Unleash the Potential of BOCES.
Testimony by the District Superintendents of the State of New York to
The New York State Commission on Property Tax Relief
November 12, 2008, Syracuse, New York
To watch the testimony to the commission please click here, select the Nov. 12 date on the left, and fast forward by 28 minutes to begin viewing the comments made by Johanna Duncan-Poitier, Senior Deputy Commissioner NYS Education Department.
The full written testimony of the BOCES district superintendents is below:
Good afternoon, my name is James Baldwin. I am the district superintendent of Questar III BOCES, serving Rensselaer, Columbia and Greene Counties and the chair of the State's district superintendents.
With me today are my colleagues: Donald Ogilvie, district superintendent of the Erie 1 BOCES and chair of our legislative committee, Jessica Cohen, district superintendent of the Onondaga, Cortland Madison BOCES and vice chair of the districts superintendents; William Speck, district superintendent of the Cayuga-Onondaga BOCES and the Questar III school attorney, Susan DiDonato.
On behalf of the State's district superintendents and 37 BOCES, we applaud the leadership of Governor Paterson, Chairman Suozzi and the Commission members and staff on the most pressing issue facing New Yorkers - unmitigated increases in property taxes. This situation is particularly difficult at a time of fiscal crisis. We are here today to call upon the State to unleash and fully utilize BOCES, enabling us to expand intergovernmental cooperation, eliminate duplication and achieve cost savings for New York property taxpayers. BOCES have an outstanding record of providing high quality programs and achieving cost savings for school districts and we have specific recommendations as to how more can be done.
You have received much testimony about the work of BOCES throughout New York State and have recognized that current law creates obstacles that prevent BOCES from recognizing its full potential as agents of inter-municipal cooperation that will generate economies and efficiencies in the delivery of both educational and general government programs and services. Today we will discuss with you how the State can unleash the potential of BOCES and how BOCES can assist the State and its local governments to maintain and even improve services - in the face of the most daunting fiscal times New York has faced in decades.
Generally we will address the following issues:
1) Implementation of the Commission's preliminary recommendations as relates to BOCES.
2) Making BOCES more efficient instrument through which State policy can be implemented; and
3) Removing the policy, statutory and regulatory impediments that prevent BOCES from achieving their full potential.
I begin by offering some general observations. To spur the expanded intergovernmental cooperation called for in the reports of both this Commission and the Lundine Commission, the Governor and the Legislature must consider the extent to which local aid formulae facilitate their objectives. Currently there is no provision for encouraging intergovernmental cooperation in State aid to general purpose local governments. And BOCES Aid constitutes a mere 2-3% of the total aid paid by the State to school districts. If the State is to be taken seriously in its efforts to promote local economy and efficiency - and to reduce the impact of local property tax, it must use the aid it provides to leverage greater intergovernmental cooperation - with schools and local governments. This is all the more true during a time of fiscal distress when opportunities abound to vividly demonstrate the value of inter-municipal cooperation and the need to secure a future for New York's economy.
Boards of Cooperative Educational Services ("BOCES") are public regional educational service entities established under the Education Law as a means to expand educational opportunities for children and to provide districts with economies of scale in undertaking educational programs and support services.
The word "cooperative" is the key! By means of illustration, the Cooperative Corporations Law - which predates the creation of BOCES by two decades - defines cooperative corporations as entities "organized" for the cooperative rendering of mutual help and service to its members. A cooperative corporation's primary object is not to make profits for itself as such, or to pay dividends on invested capital, but to provide service and means whereby its members may have the economic advantage of cooperative action, including a reasonable and fair return for their product and service. Cooperative Corporations Law, section 3(d).
These concepts describe BOCES dedication to service and value today.� While BOCES are the premier example of successful intergovernmental cooperation in New York, BOCES' statutory framework for providing service and value to its members has not kept pace with constituent needs or the demands on schools or local governments in the 21st century.
