At one time, Washington- Saratoga-Warren-Hamilton- Essex BOCES operated six preschool classrooms for youngsters who needed special education services. This year, due to an archaic state funding formula, they're down to just two classrooms in two locations. And, next year, unless state lawmakers intervene, the North Country BOCES is planning to offer just one.
"It breaks my heart because there just isn't another option for these kids," Sandie Carner-Shafran, a WSWHE BOCES union activist and NYSUT Board member, told Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury. "So many people have noted how the kids who come out of our program are school ready."
"Early intervention is so important," said Patricia Compton, a teacher of the deaf at Southern Westchester 2 BOCES, in another legislative meeting. "The need for quality preschool programs is immense ... and if you start services early, it will ultimately save money down the road."
Compton and Carner-Shafran were among more than 125 educators, administrators, parents and students who participated in a BOCES lobby day last month. They told lawmakers the state is down to just four preschool special education BOCES programs because the state lags funding for two years and because the programs have not had a cost-of-living adjustment since 2008.
Facing a $2 million budget shortfall, Nassau BOCES plans to close its special education preschool in June.
"Fixing the funding formula for preschool special education is a top priority," said NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira, whose office oversees BOCES issues.
Advocates also made the case for increased funding for their home districts, noting that cuts in state aid have hurt school districts so deeply that many are cutting back on placing students in BOCES programs.
That's a big mistake, said NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta. With school districts reeling from state budget cuts, the role of BOCES as a centralized, cost-effective solution has never been more important.
"Hearing from you directly, that's what really makes a difference," Pallotta said, urging the activists to share personal examples.
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, noted Capital Region BOCES Superintendent Charles Dedrick. "Us marching together, that's a powerful message," he said.
The BOCES advocates also called for lawmakers to:
revise the property tax cap to make it less restrictive and redirect the governor's proposed $203 million Fiscal Stabilization Fund to general operating aid for schools;
include BOCES in New York's SAFE Act, which provides schools with state aid for 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; and
change BOCES lease terms from 10 to 20 years to save costs.
At a group meeting before the individual lobby visits began, Marty Sommer of Southern Westchester BOCES said the face-to-face advocacy gets results. He reminded activists that last year's agenda sought legislation that would allow BOCES to accept out-of-state students and contract with public libraries.
"We made our case and won two new laws," Sommer said. "These lobby days really do give us a voice."