Voters will decide in November on two higher education bonds aimed at helping the state’s public two- and four-year colleges ramp up programs to ease Maine’s workforce shortages – particularly in the health care field – and put a dent in deferred maintenance of aging campus buildings.
Question 4 ask voters whether to approve a $49 million bond for the University of Maine System, and Question 5 asks whether to approve a $15 million bond for the Maine Community College System.
Both bonds require the systems to match the amount of the bond in private or public funds. The last time voters approved infrastructure bonds for the two systems was in November 2013, for $15.5 million each.
Both bonds would provide funding for upgrading infrastructure – such as energy efficiencies or improving information technology capacity – and paying for either expanding or creating academic programs, especially those aimed at the state’s workforce needs.
Maine is the oldest state in the nation, and several major industries are facing acute shortages as more workers retire.
Maine is projected to have more than 3,000 nursing vacancies by 2025, and the current shortfall is already costing medical institutions millions of dollars in overtime and temporary worker pay. Short-staffing also makes a challenging job even more difficult for medical professionals as they struggle to maintain quality patient care inside organizations where multiple unfilled positions have become the norm.
“There are no silver-bullet solutions to Maine’s very serious workforce and demographic challenges,” university system Chancellor James H. Page said about the need for the bond. “We do not have the time or resources for luxuries. That is why proposed investments in Question 4, like the $12 million to help double nursing enrollment, are student-centered and career-focused.”
QUESTION 4 SPENDING PLAN
If approved, $12 million of the Question 4 bond money would go directly to expanding the nursing programs at several campuses, said university system spokesman Dan Demeritt.
That includes building a facility for the new nursing program at Presque Isle – currently housed in temporary buildings – and buying simulation machines for students to work on at the University of Southern Maine campus.
In September, the university system announced a five-year initiative to tackle the nursing shortage, with initiatives to expand nursing programs to rural areas, help the neediest students pay for their education, and take other steps to swell the ranks of graduating nurses.
The bond money, spread out among the seven campuses, would assist in those efforts, Demeritt said.
The University of Southern Maine, which would get $26 million of the Question 4 bond money, would use some of it to create a new engineering lab, retrofit computer labs and pay for a new career center that would include an “employment hub” where employers are paired with students for internships, jobs or research help. USM plans to double its engineering enrollment from 250 students to 500 students.
“Maine businesses expect and need the university system to lead the state’s workforce development efforts. Our public universities have embraced this challenge and are working more closely than ever with businesses and each other to provide solutions,” said Ed Cervone, director of Educate Maine, a business-led workforce development effort.
Educate Maine and the Maine State Chamber of Commerce have endorsed Question 4.
USM President Glenn Cummings has described the potential bond money as “transformational” for the campus. In addition to expanding USM’s existing mechanical and electrical engineering programs, it would support the addition of new programs in the Portland region, including computer engineering, industrial engineering, and engineering science.
QUESTION 5 SPENDING PLAN
At the community colleges, the bond money would also be split between upgrading infrastructure and expanding programs, spokeswoman Helen Pelletier said.
At Kennebec Valley Community College, for example, the existing industrial trade center is no longer adequate for the welding, precision mechanics, HVAC and line worker tech programs it already houses.
“They are running that building 24-7 to meet the need, and they don’t have the space to expand to serve the students,” Pelletier said. The bond money would be used to move the utility line worker tech program to a new building and free up space to expand the other industrial trade programs.
At Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle, some of the money would be used to expand the diesel hydraulics program laboratory.
Infrastructure demands range from expanding the colleges’ wireless networks in classrooms, dorms and labs to converting heating systems at Eastern Maine Community College to natural gas.
The university system’s aging facilities are a significant issue. At this point, half of the system’s space is over 50 years old, and the cost of deferred maintenance is about $1 billion, Demeritt said. Currently, the university system budgets about $18 million annually for capital facilities work.
The bond money that would be put toward upgrading facilities is expected to result in lower repair and operating expenses at both systems, by reducing energy costs. The USM budget is $552 million.
In the Maine Community College System, deferred maintenance across the seven campuses is $60 million, Pelletier said. The system’s annual budget is $170 million.
CAMPAIGNING FOR PASSAGE
The two institutions are campaigning for the bonds. Both the university system and MCCS have long-standing political action committees that pay for mailers, ads, lawn signs and other materials backing the bond measures.
This year, the university’s PAC, the Maine Economic Growth Coalition, has spent $140,000 on television ads, $2,000 on campaign signs and $6,000 on polling. The PAC raised more than $100,000 from the foundations associated with each campus, and individual and industry donations of over $3,000 from banks, construction companies, architects and building engineers.
The PAC of MCCS, Citizens for Higher Education, raised $38,000 mostly from student activity funds at the Central Maine, Eastern Maine and York County campuses, and spent $5,000 on media consulting and $3,000 on lawn signs.