Concerned with the violent conditions in too many BOCES classrooms, union leaders say a critical shortage of staff is exacerbating an already challenging learning environment in which problems only seem to be increasing.
“We’re losing staff and we’re burning out our good staff,” said Tracie Clark, president of Onondaga-Cortland-Madison BOCES Federation of Teachers. “We had 100 new staff this year.”
There were knowing nods around the room, as about 30 local union leaders gathered last weekend for NYSUT’s BOCES Leadership Council. One upstate leader noted their staff has already had 10 serious injuries — more than they usually experience in an entire school year.
Leaders of BOCES around the state reported an uptick in staff injuries and tremendous difficulty hiring— and keeping — teaching assistants and aides. Leaders also expressed frustration that their BOCES administrators accept students with disabilities who need 1:1 supervision before the necessary staff person is hired.
“It’s just expected we’ll fill in the gaps when a classroom is out of compliance,” said one BOCES leader. “It’s a huge frustration.”
Local leaders shared ideas on contract language that could help. For example, Douglas Andreotti of United Staff Association of Putnam and Northern Westchester BOCES said the union pushed for a plan on how to appropriately move staff around when staffers call in sick. The union also successfully advocated for raising the pay for substitute staffers. Some BOCES have won contract provisions that ensure injured staffers out on worker’s compensation do not lose pay. Another leader explained how he has successfully filed a grievance to force the district to provide bite guards and protective gloves.
United BOCES TA President John Dedrick said his Cattaraugus-Allegany-Erie-Wyoming BOCES is having good success with a new model that increased the number of counselors to work with teachers. He said component districts are willing to pay higher tuition costs for students who need acute mental health services.
NYSUT’s David Rothfuss, an expert on special education services, urged leaders to pay close attention to documentation — filing incident reports, keeping copies of communication with administration and parents, and participating in district-wide school safety teams. He said the State Education Department has expressed a willingness to meet on ongoing BOCES concerns.
NYSUT Executive Vice President Jolene DiBrango discussed the union’s “Take a Look at Teaching” initiative and urged BOCES leaders to consider hosting a roundtable event to explore ways to recruit and retain high-need special education and Career and Technical Education staffers.
NYSUT Legislative Representative Jackie Paredes said the union is advocating for a workplace violence safety bill, along with a host of other BOCES issues. She also encouraged leaders to be a part of the BOCES Lobby Day on Feb. 27.
“It’s a one-of-a-kind lobby day, because our members are there side by side with administrators, parents and students,” she said. “Legislators are going to remember you, your students and your stories.”
“It makes a real impression to have the students with you,” said Jim Beck of BOCES Educators of Eastern Suffolk. “It changes the whole dynamic and works wonders with the legislators.”