Back in the day, they called it vocational education or skilled trades training. Today, we call it CTE. And it’s never been more essential to the future of the students it serves, the communities it builds and the employers it stocks, right here in central Michigan.
A generation ago, our local high schools in Clare, Beaverton, Harrison, Gladwin and Farwell offered a variety of instruction in areas like wood shop, drafting, business, home economics and many more. For reasons that are painfully obvious, local school districts are, for the most part, unable to provide classes like those today.
That’s the bad news; here’s the good news. For many years, the Clare-Gladwin Regional Education Service District has pooled resources and collaborated with those districts to do an admirable job filling the void in local vocational education.
The problem is paying for it. That’s the issue before voters in Clare and Gladwin Counties on May 3 - the RESD’s one-mill, ten-year proposal is the only issue on the ballot, in fact. For those of us who believe so fiercely in CTE and its enduring impact on local students, communities and workplaces, it’s imperative that voters have a clear understanding of exactly what’s at stake.
With that in mind, here are some frequently-asked questions to help ensure informed decisions on Election Day.
What does CTE stand for and who does it serve? Career and Technical Education - or CTE - used to be known as vocational training or skilled trades education. In the past eight years, 2,720 juniors and seniors from high schools in Harrison, Gladwin, Clare, Farwell and Beaverton have received valuable college and career preparation training through CTE - training that probably wouldn’t have been obtainable without CTE.
When I was in school, each high school had its own shop class, drafting class, business class, etc. Why isn’t that possible now? Some larger high schools still maintain a few classes like those named above. But a multitude of factors, including declining enrollment, demanding graduation requirements and increasing costs for specialized equipment and technology has made offering vocational education nearly impossible for local high schools.
What programs does CTE currently offer? Construction Trades, Culinary Arts, Criminal Justice, Automotive Technology, Digital Media, Health Occupations and Education Occupations. Before budget concerns forced their suspension, we also offered a host of in-demand programs, including Welding, Graphic Design, Pre-Engineering, ROTC and others. Additionally, there is a high demand for courses in areas like Agri-Science and Manufacturing. But we simply can’t offer additional programs without additional resources.
If the RESD has been able to financially sustain the CTE programs in the past, why can’t it now? Because costs continue to rise and revenues continue to stay flat, at best. In 2015, the CGRESD, affirming its belief in the importance of vocational education, invested an unprecedented amount of its general fund to maintain a reduced slate of CTE programs. While stakeholders throughout the community continue to tout the crucial role CTE plays for local students, the current funding model has become dangerously unsustainable.
How do other communities pay for CTE for their kids, and how do we compare? The majority of CTE programs in Michigan are funded by dedicated taxpayer millage, including those around us. Bay-Arenac’s CTE program receives $6.3 million annually through its millage, as do programs in Gratiot-Isabella ($2.57 million), Mecosta-Osceola ($2.89 million) and Wexford-Missaukee ($4.5 million). Our kids in Clare and Gladwin Counties receive zero CTE millage funding, and while our instructors do an excellent job with the hand they’ve been dealt, those numbers represent a significant disadvantage for our kids, as well as for our local economy, which benefits greatly from the CTE program.
Why is Clare-Gladwin RESD proposing the millage for 10 years? The program is at a funding crossroads where it will either grow or shrink significantly, and the RESD will need to properly maneuver in either case. If the path is growth, in order to provide our local students with a CTE learning experience like their peers experience in Mt. Pleasant, Big Rapids, Cadillac and Bay City, there’s a lot of catching up that needs to be done. As a priority, our Construction Trades class needs a permanent home. All our classes are in desperate need of upgraded, modern equipment and technology so our students can compete with other CTE graduates in the region for good-paying jobs, and so they have the opportunity to learn the essential skills that local employers expect for entry-level jobs. In addition, we have heard for many years from local community members that we need to offer a Manufacturing class, as well as an Agricultural Science class. In both of those sectors, the people working locally are nearing retirement age, and they are worried that there aren’t enough young people with the necessary skills to take their place.
Can the millage money be spent on anything other than CTE expenses? No. State law requires that these millage funds are to be used specifically and solely for CTE-related programs.
What will happen if the millage doesn’t pass? Our CTE program will look very different. Over time, we’ve employed several strategies to cut expenses when revenues haven’t kept up, and every time, it’s resulted in fewer opportunities for students. We’ve also increased class sizes and eliminated funds for supplies, tools and equipment, technology, student field trips, student competitions and continuing education for teachers. It’s a tribute to our teaching staff that we’ve been able to offer quality instruction despite the mounting barriers they face. The millage request represents a chance to see what our kids AND our staff can do without their hands tied behind their backs; we believe the impact on our students, our schools, our communities and the local economy will be a profound game-changer in Clare and Gladwin Counties.
There’s so much more information I’d like to share. I urge you to visit www.CTEitsworking.com for a comprehensive look at the facts behind the program, lots more FAQs and, most importantly, the success of the students who have gone through CTE programs. And there are many. When you hear their stories - of how CTE gave them a chance to learn and excel in a way like no class ever had - I know you’ll understand why May 3 represents a critical moment for our kids, our schools and our communities. Please remember to vote, and please spread the word.
(Mrs. Presler is the Clare-Gladwin RESD Superintendent.)