Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Local scouts won’t be impacted by a BSA bankruptcy

By now you have may have read or heard about the recent Wall Street Journal article speculating on the Boy Scouts of America’s finances. According to the report, the BSA has hired a high-powered legal team to look into the possibility of declaring bankruptcy to weather some financial storms, including some big-dollar lawsuits dating back to the 1970s.

The BSA – the national organization itself – has an obligation to its members to remain strong. As such they are exploring all options for best management of their assets. Sometimes this involves contacting outside experts. No decision has been made or is imminent at this point about BSA’s national finances.

As expected, speculation has been running rampant following the report. As the president of the board of the Iroquois Trail Council (which serves the scouts of eastern Niagara, Genesee, Livingston, Orleans, and Wyoming counties) I’ve been asked quite a few times about what bankruptcy and financial reorganization of the BSA would mean for local scouts, our neighborhoods, and our business partners.

The simple answer: There will be little to no impact locally.

The Iroquois Trail Council is a corporation separate from the BSA and maintains its own 501(c)3 status. Business decisions made on this or any issue by the BSA will not impact the assets of the Iroquois Trail Council – including our camps and donations made to our local program by families, donors, and community partners like the United Way. 

It is important to note that the Iroquois Trail Council is governed by local volunteers who provide strong oversight on budget development, fundraising, spending, and investment. During the past decade, our Council has routinely balanced its budget, been creative with our staffing model, made substantial capital improvements to Council-owned facilities, and ensured the future of local Scouting through growth in our Council’s endowment fund. The Iroquois Trail Council is also debt-free and has no pending litigation. This diligent governance from our volunteers -- and our very small year-round paid staff – ensures we have a well-run and financially viable organization.

Our Council has much to be grateful for this year. Through the continued support of our generous volunteers’ time and financial resources, as well as donations from supporters across the region, we are able to provide a high-quality Scouting program to nearly 2,500 scouts in our spacious 5-county area. We had an outstanding summer camp season and tremendous enthusiasm for the launch of Family Scouting. Also, our packs and troops have been ubiquitous in their hometowns, aiding our towns, villages, and cities with food drives and other impactful service projects.  

We cannot and will not let any potential financial restructuring by the national organization distract us from our goals of preparing youth – our future -- for a lifetime of leadership, positive character, and community service.

They are worthy goals, for sure. I often tell people who are dismissive of today’s younger generations to spend time with some cub scouts and boy scouts. They’ll admire who these young people are and who they will become. Tomorrow will be in great hands when these children and teens grow up to lead our communities, schools, businesses, and governments.

Scouting is just as meaningful now as it was when the BSA was founded 108 years ago. It will continue to be for many, many decades more -- even amidst the occasional storm that might shake its very foundation. 

From the 24 December 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Friday, December 14, 2018

Rule changes offer some good news for employers

It seems like this columnist is a harbinger of bad news when it comes to business and economics. That’s because I feel obligated as a citizen to give employers and employees the heads-up about pending or passed legislation or rules that will harm their bottom lines and pocketbooks, respectively.

It’s rare that I can highlight positive regulatory changes such as the two recent wins that business owners can savor.

In late-2016, this column looked at how President Barack Obama’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) started demanding changes to employers’ post-accident drug screens. OSHA believed drug tests had caused many employees who dabbled in recreational drugs at home and not within the hours of their employment to not report their injuries to their employer for fear of losing their job or facing some other sort of discipline, causing that injury to linger or result in other workers being injured from failure to address the cause of the injury. OSHA demanded that drug screens not occur automatically (as was the case at most workplaces) but only when the situation permitted -- when drug impairment could have likely been a root cause of an injury.

Interpretation became confusing, and enforcement confounding. Not only that, but it also encouraged unsafe workplaces because employers, for the most part, couldn’t highlight or enforce the dangers that recreational drug use pose in the workplace.

Luckily, President Trump’s OSHA saw the folly in that thanks to constant pressure from safety professionals and human resources managers -- as well as employers befuddled by penalties imposed. A few weeks back, OSHA came out with a new interpretation, making it clear that employers no longer have to determine whether there was “reasonable possibility” that drugs or alcohol contributed to an accident. OSHA once again allows the use of drug and alcohol tests for any and all work related injuries.

In November of last year, this column addressed new employee scheduling standards proposed by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration. It was his Department of Labor’s (DOL) intent to change the way that retailers (specifically big box stores) schedule their employees. The DOL wanted to do away with the common practice of having clerks and restaurant workers on-call, getting their schedule that day or the day before. So, they created a set of regulations that would require 14 days advance notice of work schedules and any changes during that period, positive or negative, would see an extra 2 to 4 hours of pay.

The umbrella of these rules was so vast that all employers, not just retailers, were thrown under the bus, including businesses which cannot predict the weather (like golf courses and lawn services) and those driven by  purchase orders (construction companies and factories like mine). On top of that, breakdowns, snow storms, and acts of God were not covered – employers would have had to pay their workers even if they were closed for business and not generating revenue.

