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State halts students' working; Voke plumbing projects targeted.

Byline: Debbie LaPlaca

CHARLTON - The state regulating authority for plumbers has halted work by vocational school students on municipal and nonprofit agency projects, citing alleged exploitation of students.

In its decision to deny three outside projects by Bay Path Regional Vocational Technical High School plumbing students, the state Board of Examiners of Plumbers and Gasfitters has set off appeals by school, town and state officials.

"This has a huge impact, and if we do not have the opportunity to do hands-on, we've defeated the purpose of vocational education," said Bay Path Superintendent-Director David P. Papagni in a recent telephone interview.

The decision came in a March 14 letter from Joseph A. Peluso Jr., executive director of the Board of Examiners, denying outside plumbing projects slated for the Webster Fire Department, Charlton Police Station and Southbridge High School.

"The students appear and are alleged to be being exploited by others for the financial assistance or gain only of the proprietor/entity concerned," Mr. Peluso wrote.

The letter states the Board of Examiners has decided to limit the scope of work by students "due to the apparent compromise of the educational purpose exercised by various institutions."

When contacted by a reporter, Mr. Peluso deferred questions to a spokesperson. The spokesperson

then deferred to the head of the agency, George Weber, director of the Division of Professional Licensure.

"There were interests that needed to be carefully balanced," Mr. Weber said. He would not give details about who has alleged exploitation or what evidence led to the Board of Examiners' decision.

When asked if vocational students were taking work from licensed plumbers, he said, "I think these are small jobs in general."

Mr. Papagni said the decision prohibits outside plumbing work for municipalities and nonprofit organizations by Bay Path and other vocational schools. Hands-on training in the field is a staple of vocational education for students learning the trades.

"We are not trying to compete with anyone. We are not stealing jobs from anyone. We are training the future plumbers. It's all about education," Mr. Papagni said.

At Bay Path, students learning plumbing, carpentry and electrical trades frequently perform outside projects for nonprofit organizations within the school district. The only opportunity now for outside projects for plumbing students will be residential.

When the school receives a request for a plumbing project, an instructor visits the site to evaluate the job. If it meets the school's criteria, a permit is obtained from the town and notice is sent to the Board of Examiners for its approval. Under the supervision of their instructors, who are also licensed plumbers, students provide the labor while the requesting party supplies the materials.

"We do offer a community service," Mr. Papagni said, noting most nonprofits could not afford the project without the free labor provided by students.

In an effort to appeal the decision, Mr. Papagni contacted the school district's state senators and representatives.

State Sen. Richard T. Moore, D-Uxbridge, was one of many who answered the plea for help. He wrote to the Executive Office of Economic Development asking for assistance in resolving what he called a crucial matter.

"In a time when many communities are struggling to balance their budgets and are searching for areas to save money, it makes sense to allow students to perform these projects," he wrote.

Those comments were echoed by Joseph E. Cienciwa, business manager for the Southbridge schools, who said, "It is work that we may not have done if we had to go to the outside."

One of the three denied projects was to repair and replace plumbing in Southbridge High School's athletics field house.

Charlton Plumbing Inspector Peter Starkus said he has inspected student educational projects for more than 19 years.

"Municipal projects provide the perfect mock, real-life training opportunities and are done in a safe environment," he wrote in an appeal letter.

Yet the safety of students in the field is a key concern for the Board of Examiners, Mr. Weber said. "We really want to see towns do things inexpensively or at no cost. The issue is how many students are supervised by how many licensed plumbers."

For now, the project to install new restrooms in the Charlton police station may see the light of day after Police Chief James A. Pervier contacted Mr. Peluso to request reconsideration.

"The plumbing board is the ultimate authority. We are going to recommend to the plumbing board that this project go forward," Mr. Weber said.

And as for the future, Mr. Weber said, "We are going to invite all the superintendents and talk with them about going forward. We want to make sure everything is done properly to ensure safety here. I think we'll be able to come to a resolution."

ART: PHOTO

CUTLINE: Patrick Elliott, left, and James Merchant, both sophomores, work on plumbing fittings in class at Bay Path Regional Vocational Technical High School.

PHOTOG: T&G Staff/DAN GOULD
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Title Annotation:LOCAL NEWS
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Apr 16, 2007
Words:821
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