Educators Worry Proposed Funding Formula Will Hurt Rural Vocational Schools

Sep 1, 2017

Vocational education in Maine has evolved over the years — it’s now called career and technical education, or CTE, and the LePage administration is vowing to double the number of kids in CTE over the next two years. Many educators support that goal, but some are worried about a proposed funding formula that they say could hurt communities in Maine that are most in need of local job development.

Students in a variety of programs are packed into nearly every crevice of the Mid-Coast School of Technology in Rockland. Staffers at this vocational school say that culinary arts students practically elbow each other as they practice their knife-cutting skills in the crammed kitchen. The digital arts class has a waiting list of more than two dozen kids.

The equipment needed to train them all isn’t cheap. Machine shop instructor Rich Barratt says the cost of the equipment to teach roughly 20 kids in his machining program can run north of $200,000.

“Each one of these machines is $15,000-$20,000 a piece,” he says. “So yeah, I’d say a quarter million, easily. And that’s just a small shop. It’s not even a big shop.”

Educators say a lot of people don’t realize just how much money this training requires, and that the expenses for vocational schools are very different from traditional high schools.

Junior Steve Shelley welds together two pieces of metal at the United Technologies Center in Bangor.
Credit Brett Plymale

“So when you’re doing a formula where you’re saying one size fits all, you really can’t,” says Beth Fisher, the school’s director. “You really have to look at what each program needs for supplies, equipment, upgrades.”

Fisher says investments in commercial ovens, welding equipment, state-of-the-art software and even ambulances are critical to high-quality CTE education. And that’s why Fisher and other educators are worried about a new report that recommends changing how career and technical education is funded in Maine.

“Parts of the study were really well done, but there were aspects in it that were just out of touch with what our needs are,” she says. “And if this formula were to go through, it would be really devastating for some of our schools.”

Right now, most CTE funding is controlled locally, and districts are reimbursed by the state a few years later. But in its new report, the Maine Education Policy Research Institute proposes what it bills as a more predictable, statewide funding model.

The report’s formula would actually increase overall funding to CTE in Maine by more than $4 million. But much of the extra money would go toward schools in larger areas, such as Portland, Lewiston and Bangor. Some rural areas, including Presque Isle and Caribou, would lose funding.

Ralph Conroy, director of the Caribou Regional Technology Center, says he has fewer students in some programs because of the relatively small, rural population. But he says he still needs the same equipment and teachers that larger schools have.

Conroy says the proposed formula would have serious consequences.

“We’ll have to lose staff members. And I’ve got one staff member per program,” he says. “So every time I have to make a cut, it’ll mean one less program for students to choose from.”

At the Presque Isle Regional Career and Technical Center nearby, Director Tim Prescott says these kinds of cuts would create even more educational inequity in the state. He says kids in urban areas would wind up with many more job training opportunities than those in rural Maine, which actually needs more economic help.

“That displaces all the students in a rural area like ours in a much less equitable situation.,” Prescott says. “Because we have to deal with the fact that we have less population.”

State education officials acknowledge that the initial report may have looked a little scary for some schools, but say that it is only meant to serve as a starting point for developing a new state funding model, similar to other reports created in 2007 and 2009. They say the department is listening to educators’ concerns, and wants to be sure schools are on board with any new legislation that aims to change the formula.

Rob Callahan, the director of the the Lewiston Regional Technical Center, says he’s been encouraged by recent meetings with the department.

“So I have a lot of confidence that this is going to evolve into a working model that will support students in the ways that we hope it will,” he says.

The Department of Education says it plans to propose legislation to change the CTE funding formula next year.

Education reporting on Maine Public Radio is supported by a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.