By Jeanne Sager
LIBERTY January 7, 2005 BOCES needs you.
Officials from the cooperative educational facility will be out in its eight member school districts in the coming weeks to detail a proposed $17.2 million building project at its Liberty campus.
The goal is to get a thumbs-up from the boards of education in all eight school districts, then head to the polls, earning a majority aye vote from county taxpayers.
BOCES Superintendent Dr. Martin Handler said it would be easy to surmise the countys center of vocational and special education is just looking to the future and preparing for estimated growth.
But the fact is, theres already a waiting list for special education programs in Liberty programs that school districts are required to provide to their students under New York State law.
And air quality issues have recently shut down one of three outbuildings set up on campus 30 years ago to act as a temporary fix to the classroom crunch.
The other two have outlived their useful lives, Handler said a raft of problems exists from leaky roofs to outdated heating systems.
They have to be replaced, and they have to be replaced now, he noted.
That leaves three vocational or career and tech programs looking for new homes.
And there is the need for more choices for county students, Handler said. Career and tech is enjoying record enrollment the largest number of vocational students in its more than 50-year history.
A committee of BOCES board members, county businesspeople and local educators has determined the most cost-effective way to add space is to make some renovations to the BOCES main building, the Rubin Pollack Education Center, and to build a 78,000-square-foot addition.
Thats where the public comes in.
BOCES has no taxing authority its funds come from the budgets of the countys eight school districts who all chip in to share the burden of providing special and vocational education.
Were like a farming cooperative, Handler explained. When you do a project like this, you divide the cost up between those eight districts.
In order to move ahead with a building project, every single county school district must sign on.
Then, Handler said, a majority of the countys residents will have to vote yes to the project in an election tentatively set for late March or early April.
Thats why BOCES officials have set a full slate of meetings across the county to speak with board of education members and the public about the project.
Handler said hes excited about the possibilities the proposal could bring to BOCES.
Almost everything added would be instructional space with the exception of some offices and a new cafeteria.
A number of new special education classrooms will be added, and those in existence will be switched around to be used most efficiently.
Vocational offerings could be expanded the current plan includes adding a new welding and precision machine shop on campus (classes for that program are currently held in the heavy machinery shop) and doubling the size of the career and tech kitchen where students study careers in the culinary field (with more than 30 students in one class, the current kitchen is woefully undersized).
A new gymnasium will be built to accommodate the increasing numbers of children who take some sort of physical education in Liberty those who spend an entire day at the BOCES campus are required to attend gym class, but many other vo-tech students are finding its easier to fit a gym requirement into their schedule at BOCES than in their home district.
The new addition will also provide physical therapy and fitness rooms much-needed space now that many BOCES students individual education plans require some sort of occupational therapy.
Right now, Handler said of the therapy, its a stretch for us to provide that.
The renovation and addition will have the added bonus of locating career and tech and special education programs in separate ends of the Liberty campus, a split which will be ensured by adding another bus loop for pick-ups and drop-offs.
Right now . . . we have the very youngest kids mixing with the very oldest kids, Handler noted. This is an opportunity to have distinctive areas for distinctive age groups.
Even with all the plusses, Handler admitted its a costly proposition.
The $17.2 million will be bonded, with a certain percentage of the costs being swallowed by each school district based on size. The districts will receive state aid individually to help cover the project costs, but funding will ultimately fall to the taxpayers.
The average tax impact will depend on the district. In Eldred, for example, a property assessed at $200,000 will likely pay an additional $26 a year.
Handler said the cost of not doing the project could be much greater.
Building costs are on the rise, he said, and the space is needed.
We cant build this without the approval of the voters, and we wont attempt to circumvent their will, Handler said.
But a no vote will mean limiting program access and if districts cant send their children to BOCES for special education, they will have to pay for those services elsewhere.
Rental space is an option but its going to be more expensive in the long run, and any space rented by BOCES has to be approved for school use.
Handler is hoping, of course, for a yes vote. Groundbreaking would then happen late fall.
School districts would begin paying for the project in the 2006-07 school year, and the building would be completed, at the earliest, in the 2007-08 school year.