Editorial: Investing in future vocational education

Careers are launched at Hancock County Technical Center. In an unassuming building on Boggy Brook Road in Ellsworth, students learn to run a commercial kitchen, repair cars, troubleshoot diesel engines, care for patients as certified nursing assistants and perform biomedical research.

Students run their own restaurant and preschool, produce videos and review the fundamentals of law enforcement. They compete — and win — at national competitions and many graduate with something that can be hard to come by for the average 18-year-old: a real plan for the future.

All this is achieved in a 40-year-old building that has seen better days and was built for the technical education of a different generation. The region’s workforce needs are continually evolving. So too are individual professions. HCTC’s ability to keep up is limited by the configuration of its space.

Acknowledging that state funding for renovating, expanding or replacing the school building may be many years away, city and school department officials, along with members of the local business community, are exploring other avenues. The process is in its earliest stages. A steering committee just recently put out a notice seeking firms to complete a feasibility study examining options.

One thing that is already clear is that Hancock County and the rest of Maine needs skilled workers and to retain more young professionals. The technical center is already doing its part and providing real value to students and employers. Students graduate with credentials needed to immediately enter the workforce or with a head start on further education. One incredible opportunity is the Bridge Academy, through which HCTC students can earn college credits, allowing them to go on to complete a college education quicker and with less debt.

The nonprofit Ellsworth Business Development Corp. has come forward to help raise money for a possible HCTC project. It’s possible a renovation or expansion might be entirely funded by donations or that state funding may eventually come through.

But it seems more likely that local property taxpayers may be footing at least some part of the bill if the project does move forward. The city has already approved spending $150,000 from Tax Increment Financing (TIF) reserves for the feasibility study.

HCTC serves an area beyond Ellsworth. Just as leaders of the city’s library are pursuing ways to secure funding from other communities whose residents use its resources, so should planners of this regionally utilized career education center.

The Ellsworth School Department does receive funding based on attendance of students from other school districts, but that money covers tuition — not major capital expenses. It would be unfair for Ellsworth and its taxpayers to cover the full cost of services and facilities regularly used by members of other communities.

The tradeoff of being a regional service center is often development at the price of higher infrastructure costs. City roads, for example, are used heavily by non-residents but those visitors work and spend money in Ellsworth, supporting the tax base. That tax base can only be stretched so far. Should an HCTC project move forward and a local contribution be required, we recommend school and city officials look closely at how other area municipalities could share the burden beyond going to them hat in hand.

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