Unleash BOCES to Achieve Taxpayer Savings - Across the Board
As BOCES have sought to expand efforts to deliver cost effective programs and services, questions have been raised about the extent of BOCES authorization to support school districts and other general and special purpose local governments. While the General Municipal Law permits these governments to participate in inter-municipal agreements, BOCES have been precluded from providing cooperative services to local governments. The times demand that this change and that BOCES be unleashed to help local governments save taxpayer dollars.
We recommend the repeal those provisions of Education Law S1950 that restrict BOCES authority to provide services to all general and special purpose local governments. Further, we encourage the New York State Education Department to adopt a policy that encourages the capacity building of BOCES that will result from expansion of cooperative services beyond school districts through use of inter-municipal agreements. Where it can save taxpayer dollars, BOCES should be providing services to towns, villages, cities, counties, colleges and universities, charter schools, libraries, museums and not-for-profit organizations with educational purposes.
Article 40 of the Education Law (and, in particular, section 1950 of this Article) governs the organization, operations, powers, elections, financing and meetings of the BOCES, and includes many provisions relating to district superintendents. While the provisions relating to the essential structure of BOCES - are sound and need not be revisited, section 1950 has many limitations on BOCES powers which are no longer necessary or desirable from a public policy point of view.
Historically, BOCES corporate powers have been tied to the concept of aidability of services. And, the existence of BOCES aid is a necessary component of BOCES services to school districts. It is the State's primary policy vehicle for driving funding to those activities undertaken on a cooperative basis. However, the question of whether a particular activity is aidable or not, should not be confused with corporate powers and functions of the BOCES. Doing so limits school districts from utilizing the BOCES as the vehicle for promoting and providing the administrative structures required for desirable cooperative activities.
To facilitate this, we recommend that Education Law, sections 1950(4) (d) and 1950(4) (bb) be revised to separate BOCES powers from determinations of aidability. This will direct and restrict the traditional Co-Ser review process toward consideration of aidability only and not as a vehicle for limiting BOCES activities. This will allow the State to properly focus on whether State funding is being directed in accordance with public policy, and will eliminate bureaucratic confusion over whether school districts and BOCES have the ability to cooperate jointly on other mutually beneficial - yet unaided activities under authority of either the Education Law or Article 5-G of the General Municipal Law.
BOCES aid is but a small percentage - too small of a percentage of the overall school aid budget, but it serves as a powerful incentive toward cooperation. To this end, it makes sense to allow cities with a population of over 125,000, generally called the "Big 5" cities, to purchase BOCES services and receive BOCES aid in lieu of special services aid. We believe this change will benefit all members of the cooperative BOCES as well as the Big 5 cities and their students who could then participate in successful BOCES educational programs like Career and Technical Education - that result in high graduation rates for students.
The city districts would be encouraged to utilize BOCES services and would share a proportion of the BOCES administrative budget through an administrative fee, increasing the economies of scale for all members.� Most importantly, this change would help drive State funding toward cooperative efforts and, based upon studies undertaken by our colleagues, drive more money to the city school districts based upon wealth factors.
Education Law Section 1950(4) (h) needs further revision to remove restrictions on entering into cooperative services with other entities, including public entities. As a public corporation, a BOCES should be able to enter into contracts which will allow it to carry out its statutory mission, as is typical for public corporations. Unfortunately, the courts have interpreted the very specific - and limited - list of contractual purposes and entities found in this section of law, to preclude other contractual relationships.
One of the traditional disincentives to inter-municipal cooperation is a matter of simple practicalities. Which party oversees the work? One of the reasons BOCES have been successful in undertaking cooperative activities is because for school district - the BOCES does the work. That is, the BOCES provides the vehicle for its members to discuss how they can undertake services together. It provides the administrative structure for getting the work done.� It is accountable to its customers for the work. If inter-municipal cooperation is to be expanded in New York, BOCES are well-positioned, experienced and, with commensurate legislative authority, capable of providing this coordination role and administrative structure for all municipal entities with an interest. There is no need for additional bureaucracy at the State or regional level. In addition to current options, local governments would be free to shop around for high quality, competitively priced programs and services among the State's 37 BOCES.
