LONGMEADOW — Senator Eric P. Lesser held the first in a series of high school town halls on Wednesday at Longmeadow High School following the signing of the state’s new law promoting civics education.
Sen. Lesser was a leading champion of the legislation in the Senate, particularly for a measure directing schools to incorporate “media literacy” in their civics programs to help students develop the skills needed to critically analyze written and digital media sources. The effort was also a long-time priority of Senate President Emerita Harriette Chandler (D-Worcester), and was given added urgency with the influx of so-called “fake news.”
The bill also requires public schools serving students in eighth grade and high school to provide a student-led civics project, and creates a Civics Project Trust Fund to provide funding for these projects.
“One of my favorite activities as a State Senator is getting the chance to speak directly with young people,” Sen. Lesser said. “I first became interested in government at a young age, and I first got involved in my local government as a sophomore right here at Longmeadow High School when we campaigned to save teachers’ jobs from cuts to education funding. Our students always inspire me with their questions about how our state government works and their desire to get involved. They are our future leaders, so it is critical they understand that even at a very young age they have a stake in our community and in our Commonwealth’s future.”
Students at Longmeadow High School asked questions on a number of topics, including gun safety laws, taxes, the environment, immigration and the economy.
This is the first in a series of wide-ranging discussions with high school students that Sen. Lesser plans to hold across the First Hampden and Hampshire District.
Bill requires students to complete civics projects and encourages voter registration for eligible high schoolers
BOSTON — On Thursday, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a bill, based in part on legislation sponsored by Sen. Eric P. Lesser, that reinforces civics education and news media literacy in Massachusetts classrooms.
The bill, S. 2631 An Act to promote and enhance civic engagement, makes civics education a required subject in all Massachusetts public schools as part of the U.S. history and social science curriculum. Instruction is to include lessons on the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights, as well as the function of the three branches of government.
According to the bill, the curriculum should also develop skills needed to critically analyze written and digital media sources, a critical measure championed by Sen. Lesser in a separate bill that was incorporated into the final legislation.
“Young people can, and must be, part of the solution to our most pressing challenges. But in order to do that, they need to understand how our democracy works and have the basic skills to tell fact from fiction and evaluate news versus commentary,” said Sen. Lesser. “My hope is that these new civics classes will energize young people to get involved. A healthy democracy needs citizens to be well-informed and engaged, and that begins with educating our young citizens.”
In a recent nationwide poll, only a third of adults could name all three branches of government. According to some test results, 45 percent of 12th graders were unable to explain how citizens could change a law.
The bill also requires public schools serving students in eighth grade and high school to provide a student-led civics project, and creates a Civics Project Trust Fund to provide funding for these projects.
Finally, the bill directs the Massachusetts Secretary of State to establish a non-partisan high school voter challenge program to encourage eligible students to register or pre-register to vote.
The effort to pass a civics education bill, a long-time priority of Senate President Emerita Harriette Chandler (D-Worcester), was given added urgency with the influx of so-called “fake news” witnessed during the 2016 presidential election.
According to research conducted at the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts University, students who recalled memorable civic education experiences were more likely to vote, to form political opinions and to know campaign issues. Researchers also found that civics education does not lead students to favor one party over another.
The bill is a result of negotiations between the House and Senate on their different versions of the bill, and an amendment suggested by Gov. Baker.
SPRINGFIELD — Senator Eric P. Lesser praised the news that Springfield ranked in the top 10 best metro areas in the U.S. for STEM professionals, according to a list compiled by WalletHub, a personal finance website.
STEM professionals include those working in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. “This is great news for our city, our region, and the entire state — and a good reminder that investments in our workforce pay dividends for our workers and our economy. This is why vocational education programs are so important, and make such a difference in our communities,” said Sen. Lesser.
Investing in STEM education and workforce pipelines has been a priority for Sen. Lesser since taking office in 2015. As Senate Chair of the Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, he helped craft the 2018 Economic Development Bonding Bill, which funded an apprenticeship tax credit program for apprenticeships in computer occupations, healthcare technologists and technicians, and production occupations in the manufacturing industry.
This year, Sen. Lesser secured millions of dollars in the state budget, for the fourth consecutive year, for a precision manufacturing training program to create a fully coordinated manufacturing training system to meet the employment needs of manufacturers across the state.
