Tech center can't replace retired teacher

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Loss of industrial maintenance instructor could affect economic development

By Stephen Lega

The Marion County Area Technical Center lost its industrial maintenance instructor to retirement at the end of December. Since school has resumed, students who were in the program have been moved to other programs, and local business leaders are concerned about the impact it could have on the community.

"We're hoping to get another instructor, but our hands are tied," Marion County ATC Principal Tony Webb said.

Doug Shive retired at the end of December, but the Marion County ATC is not allowed to hire a replacement at this time. The Marion County ATC and several tech centers throughout the state are part of the Kentucky Cabinet for Workforce Development Cabinet, which is under a hiring freeze due to ongoing state budget issues.

"It wasn't only us," Webb said. "There were nine other positions across the state. They put a hold on every position."

Webb estimated that 60 or 70 students were enrolled in the industrial maintenance program. Instructors in other programs are helping wrap up current classes for Marion County students this month, and for Washington County students by February. (The reason for the difference is because Marion County High School is on a semester system, while Washington County High School is using trimesters.)

Those students will be moved to other programs for the remainder of the school year.

Webb said he is holding out hope that the tech center will be able to hire a new industrial maintenance instructor in the fall, but that has not yet been determined.

"That puts us in a tough spot, too," he said.

At this point, Webb said the school is uncertain whether it should allow students to sign-up for the program for the 2012-13 academic year. If they offer the program, but do not receive funding for an instructor, they will have to reassign students to other programs. If they don't offer it and then do receive funding, they may not have any students to take the classes.

Webb said he does not think many people realize the instructors at the tech center are considered state employees. They were affected by issues like state-mandated furlough days as a cost-saving measure, unlike local educators, who are employees of the local school district.

Local industries are also concerned about the program, according to Marion County Economic Development Director Tom Lund. He said factory officials have told him the industrial maintenance is an essential component of their operations.

"I've had factories tell me, 'We need maintenance people. If we could find maintenance people, we could expand," he said.

Lund works closely with the Marion County Industrial Foundation, which has made improving technical education one of its priorities.

"It's a critical part of our training," he said.

He pointed out that local industries have donated a lot of equipment to the school, but the state has not given the tech center much flexibility with regard to its curriculum.

"It's not based on community needs," Lund said. "It's not based on industry needs."

Local industrial foundation board members discussed this at their Jan. 6 retreat meeting, and they are hoping to find a way to improve the situation. The foundation board would like to see if the Marion County ATC can be moved from under the authority of the Cabinet for Workforce Development to the Kentucky Department of Education.

"The need has been there for some time," Lund said. "We've gotten minimal cooperation out of the state as far as our technical school is concerned."

Marion County Superintendent Chuck Hamilton said he's heard these issues raised for years about technical education. Hamilton added that if budgetary constraints are affecting the center now, that wouldn't change if it was moved to the department of education, a move that would require more from the local board of education.

"Can the district afford to just take responsibility for the school? The answer is no," he said.

Now, Marion County Public Schools own the tech center building, and the district is responsible for the maintenance of the building. Hamilton estimated the district would incur $1 million to $1.2 million in additional expenses to run the school. This includes salaries and benefits for the instructors and maintenance of the various equipment used by the technical programs.

"That requires a different kind of upkeep," he said.

The only way Hamilton could see Marion County schools taking on responsibility for the programs at the tech center would be if the state funding the school now receives was moved as well. And he thinks that would require action by the state legislature.

In the meantime, Lund said the industrial foundation will do what it can to improve the situation at the tech center.

"It's a monster," he said. "We need to corral it."