Handler leaving BOCES
By Dan Hust
LIBERTY July 18, 2008 The man in charge of Sullivan County’s public education is headed to Pennsylvania.
Dr. Martin Handler is leaving the district superintendency of Sullivan County BOCES a post he’s held for the past decade to take the helm of the Brandywine Heights Area School District in Topton, Pa.
It’s a step down in pay from $166,000 at BOCES to $135,000 at Brandywine and student population overseeing approximately 8,000 students amongst eight public school districts in Sullivan County to just shy of 2,000 students at Brandywine.
But Handler, 61, sees it as the next challenge in an educational career that has spanned most of his life.
“First of all, change is good for all of us,” he said this week, a day after being appointed to Brandywine’s district superintendency by its board.
Handler’s impetus to change emanated from several areas: the $166,000 salary cap on his and every other BOCES administrator’s salary (which he feels is why his interim job as head of Orange-Ulster BOCES has stretched on for 14 months), a desire to be more directly involved in children’s education and lives, and the chance to take on a new opportunity.
So about a year ago, he began filing out-of-state job applications. Several turned promising, but eventually he settled on Brandywine Heights, covering a 51-square-mile area between Allentown and Reading, Pa.
“It’s a rural area,” he explained, “and has a combination of farms and commuters.”
Though having never served in an educational capacity in Pennsylvania, Handler went to high school in nearby Bucks County and attended East Stroudsburg University.
He starts August 18, three days after leaving his post with BOCES. His departure from Sullivan County, however, will leave more than one vacancy.
Handler’s a longtime member of the Jeffersonville Volunteer First Aid Squad, the Sullivan County Partnership for Economic Development, the Sullivan Renaissance Steering Committee and the Sullivan County Chamber of Commerce.
His wife, Roberta, owns and operates the Good Earth health store in Jeffersonville, where they live, and the shop is up for sale.
In short, it’s a major change, and Handler acknowledged he’d prefer to stay in Sullivan County were it not for the issues motivating the move.
“The people here, almost without exception, have been wonderful,” he remarked.
That includes the people with whom he’s worked at BOCES. It’s an institution he’s been proud to be involved with.
“I think BOCES is in a much better place,” he said of his tenure, even glad to see a 100-student decrease in special education (because all but the neediest special ed. students have been reintegrated into their home school districts).
He’s proud of the expansion of what he feels is BOCES’ chief contribution to the community, the vocational program. He pointed out the animal education curriculum at Stonewall Farms in Jeffersonville and the natural resources program’s joint venture with Sullivan Renaissance, in particular.
“Our BOCES was the first in the state to be the Department of Health’s sponsor of EMT and first responder courses,” he added, with classes coming to BOCES’ Liberty campus in the fall.
He’ll miss working with the superintendents of the component school districts, along with state officials, whom he assisted in crafting education policy.
But he also has a few regrets, based on failed BOCES’ expansion votes and the Sullivan West merger he helped oversee.
He continues to worry about BOCES’ facilities, saying the Liberty campus is out of room, and he wishes he had been more involved in the formative years of SW where he is a taxpayer.
“Frankly, I will take responsibility for not being more intrusive,” he admitted, regretting not speaking up when bad decisions were being made.
While he remains supportive of the merger itself, he feels the ensuing construction and financial problems “spoiled” some of the promise of such a consolidation and needlessly burdened taxpayers.
“Clearly, they didn’t need to do the building of the high school or the renovations of the schools they ultimately closed,” he observed. “... It was a not-very-good implementation of a good idea.”
Still, he feels the future is bright for Sullivan West and the rest of the county so long as officials handle that future wisely.
“I think the county has got to develop economically and increase its commercial assets,” Handler explained, “if the whole tax burden is not to get out of control.”
What about BOCES’ future?
First off, it needs to hire his replacement, which Handler doesn’t think is going to be easy when nine of the state’s 37 other BOCES are currently without superintendents and the salary cap diminishes the job’s attractiveness, in his view.
BOCES Board President Ed Furchak agrees a replacement will be tough to find but for more than just practical reasons.
“It’s not just his school abilities,” he said of Handler. “This is going to be a loss to the community.”
Furchak stated Handler worked well with the board and was a hands-on guy throughout BOCES.
“I’m glad he is able to improve his position,” he continued, confirming Handler’s departure is not due to any dissatisfaction on the local BOCES level. “We understand fully his reasons for leaving. It’s certainly not [because of] us it’s dealing with the state’s bureaucracy.
“We’ll miss him,” Furchak said ruefully.
BOCES’ board is scheduled to meet July 29 to discuss appointing a chief operational officer, while the NYS Education Department will pick an interim superintendent and, eventually, a district superintendent.
“It’s going to be a time of change,” Handler confirmed, “exciting and challenging.”