News of Springfield’s ranking was first reported by The Republican. Springfield, which came in eighth, beat out major cities across the U.S., including Chicago, Atlanta and Denver. Springfield was also one of only two New England cities to make the top 10; the other was Boston, which came in second.
BOSTON — Senator Eric P. Lesser served as the keynote speaker at the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce’s annual legislative breakfast on Thursday, where he spoke about the region’s advantages in education and opportunities in the growing life sciences industry.
“Together, we’re focused on making Western Mass a hub of life sciences jobs and education in the Commonwealth and empowering our people to build and grow our economy. Maybe one day, we’ll hear the Pioneer Valley compared side by side with Silicon Valley. It just takes guts and vision to make it happen,” Sen. Lesser said.
As Senate Chairman of the Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies, Sen. Lesser helped craft two major bills this year that invested millions of dollars in the state’s workforce.
One bill extended the state’s investments in companies, research centers and schools engaged in life sciences work, authorizing millions of dollars in grants to community colleges and vocational schools to increase employment opportunities. It also directed millions more toward innovative new programs at each UMass campus across the state.
The other, the economic development bonding bill, directed funds to regional workforce training programs and advanced manufacturing education, as well as MassWorks infrastructure projects.
LONGMEADOW — Senator Eric P. Lesser held a roundtable meeting with local municipal leaders representing the towns of Belchertown, East Longmeadow, Granby, Longmeadow, Ludlow and Wilbraham to discuss furthering the partnership between municipalities and the Commonwealth.
“I look forward to continuing to strengthen the partnership between the local elected officials in the communities I represent and the Commonwealth,” Senator Lesser said. “This meeting provided the opportunity to learn how my office can better support communities across my district. These important conversations also allow local leaders to hear about the similar challenges they each face, and provide the chance to brainstorm solutions together.”
The discussion covered several topics including how cities and towns can use cultural programming to provide safe, family friendly spaces in an effort to curb substance abuse, the level of funding provided to communities as reimbursements for school building projects, and the challenges that Western Massachusetts communities face with regard to the Proposition 2 ½ levy limit – which several local communities are rapidly approaching.
“It is always great to meet with other selectmen and town councilors in our region to learn about our shared challenges and be heard and supported by our state senator. Senator Lesser works diligently to support Western Massachusetts,” said Wilbraham Selectman Susan Bunnell.
“As a Selectman, having the opportunity to meet with my peers from neighboring communities in an open forum was a great way to talk about issues that affect all our constituents,” said Ludlow Selectmen Derek DeBarge. “I commend Senator Lesser for planning the round table talk and look forward to more. It’s a way for all of us to help one another and become a stronger Western Mass.”
“I believe meetings like this are a benefit to everyone who attended. They are a chance to share your community’s issues with other municipalities and see if they have similar problems,” said Granby Selectmen Jay Joyce. “Senator Lesser is able to learn whether our problems are isolated or systemic, helping him better understand our challenges. This meeting also allowed us to network with each other, ultimately leading to a stronger ‘community,’ for Senator Lesser and all of us to represent.”
Senator Lesser regularly meets with the Boards of Selectmen and Town and City Councils in the communities he represents. This roundtable meeting marks the second time that Senator Lesser has brought together local-elected leaders from across the First Hampden and Hampshire district.
LONGMEADOW — Senator Eric P. Lesser applauded the news Thursday that the Massachusetts Department of Transportation has committed approximately $700,000 to help Amtrak make safety improvements at the public railroad crossing on Birnie Road in Longmeadow. Amtrak, which owns the railroad line and is carrying out the project, will fund the remaining costs.
“This is tremendous news for a community that has long requested safety improvements at this hazardous railroad crossing, after five deaths since 1975, most recently DPW worker Warren Cowles. Thank you to MassDOT and Amtrak for working together on behalf of our community, and to Senator Markey, who has championed this issue in Washington. It is imperative that the crossing at Birnie Road is made safe again so that no family will have to suffer a tragic loss like those the Cowles family and others have had to bear,” said Sen. Lesser.
Cowles, a Longmeadow Department of Public Works foreman, was killed on March 14, 2017 when a train struck the snowplow he was operating to clear the tracks during last year’s late-season snowstorm.
