The Lawrence school board agreed Monday night to continue talks with the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce about an alternative site for a new career and technical education center that is to be funded in part with a recently passed bond issue.
But several board members said they still have reservations about the proposed deal, at least as it's been described so far. Chief among those would be how to build community support for a plan that is different from the one they advertised to voters when they sought passage of a $92.5 million bond issue in April.
“This board will need to do some education with voters about why we are doing this,” said board member Shannon Kimball.
Newly elected board president Rick Ingram echoed that concern.
“The community would be justifiably frustrated if we just said this is what we've decided, without any public input,” he said.
In April, voters approved that bond issue, which included $5.7 million to develop new classroom space at the district's existing Career and Community Connection Center near Holcom Park, commonly known as the Holcom Center.
The plan now being floated by Chamber officials, however, calls for putting the center in available space at the Hiper Technology, Inc., building at 2920 Haskell Ave.
According to Chamber president Doug Gaumer, that site would offer about 55,000 net square feet of space that could be used for both high school and adult education students, compared to the estimated 30,000 square feet available at the Holcom Center.
In a telephone interview after the board meeting, Gaumer said details still have not been worked out, but the conceptual plan so far would include the following:
• A consortium of seven area banks would finance the purchase of the Hiper Technology building and lease back to Hiper the portion of the building it currently occupies.
• The Economic Development Corporation of Lawrence and Douglas County would assume ownership of the building and be responsible for repaying the low-interest mortgage.
• Another consortium of educational institutions would form a Technical Education Center, offering both high school and adult career training programs. Those would include the school district; Johnson County, Neosho County and Kansas City, Kan., community colleges; Washburn Institute of Technology in Topeka; and Flint Hills Technical College in Emporia.
Gaumer said the rent paid by Hiper Technology would be the base source of revenue for repaying the mortage. Other details of the financing have not been determined, he said, but the banks would be willing to let a certain amount of loss accrue over time, based on confidence that the new center would eventually become profitable.
“We feel confident the tech center can make a profit over time,” he said.
School board members, however, said that plan raises issues that would have to be resolved before they could accept it. Those include:
• Ownership of the building. Board member Randy Masten said he would be opposed to spending spending bond proceeds to renovate and equip a building that the district does not own.
Kimball agreed, saying: “Wherever we build our building, the school district needs to own that property.”
• Delaying plans: District officials have said they want the new career and technical education center to be operational by the fall of 2015. To meet that goal, officials said, they need to begin construction no later than early 2014.
In order to meet that goal, they said, any potential deal with the Chamber on a joint tech center would need to be finalized no later than October or November of this year.
Rick Ingram, the newly elected board president, said that before any deal is reached, he wants to hold a series of public meetings to receive community input on the plan.
In the meantime, board members said, they plan to continue investigating the original plan of putting the facility at the Holcom Center.