Tech school expansion, done responsibly, deserves support

By Chelsea Maude Avirett | Apr 28, 2016

During the April agenda-setting meeting, representatives from the Midcoast School of Technology visited Rockland’s City Council to drum up support for an item they’ll place on the November ballot: an approximately $25 million bond to build a new school at the current location. This new school would replace and expand the current building, providing both sufficient space for existing programming and the capacity to expand training for in-demand fields of study.

The Midcoast School of Technology is part of a larger network of career and technical education (CTE) schools in Maine, a program that is certified by the Department of Education and aligned with national career standards. Students in this program are prepared equally for post-secondary education or for directly moving into a career. About 50 percent of the Midcoast School of Technology’s students continue their education, while others earn professional certifications that reflect their qualifications for a specific career.

The school provides an essential service to our community, especially as many technical jobs not only pay higher than the median wage, but are unfilled because we lack the skilled labor locally. The technology school is also essential because we value creating a diverse economic community; nationally, most job growth occurs in service-related jobs, but locally we have diverse industry jobs. To continue to encourage such industries to (re)locate here, we need a vital and robust technical school.

The tech school’s current building is out-of-date and needs significant renovation. It does not meet current building or life safety codes, for example. More importantly, though, the current building doesn’t meet the community’s educational needs: current programs are cramped and their noise spills over into other learning areas, and the school does not have the space to add in-demand programs (such as plumbing and electrical training) that students and businesses have requested.

While the need is clear, the details that have been presented up to now are missing crucial information to enable communities to evaluate how effectively this bond will address these issues. Need alone should not deliver a new building. Instead, the school must provide a final building plan (which officials have said will be presented this fall before the November election) alongside a detailed and community-centered expansion plan that includes the costs for expanding programs that would meet the needs of both local students and adults.

So far, the technology school has presented the first stage of the project: a detailed assessment of not just the building, but the school’s educational environment and values. This included listening sessions with teachers, students (at the school and at the member-schools), community members, and businesses to evaluate current job opportunities and needs in the area. This assessment not only revealed the need for a new building, but also highlighted a number of opportunities for the school to expand programming aligned with community needs. The building design stage is an ideal time to develop a revamped program and outreach plan that addresses the detailed analysis the assessment provided.

Repeatedly throughout the listening sessions, a few specific non-building-related issues came up: 1) concern that the current school is underutilized by students because its mission has not been clearly articulated or presented, 2) desire for specific programs to meet today’s local business demand (such as business courses, early childhood education preparation, energy and sustainability-related courses, marine biology and others) and stronger connections to post-secondary opportunities (including potentially a technical college in the area), and 3) a need to develop the school as a community tech hub, providing more robust adult offerings, opportunities for business incubation, connecting students with local summer internships, and in general utilizing the building year-round for the entire community.

While this is an ideal time for the school to revamp programming, it’s also an ideal time for the community to consider the value of this programming and to evaluate whether we should expand our financial commitment to it. The 19 member communities currently contribute $3 million a year, a cost that has remained steady over the last three budget cycles. RSU13 contributes a mere $1 million a year (and those costs have decreased since St. George withdrew).

Education too often focuses on college prep, justified with statistics about how students with a college degree make more money than those without. What gets lost in that binary is the middle ground of professional certificates, such as those that graduates of the technology school earn. Students with a high school degree plus a professional certificate can often find fulfilling work and earn more than someone with a college degree.

The coming bond is an expense. Expanding programming is an expense. But both (assuming they are implemented responsibly) are expenses that directly target immediate community needs. If the technical school can demonstrate a clear vision for expanding its program to address specific community needs (and student interest) like plumbing, electrical, sustainable energy systems, adult education and training, as well as creating what one member of the study called a “community hub,” then we as taxpayers should provide the funds to accomplish that.

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