Joint technological district will add new local facet

Just about everyone is aware of Gov. Jane Hull's initiative to improve our public school system and lift Arizona from dead last among the 50 states in educational spending. To accomplish this, Proposition 301 will appear on the ballot on Election Day this November.

At present, the polls indicate Prop. 301 is well received by the voters and that many of the traditional opponents of educational spending are actively supporting the measure.

Another educational issue of major importance to our community will also appear on the ballot but has not had nearly the publicity of Prop. 301. On Nov. 7, voters in the Grand Canyon, Page, Fredonia and Williams school districts will be given the opportunity to decide if the formation of a joint technological district is of substantial benefit to their respective communities.

Currently, there are two such districts operating in Arizona. Voters in five other regions around the state will also vote on the establishment of Joint Technological Districts in November. Of the two existing joint districts, the Northern Arizona Vocational Institute of Technology (NAVIT) is the model, which would probably best serve Coconino County schools in the foreseeable future. Because our county is so vast, there is limited potential for constructing a central facility which is represented by the East Valley Institute of Technology (EVIT) model that serves the Phoenix metropolitan area.

Among the reasons for establishing a joint technological district is to maintain and enhance existing vocational programs. These programs are inherently more expensive to operate due to the need to restrict class sizes and because they often consume expensive materials. Compounding the problem is the fact that traditional funding sources for vocational education have been steadily diminishing. At the same time, the local and regional demand for a skilled workforce has been increasing. This is substantiated by two recent studies conducted by both Northern Arizona University and Coconino Community College, which indicated that more technical training was required to keep skilled workers in the area and to attract industry.

The formation of a joint district can further address this issue by articulating high school and community college vocational programs, which will make it easy for high school students to transition into higher education. In addition, a joint technological district will allow us to dramatically expand the school-to-work options for our students. These programs are designed to take high school students and place them in the real world of the hospitality industry, medical services, and automotive repair, to name just a few.

This emphasis is somewhat of a departure from the traditional notion that high school curriculums should be primarily designed to prepare all students for college as is reflected in the philosophy behind the AIMS tests. However, considering that 75 to 80 percent of high school graduates never obtain a four-year college diploma, it is hard to continue to ignore the needs of the overwhelming majority of our students.

As with virtually all educational initiatives, this, too, is not free. If approved, taxpayers in the participating districts will be assessed five cents on their secondary assessed valuation. This means that a homeowner whose house is valued at $100,000 will pay $5 per year in support of the program. Unlike other locally supported initiatives, this nominal rate will not change even if our student enrollment continues to increase. In addition, this project will yield approximately $4 in state aid for every $1 contributed locally. To our knowledge, there is no other educational program that receives such an excellent financial backing from the state.

By statute, a joint technological district is designed to be administered by representatives from each of the participating districts. Based on the reports we have received from the NAVIT project, the system has served their communities well and has become a vital part of their educational programs.

Although the participating districts are widely dispersed geographically, the educational mission of our schools and the economic vitality of our respective localities are virtually inseparable. It is our common goal to pursue the best possible opportunities for our youth and our communities. To that end we urge voters to consider the formation of a Joint Technological District as an investment in this collective effort.

(Jac Heiss is superintendent of Williams Unified School District.)

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