BROOKSVILLE — As state Rep. Jimmie Smith made his way along the campaign trail last year, the Lecanto Republican heard a lot of concerns about vocational and technical education.
Plenty of voters said the state needs to remember the students who aren't headed for four or two-year degrees, recalled Smith, a political newcomer who would ultimately be elected in August to his first two-year term.
"They need to be able to have an option other than college to fill the jobs of the future," he said.
To that end, Smith is hosting meetings with school officials around his district to start an ongoing dialogue about the state of vocational-technical education.
The next meeting will take place Friday at the Hernando School Board headquarters in Brooksville. Officials from Hernando, Levy and Citrus county will be on hand, and the event is open to the public. Those who would like to speak will be given time to do so, Smith said.
There certainly are lots of technical and career offerings now for students in those counties, Smith acknowledged.
In fact, under state law, each district must offer at least one high school program designed to provide industry certification in a sector with good job prospects.
Hernando County for several years has offered programs in Web design, international business and marketing, veterinary sciences and health sciences. Nature Coast Technical High School has added career tracks over the years, and there has been a renewed push since 2008 to add more career academies at other high schools here.
Citrus County's Withlacoochee Technical Institute in Inverness offers programs in nursing, law enforcement, cosmetology, auto-marine mechanics and computer applications, among other fields.
And Levy County offers career academies in areas such as medical sciences and firefighting, building construction, business and digital design and new media technology.
Smith said he has a sense that more can be done.
"We need to have an open discussion on where (technical education) is at and where to advance it and pick up the weaknesses," he said.
The issue has special significance for Smith, a retired Army staff sergeant who most recently worked as a security guard and comes from what he called a hard-working, blue-collar family.
Hernando School Board Chairman James Yant said Smith's approach to bring minds together on the subject has merit.
But the burden will be on legislators like Smith to fight for education funding so school districts can provide more technical education programs, Yant said. The state is projecting a $4 billion shortfall and districts are already bracing for budget cuts, he said.
"I'm just wondering how we can get things done without money," Yant said.
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or email@example.com.