These added costs would have been yet another nail in the coffin for upstate businesses struggling to stay profitable and competitive.

Luckily, the column served as inspiration to quite a few of them. Our voices and concerns were picked up by Senator Chris Jacobs who hustled to extend the public comment period and hold a senate hearing about the regulations. Thanks to his efforts and those who spoke up, the DOL went back to the drawing board and revised the language, coming out with their next-to-last draft over a week ago, 10 months after the close of public comment.

The new proposal excludes businesses whose employees’ activities are determined by weather and/or work orders. It also grants exemptions for acts of God, inclement weather, and issues beyond the employer’s control.

It’s a big win for many businesses in New York State, as we come out unscathed from something that could have been financially dangerous. The rule, for the most part, now impacts retailers, restaurants, and the like as was intended when the DOL took up the cause.

But, I encourage the smaller businesses of that bunch (family diners, mom and pop shops) to reach out to the DOL and keep fighting. The revised rules continue to impact you. Why should it if it’s the big boys who created this mess?

My suggestion to you: By January 12, reach out to DOL and ask that they focus only on larger retailers and restaurateurs that have X number of stores or employees in the state, sort of like the fast food minimum wage that requires 30 or more locations (go to for more on the proposal).  

By voicing your concerns victories can be had, just as these two wins show. Do it for the sake of your business and coworkers.

From the 7 December 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers and Batavia Daily News

Monday, December 10, 2018

There are better ways for schools to deal with "snow days"

This winter has had its moments and we aren’t even to the halfway point of December. It looks like it will be a long and eventful winter – there are three-and-a-half maybe even four months of snowstorms and biting arctic temperatures ahead of us. This looks like it will be the kind of winter in which school districts will burn through their allotted snow days. If you believe the forecast in the Old Farmer’s Almanac, it’s a certainty.  

The hand-wringing that goes into deciding whether or not to close schools weighs heavily on superintendents when hearing forecasts or waking up to an impressive snowfall, especially when those days are many: Do you shortchange kids on the full education that they deserve? Do you risk their safety on sloppy roads? Do you roll the dice when it comes to state funding?

Unfortunately, too often the third question carries more weight than the first two because antiquated and inflexible state laws can tie the purse strings for school districts. 

New York requires that schools have 180 days of session, which can include Regents exams and up to 4 days of Superintendent’s Conferences. The state allows for some extraordinary circumstances (like winter’s fury) and permits 5 days off. But, if a district ends up having 175 days or less, for every day missed the State Education Department will cut back on funding to that district at a 1/180th of its total aid allotment.

1/180th doesn’t seem like some great amount until you put it into perspective. My district, Roy-Hart, received $10.37 million in state aid last year. Just one day of lost aid is nearly $57,700. That’s a lot, but the much larger Lockport schools received $39.7 million and one day too many lost there is almost $220,600.

How do you make that funding loss up? You can’t. And, that’s just one day. What would happen if a real honest-to-goodness blizzard on the scale of ‘77’s socked everyone in? You can see why administrators fret about snow days and why, later in the winter, they end up playing Russian roulette with students’ safety.

It shouldn’t be that way. But it is, and it’s compounded by state law that doesn’t allow Saturday instruction or classes on holidays (does anybody really need President’s Day or Columbus Day off?) to count towards the 180 days.

Why not change that and give districts the power to make up snow days so our kids get the education coming to them (the school year is already too short as it is if you want to compete in the global economy) while satisfying the state’s 180 day requirement?

New York lawmakers need only look south for a little inspiration. Often feeling the same winter blues we do and battling similarly-arcane laws, Pennsylvania’s House Education Committee has routinely passed legislation that would allow school districts to have classes on Saturdays. Pennsylvania’s full House never had any interest in passing that endeavor, though. Too bad.

We could try, though. It’s simple. Change the rules. Allow for Saturday classes. Children will learn what they would have missed from the snow day and property owners won’t feel a pinch when the next tax bill comes around.

It will be a good lesson learned for the kids, too: Out in the Real World, you have to occasionally – if not regularly – work Saturdays. Give them a taste of that.

The Saturday idea isn’t the only way that the Commonwealth has looked to squash norms and ensure their customers get what’s coming to them. In 2014, the Pennsylvania Department of Education launched a pilot program at its 500 districts that’s definitely something out of this century.

For up to 5 days a year districts can use "non-traditional educational delivery methods" like distance learning or cyber-school to teach students. So, on the days that the campus is closed to students due to snow, their teachers would deliver their lessons to their students as if it were a normal day.

There are a lot of infrastructure issues to address with this: not all families have high-speed internet access (although they do have smartphones) and most schools aren’t prepared to administer this (although even the most rudimentary laptops can handle such tasks). But, it is something to consider for the future and develop in baby steps. 

Saturdays? Distance learning? It’s 2018, not 1968 -- we need to think outside the box, especially if the tried-and-true methods regulating our educational system put the health and safety of kids (and their taxpaying parents’ pocketbooks) at risk. 

From the 10 December 2018 Greater Niagara Newspapers