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(Host) On Tuesday, voters in 25 communities in Chittenden, Franklin and Grand Isle counties will decide whether to build a new 44 million dollar technical academy for high school students.

In recent months, the proposal has been the source of heated debate over the future of the region’s technical education. On Tuesday, voters in 25 communities in Chittenden, Franklin and Grand Isle counties will decide whether to build a new 44 million dollar technical academy for high school students. In recent months, the proposal has been the source of heated debate over the future of the region’s technical education.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Zind) There is agreement on one thing: The need to expand and improve technical education for students in northwestern Vermont. But that’s where the agreement ends.

(Zind) Bob Church is an automotive sciences and technology instructor at the Burlington High School Technical Center. When the idea for a new regional tech academy was first proposed more than six years ago Church says he was excited. Now he’s against it.

(Church)”It’s been scaled back, scaled back, scaled back so that now I don’t see the advantage for kids.”

(Zind) Church has two concerns: He’s afraid the new Regional Technical Academy won’t significantly improve technical education. And he thinks it’s too expensive for taxpayers and school districts.

The new facility would take the place of two existing technical centers: the one in Burlington and the Center for Technology which is part of the Essex school system.

Originally it was to start as a self-contained four-year high school. It would offer degrees in a wide rage of technical programs. It would also include academics and extracurricular activities like sports.

What’s being presented to voters on Tuesday is a two-year, non-degree program with no academic or extracurricular programs.

Opponents say because plans for the project have changed there are too many unanswered questions.

That’s a charge that bothers Jim Hester. Hester is President of the Regional Technical Academy Board. He says there have been changes, but that’s because planners have been responsive to community concerns.

(Hester) “We’re getting caught in a Catch-22 because some people say, ‘it’s a moving target – you said this two years ago and now you’ve changed it.’ We’re changing it based on a process of feedback and trying to come up with the best possible proposal.”

(Zind) Hester says the two-year academy is a starting point. The four-year diploma granting technical academy is still the ultimate goal.

(Hester) “What we’ve had to do is temper that ideal with the pragmatics of ‘how do you move forward from where we are today’.”

(Zind) The academy would be built at the site of the former Jogbra manufacturing plant in Essex. Hester says the location will accommodate the four-year high school planners envision. Opponents argue that the site isn’t adequate. Colchester school board chair Ren Niquette says she doesn’t like the site. But on balance, she likes the proposal.

(Niquette) “We want to give our students the opportunity to have a state of the art technical education. We believe strongly in the concept of the Regional Technical Academy.”

(Zind) Niquette says with the new academy, each sending school district will be represented on the academy board. They don’t have a role in governance of the existing tech centers.

Voters in each town will be also be able to vote on the budget.

Another issue is expense. The $44 million cost of construction will come out of the state’s Capitol Construction budget. Some area educators are worried that such a large outlay will jeopardize future school projects.

Scott Lang is Principal of Bellows Free Academy in Fairfax.

((Lang) “I believe that the impact that it has on all Vermont schools is serious business. It will take the state easily twenty years to pay that amount of money back and how many school projects are going to get put on hold?”

(Zind) The Technical Academy’s Jim Hester says in the past the state has funded large projects without adversely affecting other schools.

There is an added cost issue for the smaller schools like Bellows Free Academy. They stand to lose a proportionately substantial amount of state tuition money if their students attend the new academy.

There’s also the cost to local taxpayers. Tech programs are more expensive than academic programs. Some of the difference will have to be raised through property taxes locally. Originally, technical academy planners wanted the money to come from a local sales tax – but the legislature rejected the idea.

Earlier plans also included money from local businesses. That’s missing from the proposal before voters Tuesday. But Jim Hester says business support will come.

(Hester) “We’ve had a lot of interest from the business community in terms of making donations and equipment. The nature of fundraising is you can’t really interest people in making a definite commitment until they know you’re going to have a school.”

(Zind) Bob Companion works at the Burlington High School Technical Center. Companion teaches auto body repair. He says a full-time academy will provide students with up-to-date technology and time to learn their trades. Companion says tech academy graduates will get better jobs when they leave school.

(Companion) “If we don’t take advantage of this opportunity, we’re going to squander our only chance to improve these vocational training facilities that we have in Chittenden County.”

(Zind) Many opponents of the academy plan say they like the idea of a four-year fully contained technical high school. But they say the academy falls far short of that. Dave Ginter teaches computer systems at the Center for Technology in Essex.

(Ginter) “If some town school board were to propose building a new high school in an abandoned factory building in an old industrial park with no athletic facilities, no fine arts facilities and no possibilities for expansion they would be laughed out of town.”

(Zind) Ginter says the money for the academy would be better spent expanding existing technical centers which are already connected to schools which already offer athletics, arts and academics.

But Jim Hester of the Regional Technical Academy board says his group is putting the best possible plan before voters on Tuesday. For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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