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Maine Higher Education Leaders Gear Up for Bond Campaigns
10/18/2013   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

Though it's an "off-year" election in Maine this November, voters will be asked to approve a number of bond questions - including two requests to borrow money for the higher education system. One proposal would invest in Maine's universities, the other, the Community College system. Voters rejected an education bond last year, but as Patty Wight reports, supporters of this year's questions believe they can make a strong case.

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The bond questions share the same general goal: to equip Maine students with the right skills to get good jobs. Both bond measures would fund updates and improvements to classrooms and labs throughout both systems.

The renovations are sorely needed at Maine's Community Colleges, says president John Fitzsimmons, who says the system has had to turn away applicants in the past two years due to lack of capacity. "We have 4,000 qualified students that applied that couldn't get in, 83 programs that were maxed out," he says.

On the university side, says Dean of Engineering Dana Humphey, the bond is less about capacity and more about upgrading facilities in the STEM disciplines - Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. "We've been needing these renovations for, measured - in some cases - in decades," he says.

Humphrey says one lab is so old that the concrete floor has worn down to below the level of the floor drain. He says if the bond doesn't pass, the university system will lose its ability to provide students relevant training. "These are the kinds of projects these bonds would fund that turn into graduates who are in great demand in the workforce," he says.

Though school officials say these funds are critical, they'll also have to convince the voters of that. Last year Mainers rejected an $11 million education bond. This time around, the bonds are separate for each school system, but they share the same price tag - $15.5 million each.

Community College System President John Fitzsimmons says even though the amount is higher this year, it's just a fraction of what is really needed. And he thinks separating the bonds will improve the chances of approval.

"Sometimes the messages are very different," Fitzsimmons says. "Sometimes what's in the bond makes it very hard to communicate it. So now we have a very focused message."

The message is that a community college education can prepare students for good-paying jobs. And the bond campaign is being rolled it out in TV ads like this one, which profiles David Richardson, a mill worker who lost his job:

David Richardson audio from TV ad: "We's just had our baby - it was a few days old. I got a phone call saying I'm unemployed, and it was just like, 'Wow - what are we going to do now? The community college was a lifeline for us. Now I have a degree, and a new career, right here in Maine."

The university system will roll out its own ads in about a week. Chancellor Jim Page says the number of STEM graduates is growing and the demand for STEM training program won't go away if the bond to upgrade facilities fails.

"Someday, sooner or later, we have to make these," Page says. "Making them at this time - first of all, it's timely. The students - from our increased numbers of students in this areas - they speak that they want this training. Our employers throughout the state are telling us they need these employees."

The need for higher capacity, up-to-date student training is a sentiment echoed by Maine Chamber of Commerce President Dana Connors. "We know today that we're missing out on a number of job opportunities because the skills simply aren't there."

Both systems boast high job placement rates - John Fitzsimmons says community college students have a 92 percent placement rate in Maine. But there are still plenty of jobs to fill, says the University of Maine's Dana Humphrey. In the past nine months alone, he says, there were 1,200 job postings for engineers in Maine.


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