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Financial concerns force end to SRCS preschool program

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MALONE - Aiden-James Durant, 4, watched the school buses drive past his house on Friday. The sight made him cry and scream –– he didn’t understand why he wasn’t on a school bus anymore.

Since July, Aiden-James has been attending a BOCES special education preschool course at Salmon River Central Schools. According to his mother, Nicole Durant, he was supposed to complete uninterrupted instruction from a classroom at Salmon River until August 2014. In order to get an official evaluation on his suspected autism, Aiden-James needs one complete, consistent year of center-based schooling.

But since BOCES canceled the SRCS preschool program, effective Oct. 31, that consistent year is not going to happen. Aiden-James will be watching the buses drive past every school day for the foreseeable future.

“He’s literally terrified that he’s missing school,” said Ms. Durant, who is angry and deeply upset about the situation. Kids like Aiden-James need consistency, she says. They don’t do well with change and don’t adapt like other students do. Uprooting them and changing their daily routine can be “catastrophic”.

It’s an “extremely unfortunate” circumstance, said Stephen Shafer, district superintendent of schools for Franklin-Essex-Hamilton BOCES. According to Mr. Shafer, the preschool programs “incurred a substantial financial loss last year.” That in itself wouldn’t be unmanageable, but the programs have also suffered from underenrollment so far this year.

BOCES was running three classrooms in the area before Oct. 31: one in Malone, one at Brushton-Moira, and one at Salmon River. Salmon River and Brushton-Moira were eight-to-one classrooms, meaning a projected eight students for every one teacher and teaching assistant. In “early October,” when the decision was finalized, there were four in Brushton-Moira program and four students at SRCS, another student expected to join soon, according to Mr. Shafer.

Since the decision, another student has been turned away from the SRCS program. Mr. Shafer says they only knew about the first when they made their decision.

According to Ms. Durant, parents at SRCS were given a week to decide between the options of busing their children to Brushton-Moira or doing home services. She added that there was a threat that if Salmon River students did not go to Brushton, it might close as well. All four former SRCS students have decided on home aid because Brushton-Moira isn’t worth the bus ride, especially because the three other students live on the reservation.

“It wasn’t a huge amount of time, but there was some heads up,” said Mr. Shafer. “I would certainly say that I feel for the parents and the kids. It’s not a good situation to have occur, but it’s unavoidable.”

Ms. Durant finds the funding “excuses” BOCES provides as “laughable”, citing the fact that BOCES gets Medicaid reimbursement for each child’s specific services: which include occupational therapy, physical therapy, cognitive support, speech and language support and behavioral services.

Mr. Shafer says that New York State sets a reimbursement rate for the program, and then the money goes to the county. The county is required to pay some of that money to BOCES.

“If that reimbursement is not sufficient to run the program, we don’t have the ability to run a program at a deficit,” he said.

BOCES provides a range of services for area schools and, according to Mr. Shafer, funding is distributed based on need. Even as the preschool programs are losing money, other services might be expanding, but each aspect of BOCES “operates in its own little microcosm”. They can’t and won’t take money from another service that may need it.

Running underenrolled programs has always worked for BOCES in the past, as they have filled up as the year progressed. In retrospect, says Mr. Shafer, he wishes they would have run just the Malone and Brushton-Moira classrooms and started SRCS in case of overflow. But they didn’t.

The only way Ms. Durant could ever forgive them for this mistake is if the SRCS program could be immediately reinstated, and Aiden-James could get on his SRCS school bus to see some of the teachers he’s come to know and love there: Mary Mackey and Pam Lapage.

Both women have kept their respective jobs, although Ms. Mackey is now teaching in Malone and Ms. Lapage is only filling in for a teaching assistant who is currently on medical leave.

Mr. Shafer says they’ll consider bringing the program back in the spring, based on enrollment.

Until then Aiden-James stays at home, and the school buses continue on to Salmon River without him.

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