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Mass. Supports New High School In Pittsfield With Grant

By Jim Levulis, WAMC News
6/4/2015

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The Massachusetts School Building Authority approved $74 million for the construction of a new Taconic High School in Pittsfield at its monthly meeting Wednesday. The project has been 10 years in the making.

The state’s $74.2 million reimbursement award comes less than two months after the Pittsfield City Council unanimously approved borrowing up to $120.8 million to build the new three-story high school on Valentine Rd. It would replace the current Taconic High School, built in 1969, which has suffered from leaky roofs and poor heating and cooling. Pittsfield Mayor Dan Bianchi has long advocated for the new vocationally-focused school.

“This new comprehensive high school will prepare children for an advanced education at any number of institutions of higher learning,” Bianchi said prior to the city council vote in April. “But it will also prepare future generations of young Pittsfield students to engage in vocational programs that will offer them a brighter future today. It will be the best pathway to the middle class for many of the children who come from our economically-challenged families. It will also be one of the best economic initiatives that a community can ever engage in.”

School and city leaders expect the new Taconic to develop more partnerships with area companies on internships and career development paths. The 246,500-square foot L-shaped building will feature classroom clusters, flex space and vocational shops. Carl Franceschi, president of DRA Architects, is leading the project’s design.

“Another goal of the educational plan was to have built in flexibility,” Franceschi said. “Because we know the school’s going to be here for 40 to 50 years. It’s going evolve over time. We want to have a building as flexible as possible.”

Work and debate on a new high school began about a decade ago. An idea was kicked around to combine Taconic and Pittsfield High School on one campus. Renovation of Taconic was estimated at $36 million with little expected state reimbursement. The current path was chosen because it was considered the most cost effective for the city while providing the best product. In recent months in particular, city residents have questioned why Pittsfield is building a new school while enrollment has dropped by 700 students over the past decade, to about 5,800 district-wide. State Representative Tricia Farley Bouvier, a former Pittsfield city councilor, has stood by the investment.

“I went to Pittsfield High School that was built in the middle of the Depression by my grandparents and great-grandparents when times were way harder than they are right now,” Farley-Bouvier said. “They invested in me and I’m going to invest in my grandchildren.

Taconic currently has 760 students. Pittsfield Public Schools superintendent Jason McCandless says about 150 vocational students from Pittsfield High School could switch to Taconic while the new school will also have room for 100 to 200 choice-in students from other districts.

One of the next steps is for Pittsfield Public Schools and the MSBA to enter into a project funding agreement, which will further detail the project’s scope and budget, along with the conditions under which the city will receive its MSBA grant.

Construction is expected to start next spring with the opening slated for the 2018-2019 school year. The new Taconic will go up across the driveway from the current one, which will be razed.

Posted on 4 June 2015, 9:01 - Category: News

New Bill Could Change Hourly Wage for Tipped Workers in Massachusetts

By Justine Hofherr, Boston.com Staff
3/13/2015

In January, standard minimum wage in Massachusetts was raised to $9, while tipped workers saw their wage floor increase to $3 as part of the state’s two-tier wage system.

Restaurant worker advocates say the system prevents many tipped workers from making at least the standard hourly minimum wage. They want to see change, and in the next couple of years, they might.

A proposed law would gradually eliminate the subminimum wage for tipped workers, mandating that after 2022, tipped employees would have the same hourly minimum wage as workers in all other industries in Massachusetts.

The bill, presented by Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier of Berkshire County, would act as an addendum to the current minimum wage bill, which saw tipped workers wage floor increase from $2.63 to $3.75 per hour by 2017. The new bill would instead give gradual increases to tipped workers past 2017, with the two-tier system being abolished in 2022.

Under current state law, tipped employees (those who receive more than $20 a month in tips) must be paid a minimum of $3 per hour, provided that, with tips, they make $9 per hour – the standard minimum wage in the state. If the total hourly rate for the employee, including tips, does not equal $9, then the employer must make up the difference.

But some restaurant worker advocates say that many employers skirt the law, neglecting to make up the difference on slow days when employees aren’t making the standard minimum wage with tips.

“In the instances when the worker is in a restaurant where their tips do not bring them to rate of $9, often the difference is not made up by the business,” said Alex Galimberti, a lead organizer for the Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) of Boston.

