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Published August 18, 2004 at 7:21 p.m.

  • Andy Duback

Last March, it seemed clear: High school students in Northwest Vermont needed a regional academy to better prepare them for high-paying, high-skill technical careers. Educators, business leaders and taxpayers had bought into the notion, and on Town Meeting Day about 60 percent of voters in 25 towns in Chittenden, Franklin and Grand Isle counties agreed to let planning for the new facility continue.

Now, however, with a vote on final approval looming in November, that consensus is starting to fray. Growing skepticism and outright opposition have planners rethinking their proposal, and prospects for what would be the most expensive high school ever built in Vermont may be dimming.

Sponsors of the proposed Regional Technical Academy (RTA) remain firmly in favor of the plan. They point to a 2001 study by Vermont state economist Jeffrey Carr that identified a growing shortage of technical workers in the Burlington area. This lack, employers complain, has required them to foot the cost of expensive, out-of-state recruitment efforts to fill local job openings.

RTA supporters cite these missed opportunities as proof that existing technical-education programs aren't equipping enough students with the skills that tomorrow's jobs demand. Proponents add that the career academy model is associated nationally with lower dropout rates and higher job placements for students embarking on technical careers. The RTA would thus serve as "the cornerstone of a long-range workforce development plan in our region," academy sponsors say.

Technical-education centers adjacent to Burlington and Essex high schools currently offer a wide range of vocational courses. Eleventh- and 12th-graders throughout the area can enroll in either the half-day program at the Burlington Technical Center or the full-day schedule at the Center for Technology, Essex. But academy proponents point out that both these facilities are about 30 years old and don't always provide the most up-to-date instruction.

Overcrowding is also a problem, especially at Essex. There, 409 students are enrolled for classes that start next week. That's about 50 more than the facility was designed to accommodate, according to director Kathy Finck. High demand has forced her center to rent additional space and to house some of its services in temporary trailers. Some students eat lunch on the floor of a corridor, Finck says.

Planned construction of the 300,000-square-foot Regional Technical Academy at a nearby site would ease congestion not only for vocational students but for all those attending Essex High. The growing suburban town sends more than 1600 students to the local high school -- about 300 more than it was intended to handle. If voters give approval to the RTA, the 40,000-square-foot Essex tech center would be shut down and the building would almost certainly become available to Essex High School.

Some critics suggest that the high school's need for additional space is an important but generally unacknowledged force behind the RTA proposal. They argue that it would be more efficient to simply expand the high school than to build a whole new technical center.

Political and financial factors, meanwhile, have tempered RTA sponsors' ambitions. When planning began in 1998, the academy was envisioned as a full four-year high school. But the Vermont Legislature made clear it would provide funding for only a two-year RTA. And lawmakers have yet to approve of the academy conferring its own diplomas.

Even some RTA supporters view that as a major potential shortcoming likely to discourage a significant number of high school juniors and seniors from enrolling in the full-day academy. Unless the Legislature acts, RTA students would receive diplomas from their "sending schools," even though they would no longer attend classes there.

It is also not clear whether the academy will be able to offer advanced-placement courses for students hoping to attend prestigious colleges. And close to half the students currently enrolled at the Burlington and Essex centers do want to attend four-year colleges, according to the centers' directors.

In addition, the academy wouldn't field its own athletic teams or offer other extracurriculars, so students who wanted to play sports or participate in clubs would have to drive or be bussed to their sending schools at day's end. "That wouldn't be in the interest of the school climate at the RTA," notes Colchester Superintendent Armando Vilaseca, who counts himself among the academy's potential supporters.

"Would your kid want to go to a school that doesn't have a soccer team, a basketball team or a baseball team?" asks Joe Mackey, who taught at the Essex and Burlington tech centers for 30 years.

Worried about how voters might react to the academy's price tag, planners recently downsized their proposal. The original idea was to house the RTA in two buildings -- the former Tensolite and Champion Jogbra facilities on New England Drive in Essex. Renovating those sites would have cost an estimated $58 million. The revised proposal involves only the Jogbra building, which would be refitted and expanded at a projected price of almost $45 million. The single-building choice meant abandoning a plan for an on-site partnership with the Vermont State College system, which was to have operated out of the Tensolite plant.

All these disincentives are fueling doubts about RTA sponsors' initial and maximum enrollment projections. Varied sources have given different numbers at different times during the planning process. Enrollment estimates range from 843 students (a projection for fiscal year 2005 included in a 2002 consultants' study), to 800 (an estimate in a 2003 report by the RTA planning committee), to 960 (a figure recently cited on the academy's website). Sponsors have also said they envision an eventual enrollment of 1200 or 1250 students.

Key RTA backers won't offer specific predictions about how many students will attend the RTA in September 2005 -- its projected opening date, pending voter approval in November. "Our data show we will have good enrollment numbers, but I'm not sure what the first year will equal," says RTA project manager Melissa Hersh, who also directs the education and training division of the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce.

State education officials decided this week that academy sponsors' projections for maximum enrollment are too high. Capacity has now been set at 947 students. This official forecast could prove crucial to the RTA's fate because the estimated cost of establishing and operating the facility will be based how many students it is expected to serve. State officials are due to make those determinations later this week.