It is relatively easy to accomplish - Section 1950 could be amended to provide specific authority to BOCES to contract with other public entities to provide services. Alternatively, Article 5-G could be amended to authorize municipal corporations, to contract with BOCES to carry out services whether or not the BOCES has the underlying separate authority to provide the function or service on its own.
Unleash BOCES as Agents for Reform
Currently BOCES Aid to school districts is limited to the first $30,000 in salary paid to BOCES employees shared among local school districts. This limit has been in existence for 18 years. According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics - that $30,000 in 1991 would equate to $48,197 in 2008. Therefore the relative value of BOCES Aid has decreased. This negatively impacts the capacity of BOCES to provide regional school improvement services, educational programs and leadership development experiences for teachers and aspiring school leaders. It also undermines State policy promoting regional cooperation to save taxpayer dollars. Even as New York struggles with fiscal difficulties, the State must make decisions about how to spend the dollars it does have. Expanding the incentives for school districts to engage in cost saving intergovernmental activities is an investment worth making especially during difficult times. It is essential that the State eliminate the cap on the amount of BOCES Aid that is paid to school districts for staff shared through BOCES to strengthen the incentive for school district participation in BOCES programs and expand inter-municipal cooperation.
Fairness in Excess Cost Aid to School Districts
The State provides aid to school districts for the education of special education students primarily through excess cost aids. Currently the State' Private Excess Cost Aid Formula is more favorable to many school districts than the Public Excess Cost Aid. This makes no programmatic sense and drives many public school districts away from BOCES as the providers of choice for special education services. They are being given incentives to use private providers who often do not operate under the same standards or constraints as BOCES. Left unaddressed, this situation may result in a migration of special education students away from BOCES in favor of private placements receiving a higher level of aid. This will erode the capacity of BOCES and public schools to provide cost-effective services.
The Commission has expressed considerable interest in containing and controlling special education costs. A level playing field among providers of special education services will help do that. State excess cost aid to school districts should be the same whether a student is placed in a private or public placement. This will encourage a broader range of choices for students, parents and school districts and inject a higher level of competition among providers and greater efficiency in the provision of special education services by both BOCES and private providers to improve the quality of services to students and their families.
Supporting Full-day BOCES High School Programs
In your preliminary report you cite the value of regional approaches to the delivery of high school education programs. This was also cited by the Lundine Commission in its recommendations. But here is another example of how State law inhibits and penalizes inter-municipal cooperation. Currently, school districts sending students to full-day BOCES programs are penalized by loss of per capita student aid in favor of BOCES Aid. This is a disincentive to participation in such regional initiatives. We believe school districts should receive both per-capita aid for these students and BOCES aid, up to the cost of the program. At a minimum, the State should provide school districts participating in full-day BOCES programs the higher of per capita aid or BOCES aid.
Many BOCES provide a full-time educational experience for secondary students, particularly in grades 11 and 12, sometimes by offering the student two complementary half-day programs. The Capital Region and Questar III BOCES have created a regional high school "Tech Valley High" to respond to the economic imperatives in Tech Valley and to offer a technology and project-based learning opportunity for students that is closely coordinated with business activity in the region. However, since BOCES do not have diploma granting authority these students who will only attend Tech Valley High will not receive a Tech Valley High diploma.
Section 1950(4) of the Education Law should be amended to authorize BOCES to offer full-time diploma-granting regional high school programs for students. Diploma granting authority would allow BOCES to target their educational programs in a way that advances State and local economic development strategies in their regions. It also would allow school districts in rural areas to cooperate in the formation of regional high schools, thereby achieving economies of scale in supporting the most expensive element of our school district educational programs outside of special education - the secondary school programs.
The policy of New York is to promote the provision of universal pre-kindergarten education as well as a strong continuum of inclusive services for preschool students with disabilities. However the State�s commitment to universal pre-K is a hollow one when one considers the issues related to pre-school programs for students with disabilities.