At $3, Massachusetts tipped minimum wage is the second lowest in New England, with Rhode Island tipped workersearning the lowest at $2.89 per hour.

In restaurants where workers are averaging more than $9 in tips alone, Galimberti said workers sometimes see the restaurant neglect to pay the hourly rate to employees, “especially if the workforces are immigrant and undocumented workers who feel intimidated and afraid to demand their rights,” he added.

ROC is supporting the bill through their “One Fair Wage” campaign, Galimberti said, saying the law would prevent “lax and disorganized” employers from neglecting to top off employees – a form of wage theft.

Wage theft – defined as employers neglecting to pay employees their rightfully earned minimum wage or overtime pay – is a hard thing to monitor since it often goes unreported, but a recent study by the Economic Policy Institute estimatesthat U.S. workers are cheated out of roughly $50 billion per year.

Some labor experts say there’s more at stake than just fair wages, citing gender inequality and sexual harassment as larger themes that emerge in the restaurant industry.

Dr. Eve Weinbaum, director of The Labor Center at UMass Amherst, called the bill “a great idea,” saying tipped workers in the restaurant industry face sexual harassment more often than workers in other fields because they’re paid primarily by their customer, not their employer.

“Unlike other sectors where employees wouldn’t take it, tipped workers feel they have to put up with it,” Weinbaum said.
In October 2014, the ROC and another group released a reportbased on interviews with 700 former and current restaurant workers in New York and other major cities, as well as an analysis of census data and statistics from the U.S. Labor Department and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and found that 78 percent of women (and 55 percent of men) reported being sexually harassed by customers.

Women account for about 72 percent of all workers in predominantly tipped occupations like restaurant servers, bartenders, and hair stylists, according to the National Economic Council.

Tipped workers are also about twice as likely as other workers to experience poverty, and servers are roughly three times as likely to live in poverty.

“I really think the tipped minimum wage is completely outdated,” Weinbaum said. “There’s almost no compliance with the law. Employers and workers don’t keep track of the tips, so some restaurant workers make far above minimum wage, and in other restaurants, workers make far from the minimum wage.”

But some restaurant owners maintain that the current wage system for tipped workers is ideal for employees, restaurants, and consumers. The group argues that abolishing the two-tiered wage system would hamper job creation.

Stephen Clark, director of government affairs for the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, said he opposes the bill. If enacted, Clark said tipped employees would “lose thousands” per year because customers wouldn’t feel compelled to tip as much.

“Massachusetts tipped employees are among the highest compensated in the country, with the average tipped employee making $13 an hour,” Clark said. “And in reality, most are earning between $25 and $30 an hour.” His data is based on statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The current system also allows employers to keep their menu prices down, attracting customers and building future business, Clark added.

But restaurant advocates like Galimberti argue that in states like California and Nevada that have abolished the two-tier system, employees haven’t seen a decrease in tips, and restaurants haven’t had to drastically raise menu prices. In fact, the seven states that have abolished a subminimum tipped wage have seen above average employment growth, he said, and the restaurant industry projects their employment growth by 10.5 percent over the next decade.

There’s no current timetable for the legislation in Massachusetts, but Weinbaum expects a fierce debate when it comes to a legislative vote.

“I think the restaurant industry association is incredibly powerful and they will fight this with everything they have, but I really hope our legislators will see it through and decide to stick up for people with less power,” Weinbaum said.

Posted on 13 Mar 2015, 9:00 - Category: News

Berkshire representatives in favor of pending state campaign finance bill

By Jim Therrien, Berkshire Eagle Staff
7/7/2014

PITTSFIELD -- Local state representatives believe pending campaign finance legislation could have an immediate positive impact on the fall elections.

The bill, which requires disclosure of the top donors to a political action committee sponsoring political advertisements, has cleared the House and is now before the Senate. The bill also requires declaring campaign expenditures by corporations, labor unions and other groups and their funding sources during the campaign, rather than afterward.

State Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, one of the sponsors of the House version, said that "while it won't stop the super PACs from contributing to campaigns, at least they will have to declare who the top five donors are."

That provision of the bill would take effect this year, she said, and will require PACs to list the top donors in their ads.

