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Businesses invest in Maine’s community colleges in bid to increase capacity

Pat Wellenbach | AP
Pat Wellenbach | AP
Maine Gov. Paul LePage makes remarks prior to signing a bill authorizing charter schools, at the State House in Augusta, Maine on Wednesday, June 29, 2011.
By Seth Koenig, BDN Staff

SOUTH PORTLAND, Maine — With public resources growing scarcer, Gov. Paul LePage and former Gov. John McKernan announced more than $11.3 million in private investments pledged to Maine’s community college system Monday.

The financial and equipment gifts, given by a who’s who of Maine business leaders, came as a result of a statewide fundraising effort launched by the nonprofit Foundation for Maine’s Community Colleges, formed two years ago to support the two-year postsecondary schools in the face of a difficult economy and increased demand for classes.

“If you think about universities, they’ve been fundraising for a long time,” Elizabeth Shorr, founding president of the foundation, told the Bangor Daily News. “But it’s fairly new for community colleges.”

Shorr said in most states, 3 percent of the overall populations is enrolled in community colleges, while in Maine the figure is about 1 percent. But she suggested the problem here is capacity, not lack of interest.

Shorr said the foundation seeks to provide the resources necessary to expand enrollment from about 18,300 systemwide today to 25,000 students by 2018.

“We’ve grown by about 83 percent since we became a community college system in 2003,” Shorr said. “We really are at capacity and we’re turning students away. This year, we turned away 4,000 qualified students. There’s just no room for them.”

Among the gifts given during the fundraising campaign were $500,000 by the Hannaford Charitable Foundation to support, among other things, culinary arts programs at York County Community College and Eastern Maine Community College. The David Family Foundation pledged to provide medical simulation equipment for laboratories at Southern Maine Community College’s nascent Midcoast Campus at the former Brunswick Naval Air Station, while TD Bank and Anthem Blue Cross & Blue Shield stepped up to fund similar equipment at Central Maine Community College and Kennebec Valley Community College.

Dead River Co. donated 11 diesel trucks to be used for training in heavy equipment and mechanics programs at the Eastern Maine, Northern Maine and Washington County community colleges, while L.L. Bean offered to cover new technology being used at the aforementioned SMCC Midcoast Campus.

“The growth of Maine’s economy is dependent on the skills that Maine workers bring to the job,” said LePage in a statement delivered during a Monday morning event at SMCC’s South Portland campus. “Clearly, business and industry understand that and have stepped up in the biggest of ways. These smart investments in our work force will pay huge dividends and change lives.”

Members of the foundation’s leadership council, who donated to the campaign, organized fundraising efforts or both, include Bath Iron Works President Jeffrey Geiger, IDEXX Laboratories Inc. President Jonathan Ayers, Bangor Savings Bank President James Conlon and Nestle Waters North America President Kim Jeffery, among other Maine business leaders.

McKernan served as co-chairman of the foundation campaign along with Lisa Gorman, wife of L.L. Bean chairman Leon Gorman.

“Maine has built a community college system to be proud of, one that is transforming access to higher education in this state,” said John Fitzsimmons, community college system president, in a statement. “Clearly, people understand the fundamental importance of the community colleges to the state’s future, and they have been quick to show their support in generous and meaningful ways.”

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