ACS Board votes support for future of ONC BOCES

By Matthew J. Perry
The Andes Central School (ACS) Board of Education passed a resolution last Wednesday voicing support for the continuation of the Otsego Northern Catskills (ONC) Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES), which serves Andes as well as the schools in Roxbury, Margaretville and South Kortright.
The future of the ONC BOCES was put into question when its district superintendent, Dr. Marie Wiles, stepped down earlier this year. By mandate, whenever a BOCES superintendent vacates their position, the state’s commissioner of education is bound to conduct a survey that in turn recommends if a formal study is necessary to evaluate the BOCES. In the case of ONC, a study was recommended. ACS Superintendent John Bernhardt stated that he expected the study to be completed sometime next month.
A decision to dissolve the ONC BOCES could have significant impacts on the region’s schools. BOCES is a state-sponsored network that allows school districts to pool their resources and share costs by creating central service sites that expand the curriculum that schools are able to offer onsite. Presently, ACS sends most of its BOCES students to a facility in Grand Gorge.
Should the ONC BOCES be dissolved, its 19 participating schools would be folded into other BOCES; Andes, for instance, could be absorbed into BOCES operating out of Sidney Center, Sullivan or Ulster counties, any of which would add to the commuting time for ACS students. Bernhardt also worries that being absorbed by a BOCES with more schools would give ACS a “minority voice” and perhaps less adequate representation.
Bernhardt submitted a letter to the board outlining a defense of the ONC BOCES; he stated that other schools in the ONC have drafted similar letters. While acknowledging that dissolution of ONC may well realize cuts in administrative costs, Bernhardt’s letter states firmly that the students’ needs would not be better served.
“The current configuration serves its component districts admirably, offering a range of student programs and district services that are done professionally and effectively. Any change . . . risks the quality and amount of program availability to the component districts,” the letter read.
Bernhardt characterized the makeup of ONC BOCES as typical of rural regions, yet also as likely to be targeted for reorganization by a state burdened with a budget crisis. “We have barely 10,000 students in our BOCES and recommendations are usually based on populations closer to 40,000,” he said. “It’s made more complicated by the fact that we’re one of the largest BOCES in terms of square miles.”
With fewer students to draw on, ONC services are likely to cost more per student and thus raise red flags with administrators who are seeking cost cutting measures.
In the event that ONC dissolves, ACS possibly could lose access to programs that are administered or granted through ONC, such as the school’s health insurance program and the Creating Rural Opportunities Program (CROP), which focuses on intellectual development for younger students. It is not certain that these programs would cease, or that they would not be replaced with comparable services; Bernhardt highlights them, however, as valuable assets that should not lightly be thrown into question.
“I’m aware of the administrative and financial aspects of the bigger picture,” Bernhardt states. “But as the superintendent, it’s my job to be an activist for my school’s interests.”
After the study is completed, a public hearing will be convened to review its findings and allow interested parties, including teachers and parents, to participate and present opinions. At present, no date and place for the hearing has been announced.