Mark Aliquo, director of the Burlington Tech Center, meanwhile estimates that about half of his 360 students would not chose to travel to the RTA's proposed site in Essex. Aliquo notes that Burlington high schoolers enrolled in his facility can simply walk down a hallway to reach their academic classes at BHS.

Andy Demar is among the students taking classes at Burlington Tech who would be reluctant to enroll in the RTA. Demar, a senior at South Burlington High School, says he would not want to leave behind his classmates for the sake of attending the new academy full-time. He says the classes in automotive technology he now takes at Burlington are "really good."

If almost all students enrolled at the Essex center opt to attend the RTA -- as Finck predicts they will -- and if Aliquo's forecast is accurate, initial enrollment at the RTA might be as low as 580 students.

Inability to demonstrate unmet demand for technical education has cast doubts on the central premise of the RTA project, according to Mount Mansfield Union High School principal Bob Stevens. "The academy design perpetuates the myth that if you build it, they will come," he wrote last year in a position paper criticizing the RTA proposal.

Mount Mansfield is one of nine high schools within the academy's envisioned service area. According to State Rep. George Cross, a Winooski Democrat and a leading opponent of the RTA, none of those principals, or their school boards, have formally endorsed the RTA. And Stevens isn't the only one openly voicing opposition to it.

Some voters in November may be influenced by the scant support for the RTA among educators. But the projected cost of the academy -- and what that means for local property tax bills -- will probably be the decisive factor.

The academy's website (www.techedworks.org) puts the projected per pupil cost at $13,256 for fiscal 2004. Nearly $8000 of that would be covered by the state, according to the RTA sponsors' calculations. The balance -- a local per pupil tuition assessment of $3715 and capital carrying costs of $1448 -- would have to be paid through the education tax in the 25 towns within the RTA's district.

Moe Germain, the RTA board's budget specialist, suggests this would raise the average homestead tax by 3 or 4 cents, equivalent to a $60 to $80 increase per year on a primary residence valued at $200,000. That's a relatively small price to pay for "a world-class facility," Germain suggests.

The cost of the project to taxpayers would presumably be reduced if the region's business community, which strongly favors the RTA, were to help raise funds for the academy. Project manager Hersh says business leaders have had "some quiet discussions about raising financial resources to help the RTA with its startup and ongoing operations." She emphasized, however, that no specific commitments have been made.

Some critics have suggested that taxpayers are, in fact, being asked to fund a public school that would primarily serve private interests. "The RTA will cost additional new money and will not improve student access nor assist in the introduction of technical education to more students," Mount Mansfield principal Stevens argued in his position paper. "One could then ask if public tax dollars are being spent to subsidize business needs."

Administrators at a few local high schools worry that the RTA would effectively drain their own budgets. Scott Lang, principal of BFA-Fairfax, has warned that his school could suffer a 20 percent cut in resources if a sizable share of its students transfer to the RTA. About 50 BFA-Fairfax students, or 15 percent of the school's total enrollment, currently take courses at either the Burlington or Essex tech centers, Lang says. If the same number of students enroll in the Regional Technical Academy, BFA-Fairfax would see its budget shrink by about $1.5 million, Lang predicts. "It would be devastating for this school," he says.

Lang contends that a single regional facility would have the perverse effect of foreclosing tech-ed options for some students. "If we send all our tech programming to the Regional Technical Academy," he says, "we're giving access to more kids but we're reducing access to ones who aren't interested in going full-time for two years. When kids see tech ed taking place in their own schools, they think it's something they may want to look into."

The head of the Burlington Technical Center also expresses doubt that the RTA would improve the quality of vocational education. "The vision we started out with was pretty exciting," says director Aliquo. "Now it's been tempered by the practicalities of finance and the political process. I think the current system is actually a good one, and in the proposal as we see it now, I'm not sure the system would be better."

RTA opponents suggest that technical education in the region could be improved at a lower cost by upgrading the vocational programs already offered at local high schools and perhaps renovating the Burlington and Essex centers.

To enhance students' access to technical courses, "You should bring the programs to where the kids are," argues Rep. Cross. "There's a need to offer good tech courses at every high school in the area."

The debate in Vermont is occurring against a backdrop of declining federal support for vocational education across the country. Throughout the 1980s and '90s, tech programs were de-emphasized in many school districts as attention was focused on improving high school students' academic performance.

A few local critics base their opposition to the RTA partly on the view that a high school education should be heavily academic. Among those is Robert Low, a professor and former provost at the University of Vermont who also serves on the Chittenden East Supervisory Union school board. "If you overeducate somebody to make a certain kind of widget while in high school, you've done no service to that person when the widget becomes obsolete," Low reasons. "The most important thing for a high school student is to get a general education background. It's an essential underpinning. You can get a good technical education after leaving high school."

But a large share of Ameri-can secondary students continue to take some sort of vocational courses, and about one-quarter concentrate on a specific career field during their high school years, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Many vocational programs have also recently enhanced their academic content, bolstering the image of technical education.

RTA backers insist that the academy would provide a first-rate academic program even as it focuses on equipping students with job skills. "The concept is to integrate technical education with full academic requirements," says RTA school board chairman Jim Hester, a vice-president of MVP Health Care. "Our courses are designed to meet college-prep standards."

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