As usual, the kids were the stars of the show — as BOCES Lobby Day students, educators, administrators and parents told state lawmakers how important it is to fully fund BOCES programs.
Boards of Cooperative Educational Services open all kinds of doors for students, whether it’s offering popular career and technical education, a foundation for college and the military, or a lifeline for students who aren’t thriving in traditional school settings.
In meeting after meeting with lawmakers today, the students’ enthusiasm and passion were obvious. There was a future helicopter mechanic, an aspiring veterinarian and an FBI hopeful. Students in health care programs said they have guaranteed jobs as soon as they graduate. Down the hall at another meeting, a former student who spent seven years in jail credited a BOCES program for incarcerated youth with turning his life around.
Leslie Patino, a criminal justice student at Southern Westchester BOCES, explained how becoming a police officer has been a lifelong dream.
“When I was little, every Halloween I dressed up as a cop,” Patino told Sen. Pete Harkham. “Now, thanks to BOCES, I’m on my way. I know it’s going to become a reality.”
Patino, who brought her mother Rosa along for the lobby day, thanked her mentor and teacher Ray Sulla, a retired New York City police officer.
“Now she loves going to school,” her mother noted. “It wasn’t always like that.”
“Yeah, I have friends who are in classes with me who say ‘You’re a whole different person in BOCES,’” Patino said. “It’s because I want to be there. It’s hands-on and fun.”
Jim Gratto, assistant superintendent at Southern Westchester BOCES, told a similar story about a special education student who found his way in the auto mechanic program.
“When I observed him in his (traditional school setting), he was a very tough kid with a ‘don’t mess with me’ attitude,” Gratto said. “Yet in the mornings in the automotive class, he was wearing a bright green vest and managing all the students.”
Years later, the young man is a highly successful auto mechanic.
Advocates at BOCES Lobby Day warned that the many options and opportunities offered by BOCES are in serious jeopardy if the governor’s proposed education funding plan is approved.
The executive budget proposes merging expense-based aids like BOCES, into the Foundation Aid formula — a move that would force many districts to consider cutting CTE and alternative programs due to other pressing needs.
“If there’s a finite amount of money and you make districts choose, it will eliminate anything not mandated,” said Erie 1 Professional Education Association’s Donna Walter. “CTE and alternative education programs should not be discretionary funding.”
Continued underfunding of education, combined with the restrictive property tax cap, already prompts many school districts to limit the number of students they send to BOCES, advocates said. In addition, school districts are discouraged from sending students to CTE programs because state reimbursement only covers the first $30,000 in salary for BOCES instructors, leaving districts to cover the rest. Expanding the cap would unlock additional funding for BOCES programs, allowing districts to send more students.
“There are kids who want to get in but can’t,” said Melissa Barreto, president of BOCES TA of Westchester 2. “It becomes a matter of a school district saying we can only afford to send 10 kids and the door is closed for the rest.”
Meanwhile, the need for CTE graduates is skyrocketing, noted BOCES United Professionals Co-President Joe Alati. He told Assemblyman Harry Bronson, D-Rochester, that a large capital building project at Honeoye Falls-Lima School District has been delayed due to a lack of construction workers.
“This is no time to be closing the doors to BOCES,” Alati said. “We should be investing more funding — not forcing districts to choose.”
“Playing shell games with different pots of school aid is the wrong way to fund our schools,” NYSUT President Andy Pallotta said. “Instead of tinkering with funding formulas, the state needs to make a significant investment in public school districts and BOCES programs that students need. The message is simple: Fund our future.”