Cowles’ death, the fifth at the Birnie Road rail crossing since 1975, rallied the community to demand safety improvements. Sen. Lesser’s office has been in frequent contact with state transportation officials and the office of U.S. Senator Ed Markey, who worked to get the issue on Amtrak’s agenda.
In the wake of the accident, the community worked together to raise awareness about the dangerousness of the crossing and the need for safety improvements. Neighbors attended Longmeadow town meetings and worked with the Longmeadow Fire, DPW and police departments to erect temporary barriers and signage to keep the crossing safe.
Permanent safety measures, which will be installed by Amtrak, will include the installation of a new gate and warning lights and a power system to support this infrastructure. The work is expected to begin in 2019.
Met with STEM students at Belchertown High School, researchers at the UMass Cold Spring Orchard, and discussed addiction recovery efforts with Belchertown SOARR
Received a briefing on future development at the State School property
BELCHERTOWN — Senator Eric P. Lesser embarked on a full day of meetings and site visits in Belchertown on Tuesday to learn about new initiatives and receive updates on programs he has championed with amendments to the state budget.
His first stop was a meeting with School Superintendent Karol Coffin and a joint visit to Belchertown High School’s new Science, Technology, Math and Engineering (STEM) and Robotics Classroom, made possible through an amendment filed by Sen. Lesser to the 2016 Economic Development Bond Bill.
Sen. Lesser worked with the administration to release the $100,000 in bond funding for the program last year.
“Right now, there are thousands of vacancies in high-tech manufacturing jobs right here in Western Mass, and there will be thousands more in the future. Training our young people for the jobs of the future is vital to providing opportunities for the future. Vocational training programs like the STEM and robotics program at Belchertown High School are showing us what’s possible, and this program is serving as a model for the state in providing a high-quality educational program,” said Sen. Lesser.
Teachers are busy installing 3D printers, robotics kits, laser-powered etching machines, new computers and design software, and other materials to get the STEM classroom ready for students by end of the school year. The school has used nearly all of the grant money on this equipment, with about $300 to $600 remaining for additional robotics equipment.
Next, Sen. Lesser visited Cold Spring Orchard, a research and education facility of UMass Amherst. The research has focused on finding better ways to grow fruit in Massachusetts, including the testing of new varieties, the evaluation of more efficient cultivation techniques and the development of more environmentally friendly management approaches.
Jon Clements and Joe Shoenfeld, educators at the orchard, gave Sen. Lesser a tour and explained how they have been been able to grow new types of apples and reduce pests.
In the afternoon, Kendall Cardwell, Chief Engineer for the State School project, provided Sen. Lesser a brief overview of the project’s future development and then conducted a tour of the property.
“There is no better symbol of this town’s resurgence than the redevelopment of the State School property, which will provide local job opportunities, expand residential housing options, and ultimately find a purpose for 25 acres of land that can be put to good use,” said Sen. Lesser. “This project is one of the most transformative and exciting developments happening in our entire region right now.”
The day ended with a meeting at the “Nest,” a substance abuse resource center for the community. Sen. Lesser met with members of Belchertown SOARR (Speaking Out About Addiction & Recovery), the Quabog Hills Substance Abuse Coalition, and residents and providers from Honest Beginnings, a sober living facility.
“We have made a lot of progress in combating the opioid epidemic, but there is much more that needs to be done. Sober living homes are key to the progress we will be able to make, and we have consistently requested more state funding for treatment beds in facilities like Honest Beginnings. It was good to be able to meet with some of the residents and let them know that we are with them and we are working to help them recover and live the life that’s waiting for them,” said Sen. Lesser.
BOSTON — The House and Senate enacted a supplemental budget Monday, filling gaps in the state budget through the end of the year on a number of measures, including school safety funds and emergency funds for relief in the Merrimack Valley.
The funding bill, H.4930, is awaiting Gov. Charlie Baker’s signature and includes the following allocations:
$40 million for local roads and bridges to the Massachusetts Transportation Trust Fund
$19.4 million for the Department of Early Education and Care for TANF and child care access
$7.5 million for access to mental and behavioral health in public schools
$2.5 million to implement early voting for November 6, 2018
The bill also includes $7.5 million for a grant program for school safety infrastructure improvements, including retrofitting and upgrading school buildings with security enhancements such as classroom door locks, security cameras or active shooter detection systems. The legislation also prioritizes those schools most in need of safety improvements and most in need of financial assistance for implementing them.
