By Lisa Hagen
BOSTON -- Christopher Symonds, a senior pursuing culinary arts, said that most other 17-year-olds don't get the type of hands-on education and opportunities he received at Minuteman High School in Lexington.
"When we leave, we are certified in a field that we have a passion for," said Symonds. "This shows you that this is a valid type of learning that needs to be recognized."
Testifying Thursday before the Legislature's Joint Committee on Education, Symonds stressed the need for better vocational-technical school funding, noting that Minuteman's facilities are falling apart and that student learning is inhibited by a lack of resources.
Symonds was among a parade of advocates from regional schools who testified at in support of a bill that would boost the state's reimbursement rate for capital projects for regional schools and vocational technical schools.
The amount of state funding for school projects is determined by a formula that considers a community's income and property values among other things. The most a school or regional district can receive is 80 percent of the cost, but most schools receive a lesser percentage based on the formula.
Under the bill filed by state Sen. Kenneth Donnelly, D-Arlington, the formula would be boosted for regional schools by 10 percent and 20 percent for regional vo-tech schools.
Donnelly, who was unable to attend the hearing, said in a phone interview that additional state funding would help reduce local costs for school renovation projects.
"It is so important to make sure we prepare all of our students for the future," he said. "We are looking at this as a constant investment and the whole field has changed dramatically, so we need to keep up-to-date with the equipment needed."
With schools like Minuteman, all cities and towns in the district must now unanimously approve a project regardless of how many students they send. Donnelly said students outside the district can attend these schools, but they are not paying for any of the costs.
"A key part of this is you cannot afford infrastructure and capital costs to build machine shops (for every vo-tech schools) since it is very expensive equipment," Donnelly said. "It makes sense to do it regionally and we need to make sure we have extra funding from our state."
Steven Sharek, superintendent of Montachusett Regional Vocational Technical School in Fitchburg, said his school, which has a rate between 57 percent and 60 percent, said he finds it difficult to get approval from all communities for essential upgrades to improve the aging schools.
"By adding additional funds, it makes it more likely for projects that are needed to upgrade schools and see that these come to fruition," Sharek said. "Our schools look really good, but that's because our students and staff keep them up."
Donnelly filed the bill on behalf of Charles Lyons, superintendent of Shawsheen Valley Technical High School in Billerica. Lyons said that although his school is in "great shape" with the current reimbursement rate at 52 percent, this bill could help the state's 26 aged regional vo-tech school districts that were constructed with 85 percent state aid at the time.
Lyons also hopes the bill will encourage consolidation of other school systems that initially built schools for a larger student population. Under the bill, those communities could join together to build regional high schools, saving some of the cost through the additional reimbursement rate.
"This just makes long-term economic sense to rebuild these institutions that are all 40 and 45 years old," Lyons said. "It also incentivizes behavior at a local level and encourages regionalization both for academic and vo-tech districts."
George Garabedian, school business administrator at the Greater Lowell Technical High School in Tyngsboro, said that although the school's rate is close to the cap at 76.8 percent, the additional reimbursement could still make projects more attractive and affordable.
Sen. Eileen Donoghue, D-Lowell, a co-sponsor of Donnelly's bill, said it could benefit schools such as North Middlesex Regional High School that have a rate much lower than 80 percent, but need funds to replace the high school.
"It is a costly project for them, so it can benefit the towns there and it can provide the students with the facilities that are necessary," Donoghue said in a phone interview.
Sen. James Eldridge, D-Acton, urged the committee to support better state funding for all regional schools. Eldridge said his Senate district has 14 communities served by three separate regional vocational schools.
"In the 10 years I've been a legislator, I've never gotten more advocacy from school committee members of the vocational schools and parents than I have this year," Eldridge said. "So I've been really hopeful this session that we can address this issue."