Both research and experience indicate that early intervention programs for students with disabilities as well as universal pre-kindergarten programs are cost effective in the long term by reducing the number of students identified with disabilities in elementary school. It is for this reason that the state should ensure adequate funding, realistic rate-setting and appropriate review processes. Unfortunately, the opposite has been the case.
BOCES that have provided this opportunity to students with disabilities have been suffering from inadequate funding, unrealistic rate-setting and cumbersome, non-responsive review processes. These factors have lead to BOCES accruing large deficits and either terminating or reducing services to this most vulnerable population of students. The current funding methodologies require a multi-year rate setting. Reimbursement rate increases are capped at arbitrary levels. A lengthy wavier process involving the State Education Department, counties, and the Division of the Budget takes years to resolve and result in ongoing deficits in the millions of dollars.
Numerous school districts and BOCES are curtailing the operation of effective and efficient pre-school programs due to this multi-year lag in reimbursements and lack of reimbursement for services previously provided. These programs are providing center-based, itinerant and related services to special needs children (ages 3-5 years old), including speech, occupational and/or physical therapy. These early interventions work and prevent higher expenditures later in a student's education. Why then is it so difficult to operate them?
We understand that the State is not currently in a position to increase funding for pre-K programs but the State can prepare for better times and set the stage for making a real commitment to universal pre-K. It is critical that State law be amended to provide school districts and BOCES with objective, formula driven reimbursement for approved pre-school programs with reimbursement made in the school year following provision of services. Additionally, we recommend that pre-K centers be established on a regional basis and ultimately be eligible for pre-k allocations by district as well as BOCES aid.
Unleash BOCES to Build Capacity and Achieve Greater Economy and Efficiency
There are a number of additional initiatives that will enable BOCES to build capacity and achieve greater economy and efficiency in the delivery of services. BOCES are currently limited to lease terms of no more than 10 years for their facilities. Real estate developers are often reluctant to build facilities for BOCES when the BOCES can only commit to a 10 year lease. When a developer is willing to assume that risk, the rental costs to the BOCES are often prohibitive. BOCES can also bond projects with the approval of a majority of voters in the BOCES. If the resulting debt would have any district in the BOCES exceeding its debt limit, the voters of such districts must also approve the referendum by super-majority margins.
The impediments to BOCES facility development often discourage intergovernmental cooperation and drive up costs for BOCES facilities which are typically leased for 10 years or less. They have also resulted in the Hamilton, Fulton Montgomery BOCES and the Cayuga, Onondaga BOCES expending significant time and taxpayer money to obtain special legislation to permit 30 year leases for construction of necessary facilities. This is an inefficient process.
Amending section 1950 of the Education Law to authorize BOCES to enter into leases for up to 30 years, with an option to purchase the subject property at intervals will provide BOCES with a stronger bargaining position in dealing with real estate developers. As the current debt on BOCES building and aid to districts is based upon a 15 year schedule, the schedule would be modified to conform to the extended 30 year period. This would stretch out aid payments over the period of the lease. Additionally, EXCEL Aid, currently available to school districts should be made available to BOCES.
High Energy Costs and Environmental Impacts
The rising cost of fuel and utility costs threatens the capacity of local school districts to provide necessary educational opportunities to students. Currently local school districts are free to maintain independent transportation services and departments that result in inefficiencies and excess fuel consumption. Additionally, many districts within in a supervisory district adopt varying student attendance schedules. These practices are supported by a State aid transportation formula that fails to provide incentives for economically and environmentally sustainable transportation of students.
The State should mandate the development of calendars and schedules that are responsive to student learning needs and maximize opportunity for regional transportation of students. Additionally, the State should fully fund and require each BOCES to undertake a study of transportation in each supervisory district to determine how to implement a regional school transportation system in that region with the objectives of maximizing cost efficiencies and conserving fuel. Prior to implementation, such plans should be subject to public input and approval of the Commissioner as a condition precedent to receipt of transportation aid to school districts. This will enable the State to leverage more effective and efficient use of transportation aid dollars.