The legislation is seen as something that could be done at the state level to counter the effects of the Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court decision of 2010, which shot down campaign donation limits on corporations, labor unions or associations. The state bill seeks to address through transparency the effects of so-called "dark money" on campaigns, contributed by groups from within or outside the commonwealth.

"This is absolutely going to affect the campaign," Farley-Bouvier said, adding, "It will still be up to the voters to pay attention [to the source of contributions]."

Sen. Ben Downing, D-Pittsfield, said Thursday he believes the Senate will pass the bill and it will be sent to the governor's office before the end of the session.

"I think it makes a great deal of sense in the post-Citizens United world," Downing said. "It is the one thing that we can and need to do."

The provision regarding PAC contributions will bring immediate transparency, he said, adding, "This is a good first step, but I hope it is not the last step" toward campaign finance reform.

Downing said he would like to see a broad discussion with all reform options on the table, including public financing of elections.

The state bill also would increase from $500 to $1,000 the amount an individual can make to a state, county or local campaign, although that provision won't take effect until next year.

Some critics of the bill say it fails to eliminate a loophole in current state law that allows a union to contribute more to elections than individuals. Downing said he would favor "a level playing field" in the amounts each can contribute.

The 2014 governor's race is likely to be the one in Massachusetts most affected by the proposed financing legislation, becauzse of expected super PAC contributions including those originating out of state.

Posted on 7 Jul 2014, 9:00 - Category: News

Farley-Bouvier Calling for DCF Changes In Wake of Oliver Case

By Andy McKeever, iBerkshires Staff
2/9/2014

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — It isn't enough for the Legislature to take action only in the wake of crisis, says state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier.

The Pittsfield representative sits on the House oversight panel formed to review the Department of Children and Families in the aftermath of the high-profile Jeremiah Oliver case.

The 5-year-old Fitchburg boy has been missing since September and is feared dead. Three DCF workers were fired for mishandling the boy's case.

From her seat on the panel, Farley-Bouvier is calling for regular oversight meetings from now on so the state knows what is going on in the department and what policies need to be in place to fix issues. She is also looking to reduce caseloads for each worker and improved technology.

"The Legislature only seems to pay attention after some high-profile case. Every four or five years there is a high-profile case and we sweep in with oversight hearings. I think we should be having regular oversight hearings of the department and done in such a way, similar to how they have audits on the municipal level," Farley-Bouvier said on last week. "I don't think it is OK to just wait for the next crisis before you pay attention to the department, not this department. This department is way too important."

The Oliver case led Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo to call for an investigation, which is being held by the House members of the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disability, of which Farley-Bouvier is a member, and the House Committee on Post Audit and Oversight. Meanwhile, Gov. Deval Patrick has called in the Child Welfare League of America to review DCF.

The House panel will review the Child Welfare League of America's information, focused on national practices and interviews and investigation into the department. The House is supplementing that information with its own research and talking to other organizations that would be affected by Legislative changes.

Farley-Bouvier said two bills filed more than a year ago, well before the Oliver case, called for a commission to oversee the DCF regularly. But Farley-Bouvier believes the Legislature should be doing the oversight, not a new commission.

"I think there are a lot more voices we need to hear. I think we need to hear from parents," Farley-Bouvier said. "I think we need to hear from the social workers themselves. I think we need to hear from alumni of the DCF system. I think we need to hear from teachers, superintendents and people in the medical community. There is a lot of voices left to hear. All of those perspectives are important in putting together a picture of it."

Already jumping out to Farley-Bouvier as the panel scrambles to enact legislation by the end of July, is the caseload numbers. The department has already reached an agreement limiting the number of cases a single worker has to 15 families, 28 children not more than 10 in placement. But "we're not even close to that," Farley-Bouvier says.

"I would expect that in the spring we'd have some legislation to change policy and I think in the budget process, there will be a lot of discussion around the department, advocating for funding," she said.

In the Berkshires, caseloads are on par with the rest of the state. But, the rest of the state does not have the transportation challenges, meaning the social workers here are spending extra time driving. Farley-Bouvier says when considering policies, she will advocate to make sure those setting policy keep the difference between rural and urban issues in mind.

