Sunday, December 8, 2013
BY NOEL K. GALLAGHER
BY NOEL K. GALLAGHER
Portland Press Herald
A year after voters barely turned away a catch-all higher education bond, the state's higher education institutions are making highly targeted pitches on three separate bond measures on the Nov. 5 ballot, spelling out just how taxpayer money would be spent at each institution.
Two bonds, each totaling $15.5 million, would mostly pay for renovations or new construction of science, technology, engineering and math buildings at every campus of the University of Maine and Maine Community College systems. Education officials are providing details on just what projects would be funded, right down to buying microscopes for UMaine Presque Isle and new doors at Kennebec Valley Community College.
A third bond, for $4.5 million, would help pay for a new $14 million science building at Maine Maritime Academy in Castine.
Last year, the Legislature put forward a single $11.3 million bond for all three institutions, which failed, 350,590 votes to 334,580. Education leaders said they asked the Legislature to break up the requests this year.
"When you put several organizations together, it really dilutes the message so it gets confusing for the public," said Maine Community College System President John Fitzsimmons.
University of Maine System Chancellor James Page agreed that it was helpful to be able to make a specific case for the system's needs. For the UMaine System, there is a pressing need to upgrade aging infrastructure, targeting high-demand academic programs in the STEM fields. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
"I look at this primarily as a jobs bond," Page said. "(The funds) are rehabilitating STEM labs, and these are jobs that Maine has and needs. Our engineering graduates are being snapped up."
The last successful statewide higher education bond measure was in 2010. It provided $15.5 million to be shared by all three institutions to make energy efficiency upgrades.
Page said that even if the $15.5 million bond passes, it is "frankly a drop in the bucket" to catch up on deferred maintenance on the University of Maine System's campuses. The system has 9 million square feet of facility space, and 36 percent of it is more than 50 years old.
These particular projects, however, are meant to target facilities used for high-growth academic programs in STEM fields. Upgrading these programs is critical to staying competitive, since would-be students visiting the campuses need to see that the school is taking these disciplines seriously, Page said. Having modern, well-equipped lab space is a recruitment and retention tool, in addition to being the best learning environment.
"People have choices," Page said. "When they go and visit, or go online or call friends at the school, they see these facilities."
Last year, the UMaine System enrolled about 31,000 students, and the campuses are all pushing to increase enrollment as state funding stays flat and expenses rise. Overall, enrollment has been on a decline, and officials say improving facilities will help attract and keep students, adding to the overall health of the system.
The UMaine System bond, Question 2, would pay for the following projects:
* $5.5 million, Orono campus, to invest in renovations, capital improvements and equipment in classrooms and laboratories to support science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines.
* $1.2 million, Augusta and Bangor campuses, to renovate and upgrade science and nursing laboratories.
* $1.2 million, Farmington campus, to renovate the science facilities in Preble Hall and Ricker Hall, including approximately four laboratories.
* $1.2 million, Fort Kent campus, to renovate and expand the nursing laboratory and to support geographic information system technology for applications in the forestry industry.
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