WILBRAHAM — During the March 25 budget roundtable meeting, Hampden and Wilbraham officials discussed the challenges of offering vocational training programs, highlighting the multiple factors that impact students’ access.

The discussion was first raised by School Committee member William Bontempi, who explained to the officials from the Hampden Select Board, Wilbraham Select Board, Hampden Advisory Committee, Wilbraham Finance Committee, Hampden Capital Planning Committee and Wilbraham Capital Planning Committee that the topic was previously discussed at the School Committee’s March 21 meeting. State Reps. Brian Ashe (D-Longmeadow) and Angelo Puppolo (D-Springfield) were also in attendance.

Bontempi stated that the expansion of access to vocational training was “overwhelmingly the No. 1 thing” for Hampden and Wilbraham residents when creating the current strategic plan. As a result, the district made a goal within the plan to increase student access.

During the discussion, Bontempi questioned the possibility of the state reimbursing the cost of transporting students to vocational schools in the region. Tuition and transportation costs for these situations fall to the district because the student is not leaving the district, only attending another school because Hampden-Wilbraham schools do not offer their desired program, he said.

Funds for ninth grade access to vocational training at Lower Pioneer Valley Educational Collaborative was previously approved in the fiscal year 2025 budget by the School Committee on March 21. At this meeting, Superintendent John Provost highlighted that LPVEC was no longer accepting 10th grade students into new programs; only ninth grade students can start in a new program at this specific school.

However, for all other vocational programs that are not offered by LPVEC, Hampden-Wilbraham schools must transport the student to another school with that program, such as Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School in Northampton. This can result in significantly higher costs per student, Assistant Superintendent for Finance, Operations and Human Resource Aaron Osborne said on March 21.

“As we look at the future of vocational training in our district … if we increase the number of students going out there [to other schools], the bleed [high costs] is just going to get worse,” Bontempi said, stating that, in comparison to Western Massachusetts, vocational offerings were more prevalent in eastern Massachusetts and calling the imbalance “an equity problem.”

Osborne further explained that the rising cost of transportation was the largest concern, stating that vans can cost $375 a day for the needed 180 days. “That’s more than double the cost of tuition to that vocational school just to get them there,” he said at the roundtable meeting.

When asked about whether student interest in vocational programs had increased, School Committee member Lisa Murray, who is also a member of the LPVEC Board of Directors, stated that student interest in vocational education has “increased incredibly” in recent years.

Despite this, the availability of seats within vocational programs has not risen at the same pace, which can skew the statistic on student interest in vocational education, Osborne explained.

As a result, tension can develop over how to serve both the member towns of LPVEC and other participating towns, Provost said, stating that while Hampden-Wilbraham has had relatively few students denied access to LPVEC programs, he knew of other towns that have a greater number.

In response to these highlighted challenges, Puppolo questioned the officials on what would be the best way for the state legislators to assist. Transportation reimbursement and increasing access to state funding for collaboratives were raised as options.

Ultimately, Puppolo and Ashe emphasized that they would continue to press for support across the multiple aspects of towns’ budgets and work to balance the needs of students in the region.