With school districts reeling from state budget cuts, the role of BOCES as a centralized, cost-effective solution has never been more important, NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta told more than 125 educators, students, parents and administrators at the Capitol in Albany for a BOCES lobby day.
"Hearing from you directly, that's what really makes a difference," Pallotta said, urging participants to share personal examples of local programs. No question, he said, the fact that BOCES advocacy day includes administrators, unionists, parents and students all lobbying together for the same goal makes a big impression with lawmakers.
Advocates made the case for a number of legislative bills that would help BOCES maintain or expand their services. One key proposal would fix funding problems for preschool special education programs.
"We used to operate three preschool special education classrooms but we had to go out of business," said Susan Schmidt, assistant superintendent at Sullivan BOCES. She said BOCES simply could not absorb the inflationary costs (due to no cost-of-living adjustment since 2008) or the two-year lag in payment.
"In the North Country, there just isn't another option for these kids," said Sandie Carner-Shafran of Washington-Saratoga-Warren-Hamilton-Essex BOCES. "We used to have six preschool special education classrooms and we're down to two. I can't tell you how many school districts over the years noted how the kids who came out of our program were school-ready."
"Early intervention is so important," said Patricia Compton, a teacher of the deaf at Southern Westchester 2 BOCES. "The need for quality preschool programs is immense ... and if you start services early, it will ultimately save money down the road."
As more school districts cut programs, advocates urged lawmakers to make it easier for BOCES to provide itinerant staff and other cost-saving measures.
"One third of our (Brushton-Moira) seniors are taking their 12th grade government classes through independent study because we lost that teacher," said Tracy Edwards-Warren, a Franklin-Essex-Hamilton BOCES educator who serves on the Brushton-Moira school board. "Wouldn't it make sense if BOCES could provide a core social studies teacher and districts could share?"
The BOCES activists also strongly advocated for more state aid for their home school districts. Saying that many school districts have cut back on placing students in BOCES programs because they have lost so much state aid the last several years, activists urged lawmakers to redirect the governor's proposed $203 million Fiscal Stabilization Fund to general operating or "foundation aid."
Advocates also called for a number of other proposals:
Include BOCES in New York's SAFE Act, which allows schools to get state aid for the purchase of security devices.
Include BOCES in any pension-smoothing law that is enacted since they face the same fiscal pressures as school districts.
Support full-day BOCES programs.
Change BOCES lease terms from 10 years to 20 years to save costs.
Exclude BOCES capital projects from the property tax levy cap.