Dan Hust | Democrat
THE BURDEN OF travel for Sullivan County residents was a main reason cited by NYS Education Commissioner Richard Mills for rejected a bid to merge Sullivan BOCES with Ulster-Orange BOCES..
State nixes BOCES merger idea
By Jeanne Sager
LIBERTY The fear that’s weighed over Sullivan County BOCES since last summer has past.
Merger is off the table.
New York State Education Commissioner Richard Mills informed BOCES Board President Edward Furchak Jr. in a letter Tuesday that he has decided against forcing the county’s educational cooperative to join forces with its counterpart in Orange and Ulster counties.
For Sullivan BOCES, the news was met with a giant sigh of relief.
“We’re thrilled with the decision,” said Susan Schmidt, chief operating officer and assistant superintendent for finance and management services. “This gives BOCES new life.”
The office in Liberty was notified of a possible merger edict last summer when then-District Superintendent Dr. Martin Handler announced he would be stepping down from his post to pursue other career options.
Rather than allowing BOCES to kick off a search for Handler’s successor, the state informed the board that a look at merging the organization with the already consolidated Orange-Ulster BOCES would kick off immediately.
With an enrollment of around 10,000 students, Sullivan BOCES is well below the state’s suggested enrollment of 40,000 for a BOCES, making it a prime target for merger.
A survey taken in the fall was followed up with a study by the Rockefeller Institute of Government of the State University of New York over the winter months, with a public hearing on the proposal in February.
The results of all three landed on Mills’ desk for the head of state education to make the final decision.
“As commissioner,” he said, “I have determined that a merger between the sole supervisory district of Sullivan County and the sole supervisory district of Orange and Ulster counties is not the best course of action at this time.”
Mills cited one of residents’ chief concerns the large area a merged district would cover and the burden of travel it would put on students and educators among his reasons for reconsidering the state’s stance.
Also ranking high in the argument was a cost analysis that proved savings that may have been realized by the elimination of administration positions (with one central office created for the merged BOCES) would have been negated by the increased costs of paying educators.
Salaries at Orange Ulster BOCES are significantly higher than those in Sullivan County, and with a leveling up of the contracts, Mills said “the record does not establish a high probability that costs would be reduced.”
Even with the administration currently in place, the state found the Sullivan BOCES’ administrative budget was just 7 percent of its total budget. Compared to a state average of 6.5 percent, the state study determined that was not “unfavorable,” especially in light of the small enrollment.
Schmidt said her staff was buoyed by the realization on the state’s behalf that Sullivan BOCES is answering to the students.
According to Mills letter, “the record also shows that Sullivan BOCES appears to be meeting the special education needs of the students in its component districts.”
Career and tech programming, one of Sullivan BOCES’ strong suits, got a thumbs up for providing nineteen different paths for students compared to a state average of 20. What’s more, 92 percent of the students in career and tech at Sullivan BOCES actually finish the program.
Sullivan BOCES will be reporting on an annual basis to the state regarding both finances and student achievement.
“We’re going to have to be really innovative with our districts,” Schmidt said. “But everyone is really committed to that. We have a great group of superintendents.”
First up: a superintendent search. The board will meet next week to begin discussing the process of finally replacing Dr. Handler.