In disturbing detail, BOCES union leaders were loud and clear when they voiced concerns that too many students with disabilities are not getting the specialized services they need.
NYSUT Vice President Catalina Fortino set up a special meeting last month with State Education Department Assistant Commissioner Christopher Suriano so he could hear directly from the field.
Union leaders, who raised similar concerns at a NYSUT advisory council meeting with Fortino earlier in the year, said budgetary pressures, dangerously low staffing levels and a lack of state monitoring are shortchanging students and causing safety concerns.
"I just want us to be safe and I want the kids to get what they need," said Sandie Carner-Shafran, a NYSUT board member and teaching assistant at Washington-Saratoga-Warren-Hamilton-Essex BOCES. "We're operating a day treatment program without the necessary supports."
BOCES union leaders representing programs around the state said students are simply not getting the specialized instruction, smaller class size and extra adult attention required under their Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs.
For example, students may be in a 6:1:1 setting for a social studies class in their home district, but are then "magically mainstreamed" with 40-50 students in BOCES programming.
"We're getting so many more challenged kids," said Southern Westchester BOCES culinary teacher Gerry Murphy. "Seventy percent of our kids in Career and Technical Education (CTE) programs have an IEP or accommodation."
Murphy talked about how having more than 40 students in his shop — sometimes using potentially dangerous equipment — can pose serious safety concerns. "It's just not fair to the kids," he said.
Suriano looked around the room and asked if this is a common occurrence. More than a dozen hands went up.
"It's like that in our alternative high school," said Andy Jordan, co-president of Erie 1 BOCES United Professionals. "A child from a 6:1:1 setting for academic classes is in a physical education class with 40 kids. That's a huge ask for one physical education teacher."
"That can be tough on fragile students, too," said Jo James of Saratoga Adirondack BOCES EA. "Their IEPs require a smaller setting and a [richer] staffing ratio for a reason. Students are being traumatized in the classroom."
Suriano said it shouldn't be that way.
"Students don't lose their disability when they move from one setting to another," he said. "Supports in a hands-on program might be different, but they still need supports to succeed."
Suriano said the commissioner and the Regents are keenly interested in improving outcomes for students with disabilities. "The goal is to have more students with disabilities succeed ... and to have more students with disabilities accessing your services," he said.
Union leaders said the problem has intensified as local school districts struggle to balance budgets under the state's tax cap on spending. BOCES administrators, in turn, are trying to offer services to districts as economically as possible — even striving to rebate school districts any unspent funding at the end of the year to encourage future enrollments.
"In a BOCES we're there to serve the district," said one leader. "It's a business model, but at what point do the student's needs supersede?"
"In my mind, you're not a business at all," Suriano said. "You're designed to meet the needs of students [that] your component districts can't provide."
Leaders told Suriano, who was named an assistant commissioner last fall, that the state is too easily issuing variances so BOCES can get around staffing requirements , increase class size and save money.
They said staff shortages are reaching a crisis level, especially for hiring paraprofessionals and substitute teachers.
"The working conditions have gotten so tough that the sub doesn't even come back after lunch," Carner-Shafran said.
"And we have more and more people out on worker's comp because of injuries," Murphy said. "It's real rough out there."
School psychologists and social workers are stretched to the max, increasingly spending more time on crisis intervention and less time managing their caseload.
"Social workers are just trying to keep their heads above water," said Laura Coleman of Broome-Delaware-Tioga BOCES TA.
"We have just one psychologist once a week for an hour," Carner-Shafran added.
"Professional development has not kept pace on how to handle increasingly intense behavior," said Flora Fasoldt of Capital Region BOCES. "We need crisis teams and we're slow to do that."
Other issues discussed included lobbying for increased reimbursements for BOCES programming and capital expenses; offering services for English language learners in BOCES programs and revamping Annual Professional Performance Reviews (APPRs) to more accurately show student growth for special education teachers.
Throughout the meeting, Suriano listened carefully and took copious notes. He said he would take their concerns back to Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and discuss the issues raised with BOCES district superintendents.