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Auto tech: Cost-effective, popular, necessary

November 11, 2012 12:10 am

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Vocational education, such as Stafford High School's automotive-service-technology program, should be retained in the planning and design of the proposed replacement school.

THE NEXT Stafford High School will not be a better Stafford High if it is built according to the current plans. A program that has been part of the school for more than 50 years is about to be eliminated--its automotive-service technology program.

For almost a year, the question about what would happen to Stafford's auto-service-tech program has not been answered. When we asked, we were told at first that there would be an agreement to share a facility that Germanna Community College was building (and completed last summer). By last summer, we discovered that there was no agreement with Germanna and that negotiations had never been initiated. We were then told that Stafford students who want to take auto tech would be bused to the programs at North Stafford or Brooke Point high schools, but they are both full.

The program would continue at the proposed area career technical education (CTE) center, but it would not be ready until at least five years after the new Stafford High opens. It became clear there was no intention of including the automotive program in the Stafford High School rebuild and it was time to point out the oversight to the School Board and general public.

Why is the program being dropped? Its enrollment has increased 44 percent since 2009--from 78 to 112 students in 2012; in fact, enrollment has never been an issue throughout its history. The approximately $750,000 of equipment and tools in the lab are all paid for, and much of it did not cost Stafford taxpayers a single penny because it was either purchased or donated through the START program. START accepts public donations of vehicles to the automotive program. These are repaired or stripped and then sold through a local dealer with the profits going to the automotive program. If it were struggling with enrollment and hemorrhaging taxpayer money, then dropping auto tech would be understandable, yet the opposite is the case.

MORE RELEVANT TODAY

Shuttering the program also would be understandable if it were losing relevance in the job market; once again, the opposite is true. A Manpower Group survey includes mechanics as one of the "Top 10 Hardest Jobs to Fill." The Bureau of Labor and Statistics cites median wages of $35,790 for auto techs with a high school diploma, and projects a 17 percent increase (more than 100,000 positions) by 2020.

The automotive program at Stafford High is accredited by the National Automotive Technicians Education Foundation, requiring students to meet standards in electrical, braking, suspension, steering, and engine performance. It takes two years to achieve this accreditation; both instructors completed 40 hours of annual training to maintain it. In Stafford County alone, there are 112,000 cars, and each will eventually require the services of a skilled automotive technician such as those who have graduated from Stafford's program and live and work (and pay taxes) in the county.

After listening to these points at a recent meeting, the School Board began to embrace the idea of partnering with Germanna to use its new automotive facility about two miles from Stafford High. Initially, it seems like an attractive option until it became clear that the space Germanna will provide us is insufficient; it cuts in half the number of Stafford students who can take auto tech--from more than 110 to about 60, with no room for the program to grow.

Germanna is offering use of two bays with one instructor; Stafford now has six bays and two certified instructors. Busing students to the Germanna site also means the continued annual expense of a bus, fuel, and driver, as well as the cost in time since the bus trip will take 20 minutes--10 minutes each way--of an 85-minute block. Germanna's cooperation is certainly appreciated, but it should not be presented as a viable option in light of these shortcomings.

The best approach for the students is to keep the automotive program at Stafford High; the question is how to do so. The new Stafford High is based on the layout of Mountain View and Colonial Forge high schools, neither of which has an automotive lab. We suggested putting a four-bay auto lab in a separate steel-framed building about 240 feet off the southwest corner of the main building. It would easily fit within the resource-protection area and the only loss would be 20-25 parking spaces in the faculty parking lot. One of our teachers obtained a quote of just under $265,000 to build such a facility on a concrete slab; it would cost extra to finish the interior but much less than the $3.5 million to $4 million stated at a School Board work session.

The students of Stafford's BOOTS program, who design and build a house each year, may also help with the finishing of the building and further defray the cost. The equipment, tools, teachers, and students are already on hand--we just need walls to accommodate them.

GOING, GOING, GONE?

During the Oct. 9 Board meeting, the chairperson stated that the automotive program "is not going away or being removed from the students' grasp" because of the Germanna option, yet that is exactly what is happening. The program would leave Stafford High for an offsite location that requires busing. The site would have curtailed space and instructors for just half of the 112 students now enrolled: How could it not be "beyond the grasp" of the 50-60 students who could no longer enroll in the program due to those constraints? Will the expenditure of providing a building trump the need to continue and expand access to this successful and growing program?

Our School Board and Board of Supervisors were elected to serve the people of this county, but they will not know how to do so without direction from the residents. To concerned supporters of the Stafford High automotive program, please consider coming to a School Board meeting or supervisors' meeting and voicing your support. Call or email your School Board member and supervisor to let them know your position so that the next Stafford High School will indeed be better in at least one aspect: an in-house auto-service program.

Robert Jett is a drafting teacher at Stafford High School and a member of the Stafford County Vocational Education Foundation.





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