be primarily or solely for Brooklyn Music School use at all,” said Richard Crawford, whose son takes music lessons at the school. “It sounds like an amazing opportunity for Muse to secure even more space, even more fancy space.” 

A rendering of the proposed new building.FXcollaborative

During a virtual open house earlier this year, Muse Academy Head of School Deborah Bradley-Kramer certainly made it sound that way. While gushing about the $27,500 per year private school to prospective parents, Bradley-Kramer spoke about the Brooklyn Music School’s expansion plans. 

“Since most of you may not have seen our school, you may not know that there is a vacant lot next door currently, and we have acquired that lot and we will be expanding to create a state of the art facility that’s a bit more up to date…from our 110 year old brownstone,” Bradley-Kramer says in a recording of the meeting obtained by Brooklyn Paper. “We will add recording studios, fully equipped classrooms, things like that. This will mainly be a Brooklyn Music School venue but we will occupy two floors in the new facility.”

Aiding the private schools expansion is its board of trustees, two of whom sit on both the boards of the Brooklyn Music School and the Muse Academy.

Parents say this has led to the Muse Academy operating at the expense of the Brooklyn Music School. In addition to space-sharing conflicts due to Muse’s miniature sized furniture, school insiders say lease negotiations between the two entities are one-sided, with Muse being granted a preferential lease by the school after a negotiation process. 

Muse has also been a drain on the music school’s resources, with Brooklyn Music School taking out a $185,000 loan to fund the ritzy academy at its inception, and forced to keep its building open additional hours for Muse purposes, sources within the school say.

The board, whose primary purpose is to raise funds for the school, often defaults to Muse’s interests because it is a revenue generator for the school through rent, parents charge. 

The Muse Academy was hatched by board member Crocker Coulson, the CEO of an investor relations firm who stoked alarm in the school community after a New York Post article revealed that was he being sued by his ex-wife — a tobacco heiress — for using spyware to eavesdrop on her. Coulson would eventually pay half a million dollars in that verdict. Coulson, besides board chair Shelby Green is thought of as the most influential member of the board, and served as its chair up until his spyware scandal. 

The music school’s push for a seat at the table

Following sustained outrage from parents, the board has tried to smooth things over in recent months. 

In May 2021 the board passed a series of resolutions regarding the music school’s relationship with muse. The four resolutions state, in short: 

  1. That the Brooklyn Music School will be the sole occupant of the new school space, and will not lease space to the MUSE academy. 
  2. That Brooklyn Music School will resign as the managing member of Muse and will end the two organizations’ legal affiliations. 
  3. That Muse will continue to lease space from the Brooklyn Music School at a fair market price to be appraised by an outside expert. 
  4. That the music school’s by-laws will be amended so that any board members serving on both the music school and Muse boards must recuse themselves from all decisions regarding lease terms or use of space agreements. 

Green, the chair of the board, told Brooklyn Paper that these resolutions are expected to smooth over any conflicts over the new building, and pointed to an internal survey that showed widespread support for the new development within the school. Green also claimed that the discord within the school is the work of a small group of parents who disagree with some of the board’s decisions. 

Parents are still pushing for more from the board, which has no entity holding it accountable for its resolutions. 

“On the surface their resolutions seem to address the issues, but our asks are deeper because these resolutions can be overturned once everything is passed and they get everything they want,” said one parent, who asked that their name be withheld in anticipation of attacks from executive board members. 

Parents are pushing for their parents association to be recognized by the board as an official entity within the school, to allow for parents to have more influence in the day to day operations of it. 

“We’re asking for the parents association to be recognized as an official entity inside the Brooklyn Music School so the parents have a real voice inside the organization,” the parent said. 

They are also pushing for any rezoning that takes place on the site to include a stipulation that the space be used only for the Brooklyn Music School, not a private school. Parents have launched a petition that has garnered over 200 signatures aimed towards local Councilmember Laurie Cumbo, who has allotted the music school $6 Million in funding to aid its expansion and has an outsize influence on the rezoning, which is in her district. Cumbo’s office did not respond to a message seeking comment on the issue. 

Representatives of the board argued that the passed resolutions were proof of their commitment to the school, and that the appointing of two Brooklyn Music School parents to the board signaled their willingness to work with parents. 

While the board seeks to quell the debate over the future of the unbuilt development, parents say the squabble for space in the existing building is only getting worse as the Muse academy expands into the first grade next year. The school has reserved an additional three rooms in the building, one of which was the last large classroom the Brooklyn Music School had unfettered access to, its Piano Lab. The only rooms they now have uninterrupted access to are single studios. 

Green disputed that Brooklyn Music School is unable to access these classrooms, and pointed out that the kindergarten sized furniture has been in use for 25 years. 

The school’s piano program is its most integral program, according to a former teacher, where students learn the basic building blocks of music. As they have been increasingly cut off from the main piano labs, students have been forced to learn on toy pianos that often break down, or double up with other students at pianos. 

The school’s continued expansion at the expense of Brooklyn Music School is emblematic of the board’s attitude, according to one parent. 

“It’s absolutely Muse first, Brooklyn Music School second,” they said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the number of members shared by the Brooklyn Music School and Muse Academy boards, they share 2 members, not 6. The story has also been updated to reflect that Muse Academy plans on expanding into two classrooms next year, not 3.