It's not surprising that many of the educators and support staff at the state's 37 Boards of Cooperative Educational Services report feeling isolated — from colleagues and the traditional school environment.
For example, the student population at Ulster BOCES is scattered across an area the size of Rhode Island. Nassau County BOCES, the state's largest, serves 56 Long Island school districts.
That feeling of isolation begins to subside at NYSUT's annual Conference for BOCES Leadership, where BOCES personnel can share with each other and NYSUT leaders their questions, problems and concerns.
"Our members' first priority is helping students learn," said Cliff Brosnan, a member of Saratoga-Adirondack BOCES Employees Association who chairs NYSUT's BOCES Committee. "Overcrowding, understaffing and safety concerns are all related to funding," he said. "We need more funding at state and federal levels."
As cash-strapped school districts send fewer yet more challenged students to BOCES programs, lower revenue is forcing cutbacks in programs, services and personnel, leaving fewer teachers and support staff to deal with the fallout from overcrowding and understaffing.
"You may have an automotive teacher without a teaching assistant, trying hard to integrate academics into a crowded classroom with many special education students," said Kathleen Taylor, president of the Ulster BOCES Teachers Organization and a member of NYSUT's Board of Directors.
Overcrowding could have even more serious consequences. When too many students and too few instructors are jammed into a work area with the tools of the culinary arts, cosmetology or auto repair, for instance, injuries and violence are a constant threat.
Leading a discussion with local leaders at the recent BOCES conference, NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira pledged that NYSUT would continue its annual battle for full and fair funding for BOCES.
BOCES and local school districts are also increasingly challenged by the tremendous increase in paperwork required for Medicaid reimbursement.
"Our members should be providing the speech and language therapy, the physical therapy occupational therapy and psychological services students need as opposed to filling out form after form," Neira said.
Students, she added, "should not lose precious treatment time because of forms, and members should not be put in the position of having to do hours of duplicate documentation," she added.
NYSUT will continue to work with the state departments of Health and Education to address the issues, Neira said.