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Familes rally against special education program closure

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FORT COVINGTON - The families of special education preschool students in the Salmon River School district continue to rally against both Salmon River and BOCES officials after the abrupt closing of their children’s education program at the school in late October.

Three of the four affected families appeared at the school board meeting this week seeking clarification about why the program closed and what the school intends to do about it.

All are still reeling from the repercussions of the decision to consolidate SRCS’s classroom with another program in Brushton-Moira. According to the families, special education children require steady education and schedules to combat behavioral and educational regression. Some are already seeing negative changes in their children’s attention span and even speech.

Families also describe the misery the children have been experiencing by being uprooted from their day-to-day lives with “magical” teachers, constant care and stimulating environments.

Lisa Sunday said her son hates his new classroom and teachers, as well as the long bus ride from the reservation to Brushton-Moira.

Nicole Durant said her son still watches for the school bus every morning. Another parent said her daughter was excited when they went to the Salmon River building for the board meeting because she thought she was going to see her teachers.

The regional BOCES is one of about six remaining BOCES programs of the 37 in New York still providing special education preschool program, according to Stephen Shafer, district superintendent of schools for Franklin-Essex-Hamilton BOCES.

Before the consolidation decision in late October, Malone, Brushton-Moira, St. Regis Falls and Salmon River school districts had been able to run three separate preschool programs for many years with cooperation between the districts and BOCES.

But the 2012-13 final expense reports BOCES compiled last month revealed a $223,803 deficit costing school districts unexpected and unbudgeted amounts: $93,067 in Malone, $86,419 in Salmon River, $22,159 in Brushton-Moira, and $22,158 in St. Regis Falls.

BOCES and the schools simply did not have the budgets for a deficit of this size. Caught off guard, BOCES and the school superintendents made a quick decision: consolidate their three programs into two.

Students in St. Regis Falls were already going to Brushton-Moira, so in the interest of fairness to families across the region the classroom at Salmon River was shut down, despite being the second largest of the three, behind Malone. Students at SRCS were then given the option of continuing their BOCES education at the geographically “centrally located” Brushton-Moira class.

The decision, abrupt and completely unexpected by all involved, put the parents of Salmon River students in a difficult and unwelcome situation. And they’re angry - rightfully so, both Mr. Shafer and SRC superintendent Jane Collins admit.

Unfortunately that anger, however well placed, won’t bring the program back.

State aid to BOCES for special education preschool has been whittling in recent years, and Mr. Shafer said the program behind reimbursing BOCES for providing this service is simply “arcane.”

At the beginning of each fiscal year New York state provides “prospective” reimbursement rates per student per day. BOCES then runs the classes and turn in a final cost report to the state. Mr. Shafer says it takes months, sometimes years, for the state to approve the report and then provide the actual reimbursement rate - often below the original estimate.

Mr. Shafer cannot remember a single instance when the state decided to provide more money than originally expected. And that, he said, is what they would need to just consider reopening the SRCS class.

But just because it’s improbable doesn’t mean they’re not trying.

“We’re going to push to get back whatever we can get, but even with an adjustment its just going to lessen the loss. The chances of breaking even are zero for last year,” Mr. Shafer said. “We want $223,000 whittled down expansively. But it’s unlikely.”

According to Ms. Collins, only BOCES can petition the state for more aid because the schools receive absolutely nothing for preschool children because they’re not of school age. To take on the extra costs from 2012-13 they would need to raise the school tax levy by roughly 4 percent. With no extra funding in sight and a more than likely chance that the deficit would run this amount for 2013-14 without consolidating classes, there is simply no money to make this solution work.

“I feel terribly about how this whole thing played out for the children,” said Ms. Collins, who has personal experience with special needs children and says she truly relates to how the parents feel.

Now that these families have expressed anger toward and distaste for the BOCES decision, Ms. Collins is seeking other solutions. She’s currently speaking with Chief Ron LaFrance Jr. and Chief Beverly Cook of the St. Regis Mohawk Tribal Council to see if they can provide an in-house headstart program for parents. That’s one possibility - and there may be others.

But until those possibilities become reality, parents from the closed SRC program must struggle with the fact that a financial problem and business decision may have resounding effects of the development and happiness of their children.

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