FAIRFIELD — Maine’s colleges don’t have the space, the buildings, or the technology to train today’s workforce adequately, legislators and education leaders said Wednesday.
Standing amid 30-year-old machinery used to teach students at Kennebec Valley Community College, education leaders and Democratic lawmakers touted the advantages of a $149.5 million jobs bond they said will provide a critically needed boost in teaching students to function in an increasingly technology-based industrial work environment.
The bond proposal, which legislators are expected to approve during a special session today, will go before voters in November.
Senate President Justin Alfond said Republicans deserve equal credit for coming together on the package, which includes $35.5 million for higher education. Republican leaders were not available for comment Wednesday afternoon.
House Speaker Mark Eves said he didn’t know how long the loan term would be or how much it would cost to repay over time, but he did offer that Maine is typically more aggressive than other states in repaying its debts.
He said it’s a good time to borrow because of historically low interest rates created by the slow economy.
Education leaders at the event all said the money is sorely needed, and they painted a picture of an education system that is hindered by outdated buildings and technologies.
Allyson Hughes Handley, president of University of Maine at Augusta, said the University of Maine System, which would receive about $15.5 million under the proposal, has many buildings that haven’t been updated since they were built more than 50 years ago.
“If there isn’t an investment in refurbishing those spaces, then in fact we’re abandoning the initial very wise investment that was made in infrastructure and in Maine’s citizens,” she said.
William Brennan, president of Maine Maritime Academy, said the academy hasn’t built a new building in 30 years, during which time the student population has tripled.
“We need a new building, an engineering science and research building so that we can adequately prepare the daughters and sons of Maine citizens for the careers they will have,” Brennan said.
Kennebec Valley Community College President Rick Hopper said the college would spend some of the money to update the milling machines in its Precision Machining Lab, the site of the event.
The current machines, built in the 1980s and donated to the college by business partners more than 10 years ago, are now outdated.
“All the employers are saying we need people who have these modern computerized milling skills,” he said.
Hopper said other priorities for investment at the college include its early childhood development, nursing and electrical line worker programs. Most of the programs that would be helped are conducted on the college’s main campus, but Hopper said the childhood development program will be moved onto the college’s new Alfond campus.
The 600-acre campus, funded by a $10.85 million grant from the Harold Alfond Foundation, was purchased from Good Will-Hinckley on U.S. Route 201. Good Will-Hinckley, a residential school founded in 1889, closed in 2009 and re-opened as the Maine Academy of Natural Sciences in September 2011.
Hopper said the bonds proposal is not a partisan issue.
“It has nothing to do with politics,” he said. “It has everything to do with getting people trained and getting them in the labor market, getting them the skills that are needed.”
Scott Knapp, president of Central Maine Community College, said the state’s college system has come under increased pressure since the Legislature turned Maine’s technical schools into community colleges 10 years ago.
“During that 10-year period, enrollment at Maine’s community colleges has almost doubled,” Knapp said. “It has doubled in a physical plant that is essentially the same size.”
The system can’t continue to take in growing numbers of students, he said.
“We are coming to the end of the rope,” Knapp said.
The bond proposal would allow the system to open new facilities that would allow “at least 2,400” more students to be served by the system at a time, he said.
Dana Connors, of the Maine Chamber of Commerce, said the business community supports the bill, which also would spend $100 million on transportation such as roads, bridges and working waterfronts.
Alfond said Republican leaders wanted to attend the event but were not able to do so because of scheduling conflicts. Republican party Chairman Rick Bennett and the Maine House Republicans office did not return messages left for this story before deadline.
During today’s special session, legislators also will address the situation at Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta, which could lose its certification and federal funding because it is not authorized to manage patients who exhibit criminal behaviors.
Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287