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September 16, 2013

City officials push to renew Job Corps contract

ETR doesn't qualify to retain 'small business' designation

By Denise Richardson Staff Writer
The Daily Star

---- — Oneonta municipal, business and other leaders, citing improvements at the Oneonta Job Corps Academy, are pushing officials in Washington, D.C., to amend legislation to allow the current operator a chance to bid for another contract to manage the facility.

Educational and Training Resources, based in Bowling Green, Ky., is in the last year of a five-year contract to operate the academy, a residential training program for disadvantaged youths. About 260 students are enrolled at the Oneonta center, which has about 145 employees, officials said last week. The center is authorized through the Department of Labor to enroll about 290 students. 

ETR operates three other Job Corps facilities, including another in New York state. Anand Vimalassery, government relations director for the National Job Corps Association, said when ETR won the contract to operate the Oneonta Job Corps, the firm qualified under federal Small Business Administration criteria to be an operator. 

But after winning four contracts, ETR technically no longer is a “small business,” he said, and ETR won’t have an opportunity to compete in the next round of bidding for the Oneonta center.

The issue has been discussed among Washington officials, sources said, and reportedly an amendment to the Workforce Investment Act of 2013 would address the eligibility factor. However, the Workforce Investment Act was passed out of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee on July 31 without amendment.

On Sept. 9, the U.S. Department of Labor, which awards Job Corps contracts, issued a notice seeking information pertaining to the operation of the Oneonta Job Corps Center for planning purposes. The Department of Labor is conducting market research for the upcoming procurement requirement for the operation of the local center, the notice said. 

The Department of Labor didn’t respond by Friday night to a request emailed Wednesday for information.

Meanwhile, Oneonta’s mayor and several business leaders said they have written to New York’s senators in support of measures that would allow ETR to participate in the next round of bidding to identify a Job Corps operator. They point to improvements at the facility and the positive involvement of the center and its students in the community.

In 2010, the Oneonta Job Corps was No. 119 among the nation’s approximately 125 centers, according to the agency’s outcome measurement system of admissions, vocational and placement results and other factors. According to the most recent OMS report for Sept. 1, 2012, to Aug. 31, 2013, the center ranked No. 51.

Mayor Dick Miller said in an Aug. 20 letter to U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer that the Workforce Investment Act, if unamended, would preclude ETR from oversight of the local Job Corps Academy.

Miller said he has observed the transitions of Job Corps management and the impact on the community during the past 10 years.

“The current director, Christopher Kuhn, who is part of the ETR team, has taken Jobs Corps to an entirely new and higher level of community credibility and contribution,” Miller said in his letter. 

“The city uses ETR’s Job Corps students in a myriad of ways which contribute to our quality of life and reduce our costs,” Miller said. “Change in management companies and the executive director operating the center could not have anything but a deleterious effect on the contributions being made by the center to the city.”

Gary Herzig, chief operations officer at Opportunities for Otsego, said he has written Schumer and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., in support of ETR.

“ETR has done an outstanding job in operating the Oneotna Job Corps Center,” Herzig, a former director of the Oneonta Job Corps for seven years. 

Students have been involved with community projects, including responses to help in recovery from tropical storms Irene and Lee, he said, and more importantly, they have completed educational and vocational training at higher rates under ETR’s management.

“We just shouldn’t penalize them for their success,” Herzig said. “It doesn’t make sense.” 

Meredith Kelly, spokeswoman for Schumer, said the chairman of the HELP committee wouldn’t allow amendments to the Workforce Investment Act but will allow them when the bill reaches the Senate floor at an undetermined date. If Sen. Christopher Murphy, D-Connecticut, a HELP committee member, offers the amendment, Schumer will support it, she said.

“It makes sense that workforce contractors, like ETR, that have done a good job with local Job Corps, get a fair opportunity to bid and to continue the important work that they do,” Kelly said. “Sen. Schumer will support efforts to incorporate this common-sense provision in any reform to the Workforce Investment Act.”

Since opening Sept. 10, 1980, Oneonta Job Corps history has varied in negative and positive light in the public eye. Police have intervened at times of unruly students and criminal behavior, and at other times, the center and its students have won national awards for achievements. The center’s ratings have fluctuated during the decades.

Job Corps officials note that centers not only provide students with education and marketable skills, but also have a positive impact on local economies. Typically, contracts for Job Corps Centers are for two years, with three one-year renewal options.

Christopher Kuhn, director of the Oneonta academy, said the local center’s annual budget is $9.7 million, of which two-thirds is payroll expenses.

The Otsego County Chamber of Commerce has sent a letter to Schumer applauding the local Job Corps and to support ETR’s eligibility, Chamber Director Barbara Ann Heegan said.

Citizen Voices, a local group that supports economic growth that provides jobs, also has advocated sending letters to Schumer and Gillibrand.

ETR has been “very successful” in turning around student performance at the center, Vimalassery said.

The National Job Corps Association supports efforts to develop small businesses, Vimalassery said, and discussions continue with federal officials about eligibility factors for center operators. 

However, the most important issue remains determining what is best for students and student outcomes, he said.