WYE MILLS — The internal tug-of-war high school graduates face when deciding whether to take up a skilled trade or pursue education at an academic institution has long pulled capable hands from blue-collar employers on the Eastern Shore.
Business owners on the Shore have complained about being understaffed for lack of trained workers — and young adults have complained about being unemployed and in student loan debt. So where’s the disconnect?
A group of Queen Anne’s County commissioners, Maryland legislators, educators and workforce stakeholders have said “it’s time for a paradigm shift” in defining success in the eyes of younger generations.
They’re calling their plan to tug the Mid-Shore’s young adults back toward career training and education “Project Bright Future.”
The project aims to establish a regional Career and Technology Education Center that would provide skilled labor training to high school-age students and up from Queen Anne’s, Talbot, Dorchester, Caroline and Kent counties.
The training programs slated to be offered in the center include manufacturing, construction, computer science, mechanics and hospitality.
According to legislation that outlines plans for the project, the CTE Center would operate under Chesapeake College on the institution’s existing campus, with “no direct effect on local revenues and expenditures for public education” in the region.
But there has been some uncertainty surrounding the true cost of a project of this magnitude, and whether that undisclosed cost would fall quietly on the backs of Mid-Shore taxpayers after the project is already underway.
In March 2019, the bill, House Bill 513, passed unanimously in the Maryland House of Delegates. It then moved to the Senate, where it was read and slightly amended once, but never voted on, according to state records.
Del. Jeff Ghrist, R-36-Caroline., who sponsored the bill, said he had “no idea” why the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee didn’t follow through with a vote before the 2019 legislative session ended.
Ghrist said he “thought it was a done deal” after the committee’s first reading of the bill.
“We got a hearing on the Senate side, and that hearing seemed fine,” he said. “There was no opposition from any of the members in that committee, and I don’t even recall them asking that many questions.”
Ghrist said he suspected the bill was pushed aside because the committee was overloaded with other bills and ran out of time to give it proper attention.
“It may be that it just wasn’t an important bill for them and maybe they got busy,” he said. “That happens, too, where we’re dealing with so many bills and there’s just not enough time to get them all passed.”
Sen. Addie Eckardt, R-37-Mid-Shore, said she believes part of the reason the legislation didn’t see a vote in the Senate was the ambiguity of its language.
Eckardt said the overall cost of the project and from where the funding for it would come wasn’t laid out clearly enough to warrant a decision in either direction.
“[The bill] had no financial commitment in it, and I find that really hard to believe,” she said. “So I would have to know, as a member of the Budget Committee, what it’s going to cost and who’s going to pay for it.”
Eckardt nodded to a time before Chesapeake College existed, when it was just an idea and a topic of debate among Mid-Shore county commissions, boards of education and stakeholders.
She said not all of the five counties were on board with building the community college, because they weren’t sure their budgets could accommodate the cost of its construction.
“Chespaeake College is funded by the state, but it’s also funded by the five counties,” Eckardt said. “There have been times when each of those counties were assessed an additional amount other than their usual contribution [to the college].”
“A lot of our counties had heartburn about that,” Eckardt said.
“I do believe there might be a way to create a regional center without building a new building,” she said. “So the concept is good, but it needs more work, and it needs more discussion.”
Ghrist did not confirm whether the existing plan would require funding for a new building. He said, “There may or may not be a physical structure. We don’t know.”
Chesapeake College President Cliff Coppersmith, who sat on a Sept. 25 panel discussing “Project Bright Future,” said he was in favor of improving and adding to the existing CTE programs at the college.
Coppersmith called the demand for skilled trades part of a “national wave” and said the five counties already have been working together for years on this initiative.
“We already have a regional approach to CTE,” Coppersmith said. “There’s a very high level of cooperation (among the five counties) already trying to solve some aspects of this problem.”
Coppersmith did not comment on the funding or logistics behind “Project Bright Future” or plans for an expansion of CTE at the college.
On the panel with Coppersmith were Ghrist, Queen Anne’s County Commissioner Jack Wilson, Queen Anne’s County Public Schools CTE Supervisor Adam Tolley, Maryland Department of Labor Targeted Populations Grant Manager Jeffrey Smith, President and CEO of Chesapeake Shores Chapter of ABC Chris Garvey, Co-founder of Untangled Minds Inc. Alan Stein and President of CTE in Washington County Public Schools Cody Pine.
During the panel discussion’s public comment portion, CTE educators who currently operate programs in their respective counties said they were worried about local funds being diverted from their programs toward the regional programs.
Kermit Hines, principal of the Dorchester Career and Tech Center, said Dorchester County recently spent $36 million on a new career facility. Hines said the Shared-Time Center hosts 22 career programs in an “almost brand new state-of-the-art facility.”
“Do we need some polish? Absolutely. We need some polish. Everybody needs polish,” he said to the panelists. “(But) I would like to know what it’s going to do to our programs when you put something out here that looks beneficial.”
Hines urged the panelists to “take everything into consideration.”
Ghrist responded to Hines’s concerns by saying, “We’re not going to stop going with this thing, because we also have four other counties that are in the Chesapeake College service area that can’t participate in your amazing program in Dorchester County.”
Ghrist said he plans to resubmit the bill as-is during the Maryland General Assembly’s 2020 legislative session, which begins Jan. 8.
“We’re going to put the bill in again this year, and we’re going to do our very best to make sure this bill gets passed,” Ghrist said. “We just want to create the framework to allow the five counties to come together to do some wonderful things.”
The bill, as it’s written now, says the project only needs support from two of the five county school boards and governing bodies for authorization.