New York State has a mature educational system, steeped in traditions of rigor and excellence. As the 21st Century progresses, New York will be hard-pressed to maintain its educational leadership if it does not come to terms with providing clear and decisive leadership regarding the integration and use of technology in our public schools.
School districts throughout the State have varying levels of technological capacity and resources. Student achievement data collection, analysis and distribution are riddled with inefficiencies and inaccuracies. In an era when every major sector of the economy relies on use of advanced information technology to facilitate business and financial transactions, the public education sector lags far behind. The administration of the venerable Regents examinations is mired in the inefficiencies of an early 20th century system that still requires printing and actual physical distribution of thousands of examinations in locked boxes throughout the State. In spite of the expenditure of many millions of dollars on "technology" it is not clear that a majority of New York schools are engaged in best practices when it comes to instructional technology, nor what those best practices are.
The State�s Regional Information Centers have been incubators for many innovative technology practices and represent a largely untapped resource in terms of State Education Department leadership of instructional and information technology. There must be leadership recognizing the essential nature of technology to functional consolidation. New York must accelerate its use of technology in the delivery of educational programs and in the administration of all State examinations. The savings achieved can be reinvested in instructional programs and to leverage new ventures. Promising practices related to the use of instructional technology must be identified and provided to local school districts, minimum standards for local school district technology capacity and compatibility with State data collection systems must be promulgated and maintained current with advancements in technology. The availability of laptops to all students and the use of smart terminals by students taking Regents examinations and other State assessments must become a priority with a specific target date for full implementation of these 21st Century technology initiatives.
Unleash BOCES to Provide Year Round Opportunities for Students
Research documents the loss of educational attainment during the prolonged summer recess. Currently school districts receive BOCES Aid for remedial summer programs for students and there is some flexibility for continuing - enrichment and other academic courses through the summer but only if these programs are continued from the school year. Incredibly, BOCES are prohibited from offering summer educational programming for a fee. The constraints on school districts and the inability of BOCES to charge for summer enrichment programs does not promote the widespread availability of summer enrichment programming for students to help them retain and continue learning. This represents a lost opportunity and a failure to recognize that we are no longer an agrarian society - or even an industrial society - but one where families often struggle to find appropriate educational activities for their children through the summer months.
Social Services and Economic Development
Poverty is a major contributor to lack of success in school. Because the social services students and their families depend on are county-controlled and school districts are not co-extensive with counties, coordination of such services to students most in need is virtually non-existent. There is an opportunity to serve children far better (and save long term remediation costs through prevention) by using BOCES to coordinate services with counties for the school districts within their boundaries. Here BOCES have several advantages including: centralized locations and services, familiarity with the populations to be served, significant data about individual students, stable leadership and central role as a convener and coordinator of services.
Similarly, many local BOCES have been convening regional meetings of higher education, libraries and local businesses to identify local workforce needs, develop regional economic development focus and create collaborative partnerships to advance economic development. BOCES can be a critical link between the economic development community and the State's public schools as we look to develop an education system that will foster the development of 21st century skills as well as content knowledge. This will be critical to the future of New York's standing in the global economy.
We appreciate this opportunity to share our vision about how BOCES can be of assistance to the State and its local governments as we struggle with this unprecedented fiscal crisis. There is no question that school districts and local governments face difficult decisions about their futures. And it is certain that New York must consider whether it can continue to support and sustain the numbers and layers of governments - both general and special purpose - that it has historically. High property taxes and adherence to anachronistic ways of doing the people's business - educating students, providing transportation and municipal services, providing health, mental health and social support services are sapping the State's economic vitality - which all of us ultimately depend upon to provide programs and services. As you move forward with your recommendations to the Governor and the legislature be assured of our continuing interest in your work and our desire to unleash the potential of BOCES.