March 03, 2016

Activists make the case for BOCES boost

Author: Sylvia Saunders
Source: NYSUT Communications
boces lobby day
Caption: Student activists were ready to share their BOCES stories with lawmakers Tuesday. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

State lawmakers heard first-hand about the power of BOCES, with students sharing personal stories on how their local programs uniquely serve their needs.

In a meeting with Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages, D-Elmont, students introduced themselves, showing the incredible range of Nassau BOCES programs: automotive, pharmacy, horse science, physical therapy, cosmetology, special education and more.

“In my PT program, we have actual hands-on opportunities and everything from hospital beds to hot packs to paraffin wax,” said student Aliah Powell. “I really love the hands-on approach – it’s not like regular school.”

“It’s such a unique environment that wasn’t available at my home school district,” said Alexis Murry, a student at Nassau BOCES’ Doshi STEM Institute. “People are motivated and passionate about the STEM field. Our equipment is top-notch. And it’s so great to be with other girls who share my interests.”

Joey Schneider, who has Asperger’s syndrome, said the BOCES special education setting gives him the support he needs to succeed. “Academically, I would have been fine (in a traditional high school) but I can’t do well in the rat race, or when there’s a long line to talk to somebody,” Schneider said. “When you have Asperger’s, you need to have somebody on your side. That’s what I have.”

“Providing an alternate environment is very significant for students like Joey,” said Carol Mirochin, a psychologist and member of Nassau BOCES Central Council of Teachers. “Being in a smaller setting, having special education teachers and other supports, they’re able to reach their potential and actually exceed it.”

boces lobby day
Nassau BOCES students and educators meet with Assemblywoman Michaelle Solages, D-Elmont. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

The Long Island group was among many teachers, administrators and students who took part in a BOCES Lobby Day on Wednesday. They came to make the case for more funding and other legislative action so that programs around the state can be enhanced and expanded.

“We know BOCES are a key part of our educational system and we need to spread the word so they can play a larger and more effective role,” said NYSUT Executive Vice President Andy Pallotta. “Tell them your stories. There’s very little that moves legislators more.”

NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino agreed, and noted that the BOCES lobby day is different from most because it includes students, educators, administrators and board members all advocating together, side by side. “This coalition shines the light on a very special resource,” she said. “And you students, you’re the most important voices here.”

Aside from telling their personal stories, advocates strongly made the case for more general education funding so that districts can afford to send students to the regional programs.

“We’re worried because the tax cap and other financial pressures are making it hard for school districts to keep sending kids,” said Fran Langsner, a Nassau BOCES board member. “If you have to choose between a third-grade teacher and sending three kids to BOCES, what are you going to do? Districts are pulling back—it’s really a problem.”

“The kids are getting steered or told ‘no’ – not because of their needs or interests but because of budget shortfalls,” said Ruth Shippee, local president of Saratoga Adirondack BOCES Employees Association. “At the same time, businesses are desperately looking for kids with CTE training.”

“As school districts go, BOCES goes,” said Jim Hedlund, a special education teacher and president of Tri-County BOCES EA in southwestern New York. “The answer is school aid, school aid, school aid.”

BOCES advocates also urged lawmakers to support bills that would help BOCES remain economically viable and even expand offerings, including bills that would:

  • raise the cap on the maximum amount of a BOCES CTE employee's salary that qualifies for state aid. The $30,000 level has not been updated since 1990, meaning that the rest of the salary must be covered by cash-strapped school districts. Raising the aidable salary amount would encourage districts to use BOCES, administrators said.
  • fully exclude all BOCES services and capital expenses from the tax cap;
  • allow BOCES to establish reserve funds to cover long-term costs;
  • give BOCES the same level of financial support as component school districts for school safety expenses like metal detectors and security devices; and
  • provide preschool special education programs with a desperately needed cost of living adjustment.

boces lobby day
Students, educators and activists take to the Capitol. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.