March 09, 2012

BOCES activists offer revenue solutions

Author: Sylvia Saunders
Source: NYSUT Communications
Caption: Southern Westchester BOCES special education teacher Christine Milano (left) and parent Erin Sullivan-Thiesen make the case in Albany. Photo by Andrew Watson.

From a souped-up motorcycle on display in the Legislative Office Building to a parent's heart-wrenching plea for continued special education services, state lawmakers got an up-close look at the power of BOCES during a recent lobby day.

Ulster BOCES teacher Mark Harris was beaming with pride as he told hundreds of impressed onlookers that the awesome motorcycle was designed, engineered and built by four classes of high school students.

"The kids have gotten so caught up in the project that they've actually come in nights and during break to work on the bike," Harris said. "Keep in mind many of these kids were students who didn't like school ... Our alternative style of learning really hooks them in."

Eight floors upstairs, in the office of Senate Education Chairman John Flanagan, R-Suffolk, a parent and teacher offered a heartfelt plea for continued funding for programs like one offered by Southern Westchester County BOCES.

"My son, Henry, is 9 and he is so lucky to be in this program for children with autism," said Erin Sullivan-Thiesen. "Our school district sends him to this incredible BOCES program and he has this wonderful teacher who is sitting next to me."

"It's a struggle every day," said teacher Christine Milano, explaining that some of her students ranging from third-grade to sixth-grade are just beginning to speak and aren't quite toilet-trained.

Milano, a 13-year special education teacher at Southern Westchester BOCES, was laid off in June. "The hardest part was I couldn't tell my kids whether I'd be back," she said. "It's frightening for the kids not to know who's going to be their teacher."

"And for their parents," Sullivan-Theisen added, noting how thrilled she was when Milano was called back when the school year began. "That's why I'm here, to give our legislators a more complete picture, to let them know how much I appreciate what BOCES does."

The parent-teacher duo were among more than 100 BOCES educators, administrators, students and other advocates from around the state, who urged lawmakers to restore education funding across the board so districts can continue using BOCES programs.

Many BOCES are losing enrollment because home districts are unable to afford to send their students to alternative and specialized programs.

"The budget cuts have hit our component school districts hard," said Gerry Murphy, a culinary teacher with Southern Westchester BOCES. "We're losing enrollment and programs are closing."

Educators explained that as BOCES are losing enrollment, students are losing vital services and programming.

"We're serving kids who might have dropped out or gone in a completely different direction," said Bill Baker, president of the United BOCES TA in southwestern New York. "In my 30 years, I've been thrilled to see my kids go on to open restaurants and other businesses. I'm not sure what would have happened to some of these kids if BOCES hadn't been there for them."

Chris Gagliardo, a teacher at Cattaraugus-Allegany BOCES said he is worried the budget cuts and layoffs are discouraging the younger generation of teachers. "How are we going to attract good quality people to go into teaching anymore?" he said. "This proposed Tier 6, if it goes through is going to wreck education."

The BOCES advocates offered lawmakers many ideas to allow BOCES to grow, such as allowing the system to take in out-of-state students and sell services. Activists also urged lawmakers to support legislation that would allow BOCES to operate regional high schools.

"At a time when New York is hurting and looking for revenue, we need to find ways to grow and sustain our programs," said Marty Sommer, a counselor with Southern Westchester BOCES. "We can be part of the solution if you let us."