"An additional issue for our caseworkers is when they have to do a home visit, they could be driving to North Adams and that just adds minutes to the day. It is not realistic to get all of these things done in a day," she said, telling the story of one local caseworker who had to drive to four distinct parts of the county for a single visit with all involved. "I've asked that when they consider caseloads, they should be considering the difference between a rural area and an urban area."

She also has concern that the caseload numbers are growing right now because of the Oliver case. She says now every report of neglect or abuse on a child under the age of 5 is being screened for a full investigation, adding to the overall number of cases.

"Because of the spotlight on the department, basically any report of neglect or abuse for a child 5 or under is basically being screened in for an investigation," she said. "My concern right now when I hear all this is the caseloads which we are already concerned about are going to be going up significantly. You can't have more and more investigations without impacting caseloads."

Farley-Bouvier said that since 2008, DCF has lost $100 million in funding and she will be advocating to boost the state's investment in the department. However, she is calling for specific conditions with money going to hire additional caseworkers and to upgrade the department's technology.

"In my mind, we want to support social workers so they can support families and the children are protected," she said. "You don't lose $100 million in funding without it impacting your ability to do your job."

Meanwhile the computer systems are "antiquated and cumbersome" and improved hardware and software would go a long way in helping the social workers do their job better.

For example, social workers often spend hours in court waiting, so improving mobile access to information will help them keep a closer eye on their clients. Case works should have tablets that can be taken on home visits, where they check in on a GPS system and document seamlessly.

"If we're making the investment, we'll have a say in how its spent," she said.

While the "crisis" originated out of Fitchburg, Farley-Bouvier says her panel will be implementing policy for the entire state, meaning the Berkshires will also be affected. Those policy decisions are urgent, she said, and the panel is hammering through its study in the coming month.

She says changes to DCF are particularly needed "because there is no room for error."

Posted on 9 Feb 2014, 9:00 - Category: News

Let's Not Wait for Next Tragedy

By Peter Gelzinis, Boston Herald Columnist
1/24/2014

David Linsky should have grilled DCF Commissioner Olga Roche six months ago.

It’s a shame the Natick rep didn’t ask this embattled bureaucrat back then the question he fired at her yesterday:

“Can you give me and the other 6 million people of the commonwealth the assurance that you know that every one of those 36,000 children in your care today are present, alive and healthy?”

If Linsky, the chairman of the House Post Audit and Oversight Committee, had put that question to the head of the Department of Children and Families back in, say, July or August, there probably wouldn’t have been any need for him to hit Roche with the other half of his question:

“Can you give me that assurance that there are no other Jeremiah Olivers out there?”

Yesterday, a chastened Roche told Linsky her department knew of no other children who had vanished in their care. Jeremiah Oliver was the only one.

I will say this about Olga Roche’s performance yesterday. Someone gave her pointers in how to smother the pols in mind-numbing waves of empty rhetoric.

She never answered a direct question in a sentence of less than 500 or 600 words. The proof was there on a big screen upon which a stenographer valiantly posted Olga’s run-on sentences almost as fast as she spit them out. Clearly, the strategy here was for Olga to bury the pols under tons of words about protocols and procedures, spiced with just a hint of appropriate outrage pointed at those three DCF workers she fired for losing track of Jeremiah Oliver.

The only pol who cut through this fog was Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier of Pittsfield.

She made the point of saying that pressing for a mea culpa or working up a reflex head of outrage after this latest high-profile DCF fiasco was little more than an empty gesture.

“I think we can, and should, do something legislatively to come up with a structure whereby there is a regular review of the (DCF),” Farley-Bouvier told me during a break in yesterday’s hearing. “There should be reviews of the department on a regular basis, not just when another high-profile case explodes into the public’s view.

“Because, as I told the commissioner, there will be another high-profile case,” she said. “That’s the way it’s been for the last 30 years and many other commissioners.”

She is absolutely right. What took place in the Gardner Auditorium should — and must — take place at least twice a year. Then, perhaps, Olga Roche, or whoever the commissioner may be, would be forced to answer questions in simple sentences.

And maybe they would not have the time to lose another Jeremiah Oliver.

Posted on 24 Jan 2014, 8:59 - Category: News

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