Clarence Fanto: Aid for post-secondary vocational education is worth a look

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LENOX — Ever had trouble hiring a plumber, electrician, a heating or air conditioning tech, roofer or other tradespeople? I have, and so have most people I know. That's especially true between April and November when our region's population swells with seasonal residents.

Following consultations with school officials, building trades leaders and others interested in the idea, two South County town leaders have a plan to address that. The regional compact that would fund full scholarships for high school grads interested in vocational careers to attend institutions such as Springfield Technical Community College or Hudson Valley Community College in Troy, N.Y.

The program would not only cover the growing shortage of skilled tradespeople. It would also send an important message to high school students not bound for college that communities are keen on committing resources to meet their needs and interests. That's considered crucial in a section of Berkshire County that emphasizes academic achievement and college admission.

The high schools serving the region — Lenox, Lee, Monument Mountain and Mount Everett — are able to provide only limited vocational education to their students.

As a result, a few students from these schools attend Taconic High in Pittsfield, which has a robust multidisciplinary vocational program, and each town — Great Barrington, Lee, Lenox, Stockbridge and Sheffield — must fund the costs out of their own budgets.

The proposal for post-secondary vocational training scholarships had a soft opening recently, as Lee-Lenox Chief Administrative Officer Christopher Ketchen rolled out the concept for the Lenox Select Board and the Finance Committee. Lenox school district leaders also presented the idea to the School Committee in connection with a budget set-aside of $53,542 for the 2020-21 fiscal year.

"This is a program that is in the early stages of development by the administrations in the five towns," Ketchen told me. "Details are only beginning to take shape. However, budgets in two of the five towns were due at the beginning of January, so Great Barrington and Lenox needed to include placeholders in their budgets now." Ketchen pointed out that the budget process in other towns remains ongoing.

The basic concept involves financial support for trades or technical certifications after students have completed a high school education or equivalent, according to Ketchen. If financial support is to be awarded in the spring of 2021, those resources need to be appropriated at town meetings this year, when voters approve municipal spending for the coming fiscal year starting July 1.

Great Barrington Town Manager Mark Pruhenski, a co-organizer, explained that the trust fund scholarship program for the town's Select Board and Finance Committee, laying the groundwork for the plan. It would cover $10,000 per student, not only for tuition but also transportation, textbooks and student health insurance for students who need it., Ketchen noted.

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"Chris approached me about the idea," Pruhenski said, "I was eager to jump aboard. It seems like a no-brainer. It's a real out of the box approach to addressing a problem we have in South County, a shortage of skilled building trades professionals."

"It makes sense in so many ways," he told me. "For a minimal investment we send a clear message to youth, that we value the trades, there's an abundance of well-respected and well-paid jobs available."

Also on board are Stockbridge Interim Town Administrator Mark Webber and Sheffield Town Administrator Rhonda LaBombard.

Students accepting the scholarship would agree to return to a South County town after college for two or three years, Pruhenski noted. "There has to be some benefit to the towns to offset the contributions to the fund.

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The number of high school grads who could seek the scholarships depends on buy-in from all five towns to support scholarships for 18 students. Ideally, if all 16 towns south of Pittsfield participate in creating a scholarship fund of $400,000, 40 students could be eligible for the financial aid.

It's not yet clear how applicants for the financial aid would be selected.

The assessment for Great Barrington would be $65,000. If Lee participates in the plan, the town would kick in $40,235, while Stockbridge could contribute $38,199 and Sheffield, $25,637. The formula for the contributions was based on each town's property valuation, making the tax impact equal for all the communities.

As word of this plan, still in its early stages, gets around, the reaction has been generally favorable.

"It's a great idea, very visionary," said Jeromy Richardson, CEO of EDM Services, the engineering, architectural and design firm based in Pittsfield.

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"The concept makes a whole lot of sense," he told me. "We've been on a retreat trying to develop a strategic plan for the company. Most of us agree that what's preventing future growth is finding a good, qualified young staff. There's such a gap in that, not only in our industry."

Finding young talent is one of the biggest problems Richardson encounters when working with contractors and tradespeople.

"The majority of people are older, and there's no succession plan," he said. "I'm convinced that if there's a way to make this scholarship program successful, many of the students who come out of it can write their own ticket. Their career path will be set."

However, Andrea Wadsworth, of Lee, who's a town meeting representative and also chairs the School Committee, questioned the fairness of using taxpayer dollars to fund scholarships for a specific group of students, arguing that the local and regional school districts should be meeting the needs of vocational students.

"We should be addressing these interests while the students are in our schools, not after," she told me. "Are we going to establish a post-secondary scholarship fund for students who want to go to business school, nursing school, or for educators?"

"The idea is noble and worthwhile but it requires more voices at the table for a full understanding of how this money will be spent and who has oversight," said Wadsworth, who is the assistant superintendent of the Mount Greylock Regional School District in Williamstown.

It strikes me that the concept seems highly promising. And the burden on taxpayers would be light as a feather. If all 16 South County towns join the program, taxpayers would see an impact of only 4 cents on each town's tax rate.

The goal is easy to grasp: We value students bound for vocational training as much as those headed for academia, and we recognize the need to invest in the next generation of skilled tradespeople.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.


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