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State CTE funding changes hurt rural schools, SAD1 super says

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — A change in how the state government funds local career and technical education programs could disproportionately impact rural districts in northern Maine, according to Brian Carpenter, superintendent of Maine School Administrative District 1.

The Maine Department of Education has changed its CTE funding policy, effective for the current fiscal year, to a per-student-based reimbursement model. The policy replaces a long-standing model of cost-based funding, where districts are reimbursed for their CTE costs plus inflation.

Carpenter said that change, even though it includes provisions for additional funding for the first three years, could leave many rural districts with gaps in CTE funding that may have to be covered by local taxpayers.

“This is being pushed by larger CTE centers downstate,” who have more students and will garner more funding under the change, Carpenter maintains.

Drafting and engineering students at the Presque Isle Regional Career and Technical Center use computer-aided drafting, CAD or AutoCAD, to see their designs take shape. (Files photo | Contributed)

Under the new policy, SAD1’s $1.6 million annual CTE program will fall $75,000 short this year, requiring that gap to be made up with local funds, Carpenter said. If the full policy were in effect, as is planned within three years, SAD 1 would be short $400,000, he said.

“The governor wants more kids in CTE, yet he’s cutting the funding and it’s impacting northern Maine specifically,” Carpenter said. “I’ve talked to legislators and I’ve talked to DOE officials about it.”

The changes would also impact CTE programs in Caribou, Houlton and the St. John Valley, Carpenter said.

CTE programs are usually hosted by larger districts and serve students from surrounding districts, who cover the transportation costs for their students and are later reimbursed by the state. Students from Mars Hill or Fort Fairfield, for instance, can take CTE classes in Presque Isle in areas such as agriculture or computer-aided design.

Caribou and Presque Isle each offer CTE programs that serve students from around central Aroostook County, but have little overlap other than building trades, Carpenter said. Presque Isle’s CTE program serves approximately 126 students and Caribou’s 167.

Carpenter said the largest problem with the state’s new funding policy is that it apparently does not provide any additional money for purchasing equipment. He is skeptical whether the policy’s three year “hold harmless” provision will allow districts to gather funds for equipment purchases.

For instance, Caribou has a heavy equipment operation program and Houlton has a mechanized logging program, both of which require regular equipment upgrades.

“If I’m going down to Houlton to buy a new tree harvester, that’s $1.2 million. If I’m going to Caribou, I’m going to need a new excavator for $300,000,” Carpenter said. “If we’re not having equipment that’s state-of-the-art, then students leaving these programs will not be certified to run the equipment that’s out there,” he added.

Rachel Paling, director of communications for the Maine Department of Education, challenged Carpenter’s assertions that the new model would leave rural CTE programs struggling.

“No CTE school is losing and, in fact, a rural CTE school such as Region 2 [serving southern Aroostook] actually benefits from the model,” Paling wrote in an email.

Paling said that for CTE programs not meeting the new model’s funding allocations, the DOE “will be working with each school individually to determine why the school does not align with the model and what action might be necessary, either on the part of the school to align costs to the model or through changes to the model.”

Paling added the new model does not include equipment funding, but that CTE equipment purchases will be funded by an additional $1 million to the state’s CTE equipment grant and that there may be an equipment bond program approved by the Legislature.

Carpenter said the new CTE funding policy creates an air of uncertainty for districts that manage CTE programs and those that send students to them.

“For a small district up here to take part in the program, that could be the death toll for CTE because the smaller districts won’t be able to support it with smaller budgets. They’re not going to pay to have their students come.”

Whether or not the policy could be amended is also uncertain. “You’re fighting an upstream battle now to get it changed. We don’t have the legislative power to change it,” Carpenter said.

“It’s going to be wait and see,” he said, noting that this time next year Maine will have a new governor. “We’ll have to cross the other bridge when we come to it.”

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