“Given recent tragedies, it has become vital to provide security upgrades to our schools and ensure that they are safe places for our children to learn,” said Sen. Eric P. Lesser. “I join many parents in their frustration that more has not been done on the national level to address rising rates of gun violence, particularly in our schools and other public places. Here in Massachusetts, we are working to protect our children and have already banned devices like bump stocks that were used in last year’s mass shooting in Las Vegas.”
The supplemental budget bill also includes $10 million to aid Merrimack Valley communities affected by the recent string of gas explosions that leveled more than 60 homes in Lawrence, North Andover and Andover. The funds will cover the “costs of Commonwealth personnel and overtime expenses, immediate living and medical costs, and costs incurred by” the three municipalities, according to the bill.
Following the explosions on Sept. 13, Sen. Lesser called on the Department of Public Utilities to conduct an investigation of all gas lines operated by Columbia Gas in the state. An investigation is currently underway.
“Unfortunately, our region has seen the devastating impact of gas leaks. Springfield experienced an explosion as recently as 2012 that caused widespread damage. It shouldn’t take a tragedy to force action. Enough is enough. Columbia Gas has a moral obligation to protect the public and to fix their infrastructure,” Sen. Lesser said at the time.
“There are hundreds of gas leaks we already know about across the state, including here in the Pioneer Valley. The DPU needs to take this threat seriously, and there must be a halt to new permitting and construction, including the proposed Longmeadow metering station,” Sen. Lesser added today.
SPRINGFIELD — Sen. Eric P. Lesser joined Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno and other local and library officials in the formal groundbreaking of the East Forest Park Branch Library on Monday. Earlier this year, he secured $75,000 in funding for the library in the state’s FY2019 budget.
“The residents of East Forest Park have been without a full-service library for the better part of the last 50 years, and I’m excited to see this neighborhood have a permanent library of its own. This is a significant investment for Springfield, and will contribute to this neighborhood’s revitalization after the 2011 tornado, alongside the new Pope Francis High School,” said Sen. Lesser.
Sen. Lesser is also Chair of the legislative Libraries Caucus, which successfully advocated for increased funding to the state Board of Library Commissioners in next year’s budget, including $9.6 million in state aid to public libraries and $2.8 million in library technology and resource sharing funding.
The cost of the East Forest Park Branch Library’s construction will be offset by $4.9 million in a grant from the Board of Library Commissioners, announced in July 2017. Springfield was one of nine communities to receive a grant award, with 34 others on the waitlist.
The new East Forest Park Branch Library will be located on Surrey Road in Springfield, adjacent to Mary Dryden School and Pope Francis High School, and is expected to open in 2019.
The library’s new location will be a permanent home for the library, which is currently located in a shopping plaza on Island Pond Road. Limited by its size, the library — which is the second busiest in the City of Springfield — has only eight computers and no dedicated space for teens.
The new permanent library will have special areas for children and teens, a community room, study rooms and dozens of public computers.
WILBRAHAM — Sen. Eric P. Lesser welcomed the announcement that the town of Wilbraham has been awarded another $12,500 in Municipal Energy Technical Assistance (META) grants.
“This is more good news, and another great step forward for our community, which will help reduce energy costs by continuing Wilbraham’s ongoing energy efficiency projects. Town leaders took the initiative to maintain their green energy goals by applying for this grant money. As we know, clean energy is not just good for the environment, but also for taxpayers’ wallets. This is a win-win for Wilbraham,” said Sen. Lesser.
The Department of Energy Resources awarded a number of grants to designated “Green Communities” to help them develop clean energy projects. Open to all 351 cities and towns, as well as municipal light plants, META grants fund the services of expert consultants and contractors to assist with a diverse array of local energy projects.
“This funding is exemplary of the successful partnership between municipalities and state government to achieve our shared clean energy and greenhouse gas reduction goals,” said Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Matthew Beaton. “Working closely together on addressing our energy challenges brings us one step closer to creating a clean, affordable and resilient energy future for the Commonwealth.
“The Department of Energy Resource’s Green Communities program is an innovative partnership that connects state and local resources to increase the adoption of clean energy and energy efficiency,” said Department of Energy Resources Commissioner Judson. “META grants consistently provide the catalyst for local energy projects to move from concept to reality.”