When it comes to meetings with state lawmakers, nobody puts a face on the power of BOCES programs better than the students themselves.
There was Isabella Spinelli, who told Sen. James Skoufis that working in the Orange-Ulster BOCES on-site preschool as part of the early childhood program has inspired her to become a teacher or counselor.
Sitting next to her was Alyssa Olenick, an advanced animal science student, who is thinking about becoming a veterinarian or starting a brewery and farm business.
“I love the hands-on work so much,” Olenick said. “And thanks to this program, now I’ll be able to work my way through college as a veterinary assistant.”
Then there was Samantha Bruno, a physical therapy aid student in Eastern Suffolk BOCES, who said she found herself slipping academically at her home school during the pandemic but is thriving at the clinical education setting. “I’ve always been really shy but I’m a completely different person in academy,” she told Assemblyman Phil Ramos, D-Brentwood. “It’s given me a fighting chance.”
Ramos, a big believer in career and technical education, said he was blown away by the students’ poise and personal stories. “The future looks bright because you are in it,” he said.
The students were part of a virtual BOCES Lobby Week, as BOCES students, educators and parents conducted dozens of Zoom meetings and sent videos sharing their BOCES success stories.
Together, they put a face on the state’s wide range of BOCES programming — providing everything from career and technical education to a lifeline for students who aren’t thriving in traditional school settings. Many told lawmakers they would be able to immediately enter the workforce with good-paying jobs, while others said BOCES is giving them a solid foundation for college and the military.
NYSUT President Andy Pallotta said BOCES Lobby events are unique because advocates speak with legislators as a team, with students side by side with teachers and administrators. “It’s the personal stories they’ll remember most as lawmakers start debating state budget priorities,” Pallotta said. “Your stories are so inspiring.”
While the budget proposed for BOCES is a better starting point this year, advocates urged legislators to update the aid formula for BOCES that has not been changed in more than three decades. Under the arcane formula, only the first $30,000 of a BOCES CTE employee’s salary qualifies for state aid, meaning that the rest of the salary must be covered by the students’ home school districts.
“This outdated formula is forcing component districts to choose between absorbing a huge part of instructor salary costs or limiting access to the students,” said Orange County BOCES TA’s Laura Beck (pictured above, at left). “Raising the aidable salary amount would unlock additional aid and encourage more school districts to let students take advantage of BOCES programs.”
Sen. James Skoufis, D-Cornwall, agreed and said he is hopeful that BOCES funding can be improved. “I’m a little more optimistic because we have more money this year,” Skoufis said, noting tax receipts are up and the state has received substantial federal relief aid due to the pandemic.
Unfortunately, BOCES are left out of the federal relief funding, such as the American Rescue Act money that goes directly to school districts.
As a matter of fairness, activists urged legislators to make BOCES eligible for a portion of $100 million in mental health grant funding proposed in the executive budget. The Recover from COVID School Learning and Mental Health grants are to be used for student mental health programs, hiring of mental health staff or the creation of programs to address learning loss.
Similarly, activists asked legislators to include BOCES and Vo-Tech educational settings in any legislation that lifts the cap on retiree earnings for educators. Like schools across the state, BOCES programs have been reeling from staff shortages, so any funding that helps with recruitment and retention is much needed.
“We’re hoping to get many of these issues resolved as part of the budget process,” said NYSUT Director of Legislation Alithia Rodriguez-Rolon. “Your stories will help us do that.”